The Tomb Of The Cybermen
By Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 310
During the 1980s, there was something of a Cyberman Renaissance. These monsters, which had dominated Doctor Who in the mid to late 1960s, had regained their appeal with the overwhelming success of Earthshock, and begun edging out the Daleks as most popular villain. With this success came a revival in interest of the stories in which they had originally appeared, as well as in the actors, designers and producers who had first brought them to life, most notably Gerry Davis.
I met Gerry Davis at a number of conventions in the mid to late ‘80s, and on one occasion visited him at his home. A tall and imposing figure, Davis had a confident, charismatic manner and a skillful way with words which made his criticisms of the then current production team-- whether justified or not-- easy to believe. Many fans, after hearing his stories, began to accept as unquestionable fact that the Lloyd/Davis partnership was the period in which Doctor Who began to take off, that the Cybermen were the greatest villains of all time and, most importantly, that “The Tomb of the Cybermen” was an all-time "classic" of Doctor Who.
On this last point Davis was pushing at an open door, because it is no exaggeration to say that “The Tomb of the Cybermen” had, and in some quarters still has, an enormous reputation, helped greatly by the fact that it was missing for over twenty years from the BBC Archives. The story was also given an additional boost at the time and subsequently by being the subject of a Talkback programme on television violence. Add to this the evocative title, and the fact that many of the fans who would sing its praises in the 1980s were at a fairly impressionable age when viewing it in 1967, and you can see how the apotheosis of “Tomb” came about. The novelisation, the scriptbook and fan audio tracks were all available at the time to provide evidence to the contrary, but the sheer juggernaut of publicity made it difficult to say anything critical of “The Tomb of the Cybermen”.
This would soon change. When released on video in 1992 following a massive fanfare of publicity, “Tomb” soon became the fastest-selling Doctor Who video of the time, in keeping with its reputation. However, once available in visual form to the fan market, the story was met with an embarrassed silence. To be fair, no Doctor Who adventure could have lived up to the myths and legends that beset “Tomb” over the years; but that notwithstanding, "Tomb" proved on viewing to be mediocre at best, and certainly not worthy of the publicity which had surrounded it. The great tragedy of "Tomb", though, is that with a very few changes, it could easily have risen to the calibre of "The Evil of the Daleks"; sadly, it was not to be, and the adventure fails to deliver.
This disappointment is even more of a surprise when one considers that “Tomb”, although most of its antecedents stem from Gerry Davis and Kit Pedlar’s previous two Cyberman stories (“The Tenth Planet” and “The Moonbase”), is most influenced by the “Mummy” horror films, a genre which has spawned some genuine pulp classics. The scenario reads like an identikit Thirties-Hollywood Egypt-set thriller: a desert containing a tomb in which a leader lies, not dead but waiting to return, with a loyal retinue. Even the theme of the party being betrayed by a greedy member is a staple of the mummy story ever since Carter was said to have incurred the “curse of the pharaohs” due to making a profit over the artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb. The almost comedically implausible scene in which the expedition's survivors close the tombs' doors with shoring timber would also make more sense in an era of colonial outposts and wooden ships than in one involving a space vessel on a desert planet. The character lineup, furthermore, recalls the Edwardian horror adventure: the absentminded archaeologist, the hard-nosed captain, the beautiful but sinister foreign woman with a silent Black manservant, and an equally sinister foreign scientist.
