Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tomb of the Cybermen

In the years after airing in September 1967, Tomb of the Cybermen built a reputation as one of the great classics of Doctor Who - the scariest story Who ever told, full of colorful characters and frightening concepts. When it was discovered a decade later to be one of the missing serials, junked by the BBC to save space in 1969, its reputation only grew - not only was it one of the greats, it was apparently lost forever. So its rediscovery in 1992 had it heralded as the most sought-after story at last rediscovered. It was quickly released on video... to a somewhat disappointed reputation. The consensus about Tomb changed - it was a great script muddled by a low-budget production. This has lead to a belief in some quarters that the lost episodes are better left undiscovered for fear that their on-screen realization can never be as good as we imagined.

Which is ridiculous. The production is as good as '60s Who gets - vividly atmospheric, memorably designed, and featuring a couple of terrific set-pieces. And there probably isn't a Classic serial with a more effective use of music throughout the story, both stock and original, until Paddy Kingsland's arrival in 1981. No, the problem is that the story is rubbish, which actually should have been obvious long before the video release.

The opening in the TARDIS re-establishes the premise of the series nicely, while the following location footage in a quarry representing the planet Telos is impressively shot. It's a good lead-in to the actual plot, which begins as the Doctor and his companions are drawn into a group of archeologists' attempt to reopen the tomb where the last Cybermen in the universe are said to be held. The first two episodes follow the attempts by Kaftan, financier of the expedition, her two colleagues, Klieg and Toberman, and the Doctor to solve the various puzzles left by the Cybermen so they can get down into the tombs. Once down there, Klieg unleashes the Cybermen for his own purposes.

After that point (and, really, before, but to a much lesser extent), the story depends absolutely on characters acting stupid. At the end of the second episode, Kaftan and Klieg reveal themselves to be mustache-twirling villians (which, frankly, was obvious from the moment they stepped onscreen, but whatever), so the heroes lock them up. In a room that has a cyberman gun inside it. And it's not like they don't know this - Jamie's the one who discovered the gun.

While we’re at it, Klieg unleashes the Cybermen under the assumption that because they’re totally logically beings and he comes from an Earth group that believes in total logic. Klieg is less a few fries short of a happy meal than the full happy meal with an apple pie for dessert, so whatever. But once they turn on him and tell him, “You belong to us. You shall be like us.” They make their intentions perfectly, absolutely clear. Once he discovers said gun, he decides that he can make the Cybermen – all of them – follow his orders and make him ruler of earth simply because he has the gun. Kaftan, naturally, agrees. Strange conception of logic these logic folks have.

These two can be at least sort of let off on the insanity defense. There’s no such excuse for the Cybermen. They’ve frozen themselves in the tombs because they’re desperately low on power, but put the Recovery Chamber sarcophagus that can restore them outside of their locked tomb instead of right next to it. Their Cyber guns have an inconsistent effect on humans, but are apparently so lethal to themselves that they actually do cave in to Klieg until they get a chance to turn on him. What sorts of logical beings keep a gun in their secret base that’s only lethal to them?

But even that, really, is somewhat forgivable for the sake of a good show.

But the Doctor is the worst of them all. He spends the first two episodes carefully manipulating Klieg into opening up the tomb because apparently he wants to know what Klieg is up to. Klieg shows him, trying almost immediately to revive the Cybermen. And yet the Doctor still allows him to drive the second half of the story, as though he’s completely forgotten Klieg is completely nuts. At the climax, he baits Klieg into admitting how crazy he is – but this was clearly established two episodes ago, and the Doctor has apparently just been waiting for him to admit it to actually care about solving the plot.

Earlier in the final episode, the Cyber Leader, almost dead from lack of power, asks the Doctor to use the controls to put him inside the sarcophagus in order to revive him. The Doctor complies. Jamie desperately tries to get him to stop, but the Doctor insists, apparently under the belief that the Cyber Leader is unable to harm them if he’s inside the chamber built specifically to make him really, really powerful.

