What became of the ‘lost’ Doctor Who story ‘Return of the Cybermen,’ written by Gerry Davis?
Back in 1974, Doctor Who was undergoing a transition. Jon Pertwee had just regenerated into Tom Baker, and outgoing producer Barry Letts was busy planning the next season along with his script editor Robert Holmes. The idea was that Letts would remain ‘in situ’ in the Doctor Who offices as a guide and mentor to the new producer Philip Hinchcliffe.
And one of Letts’ first ideas was to bring back the Cybermen – a Doctor Who villain that hadn’t been seen since the 1968 story ‘The Invasion,’ when Patrick Troughton was in the role. And so he reached out to one of the Cybermen’s original creators, Gerry Davis, and asked him to deliver a story that could be slotted into the upcoming season.
Now Davis was no stranger to Doctor Who. As well as co-creating the Cybermen, he’d also acted as the series’ script editor in the late 60s, and was responsible for the creation of Jamie McCrimmon, who went on to become one of Doctor Who‘s longest-serving companions.
So he was a natural choice to write a new Cybermen story for Tom Baker’s first season. However, when he delivered his scripts – titled ‘Return of the Cybermen’ – it was felt by Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes that a bit more work was required.
‘Return of the Cybermen’ also saw the return of the Doctor (along with his companions Sarah and Harry) to Nerva Beacon – a space station that they had visited earlier in the season. On landing, they found themselves in the grip of a deadly plague, caused – they would later discover – by a roaming Cybermat. This was one of the Cybermen’s snake-like robotic servants.
Some of this may sound familiar. Indeed, the basic plot for ‘Return of the Cybermen’ survived the redrafting process, and it was still in evidence when the finished version ‘Revenger of Cybermen’ was transmitted in 1975.
But according to the BBC’s official DVD release, Hinchcliffe felt that Davis’ original scripts were a little thin. He felt that it had been pitched at too young an audience.
Holmes echoed these sentiments in a letter he sent to Davis, which read: “[‘Return of the Cybermen’ is] too straightforward (particularly in characterisation) and therefore rather dull. Our audience is 60% adult and so we need a level of interest behind the ‘front’ action. Doctor Who has changed considerably since your connection with it and, these days, we find our audience is ready to accept quite sophisticated concepts. The flaws in the script stem more from your mental approach than anything inherently wrong in the story or its structure.”
Apparently, Davis had also characterised the Fourth Doctor as a little more bashful and introspective than he eventually became, with the character making constant references to his diary as he struggled to unravel the mystery of the plague. In addition, Hinchcliffe wanted to give the character of Sarah more to do, as he felt she was being underused in Davis’ drafts.
Hinchcliffe and Holmes, therefore, resolved to make ‘Return of the Cybermen’ somewhat more action-packed, and richer in character. Indeed, it was Hinchcliffe’s idea to strap a bomb to the Doctor’s chest in the middle of the story to increase the sense of threat and jeopardy.
Philip Hinchcliffe was also keen for ‘Return of the Cybermen’ to be as scientifically-accurate as possible. He had reservations about the feasibility of an X-ray gun that banged and flashed, and questioned whether anyone could actually live on an asteroid, where half of the story was set.
Presumably, they couldn’t; the asteroid in ‘Return of the Cybermen’ soon became the rogue planet Voga, otherwise known as Neo Phobos. And, as you know, the title was changed to ‘Revenge of the Cybermen‘ before transmission – something that Gerry Davis was unhappy about. Maybe because the Cybermen are supposed to be emotionless creatures, with no concept of revenge?
One thing Philip Hinchcliffe maintained, however, was that Davis’ scripts were in a workable state when they were first delivered. He said on the official DVD release that those scripts could easily be reproduced today.
And that is just what Big Finish has done. Understandably, certain adjustments have been made for radio, but as of March 2021 listeners will finally be able to enjoy ‘Return of the Cybermen’ in its original form, with Tom Baker reprising his role as the Fourth Doctor. This time, however, his companions Sarah and Harry will be played by Sadie Miller (daughter of the original Sarah, Elisabeth Sladen) and Christopher Naylor.
Will you be listening to this ‘lost’ Doctor Who story when it’s released? And how do you think it will compare to the version that was eventually transmitted? Let me know in the comments below.
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