Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Serial 37: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon, Victoria Waterfield

Written by: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis

Directed by: Morris Barry

Background & Significance:
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Patrick Troughton's era on Doctor Who was one of those defining times that helped shape the show's ultimate evolution. Because of the role of a producer and script editor on a show, each Doctor has a sort of ethos to his stories (except Tom Baker, who has three), a real tone or zeitgeist if you will. Prior to Troughton, the only format the show had ever known was predominantly educational and children's television.

The Troughton era was decidedly not nearly so educational. It saw the rise of off-planet adventures, the abandonment of historicals, the return of old and the creation of new alien-monsters, and sci-fi stories that were much more rooted in action/adventure than anything else. To be honest, it's a lot closer to what it is today than what it was just a few seasons before. It really reminds me of the current Steven Moffat era, which is about having big ol' adventures with big ol' fun and all that lovely noise and the like. (Also apt because Smith reminds me a whole hell of a lot of Troughton, so that's another little tie; but I'm getting ahead of meself.)

It was also The Golden Age of The Cybermen.

"The Tomb of the Cybermen" is the kickoff to Patrick Troughton's second season and it's.... It's good. Really good. If there's one problem with The Cybermen as villains over the course of their forty plus year long history, it's that they always seem to get a story that feels more or less the same. The Cybermen invade or attack a place. They try to convert everyone into Cybermen to add to their growing army. The Doctor beats them back. The Cybermen maybe march a bit. The Cybermen are defeated.

But this story is decidedly different. This shows The Cybermen in a far off future, long after they've died out, trapped in their Ice Tombs on the planet of Telos, stuck in suspended animation, waiting to be re-awakened.

What happens next is a taut sci-fi thriller not so unlike "The Robots of Death", but with a nice, healthy dose of horror/action with Patrick Troughton at the helm. It's high adventure and insane tension escalating as the story goes on. Well told, totally ethosy/zeitgeisty, and a total look into one of my all time favourite eras of the show ever. Honestly, it feels like something out of a classic pulpy adventure/sci-fi magazine, and I really think that if there's one thing Doctor Who should do more of it's pulp adventure. Not just that, but pulp adventures in the Troughton era, which just has the best of feels.

Unfortunately, it's also the earliest story that survives in its entirety from the Troughton era, and the only one that exists in its entirety from this season. That doesn't diminish the fact that this is a great story to have survived the BBC wiping campaign (miraculously. It was only discovered in the early 90s and is probably the most famous recovery to date). But it's a great introduction for new viewers to Troughton and the classic series, and it's a very famous Cybermen adventure. I mean, just take the title. "The Tomb of the Cybermen". That's a phenomenal title and it gets your imagination spinning in the best of ways.The best part is the story's living up to that title, which, if I may be honest, is no mean feat.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:
If there’s one thing I’m always struck by when it comes to “Tomb of the Cybermen”, it’s the base concept, which I think is very much… well… It’s closest to what you’d expect it to be here.

See, I love when Doctor Who does stuff like this. I love “The Doctor Who take on _______” as a form of story. Like “The Brain of Morbius” as “The Doctor Who take on Frankenstein” and “The Deadly Assassin” as “The Doctor Who take on The Manchurian Candidate”, this story is essentially “The Doctor Who take on archaeological adventures.” And that sounds MAD boring, but it’s no different than something Indiana Jonesy. And we all know how well Indiana can scratch a hell of an itch you didn’t realize needed scratching.

What I’m trying to say is that this story, from VERY early on, feels like a Doctor Who take on an old school adventure serial about mummy excavation.

This is, of course, entirely intentional. The entire story is based on the principle of excavating and unearthing a tomb supposedly infested with hibernating Cybermen. As a story, this is something I’m totally into from the word “go”. I love the concept of The Doctor meeting up with a party of archaeologists (albeit unintentionally) to excavate a tomb full of baddies, in this case Cybermen. It’s just classic and brings all sorts of epic baggage and such that’s really mind-churning. Who are these people? Why are they so interested? How many will make it out alive? And what did they mean that Cybermen had fallen off the grid so long ago?

There’s an elegant simplicity to the way they do all this. The first third of the episode is spent exclusively on the excavation crew just trying to get into the tomb (which is great in and of itself).

But that leads to some really great Troughton. Honestly, this is some amazing Troughton. It’s interesting to compare Troughton here to his acting later on in his run. Last time we talked about Troughton, we were talking about the end of his run, but here he feels much fresher. The energy is still outstanding, but we also get a total case of The Doctor’s insatiable curiosity, perhaps the best curiosity of Troughton I’ve ever seen on screen. You can just FEEL how badly The Doctor wants to go in and see what’s inside, but not at the expense of this excavation party.

