Doctor Who (Classic): "Tomb of the Cybermen"
-

Doctor Who (Classic): "Tomb of the Cybermen"

"Tomb of the Cybermen" (series 5, episodes 1-4; originally aired 9/2/1967-9/23/1967)

We're jumping forward in time for the second installment of this look back at the early days of Doctor Who, and much like a certain drifting Time Lord, I'm not able to land exactly where I'd really like to. My plan for the first eight of these writeups is to visit the debut episode of each actor to play the Doctor, but history has conspired against me. Many of the episodes from the black-and-white of the show are gone, erased by the BBC so they could re-use the videotape—this was considered disposable entertainment, and nothing that would be of any lasting interest or marketability. Copies of some of those shows were rediscovered later, including the one we're about to dive into, but a large portion of the shows starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton as the Doctor exist today only as still pictures, scripts, and audio. Troughton's entire first season is affected by this, so I've opted to spring ahead to the start of his second season (the show's fifth overall), for his earliest complete serial, "Tomb of the Cybermen."

For a long time, "Tomb" enjoyed a reputation as one of the triumphs of this era of Doctor Who, but this was while the show was still missing, and fans were basing their opinions mainly on memory. Its flaws are awfully apparent today, with huge gaps in story logic and some really unfortunate racial stereotyping, but it has plenty of good moments as well. 

Chief among the good bits is the solid performance by Troughton, whose new take on the Doctor was by this point firmly established. And it's still the dominant one, particularly now that Matt Smith has based a lot of his Eleventh Doctor specifically on Troughton's Second. That's partly due to Troughton's undeniable talent—he's always watchable and often fascinatingly subtle, even when the stories themselves don't hold up.

But it's also an artifact of why there needed to be a Second Doctor in the first place. The notion that the Doctor could regenerate had been imposed on the show by the declining health of William Hartnell, whose advancing age had forced his retirement after three years in the lead role. By that point he was also the only original cast member, and his character had become the linchpin holding together the whole premise. But that was something the Doctor became, not something intended from the outset; remember, Hartnell's irascible, lost old man was basically the villain of the first episode, and even though he evolved over time into a more grandfatherly figure, he was always an odd fit in the hero role. So his leaving threatened to kill the show, but also presented a golden opportunity to radically redefine his character, and adjust it to fit the more mainstream action-oriented series that Doctor Who had become.

Ten years younger and considerably less frail than Hartnell, Troughton brings a new physicality to the Doctor, and the fact that he can run down corridors now without breaking a hip helps speed the show up considerably. (Sometimes that just meant running in circles a bit faster, of course.)  His Doctor is also sly and cunning  in a new way, tricking and manipulating his foes into underestimating him. He also is no longer a reluctant traveler—Hartnell's Doctor was an exile, but Troughton's was a vagabond whose home was the road. Probably the biggest change is Troughton's willingness to play the fool, adding a comedic touch that helped keep things lively without either making the Doctor seem incompetent or ruining the suspension of disbelief the audience needed to take some of the more outlandish or less well-executed sci-fi concepts seriously.

The Doctor's eccentricities still make him an unconventional hero—just imagine what a headache he'd be to James T. Kirk, who debuted in Star Trek the same year Troughton took over the TARDIS. But all the basic qualities that make him the perfect center for this show are now here: The curiosity, the willingness to jump headlong into trouble, the quirks that keep him interesting and also keep his enemies (and friends) off-balance. 

Troughton had a great comic partner in Frazer Hines, who played his long-serving assistant Jamie throughout all but one Troughton-era show. A Scottish highlander from 1746, Jamie served as Robin to the Doctor's Batman—a swashbuckling and brave sidekick intelligent enough to act on his own, but also able to fill the key role of Guy Who Has Things Explained To Him For The Audience's Benefit.

Besides a new lead actor, the other major shift in Doctor Who in the late 1960s had to do with the kinds of stories it told. The Hartnell era had alternated between stories where the Doctor visited real eras in human history, like "Marco Polo" and "The Aztecs," and more straight-up sci-fi tales where he fought alien menaces—chiefly the Daleks, who had generated a minor craze in Britain which Doctor Who's producers were only too happy to cash in on. Troughton's era focused almost ruthlessly on the monster stories, and more specifically relied on the familiar "base-in-peril" structure: The Doctor and his companions travel to an isolated station (a moonbase, an oil refinery, etc.) and help its small crew overcome invasion by a hostile alien force. It's still in common use today—see "Midnight" or "The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People"—but the Troughton era relied on it to the point of formula. 

