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Doctor Who: Return of the Cybermen

By Matthew Kresal

In 1975, Tom Baker concluded his first season of adventures as the Fourth Doctor in the BBC's long-running series Doctor Who confronting one of the character's arch-enemies onboard a space station. There, they would do battle, the fate of the station and a nearby inhabited asteroid home to the one substance in the universe that could destroy the Cybermen forever hanging in the balance. Yet, Revenge of the Cybermen was, despite both Baker's long tenure in the role and the Cybermen's popularity, the only confrontation between them on-screen. Something, perhaps, due in part to how the story turned out and its less than stellar reputation among fans of the series. But, as the folks at Big Finish have now revealed in all its glory, Revenge of the Cybermen wasn't the story that could have gone out at teatime on BBC One.

Baker's first season, the twelfth of what is now termed Classic Who, came at a moment of transition. The production team behind the show's early seventies success, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, had elected to leave. Taking their places were producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. But Letts and Dicks, remembering how their first season had been set-up for them in large part by their predecessors, elected to continue the tradition, commissioning scripts on their proverbial way out the door. Among their decisions was to have serials featuring two of the show's best-known monsters: the Daleks, who had become a regular feature of the series since 1972, and a return for the Cybermen, who hadn't appeared in the series since The Invasion in 1968. Something they hoped might convince an audience unsure about the new Doctor to tune in anyway.

To bring back the silver cybernetic creatures after their long absence, Letts and Dicks turned to one of their original creators. Gerry Davis had been a script editor on Doctor Who himself in 1966-67, during which time he had co-created them alongside Kit Pedler, co-writing their first three serials. But while Letts and Dicks had seen him as a natural choice, the storyline that arrived at the production office by the time that Hinchcliffe and Holmes took over failed to impress them. Return of the Cybermen, as Davis's story was titled, was found lacking by the new team, with Hinchcliffe noting in the 2010 making-of documentary The Tin Man and the Witch (available on the DVD release and the later Season 12 Blu-Ray) that, "I guess it was that Gerry Davis was obviously writing for the show, you know, quite a few years before," that in his view both Davis "hadn't sort of developed it enough with enough sub-plots and perhaps hadn't quite parceled out the action in the right balance between [the TARDIS crew]," and that the Doctor "wasn't in enough jeopardy," in later episodes. The documentary features several surviving production documents between the production office and Davis as the script developed. In the end, pressed for time to get the story into pre-production, with Hinchcliffe and Holmes having created additional sub-plots, Holmes ultimately would write much of the produced story, electing to throw out much of Davis's material despite giving him sole screen credit for the script.

The resulting story, titled Revenge of the Cybermen, has a troubled production and ultimately pleased very few. Hinchcliffe would express dissatisfaction with it as late as the aforementioned documentary, including the scripts as filmed. Davis would state the view before his 1991 passing that his vision was closer to the Cybermen he'd created in the sixties, given how emotional his creatures of logic became under Holmes' pen and that it had been the re-writes that introduced the weaker points of the serial's plot. The release in 1992 of a condensed version of the original script in a 1992 issue of Dreamwatch Bulletin (later collected in The DWB Compendium the following year) bore some of that out, albeit with writer Anthony Stevens noting in its preface, "that's not to say that Davis had penned a masterpiece without the need of editing."

And so the legacy of Davis's original script seemed to end. At least nearly thirty years after his death when UK audio drama company Big Finish Productions entered the frame. From 2008 to 2013, Big Finish had run a successful range under the banner of Doctor Who - The Lost Stories adapting stories first conceived for the screen but were ultimately unmade. Having produced everything from the intended second serial The Masters of Luxor to the fourth season to feature Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor, the Lost Stories returned from a hiatus in 2019 before two more stories starring Tom Baker's Doctor planned for a Spring 2021 release. One of them was Return of the Cybermen, allowing fans, at last, to hear what the story broadcast in 1975 should have been.

As adapted by Big Finish regular John Dorney, the Big Finish version of Return faithfully lines up with the version printed in Dreamwatch Bulletin decades before. The Fourth Doctor, alongside companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan, arrives on Space Station Nerva after a series of adventures elsewhere to get back aboard the TARDIS. Only this is at a different point than they left it, and the station is an altogether different place, seemingly deserted. After nearly being killed, they discover the station (acting as a beacon for the asteroid belt at this point in its history) has only a skeleton crew due to a plague virus being loose. So far, plenty of echoes of the transmitted serial, if not actual dialogue from it.