Unfortunately, however, this scenario proves to be the story's most problematic aspect. Had “Tomb” played with or subverted these stereotypes it might well come across as a clever homage to H. Rider Haggard or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, much as "The Highlanders" does with R.L. Stevenson and "The Evil of the Daleks" with Verne and Wells. As it is, the reverse is true. The presence of George Pastell, well-known for playing sinister priests and mad Arabic guides in such films as The Mummy (1959) and Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), playing a generic "excitable foreigner" with a Germanic name and a vaguely Middle-Eastern appearance, and George Roubicek as a similarly generic unimaginative-but-gung-ho American captain, would be more excusable had the story been written in an era well-known for its casual ethnic stereotyping (the fact that Parry, a Welshman and therefore "honourary English" in the colonial argot, is the only character to escape such a portrayal would also fit this setting). The recent Disney film Atlantis (2001) includes characters which, in other contexts, would have been singled out by the critics as stereotypical if not outright offensive—a sinister German, a grossly sensual Frenchman and a civilization of "beautiful and noble" quasi-Polynesian Atlanteans—all of which have eluded comment at least partly due to the fact that the story is a deliberate pastiche of Conan Doyle, and consequently the viewer almost expects to find colonialist and anti-European elements in it. Returning to "Tomb", the archaeological party’s reaction upon meeting the Doctor and companions -- which amounts to "they speak English, they must be all right" -- would be understandable for a colonial expedition in Edwardian Egypt; in the case of this Doctor Who story, however, the characters are supposed to be space travellers, not Edwardian explorers.
By introducing the space-exploration element, the writing team has accentuated the problems of their scenario. The far-future setting places the characters in a cinematic genre in which, although it is hardly devoid of ethnic stereotypes, racial harmony among humans is generally portrayed as the norm. Pedlar and Davis' previous stories, "The Moonbase" and "The Tenth Planet" use (somewhat stereotypical) racially mixed casts to indicate a far-future setting; in both adventures, however, the crewmembers are portrayed in a fairly even-handed fashion, as people from different backgrounds banding together against a common menace. In “Tomb”, on the other hand, all "foreign" characters are portrayed as sinister, stupid or insane, in contrast to the businesslike, sensible and ultimately, in most cases, likable characters in “The Moonbase”. Consequently, the travellers in "Tomb" come across not as arch riffs on literary cliches, but as spaceborne imperialists whose division along ethnic lines sits ill with the Sixties vision of a harmonious, racially mixed future.
In considering the scenario, one cannot help but compare “Tomb” with its immediate, and more successful, predecessor “The Evil of the Daleks”. Both are stories about people who come to grief through thinking that they can do a deal with an evil cyborg race; both have strong roots in 19th- and early 20th -century horror stories; both have behaviour modification and the idea that the characters are following a test or plan as strong themes. Through a comparison between "Evil" and "Tomb", we can see how a portrayal which is acceptable in one context becomes a racial stereotype in another.
In "Evil", we are introduced to the character of Kemel, Maxtabile's "Turk" manservant. Kemel is strong, a servant protecting a woman to whom he shows a good deal of devotion, and is apparently mentally retarded. Viewers of both stories cannot help but draw parallels between him and Kaftan's Black manservant, Toberman. The description of Toberman in Gerry Davis’ 1978 novelisation of "Tomb" is also more akin to Kemel than to Toberman’s screen appearance. However, foreign manservants, while common in the 1860s, are not something one associates with the far future; furthermore, it is openly stated that Kemel’s “mind is undeveloped,” which suggests that not all Turks are as Kemel is, whereas Toberman is presented without explanation, almost as if it is expected for a Black man to be backward. Additionally, only the villains of "Evil" treat Kemel as a simpleton and a servant; Jamie, the Doctor and Victoria all treat Kemel with respect, thus emphasising that racism is a product of ignorance. In "Tomb", by contrast, even the Doctor fails to acknowledge Toberman's humanity, which stands in sharp contrast with his behaviour in the previous story. The belief that in the original script Toberman was intended to be deaf, wearing a visible hearing aid, which might at least have explained his lack of dialogue (even if it does bring in uncomfortable stereotypes about the physically disabled); is a confusion based on a costume brief for Toberman's appearance, after he had been converted by the Cybermen, which includes the addition of an earpiece, meant to be a Cyber-controlling device. The roles of Kemel and Toberman are almost identical; however, by virtue of the fact that one is placed in a Victorian, and the other in a far-future setting, the first comes across as a clever comment on the evils of prejudice, while the other appears to have strongly racist overtones.
