Monday, 31 March 2014

The Monster In Search Of A Metaphor

Time for the second part of my episode-by-episode dissection of "The Invasion". This second part is no less chaotic and ad-hoc than the first, of course.  If anything, things have only gotten worse.

Episode 5

In which various plans and plots are uncovered.

Others here have said how this story is a prototype for the UNIT era in more ways than one, with Vaughn filling in for the Master. It's a nice catch, but I think it rather undervalues Vaughn. The Master's MO is to assume his treacherous alien allies will be unswervingly loyal to him, only to run around like a headless Ergon in the last episode when his assumed allies stab him in the back.

Vaughn, by contrast, has clearly thought things through. He's already sussed out the Cybermen's weakness, and his trial run of the Professor's machine here shows real promise. He's obviously playing for high stakes - being willing to move forward the invasion despite not yet having a fully-functional weapon to use against his allies - but he's not blundering in blindly. I particularly like his arguments with the Cyber-Computer. It's so obvious the CC is just agreeing to his demands because they plan to betray him the very instant the Cyberflag (made, one presumes, from tinfoil, and decorated with Mondas script demanding you give your age) flies above Geneva, but Vaughn has no illusions. I don't think the Cybermen are falling for it either. I think both sides know the other is lying to them, and they're jockeying to see who can get the most out of the deal. Considering so much of this serial requires us to find Vaughn interesting, it's a good way to go.

(I don't get his panic about UNIT, though. I can't possibly believe there's any meaningful difference between launching the invasion before UNIT shows up and after. How long is the world going to take to get to combat readiness because a Brigadier in England tells them he's found some robots in an IE shed?)

A word or two on the sexism of the Brigadier. What's up with that? How hard could it possibly be to tell Isobel she shouldn't start her career as papparazzo by chasing down Cybermen because she's a civilian? The Brig is quite right that this is a job best left to people trained to sneak around the enemy without getting the crappy end of a Cyberman chest-accordion and its knock-off Dalek ray gun. Dragging Isobel's gender into it is just guaranteed to annoy her for no damn reason, and ultimately that annoyance translates into her trying to prove she's just as good as the boys.

Not that Jamie helps here of course.  Though perhaps we shouldn't blame an 18th Century man for so backwards an opinion. Besides, he sounded like he was joking, and the way Zoe and Isobel immediately cut his legs out from under him in response is great. Besides, Jamie's sexism isn't nearly so alarming as his racism. Assuming something must be a Cyberman just because it's silver and has handles for ears? Disgraceful.

(Though this is immediately followed by possibly my favourite ever Troughton line: "Let's get back to the canoe!".)

Episode 6

And so, at last, after a period of time into which you could fit Ghost Light AND Survival, the invasion finally gets underway. It’s lucky for us UNIT forced Vaughn to accelerate his plans; otherwise this eight-part epic might have needed to be retitled The Careful Preparation.

Vaughn continues to be a real highlight here. I love his scene with the Professor, in which he mocks him first for being unable to pull a trigger, and then again for not being able to do any good once he’s forced into trying. I said last time that I enjoyed how Vaughn and the Cyberputer were obviously lying to each other and aware the other was lying to them, but I’m a bit less sure now. I’d completely forgotten the Cybermen had gone through with updating Vaughn, though my excuse is that it’s never shown or really alluded to. In fact, there’s some odd editing choices going on all over the place here. The first battle between UNIT and the Cybermen is kind of oddly structured – I had no idea until I was told that five grenades were used; it seemed to me like the Cybermen just took a breather after death-raying one chap so that our heroes had time to find each other and flee. Gregory’s death is strangely shot as well, going straight from Vaughn telling him his number’s up to him being gunned down in the sewers. That, at least, has an obvious unsettling effect to it. Indeed, it’s a very modern TV move; you don’t need to know anything about what happens in-between, you just go from sentence to execution.

