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The Tomb of the Cybermen

story 37 | season 5 | serial mm
Scott Moore

Perhaps because it is be regarded by many fans as a Doctor Who classic, I was disappointed by 'The Tomb of the Cybermen'. A fine performance from Patrick Troughton, an interesting basic plot idea, and the excellent realisation of the cybermen themselves are let down by a flawed script and just a little too much (yes, even for Doctor Who!) poor acting from the supporting cast.

The basic premise of the story is sound enough and the setting of the "tomb" allowed plenty of scope for the BBC designers to create an atmospheric set. However, the script suffers from three main failings: clunky plot devices, crude characterisation and poor attention to detail. The worst of the plot devices is the use of the sabotaged spacecraft to force the characters to remain in the tomb throughout the story. The idea of sabotage is perfectly reasonable, but the fact that the archaeological team are banned from the spacecraft for the duration of repairs (despite an escalating rate of fatalities) stretches the audience's credulity too far. It is not easy to separate the poor characterisation from the poor acting, but the character of Captain Hopper is little more than a cardboard cutout (indeed, his only raison d'etre seems to be to support the above-mentioned plot device), while poor Toberman seems to have been plucked from among the ranks of Cleopatra's slaves (in the Cecil B. DeMille film). As for the problem of attention to detail, this manifests itself right at the beginning of the first episode. We are led to believe that Professor Parry heads up an archaeological expedition at some point in the future, yet his team's methods would shame even a Victorian grave robber; they use explosives to expose the entrance to the tomb and once inside the only hint that they are making any attempt to catalogue their discovery is Viner taking down a few notes.

The quality of the acting is mixed, to say the least. Aubrey Richards is credible as Parry and Shirley Cooklin is suitably villainous (despite her character being burdened by the silly name of Kaftan). However, Cyril Shaps is over-the-top as Viner while George Pastell's initially promising Klieg eventually borders on the pantomimesque. Given the lines he is saddled with, George Roubicek can perhaps be forgiven for playing a spaghetti western cowboy. I can't yet compare Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling's performances here to their other stories. They both do a reasonable enough job of portraying the standard-issue young companion, but their characters are devoid of any convincing background. At no point does Jamie seem like an 18th century highlander, while Victoria's accent is too "BBC" and she is remarkably handy with a pistol for a sheltered young woman from Victorian England. Of course, Patrick Troughton's performance carries the story and almost justifies on its own watching 'The Tomb of the Cyberman'.

The rest of that justification are the cybermen. Given the limitations of time and budget inherent in 1960's Doctor Who, the designers and the director have done a convincing job of portraying the cybermen and injecting both them and their tomb with an air of menace. The scene where they emerge from their hibernation is justifiably iconic. The only point when the representation utterly fails are the close-up shots of the cybermats, which are truly hilarious. But then, every Doctor Who story requires such a comic low-budget production moment!

Jim Fanning

It has to be said, Patrick Troughton was the best actor to play the Doctor. Not my favourite (that's Tom Baker), but when Tom got a average script, he just hammed it up. The Tomb of the Cybermen, with it's maze of contradictions, charicatures, silliness and slight racism is not a masterpiece of writing, and is only saved by the Trout's masteful performance. He never seems in the least bit tired by the cliches he is presented with.

Actually, that's maybe a harsh assessment of the script (by Pedler and Davis, for what it's worth), as they succeed in holding our attention despite the limited array of locations. And they probably wrote better for the Cybermen than anyone else. The metal giants aren't plotting to blow up the Earth here, they're doing what they do best (or worst, depending on your stance)- converting hapless humans into new recruits for their fearsome army.

They are brilliantly executed on screen too. As much as I like the Cybermen in Earthshock, it's hard to believe they are emotionless, unlike the ones who appear here. Costume design plays it's part, but the hollow, electronic tones used for their voices are most successful at doing this. The CyberMats are OK too, I suppose, even if they don't transcend the fact that they are essentially a marketing opportunity.

Performance-wise we have a very mixed story. The worst turns are from Shirley Cooklin, who is nothing more than a panto dame twenty years early for the Sylvester McCoy era, and George Roubicek, not bothering in a part he probably acknowledged was 1-D. But when Patrick Troughton is the Doctor, you tend to focus less on those around him. The high point of his performance here is the scene where he recalls his family. When reviewing Tomb, almost everyone mentions it, and who am I to break with tradition? New companion Victoria isn't that great but Deborah Watling is at least better looking than *shudders* Jamie. The rest of the cast seem to have been recruited from Bond films. There are four of the blighters, by my count...

