Monday, 17 October 2011

Tomb of the Cybermen: A Ramble

Last night, it was brought to my attention, that Mandy had never seen Tomb of the Cybermen. This was a terrible oversight on my part which has now been rectified. Tomb is widely regarded as a classic, and at one time, as a lost story, was the Holy Grail of fandom. Fans had the TARGET novel, some photos and clips, but very little else. So it was widely accepted as the great all time classic of Doctor Who.

Why was it lost? A process called junking/wiping, or as I like to think of it, insanity. Tapes, expensive things in those days, were reusable. A lot of the great TV right up to the 80s disappeared in this way. No one foresaw video coming. Early episodes of Doctor Who and Dad's Army went. Peter Cook's TV work, even when he offered to buy the tapes and replace them. Even most of the British footage of the moon landing, including the sadly lost moment where British historian legend A.J.P. Taylor dismisses the whole event as a hoax! (This during an ITV segment where he and Sammy Davis Jr teamed up to attack manned space flight, during a show whose trivialities so annoyed Ray Bradbury he stormed out of the studios before his interview. Live TV seems boring now in comparison.)

All lost. So it goes.

108 episodes of Doctor Who are missing. This includes some episodes people never remember - like The Savages, and the rest of The Space Pirates - and some all time classics. eg Fury from the Deep, possibly one of the best pieces of horror the BBC ever made, is entirely lost bar the audio sound track and about 30 seconds of footage.

Tomb of the Cybermen was also like this, lost in the 70s, and never ever coming back...

Until 1991, when it was found. In Hong Kong.

Fans were ecstatic. Then they watched it. Then they became very disappointed. You see, fan consensus had the show as perfect. It was only brilliant. So they were let down, you see.

I was barely five when all this went down, so Tomb has never been lost for me as a fan.

Fury however is, so if anyone finds a copy in their local church...

Tomb starts with a gang of intrepid archaeologists locating the long lost tomb of the Cybermen, who had disappeared centuries previously from the universe. Usually, I'd have seen that as a good thing, but curiosity killed the cat, and swiftly killed an extra, who attempts to open the large tomb doors and is electrocuted.

Not to worry, The Doctor's team swiftly show up, in time to be blamed for red shirts death, but The Doctor effortlessly wins over the team who take him to be a fellow archaeologist. Instead of this adding to the suspicious - possible sabotage killing our extra? - Professor Parry the expedition leader accepts this response. But then Parry does not come across as the type of man who really should be leading this kind of expedition.

With the aid of Toberman, a strong manservant, they open the doors, and then with the help of the Doctor - in pure manipulative form - they descend down the hatch to the frozen tombs beneath. There is a great look Pat Troughton gives when The Doctor hears the team are looking for Cybermen. It is a mixture of fear and intense loathing. You could say the Doctor would not let these fools meddle without his help. However, without the Doctor, the team could not have even got into the Tombs in the first place. Had they used Toberman to get INTO the Tombs, they wouldn't have noticed the other doors in the main room without The Doctor. Had they done that, they couldn't open the doors without him. They certainly couldn't get down to the actual tombs, since the doors were locked by a mathematical code, and the team's maths genius, Klieg, was stumped. Every single death in the story, bar our opening segment red shirt (who is getting more mentions in this ramble than he ever has in his career) is because the Doctor helped it happen. What a bastard!

And why? So he can shut the Tombs, which were already shut. I guess you could say his curiosity got the better of him, and he wound up regretting it.

Our regulars are in fine form. Troughton has settled well into the role of the Doctor, every mannerism, tone of voice and timing is precisely chosen. He proves why he is many fans favourite Doctor, and was certainly one of the most accomplished actors to play the role. I love how his Doctor shows fear when faced with the Daleks, or here, the Cybermen. Like when he demands to know the Cybercontroller's plans, then immediately cowers away with "you don't have to answer that if you don't want to" when the Cybermen loom over him. Or his yelp in horror when a Cybermen grabs his ankle and begins to pull his down the hatch ladder during the big escape from the Tombs. The Cybermen come across as terrifying creatures, because they seem to terrify the Doctor himself. I like that.

