Doctor Who classic: The Tomb of the Cybermen

037 Tomb of the Cybermen

It’s brilliant! That’s for those of you who have neither the time nor inclination to read reviews in full, preferring to confirm your own assessment by reading only the first line. I’ll make the same exclamation at the end of this piece for those who find that the last line of reviews often offers a similar satisfaction.

But… it is brilliant! It’s not perfect: there are some decidedly dodgy (American?) accents in there, visible wires, wobbly props, fluffed lines and questionable gender and race portrayals. But, and taken in context, these faults are far out-weighed by the sheer majesty of the episodes themselves.

Writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis are back to deliver their third Cybermen story (and the first one to feature the word ‘Cybermen’ in its title). Not only that, it’s also the opening story  for the fifth series of Doctor Who, first aired in September 1967, and follows fairly quickly after series four’s July finale The Evil of the Daleks.

From Daleks to Cybermen with no filler – you really couldn’t ask for more.

A lot seems to have been learned by the production team since the Cybermen’s debut in The Tenth Planet and their second outing in The Moonbase: gone is the clumsy movement, the I-am-a-robot body language. Gone, too, is the overly verbose and often unintelligible cyber-talk. What we’re now presented with are villains much more believable, more sinister, and certainly more athletic. They clearly have an unhealthy obsession with taking over our planet, but they’re not going to do that by simply exterminating us. Oh, no!  These guys are going to make us like them. And not only that, they’re going to do it fairly quickly.

There’s no hovering about or slow creeping here – Cybermen walk and run (and stumble!) just as quickly as you or I. They are strong enough to lift even the biggest of us and they fire electrical bolts from their lobster claws! Running up stairs or standing still ain’t gonna cut it here, Vic – these guys will get you. And that’s what makes them the scariest of all Doctor Who villains. That, and the best, successfully-evolving, costume of all time.

Doctor Who classic: The Tomb of the Cybermen

The story begins with a spaceship landing on the planet Telos, its occupants agenda being to find the lost tomb of the Cybermen and ultimately plunder its contents for their own nefarious ends. Fortunately for us they do this rather quickly, and, even more fortunately for us (and all mankind), the Doctor and his companions arrive right at the source of this discovery very shortly after.

It’s a story that hits the ground running at the beginning of episode one and doesn’t let up until it finishes three episodes later. There’s no time for preamble – we’re into the story right from the get-go, the only concession being to allow the Doctor to acquaint new companion Victoria (beautifully played by Deborah Watling) to the workings of the TARDIS and to reacquaint us to the concept of Doctor Who as a whole (presumably just in case we’d become so immersed in the ‘Summer of Love’ and Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that our memories had become a little… foggy).

The sequence at the beginning, where we follow the Doctor and Victoria into the TARDIS as he begins to show her around, is magical. It’s almost as though we are there with them, right behind, until suddenly we realise that we’re actually looking through the eyes of the Doctor’s other companion, Jamie (the ever-wonderful Fraser Hines), and we’re seeing things the way he sees them. And then we step back, Jamie steps into shot, and before we know it he’s taken Victoria off to change into a skirt that’s ‘even shorter than his own’!

The Doctor uncovers the truth in The Tomb of the Cybermen

This is what’s now referred to as a ‘second Doctor’ story, but Patrick Troughton is second to no-one in terms of his grasp of the character and his acting ability as a whole. Totally at ease with his rôle, he is at times childish and petulant, clever and irascible, but always endearing and concerned. And, like Fraser Hines, when he’s on-screen he lights it up. One of my all-time favourite Doctor Who scenes occurs in this story, and involves them both. It’s where the Doctor (accidentally?) takes Jamie by the hand as they’re about to enter the Cybermen’s tomb and Jamie shakes it off rather too quickly. For me that sums up the essence of their relationship: paternal, caring, but somewhat awkward.

Newcomer Watling’s Victoria shows early on that she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. Charismatic and spunky, she’ll use that pistol if she has to! Lighting design very rarely gets a mention in film or television reviews, but there’s a point in the first episode where Victoria is telling the Doctor how she misses her loved ones and is shot in close-up. She positively glows, Hollywood-style. Stand up and be counted, lighting designer Graham Sothcott!

Morris Barry, who’s previous credits include The Moonbase, directs both the regular and supporting cast with style and finesse. Particular mention should go to Shirley Cooklin, who plays the nasty Kaftan, George Pastell as her power-hungry compatriot Klieg and Aubrey Richards as Professor Parry. But, in truth, all of the cast do a pretty good job at conveying the story and keeping us entertained.  Script editor Victor Pemberton keeps things pacey and punchy – there’s absolutely no time for flab here. In fact, I’m pretty sure the cast are grateful to be saved the ignominy of repeating plot points to explain what the hell’s going on to viewers who, in previous stories may have nodded off during parts 4 and 5 of seven – or even ten – episodes. There’s also little time for running down the same corridors multiple times!

Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen

And this brings me neatly to set and costume design, by Martin Johnson and Sandra Reid (with Dorothea Wallace) respectively. Much appears to have been written previously about these particular Cybermen, their hive cells, and the tomb in which they were interred. I’m not going to go against the general consensus that, whilst a little rickety, they did the job well enough, if not better than well enough. What I am going to state here and now is that they are much, much more: they are iconic examples of the best in British science-fiction design (and I’ll zap anyone who disagrees with an electrical bolt from my lobster claw)!

The Cybermen have an unhealthy obsession with taking over our planet, but they’re not going to do that by simply exterminating us – these guys are going to make us like them.

And not only that, they’re going to do it quickly.

Beautiful, menacing, pseudo-S&M costumes: the sequence where we see the Cyberman Controller (Michael Kilgarriff) for the first time… He’s not lying in a coffin, or standing strapped to a column, he’s in a state of readiness, crouching down in his cell, waiting for the door to be opened so that he can once again unleash himself upon the Universe. And when he talks you know he means business. He’s a (Cyber)man of few words, but what he does say, in his robotic, emotionless voice chills to the bone.

Part Ancient Egypt, part Mayan, quite a lot beehive, the sets are spectacular. And vast! The main hive is gigantic and simply oozing with Cybermen – no corners cut here budget-wise! All of the sets, from the initial entranceway to the foyer area and within, are all believable, adding atmosphere and credence to the story being told. Oh, and this is the first time we see those pesky Cybermats!

The Tomb of the Cybermen is Doctor Who at its finest. Sure, it’s grainy and monochrome, shot on a shoestring, quickly, with little margin for error, correction or fine-tuning. It was made within British Broadcasting Corporation guidelines, primarily for children in a nice, safe, early evening time-slot. It does look dated and old-fashioned. There are character stereotypes that are wholly unacceptable today. It is flawed. But it is also entertaining and informative, humorous and honest, magical, wonderful and… brilliant!


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