Whilst we’re on the subject of modern TV, this episode gives a good indication of how much the new series differs from the early days of the original show. Basically the companions have rushed into danger without thinking, and as a result a man has been killed. And neither Jamie nor Zoe show the slightest remorse or even awareness of the consequences of their actions (Isobel at least lets it be known that she’s upset about it, though she frames it entirely in terms of her own thoughts, which isn’t particularly impressive). If something like that happened in the new show Murray Gold would have worn out two dozen string quartets and a base drum by halfway through the episode.

Episode 7

At last we reach everyone’s favourite Zoe episode. And what else is there to say, really, other than it’s fantastic, and she’s fantastic. It’s not just what she does; it’s how she frames what she’s doing. She might sound like she’s boasting when she explains how simple it all was, but she’s actually underplaying it, failing to mention she needed to know the brisance of the warhead, but also figure out the likely explosive power of two different types of Cyberman ship she’s presumably never seen. She’s just so far beyond the Brigadier and the missile base staff even her modesty can’t be recognised as such. If indeed she’s trying to be modest at all, as oppose to accurate. Her gorgeously simple announcement of “I am” when told she’d better be right suggests the latter, actually. She just does what she does. How other people interpret it isn’t really something she has any interest in.

(All of that said, though, you really have to blame some of this on the Cybermen for packing their fleet together so closely. Plenty of space in space, you emotionless berks!)

Also in this episode, Vaughn continues his unbroken run of awesome. I love how he swings in his chair whilst radiating smug in every direction, and how quickly Stoney turns on a dime whenever it’s time for one of Vaughn’s rages. As much as I love Roger Delgado’s brand of dangerous charm, Stoney’s louche arrogance works even better, especially played against Troughton. How can you not love a villain whose first move when he learns he’s been stabbed in the back is to scare his betrayers’ computer to death? This really hasn’t been a good story for the humble PC, has it?

Speaking of machinery, let’s return to our regular discussion of What the Cybermen Mean. I’ve been banging on about this for a little while now, but it’s at this point that the idea the Cybermen are a metaphor for runaway industrialisation takes its biggest hit. Because the Doctor’s second most common foe just isn’t interested in converting people anymore. The very moment there’s the slightest whiff of resistance from the people of Earth, the Cyberfleet decides it’s just going to wipe us all out so that it can get at what it really wants, which is presumably – as with “The Wheel in Space” – our mineral deposits.

Leaving aside the difficulty in believing there aren’t any uninhabited worlds the Cybermen could mine and save themselves a great deal of trouble, this firmly puts the Cybermen beyond their earlier metaphor as machines here to replace us. Really, the period when the Cybermen could be credibly seen as such consists of exactly two stories; “The Moonbase” and “Tomb of the Cybermen”. Even “The Tenth Planet” has more to do with the dangers of tinkering around with the human form and the darkness inside ourselves than the fear of the machine. By “The Wheel in Space”, the Cybermen are just the monsters thrown at the screen because Terry Nation had taken his (Dalek panel half-) ball home with him (note that “Tomb…” is the only Cyberman story in this period to actually give the eponymous villains something to do beyond be generically evil, and that followed directly on from a Dalek epic). Since we can’t watch “Wheel…”, of course, for most people we can safely say “The Invasion” begins the long, slow death of the Cybermen in the show.

I mean, try and name a great Cyberman story after this one. “Revenge” is shaky at best. “Earthshock” isn’t a great Cybermen story so much as a great story (and even that’s arguable) that happens to have the Cybermen in it. There are any number of alien races you could stick in that without it doing any damage to the plot at all (and the best bits involve those weird faceless androids at the start anyway). Literally the best thing you can say about “Silver Nemesis” is that at least it isn’t “Attack of the Cybermen”. The less said about RTD’s woeful two-parter the better. Hell even Neil Gaiman couldn’t make the poor silver sods work (presumably because he had no way to turn any of them into spritely goth pixies).

All of which is to say I think assigning a metaphor to the Cybermen themselves in “The Invasion” is to give them too much credit. Packer’s plan, as I’ve argued, had contemporary relevance to the audience at the time. The Cybermen themselves, though, were basically there because they couldn’t stick Daleks on London Bridge any more, as the most iconic shot of this story rather goes out of its way to demonstrate.