Frazer Hines is in fine form as Jamie, but, cards on the table, he is my favourite Doctor Who companion. I love the bit in Episode 2, when the Doctor conducts an experiment to find out what had killed the doomed Haydon - another death brought by reckless curiosity in this one - and when he says "Anyone scared can leave now", Jamie attempts to be the first to leave! The Jamie/Doctor double act is one of the funniest in Who, the two actors bringing the best out in each other. In possibly the first example of 'shipping' in modern TV, Hines and Troughton would slip in little coupley moments between the two: they were notorious jokers in real life. Here, we see the Doctor and Jamie hold hands as they enter the Tomb, only to both turn at the same moment, realise it's NOT Victoria they extended the hand to, and swiftly breaking off. It's a brilliant moment of comic timing.

This is Debbie Watling's first proper story as companion. Victoria had debuted in the previous story, Evil of the Daleks, when she was kidnapped, saw some of her friends die, and then her dad died after being outed as a traitor to the human race and sacrificing his life in traditional heroic revival of his character, leaving her an orphan. So the Doctor and Jamie take Victoria along. Unfortunately, what is fun for our favourite Time Lord and the chance taking Scot is horrific life and death for her. In Season 5, Victoria is shout at, faces all kinds of unpleasant monsters - some of them human - and anyone she has any sort of affection for is horribly killed off. But her friends - and lest we forget, her only guardians - fail to see this until it is way too late. And poor old Jamie falls for her and winds up heartbroken.

It's great, poignant TV, and proof Doctor Who did story arcs from the start. Here she moans about her lot in life, saves the day on several ocassions - including one faked scream which allows the American captain to disarm our female villain - and shows moments of kindness, like her concern for The Doctor's health when he tells her his age. 450 here, for those keeping score.

Professor Parry, ably played by Aubrey Richards, is, as I said before, really not the man for his job. He is utterly horrified by everything he encounters, was completely hoodwinked by Klieg and Kaftan's plan, and no one really knows why he wanted to go find the Cybermen in the first place. At the end he makes one parting remark to the Doctor, "Sorry it had to end so..." but trails off and walks off the screen. Having seen nearly all of his team killed off, some horrifically, some heriocally, and been betrayed by another, the man looks spent. Some Who characters and actors seem detatched from what happens in the episode. "Phew, what a scorcher that was! Shame about Bill" etc. Not Parry. We were left in no doubt watching that the poor man was seconds away from a complete mental breakdown, the scars of war written all over his face. It's an unconsidered acting performance by fandom, but it is powerful stuff.

Speaking of mental breakdowns: Cybermats! The quip the Doctor makes when he defeats the Cybermats is one of the all time great bad puns in Doctor Who. "I scrambled their little brains." The Doctor said. "In fact, you could say they had a complete metal breakdown." Jamie groans, and The Doctor apologises for the pun! I love it. You can just tell whoever came up with that one was very proud of themselves. This is the Cybermats debut, you may recall them from Closing Time. I like the idea of Cybermen having pets, myself. You couldn't see the Daleks having a pet. Unless you count the Ogrons. Which I don't. They were more slaves.

"Why can't I have a pet?" said Little Dalek Jimmy. "I feel so lonely."

(If you think this is time for my favourite Ogron moments, you'll be mistaken. Too many to mention. I love hapless henchmen. Bring them back!)

Ogrons insulted by lack of Ogrons in this review

I also should point out here that our pal Phil is wrong. Cybermats with teeth are not a new thing. In Episode 3, a Cybermat on one of the sleeping crew opens its mouth to reveal a row of large sharp teeth. They were there from the start! The memory cheats!

Our villains are the trio of Kleig, Kaftan and Kaftan's servant, Toberman. For reasons best summed up as insanity, Kleig, as head of a group of Logicians, wants to combine with the Cybermen, presumably to subjugate the Earth. Kaftan, our female baddie, seems to be able to control Klieg when his temper and fear overrule his logic, and Mandy was certain she was the boss. The two are the only people in the story killed off by the Cybermen incidentally. Kaftan is murdered by the Cybercontroller, in a pivotal moment which forces Toberman's hand.

Klieg is killed off in a genuinely horrific moment: no sooner had he laughed his final words ("I'm sure the Cybermen will have a use for you, or parts of you") a Cyberman grabs him by the throat and half throttling him drags him to the floor, where all we see is a few Cyberfists and The Doctor and Jamie's horrified expressions. That this is followed by Toberman killing a Cyberman very graphically only adds to the unseen horror of Kliegs death. We were allowed to see the Cybermens disembowelment on screen in all its glory, but Kliegs death was far too gruesome to see. Mandy decided the Cyberman had ripped out his intestines and body parts for future use.

