“Is this what you wanted, Vaughn? To be the ruler of a dead world!?” – The Doctor
One of the best scripted, paced, and directed adventures of the era and maybe the whole series. Great characterizations and actors, lots of great suspense and action, surprising twists and misdirection, iconic visuals, conspiracies, and the introduction of many important elements of the future of the program. It’s so well done that even the novelization of it is a truly great and engaging read. It’s amazing, therefore, that the script is actually one that had to be ‘fixed’ and was filmed in the midst of a lot of production headaches on other stories. In fact, part of the commissioning of the episode was looking to revamp the perceived lagging of the series in preparation for Troughton’s departure.
It’s hard to know where to begin in praising the story. There is mystery from the start when the TARDIS encounters something odd on the dark side of the moon but the pay-off of knowing what it is does not come for a long time. The mood turns to that of a thriller with the desperation of the driver trying to escape “the company” and the Gestapo-like guards following him. It’s very grim at this point, all the more interesting for having out main characters totally baffled as to why it should be. And when the Doctor and Jamie are followed by strange men in a car, we’re made to think it’s more of the same—-until the reveal of UNIT and their old friend Lethbridge-Stewart.
There are great characters and very realistic dialogue. The villainy of Vaughn is especially well played by the actor Kevin Stoney, filled with charm but just enough menace to give his words weight. (For example to Jamie: “You may still be adolescent enough to make idle threats, young man, but I can assure you, I am not.”) It’s so interesting to see the Doctor figure out the best tact to handle him is to be just as falsely polite and ingratiating and then to see how much Vaughn loses it upon realizing he is not the one in control. Far from being one dimensional, Vaughn analyzes himself well at the end: “You think I’m mad, that all I want is power for its own sake. No, I have to have power. The world is weak, vulnerable, a mess of uncoordinated and impossible ideals. It needs a strong man, a single mind. A leader!” On the other hand, there is no doubt that Packer is a truly troubled man, always close to giving in to his seething sadism that all too obviously masks a brittle self-esteem and lapdog need for approval. His delighted childlike grin when given rein to use his “indisputable talent for persuasion” is chilling.
The character of Isobel obviously injects a youthful ‘swinging sixties’ vibe to the story. She is purposefully flighty to the point that she seems unlikeable at first, but in the end she is the character the audience can identify with the most, finding it hard to believe such dangers exist and trying to fool herself into thinking that it’s not as bad as it seems. The Brigadier is top-form at this juncture—rallying the troops and quick to come to the Doctor’s aid. It’s thanks to his dedication to military duty (in this case maintaining his regular updates) that he knows the availability of the rocket that ultimately defeats the Cybermen.
Meanwhile, our regulars get to shine again too. I love how Jamie is so eager to go toe-to-toe with Packer, unable to keep himself from muttering insults even at point of being pistol whipped (“Next time, read the notice on the door!” “Oh, don’t tell me you can read as well, what else do you do?”). Zoe’s mathematical mind gets put to its best uses ever here, first with a little bit of deserved vandalism and then the brilliant scene in which she wows the missile base staff with her prowess to figure out the exact coordinates for a launch. (“Can’t we keep her on, sir? She’s much prettier than a computer!”) The Doctor is also at his best in this story—juggling multiple aspects of the game and putting plans in place. It’s perfect to his character that, just when we’re not so sure that he’s even noticing the danger that Vaughn poses, he walks away and reveals that Vaughn is partially not human just from observing that he blinks at a slower rate than normal!
From a scifi standpoint, the idea of having a microchip embedded in everyday products distributed all over the world as an aid to invasion is a brilliant one (and will be used again many time in future episodes). The show does not reveal the exact nature of the alien threat for many episodes but cleverly drops hints along the way that some fans may have noticed like Vaughn’s reference to conversion and the design of the communication device that hearkens back to the controller in previous episodes. For those not following that closely, it must have been quite a surprise when a Cyberman violently burst out of its cocoon in the company warehouse. The script does a great job of highlighting their menace by having the UNIT troops amazed at how hard it is to kill just few of them and several times utter the chilling thought that there are thousands underground. To have one insane and roaming in the sewers is even better.
One of the best things about the writing of this story are the quiet “calms before the storm” that are used to build the tension–the twelve minute wait for the rocket to reach the spaceship, the eerily quiet UNIT control room with everyone slumped over their desks, and such. The best example is Isobel and Captain Turner at the window before the Cyber-hypnotic control descends. Having been up all night awaiting the impending doom of the invasion, their wistful conversation overlooking a quiet London dawn is a perfect setting to then suddenly realize the attack as begun. When the Cybermen burst out of the sewers and march down the steps in front of St. Paul’s, it punctuates the seeming helplessness of the situation.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
Hands down, the build up to the invasion is my favorite unsettling but wonderful moment in the show. On the uncomfortable side, Packer’s sadistic bloodlust is a little too spot on to reality for a kid’s show.
- UNIT! Brigadier! Benton!
- A corporation uses its products to take over of the world
It’s telling of how great this story is that I can make a short list of a few glitches and confidently say that there are no more. These few bits include: the oddness with the invisible TARDIS (it’s not a bad idea but it’s very off-putting how they don’t refer to it in the dialogue), the fact that they had to gloss over the unit rescue of Watkins and poorly edit a jump cut to Gregory’s death for sake of time, the missteps with Zoe’s attire (how does she change in the middle of the action—twice?), and Jamie’s sidelining for the last episode. That’s it—everything else is great.