It's not long after that, though, that things begin to diverge. The characterizations of the Nerva Beacon crew are different, sometimes subtly, but at times significantly changed. Commander Stevenson has a harder edge, and Professor Kellman comes across as more slimy than his TV counterpart. There's also, intriguingly for a TV story in which companion Sarah was the single female character, a female doctor onboard Nerva named Anitra.

Structurally, Return is a different beast as well, especially in dealing with the Cybermen. Not arriving on the station until halfway through the TV story, Davis had them involved much sooner in his original version presented here. Indeed, their first appearance also helps explain the presence of their devices Cybermats, whose involvement is an unexplained plot point in Revenge. Like with the Nerva crew, the characterizations differ significantly from those in Revenge, offering up a more (at least in story term) logical version of them with a single plan from the outset. The dialogue, too, from Davis and Dorney, portrays them more in keeping with other Cybermen serials, rather than the oddly emotional one-off versions presented on-screen. With fans now able to hear Nicholas Briggs doing the voices with a treatment likewise in keeping with the Cybermen's previous on-screen appearance before Return should have aired, confirming that Davis wasn't wrong in its criticisms of Holmes' 1975 script doctoring.

Perhaps the most significant shift between Return and Revenge deals with Voga, the asteroid at the heart of the Cybermen's plan. In the TV version, this became home to an alien race living underground, trapped there by the Cybermen during a long-ago war in an unlikely biosphere. Not to mention involved in a complicated scheme involving Kellman double-crossing the Cybermen and allowing a politically ambitious Vogan to launch a missile at Nerva, destroying it and the Cybermen onboard. In Return, Davis had scripted those on Voga, not as aliens but a group of human miners from Earth. People subsiding on what little they could grow and find, decked out in lizard skins and steampunk-like goggles, long thought dead after past Cybermen attacks. As a result, they feature far less prominently and considerably less politicking than the alien Vogans in Revenge but come across as both more plausible and sympathetic as characters. It's a Hinchcliffe and Holmes change that fundamentally changed the story Davis wrote, and perhaps not for the better.

Listening to Return, presented in all its glory, there is plenty to love. Tom Baker, now playing the Doctor for Big Finish for around a decade, has firmly slipped back into the role, even if he sounds more like the Doctor later on in his run than at the beginning when Return takes place. The story is also the debut of two re-cast companions with Christopher Naylor stepping into Ian Marter's shoes as Harry Sullivan (Marter having passed away all too young in 1986) and Sadie Miller stepping into her mum Elisabeth Sladen's role as the iconic Sarah Jane Smith. Never an easy task, but one that Naylor and Miller both excel at, to the point that there are certain lines when you forget you aren't listening to performers who passed away years before. Combined with a solid supporting cast and a music score from Nicholas Briggs that beautifully weaves Carey Blyton's unique style of scoring heard on TV with the electronic elements used elsewhere in the era, the experience really is like stepping into the timeline where Return got into production.

Is all of that to say that Return is a better story than Revenge? Listening to it, some of Hinchcliffe's criticisms do stand up as Return echoes elements from across the earliest Cybermen serials. Indeed, the way Davis wrote the Doctor (preserved by Dorney for the audio version) likewise harkens back to Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor, who starred in many of those stories, to the point of the Doctor consulting his 500-year diary as Troughton's incarnation would do. It's also a serial that leaves its female lead without much to do, literally bedridden for its middle episodes. Davis's script also lacks the best moments from Revenge, including the Doctor's iconic declaration that "Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!" showing that while Holmes did considerable harm, he did some good as well.

Return of the Cybermen, left in this state before being heavily and unfavorably reworked, was essentially a mid-sixties serial trying to fit into a mid-seventies vision of what Doctor Who was. It's an uneven mixture at times, to be sure, but perhaps a better one than what viewers got long ago in an English springtime. An alternative now available for fans to hear in all the glory Big Finish can drape upon it.


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press and has also written a book about the TV series 'Dark Skies'


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