Remembering Victor Pemberton

British writer and television producer Victor Pemberton passed away on August 13th. He was 85 years old. I was a fan of Pemberton’s work, and over the past several years I had corresponded with him via e-mail.  Based on his e-mails, and on interviews he gave, he appeared to be a warm, intelligent man.

Victor Pemberton Fraggle Rock

Victor Pemberton and Sprocket

Pemberton was born on October 10, 1931 in Islington, London. His experiences a decade later, living through the terrible events of the Blitz during World War II, were a formative influence.  Decades later Pemberton wrote a series of 15 historical novels set in mid-20th Century London.  He described these books as, at least in part, “an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind.”

One of Pemberton’s earliest successes as a writer was in 1966, when he penned The Slide, a seven part science fiction radio drama broadcast weekly by the BBC from February 1 to March 27, 1966. This eerie, atmospheric drama starred Roger Delgado and Maurice Denham.

In the newly developed English town of Redlow, several earthquakes have occurred. This in itself is odd, as the area is considered geographically stable.  Things become considerably more unusual when a mysterious greenish-brown mud begins to ooze out of the fissures in the ground.  Not only is this mud highly acidic, it seems to have a life of its own, spreading out across flat ground, and even creeping uphill.

Called in to investigate these mysterious phenomena is Professor Josef Gomez, a South American seismologist portrayed by Delgado. Gomez previously encountered similar earth tremors in the nearby English Channel.  Assisted by local scientific authorities, the Professor makes a startling discovery.  The mud, it turns out, is not only a living entity, but it is also sentient.  And it  has the ability to telepathically influence certain individuals, driving many of the residents of Redlow to madness and suicide.  Gomez and his colleagues find themselves in a race against time, struggling to halt the lethal mudslide before it destroys the entire town.

Like so much other television and radio material from the 1960s, the master copy of the radio play was purged from the BBC archives. Fortunately, Pemberton himself recorded all the episodes of The Slide during their original broadcast.  Decades later, he discovered the tapes in his garage.  This stroke of luck allowed the BBC to restore the recordings and release them on CD in 2010.

The Slide

In 1967 Pemberton became involved with the Doctor Who television series. He acted in a small part in “The Moonbase” and served as Assistant Script Editor on “The Evil of the Daleks.”  Pemberton was then promoted to Script Editor on the next serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis.

Among his contributions to “Tomb of the Cybermen,” Pemberton scripted a scene in the third episode which showed the character of Victoria Waterfield, who had joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the previous story, adjusting to her new life.

THE DOCTOR: Are you happy with us, Victoria?

VICTORIA: Yes, I am. At least, I would be if my father were here.

THE DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know.

VICTORIA: I wonder what he would have thought if he could see me now.

THE DOCTOR: You miss him very much, don’t you?

VICTORIA: It’s only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man, I shall never forget him. Never.

THE DOCTOR: No, of course you won’t. But, you know, the memory of him won’t always be a sad one.

VICTORIA: I think it will. You can’t understand, being so ancient.

THE DOCTOR: Eh?

VICTORIA: I mean old.

THE DOCTOR: Oh.

VICTORIA: You probably can’t remember your family.

THE DOCTOR: Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing. There’s nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.

It is a beautifully written scene which is wonderfully performed by Patrick Troughton and Deborah Watling.

Pemberton decided to leave the Script Editor position after only one story in order to concentrate on his writing. He quickly produced the scripts for the six part Doctor Who serial “Fury from the Deep,” which was broadcast in 1968.  Regrettably only a few short clips from the story are known to still survive, along with the complete audio soundtrack and some behind-the-scenes footage taken during the filming of the final episode.  Nevertheless older fans of the series who saw “Fury from the Deep” when it was first broadcast have very fond memories of it.  Eighteen years later Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize the serial for the range of Doctor Who books published by Target.  When I read that book at the tender age of eleven, I found it to be incredibly scary.

“Fury from the Deep” is also noteworthy in that it contained the debut of the Doctor’s now-iconic sonic screwdriver, which was devised by Pemberton. The serial also saw the tearful farewell of Victoria from the show.

Pemberton would write for Doctor Who on one other occasion. In 1976 he scripted “The Pescatons,” the very first Doctor Who audio adventure.  It starred Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.  Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize “The Pescatons” for Target in 1991.

Doctor Who The Pescatons

After he left Doctor Who, Pemberton went onto a long & prolific career working in British television and radio.

In 1983 Pemberton became involved in the British version of the Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock. The series was about a group of funny and bizarre creatures, the Fraggles, who lived in a vast, wondrous subterranean civilization.  The Fraggles and their neighbors, the diminutive builders known as the Doozers and the giant bad-tempered Gorgs, were all brought to life by Henson’s amazing Muppet creations.

Fraggle Rock was broadcast in a number of foreign countries, and different framing segments involving a human character and his dog Sprocket (a Muppet) were recorded for each market. In the original American version, the human was the eccentric inventor Doc.  As a writer on the first season of the British version, Pemberton devised the human character of “The Captain,” a lighthouse keeper in Cornwall.  Pemberton became the producer of the British version from the second season onward.

