Monday, November 23, 2015


Five Reasons to Read Doctor Who and the CybermenDoctor Who 52 Extra: A

Introducing Doctor Who and the Cybermen

Today is Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary! So here’s an extra in my Doctor Who 52 – not the DVD but Gerry Davis’ novelisation of Patrick Troughton’s fight with Cybermen on the Moon. Or, as the back cover puts it with charmingly oblivious self-deprecation,
“Can the Doctor defeat an enemy whose threat is almost as great as that of the mighty Daleks?”
Will I find five reasons you should read ‘Invasion of the Also-Rans’? Of course I will! It’s time to sit down, mix yourself a celebratory Cocktail Polly, and curl up with a book.

Five Reasons To Read – or Listen To – Doctor Who and the Cybermen (warning: spoilers lower down the list)

1 – Prologue: The Creation of the Cybermen
“Centuries ago by our Earth time, a race of men on the far-distant planet of Telos sought immortality. They perfected the art of cybernetics—the reproduction of machine functions in human beings. As bodies became old and diseased, they were replaced limb by limb, with plastic and steel.
“Finally, even the human circulation and nervous system were recreated, and brains replaced by computers. The first Cybermen were born.”
When this story was shown on TV in 1967, it was called The Moonbase. When Target Books published it as one of their first Doctor Who novelisations in 1975, they gave it a more sales-friendly title but picked a 1967 hand to write the rest of it in his functional but endearing prose. Author Gerry Davis had been Doctor Who script editor for the TV version of this story, and though it’s credited to Kit Pedler, Gerry Davis worked with him as co-author and as co-creator of the Cybermen. So before the Cybermen enter the text as stealthy presences, then unleashing terrible Cyber-chops or gruesomely electrocuting Cyber-weapons, Mr Davis makes an appropriate start here with a two-page Cyber-mission statement. It’s later borrowed to introduce two more Cybermen novelisations, adding to its legendary quality. For all its hyperbole and even inaccuracy, there’s still something terribly thrilling about it, and you imagine Mr Davis was only disappointed that it wasn’t read in portentous tones as it scrolled down a screen full of flaming space battles and legions of Cybermen marching across the stars with the strength of ten men! The Doctor sniffing that nobody adds the prefix “Space” on TV a week ago? Gerry Davis is your man. He gives you Earth-things. He gives you Space-things. And most of all, he gives you TERRIBLE CYBER-THINGS.

Many of the more marvellous Target Books add much more to the stories that were seen on TV. Gerry Davis doesn’t add much, but he adds this. It’s enough.

2 – Anneke Wills and the Audiobook. Anneke Wills was marvellous as the Doctor’s companion Polly in 1967, and she’s just as marvellous reading the 2009 audiobook. She has a great storyteller’s voice: slightly deep, intimate and reassuring, with a compelling array of characters (though her accents are variable). Her Polly is of course perfect, but interestingly she uses higher registers for the Doctor’s other companions Ben and Jamie, and her rather breathy Doctor is especially compelling in his determination towards the climax. She breathes new life into the book with one of the best of the readings. There’s just one slightly flubbed line which tickles me, when she invents a rather unusual colour as a side-effect of a word being split across two lines in the original printing as Moonbase ‘night’ falls and we hear about “red-
dish-coloured lights”.

Half-way through the audiobook Ms Wills is joined by Nick Briggs as the voices of the Cybermen. He’s known for a great many Doctor Who monster voices and recreates those of the TV version. The two big Cyber-reveals are also my favourite pieces of the score, where the music climbs into an electronic rasp not unlike the Space Adventure theme that accompanied the Cybermen in 1967’s TV stories (and gets a bit of bagpipes mixed in when Jamie defies them!). They also get a tensely scored ‘stalking’ sequence towards the end of the first CD, and in a later chase sequence there’s a very effective echoing boom, which stands for both the terrible Cyber-tread and their desperately running victim’s heart.

