Doctor Who reviews: The Tomb of the Cybermen

In the Doctor Who story “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” the Second Doctor and his companions, Jamie McCrimmon and Victoria Waterfield, arrive on the planet Telos.  There they come across an archeological expedition, led by Professor Parry, to uncover the remains of the once-feared Cybermen, who vanished 500 years previously.  The expedition is being funded by a mysterious couple, Klieg and Kaftan, who have their own hidden motives.  The Doctor, who has encountered the Cybermen before, is immediately alarmed.  He suspects that his old cyborg foes may not be nearly as dead as Parry believes.  And he intends to keep an eye on Klieg and Kaftan, to discover what they are up to.

Unearthing the entrance to the Cyberman’s tombs, Parry’s expedition soon finds itself in perilous danger, both from within and without.  The body count slowly begins to rise.  And, as the Doctor predicted, the Cybermen are far from dead, instead lurking in suspended animation, ready to once again come to terrifying life.

“Tomb” is a very exciting, intelligent, atmospheric production.  It is rightfully considered one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories.  Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis’ scripts are top-notch.  The direction by Morris Barry is extremely effective at creating a very tangible mood.  The sets are stunning and ambitious, especially when one considers the budgetary limitations the crew was working under.  One of the most memorable scenes in the series’ entire history comes towards the end of the second episode, when the Cybermen slowly emerge from their tombs.  The Cybermen themselves are imposing figures, looming over the other actors.  Even more impressive is their leader, the Controller, with his glowing, brain-like domed head.

Certainly this is one of the best stories to feature the Cybermen.  Later writers on the show sometimes made the mistake of downplaying or ignoring the Cybermen’s background.  But “Tomb” fully embraces their horrific origins, that they were once human-like beings who gradually began replacing body parts with mechanical substitutes, in a misguided effort to ensure their survival.  Eventually the Cybermen became almost entirely machine, in the process losing their capacity for emotions, their very humanity.  Worse yet, the Cybermen saw this as an actual “improvement.”  And it is an improvement they wish to share with the rest of the galaxy.  In “Tomb,” the most terrifying thought facing the human expedition is not that they will be killed, but instead transformed into emotionless mechanical monsters.  The Cyberman Controller, in his eerie electronic voice, informs the captive humans, “You belong to us. You shall be like us.”  It is a horrific pronouncement.

The Tomb of the Cybermen DVD

I’ve always been especially impressed with Patrick Troughton’s performance as the Doctor in “Tomb.”  Before I saw this story, I never really understood why older fans had such reverence for Troughton’s depiction of the Doctor.  This was completely down to the fact that I had only seen him in such serials as “The Dominators” and “The Krotons,” neither of which, let’s face it, will ever probably make the list of Top Twenty-Five Doctor Who Stories Ever, to say the least!  But watching Troughton in “Tomb,” a very well-written, well-produced story from when he was at the top of his game, wow, I was amazed.  He was electrifying.

There are so many facets to Troughton’s performance.  At first glance he seems to be scrambling about frantically, in a state of near-panic, events totally beyond his control.  But if you pay closer attention, you’ll notice that the Doctor, despite his repeated admonishments that Parry’s group is in grave danger, is the one who ends up solving all of their obstacles.  Each and every time the expedition hits a brick wall, the Doctor is the one who comes up with the solution, and at least once without their even realizing he’s done it.  In a way, he is manipulating people and events.  The fact that the Cybermen do get awakened in the first place would probably not have been possible if it wasn’t for his actions.

I remember when “Tomb” was first recovered in 1992, it was a few years after Doctor Who had gone off the air.  Right before the original series ended in 1989, the Doctor had been played by Sylvester McCoy, who had given a darker, more mysterious spin to the role, portraying the Doctor as a figure who worked on the side to set in motion events towards a specific outcome.  This was carried over in the New Adventures novels in the early 1990s, where many of the writers cast this Doctor as a cosmic chess player, maneuvering living pawns across the field of battle.  For myself, this seemed very strange, and it served to make the Doctor unlikable.  Then I viewed “Tomb,” and I realized that the Doctor as a manipulative, enigmatic figure was nothing new, that Troughton had been doing it a quarter century earlier.  Indeed, I subsequently learned that other stories such as “Evil of the Daleks” and “The War Games” also saw the Second Doctor cast in an ambiguous light, where you weren’t quite clear about his motives, and were left uncertain if he might not sacrifice others for the bigger picture.

At the same time, Troughton is capable of giving the Doctor a great deal of warmth & tenderness, as demonstrated in a scene with Victoria, who is played by Deborah Watling.  The previously-sheltered Victoria is still mourning the loss of her father, who was killed by the Daleks just a short time before (in the aforementioned “Evil of the Daleks”), and being abruptly uprooted from 19th Century England to travel through all of time & space.  The Doctor very much takes on the role of a father figure here, and it’s a very touching scene.

