Doctor Who complete reviews: The Tomb Of The Cybermen
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
A lost classic refound but needing to be viewed in context of its era...
Many moons ago, there was a programme on ITV called Surprise Surprise. The show involved toothy old wailer Cilla Black “surprising” members of the public in various ways. The most memorable bit came at the end of the show when long-lost family members were reunited in a “shock” surprise. Cue much weeping and wailing - although this was probably due to Black’s shrieking of the closing song which sounded like a parrot had got trapped inside a cement mixer.
But suppose that after the initial good news, the reunion never went as expected? Say that Long Lost Relative didn’t meet expectations, and what’s more had somewhat questionable ideas on race and gender? Now take that idea and consider the reaction to the discovery of The Tomb Of The Cybermen.
Tomb had become The Holy Grail of Doctor Who stories. Missing presumed lost forever, one cold day in January 1992, the news broke that all four episodes had returned from BEYOND THE GRAVE (copyright, John Lumic). Cue dropped jaws, much rapture and a rush release on BBC Video. However, after the initial wonder and delight faded, some fans began to question whether The Tomb Of The Cybermen was actually any good. They cited the blatant sexism, the iffy treatment of Toberman, the hammy acting and also the occasionally ropey effects. When Frazer Hines appeared on This Is Your Life, they actually showed a clip from Tomb. The roar of scornful laughter from the audience was deafening.
All this derision comes in sharp contrast to the previous opinion that Tomb is a highly revered classic. Admittedly, the tide has started to turn, especially since it’s received a glowing endorsement from the current main man Matt Smith (who’s allegedly watched the story 20 times - now that’s impressive). I actually think it’s got a lot to recommend it - the problem is that there are so many obstacles to overcome, obstacles that sadly prevent it from being the classic that it could have been.
The premise of Tomb pays homage to the old Hammer Horror movies, in particular, any of the old Mummy films. An expedition visits Telos to find the lost tombs of the Cybermen, only to find that it’s nowhere near as easy as they thought. And naturally, the body count starts to escalate as members of the expedition die in various grisly ways. The twist is that normally The Doctor would do his best to stop the humans from reaching the Cybermen. In fact, in a slyly manipulative manner, he allows the humans to achieve their goal - it’s all a plan to destroy the Cybermen once and for all. Look at the way in which arrogant logician Klieg initially fails to find the right sequence to open the hatch that leads to the tombs. The Doctor sneaks up behind Klieg and furtively enters the right sequence. He also cleverly manipulates Klieg into finding the right sequence for activating the dormant controls. “I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” he cries. “Oh no, I really wouldn’t do it!” He probably knows full well that Klieg will react to his pleas and activate them to satisfy his own ego.
"This is the story that really draws upon the second Doctor’s unassuming personality and the way in which it masks a brilliant mind"
This is the story that really draws upon the Second Doctor’s unassuming personality and the way in which it masks a brilliant mind. Throughout Tomb, he subtly manipulates the expedition into finding a way to reawaken the Cybermen and then to finally defeat them once and for all. This dangerously manipulative streak carries on from the previous story Evil Of The Daleks, in which his manipulation of Jamie could have had fatal consequences. It’s a hugely effective ploy, since the Second Doctor’s shambling, vulnerable persona suggests to the viewer that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. In fact, this incarnation of The Doctor looks at the bigger picture and takes the risk of manipulating other people simply for the greater good. Even if it means a few deaths in the process, The Doctor has to put the fate of the universe first - it’s a familiar moral dilemma that crops up again in stories like Pyramids Of Mars.
Troughton, needless to say, is one of the key reasons that The Tomb Of The Cybermen works well. He is on top form throughout, mixing great humour (the way in which he mistakenly grabs Jamie’s hand instead of Victoria’s), steely resolve (his confrontation with Klieg) and compassion. The most obvious case of this is the charming scene in which he quietly tells Victoria about his lost family. It’s perfectly acted by both Troughton and Deborah Watling, and is one of the key scenes of the Second Doctor’s era - not only because of this revelation, but also because it highlights the Second Doctor’s compassionate nature. He gently asks Victoria if she is happy with her new life and consoles her over the death of her father. This parental nature would manifest itself further in future Second Doctor stories, but its at its most explicit in this scene.
"Troughton, needless to say, is one of the key reasons that The Tomb Of The Cybermen works well. He is on top form throughout, mixing great humour, steely resolve and compassion"
At least the strong characterisation of the Second Doctor makes up for some of the other wonky stereotypes. Mention of googly-eyed girl-child Victoria just now brings me on to one of the least successful aspects of Tomb. Fair to say, that Tomb isn’t Victoria’s finest hour. She acts like a particularly thick kid who’s misbehaving on a school trip to the Science Museum. Let’s see now: For no good reason, she blunders into the empty Cyberman sarcophagus and inevitably gets trapped. She puts a Cybermat in her bag after The Doctor’s told her not to. She can’t even keep her eye on Kaftan without falling for the old drugged coffee routine.
OK, so Victoria’s not meant to be a savvy companion, but all of her many blunders suggest that she was lobotomised at birth with a mallet and a hacksaw. Add to that her non-stop screaming and crying, and it’s a real hardship to get through Tomb without chucking shoes at the TV screen. Sadly, this isn’t Watling’s finest hour either. Admittedly the aforementioned talk with The Doctor is well acted, but there are other scenes that just smack of ropey am-dram - especially the scene in which she falls asleep and worse still, the scene in which she’s freed from the sarcopahgus by The Doctor. “Uhhh. Huhhh. Huhhh. I. Didn’t. Like. That. Very. Much. Doctor. Ohhh. Huhhh. Huhhhh.”