"Tomb of the Cybermen" is a variation on that formula—the base actually belongs to the aliens, and the humans are the invaders—but in the end, it's mired in the standard conventions of the base-in-peril story: Monster emerges, monster is defeated. I'm not sure that it's really about anything other than a warning not to wake up evil cyborgs from cryogenic storage, or to be an arrogant über-nerd. (Which, admittedly, are valuable life lessons.)

I really don't want to get too down on "Tomb," in large part because I think Patrick Troughton's Doctor is basically the definitive version, and so much of what makes his character work well is on display here. But it's pretty hard to defend it. The more I think about this one, the more its flaws overwhelm it.
One reason the story has aged badly is because it's riffing on an even older and hoarier one that comes with its own set of baggage, namely The Mummy and other Egyptology-themed horror movies of the 1930s. That might seem like an odd fit with the robotic Cybermen, but it actually plays nicely off of the creepy element at the core of what make the Cybermen tick as villains: They're not really robots, they're undead—the remains of once-living people who replaced and augmented their bodies with technology past the point where they are recognizably human. They're techno-zombies, or perhaps techno-vampires, who plan to convert humanity into emotionless, cold-metal shells like themselves and think that they're offering us a great gift in doing so. (Star Trek's Borg are based on the same idea, if not a direct steal of it.)

One problem that "Tomb" has for newcomers is that it expects you to know all that already—the Cybermen had appeared twice the previous year, in "The Tenth Planet" and "The Moonbase." They were the only alien menaces to rival the Daleks in popularity, and had picked up considerable cachet by virtue of debuting in Hartnell's final episode, essentially getting credit for taking him out. Here, though, there's no truly visceral, shocking sense of the danger the Cybermen pose—they make some big threats but convert only one human, and the major effect on his personality is that he begins taking orders from a different bad guy.

Doctor Who would later become quite adept at repurposing classic horror stories during what I think is its true golden age, but here, the most obvious effect of using The Mummy as a reference point means importing cringeworthy racial stock characters straight from the colonialist era.

And although the Tomb is full of Egyptology touches like the Cybermen-hieroglyphs and the deadly traps that echo the ones pharaohs set up to deter graverobbers, the Karloffian resonances of the Cybermen themselves are disappointingly undeveloped—once they emerge from hibernation, they seem a little generic. 

Still, "Tomb" gets off to a good start in the first two episodes, beginning with a brief scene in the TARDIS that introduces new companion Victoria—a 19th-century orphan played with sweet, wide-eyed innocence by Deborah Watling. We then move quickly to meet a group of archaeologists who have just uncovered the lost city of Telos, which is the long-forgotten home of the Cybermen—apparently so badly defeated by the Doctor in their last two encounters that they've decided to give up conquering the universe in favor of hiding in a hole in the ground. We meet the expedition, which includes a square-jawed American space pilot, Captain Hooper, who seems like he might be meant as a gentle poke at Star Trek's Kirk. There's also the nominal leader, Parry, a bearded archaeologist motivated merely by scientific curiosity—as opposed to the story's human villains, Klieg and Kaftan (I couldn't stop thinking of them as Boris and Natasha), who have bankrolled the expedition for selfish reasons of their own. In the mummy-story paradigm here, these two fill the unfortunate roles of Shifty Ethnic Villains, but that's nowhere near the worst thing the story has to offer. They're accompanied by their servant Toberman, far and away the most problematic character here for the obvious reason that he's the only black character, and he's a huge, dumb, hulking near-mute thug with a name one letter away from a dog, whose noble self-sacrifice at the end of the story echoes Kipling's imperialist fable of "Gunga Din." Oy.

The rest of that first episode is buildup, but it effectively establishes a threatening atmosphere as the characters explore the Tomb and are caught in a series of dangerous puzzles and traps. Curiosity is deadly, but it's also a temptation impossible to resist. It's interesting to see just how much of the trouble here is directly traceable to the Doctor's own interference. It's possible that if he'd simply gone back to the TARDIS, Klieg and the others would have been killed by the traps and the Cybermen would never have reawakened. The Doctor gets them past the electrified  doors, and solves the next logical and mathematical puzzles even while loudly proclaiming that these are among the dark secrets man wasn't meant to know. Was the Doctor manipulating events so that he could be one step ahead of the others, or was he just too curious for his own good? It's left tantalizingly ambiguous.