What you don't see is often more powerful than what you do.

Which brings us to Toberman. Racist or not? Toberman is played by Roy Stewart, a towering black Jamaican immigrant actor, who played many roles on TV over his long life, some less savoury than others. Here he plays a strong, mostly silent heavy, which leaves the story open to accusations of racism from some fans. (A hearing aid, which was to explain Tobermans limited speech, was eliminated in pre-production.) However, when I showed this story last night to Mandy, a well thought of anti-racism activist, her first thoughts on Toberman showing up was how surprising it was to see a black actor in 60s Who. (There aren't many of them.) Toberman is a major player in the story. As Gavin Mills put it, he is "the legend" who saves the day. He is also a mostly silent subservient servant to the bad guy. Is the show racist for casting a black actor in this part, or is it to be acclaimed for casting a black actor in a nuanced role which requires some good acting and who gets to be the big hero at the end?

Mandy says that we "cannot use the norms of the current to judge things of the past." Whilst elements may look unfortunate now, the attempts by the production to make the episode multicultural were commendable. We have Cypriots, Asians, Americans (with bad accents), a black man, and most controversial of all...a Welsh leader. "It feels more like an international mission than a day trip from RADA!" Mandy commented. She's not been a "We" as we say long, so her views on Classic episodes are entirely her own and often quite disconnected from fan ideas. My on-hand sociologist, writer Jon Arnold ("Fandom has a skewered perspective. Toberman's seen as a stereotype, big, dumb and strong. It's probably a consequence of imposing modern morals on a different time. Toberman ultimately saves the day."), and TV critic Cameron Yarde Jnr ("Never saw Toberman as racist") all say otherwise.

And, though he may be embarassed about this now, Gavin Mills made a lovely defence of the character: "When I was a kid I thought Toberman was 'so fucking cool". Shame fandom has to soil my memories. Also I probably used cleaner language back then. He was a legend."

This is the kind of reaction the man brought up. Not "Oh ho, look at the big black man being a servant! Just like the good old days!"

So racist or not? We're going to side with not.

The role is wonderful one too. Toberman starts off a barely emotional human, and winds up partially converted to Cyberman and massively emotional. Essentially, he is a human Cyberman to begin, and a Cyber human to finish. He has some wonderfully subtle moments. After 'some mysterious foe' sabotages the groups rocket, as The Doctor is told this by Parry, in the background of the shot, and easily missable, Roy Stewart grins at the news. The struggle for his humanity is wonderfully timed, as is his shows of complete anger at the Cybermen once they kill off Kaftan. It takes three Cybermen to hold him up for the Cybercontroller's Knock Out Ray, and it takes two bursts of that to take him down. He kills two Cybermen with his bare hands. Finally he shuts the Tomb doors by himself, dying in the process - they are electrified to prevent anyone ever reentering the tombs - but saving the rest of the expedition and humanity in the process.

Who else do we have? Cyril Shaps dies again. Those bastards. Poor Cyril shows up in many Doctor Whos, dying almost every time. He was a common face on TV and film for 50 years until his death in 2003, often as easily scared and timid characters.

And the Cybermen, so wonderful. One Cyberman punches his way through solid metal. Their cackling as they swarm on their victims is truly disturbing, a great piece of work by Peter Hawkins.

The direction is well paced and movie like on location, and effective on the sets. The scenes set outside convince of a lengthy journey over different terrain, despite it using presumably about 100 foot of the same quarry. The looming Tomb set - at least 50 foot tall - is a genius piece of set design. There are minor niggles (wires too obviously seen, use of dummy Cybermen at times) but it feels like nitpicking.

Tomb was a tour de force in 1967. Despite any grumpies, it remained so in 1991 when it was found, 2003 when I first saw it and last night when I showed Mandy it. She loved it. It may not be perfect TV, but it's bloody good Doctor Who, which holds up as funny, engaging, thought provoking and with the occasional scare well over forty years after it was made. What more do you need?

