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.


  1. I agree with Mandy. If Tomb was made today with the Toberman character as is, it would be racist, but at the time having him as quite a positive character in the end, can be seen as a reasonably positive step. After all, it was at least another two decades before black and Asian people regularly appeared in British programs playing characters who were British rather than Afro-Caribbean or Asian.

    I'm slightly disappointed you didn't mention our text exchange from a while back where I joked about the captain and XO of the ship being from the same planet as Captain Jack due to the OTT American accent. Although, that type of accent can also be heard in Gerry Anderson's shows of the time. I wonder if there was a generation of British children who grew up thinking that was how Americans talked?

  2. My third favourite Troughton... (Behind Power of the Daleks and the Moonbase)

    Hell, its no surprise, but i'd give it a me too

  3. I think the racism charge about Toberman does stick and it's not just imposing current standards on the past - racism wasn't 'acceptable' back then either. Regardless of Toberman's actions, the character is drawn with several stereotypical tropes. If the actor were white, the stereotype would be less damning, but it's the producers allowing the combination of factors that proves the charge. I don't believe everyone in the production team was ignorant of how it looked, although interviews on the latest DVD release avoid the issue altogether.

    That's not to say that black actors shouldn't portray villainy, but it's not that aspect of Toberman which is problematic. His inability to express himself means he lacks any independent back story such as the other characters possess. Instead his character is drawn with several crude brushstrokes that leave him as a stereotype.

    It's plausible that sneaky characters like Kleig and Kaftan would want a heavy to look after them, but why doesn't he talk? Henchmen at least should get a kiss-off quip or two. This leads to the weird moment where he responds to his bosses' command to deal with trouble by grinning and miming crushing enemies in his fists.

    That's for starters. Then consider that Toberman isn't just 'strong and silent' he actually seems to be portrayed as mentally disabled in some way. Strong, silent and slow. My jaw dropped at the moment when the Doctor has to explain to Toberman that the-Cybermen-are-evil, like a parent explaining to a toddler that bashing his sister over the head with a tin mug isn't very nice. At this point the script seems to be drawing Toberman as a powerful, simple, mute savage.

    Finally, Toberman's eventual heroic death is character progress of a kind, but it still fulfils a racist trope in drama, of the lone black character who bites it in the final reel, making him 'invisible' compared to the other characters. His elevation to heroic status isn't allowed to stand as it would with a white character. He has to pay for it. The root of this trope is a patronising concern for a black man as 'victim'. It has its prejudiced cake and eats it too.