Okay, well…. Even if it’s at the expense of the excavation party.

I’m also impressed by Victoria. We’ll talk about her a little bit later, but I really like her as a companion (and I’m convinced I’ll only like her more as we go on). As a first “real” adventure for a companion (as TARDIS crew; she appeared in the previous story, but as a bystander), this is definitely a hell of a debut. She can tell something is wrong and is scared out of her mind and I love the way The Doctor and Jamie have to coax her to go into the Tomb. But then they leave her be with perhaps the two most nefarious members of the party while they go off exploring. It’s really, really fascinating, to be honest.

That’s not even mentioning all the little minor touches in this serial, like Toberman going out to sabotage the rocket. Although we don’t really notice him leaving and won’t even realize what he’s done until the next episode.

Really, this serial is doing a lot of things right, and early on. I love the mythology of the tomb and the traps and such inside. I love the reveal of the Cyberman at the end of the episode (even though it’s very much a “not what you think” situation, as we’ll find out at the beginning of the next one). I love the mystery of what’s in the hatch, and I love the different weird rooms and contraptions and The Doctor’s attempts to explore while simultaneously attempting to keep everyone safe and copacetic. It’s all so mysterious and tonally anxious from the get go. We’re all just waiting for the Cybermen to show up in a big bad way. We just don’t know when.

Also, there’s a Cybermat. But more on that in a little bit I guess.

Part 2:

In a lot of ways, the pacing of this story feels a lot like “The Ark in Space”, which we talked about last week.

I think this is mostly a byproduct of the era. I mean, the stories in the 60s were notoriously slow. Star Wars was still ten years away by this point, so that sorta thing only makes sense. And yet, what happens in this part? The Doctor investigates the weird ray gun in the booby trap room and then everyone finds out they’re stranded on the planet for the night until the rocket ship can get prepared and then The Doctor helps the party open the hatchway into the catacombs and then they head down into the catacombs, where they inadvertently (sorta) wake up the Cybermen.

But all of this is done with such flair and tension that it’s positively gripping. I’d go on with that, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I mean, I didn’t even mention the Victoria subplot. I actually really like Victoria here. A lot. It helps that it's early in her run, and that tends to be the strongest time for new characters, I think. But she really sparkles here. The Doctor leaves her to keep an eye on the sinister Kaftan and then she gets drugged and Kaftan seals the archaeology party down in the catacombs while Victoria sleeps. And then the Cybermat in Victoria’s bag starts to come to life and starts acting like a really creepy little thing. And then Victoria (like a total badass) shoots the damn thing. Which is awesome. I mean, that's really great companion stuff (despite the fact that they leave the women behind while the men go into the tombs and do all the work).

This brings me to two really interesting thoughts, the first of which I’ll get out of the way right off: The Cybermats are freakin creepy. Sure they’re REALLY silly if you get right down to it, but really. You just have to go with it, you know? Come on. It’s 60s Doctor Who. And in that, they are magnificent.

But Victoria… man I love Victoria. I think she’s… she’s just such a good character. I know people complain about her because she’s wishy or washy or whatever and because she “never does anything”, but I think that’s a huge dismissal. I mean, I’m not going to say she’s the strongest (you can’t argue that), but she’s a particularly strong character. She’s very much an orphan in The Doctor’s care until she finds a surrogate family (her real family was killed off in the last story). But she’s quite good for what she is. Although I think it interesting that Troughton’s post-Hartnell female companions (Ben & Polly were Hartnell companions) are Zoe and Victoria. I mean, the two could not be more different. Zoe’s a super retro-future girl who’s INCREDIBLY smart and spunky while Victoria is a sheltered Victorian teenagerish sorta character (again orphan). It really highlights the difference that each companion brings to the table. This story would be TOTALLY different with Zoe and, to be honest, it wouldn’t be near as interesting. At least, I don’t think it would, anyways.

But the best part of this episode is the entire endgame. It’s a total iconic whatever and features Cybermen breaking out of confined spaces (it’s a thing The Cybermen do) and I think this was the first one to do it.

It’s a doozy of a cliffhanger. We realize that The Doctor helped the archaeology party get even farther into the tomb (Because he was curious as The Doctor himself admits) and that the Kaftan/Klieg team-up was an attempt to re-awaken the Cybermen so that they could use their secrets for world domination back on Earth! While it's definitely a premise that has turned up before, it works well here, and adds another layer of nefarious to the proceedings.

