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Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Tomb of the Cybermen originally aired in 1967.

In fact you might say they’ve had a complete metal breakdown.

Oooooh….

I’m sorry, Jamie.

– traveling with the Doctor can be quite pun-ishing

The Tomb of the Cybermen is a bit of miracle. Originally thought lost to history in the great BBC archives purge (along with most of the Troughton era), The Tomb of the Cybermen was recovered completely intact from Hong Kong in 1992, a quarter of a century after the adventure aired and several years after the original series had been cancelled by the BBC. It remains perhaps the most significant recovery in recent memory, and fosters hope that there might be a few other serials that have been preserved in their entirety. Still, even outside of its significant historical context, I’d make the argument that The Tomb of the Cybermen stands as the best adventure to feature the metallic men.

Sealing your tomb…

It’s funny to look back on that era and consider what has been lost to the ages, preserved only in stills, short clips and audio recordings. I’d love to see an effort made to animate every lost episode in the same manner as The Invasion or The Reign of Terror, but I know that’s not possible. Here, the action literally picks up right after The Evil of the Daleks, the story intended to kill off the famous monsters once-and-for-all, and there’s a strange feeling of finality to this complimentary Cybermen adventure as well. (Although the Daleks wouldn’t return until The Day of the Daleks years later, the Cybermen were back before Troughton even finished up in the role.)

What’s remarkable about the presentation of the robotic foes is that they are truly on the ropes here. The Cybermen aren’t (at least originally) in a position of strength. Instead, weakened as a direct result of The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase, they’ve effectively sealed themselves off from the rest of the universe and gone into hibernation. “We will survive,” the Cyberleader insists, but it’s an observation that gradually turns into a plea as the situation worsens, “We must survive.” It’s a fascinating aspect of the serial that it doesn’t bring the Cybermen back “bigger and louder”, but “weaker and more desperate”, something that I think was a very clever (and slightly counter-intuitive) decision. While the decision at the climax the decision to re-enter the cells in order “to conserve energy” doesn’t seem tactically prudent, it helps create the sense that this is a race on the brink of extinction, despite their grandiose plans for galactic conquest.

The Cyberleader always had a big head…

As such, the serial gets to play with the audience’s expectations of the Doctor. Looking back at his time in the role, Troughton did a rather wonderful job in what must have been a fairly daunting position. He was succeeding William Hartnell, playing the same character, and yet tasked with making the role his own. So Troughton played a fairly significant role in determining which aspects of the Doctor’s character were fixed and which were transient. While Hartnell was mischievous, Troughton was far more calculating and scheming. Compare Hartnell’s reactions to the Daleks to Troughton’s interactions with the Cybermen.

Hartnell’s Doctor was borderline cowardly from time to time, occasionally favouring what might be termed “a tactical withdrawal” if the situation called for it. Here, Troughton seems to be playing something of a longer game. Hartnell seemed quite unaware of the wider universe, stumbling blindly into potential problems, while Troughton seems to recognise the drama playing out in front of him instantly. There’s something very interesting about his refusal to leave when he recognises the tomb. “We must stay,” he insists, prompting an already worried Victory to ask, “Must we?”

Tomb raiders…

While the Doctor is aware of the danger (and acknowledge it to his companions – “you and Jamie can go back to the TARDIS”), there’s a sense that this version of the Doctor wants to see the game with the Cybermen play itself out. In hindsight, with his careful manipulation of Klieg (giving him the necessary information, but insisting, “oh, but I really wouldn’t do it if I were you – no, I really wouldn’t do it”) and his passive observation of the mission, it’s quite easy to believe that the Second Doctor was manipulating events to force one final confrontation with the Cybermen. In a way, it almost seems to foreshadow the way the Seventh Doctor would deal with Fenric in The Curse of Fenric.

This is, after all, a version of the character whose “special technique” for figuring out a given situation is “keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut.” Hell, even watching the episode, one gets a sense of why Troughton’s Doctor is ranked so highly by fans, despite the fact that so little of it remains intact. Troughton was the Doctor most profoundly affected by the BBC’s infamous archive purges, but his take on the character remains one of the more subtly influential. It’s interesting how we’d see his style filter through later iterations of the character. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor would never have existed without Troughton, and even Matt Smith acknowledges that this very serial is perhaps his favourite.

The welcoming mats…

Troughton’s style is one that resists the relative bombast of Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee. He’s always fascinating to watch, but his actions are generally relatively subtle – consider, for instance, the way that the Doctor unconsciously holds Jamie’s hand (instead of Victoria’s) when entering the tomb, or watch his reactions to the central drama. His version of the character never seems quite as passive as Davison’s (in that he’s very rarely out of his depth), but it’s never too forceful. Hell, there’s something sinister about his solution to all this, as he explains, “Anyone touching any of them will get a considerable shock – in fact a fatal one.” While he might be a technical pacifist, he has constructed a death trap to contain the Cybermen.

More than that, though, Troughton also manages to evoke the humanity of the Doctor, finding those smaller moments of character amid the larger science-fiction antics. Consider the rather wonderful conversation with his latest companion, Victoria, where he pauses in the middle of everything that’s going on to ask, “Are you happy with us, Victoria?” It’s a very sensitive question and one that suggests Troughton’s Doctor feels a strange affinity for the orphaned girl. Over the course of the conversation, it’s clear that his sensitivity stems from the fact that she has lost her family, just as he has lost his.

