With the Cybermen back in action in this week’s new episode of Doctor Who, I thought it was a good time to finally talk about one of my all time favorite stories, the Patrick Troughton-starring “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” It also happens to be a great introduction to late-60s era Who.
“Tomb” opens season 5 of the classic series and served as a trial-run for eventual producer Peter Bryant; that eagerness to prove something makes this kind of a landmark story. The Doctor, stalwart companion Jamie McCrimmon and newly-joined Victoria Waterfield land on the icy world of Telos just as an Earther archeological expedition discovers an ancient tomb of that world’s long dead civilization — the Cybermen! Though stymied by a rigged door that electrocutes a member of the dig team, the Doctor can’t help but getting involved, allowing them access to the outer tomb. The Doctor tries valiantly to stop the team from progressing any further, but cannot help but solve several of the puzzles the Cybermen left behind for anyone who would enter their tomb. Also, the dig’s financier, Kaftan, and her chief confidant Klieg are adamant about progressing into the complex. It of course leads to the Doctor’s third confrontation with the cyborgs bent on making sure that all the humans will “be like us.”
Unusual for the period, “The Tomb of the Cybermen” is a four-part story. The rest of season five is composed of six-parters and generally suffer the usual six-parter pace problems. (At least the ones that survive. Until last year, “Tomb” was the only season five story to exist in its entirety and only one of two that is complete without animation or other means of bridging missing episodes) As I’ve said before, the four-part story is the ideal length for the classic show, and “Tomb” exemplifies why. It’s long enough that we get a feel for the guest characters like Kaftan or Parry, the official leader of the dig, but not so long that we lose an episode to the characters running across the same Lime Grove Studio sets.
That said, the sets are quite spectacular. Flush with cash as the season begins, the production designer manages to create a pretty solid reality to Cyber design. Switches work, big heavy-looking doors swing shut on companions and Cybermen alike. While it’s not feature film quality, it’s spectacular for a modest British sci-fi program with a kid’s show budget.
It also gets a boost from unusually good black-and-white camerawork and lighting. While the bulk is shot in the traditional three-camera studio set up, a few select moments are shot on film. They almost blend seamlessly; a rare event for the BBC’s standard production method. There’s also a nice contrast between the upper levels being dark and spooky while the Cybermen’s literal tomb is generally brightly lit.
Though the Cyberman are photographed with plenty of light, this story sees them at their actual spookiest. Often figures of camp, the villains are treated seriously here with their desire to assimilate never more present or deadly. They manage to be genuinely chilling for the first time in their existence. Although, I’ll admit, they tend to make a jaw-harp like muttering sound at odd times and the moment of their return is hampered with the inclusion of the unofficial Cybertheme music.
I consider this story the best place to bring a new viewer into the Troughton years precisely because he’s just spectacular in it. Now having been the Doctor for a year, Pat plays all the various shades of his Doctor over the course of the story’s 90-minute length. He’s excited by the technology and mystery. He plays the fool to prevent the team from accessing the inner part of the tomb. He’s indignant when speaking to the Cybermen. He’s also unexpectedly warm with Victoria in the story’s single most amazing scene. Comforting his new companion, who lost her father in the previous story, Troughton delivers a speech that is both revealing of the character and a restatement of the show’s “spirit of adventure.” It’s really, really good.
Now, there are definitely some criticisms to address. Chief amongst them is Kaftan’s nearly mute strongman servant Toberman. Needing a man nearly as physically imposing as Cyber Controller actor Michael Kilgariff, the production cast Roy Stewart as Toberman. As one of the few black actors to appear on the program at the time, hiring Stewart makes a statement, whether intended or not. Though Toberman is not a racist caricature, the story still paints him as something of an obsequious manservant — neighboring on a noble slave persona — and can be quite shocking the first time you watch the story. While the show is often progressive (Victoria gets in a few good digs at a chauvinistic starship captain in this story), Toberman represents one of the times it sinks into the cultural blindspots of the era in which it was produced. Also, on one of the DVD commentary tracks, actor Frazer Hines admits they nick-named the character “Toblerone” because black skin … and chocolate … and … yeah, we all still suck at this race relations thing. But, at the same time, Stewart does his best to deliver some character to the thankless role.
There are a handful of obvious bloopers — mic shadows, line flubs and a very noticeable wire attached to Toberman when one of the Cybermen throws him across the set.
If you are used to the higher energy end-of-episode cliffhangers, the lack of them here may surprise you. Prior to 1970, the musical sting, smash-zooms and shouting that generally accompanies a Doctor Who cliffhanger had not yet been devised. Consequently, the end moments of each part tend to slow the pace rather than make you anticipate the next episode.
Also, as I’ve mentioned in other Doctor Who articles, stories from the 60s are paced much, much slower than the current series. Luckily, the DVDs retain the opening and closing titles for all the episodes, so it’s easy to take breaks or watch it in its original 25-minute-per-episode presentation.
The final two episode do lose some of the atmosphere that make parts one and two particularly great, but Troughton’s performance, the final character turns and the absolute chaos of the closing minutes make this a worthwhile story and definitely a fine introduction to the Second Doctor.