It is also worth briefly considering the treatment of the female characters. Once again, we have a situation which would be more excusable in a story written in the nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century (and understandable, if somewhat less excusable, in a later pastiche of such a story), or one set in that time period with a view to portraying, playing with or subverting the stereotypes of the era. One of the women is an evil, unscrupulous foreigner with flashing eyes and ruthless ways; the other, despite being evidently in her twenties, acts like, and is treated like, a child (Victoria and Hopper: “Who’d be a woman?” “How would you know, honey?”). Both are continually being sent off together, made to stay behind, not allowed to go anywhere without Toberman to “protect them” and otherwise treated like a pair of shrinking violets. While the women seen in contemporary space serials such as Star Trek seem woefully unliberated from a modern perspective, they are at least shown as skilled professionals, playing a useful if limited role in their organisations. Again, the treatment of Kaftan and Victoria is one excusable on an Edwardian expedition, but in a far-future Doctor Who story is a big step backwards from "The Daleks' Master Plan" and "The Power of the Daleks".
The Edwardian-pastiche elements of “Tomb”, however, regrettably do not extend to the development of the plot. Where Edwardian thrillers are usually simple, tensely-plotted stories which hang together consistently, “Tomb” falls short of the mark due to an unfortunate series of inexcusable gaps and lacunae. These errors stem mainly from the fact that the writers do not seem to be thinking in terms of what the various characters would do in a particular scenario, but in terms of writing an exciting story in four parts.
Consider, for instance, the scene involving the hypnotic device at the end of part one, concluding with Haydon being shot in the back. This scene is clearly intended to be a cliffhanger instilling in the audience the suggestion that the Cybermen are about to appear. However, what exactly is the device in question intended to be? A mechanism to kill would-be rescuers? A room for testing experimental weapons? A machine for blowing the heads off dummy Cybermen? Similarly, the fact that there is no opening mechanism inside the tombs allowing the newly-thawed Cybermen to escape (and that the Cybermen have for some reason stored their revitalisation equipment outside the hatch) provides a way of keeping the humans safe from the Cybermen, but makes no sense from a practical point of view. Finally, the Doctor's rewiring of the doors at the end of the story makes for a nice tense battle scene and a tragic death for Toberman; however, why exactly the Doctor thinks it is a good idea to reset the same trap which the Cybermen set themselves (which would naturally kill the next person who happens along), and why he goes to the trouble of electrifying the control panel and hatch (as, once the doors are opened, the circuit electrifying these would be broken), is never made clear. The problem, once again, is that the writers do not seem to be considering the story as a case of characters with problems and motivations, but as a series of set pieces providing dramatic thrills at appropriate moments.
This carelessness does not only extend to the cliffhangers, but in fact hamstrings the central tenet of the plot itself. The scenario we are presented with suggests that, five hundred years ago the Cyberman Controller, realizing that there were fewer than ten Cybermen left on Telos, decided that their best hope was to cryogenically freeze themselves in the expectation that human beings who could be converted into Cybermen would turn up and resuscitate them. While this seems a trifle optimistic on the Controller’s part, the general idea is solid enough to escape comment.
After this, however, the story’s premises rapidly become difficult, if not impossible, to swallow. We learn that for the Cybermen to achieve resuscitation, it requires a group of civilians to arrive on Telos armed with nothing more than pistols and bringing with them a madman. Had the first expedition to come along been a military one, or one familiar with the history and biology of the Cybermen, the cyborgs could quite easily have found themselves destroyed while vulnerable. By contrast, while we are repeatedly told that the tests and trials are meant to ensure that a particular sort of person is to revive the Cybermen, we get no inkling of what it is they are looking for or why. Not intelligence, it seems, as Jamie, Toberman and Hopper make it through. Not sanity, as Klieg is the one who ultimately breaks the logic codes. Not quantity, either, as some of the traps seem designed to reduce the team's numbers rather than ensure that the maximum amount of people get through to the tomb. The central idea of the plot-- the unwitting resuscitation of the Cybermen by a team of archaeologists-- thus hinges on too many convenient coincidences, which the Cybermen could not possibly have foreseen, to be truly believable.