3 – The Doctor. Patrick Troughton was a very visual actor, constantly fascinating to watch, which makes it even more frustrating that the BBC junked so many of his performances. This book was my first experience of his Doctor, and it does a remarkable job of evoking him. The text introduces his famous “terrible things” speech with Polly seeing a “far-horizons” look in his blue-green eyes, making us pay extra attention, but it’s the first half of this Doctor’s famous mixture of ‘Free-thinking fun’ and ‘Destroy all monsters’ is surprisingly more vivid here. Losing control of the TARDIS like a ship in a stormy sea; miscalculating the date, provoking applause and laughter from a tense Moonbase crew, and still being pleased with himself for being just twenty years out, then being suddenly brought down when asked to do some work; his “relieved, almost silly grin”; all these stuck in my head as characteristics of the Second Doctor. But what most appealed to me were the passages in which the Doctor is trying to trace a mysterious Space Plague that’s struck the Moonbase personnel.
“It was into this scene of concentrated activity that the Doctor, armed with a bottle of swabs, specimen tubes and a large pair of scissors entered and immediately began to disrupt. He was doing what he enjoyed best; research for a scientific, or in this case, a medical truth. With a mad gleam in his eye, he moved quickly round the room snipping off pieces of the men’s overalls and putting them into bottles. Scraping their shoes and boots and taking swabs from their hands. He seemed not at all put out by the irritated gestures of his victims.”
I think the author tells us an explicit moral for the Doctor’s favourite thing so parents wouldn’t cop that investigation isn’t what the Doctor loves most at all. It’s being disruptive. It’s the “mad gleam”, the winding people up, and the nodding happily a few pages later when accused of turning the base upside-down. That’s what appealed to kids reading this, and the way we remember him. It’s anyone’s guess why Gerry Davis talks about his “long legs”, though…

4 – The Food. Even when I was thin and tiny I loved references to food almost as much as I liked food. So what could be better than food as a major plot point? Gerry Davis’ vision of the future was full of ‘food concentrate’ that were always off-putting to the Doctor’s companions from the Twentieth, Nineteenth and Eighteenth Centuries and a sign of dehumanising Cybermen on your plate. It didn’t work. They fascinated me decades before I ever touched a microwave. So I’m still fascinated by the story’s use of – sugar. Not sugar spray, or reconstituted sugar pellets, but actual bags of it. It sounds reassuring and familiar amid all the suspicious Space Food. But how are the Cybermen spreading their not-really-a-plague to weaken the base whose controller, to fans’ delight, actually says “from our point of view, we’re under siege”? Spoilers and spillages: it’s the good, old-fashioned, comforting sugar that’s betraying them. Though personally I’m always more suspicious of the cream, when they have to wait a month for a rocket even for medical samples.

5 – Polly.
“‘Here’s our holy water,’ said Polly, holding up the small bottle of nail varnish remover. ‘I’m going to do an experiment… Voilà cocktail Polly!’”
Context makes such a difference. When I read this book as a boy, I noticed and was influenced by the multi-national Moonbase crew and lack of jingoism. Four decades later, the progressive message is obscured by interloper Polly being the only woman (other than a bureaucrat on the radio) and the black guy dying first. And people always cite Polly being told to make the coffee. But then there’s the context. Feminism, like science, is not a language Gerry Davis writes fluently, but there’s no doubt who’s the lead companion here. Fellow sexy modern (both he and Polly updated from 1960s to 1970s in the book) youth Ben is sent off to help the ‘shopping’ and fetch drinks first (he calls himself “the official Moonbase coffee-boy”); Jacobite Highlander Jamie’s injured and in bed; the main action each of them take is following Polly’s plan, which is the only successful attack on the Cybermen until the climax. This isn’t to put down Ben or Jamie. For me Polly, Ben and Jamie were the business, but Polly is obviously first among equals.

The Cybermen are both deeply weird and nearly robots in this book, as befits dead bodies walking around in circuitry. Lawrence Miles famously mused on their eldritch elements in Christmas On A Rational Planet, and I once sketched an appropriately B-Movie Cyberman poster with the tagline “Mummy-wrapped zombies from the vampire planet!” Using techno-holy water to dissolve their plastic unlife-support units is the most explicit of all of these. But on a base full of male scientists, none of them come up with the solution. It’s a very female-gendered idea from the only woman. Polly is the companion that the Doctor keeps by his side here to have the intelligent conversations with. In one of my favourite scenes, she basically asks him whether he’s up to it, hilariously spotting potential gaps in his qualifications. And in the book, marvellously, she does it as an aside while examining her nails. Then the Cybermen have a container like a giant powder compact. It’s the only Doctor Who book with Chekhov’s make-up kit.

