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When Psychochronographies Clash - 1. - A Journal of Zarjaz Things
October 2013
The Hipster Dad
Tue, Oct. 11th, 2011 08:27 am
When Psychochronographies Clash - 1.

A couple of times on Facebook, I've recommended TARDIS Eruditorum, which is probably the best writing on Doctor Who that I've ever seen. Well, mostly. His "Three Doctors" article was, intentionally, an impenetrable wall of deliberately provocative and pretentious cod-academic gobbledygook, and I have a serious quibble with his new writeup on "Revenge of the Cybermen." If you've not visited this blog and you enjoy Who, then you really should. It is extremely clever analysis, put into a framework that details contemporary music and events, and other media that was either inspired by Who, or trying to steal its thunder, or rip it off in some fashion, or, sometimes, the media that was inspiring Doctor Who. Seriously, out of 119 chapters, 117 are really terrific reading.

As for "Revenge of the Cybermen," he gets it two-thirds right. He's correct in suggesting that it is easily the worst of the three years of stories produced by Philip Hinchcliffe. He's also very insightful in noting how the script editor, Robert Holmes, turned the storyline into a post-modern treatise on how ridiculous and pathetic the Cybermen of the 1960s could be, and how Doctor Who was going to grow up and away from their ilk. He was right; over the next four years and 104 episodes, villains from the series' past would only feature in six of them. Four of these were a serial that featured the Master, who looked and acted nothing at all like he used to. Imagine that in modern Doctor Who: it couldn't happen.

But he misses something so vital in discussing "Revenge," and that's its impact on one of the show's target audiences: thirteen year-old boys. Hindsight has certainly proved this to be a pretty awful story, but this serial is the one that made me a Doctor Who fan. I don't doubt for a minute that, nine years after it was broadcast, a vote or straw poll at the 1983 Longleat "convention" led the BBC to release this story as their very first VHS home video. If you were 19 or 20 when you went to Longleat, then regardless of your relationship to or involvement in fandom, you were a preteen when this story aired, you had not seen it since, and 1982's "Earthshock" probably reminded you of how amazing you thought "Revenge" was when you were an impressionable kid. If the BBC got votes for a 1960s Cyberman story, then the voter would have to be in their late twenties, and while I'm sure there were plenty of those present, everything I've heard about Longleat - it was sort of the Woodstock for British geeks of the day - indicates that the crowd had a big chunk of people their late teens or early twenties. Every one of them started a fanzine within a month. Of course they'd want "Revenge" on video.

My first exposure to Doctor Who came in 1982, when a local UHF station played the feature film Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD with Peter Cushing. They played it in their Sunday morning creature feature slot, when I was used to watching Godzilla movies. I gave up after about half an hour; there was no Godzilla in this.

About a year and a half later, I tuned into the omnibus edition - Wikipedia suggests that American fans called these movie versions "Whovies," which is bullshit; I was active in American fandom for years and years and never heard such a dumb word - of "Genesis of the Daleks" on WGTV after seeing the listing and, misremembering what an author who might have been Daniel Cohen had said in some library book about science fiction monsters, thinking that Doctor Who was kind of a British version of The Outer Limits. I enjoyed the heck out of it, despite connecting those stupid Daleks to that stupid movie I saw 18 months earlier. I didn't believe in the Daleks at all; of all the silly special effects and production woes, those things were clearly just wood and plastic, and impossible to take seriously. Doctor Who, Sarah Jane and Harry, though, they were wicked cool.

(Also: giant clam. Fandom has mocked that giant clam as the dumb moment in "Genesis." Fandom is wrong. Do you have any idea how many godawful, stupid episodes of Lost in Space and brain-dead movies about journeys to the Earth's core we watched as little kids to see shit as awesome as that giant clam?)

The Cybermen, despite being men in silver wet suits with plastic helmets, those guys I took seriously. For me, and, I suggest, for most people who encountered them at my age, they were not "half-assed replacements for the Daleks." I'd further suggest that British kids in 1974 who suffered through the misbegotten "Death to the Daleks" at that age were probably finding these villains pretty overrated as well. But, to young eyes, the Cybermen had nothing but great promise.