Finally, at the end of the story, the Doctor’s solution is to just close the doors and electrify them again so they’ll kill anyone who tries to get in. He doesn’t destroy the Cybermen. He just sets up a trap to kill any soul unfortunate enough to try opening that door. Basically, he came into the story, did all the work to release the Cybermen, personally revived the Cyber Leader, got a bunch of people killed, including several innocent archeologists, and then left the Cybermen in exactly the position they were in before – just waiting for someone clever but evil like Kaftan and Klieg to release them again. The only thing he leaves to chance is whether or not his deathtrap will kill an innocent. The ending, naturally, acts as though the Doctor somehow saved the day doing all this.

Also, did these things actually accomplish anything in the entire story?

How did this script get through? After all, this wasn’t a rushed script slopped onscreen because there weren’t any other scripts available. This was the season opener, written by Gerry Davis (from Kit Pedler’s ideas, which I imagine where infinitely more sensible than anything that ended up onscreen), who had been the script editor for the previous year-and-a-half.

The reason, I suspect, comes down to how Davis and producer Innes Lloyd approached the show – as a kids’ program. It’s very true that kids love Doctor Who, and for good reason. But there’s a tendency to approach a “kids’ show” as though it doesn’t matter whether it makes any sense or is particularly complex or thoughtful, just as long as enough stuff happens that they won’t change the channel or, heaven forbid, actually turn off the TV and go outside. That approach creates shows like Superfriends that don’t attempt to make sense, tell a good story, or even really try hard. They just put enough stuff there to engage kids who don’t care.

And you know what? Kids will watch Superfriends. But they’ll also watch Batman: The Animated Series, and not only will they watch it, they’ll be more excited about it. Even to them, that’s a better show. And the thing about Batman TAS is that it tells such compelling stories and populates them with such complex characters and inventive action that they’re just as engaging for teens and adults.

And Doctor Who is like that – not a kids’ show, but a family show. Yes, it’s a show where a silly old man defeats scary monsters mostly by making fun of them. But it’s also a show where writers like David Whitaker, Robert Holmes, and Douglas Adams and producers like Verity Lambert, Barry Letts, and Philip Hinchcliffe create original, witty, complex, thrilling, thought-provoking yarns that push the bounds of storytelling. And have a silly old man defeat monsters by making fun of them.

Tomb has no such ambitions. Coming to it from the middle of the Verity Lambert era, it’s clear what leaps and bounds the production values have taken in just three years. Yes, there are moments that are a little clumsy, where the wires holding an actor up are visible, where the staging is just a little off. But it’s mostly a slick, well-put-together show. A lot of the time, it feels like a modestly-budgeted black & white movie rather than a brutally rushed TV show with a budget of pocket lint.

But where Dalek Invasion of Earth told a sweeping epic that explored an abandoned London before moving across the desolate countryside, Tomb tells a story that barely qualifies as having a plot in three small rooms. Dalek Invasion of Earth is a story about rebellion against tyranny, hope against all odds, and the English spririt. Tomb of the Cybermen is about a silly old man who acts like he beat the monsters by making fun of them, but actually accomplished nothing because it’s just a kids’ show and nobody really cares.

That’s why the plot is thin and makes no sense. That’s why the show only acts like the Doctor saved that day and doesn’t bother having him actually do it. That’s why Shirley Cooklin, George Pastell, and Roy Stewart don’t put any subtlety or dimension in their (admittedly enjoyably scenery-chrewing) performances – the kids have to get that they’re the bad guys, regardless of how it affects the story.

Oh, it’s all watchable enough. Director Morris Barry creates an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere that never lets up. The stock music is superb throughout. Patrick Troughton is terrific, as I’ll discuss in a moment. A handful of individual scenes are great. And lots and lots of stuff happens. Ultimately, this isn’t a great story let down by a weak production, but a poor story that just barely gets by on pure style.

In the midst of a script that gives him nothing to do, Patrick Troughton goes around acting like he’s been handed Evil of the Daleks or something similarly brilliant. His manipulations of the villains into doing what he wants are awesome. He can blend completely into the background, then come full force into center stage with the slightest effort. He’s funny, intelligent, and fascinatingly alien. The script doesn’t give him any of those things – it’s all Troughton acting so fantastically Doctorish you can almost miss that this guy is so thoroughly un-Doctorish the proto-Doctor of An Unearthly Child would be appalled.