But back to the ending! It’s just badass. Totally rad. I love the ominousness of it. It’s fantastically shot and very creepy and very tense. Here. I’ve youtubed it for you!

Like I said, there’s a lot to like in that ending. I love the Cyber-Controller for one. He plays a huge role later on, but it’s… It’s just so good, and it’s a Cybermen staple for them to show up about halfway through the story.

It’s just got a lot going for it and we’re halfway through. I mean. We’re still doing the whole tomb/archaeology theme. There’s some great action/adventure/intrigue…

But it’s working, and working well. This story has long been hailed as a total classic and I would totally agree with that. It feels very special and different. It’s a unique take/twist on the Cybermen, especially because we’re about to see them at the end of their rope. It’s not like there’s a Cyber-Empire around. We know that The Cybermen haven’t been seen in 500 years, so this re-awakening is made even more ominous. We’re seeing The Cybermen farther in their future than we’ve ever seen before. That makes this awakening even scarier, if you ask me. What if the Cybermen get out? (We know they won’t, but indulge me a bit). We’re talking about an invasion the likes of which the galaxy isn’t prepared for.

And as far as stakes go, that’s something. But it still doesn’t change the fact that we’re in a total haunted house situation in the best of ways. And it’s a taut-action adventure. You better believe some awesome is coming up next.

Part 3:


I friggin love Cybermats. They’re one of those things that you just kinda have to go with. They’re tremendously silly and very camp (why do Cybermen need such creatures in the first place?), but they’re totally fantastic. They’re another layer in the overall narrative of the story. It’d be one thing to have the story just be The Doctor and Co. doing a runaround with the Cybermen (which I’ve heard leveled as a complaint about this story), but the Cybermats add a nice twist on what is a “typical” Cybermen story, and they're something that I really, truly enjoy. I don't even care that they're tremendously silly. They ratchet up the tension in the best of ways and they're something I really truly love.

But even beyond that, the actual storytelling of what’s happening is actually quite layered, however superficially.

For one thing, I love the continued maniacalism of the nefarious Klieg and Kaftan. The two of them are so sinister and so scheming and I love the role that they play in this story as the people who attempt to harness The Cyber-technology for themselves. I love that part of their new and improved plot is to steal a Cybergun to use against the Cybermen themselves, which is totally moronic. Seriously. I love that these guys can’t take a friggin hint. Don’t they understand what’s going to happen? I mean. For god’s sake. Klieg was just put through hell down in the Tomb. Can he not understand that this is maybe a bad idea?

These are all minor qualms, though. Really, Klieg and Kaftan are the Cybermen story staple of greedy people. They want to harness the Cybermen because they think it’s a sexy proposition. It’s something they can benefit off of, so why not take over it?

There’s other things to love. For one thing, there’s the totally, totally iconic interpretation of The Cybermen, their Cyber-Controller, and how that whole thing is. They sound so good and specific and TOTALLY robotty (perhaps the robottiest The Cybermen have ever sounded?) that it adds to the total freak factor. No, you know what? This is the robottiest they are in the Classic series for sure. You can’t even imagine anything human in there. While normally this is a problem, it doesn’t rile me too much. I mean, the Cybermen here are supposed to be terribly inhuman. That’s kinda the point (they fill that “what’s in the tomb“ thing we talked about earlier).

And they do it well. Now that they’re awake and out of their tombs, the back half of this story really becomes a well-told Cybermen adventure. So much of the time spent here is focused on keeping the Cybermen from getting out of their Tombs that it’s… it just feels solid and good.

Part of that is totally due to the sets and such. Oh my goodness do I love these sets. For one thing, I’m a GIANT whore for vertical space in television. For various reasons, it’s the sorta thing you never get a chance to see. So imagine my delight when there’s entire sets that base their design on verticality. You see in the last part especially when the Cybermen are getting out of their Tombs. but it’s also true here. I frigging love these sets. It’s just one of those things where Doctor Who proves to you that it doesn’t need a massive super mega budget or glossy production values to convey a compelling and fantastic story. Hell, throw too much money at it and you get “Attack of the Cybermen.”

But to me the lynchpin of this episode is not the big action sequences (and boy do I love those; so much fun), but rather the touching and heartfelt conversation between The Doctor and Victoria. I’ve youtubed it below for you so you see what I mean.

Okay, first off the bat, Troughton is so good. Seriously, he’s just working that scene on a ton of levels (as a father, as an alien, as a compassionate entity, as The Doctor) and he kills it. Love him always.