Even Cybermen need their beauty sleep…

In a single scene, the serial lays out a wonderful interpretation of the central character that would play out in the background of the original show, but would even form the backbone of the relaunched series.  He admits that he misses his loved ones, but that his traveling is a way of dampening the pain, something he seems to want to share with Victoria – to help take her mind off everything that happened. “You’ll find there’s so much more to think about,” he assures her. “Our lives are different to everybody else’s – that’s the exciting thing.” It’s a beautiful little moment, and one that I think manages to perfectly illustrate how integral the notion of “running” is to the identity of the Doctor. As much as he likes to explore new worlds, it also allows him to stay one step ahead of the guilt and sadness he left behind. The time traveler running from his own past.

That’s to say nothing of Jamie. Jamie was a character who was pretty much inseparable from the Doctor, joining him in his second story (The Highlanders) and staying right until Troughton’s last trip in the TARDIS (The War Games). It’s clear that the two work well together, with the pair not afraid of one another, and certainly not afraid to give each other lip. It’s nowhere near as hostile and toxic as the relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri, and it’s clearly based on genuine affection for one another. There’s a great deal of fun to be had, with the Doctor admonishing his ward after the Cyberleader escapes Jamie’s ropes, “Jamie, remind me to give you a lesson in tying knots some time.” Or the fact that the Jamie feels comfortable enough to consider heading back to the TARDIS when the Doctor advises, “anyone who wants to leave must do so at once”, and the Doctor is confident enough to clarify, “not you Jamie!” When Jamie can’t open the door, he explains, “Aye, well I’ve not had much exercise lately.” The Doctor, humouring him, dismissively remarks, “Quite.”

Having a blast(er)…

There is something a little bit uncomfortable about the fact that the cast breaks down into heroes and villains based solely on ethnicity. The only black member of the cast, Toberman, is a servant who is relatively mute for most of the adventure, and the villains of the piece, the Kliegs, speak in decidedly foreign accents. Meanwhile, the heroes are all British and Americans (with the most terrible fake accents I’ve heard in a while). I know that this was 1967, but it does feel just a bit unfortunate in hindsight, especially for a show that is normally so optimistic about mankind’s future and the idea of equality and a world without prejudice.

The story is fairly straight-forward, with a wonderful pulp vibe to it. It plays on a whole host of old fashioned tropes and clichés, but it does so well. There are moments that do feel a little forced (Klieg’s stubborn and, ironically, illogical refusal to accept that he can’t bully the Cybermen), but they’re common to quite a lot of works – and they even still appear in popular fiction today. I do like the way the serial treats the Klieg couple as a variation on the Macbeth family – with Kaftan manipulating her husband into various incredibly stupid and short-sighted acts in pursuit of power. “You’re not afraid, are you?” she goads him.

Rocket and roll…

On the other hand, while the plot is relatively conventional, there’s a wry self-awareness to the serial, from the moment the Doctor suggests Victoria might need a trip to the TARDIS wardrobe, “I think Victoria might find that dress a little impractical if she’s going to join us in our adventures.” Later on, I giggled a bit when Hopper affirmed Victoria’s credentials as a series regular with the observation, “You scream real good, Vic.” I do like that Professor Parry is smart enough to get the hell out of there once things start going wrong, where a weaker script would have had him blind to matters until it was too late. I also admire his suggestion of “safety in numbers”, even if he does split the party up when they first enter the tomb. (Yes, there was no outward sign of danger… but the freakin’ door was electrified.)

The production values on the story look remarkably high. I do think, however, it was easier to disguise cheesy special effects in black-and-white, though. I honestly think the Cybermen never really worked in colour, and I genuinely believe they worked best in their earlier stories – the masks rather than the metal plates suggests a sort of tragic lost humanity, stretched like synthetic skin across something that was no longer an individual. The tombs themselves look really good, and I think the serial holds up remarkably well, apart from the politically incorrect undertones. I even like the music, which features a distinctly sixties alien beat, but in a good way.

Bug-eyed…

The Tomb of the Cybermen is a lovely little story that feels like perfect classic pulp science fiction, with an ancient alien evil awakened by a careless (and occasionally evil) bunch of hapless humans. It captures a lot of the appeal of Troughton, while also handling some of the show’s most iconic foes remarkably well. It might not be the best of Troughton’s era, but – with so much of it lost – it’s a touching illustration of just how wonderful the show was at that time.

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2 Responses

  1. This episode was so much fun, even moreso than “The Aztecs.” BBC America has been playing them, and promises to play one from every classic Doctor, and I’m very excited for them all. These are my first classic Who episodes!

    The idea of the Doctor as a sort of eccentric grandfatherly gentleman hiding great genius behind his doddering exterior (as I take the First to be) is a pretty cool idea that I kind of wish the new series might eventually tackle; all the same, it’s here with Two that I really began to see the DNA of the Doctor Who I’m familiar with. Troughton’s energy commands the screen: he’s attentive, vocal, funny, and yes, he schemes a bit. I think it was Moffat who described his take on the Doctor as “the hobo of the universe,” and while it’s not quite accurate, there’s a certain lovable scruffiness about him, with his oversized coat and cropped hair. And “The Tomb of the Cybermen” was a great episode to introduce him to me: it’s atmospheric, well-paced, and surprisingly funny. I laughed out loud at that “metal breakdown” line. Yes, the story is practically one cliche after another, and sometimes characters act cringingly stupidly (mostly the villains, but even the good guys once left the cybergun lying unwatched on the table for anyone to grab). But most of it holds together alright, and it’s so darn entertaining. Makes me sad so much is lost, but perhaps someone will find more in some forgotten vault, eh? We can hope!

    • I think part of the charm of Tomb of the Cybermen is that it’s a rare Troughton story to survive. I mean, the actor’s time on the show is composed of countless “base under siege” stories, and I suspect that – if many mroe survived – Tomb of the Cybermen wouldn’t seem anywhere near as much fun.

      That said, Troughton is – as you note – a fantastic performer and it’s a shame that there isn’t more of his work around.

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