Earthshock is still the best Cybermen story, as Tomb, despite promise, lacks that story's brilliant direction. But it comes so agonisingly close, thanks to Mr Troughton.

Paul Clarke

‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ occupies a unique place in the affections of fandom; whilst missing, it was considered a classic, the Cybermen’s equivalent of ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ and an unqualified success. Then it was rediscovered, released on video, and whilst still regarded as a classic by many, also came under fire from others, with allegations of racism and a convoluted, illogical plot. Personally, having only seen it for the first time when it was recovered, I consider it to be an excellent story, well directed and produced and the best Cybermen television story in Doctor Who’s history. Before I sing its praises in greater detail however, I’ll address its flaws.

Firstly, the cod American accents adopted by Clive Merrison as Jim Callum and George Roubicek as Captain Hopper are very nearly as bad as those of the Clanton brothers in ‘The Gunfighters’. I can’t really say anything in defense of this; they are thoroughly appalling. Fortunately, both actors are clearly trying very hard in every other respect of their performances, which goes some way towards compensating. Secondly, and most notoriously, there is the racist aspect. Toberman it is often noted, is the only black character, and he is a servant. In addition, Kleig and Kaftan, the other human villains, have Middle Eastern accents, whilst all the other humans are either British or American. Whilst I can’t really deny this, I remain unconvinced that either Pedler or Davis were in some way hate-mongering with this aspect of their script; during the previous two Cybermen stories, an attempt was made to show multinational cooperation in both the Snowcap base and the Moonbase, and whilst most of the actors were white, this is probably due more to the scarcity of black actors in Britain at the time than any ulterior motive on the part of the writers. The fact that Toberman is black and a servant does unfortunately stand out, but it is worth noting that he is a servant and not a slave; unless one assumes that all servants are black at the time in which ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ is set, this need not be interpreted as Pedler and Davis’ vision of the future. At worst, it is a sign of the times in which the story was made and whilst unfortunate, it does not distract from my overall enjoyment of the story. Likewise, Kleig and Kaftan are clearly not British, but then neither was Professor Zaroff; whilst Josef Furst’s accent stood out amongst the English accents of the actors playing the Atlanteans, allegations of racism are seldom leveled against ‘The Underwater Menace’. General Cutler’s instability in ‘The Tenth Planet’ does not generally cause fandom to suggest that Pedler and Davis were suggesting that all Americans are unstable or egomaniacal. In short, the decision to make Kleig and Kaftan accented villains in a British and American party was unwise, but I suggest that it stems from Pedler and Davis’ continuing desire to show multicultural societies in the future rather than any more sinister reasoning. Of course on the other hand, I could be wrong, and this could all just be unreasonable justification on my part of the flaws of a story that I otherwise happen to enjoy.

In all other respects, ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ has aged well. The acting is generally superb, with all of the human characters far better characterised than the largely forgettable characters of ‘The Tenth Planet’ and ‘The Moonbase’. The addition of a party of traitors to the human group is largely responsible for this, and adds an extra level of danger to the plot. Kleig in particular is an excellent villain, brilliantly portrayed by George Pastell. Initially, he is merely ruthless and short-tempered, so eager to gain access to the Cybermen that he frequently lets his impatience get the better of him and has to be brought up short by Kaftan, icily portrayed by Shirley Cooklin. Just as in ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ Karlton occasionally appears to be guiding Mavic Chen, here Kaftan is often seen to direct the more impulsive Klieg, smoothly interceding when he argues with Professor Parry in episode one, and sternly ordering him not to raise his voice in episode two. It is Kaftan also who orders Toberman to wreck the spaceship and thus give Kleig the extra time he needs to access the tombs; when she tells Kleig that he has all the time he requires, he doesn’t know what she is talking about until Hopper enters. As the story progresses, Kleig displays other emotions; it is quickly made clear to him when he first meets the Controller that he has hugely underestimated the Cybermen and he is clearly terrified; when he emerges from the hatch in episode three he is almost on the verge of panic. It is not until Kaftan makes him aware of the potential of the Cybergun however, that he really shows his true colours; having gained some measure of the power he seeks, both over his fellow humans and over the Cybermen, he gives in to megalomania and also starts to demonstrate sadism. Ruthless and greedy though he was from the start, he is visibly corrupted by power and when a Cyberman in the tombs finally kills him, he is literally ranting like a madman. As with Chen however, his earlier doubts and fears mean that he is not just a two-dimensional lunatic, but a more fully realized character. Kaftan exhibits similar flaws, for all that she is more restrained; having been attacked once by a Cybermat, she is easily frightened by the sight of the dead creature in episode three, allowing Hopper and Callum to disarm her. Later, when she discovers what the Cybermen have done to Toberman, she panics and repeatedly fires her gun at the Controller despite the obvious lack of any effect, which results in the Controller killing her. Like her fellow Logician, she gives in to emotion under pressure and it proves to be her undoing. Even Toberman plays a important role; he is clearly very devoted to Kaftan, since his anger at her death allows him to resist the Cybermen’s conditioning, allowing him to first attack the Controller and finally seal the doors of the tombs, trapping the Cybermen within at the cost of his own life.

