Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Tomb of the Cybermen

For many years, The Tomb of the Cybermen was regarded as the holy grail of Doctor Who – fans spoke of it with tones of veneration as though it were the single greatest piece of television ever.  Those that hadn’t had the chance to see it first time around were remiss that they missed the chance, and when it was eventually rediscovered, people raced to see it, and many were ultimately a little disappointed.  It is still held in high regard by some, but for a large number it sadly didn't live up to the hype.  It’s very standard fare, really, particularly by Troughton’s standards.  It’s a base under siege story, and the earliest complete Troughton serial existing at the moment in the vaults, but that’s all that is really going for it.  Troughton is superb – and being given the chance to see every single moment of his performance allows us to see more of him than we ever have before.  There are moments in serials such as The Power of the Daleks, The Macra Terror and The Evil of the Daleks which are no doubt sublime; because we cannot see them, though, we take it for granted.  Here we are able to witness just how nuanced his portrayal of the Doctor is.  There is the potential for it to have been brilliant, but there are so many weak moments that it is by no means the perfect serial that it could have been.

The serial opens with a wonderful prelude of sorts, as the Doctor and Jamie welcome Victoria into the TARDIS.  Deborah Watling’s character was a late addition to the crew in the previous serial, only meeting our time travellers in episode 5 of the 7-part The Evil of the Daleks.  As such, she doesn’t have the relationship built up with the travellers that we’d expect from the outset; unlike Vicki’s introductory story, The Rescue, which focussed solely on her and her troubles, Victoria is given a story similar to Steven’s introduction, which was in the penultimate episode of The Chase.  It works surprisingly well, and one thing I am particularly taken by, doing this experiment, is how my opinions of characters can so swiftly change.  I always took Victoria to be something of an irritation, a typical whiner who tags along with the Doctor and Jamie through necessity following Evil, rather than by choice.  Now, whilst that is true to some degree, what is also surprising is how quickly she takes everything in her stride, and how proactive she is. 

What is also wonderful about this short prelude is that is allows Hines, as Jamie, the chance to have grown as a character too.  When he joined the crew, he was the boy from the past, out of his depth and asking silly questions that a contemporary audience would scoff at.  Now, though, he has become the old hand in the TARDIS, and is able to give Victoria a guided tour without issue.  No longer is he the boy afraid of “flying beasties”; instead he gestures to panels of knobs and levers with a nonchalance, talking of them as “controlling our flight” while Victoria becomes the incredulous traveller.   The conversation turns to a mention of the Doctor’s age, currently approximately “450 years old” which is a wonderful little set up for a conversation in episode three which is absolutely smashing.  Victoria is then sent to change her clothes whilst the Doctor steers the TARDIS off through time.

Meanwhile, in on the surface of Telos, an expedition of various nationalities is gathered on a cliff face, whilst a black giant of a man is lumbering on the outcrop above.  Pedler and Davis’ script cleverly introduces these characters and their traits within moments; Viner is a whiny, snivelling man terrified of his own shadow, Toberman is a lumbering servant with no individual brains, Kaftan is the financier of the expedition, Parry is a caring and compassionate archaeologist who is concerned that Kaftan and Klieg are trying to take over his expedition.  All of this is setup very quickly, and effectively.  All the same, the direction falls a little flat; the group are all gathered, staring up at one area where explosives have been set, and there is a fantastic explosion which reveals nothing.  Meanwhile, whilst the entire crew are looking forlornly, off-screen we hear a low rumble – evidently supposed to represent a landslide – and a gormless American minion points in totally a different direction, where the tomb entrance has been perfectly and conveniently revealed.  The incidental music here is wonderfully effective, though, and again is all from stock; the use of silence to contrast the hubbub of action moments before the explosion is an excellent moment of tension.

With the arrival of the Doctor and his companions, though, the action ramps up, as does the tension.  Moments before, an unnamed explorer has died horrifically after touching the doors into the eponymous tombs.  The Doctor and co are naturally accused – par for the course – but Troughton very quickly takes command of the situation, informing the archaeological party exactly what happened, where and how.  There is some fantastic makeup evidenced by the burn marks on the man’s hands, too, which just about makes up for the dreadful accents sported by Hopper and his crewmates – George Roubicek’s enthusiasm is palpable, as he chews his way through lines like “it’s not exactly peaches!” and constantly calls people “sport” or “guy”.  The writing here is partly to blame, but his hands-on-hips Flash Gordon-esque performance doesn’t exactly help to sell the character. 