When I e-mailed Pemberton in 2010 asking him about his time on Fraggle Rock, he had fond memories of his time working with the Muppets:

“It was a great fun series to do, with a lot of talent involved, something one always got from the late, lamented Jim Henson and his team. Needless to say, Sprocket, as in every version, was my hero of the show, mischievous and lovable to the last!”

One of Pemberton’s most acclaimed works was a trilogy of radio plays for the BBC based on the lives of his parents. The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore was broadcast in 1978, with the next two installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea, airing in 1987.  These three radio plays would form the basis for the first of his historical novels, Our Family, published in 1990.

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family was a wonderful book, and I made sure to let Pemberton know how much I enjoyed it. He appreciated my kind words.  In his response he noted:

“A few years ago, an historian referred to my novels as ‘archives of true family life during the London blitz of the Second World War’. I hope that’s true, and that, through the simplicity of the stories, current and future generations will have the opportunity to understand what it meant to live through those times.  After all, without knowing about the past, there can be no genuine future.”

In the later years of his life Pemberton retired to Murla, Spain. He was kind enough to autograph copies of his two Doctor Who novels which I mailed to him in 2010.  I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to correspond with Pemberton over the last several years.  He was a wonderful writer, and will definitely be missed.

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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.

Unearthing the Tomb of the Cybermen

I normally do not buy something on DVD twice.  If a “special edition” is released after the initial regular DVD, well, it has to be pretty darn special indeed for me to pick it up.  But I made an exception for the recent two-disk DVD re-release of the Doctor Who serial “Tomb of the Cybermen.”

For those unfamiliar with “Tomb of the Cybermen,” it was first broadcast by the BBC back in September 1967.  In the role of the Doctor was Patrick Troughton, who portrayed the eccentric Time Lord from November 1966 to June 1969.  “Tomb” was written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis, the co-creators of the Cybermen, the second most popular villains on Doctor Who after the Daleks.  After its broadcast in the UK, the serial, along with a number of others, was then sold abroad, and several years later the BBC’s master tapes were erased.

Back in the days before VHS and DVD, there appeared to be no alternate market for old black & white shows to be financially lucrative for the BBC.  So, to their thinking, it made perfect sense to wipe hundreds of video tapes to re-use for new material, and to toss in the rubbish bin those film copies returned to them by foreign television stations.  Unfortunately, a great many Doctor Who episodes ended up on the chopping block, including the majority of Patrick Troughton’s first two seasons on the show.

Of course, fans of Doctor Who felt differently.  For the next quarter century, viewers who had seen “Tomb of the Cybermen” on their television screens way back in 1967 spoke of it, and other Doctor Who serials starring Patrick Troughton, in hushed, reverential tones, declaring them to be “the greatest Doctor Who stories ever made.”

For someone such as myself who was born in 1976, nearly a decade after “Tomb” aired, this would drive me crazy.  Here I was, a huge Doctor Who fan in the mid-1980s, being told about all these classic stories from the 1960s that I would never have an opportunity to see.  True, I was able to read the novelizations published by Target, including one of “Tomb” by original co-writer Gerry Davis.  And occasionally I would get to see old, grainy black & white photos published in sci-fi reference books or by Doctor Who Magazine.  But it wasn’t the same as being able to actually view those stories.

For many years, the closest we could get to the original show

For many years, this was the closest we could get to the original serial

Then, in early 1992, seemingly against all odds, a copy of the complete four-episode “Tomb of the Cybermen” was discovered, buried in the archives of a Hong Kong television station.  The serial was returned to the BBC, who immediately rushed it out onto video tape.

A digression: it is an odd thing, in that “Tomb of the Cybermen” has been found nearly as long as it had been missing, yet for many it is still refer to it as a “lost” classic.  I think this speaks of just how utterly unlikely it was for it to be discovered intact so long after it was thought destroyed forever, and how thrilled fans were to actually have it returned.

In any case, back in 1992, I remember thinking to myself, now that I finally have the opportunity to view “Tomb,” can it possibly live up to the hype that had been generated over the previous twenty-five years?  The funny thing is, a lot of those older fans who had seen “Tomb” way back in 1967 were actually a bit disappointed, saying it wasn’t nearly as good as they remembered (just one more example of 1980s Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner’s maxim “the memory cheats”).  I guess it can be difficult to compete with quarter century old childhood memories.

For myself, though… wow, I was completely in awe!  “Tomb of the Cybermen” was an amazing story: intelligent, exciting, suspenseful, ambitious, and lots of other adjectives that I could probably use if I pulled out my thesaurus.  It was fantastic.  And at long last I was able to finally see one of those classic Doctor Who serials the older fans had spoken of so respectfully.  True, there were many other still missing or incomplete stories: “Evil of the Daleks,” “The Web of Fear,” “Fury from the Deep,” and other Patrick Troughton serials from his first two years on the show.  But at least we now had one complete example from what many considered to be one of Doctor Who’s golden ages.

I’ve lost count of how many times I viewed “Tomb of the Cybermen” on VHS.  Then, ten years later, when it came out on DVD, I picked it up.  Finally, when the two-disk special edition came out a month or so ago, I bought that, as well.

So, what are my specific thoughts on “Tomb of the Cybermen” and it’s brand-new re-release on DVD?  I will discuss those shortly, in my next entry.  Stay tuned.  (That’s as close as I’ll ever get to a genuine Doctor Who cliffhanger on this blog!)