But what I love about the scene is that it’s just so tender. Because of the way Doctor Who was structured all throughout its run, rarely did the show find time for tender character moments. That’s not a problem of the show; it’s just not what they were interested in. Nowadays we (for the most part; there are exceptions) strive for character believability and three dimensionality. Dramas are based on character interaction and conflict between them on an emotional/psychological level (which can often manifest in a physical form), so it’s rare to see an era that was specifically focused on “Silver Age” storytelling, characters who weren’t always the strongest or most well-rounded/used focus so intensely on this gorgeous human moment The Doctor chooses to share with Victoria.

Seriously, it’s just so good. In the span of one conversation, he manages to begin Victoria’s recovery (she did just lose her father after all).

But even if that moment was just that moment, it would have been fine. What makes it stand out is the content. The notion that The Doctor has to choose to make himself remember his family is both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. I love what he’s saying, and how it feeds into a Doctor/Victoria relationship in a way that is rarely seen makes it all the more special. Not only that, but it gives us an insight into The Doctor’s character and his mysterious past. Full disclosure: I really think we shouldn’t learn a LOT of things in The Doctor’s past, but the glimpse at a larger history, the hint at what happened and the imagination we get to run with now that that’s happened. It’s just fantastic and magnificent.

It’s just one of those true moments of Doctor Who greatness. It’s one of my all time favorite Troughton moments, a perfect storm of character, compassion, empathy, and catharsis. And thank god this story survives and we get to witness it.

Part 4:

It’s strange to have what feels like such a short Patrick Troughton story, but hey. Four parts. Can’t complain.

As with the rest of this, there’s a lot to love in this part. There’s the ultimate conclusion of Kleig and Kaftan, in which Klieg gets it in his head that he’s bound to get some sweet deal out of this bargain that he’s making with the Cybermen. He dies for such presumptions, of course, but not before The Doctor slams him for being a moron in one of those great Doctor punk-moments. Klieg’s death alone is something of a big ol’ crazy. We first think Toberman has killed him in a crazy moment of senseless violence, but he’s killed late by Cybermen so it’s okay.

There’s also the re-sealing of the Tomb, which is just gorgeous. Have I mentioned I love this set and love it a lot? Total vertical space for the win. I don't even care that the whole thing is essentially playing the original breaking out of the tomb thing, but in reverse.

Also strong here is Troughton’s Doctor. It’s not like he’s ever not on, but this is totally fantastic him. He feels different here (as compared to, say, “War Games”). You can just tell he’s fresher in the best of ways. And oh how I love him so. I haven’t seen Troughton in a frakkkin age, so going back to him and his youthful exuberance is a welcome thing, if you ask me. Not only that, this is probably the Doctoriest I've ever seen him be. He's got the concern and compassion and the interest/curiosity, but he's also very much playing his Doctor at the same time, but it's... It just reminds me that there's nothing like Troughton. Really, there isn’t.

I’m also a huge fan of these action sequences. My favourite is, perhaps, when Toberman throws the Cyber-Cotroller onto the controls, damaging them.

I just love this era. There’s something about the “warts ‘n all” that makes me love it even more. I loved seeing the wires/cables in the previous episode and the bit where Toberman throws the Cyber-Controller is just delightful. I don’t even care that the Cyber-Controller is so obviously a dummy (and then his head pops off when he’s finally thrown) because that’s… it’s just part of the charm. Doctor Who has this long history of being incredibly ambitious in its storytelling. And this is one of those examples of that. I like the program conquering its own shortcomings with moments that end up being tremendously silly in retrospect. But again, all that matters is that they try. I’ll forgive just about everything if they just try.

If there’s a complaint to be had about this story, though, I’d say it’s that it has something of… questionable sensibilities when it comes to its political correctness.

I speak, of course, of Toberman.

Watching Toberman is another one of those reminders that what we’re watching isn’t REALLY set in the future, nor is it very modern. Toberman is a hulking black dude who never REALLY has any lines and is just a patsy for Kaftan and her scheming ways. In a lot of ways, you could call him “Dumb”, because he really doesn’t speak and because he ain’t too bright but he’s fiercely loyal. It’s weird to watch this in terms of modern day “progressive” ideologies and realize that he’s not exactly portrayed as politically correctly as he would today. Sure, if you put this story up in modern Doctor Who, Toberman would be a big guy who never talked, but I can bet you he wouldn’t be black and he wouldn’t be fried by the electric doors at the end.