Also apparent is the chemistry Troughton had with Frazer Hines, who played Jamie.  As I understand it, the two actors had a wonderful rapport, and it is obvious how well they work together here.  It’s not surprising that Hines chose to stay on playing Jamie for the duration of Troughton’s stint of the Doctor.  I love the scene in episode one that they improvised where they each go to take Victoria’s hand to lead her inside the Cybermen’s control room, accidentally grab each other’s hand instead, quickly realize their mistake, and frantically shake loose from one another.  It’s a lovely bit of comedy that helps to lighten the tension.

The Cybermen awaken from suspended animation

Mind you, I am not saying that “Tomb” is a flawless production.  If you really want to be picky, a few of the special effects have not aged well.  In one scene where Kaftan’s servant Toberman is lifted up by a Cyberman, you can clearly see the wire pulling him up.  Later, when Toberman throws the Controller across a room, it’s obviously an empty dummy costume.  But those are minor quibbles.  I guess the most obvious problem is that the Cyberman’s tiny metal servants, the Cybermats (sort of metallic silverfish) are supposed to be terrifying, but end up coming across as silly.  Ah, well, they were kinda cute.

There is a major plot hole to the story, namely that the Cybermen did not think to put any controls in their tombs to open the hatchway to the surface, leaving the only switch up in the main control room.  That results in them getting locked up in their own tombs not once, but twice.  For a species based on logic, that seems like a major oversight on their part.  Come to think of it, how the heck did they close the hatch in the first place once they were all down in the tombs if the only control was upstairs?

The other problems are really more to do with the period when “Tomb” was made.  There is the chauvinistic attitude of Professor Parry, who attempts to sideline Victoria and Kaftan in order to keep the women out of harm’s way.  By today’s standards, this is very sexist, but undoubtedly the writers did not foresee how far the Women’s Lib movement would come in just a few decades, much less several hundred years in the future.

Another issue is the human villains.  Klieg and Kaftan are both foreign (i.e. non-British) and although not identified, the audience is presumably meant to infer that they are either Eastern European or Arabic.  Also, Toberman is a big, strong, mostly silent black man.  Once again, this was probably a non-issue in 1967.  But if the story was made today, it would be done very differently in handling the characters’ ethnic backgrounds, as well as the attitudes towards women.

Of course, even the villains aren’t completely black & white.  Yep, Klieg is a megalomaniac.  But Kaftan, despite being an icy bitch, regards Toberman as more than a servant, and shows genuine affection & concern for his well-being.  You also see her becoming more than slightly wary as she observes Klieg’s gradual descent into madness.  In portraying Kaftan, actress Shirley Cooklin adds a certain amount of depth to what could easily have been a one-dimensional villain.  Likewise, when Toberman is partially converted into a Cyberman, the Doctor breaks through his brainwashing to his humanity by appealing to his concern for Kaftan.  In the end, Toberman plays an instrumental role in stopping the Cybermen.

Shirley Cooklin as the lovely but treacherous Kaftan

There are two audio commentaries on “The Tomb of the Cybermen” re-release. The first, featuring Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling, is from the first DVD release.  The second one is new and, in addition to a return by Hines and Watling, features actors Shirley Cooklin, Bernard Holley, Reg Whitehead, plus script editor Victor Pemberton.  I enjoyed the new commentary much more, both because it had more participants, and because it was moderated by Toby Hadoke, who did an excellent job.  I’ve found that on the Doctor Who DVD commentaries, it is a very good idea to have a moderator for the stories made in the 1960s and early 1970s, someone who can help jog everyone’s understandably foggy memories of working on a television series several decades ago.

The picture quality on this DVD edition of “Tomb” looks fantastic.  The images have really been cleaned up magnificently with a computer program called VidFIRE.  There is a short feature about the process on the second disk which attempts to keep the explanations as simple as possible.  For a non-technical person such as myself, I appreciated that they did not try to go into too much detail, because it would have gone all over my head!

There are several other items on the second disk.  The most informative for me was “The Lost Giants” making of feature.  The two participants who recall events most clearly are Victor Pemberton and Shirley Cooklin.  Pemberton worked closely with Pedler & Davis on the scripts, and he observes what an unlikely yet incredible effective collaboration they had.  Pedler was “the scientist” and Davis “the dramatist,” and they managed to successfully mesh their two chosen disciplines together to create highly effective stories such as “Tomb.”  Cooklin explains how she came to be cast in the role of Kaftan, and recalls a number of very humorous anecdotes relating to the production of “Tomb.”

My only major complaint concerning this new release is that it did not include among its extras “Tombwatch,” a panel discussion with the cast & crew filmed back in 1992, which was included on the first DVD.  It is true, some of the information from “Tombwatch” is repeated in either the commentaries or the new feature “The Lost Giants.”  But there was more than enough that was unique to “Tombwatch” that merited it being retained on the new DVD edition.  So now I’m not sure if I should give my old copy of “Tomb” to a friend like I had originally planned, or hang on to both releases.  Decisions, decisions!

That said, I really did enjoy this re-release of “The Tomb of the Cybermen” on DVD.  If you do not already own the story, it is well worth picking up.

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