Monday, 16 November 2015

Review: Doctor Who Classic: The Tomb of the Cybermen (Revisited)

See here for my previous look at this story.

Despite the phallic design, the Cyber Controller adds an
interesting face to the Cybermen.
Doctor Who - Season Five, Story One - The Tomb of the Cybermen
Written between 27th and 28th September 2015

A question often arises when discussing The Tomb of the Cybermen - what makes this story so special? There are some who believe that the story's recovery in 1991 in its entirety was the miraculous reappearance of a bona fide classic, while others say that its reappearance is the only reason why people focus on it, and it's no different to any other Cyberman story from this era. There are elements of truth in both camps, as is often the case, and the reality is somewhere in the middle. It's true that Tomb has a great deal of similarities to the other Base-Under-Siege staples, but it also has a number of moments which raise it to another level.
Kit Pedler's last story had a black astronaut, so this comes
a little out of left-field.
     The Doctor has just picked up Victoria Waterfield, a now orphaned child of a Victorian scientist who fought against the Daleks. The Doctor and Jamie take her on her first trip, and end up landing on the planet Telos, where an expedition is attempting to excavate and find the legendary Tombs of the Cybermen, who at this point in history have been missing for several hundred years. The expedition is backed by the suspicious Klieg, his assistant Kaftan and her hulking slave Toberman. The Doctor is cautious about exploring the Tombs, but eventually leads the group the sleeping Cybermen. Klieg awakens them, revealing that he wishes to use them to rule the Earth. However, the newly awakened Cyber-Controller soon sets about the agenda of restarting Cyber-conversion. Klieg is defeated, and despite the efforts of the Cybermen and their adorable rodent-like servants the Cybermats, Toberman sacrifices himself to shut them away once more,
     The Cybermen here retain their design from The Moonbase, with a few extra additions made to their general lore. The Cybermen's use of refrigeration devices and their second home on Telos went on to become a key part of their mythology, as was the existence of the Cybermats (retired in Revenge and brought back in Closing Time), cute little creatures apparently capable of killing. Their threat here feels a lot more tangible than in the Moonbase, as they're present as a great evil locked away than as an outside invader. The harsh, cold architecture of the Tomb, coupled with the death traps and puzzles, do a lot to beef up the Cyber threat, and their desire to convert people is specifically pushed and discussed as the danger behind them. (Even if we won't see the Conversion process until the 1980s.)
     Most episode guides classify this as a Base-Under-Siege story, and it's not hard to see why. The character archetypes of the tough leader, the voice-of-reason scientist and the traitor are all there, as is the claustrophobia that comes with fighting the Cybermen in such a small, inescapable space. However, I think that there is a major difference - whose base is under siege, here? Usually the Base-Under-Siege story features a group of humans minding their own business before being attacked, and yet this time these explorers have sought the Cybermen out to their base. The Control Rooms of the Snowcap and The Moonbase were fairly mix and match, but the central vestibule in this serial is cramped and metallic and more innately inhospitable than simply bland.
There are some sweet moments with Victoria, and her
screaming isn't grating... yet.
     Of course this is the Sixties, so I have to discuss some of the less favourable aspects of the serial. All of the human villain characters have thick accents and darker skin, even though they are (with the exception of Toberman) played by white actors. Klieg and Kaftan are not exactly trustworthy in their initial appearance, but the episode builds around their villainous nature by having The Doctor be suspicious of them. Toberman was originally meant to be mute and deaf, with his hearing aid being a nod to the Cybermen's origins, but this was left out and so the only black character in the serial is portrayed as a noble, if terrifying, savage. Elsewhere, and both female characters are actually banned by the male exhibition leaders from even entering deep into the Tombs, and there are several similar comments made throughout. Victoria at least fights against a few of these jabs, and her characteristic screaming is actually used as a clever diversion, but it's still jarring to see this in a story supposedly set hundreds of years in our future.
     So, to answer my original question - what makes Tomb so memorable? It's certainly not some narrative masterpiece, and it's not very progressive with its characters, most of whom are either vaguely racist or are taken from previous Base-Under-Siege stories. But the story's setting, mythology, and expert sense of tension helps to sell a setup which without that would be rather menial. It is true that a lot of the focus on this story comes from its status as one of the seven complete Second Doctor stories, and one whose appearance seemed to arrive most miraculously, but that's almost incidental when you actually compare this episode to the stories that came before and after in this era. It doesn't just stand out, it shines. And that's why it's so cherished.


NEXT WEEK: A serial which now exists as 1/3rd actual episode and 2/3rds static images and dodgy CGI from 2010. It's The Wheel In Space.

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