Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Tomb of the Cybermen

Previous viewings - many

Classic Who fandom can be divided into two subgroups: those who remember the days when The Tomb of the Cybermen was missing and the younger crowd for whom it's just another Troughton story with the Cybermen in it. I'm of the latter, and in fact reading the back of the DVD case of this story was when I first learned about missing episodes. There's something comforting about experiencing this marathon by popping on a DVD rather than by other, less accessible means.

The lovely Victoria Waterfield has joined the TARDIS crew and the first scene is her introduction to the TARDIS. The Doctor trots out his usual explanations of space/time travel, telling us his age for the first time too, which is interesting in itself because until now there has been nothing to indicate the Doctor's lifespan is any longer than a human's. It's a great scene, cleverly avoiding being a repeat of similar scenes from the Hartnell era (it's always impressed me how the writers have managed to make each companion's reactions to the TARDIS unique over the years). It distinguishes itself mainly by its short length and emphasis on humour rather than Victoria's disbelief of the abilities of the TARDIS. I like that Victoria quickly believes the Doctor and Jamie - it rings true given her experiences in The Evil of the Daleks and we've seen all that before anyway. I also like that the Doctor is patient with her and answers her questions, as he's clearly excited to get someone new on board, a marked difference from how Hartnell's Doctor usually reacted to someone new.

We're on location on the planet Telos with an archaeological team as the story starts properly. At this point on first viewing, I felt like I was watching a film from the 40s or 50s - it's the retro atmospheric music, the non-vidFIRED film print and lack of unconvincing BBC sets. Unlike most base-under-siege stories, it's not aliens visiting humans but humans visiting aliens, so we have a limited group of human characters coming from one ship, a finite number that thins as they're bumped off through the story. I like this format a lot; everybody is a character rather than an extra (though technically there are a few unimportant rocket crew, they leave early on) so it gives everybody an added importance, and the story a sense of progression as we start losing people.

The characters themselves are a varied bunch; there's Parry, the leader of the expedition, a scientist at heart but also a capable leader who cares about his people, the terrified Viner, as well as Klieg and Kaftan, who are signposted as the villains right at the start by their nonchalant reactions to a man's death and opposition to the TARDISeers joining their exploration of the buried Cyberman city. These are all good, believeable characters and well played (yes, I include Kaftan, I thought she was quite sinister). Less successful characters include Kaftan's "servant" Toberman, regarding whom all I can say is what were they thinking? We've gone through four seasons of the show without any such dated attitudes towards those of different races. Toberman barely speaks and in the early part of the story only seems to be there to lift things. The rocket captain, Hopper, is awful mainly because of his terrible American accent. Strangely, all of the actors playing the Americans seem to be doing the same terrible accent, making their scenes unintentionally hilarious.

The Doctor enters the scene and helps the team open the doors to the Cyberman city, which have been electrified. As they enters, they split up to explore the city, which is a bit like alien cities from Star Trek in that it seems to consist of about three rooms. This copes better than its counterparts in Star Trek, by only having key scenes in the extra rooms and everything else in the control room, where it makes sense for the team to spend the most time as they can make a quick getaway if things go wrong. The first cliffhanger is decent given that it doesn't advance the story and it's obvious that the firing range subplot was only written in because there had to be a cliffhanger to Episode 1 and the Cybermen weren't being introduced until the cliffhanger to Episode 2. After nothing in Cybermen stories so far but squadrons of attacking Cybermen, it's good to see their habitat, even if it's not really that different from the Dalek city on Skaro.

With the death of Haydon, the team decides to abandon its exploration, however the rocket has been sabotaged, with Captain Hopper offering the pretty lame reason that he doesn't want them in his way during repairs to give everybody a reason to stay in the city overnight. Klieg passes the time by working out the logic problems left by the Cybermen, which operates most of their equipment, and curiously the Doctor gives him a helping hand, giving him the solution of how to open the hatch in the control room, which leads to a lower level. If you're an eagle-eyed viewer then you might think the Doctor's behaviour in this story is pretty strange - the team has only made progress because of him breaking down the obstacles, and opening the hatch leads them directly to the Cybermen tombs. Why go down there? Why not let them be? Obviously the Cybermen staying emtombed is the Doctor's main objective, but as he isn't planning on staying around forever he needs to make sure it's impossible for anyone to get to the Cybermen in his absence. For him, this requires working his way through all the traps the Cybermen have set and making them even more efficient.