When the Doctor patronises Polly, the text tells us he’s being patronising; when she’s finally asked to make the coffee, it’s when the Doctor’s run out of any other strategy to get the base commander off his back and several chapters after he sent Ben to do it; and when Ben and Jamie are sexist to her, she just ignores them and does what she was going to do anyway. Which is to use a mixture of solvents, inspired by nail varnish remover, to melt the Cybermen’s plastic vital systems into gruesome goo. A story with only one woman does at least have her save everyone’s life by weaponising Clarins and, to cap the Deb striking back, Anneke Wills puts a lot of joy into her exclamation, “A cocktail!”

What Else Should I Tell You About Doctor Who and the Cybermen?

If you’ve read this week’s main entry, you’ll probably guess why I picked this book. My primary school had a little bookshop in a corridor. You saved up 5p Wise Owl Stamps to buy them. This was eight stamps, and the first book I ever bought. It was Doctor Who! There was a Cyberman on the cover! And I couldn’t read. But buying my first book wasn’t the only thing that happened when I was five. I also fell seriously ill and was hospitalised… Which turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. The various primary school books I’d been meant to be learning to read on had been having precisely zero impact on me through their banal ‘narratives’ of going to school, sometimes by bus, sometimes in the rain; I did that. Why would I want to read about it? But when my Mum, who’s never loved Doctor Who, eventually gave in and brought along my copy of Doctor Who and the Cybermen. The ‘If you go to the sickbay you’ll be carried off and possessed’ plot didn’t put me off at all, but it didn’t appeal as much to her. Half-way through reading this book to her little invalid, she could stand no more and did something that changed my life (and, within a couple of months, changed my measurable reading age from ‘off the bottom of the scale’ to more than double my actual age). Thanks, Mum; thanks, Gerry Davis. She told me to read it myself.

I did.

The TV story The Moonbase is one of many that suffered through BBC short-sightedness, so the DVD has two fully existing episodes and two recreated using animation and the soundtrack. The book was published in February 1975, two months before a new Cyberman story on TV. Revenge of the Cybermen was credited to Gerry Davis, but though readers of Doctor Who and the Cybermen will spot several similarities, it had been heavily rewritten. I wonder if that’s why he left in the lines where Cybermen sneer about how silly “revenge” is. He does give us a preview here of Cyberleaders with black helmets, though, and Chris Achilleos’ cover boasts a threatening closer-to-1975-than-1967-look Cyberman, as well as a thrilling fizz around the Moon and a great Patrick Troughton. Alan Willow’s internal illustrations can be found right through to the 2011 BBC Books edition, though sadly for the audiobook they’re printed the size of postage stamps in its apologetic little insert. Gerry Davis always struggled slightly with the science – trying valiantly, but despite, say, using vacuum as a major threat, occasionally forgetting that the Moon doesn’t have air, or that a laser beam isn’t the same as a flaming torch. Modern Doctor Who TV writer Gareth Roberts pays tribute to Gerry Davis’ ability to tell a cracking yarn in his introduction to the BBC Books edition; the book’s 2011 editors pay tribute to his trying really hard but sometimes making a howler by seriously informing us that the Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis-inspired Doctor Who story The War Machines was then scripted by Ian Kennedy Martin…

This is not the best Doctor Who book ever, but it’s still a load of fun, and I love it. My Mum hates it. Take your pick.

And, if you need one, my score:
7/10, or 9/10 when Anneke Wills is reading it.

If You Like Doctor Who and the Cybermen, Why Not Try…

Two other novelisations of stories pitting Patrick Troughton’s Doctor against more of his iconic monsters: Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen and Brian Hayles’ Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors. Each of them is also available in modern BBC Books editions, and as audiobooks – both David Troughton and Frazer Hines give quite uncanny readings of their Doctor.

Or, if you want more Ben and Polly, there’s their first and shockingly just one complete story available on DVD – The War Machines. The Moonbase is available on DVD with the existing episodes plus animation and soundtracks filling in the ones the BBC destroyed, as is original Cyberman story The Tenth Planet; the newly released and possibly final Twentieth Century Doctor Who DVD, The Underwater Menace, isn’t quite so lucky and has the missing bits filled in by still pictures. But my favourite story for Ben, Polly and Jamie is one you can only get as a soundtrack, as there’s almost nothing left of the TV images. It’s The Macra Terror, and it’s eerily glorious and super-liberal fun. That’s the story that originally followed this one on TV, and if there’s one thing this book’s missing, it’s ending with a giant claw…

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