What is interesting is the disregard Troughton’s Doctor seems to have for the lives of the people on the expedition.  From the outset, he is actively endangering everyone involved; once he hears mention of the Cybermen – although why he needed to hear it is beyond me, since there are massive motifs stencilled either side of the door! – he actively pushes the group forward.  They are just about to give up when he helps them to open the doors to the tombs.  Soon, he also helps the group open doors on either side of the main room by explaining the method needed, and further assists Klieg in opening the vaults which lead to the tomb proper.  He is flippant with each of these things – and when one considers that Klieg and Kaftan are simply not smart enough to have managed to infiltrate the tomb alone, and one cannot escape the feeling that all of this could have been avoided, if the Doctor had just kept his mouth shut.  Indeed, I touched on this in the last blog update I wrote, for The Evil of the Daleks, but we can’t help but feel that the Doctor’s impish, clown-like and scruffy exterior is hiding much darker motives; he is still the manipulative man we see much later in the Doctor’s travels, particularly during McCoy’s era. 

There is an interesting moment of power play between Klieg and the Doctor, where he says that he manages to work things out by “keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut” – as he says this, Toberman sneaks away right in line with the Doctor’s vision lines.  It is an odd moment, one which is justified in the next episode and we discover that he has sabotaged the fuel links on the rocket, stranding the group on Telos.  Again, the Doctor allows him to leave, and although he makes a passing comment about the damage a large man like Toberman could do, he never comes out with his accusations, instead just watching and planning.

There is some wonderful comedy again between Hines and Troughton – the scenes before the group enter where they inadvertently hold hands always makes me chuckle aloud, and the flattery of Victoria’s dress is equally lovely, with a quick-witted comment on the skirt length – “a bit short?  I shouldn’t worry about that – look at Jamie’s!”  Once the team are inside the hidden city, there is a wonderful sense of scale to the place; the set design is simply magnificent, making the most of being studio-bound as it is, Martin Johnson’s set design is wonderful, all functional dials and huge control panels, with sliding doors and hidden guns, as well as the bizarre choice to have the Cyberman face stencilled on literally every surface – indeed, even each stool has a Cyber-face staring up at you.  This is only one small fault, though, as overall the design work is a masterpiece. 

The scenes in the testing room and the projector room are suitably tense, as the title has promised us Cybermen, and the cliffhanger allows us a glimpse at the eponymous villains, back for their next serial three serials after their last appearance.  The reveal of the Cyberman is suitably chilling, appearing as it does in a hail of gunfire, executing poor Haydon, the best guest actor of the group by miles.  Episode 2 opens with a recap of this, and it is painfully frustrating – not one of them will confirm what they must all have seen, and even the Doctor simply mutters that he “saw something”.  They point out that they were all looking at the screen – where the Cyberman came from! – yet are unsure that it is what they saw.  Instead, the group focus on the significance that he was shot in the back, revealing the large weapon hidden therein. 

During the entirety of episodes 1 and 2, by far the most frustrating thing is Cyril Shaps’ portrayal of Viner; for an actor that went on to appear in four serials, he is surprisingly one-note, all high-pitched whines and repetitive complaints.  The Doctor investigates the dummy Cyberman and the gun which appears from the wall, while in the central room, Toberman returns to confirm that “it is done”.  Once the whole group return to the central chamber, where Klieg continues to puzzle over near-impossible logic sequences, Hopper returns to say, in a typically melodramatic drawl “Well, I'm going to tell you something now. The first guy that set sets foot in my rocketship is going to stop the repair work just like that!”  As such, our deus ex machina is in place, and the group are stuck within the tombs whether they like it or not.  Quite how everyone seems to miss the suspicious activity going on between Klieg and Kaftan is baffling – and this being 1960s Doctor Who they are, of course, foreigners, lurking in the darkness, exchanging furtive glances and whispering confidentially. 

Once again, it is due to the Doctor’s interference that the group are able to enter the actual tombs – had he not interfered and explained the method, the group would merely have been stuck in the central chamber waiting for Hopper and his men to fix the rocket.  Instead, the team head down into the tombs, where we are granted the view of yet another spectacular piece of design wok – the honeycomb design of the Cybermen’s tombs are magnificently lit, and look incredible, particularly in the defrosting sequences as the Cybermen are reawakened by Klieg’s meddling.  Sadly, director Morris Barry doesn’t make the most of these sequences, instead choosing to linger on them for overly long sequences which are then soon repeated, somewhat undermining the power of them.