Using the old scoring system, this easily gets a Steve W. One of the great Doctor Who stories.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Scottish Welfare Reform Bill Debate

So today, the Scottish parliament stood on what had been called potentially their finest hour. If in doubt, start posts with hyperbole. Nevertheless, it was an important moment, as Holyrood got ready to debate the infamous Welfare Reform Bill, proposals which have divided people, even from the same party.

Before the debate, there was a statement on the fuel poverty allowance, followed by queries from several MSPs including Patrick Harvie. The most interesting news to stem from that was the idea that the heating bill scheme was to be extended to that long misused service to society, carers. The feeling seemed to be, on the whole, we aim to keep our promises in this area, even if 'them down South' try to slash our budget.

Deputy SNP leader, and regular sight in Govan, Nicola Sturgeon opened the Welfare debate with as clear a statement on government policy as we shall hear for some time. "We want a welfare system which is fair to all." She followed up with an attack on a system which allowed genuine claimants to be found "capable of work". It was her conclusion that "We must recognise some people are unable to work and must be able to life comfortably on benefits." The Big Society was on the other channel, but Call Me Dave politics this was not.

Jackie Baillie opened the debate for the Labour party, who were mostly to agree with the SNP policies with a few tweaks. "Attacks on the welfare state is nothing less than an excuse to cut." She said, before turning to former Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie. In a pre-emptive strike, she warned him not to bring up the "13 years of Labour misrule" agenda once more, before throwing a dig in at the nearly entire missing Liberal Democrats: "Beveridge would be ashamed to see the Liberals cosy up to this".

Alongside Patrick Harvie's earlier assertions that he planned to argue against the WRB, so far the score suggested it was SNP/Labour/Green for, Tory against, and Lib Dems unaccounted for.

We now handed the debate over to Mary Scanlon of the Scottish Tories, one of that famous breed of formidable Sexagenarian/Septuagenarian Conservative women which populate parts of Scottish politics. At this point we got a lot of Labour mentions. Labour's legacy. Thirteen years. Unelected Prime Minister (though, the evidence that polling for Labour in 2005 rose after the "Vote Blair Get Brown" campaign suggests the general public didn't really disagree with that idea at the time). You know the jist. A lack of "the mess we inherited" in all but name. "39% claimants gave up claims as they didn't need it anymore." Other such familiar claims were made.

Liam McArthur of the Lib Dems, and the only Liberal Democrat available, had the floor now. "I do not accept the Welfare Reform Bill means the dismantling of the welfare state and benefits system" he started. Then he went into the usual Liberal defence of the Conservative policies. Nothing new to report there.

Bob Doris took the floor.

"We must speak out against the Bill, which is unfit for purpose, even if we can't prevent it."

"A savage attack on the most vulnerable groups in our society. [WRB] is cutting cash at any price. It is not a price worth paying."

A female MSP rose to speak next. The tag team of the washing machine and the sound problems on meant I never caught who it was, so anyone who knows, please let me know.

"Wellfare state is a sign of compassion" she said, expressing that "Social ails" stemmed from the events of the 1980s. "We need safeguards for those who play by the rules and need nothing more than help from the state at their time of need."

Mark McDonald, SNP, was next to refute the claims that the SNP were sensibility and nae sense, as he noted that he had met "many voluntary groups and charities" who "have made sensible ideas for reform that wouldn't hurt the vulnerable."

"60% of genuine claimants rejected, being overturned on appeal suggests something wrong with the system."

"If it is your mistake, you'll be punished. If it is the UK governments mistake, you'll be punished."

He followed this remark up with a reference that 'Sir Humphrey Appleby' would be proud of this system, endearing himself to Nigel Hawthorne's legion of fans and politicos alike. His parting dig - "Now is the time and the hour for the Liberals to show their 'civilising' impact on the Tories" - was given with expert timing. McDonald is a new SNP MSP, elected in May during the landslide, who famously showed up at his count in jeans and T-shirt, so utterly unconvinced he was of his own victory. Here he made an impassioned speech.

Margaret Burgess, SNP, was swiftly to steal the show, however.

Key points?

- The [WRB] "will have long term detrimental effect to Scotland."
- "I worked as an advisor. People want to work, not wanting to work is untrue, they are not getting the help they deserve."
- "20% less will get help even if they need it. That is wrong."
- The circle of ESA/JSA/ESA/bad decisions "badly effects mental health of the most vulnerable."