Indeed, since I’ve mentioned Nation’s best script until “Genesis…” compare the two stories. The first introduces the Daleks as the cliff-hanger to the first of six episodes, after they’ve already crushed Earth beneath their sink-plungers and turned us into robots. The second introduces the Cybermen after four episodes, after which they spend four more failing to do anything but walk about a bit then get exploded. There’s just no there there, or at least what there there is there is down entirely to Vaughn.

The Cybermen have become window dressing, unable to drive a story unaided. Which wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem if the show hadn’t one day decided that window dressing was really all one needed.

Episode 8

At long last, we say goodbye to everyone's favourite pair of bickering lovers, Packer and Vaughn.
It's hard to feel too much sympathy for Packer, given he's clearly a sadistic bully. Even so, it's a bit much that the Doctor basically waits until the Cyberman is busy killing the guy before he reaches for the Fear-O-Matic. Poor old Packer; so obviously not fit for his job, but clearly chosen because Vaughn was only interested in yes men. That was his undoing in the end, really. For all his deviousness and meticulous planning, he just clung too tightly to the Skeletor approach to lickspittle-hiring.

(That makes Packer Mer-Man, if you're wondering, and any child of the '80s will tell you how unflattering a comparison that is.)

Ah, Vaughn. How I will miss you. Never before have I seen so smarmy and self-assured a bipolar lizard. His death is more evidence of how embryonic television is at this point; these days it would be close to unthinkable to kill off so interesting a villain so early into the final episode. I do love his final speechifying, though, imperiously mocking the Doctor for failing to recognise revenge as a vastly superior motive to humanitarianism. And then suddenly he's gone, a grim kick-off to a really rather odd and incongruous slice of Troughton slapstick.

(Also, I love the decision made by the sound effects wizards that a Cyberman falling off the roof to hit the concrete should sound exactly like a metal pipe falling of the roof to hit the concrete. There's a certain Monty Python logic at work here:

Sir Bedevere: Ah, but what else is made of metal?
Peasant #1: A pipe!
Sir Bedevere: So, logically...
Peasant #2: If we throw her off a building and she sounds like a pipe... she's made of metal!
Sir Bedevere: And so?

Best. Crossover. Ever.)

After the Doctor turns off the beam, though, it rather falls apart somewhat. Jamie is off-screen on his holidays, and the Doctor and Zoe have nothing to do but sit around and see if the Russian rocket hits and the British AM batteries can stop the giant cyberbomb (it's this extended scene of utter helplessness that makes me doubt the earlier suggestion that the solution to this story isn't primarily military). Again, this would be almost inconceivable in the modern show, and it's not hard to see why. I'll grant that there's an interesting Das Boot vibe to everyone sitting around, but as a finale to more than three hours of television (and originally over a stretch of eight weeks) it's the dampest of squibs.

Obviously to some certain extent a resolution to a planetary invasion as envisioned on a '60s BBC budget was always going to be comparatively low-key, but the way to handle this truth is not to stretch out the story as much as possible and remove all agency from the heroes in the final minutes. Just because a problem is insurmountable doesn't mean you can't lose points for how wide your solution lands of the mark. I still love this story, but I can't deny that it's the second most obvious example in the classic series of a story that's vastly more interesting until the sudden reveal of an old enemy, and which ultimately ends in a frustrating nothingburger, soundtracked by the noise of money most assuredly not being thrown at it.

(And all of that is to say nothing of how little sense this all makes. The Cybermen can't deploy a bomb at long range without a radio signal? They can get to Earth from a neighbouring star system but they can't point a bomb at it and let gravity do the work? They don't have radar to detect giant missiles launched from Earth? They don't have a level of AA courage the puny humans have obviously been able to scrape together? And if we can so easily shoot the bomb down at close range, what hope did the Cybermen ever have of sending it down the radio beam? Did the Doctor accomplish a damn thing this episode other than to get Vaughn killed?)

Saying all that, though, and despite my protestations over the military feel to this story, how cool is it that the BBC broadcast a story in which a Russian missile saves the world just six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis? Man, I miss when this show was run by pinkos. 

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