As I mentioned at the start, what makes this serial so important is the fact that it allows us to see Troughton, on top form, from start to finish.  There are so many subtle and clever moments throughout this serial – such as when he casts suspicious glances at Klieg down in the tombs – that make the absence of his stories all the more painful.  There is so much we must surely be missing, things which we can only guess at.  By all accounts, several of the scenes in the recently rediscovered The Underwater Menace episode 2 show that this serial is far from the joke many considered it to be.

The waking of the Cybermen, as I say, is an awesome moment, and their slow rise to consciousness, bursting forth from their cocoons to the ‘Space Adventure’ theme tune is an iconic moment.  Slightly less iconic, though, is the moment at which we meet the Cyber-controller.  As he is revealed, squatting, it is far less visually striking than it may have been.  However, the cliffhanger remains incredibly effective, as the shrill and invasive singsong tones of the Controller utters “You shall be like us”.

Episode 2 is also wonderful for giving Victoria a chance to grow as a companion; Watling here works tremendously well in the sequences where she is forced to watch Kaftan in the central chamber, rather than following the boys into the tombs below.  Whilst the motive may be a little sexist, she attempts to fight it, demanding to be allowed to follow the men.  There is a wonderful moment where Kaftan asks Victoria if she wishes for some food, but Victoria is put off by the futuristic appearance of the food cubes – it is a subtle reminder that this Victorian girl is out of her depth in a futuristic universe.  When she is drugged by Kaftan, it becomes standard female-companion fare, until she awakens and turns Kaftan’s gun on the Cybermat sidling towards her, suddenly becoming crack shot with a pistol.

Klieg is yet another of those typical human villains in Doctor Who, much like Mavic Chen in The Daleks’ Master Plan and Theodore Maxtible in the last serial, The Evil of the Daleks.  Blinded by his own ambition, he genuinely believes he is equal to them, but within moments of meeting them, he is forced to his knees, a quivering wreck.  Desperate for their approval, he begs and pleads, before realising the danger that the hulking giants represent – although that too is only a short-lived realisation, but more on that later.

Episode 3 allows us to appreciate the Cybervoices fully, and Peter Hawkins does a wonderful job; having voiced them since their introduction in The Tenth Planet earlier that year, he has also voiced them in their second serial, and the nuanced performance has been honed somewhat – for me, though, the perfect Cybervoices are the original work of Hawkins and Roy Skelton in The Tenth Planet, where they had a horrifying singsong quality, with the emphasis always seeming to be on the wrong part of the word.  Now, though, they have a very human inflection down to a tee, but the voices still work effectively.  The droning “You shall be like us” is chilling.  Less effective is the ridiculous buzzing noise made by the 8 Cybermen that are released and attacked by the smoke bombs thrown by Hopper on his mission to save the Doctor and co from the tombs.  It is a horribly invasive sound – and not in a good way – and detracts somewhat from their menace.  Similarly, the Cyberman that pursues Jamie through the tombs is equally ridiculous, doing preposterous double takes.
This sequence is notorious for another reason though;  one of the most embarrassing things about being a Doctor Who fan is those moments when you pray no one will walk in on you watching it, and the fight sequence in which Toberman is lifted by the most ridiculously visible wires is one of those unforgivable moments in the show’s history, along with the Kandy man’s appearance in The Happiness Patrol and the dinosaurs in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.  I once heard someone refer to it as being caught masturbating.  It’s that embarrassing.  There are one or two moments which baffle you – if that wasn’t worth a retake, what kind of muck up would be?!  There are moments where both Roy Stewart as Toberman and Hines’ Jamie each trip on the way up the stairs – Hines falls downwards, and it is only because of Troughton’s fast-thinking that he doesn’t end up face-planting.  These are still forgivable, as one could imagine the characters, in their heightened emotional states, tripping and stumbling.  But the sight of the enormous crampon attached to Stewart’s waistband, as well as the cable is shocking.  Worse still, Stewart is lifted into the air before the Cyberman is even in position to lift him. 