The companions don’t fare particularly well, but survive more or less unscathed. Frazier Hines is fine, though Jamie doesn’t really do anything all story. Deborah Watling lights up the screen as Victoria. Unfortunately, Victoria, in her second appearance, and first as an actual companion, doesn’t show much promise. She’s a damsel in distress whenever a crisis appears. She does manage to shoot one of the Cybermats, but otherwise doesn’t really contribute whenever danger is afoot.

She does get a pair of nice moments. When everyone is descending into the tomb in the second episode, she’s unhappy about being left behind because she’s just a girl, but the Doctor pulls her aside and tells her he actually wants her to stay behind so she can keep an eye on Kaftan. On the whole, though, the script treats her like she should be kept out of danger because she is just a girl, after all, and is only good for getting in trouble and screaming.

The other moment is in the third episode, when the Doctor talks with her about her father and his own family. It’s a lovely, genuinely classic scene that develops her into a likeable character with an intriguing background, while giving the Doctor his one genuinely Doctorish scene. And it pretty much sets the tone for Victoria as a companion: a good character, wonderfully played by Watling, who is absolutely worthless when it comes to adventuring.

Doctor: You miss him very much, don't you?
Victoria: Only when I close my eyes. 
  The idea for Toberman’s character arc (pretty much the only character with more than a clich├ęd, one-dimensional development) is good - he's only partially converted by the Cybermen so they can have a spy. The Doctor realizes this, and tries to reach through to what's left of his humanity to get him on their side. It's a great idea, but the execution is completely muddled. When he comes back at the beginning of episode 4, it's blatantly obvious they've half-converted him - not only does he act all robotic, but his right arm is clearly metallic. But somehow, despite Kaftan and Klieg both knowing exactly what the Cybermen are and do, they both fall instantly for it. Only Jamie and the Doctor notice anything is amiss. The Doctor’s attempt to get to his human side doesn’t seem to cause Toberman any conflict – it’s far too easy to be dramatically effective.

And yet, the climactic moment when he fights the Cyber Leader to close the electrified doors creates such a powerful image that it does work there. It would have been a lot more compelling if everything else about him had worked, of course. But when nobody sees the episodes for twenty-five years, they forget how the idea mostly failed and remember that great climactic image.

More than that, though, they remembered the Cybermen coming out of their tombs. The first two episodes build an ever-increasing sense of dread about them. And when they finally emerge, it’s absolutely sensational – one of the most spectacular and terrifying set-pieces 60s Who pulled off, all the more effective for how slowly and lovingly it’s filmed. The show got a lot of use out of the stock song “Space Adventures” around this time, but never to such effect. It’s such a unique and staggering sequence that it overwhelms everything else. The Cybermen going right back into their tombs, the Doctor stupidly creating every crisis, the Doctor “solving” the problem by leaving it exactly the way he found it – all fade away the longer the story is remembered rather than experienced. That one great moment becomes the story.

That's the nature of human memory - we remember what was special, and forget what was ordinary. And in its few moments of glory, Tomb of the Cybermen is something special, however ordinary the rest may be.


 * * ½ 

  • There’s also the problem of the implied racism, but I just don’t have it in me to tear it apart for that – there’s too much else wrong with the story (and, honestly, a pretty minor part) to care. 

  • The crew of the spacecraft are Americans, one of those times Who throws them out there. This mostly results in actors putting more effort into getting the accents right than actually acting, but has one brilliant bit where after the British characters (and the British alien) spend two episodes meticulously opening the tomb by solving the logic puzzle, the Americans do so in a couple of minutes by opening the controls up and hotwiring them. This may just be another example of Davis’ lazy plotting, but I prefer to see it as a sly joke that also happens to be lazy plotting.

  • There's a nice moment between Jamie and the Doctor where the Doctor takes his hand to lead him into the tombs - presumably thinking it's Victoria - before they realize they're holding hands and throw their arms away.  It's a great little bit almost certainly added by Hines and Troughton, but Morris Barry turns it into a nice visual, framing Victoria in between and behind them, and them inside the massive door.  It's a beautifully geometric shot that uses the multiple frames - the door, Jamie and the Doctor, and Victoria behind, with the backdrop itself yet another frame around Victoria - to subtly create the claustrophobic feel Barry gives the show.
He has a lot of great shots like that, creating frames within frames, all in a shadowy environment.  It's a brilliant example of atmosphere on a budget.

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