Sunday, November 27, 2016


Five Reasons to Read Doctor Who and the Cybermen – Doctor Who 52 Extra: A (SE)

Introducing Doctor Who and the Cybermen

After some of my reasons to love the first Doctor Who I ever saw, what could follow but the first book I ever read? Gerry Davis novelises 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?”
Can I find five reasons you should read ‘Invasion of the Also-Rans’? It’s time to sit down, mix yourself a celebratory Cocktail Polly, and curl up with a book.

This is another Special Edition post, complete with a new photo from this very June (or from 1975, depending on where you stand). About this time last year I had the brilliant idea of choosing an exciting variety of Doctor Who stories in an idiosyncratic order to run through the year, one every week, inspired by the fifty-second anniversary – and, just to make it still more unlikely, I planned an erratic series of sidesteps away from television Doctor Who. This was originally one of the pieces I managed to write before hitting the horror that is 2016. I’m not promising to get through the whole list this time, but at least I’ve made it to the second one…

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 in 1975 as one of their first Doctor Who novelisations, 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 (just as his TV script gave the Second Doctor his own manifesto about terrible things which must be fought). 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 Twelfth Doctor sniffing last year that nobody adds the prefix “Space”? If you want someone who does, 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 reading 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, and her rather breathy Doctor is especially compelling in his determination towards the climax. Interestingly, she uses higher registers for the Doctor’s other companions, the cute young men Jamie and Ben (hearing the line “they were able to follow Ben’s keen gaze” read aloud, I thought, ‘Yes, I know quite a few of those’). 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’ that’s 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 Space-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 Space-age ‘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-space-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 turns out to be the good, old-fashioned, comforting sugar that’s betraying them. Though personally I’m always more suspicious of the cream, given 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. People always cite Polly being told to make the coffee here, too. 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 with the ‘shopping’, wash the cups 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 enclosed in metal and plastic and embalmed in circuitry. I once sketched an appropriately B-Movie Cyberman poster with the tagline “Mummy-wrapped zombies from the vampire planet”, perhaps inspired by the Doctor’s famous musings on their eldritch elements in Lawrence Miles’ Christmas On A Rational 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 my first TV entry in this fitful series, you’ll probably guess why I picked this book as my first sidestep. 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 (unlike most of my long-term health problems) 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 well over double my actual age). Thanks, Mum; thanks, Gerry Davis. She told me to read it myself.

I did.

The TV Doctor Who 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 which Gerry Davis had been working on at around the same time as this novelisation. Readers of Doctor Who and the Cybermen will spot several similarities with Revenge of the Cybermen as seen on TV, though the novel is more unadulterated Gerry Davis – despite his getting sole writer credit, parts of his later script were heavily rewritten. I wonder if that’s why the book keeps in the lines where Cybermen sneer about how silly “revenge” is. He does give us a preview here of Cyberleaders with black helmets, though, so that’s one ultra-modern 1975 touch.

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. In Spring of this year, the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury held an exhibition of Target Books Doctor Who Artwork, and – fabulously – this was one of the paintings on display. Thirty-nine years after I read my first book, I was enthralled to be able to see the original art up close. You had to be there to admire the sheer detail in the Doctor’s face and the Moon’s surface, or the vibrancy of the colours, but it was a real treat for me (and I’m sure for a great many other visitors besides). 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. Then the editors of the 2011 BBC Books edition pay tribute to Gerry Davis’ 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 scripted not by Ian Stuart Black but by slightly more famous television writer 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. But there’s a suddenly topical and high-profile tie-in with a more iconic monster still…

Doctor Who – The Power of the Daleks is currently high in the new DVD charts (amongst a wide array of formats, led by BBC Store). One frustration to my love of Ben and Polly is that so little of their time with the Doctor still fully exists; well, it’s some consolation as well as excitement that to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the BBC have just released one of their most thrilling adventures. Ben and Polly are crucial in coping, alongside the audience, with the Doctor’s very first regeneration. This is Patrick Troughton’s first story as the Doctor – but in new and rather stylish animated form. Though the BBC destroyed many of Doctor Who’s early episodes a few years after broadcast, Doctor Who inspired such fascination from the very first that some viewers made home sound recordings of all the TV stories later short-sightedly exterminated. So although no episodes of The Power of the Daleks survive to be seen as they were in 1966, you can now watch the whole thing remade to the original soundtrack in the most ambitious Doctor Who animation project yet. If that puts you in the mood for more Ben and Polly, I’d also recommend the DVDs of The Moonbase itself and original Cyberman story The Tenth Planet, each of which can now be seen in full but in a mixture of existing episodes and similarly recreated ones of animation and audio to fill in the ones the BBC destroyed.

The only story where Michael Craze and Anneke Wills’ original performances as Ben and Polly survive in full on screen as well as in their voices, however enticing their cartoon versions, is their first – The War Machines, where they join the TARDIS with William Hartnell’s Doctor. Fortunately, it’s a good one, but it’s still dispiriting that this wonderful team has just a single ‘complete’ outing. 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 bar a few dozen still images (though it’s worth searching online for Reconstructions combining those photos and even a little CGI with the soundtrack to aid the storytelling). It’s The Macra Terror, and it’s eerily glorious and super-liberal fun. That’s the story that originally followed The Moonbase on TV, and if there’s one thing this book’s missing, it’s ending with a giant claw…

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I do wonder if at one stage in the drafting Davis assumed that the Doctor was to be reinvented as Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee, hence the 'long legs'.
I think you must be right - at least that Davis was updating him a bit, as with Ben and Polly more explicitly, or leaving the space open for '70s kids to imagine. The Doctor doesn't get a physical description aside from his clothes, though those are clearly Troughtonesque rather than the hat and scarf.

Apologies for the delay, but the Phantom Piper intervened...
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