Equally rubbish is the sequence with the Cybermats.  Inexplicably, these are more than double the size of the original one which attacked Victoria and Kaftan, and it is never made clear whether these are supposed to be the same as the first, or a larger model.  Instead, it is left to the audience to decide.  Some ten models were made by the FX and props guys, of differing manoeuvrability, with some fixed to nylon wires, other remote control, and others completely stationary.  When the ‘masses’ of them attack the group in the central chamber, it is unclear precisely what is supposed to be happening, or even what the threat is.  Unlike in later Cyberman stories like Revenge of the Cybermen, where the Cybermats have a clear function, here they seem to attach themselves to their victims yet do absolutely nothing.  They don’t bite, or poison.  Instead, they sit there until the victim knocks them off.  As such, this sequences has no tension to it – the Doctor lays down a wire which is electronically charged and it fries the circuits of the Cybermats.  And there ends the threat.  To be fair, they could simply have picked them up and thrown them away.  There is another wonderful comedic moment here, too when the Doctor refers to them having had a “complete metal breakdown” – and it is interesting that it is Jamie who does the pantomime eye roll and sighs outwardly at this poor attempt at a joke.

It is sequences like this which show Morris Barry’s inability to direct action sequences; whilst the smaller moments are well lit and tense, with suitable atmosphere, the action sequences for the most part decline into silliness and farcical noises.  One such beautiful moment is the scene between Troughton and Watling, where the pair discusses their families.  Victoria’s monologue is heartbreaking, and we are reminded that this story takes place hours after the events of The Evil of the Daleks, so she has only been an orphan for about a day.  Likewise, we are given a rare glimpse into the Doctor’s life before we met him, and he talks of a family in a poignant speech;
“I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You'll find there's so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else's. That's the exciting thing. There's nobody in the universe can do what we're doing.”
It is a powerful moment, and one with great resonance.  It achieves the difficult task of creating a rapport between Doctor and companion which is founded on trust and love, as well as respect and admiration.

The cliffhanger of episode 3 is something of a damp squib, sadly; having realised that Klieg is hell-bent on trying to resurrect the Cybermen for his own demented ends, he is locked away – in the weapons testing room.  With the weapons.  It’s utterly ridiculous, and adds further to the idea that the Doctor is manipulating everyone still.  Part way through episode 2, he admits that he knew Klieg’s intentions all along, but was just watching to see “what he was up to”.  There’s a flippancy here which is unnerving.  But yes, Klieg is locked up in the weapons room, surrounded by Cyberman weaponry;   yet still sort of works.  It further highlights how, due to their absence from history for more than 500 years, the threat of the Cybermen seems to have been forgotten.  But Klieg and Kaftan’s re-emergence at the end, and the shot off-screen followed by a scream, is all terribly pat.  The show is called Doctor Who.  The likelihood of the Doctor being killed off-screen partway through a story is minimal.  And yet... and yet...  We must remember that it was whilst facing the Cybermen that Hartnell died, regenerating into Troughton.  It was also mid-season, although not mid-serial.    But really, dying at the hands of a madman like Klieg was never likely.

Instead, it is Callum that has been shot and wounded, jumping in front of the ray and taking a bullet for the Doctor – making this the second time in as many serials that someone has gladly sacrificed himself for the sake of the Doctor.  Again, it is striking that the death toll continues to rise hour by hour, and again it strikes me that this could all have been avoided.  The Doctor’s irresponsible behaviour continues, though, as the group are lead back down into the tombs by Klieg, and the group of Cybermen are revitalised, having returned to their tombs to reenergise.  And here is my biggest issue with The Tomb of the Cybermen as a serial:

Throughout the serial, we are told that Klieg intends to use the Cybermen to rule the world, indeed to rule the universe, for the Brotherhood of Logicians.  Yet when we finally see these reawakened Cybermen, who have been within their tombs for more than 500 years waiting for qualified minds to awaken them, we cannot help be struck by how utterly inept they are.  Having spent 500 years hooked up to all of the machinery within the tombs, in a state of suspended animation, they are out of their units for no more than a few hours before needing to plug themselves back in?  Even the Cyber-controller is in need of a recharge, his voice slowing down throughout the scenes in which he menaces the Doctor and the others in the central chamber – and the Doctor again assists the Cyber-controller by helping him into the rejuvenation chamber.  There is a throwaway moment where Troughton jokes that he needs to teach Jamie how to tie a proper knot as the rejuvenated Controller bursts through the door to the chamber and menaces the entire group once more. 