She spoke with the full authority of years of experience, and with the full passion of someone who had first hand seen the hopelessness and victimization of the vulnerable in the name of society.

For fear this is turning into the SNP propaganda society, up next was Siobhan McMahon, a young Labour MSP of whom I was unaware of. It is hard to argue that her opening gambit was not one of the most strongest in the debate. "I have (a form of) cerebal palsy. It is surprising how easy it is to forget how you can't do normal things." She added: "I am better off than many others though, and it is for them I am passionately opposed to the [WRB]." McMahon showed an effective and well honed use of the orators mantel, noting of those who screamed about 'unnecessary benefits' that "Benefits cheats in this suspicious society invade their dreams like so many sprites and goblins." A brilliant use of rhetoric. The SNP may have held the floor and had the most condemnations of the ConDemNation (sorry, couldn't resist), but this was the most flowery and brilliant Footian quote of the day. Siobhan McMahon went on to warn that Scotland will "suffer disproportional by this reform, due to our high level of disabled people", and that, as an example against those who say looking harder for work is the solution to all our welfare woes, "Only 12% of people with aspergers in this country are in employment."

Annabelle Ewing, SNP and Winnie's daughter, was up next. She had "Concerns about devolved areas - housing benefits, carers etc - to be adversely effected by this [WRB]." She said there was "New assessment tests" but "little optimism the flaws of the Work Capability tests will be learned." She reiterated that she was "infuriated that disabled and sick are 'made to feel like second class citizens'".

Kezia Dugdale (Labour) took charge next. Her key points:

- "If the Tory government is about the bigger picture, why does the [WRB] gain from broken marriages?"
- "One of the most abhorrent aspects of bill is changes to child maintenance proposals ie Lone parents needing to pay their own."
- "Child care costs, contrary to popular belief, does not pay to work."

Christine McKelvie (SNP) was up to reiterate the SNP policy that "UK benefits system is needlessly complex", and "doesn't ensure people better off in work". We need to " treat systems not causes." She was damning of the Tories: "Instead of lifting poverty, the Tories plan to plunge more poor families into it."

Our sole Lib Dem summed up. Liam McArthur (Lib): "No one can identify what welfare reform would look like in independent Scotland. Still need to reduce budget."

David McLetchie finished for the Conservatives, stating that "Responsibility should be at the heart of our benefits system. Tinkering the edges of broken system wont work.". He was also, sadly, the only man to bring immigration as a sniping point. I may be rather cruel as I suggested that his whole debate could be summed up as "I agree with the SNP, but...". Given he was odds to stress both his support of certain sections of the policy but also his full support of the Tory reform, it wasn't unfair though. Players of David McLetchie Bingo - "Labour inheritance", "SNP record", "problems of independence" - would have had a happy day at the office though.

Drew Smith, the rather nervous Labour MSP, summed up for his side: "We see merit in simplifying system for those who can't..." He then talked up Universal Credit. He seemed genuinely terrified of Mary Scanlon, staring a hole through him constantly and trying to interject.

Alex Neil, the Secretary for Capital Investment, summed up for the SNP. He blamed everyone - the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties - for slashing capital spending. He pointed out the sole Lib Dem in the Chamber, and stressed that "No one is opposed to welfare reform. Purpose in reform isn't to do down vulnerable society, it is to make a fairer society." He also got in a less than subtle dig at the Labour party: "When Labour are in government, they introduce Tory policies. When they are opposition, they oppose the policies they introduced".

All the amendments went to division (ie, no clear decision) in the Chamber, so were voted on. The amendments of Mary Scanlon and Liam McArthur for the Tory and Lib Dems were rejected, and the combined SNP/Labour/Green alliance saw through Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Baillie's amendments, to be proposed for the Welfare Reform Bill. That being, that matters which effect Scottish people should be ratified by the Scottish parliament before coming into effect.

It was nice to see Labour and the SNP unite on a principle. This didn't stop them digging at each other in much a Tom and Jerry style, but like Tom and Jerry, they united when someone else threatened them. In this, it was the WRB.

So was it Holyrood's finest moment? Rome wasn't built in a day and it will be hard to tell for some time if it was the making of anything but futile gestures.

It was, however, a delight to see some genuine factual, passioned but mostly good spirited debate on a matter which effects so many people, not just in Scotland, but in the UK today.