The tragedy of all this is that with a bit more thought, all of these problems could have been avoided. If the intention of electrifying the doors had been to fuse them shut, then the final scene would have made sense; if it had been clear from the tests what the Cybermen were looking for in conversion material, we would have learned something more about the Cybermen. Also, if the resuscitation plot had been better executed, we might well have had a tense mystery thriller as the Doctor and company desperately try to figure out where they are being led and why. As it is, the plot requires far too many coincidences, as well as irrational behaviour from all characters, for the writers' desired outcome to be achieved.
This irrationality displayed on the part of the characters is, however, compensated for in great measure by "Tomb" ’s phenomenal cast. As well as George Pastell, it boasts veteran thesps Aubrey Richards and Cyril Shaps; Shirley Cooklin is quite good, and George Roubicek has an impressive filmography. Even though Roy Stewart is not brilliant, it is to his credit that he was one of the few Black actors working in Britain in the 1960s. Peter Hawkins is less known outside of Doctor Who, but within it has a long track record of monster voices. This is all to the good as many of them have to work very hard to make the characters come across as even remotely convincing.
Take the case of Klieg. He, along with Kaftan, is a member of the Brotherhood of Logicians; however, logic does not appear to be their strong point. Logic would, for instance, dictate that the Cybermen, given their history, are not amenable to equal partnerships with humans however intelligent; logic also suggests that the idea that the emotionless Cybermen will help their rescuers out of gratitude is not a likely one. Klieg also fails to reason from the Cybermen's behaviour following their revival, assuming that he can control the Cybermen by holding their Controller at gunpoint, and also that they will follow him once their Controller is dead, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. It could be argued that Klieg is, as the Doctor says, insane; but in that case one might well ask why Kaftan continues to support his actions, or why the Brotherhood sent him there in the first place. All in all, Klieg may be well portrayed, but his actions are exceedingly illogical for a Logician.
The Doctor’s actions are also uncharacteristically lacking in intelligence. The Doctor is the one who helps Klieg get into the tombs, his motivation apparently being simply that he wanted to find out what Klieg was up to; surely there are ways of doing this which do not involve multiple deaths and putting oneself and one's companions in dire peril. The Doctor also does not show his characteristic bent for rational answers; he appears at one point to believe that the best way to defeat the Controller is by putting him in the revitalisation equipment and switching it on, thereby allowing his enemy to regain power and the upper hand. Although the scene in which the Doctor and Victoria talk about their families is nicely done, Troughton’s performance during the rest of the story is on balance merely adequate. Whereas in earlier stories Troughton had played the role fairly earnestly, here he skips about without really giving 100% effort, almost as if he doesn’t want to be seen to be taking the story terribly seriously. Troughton’s lack of effort is unsurprising when one considers what a far cry the foolish, careless Doctor of "Tomb" is from the cunning and intelligent man seen in "The Evil of the Daleks".
Finally, the Cybermen themselves do not come out of this terribly well. Despite the fact that there are only nine of them, they seem to believe that they can take over the Earth once they have Klieg’s help; instead of trying to escape the tombs they wander around using up their dwindling energy reserves, or sending Cybermats up the tubes in an attempt to kill the only people capable of freeing them (and we never learn why they have built alternative exits for the Cybermats but not for themselves). For a species normally given second billing only to the Daleks, they are not terribly impressive: they climb out of the tombs, they mill about not really seeming to know what to do, they climb back in again apologetically. In sum, then, despite the best efforts of many cast members, the motivations and personalities of the characters are poorly thought through, meaning that they come across less as memorable individuals than as ciphers whose sole purpose is to urge the plot along from set-piece to set-piece.
In retrospect, it is quite easy to see why “The Tomb of the Cybermen” gained its reputation as a classic story. The basic idea is not a bad one and, as we have seen, with some additional thought, the story would be excellent. Unfortunately, though, the tragedy of "Tomb" is that rather than being a clever pastiche, solidly plotted adventure and/or showcase for an all-star cast, it fails to live up to its potential, relying on gimmicks, monsters and conveniences rather than on sound characterisation and storytelling.
Effects copyright Maureen Marrs