That said, I really like Toberman. I think he’s interesting, if only plot device and I think what they do with him is really interesting. The only reason The Cybermen can so convincingly convert him and have no one know is because he is a silent hulking character, which I think is especially effective in this case. One of the stand-out moments of this part for him (and really, he’s quite good in this part) is the bit where he rips a Cyberman apart with his own two bare hands. Which is gruesome and grotesque, but also mad awesome. I don’t know if anything like that had been seen before in the show (maybe in "The Moonbase"), but I do know that it’s totally rad here.

There are other questionable things, like The Doctor electrifying the hatch, the doors, and the control panel with a fatal level of electric current so if anyone touches it they’ll die. It’s a bit extreme if you ask me. I mean if a group of whoevers got to this place and saw the doors and someone dies, do you think anyone would stop at anything to get inside? Human curiosity is a damn powerful thing, and this party kinda went through the same thing. There’s a huge body count and it didn’t quite stop them, did it?

Oh and then there’s the whole thing where a lone Cybermat survives, highlighting the possibility of the story not quite being over, which is exciting and ominous.

Final Thoughts: So “Tomb of the Cybermen” is considered one of the best Classic stories of all time, and one of the best Cybermen ones.

I’d say it is.

For one thing, it’s mad iconic. The Cybermen breaking out of their tombs is one of those really great Cybermen moments and is extraordinarily well done. It’s really awesome to see what is, in essence, a very simple Cybermen story that’s… rather unique. For their first three appearances and in the one after this, all they’re doing is invading a place (be it Earth, a moonbase, a space station, or Earth again), but in this, all they’re trying to do is get out of the Tomb itself. Not only that, but as I discussed earlier, the story just feels so good and so right. It has a total pulp feel in the best of ways. It’s an exciting story of double cross and betrayal and human greed all set in a Tomb.

What makes it unique is the Cybermen. Name another place where you’ve seen such an adaptation of what is, essentially, a pulp adventure story. And it’s because of stories like this that Doctor Who is so awesome. There’s plenty of puzzles and excitement and intrigue and it just FEELS like a good ol’ rollicking story from that 1960s sci-fi oeuvre that really (more often than not) holds up. Even the black and white just delineates and gives the show a very specific and particular feel lost when the show moves to colour. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show in colour, but you do lose some of the classic pulp sci-fi adventure whatever as soon as you remove the black and white element. I’ve thought it before, I still think it now.

I think really, that’s why I love the Troughton era, because they do get really pulpy and get to a place of telling exciting stories and setting them in black and white. I really love that. It doesn’t hurt that I love Troughton, but can you imagine how over the moon we’d all be if we could see the other classics from this era? Like “Fury From the Deep” or “Web of Fear”? It’s a crime and a crying shame that these stories don’t still exist anymore because they’d probably be among my favourites for that very reason. Even the lesser good stories like “The Abominable Snowmen” (which we’ll be talking about in a few weeks) and “The Seeds of Death” (which we’ll get to eventually) still have that great feel. But Tomb, like “The War Games” the following year, REALLY dials into what makes this era so exciting and so special. Nevermind that Troughton totally hits on exactly what makes him such a great Doctor to me. He captures the spirit of the stories in which he performs. That just makes him cooler and helps cement this era as one of the greatest to grace the series’s long and varied history.

So thank God this story still exists and that it always will.

Next Time: 1st Doctor! Back to the beginning! The first take off! Some cavemen! FIRE! And LOTS of running! (Also strange). We continue the one-year anniversary of the blog with the story that started it all! “An Unearthly Child!” Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. Wow there's enthusiasm! You're totally, flipped over, gushing, bust-out mad, simply mad about this serial ain'tcha? Welp, so am I. It's as good or better than any other old (non-Who) Indiana Jones-inspirin' serial I've seen. Also Tomb of the Cybermen is a great example of the peculiar brilliance that B&W can offer. Wouldn't be as cool in color. Klieg and Kaftan are implacable and the silly Cybermats are just irresistible to me. A big thank you for giving the great Doctor - Victoria talk it's due.

    I look forwards to your review of the ground-breaking 1st ep (heck we can even glimpse why The Doctor had Susan with him: she was fascinating, before she was so watered down to suit the times). An Unearthly Child is a gem in its own unique way. The caveman serial is also better than one might think from the surface.

    More folks should enjoy the old B&W Who. Oh for a TARDIS to save the missing Hartnel & Troughtons!

  2. Hey, thanks. Glad you're enjoying the blog and it's good to find a fellow lover of the Tomb (not that I think it's particularly reviled; it's not) especially loving it for all its little faults.

    Hope you enjoy the Unearthly Child write-up. I'm doing that right now and it should... maybe turn out decent maybe. I promise nothing!