"OK, so Victoria’s not meant to be a savvy companion, but all of her many blunders suggest that she was lobotomised at birth with a mallet and a hacksaw"
Still, the poor character of Victoria’s up against some competition for the most ropey aspect of Tomb. Most of the expedition are faceless clichés - The Moaning Minnie. Misguided Out Of His Depth Leader. Yee-Haw Angry Man. On the subject of which, there’s too many bad American accents floating around here, like a bad cowboy parody on Play Away. But without a shadow of a doubt, the two worst characters are the so-called villains, Kaftan and Klieg.
Hmmm, panto villainy is more their scene. Both are more toe-curlingly naff than squeaky musical flavour-of-the-month, Glee. Kaftan, in particular, floats around like Widow Twankey auditioning for the musical Hair. She rolls her eyes, over-emphasises every single word she says (“Everrrrytheeeeng yeeelds too logeec. Ourrrr baseeec assssssumption Ddddddoctahhhh!!”) and makes a meal of every situation that she’s placed in. Despite this, Kaftan can’t hold a candle to Klieg in the Crap Villain stakes.
Klieg must be one of the most laughable villains in Doctor Who. With his gleaming bonce and ferocious glare, he looks like a cross between Gregg Wallace from Masterchef and a psychotic Humpty Dumpty. He stomps around shouting at the top of his voice proclaiming his own genius and self-brilliance. And yet he just comes off as a hilarious laughing stock. Consider the facts.
- He’s basically a great big nerd with delusions of grandeur. He’s forever prattling about the merits of logic like a one-man Spock fan club. He even belongs to a group called The Brotherhood Of Logicians - the group that brought you timeless classics such as “United We Sad” and “Save All Your Hisses For Me”.
- He talks way too much. Even Jamie comments on this in the last episode when he’s boring for Telos about how puny The Doctor and his friends are for about the thousandth time. Most of the time, Klieg stands around making lengthy pompous speeches about how great he is - a bit like a crazed TV evangelist who’s found that all his followers have deserted him.
- He takes the concept of delusion to a whole new level. For some bizarre reason, he thinks he can rule the Cybermen. Even though they are about two feet taller than him. Even though they crush his pudgy hand in Episode Two (“AAAA!! LEMEEEGOOO!! AHHHSEDDYOOFLEE! ZEESWASAHHPLANN!”) . Even though they tell him that he will be converted into one of them. In the end, he only gets the point after a Cyberman has beaten his head into lumps of jelly (in the most brutal scene of what’s quite a grim story).
Ironically, the most effective supporting character is Toberman. All this despite him being a rather dodgy racial stereotype. Toberman is the stock silent slave, and rightly, such a character would not be allowed on TV today. However, Roy Stewart is absolutely brilliant, conveying Toberman’s thoughts and actions perfectly through subtle facial expressions. Look at the scene in which he silently smiles after Hopper announces that the ship has been wrecked. Toberman’s last few moments are also excellently acted by Stewart, in particular his last brave speech before he gets electrocuted. Ironically, Toberman is the one character to show any hint of depth - he realises what it really means to be human after he has partly been converted into a Cyberman. He uses his last vestiges of humanity to help defeat his conditioning and ultimately the Cybermen - at the cost of his own life. On paper, the character of Toberman is highly dubious, and yet on screen, Roy Stewart turns this character into a three-dimensional triumph.
The other dated aspect of Tomb is of course, the sexism. Victoria and Kaftan are frequently left to their own devices. “The women will, of course, stay here,” puffs Parry, as the blokes head off to investigate the Cybermen tombs, like a gaggle of beer-swilling lads on a stag do. Again, Doctor Who couldn’t get away with this in 2010 - I guess the way in which to get through these iffy, less PC moments is just to remind yourself that you’re looking at a historical artefact of a different time.
For all these blunders, The Tomb Of The Cybermen is still a highly dramatic, exciting slab of Doctor Who. The script motors along and contains many memorably creepy moments: The atmospheric prologue in the quarries of Telos. The fast zoom-in into the dummy Cyberman at the end of Episode 1. And of course, the awakening of the Cybermen, all to the strains of that evocative stock music. The Cybermen are at their best here - seemingly unstoppable, faceless, emotionless creatures who are still one step ahead of the humans. The only downer is that for some odd reason, the Cybermen go back into their tombs after they have been woken up. Seems they just can’t get enough of a crafty power nap.
"The Cybermen are at their best here - seemingly unstoppable, faceless, emotionless creatures who are still one step ahead of the humans"
Morris Barry also turns in his best direction. It’s not quite perfect. The shot of Toberman on wires is careless, as is the scene in which Toberman casually chucks a dummy Controller across the room with remarkable ease. But overall, this is a step up in quality over the clumsy snooze of The Moonbase. In particular, he’s not afraid to send the little ’uns scuttling behind the sofa in terror. The resurrection of the Cybermen is marvellously shot, with lots of unusual slanting angles and close-ups. There’s also the aforementioned scene of Klieg’s death (The many offscreen chops, George Pastell’s convincingly agonised wails and Troughton’s and Hines’ facial reactions really sell it) and the many close-ups of foamy Cybermen innards. Yes, it looks like washing up liquid, but for the time, this was grim stuff.
And there’s the rub. The Tomb Of The Cybermen is very much of its time. That’s why it doesn’t quite live up to expectations of its classic status. I wonder what will happen if other lost classics are found - what will the reaction be after they get released on shiny DVD? Will they live up to expectations or will the daggers be drawn? Taken on its own, The Tomb Of The Cybermen certainly has its flaws, but it’s still mesmerising TV. You can understand why Matt Smith likes it a lot.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.