Kaftan’s death scene is another of those moments which seems utterly redundant.  With the Cyber-controller rejuvenated, he demands that the tombs be reopened.  The group refuse, so he does it himself.  Kaftan runs over and throws a switch – and the Cyber-controller executes her, before flipping the switch back and continuing on with his mission.  It is a needless moment of self-sacrifice, albeit one which is visually very impressive as the smoke bubbles forth from the collar of her shirt and she crumples to the ground.  Ultimately, though, her death is only a tool which allows Troughton to take control of the situation.  Toberman, part Cyberman now, is so enraged by the death of his beloved mistress that he throws the Cyber-controller into the entrance panels.  Of course, this is again one of those laughable effects – we see the head fall off the dummy! – but we take it in our stride as we are working up to the finale. 

I’m really not quite sure how I feel about Toberman, as a character.  My issue isn’t the ‘racism’ of having a dumb near-mute foreign looking character – we’ve had it only the serial before with Kemel, after all – but rather the very one-dimensionality of him generally.  Had Toberman been a character, rather than just a cardboard cut-out of a strong man, throughout, these final moments would probably be more touching and poignant.  Instead, though, we have barely seen a moment of Toberman being human; his delight at the prospect of hurting Jamie ultimately boiled down to a “Hulk smash”-like glee as he twisted his fists.  His dialogue has been entirely monosyllabic and sparse in the greatest degree regardless.  Toberman, once converted into a Cyberman, seems no different.  We see the oscilloscope footage superimposed to show that he is taking orders, but even his movements are not really that different to his shifty exit in episode 1 when he took his orders from Kaftan.  At the end of the day, Toberman’s function is that of a slave, a servant to follow the bidding of a master.  And this is what makes me dislike the turn of the story, as too much of it hinges on Toberman’s character, but there just isn’t enough character there for it to rest upon.  The scene in which he destroys another Cyberman with his bare hands, meanwhile, is magnificently gory and explicit, and genuinely quite nerve-wracking.

The serial ends with the group finally escaping the tombs, with the hatch locked down and the Cybermen all back in their cells, in a scene in which we watch the “awakening” in reverse.  Once out, they are pursued by the Cyber-controller and it is Toberman, sacrificing his life, which saves them – he forces the doors shut, regardless of the electric current running through the system as a security measure against further exploration.  And again, I’m not sure how I feel about this, either.  To some extent, it is a moment of redemption for Toberman – after all, it was his fault that the party were stranded on the surface of Telos anyway.  But it is because of the Doctor’s security system that Toberman has to die at all, and that makes me a little uncomfortable.

I’ve talked about it a number of times during this blog and the last, but I’d just like to point out, once again, that all of this is Troughton’s Doctor’s fault!  Had he not meddled, the group would have just left.  Only one casualty, the nameless man who was looking to claim fifty pounds but who was electrocuted for his trouble.  Instead, Hayden was shot in the testing room, Klieg was murdered by a Cyberman, Kaftan was executed by the Cyber-controller, Viner was shot by Klieg, Callum was shot protecting the Doctor, Toberman was electrocuted... all because of his curiosity.  It’s an uncomfortable thought, that due to his constant intrigue he has led a number of people to their grave – yes, some of those people were ‘bad guys’, and their ends were deserved, but only because the Doctor helped them gain entrance in the first place.  To set “a fatal” current through the doors and panels seems a little extreme, too – considering the difficulty the expedition group would have had in the first place, it seems frivolous for the Doctor to be responsible for any future deaths.  Similarly upsetting is the fact that Toberman’s body is simply abandoned.  He sacrifices himself for their sake, dying in the process, and yet everyone kind of shrugs and heads off in their own direction, with the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria returning to the TARDIS, and those remaining of Parry’s expedition returning to Hopper’s rockets.

And a solitary Cybermat runs past, hinting that this isn’t the “final end” of the Cybermen we were faced with at the end of the last Dalek serial.  All told, this isn’t a bad serial, per se.  It’s far better than some we’ve seen, and is certainly better than some that will follow.  For me, though, the faults within the story and the direction are just too distracting for it to rightfully own the title of ‘classic’ that it is revered to be.

1 comment:

  1. I always was under the impression that the Doctor knew that they'd just come back with explosives to gain entry if he didn't give them hints on how to get in.

    Production values are pretty typical for the time. Remember this was shown on low quality 405 line tvs which made up the majority of the audience viewing device.