Type “Attack of the Cybermen” into Google and it’ll suggest the word “violence.”
Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll have heard that this two-part serial is exceedingly violent, so much so that it made grown men openly weep in the streets. It’s more violent than Die Hard, Taken, and Game of Thrones combined.
But is it, really? Are we being a little too harsh? Or is it justifiable that we see the story as the epitome of the violence that led to the show’s hiatus?
Attack of the Cybermen suffers from being Colin Baker’s second story as the Sixth Doctor, his first being criticised unendingly, notably for a shocking case of attempted murder. The Doctor strangles his companion, Peri. We all know that, and we recognise that as a mistake. In fact, it was recognised as just that after transmission too, but instead of flicking the switch the other way – or at least toning it down a tad – the production team decided that people would grow to love this new Doctor and this particular direction.
Hence Season 22 being one of the most violent and gory series to have the Doctor Who plastered all over it. Apparently, this era was supposed to have been shown in a later timeslot than previous seasons, as a hint to viewers that things were going to be a little darker.
Yes, 1985’s tales were undoubtedly darker. Some of these “edgier” ideas are applauded: that horrific scene with the glass Dalek in Revelation of the Daleks is wonderful, as is Vengeance on Varos‘ core premise – of torture as entertainment. Those notions could easily find their place in today’s Doctor Who, making the Daleks truly terrifying again, and perfectly parodying our culture’s obsession with reality TV. But they are, nonetheless, violent and gruesome. Similarly, The Two Doctors throws in some cannibalism for good measure, the locals get decidedly savage in The Mark of the Rani, and the Borad in Timelash, as well as being a beautiful design, is pretty grim in its disfigurement.
It’s Attack of the Cybermen, however, that’s the poster boy for Season 22’s violent streak.
Why? There are a number of possible causes – notably, that this brutality feels more gratuitous than in the stories that surround it, that it’s often the Doctor that perpetrates this, and that, typically, we see such brutality, plain as day.
True, things are generally worse when left to our imaginations, but it’s rare that regulatory boards receive complaints about a fantastical scene that plays out only in the minds of viewers. The torture in Vengeance on Varos isn’t even that explicit: we see the Governor writhing in agony, but we don’t really analyse what’s causing it. We hear the term, “Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment,” and we could figure out what’s happening, but the audience isn’t forced to bode on the matter, and so it’s a fairly loose concept.
In Attack of the Cybermen, the most memorable time in which violence isn’t overt is when a fake policeman is taken care of… but that’s by the Doctor! Compare the Sixth Doctor’s behaviour in the serial to that in the “Coming Soon” trailer for Doctor Who Series 5, in which the Eleventh Doctor is seen using a gun – “there’s one thing you never, ever put in a trap” – in The Time of Angels, and punching the walking-talking-prow-exploding Bracewell in Victory of the Daleks. The latter made viewers question whether this was the same man, the Time Lord who disapproves of violence of any sort and who can’t stand weapons. It was shocking. Then we saw the episodes and everything became clear: this is still the same hero we know and love. Phew. But in Attack of the Cybermen, we get a Doctor who doesn’t mind gunning down a Cyberman or two.
Is that enough to let this story off the hook, or at least slacken the noose a little? These are Cybermen. We’re frequently told that whatever humanity once lurked in their consciousness, it died during conversion. Shooting a Cyberman is like kicking a settee (or hitting a Dalek with a baseball bat), right? Except these aren’t inanimate objects. There’s an intelligence there, and it’s made worse because they’re humanoid. And they do scream, which can be affecting. It makes no actual sense – they don’t feel pain, so why yell out? – but it does arguably make it more interesting for television.
Not all violence is inflicted on the Cybermen, though – much of it’s inflicted by them. There’s a vicious sadism on display as Flast is left to burn up in the corridor, in various despatches, and we can’t go further without mentioning Lytton.
Midway conversion isn’t as horrific as it’s since been portrayed (The Age of Steel is particularly gloomy, even though it’s largely left to us to fill in the blanks), but it’s still pretty bleak. The grisly moment, though, is when the Cybermen crush Lytton’s hands. There’s ample amounts of blood and a bit of screaming too. It’s barbarous, but it is, at least, over with quickly. It’s unnecessary too; the Mondasians have their own ways of manipulating without resorting to that sort of body horror, and it could’ve been handled either off-screen or more cleverly.
Lytton’s presence also reminds us of Resurrection of the Daleks, a Fifth Doctor tale that has something else in common with Attack of the Cybermen: it’s very violent. Again, unnecessarily so. Daleks have always brought with them an extra helping of murder, but the death toll for Resurrection is high.
In fact, it’s so monumental that it prompts Tegan to leave the TARDIS. It all got too much for the bolshy Australian. “It stopped being fun.” And that might be the key to Attack of the Cybermen as well: our enjoyment of it depends on how much we dwell on the violence, and how much joy we can take from other parts of the story – even if that’s acknowledging Terry Molloy and “Leon Arras, the Man From Paris”, or seeing how Colin Baker was settling into the lead role.
Attack of the Cybermen is violent. There’s no disputing that. Is it as bad as its reputation, though? It certainly has moments where the reputation is justified, but whether they ruin the whole is rather up to individual viewers to decide…