Once we're down in the tombs, Klieg turns on everybody and wakes up the Cybermen. It was an interesting creative choice to have two human villains to stand alongside the Cybermen, especially given that it's blatantly obvious the Cybermen aren't going to agree to any deal Klieg has in mind. That Klieg and Kaftan hope to bargain with them is foolish to begin with, but that they persist with it until the bitter end is rubbish. If Klieg comes to realise he's wrong but has gone mad so can't allow himself to accept the obvious it's never made clear. He just seems like an idiot, which is at odds with his apparent intelligence. Strangely however, for all the holes I can poke in his and Kaftan's plan, they still seem dangerous, because the gaps in logic required to make everything work is limited to them rather than the plot itself. By simply assuming they're bonkers, I can brush over any story problems concerning them and they do manage to be menacing well enough.

The Cybermen wake up, and we get our first glimpse of the Cyber Controller. He's quite a big guy. The Cybermen look as they did in The Moonbase, but the voices have been altered slightly to sound more electronic. These are my favourite Cybermen voices, along with the ones in The Tenth Planet they're the creepiest but not as silly. I think if the Cybermen voices aren't electronic they risk end up looking like simply men in suits.

As with pretty much every four-part Cybermen story, Episode 3 is the where the metal meanies come out in force. The most impressive sequences are the Cybermen leaving their tombs and the introduction of the Controller. Again, the music is what makes it with heavy use of the Cybermen theme from The Moonbase. Why I like the introduction of the Controller is because it's creepy the way he simply stands silently while Klieg speaks. We have no idea what the Cybermen are thinking, because they have no facial expressions, and that's unsettling. They lash out very suddenly and try to grab everyone, intending to convert them into a new race of Cybermen, as they possess superior intelligence having solved their puzzles. These scenes at the start of Episode 3 are as good as the story - and indeed the Cybermen themselves - ever got, because it's the one and only time I'm on the verge of finding them scary.

I'm not one that finds the rest of the story a disappointment. Okay, so the Cybermen simply hang around until they need to go back to the tombs and recharge, but if they're that vulnerable then it makes sense for them to remain where they can have easy access to the tombs. The Tomb of the Cybermen is one of those stories that is more about atmosphere and thrill than plot and motivation. Besides, the rest of the story remains action-packed, with Klieg becoming more desperate and the Controller escaping from the hatch. The conclusion sees Klieg get his comeuppance at the hands of the Cybermen and a hurried exit from the city by the surviving members of the team, the Cybermen safely frozen in their tombs again.

There are a few things I've not mentioned. The main one is Cybermats. Okay, they're dismal, even less convincing than Robomen, but the Robomen were one bad element among many in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, while the Cybermats stand out as the weak link in The Tomb of the Cybermen and aren't on screen much, and the Cybermats are laughably bad while the Robomen were simply bad.

In her first story as a companion, Victoria shines. Her background isn't so important as her character - I would simply describe her as shy and she could be from the present day just as easily as 1866 - and she's a screamer but kicks ass enough to redeem herself. Plus there's that lovely scene with the Doctor where they discuss missing their families. Jamie doesn't have much to do and that's a loss as in the two most recent stories we've seen a lot of the Doctor/Jamie double act and if it's proved anything it's that Troughton's Doctor doesn't need a female companion if Jamie's around. I'm liking Victoria for now, though.

A worthy find is The Tomb of the Cybermen, and it could well be the best Cybermen story of all time. The main reason I love it is that is really does feel like I'm watching a Doctor Who movie, sure it's dated, even by 1967 standards, but Morris Barry's direction is top notch, and good direction can do a lot for a story. The performances are universally good, the characters likeable, in fact it only falls down technically (and only in a few places) and the way the Cybermen don't put up much of a fight, merely deciding it's not worth bothering about. Sometimes a story is so good in some areas that the few flaws simply don't matter.

Comedy quotient - Troughton is on form, as ever.
Horror quotient - The direction and music contribute to the scariness of this story. The fact that it wasn't vidFIREd for DVD could make a difference too.
Drama quotient - The main difference between this and The Power of the Daleks is drama and tension. This has less of both than Power, but it's more representative of Troughton's era. It's base-under-siege comfort viewing - not the scariest, not the not dramatic, but it's atmospheric as hell and the plot unfolds at just the right pace.

Whenever I want a base-under-siege story, this is the one I reach for from the DVD shelf. This would be the case even if every episode existed. A classic in every sense of the word.


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