The other human characters all serve fulfill their own roles adequately, with Cyril Shaps’ paranoid Viner standing out; he is characterised by his almost constant terror from the moment Hopper’s crewman dies opening the doors to the tombs, and ironically his death results from the fact that his fear of the awakening Cybermen is far greater than his fear of the gun-toting Kleig, who promptly shoots him. Of the regulars, Jamie gets very little to do, but Victoria gets a far more significant role than she did in her debut story. Whilst this sadly results in a truly dire piece of acting from Watling as Victoria passes out from Kaftan’s drugged coffee, she is generally as likeable as she was in ‘The Evil of the Daleks’, and once more demonstrates resolve and courage in the face of being trapped in the revitalization chamber and later threatened by Kaftan. It is Victoria of course who saves her friends from the Cybermen by fetching help from the spaceship and persuading Hopper and Callum to open the hatch. Once more however, it is Troughton who really impresses. In addition to the charming scene in which he talks to Victoria about his family, the Doctor is memorable here for being at his most manipulative. I have noted previously how the Second Doctor likes to immerse himself in events, as typified by his refusal to leave the Moon in ‘The Moonbase’ whilst evil remains to be fought; this continues here, as he actually helps Kleig open the tombs (unbeknown to the Logician) apparently because, as he tells Jamie, he wanted to see what Klieg was up to. Curiosity is a well-established characteristic of the Doctor’s right from episode one of ‘The Mutants’ when he employs his gambit with the fluid link to force his companions to let him explore the Dalek city; by this point however, I think that his motives are not limited to satisfying his curiosity. In episode one, he tells Jamie and Victoria that leaving Telos became impossible as soon as the Cybermen were mentioned; I believe that he stays and actively helps Kleig to revive the Cybermen because he knows that they will probably succeed without him and he believes that he is the best hope they have of stopping the Cybermen once they are released. The Doctor is undoubtedly crucial to the defeat of the Cybermen; it is he who destroys the attacking Cybermats, persuades Toberman to attack the revitalized Controller, and eventually seals the tombs once more, more effectively than they originally were.

Finally, there are the Cybermen themselves. I criticized ‘The Moonbase’ because aspects of the script and plot, coupled with the redesign of the Cybermen since ‘The Tenth Planet’, robbed them of some of their menace; here, it is fully restored. The Cybermen are actually frightening here, advancing remorselessly and with unstoppable strength towards their human victims. Their weird electronic warbling as they attack is strangely sinister, and the scenes of them striding rapidly through the tombs in pursuit of Jamie and the others in episode three are highly effective. Equally notable is the scene in which the Cybermen repeatedly punches the closed hatch from beneath, denting the massive metal lid, and reminding us just how powerful they are; the Cyber Controller’s demolition of the door of the revitalization chamber in episode four is another reminder. The scenes during episode two in which the Cybermen emerge from their tombs accompanied by their familiar and dramatic incidental theme music is one of Doctor Who’s classic moments. The Cyber Controller is an effective addition to the Cybermen’s ranks, and although not quite having the same impact as the Emperor Dalek in ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ it is nevertheless visually impressive. The Cybermats are also memorable, although they never actually seem very dangerous. The Controller’s pronouncement to the horrified Kleig that he will be “altered” and subsequent announcement that the humans will be frozen once more recaptures the horror of dehumanization represented by the Cybermen and largely glossed over during ‘The Moonbase’.

The production values of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ are generally very high, with superb set designs; the tomb buildings are highly effective, especially the main room with its massive hatch and huge control panel, and also the revitalization chamber. The location filming in episode one is also effective, even if it does look suspiciously like a quarry… ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ succeeds admirably and is a strong start to Season Five.