Once the Cybermen are awakened, led by the dome-headed Cyber-Controller, the secret motivations of both villains are revealed. For plans that are supposed to be built on cold logic, both sure seem needlessly convoluted and based on some rather dubious premises.

Klieg is hoping to take over the Earth as the leader of the Brotherhood of Logicians, and reasonably enough thinks that the Cybermen would be good partners, though unreasonably thinks he'll be the one with the controlling interest. The Cybermen, meanwhile, have built the entire Tomb as a puzzle to entice and entrap overly curious smart people—like Klieg—and make them into new Cybermen. But if they're going to all this trouble to weed out everyone but the smartest humans, why convert Toberman? Why kill Klieg, rather than making a drone out of him? And why build the Tomb so that it can't be opened from the inside, forcing the Cybermen to hope that the humans smart enough to find them will be dumb enough to let them out?

The plot might have gone somewhere interesting if Klieg and the Cyber-Controller had begun working together—and I think Klieg's character arc should have wound up with him unwillingly converted into a Cyberman, having realized too late he'd be losing his humanity but maybe even deciding that it's worth it. But instead everything just kind of peters out. The trapped Cybermen send out their minions, the Cybermats, which are simply impossible to take seriously in 2011, try as I might to imagine what they might have seemed like in 1967. They're meant to be disturbingly cockroach- or spider-like, and they could be great if redesigned in the new series, but here they're about as threatening as the Scrubbing Bubbles

The final episode begins on a weirdly self-negating note, as the Cybermen decide of their own accord to crawl back into suspended animation "to conserve energy," which is so anticlimactic it's almost a stroke of genius. We're left with only the Cyber-Controller and the part-robotic Toberman, who breaks free of his secret brainwashing in time to avenge Kaftan's murder, and then save everyone else's lives by re-sealing the electrified doors. For his heroic action, his comrades honor him by ... leaving his body to rot where it lays, as they all return to their respective ships. No, I'm serious. And in case you missed it, the last thing we see as the credits roll is one last shot of Toberman's body. There's only one sane response to that, really.

Stray observations:
• I watched this serial with my friend Tom, who at first misheard "Brotherhood of Logicians" as "Brotherhood of Magicians." And somehow it seems appropriate that Klieg's organization was originally founded by these people.

• The distorted, flat voices on the Cybermen here are genuinely unnerving, particularly their electronic squawking in the scene where they first capture the human expedition.

• "You scream real good, Vic! Thanks a lot."

• A classic bit of Doctor/Jamie goofing in the first episode as they each think they're gallantly holding Victoria's hand while they enter the tomb, only to realize she's standing 20 feet behind them.

• Jamie could always be relied on to goad the antagonist with a sarcastic quip, and I like how he needles Klieg after he fails to kill crewman Callum with his stolen Cyber-weapon: "You killed him!" "No, I spared him." "You mean you missed him."

• The Doctor, dubiously claiming that the Cybermen are a greater threat when they're trapped in the vault: "They're more dangerous down there than they are up here." To which Captain Hopper, reasonably, responds with a confused look and an astonished "What?"

• Though "Tomb of the Cybermen" has lost a lot of its former luster, there's one unassailable gem in it: The Doctor and Victoria's conversation, during a quiet moment of the third episode, about living with grief and not letting it ruin the joy of living. Necessary context: Victoria's father was killed at the end of the previous story, "Evil of the Daleks," leaving her with nowhere to go but with the Doctor. Their talk is touching and emotional without being maudlin, and it winds up with Troughton's nicely understated reminder about what's special about traveling on the TARDIS: "Our lives are different to anybody else's. That's the exciting thing. Nobody in the universe can do what we're doing." (Though I have to say, "he was a kind man, I shall never forget him" seems like faint praise for a recently deceased parent.)

Next week: The Doctor (in his third incarnation played by Jon Pertwee) is exiled to Earth and meets the evil, plastic Autons in "Spearhead From Space."

More TV Club