Now, a lot of this falls down to watching Doctor Who as omnibus editions rather than as a four-week serial as intended, but this is one of the very few cases where the show is actually improved by viewing it this way. As a serial, the script's main problem is easy to note: the Cybermen have nothing but dumb, desperate ideas that the Doctor defeats and defuses week after week. But as a single, ninety-minute "episode" in the eyes of somebody who does not understand how the show was supposed to be seen, it makes the Cybermen look like incredibly resourceful villains who keep coming up with new and superior plans every time the Doctor foils them. They follow up the plague and the Cybermats and storming the base and planning to blow up the small planet of Voga with whacking great bombs strapped to our heroes with - not a last act of desperation to pad an arguable three episodes of plot into four - a master plan just in case anything else goes wrong, just smashing the base (Nerva Beacon) into the planet.

And they had guns in their heads. Seven foot tall silver robots WITH GUNS IN THEIR HEADS. This was the finest thing ever made for television.

A couple of unusual things happened as a result of this. Part of me remembered, the week previously, staying up until 12.30 in the morning to finish watching "Genesis of the Daleks." This episode finished up at 11.30 pm. I concluded that Doctor Who was a 90-minute show, and the previous week's story, because it was apparently a big deal, telling the "secret origin" of the Daleks, was a special two-and-a-half hour episode, sort of like those occasional "big event" episodes of The Bionic Woman or Battlestar Galactica. Now, while I tried to watch Doctor Who religiously, I did occasionally miss episodes when my family went on overnight weekend trips. I later looked it up and realized that I missed, on the first broadcast in 1984, every single omnibus edition of a six-part serial. Since I did not see "The Seeds of Doom, " "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" or "The Invasion of Time" when they were first shown, and was not confronted with any more "two-and-a-half-hour episodes," my theory was sound. More about this maybe Thursday.

The other thing is that I completely misread Doctor Who as being a show built around recurring bad guys, just like Batman, and so I viewed the next several monsters as the Doctor's rogues gallery, expecting each and every one of them to show up again soon. The Daleks and the Cybermen were each, in these first two stories, explained as villains whom the Doctor had met before, and so I imagined that the Zygons, the Anti-Man, Sutekh and the Kraals were all lining up for rematches. Yes, I saw the nebulous anti-matter energy entity from "Planet of Evil" as a conventional bad guy, because I misunderstood a brief scene where the Doctor says that the Professor Sorenson character's anti-matter infected tissue is turning him into something inhuman, something anti-man, as the secret origin of a weird new supervillain named Anti-Man. I understood that Doctor Who villains did not rob banks or museums - "City of Death" being some months away - but I still saw them as villains, and that's how villains and heroes interacted, by constantly returning to fight each other.

It was Batman, on other planets, with much higher stakes, where people got killed. Now, most people I've met go through a phase in their early teens when the Adam West Batman suddenly becomes something embarrassing, because you took it seriously as a kid, and when you're a teen, you understand that it's really stupid, but you lack the maturity to understand that its stupidity is part of its brilliance. I remember, once, expressing some exasperation about the cliffhanger to a Joker episode where they're about to be electrocuted, resolved the next day by a power outtage. "That's just STUPID," twelve year-old me bellowed. "Why didn't the Joker just SHOOT THEM?" This disparity is made worse for comic book geeks who want their Batman serious. You can still spot the sad bastards who never got over it, and refuse to enjoy one of the most charming and entertaining programs of the 1960s. But in one fell swoop, Doctor Who did more damage to Batman's credibility than hormones and maturing eyes ever could. The superhero of this show also had no powers, and not even a utility belt, but he managed to beat much more dangerous supervillains. Who would want to watch Batman anymore when THIS was available?

Without the ability to rewatch "Revenge of the Cybermen" - not even having access yet to an episode guide to see when and where we were in the show and whether I would get to see the Cybermen's previous appearance - I was left to replay it in my mind, letting my pumped-up-on-Coca-Cola late-Saturday-night imagination draw them on notebook paper, head-guns blazing and punching holes through walls, through tanks, through soldiers' bodies. (Thirteen year-old boys. Who'd have one?) When time eventually showed this story to be a pretty underwhelming mess, I was disappointed, but by then, I was hooked for life.

That's what TARDIS Eruditorum leaves out, and why this entry disappoints me: the golden age of Doctor Who, ALWAYS, is "when you're twelve." This was one of the serials that, in analysis, would have benefitted the most from starting with that viewpoint and working towards the inevitable disappointment of learning what a silly little flop it is. When you're twelve, however, it's pretty much the absolute greatest Doctor Who story ever, at least until the one with the melting skeleton man. MELTING SKELETON MAN.

Next time: "That's not what Anti-Man looks like! That's stupid! How could they get that wrong?!"



Tue, Oct. 11th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)

*thumbs up* Over here, Doctor Who repeats were a staple of prime time government TV