The Tomb of the Cybermen: DVD Special

Written by:
Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Directed by: Morris Barry
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1967
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try

My site designer hates this review more than any of my others. Using what is a silly 60s story to offer up tongue-in-cheek social commentary he says that I talk even more crap than usual in it. This is probably true, but not only is it a very popular story, it's also the one to obviously inspire the name of this site. So here goes…

"Keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut."

The Tomb of the Cybermen, missing for fourteen years, was infamously hyped up as The Holy Grail of Who. The Citizen Kane of sci-fi. The Potemkin of genre TV. The… you get the idea.

Naturally, many found the real thing an anti-climax that couldn't live up to its inflated reputation, and I include myself in that number. Yet return viewings, without the harsh expectations have revealed it to be a strong Doctor Who story. Even if you can't quite shake the feeling that it's a little bit of a kid's show…

Context is everything. I suppose watching this one after season six I can clearly detect the difference in Pat's performance. Even though the actual content may not be classic, there's an overall brilliance that even Morris Barry's leaden direction can't destroy. (As with all these episode-by-episode reviews I wrote them as I was going along, hence the possibility that I contradict myself. Look out for a sentence in my episode three review that says exactly the opposite to the previous remark).

The stock music, which later includes the synonymous Cyber March (which is odd, as it actually first appeared in The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase) is pretty jarring in the first episode. One minute you're thinking "I heard that in The Prisoner", the next a trail of music just stops dead mid-scene with no discernible reason.

Trivia? Well, Victoria's "what are all these knobs?" is another of the much-touted entredres the era was noted for. And it's amusing to think that an expedition in the 26th century would be tempted by "fifty pounds". It's that kind of quaint datedness that can both repel and appeal, and in some ways this isn't too much of a step up from The Dominators. "Suppose we don't want your help?" "That's just it, you so obviously do." Sometimes it's just the way he tells 'em.

The addition of a monosyllabic black muscleman slave following a story with a mute Turkish muscleman servant is questionable politics. Yet don't concentrate on the dodgy acting of the support cast (and Frazer) and focus on the all-conquering presence of The Mighty Trout. He's the ultimate player, a manipulative, unethical diva. Why destroy the Cybermen's refrigeration unit when you can murder them all instead? Crap cliffhanger though…
* * * * ½

"Not you, Jamie!"

One thing about this DVD release is that the picture clean-up isn't as marked. It's good, of course, but it probably says more about the deteriorated original VHS of The Seeds of Death compared with Tomb than it does about the restoration.

The first three minutes of this one see the cast working out what we already knew last week, thanks to Barry's obvious direction. In fact, the whole of this is a bit of a filler episode, which is unusual for a four-parter. And just how crap is George Roubicek as Captain Hopper?

Yes, Pat has to duck down to pretend to be descending the Tomb steps, and polystyrene is everywhere, but the awakening of the Cybermen is a top ten Who moment. You can even forgive the "as live" filming which sees even The Mighty Trout fluff a couple of lines. Who is the "Brotherhood of Logicians" supposed to represent though? As their all foreign with a capital F, is this the imperialistic Who warning against the Black Panthers? And with the Cybermen's chilling warning of "you-shall-be-like-us" is this a homophobic parable from the pen of Pedler and Davis? And just in case you don't get it, the Cybermen all give a sub-Nazi salute which seems to suggest they're imitating moustaches.
* * * *

"We - will - survive."

As is often stated, the plot to this one is straight from a toot on a crack pipe. The Cybermen freeze themselves in a Tomb just on the off chance someone will release them one day? Is it a clever reversal of the base-under-siege format or just an incredibly lazy form of conquest? "Hey, Daleks, shall we go an exterminate a few planets?" "Nah, let's just sit and have a curry - someone'll turn up sooner or later."

The Mr. Punch attack noises are weird, though the special effects, and the realisation of the Cybermat (the small one - the big 'uns are crap) are both impressive. A new addition to Cyber continuity is that if they attack a non-Caucasian human they attach a pair of wires to their back first.

The Cybermen are cool here, though. Just how much scarier are their blank faces and open hands against the human-sounding, fist-pounding 80s versions? Another thing that saves this, the weakest episode, from the indignity of an average mark, is the talk that the Doctor gives about his family. It's another classic moment in a story full of them, even if the overall product doesn't quite match up.
* * * *

"Well now I know you're mad. I just wanted to make sure."

In some ways with Barry's rigid direction and generally lousy performances there's a very stagy, wooden air to proceedings here. For every good scene there's three or four that should have been reframed, and Frazer's "Scottish" accent seems at its most intermittent.

"If the Cyberman is aroused, we shall be ready for him." Who said there isn't a gay subtext to this story? A later scene sees Toberman rolling around and having a wrestle with a Cyberman, an activity that leaves the Cyberman writhing in his own white liquid. The embryonic form of the Cybermen is also interesting, with The Womb of the Cybermen a possible alternate title.

There's a fight between the Cybernised Toberman (his name just two letters difference, note) and the Cyber Controller. I must confess, when I first saw it I honestly thought I was watching the Ali-Foreman clash in Zaire. But then I rubbed my eyes and do you know what? Believe it or not it's actually Roy Stewart picking up a really crap dummy, chucking it across the room and then the picture cutting to a shot of Michael Kilgariff getting up. Yes, yes, I know it's hard to believe, so well is it edited and produced, but honestly it's true!

It's weird though how the Doctor is pitting himself against blind intellectualism and "evil"… by being more intelligent than his enemies and killing them all. Just to make sure, he rigs the Tomb so that anyone who tries to get back in will be fatally electrocuted. What a liberal guy the second Doctor is. And apparently Toberman's first name was Tom. He's got nephews somewhere, you know…
* * * *

Whether intentional or not, there is a lot of subtext to this story, however unsophisticated it may now appear to modern audiences. It's also hugely iconographic, with a bravura performance by Troughton in a sea of weak ones. It is a classic? I'm not sure. If helmed by Douglas Camfield or Derek Martinus then maybe there wouldn't have been a doubt. As it stands, then… maybe, maybe not quite.
* * * *

The commentary by Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling is quite engaging, possibly the best I've heard. Though as I've only heard Seeds and Carnival so far I guess that's not saying much. Without a bossy director around steering the conversation unnaturally, they rabbit on, talking through all of the end credits.

It's fun, and Watling seems to have more between her ears than you would expect, while also making some possibly barbed remarks about her role in an audio story ("I don't think we'll go into that"), Morris Barry ("Disciplinarian") and some of the effects ("That was terrible.") Frazer comes over as likeable and thoughtful, and also has a great eye for subtleties or inconsistencies in the plot, as well as technicalities like boom mike shadows and wires. Combine this with the information text and it makes a very nice package.

Of the extras, then in order of their appearance on the menu, we get:

Title Sequence Test (3'27m) Part Busby Berkley musical, part comedown off LSD, these test sequences for the Troughton titles are very interesting viewing.

Late Night Line-Up (2'49m) This is apparently a brief documentary about special effects, though the chances are you'll be more distracted by Joan Blakewell's roll neck jumper or Jack Kline calling her "my dear." As they've used archive material, couldn't they get the programme that criticised the violence the serial used?

Photo Gallery: The DVD extras here are either more accessible/less sophisticated than the later ones, meaning that the 25 stills here are to be navigated with the DVD control, rather than the musical slide show of later efforts. Also in this vein, we don't get a Tardis CAM on this release, which is obviously a very good thing.

The Final End (1'20m) The only extra here not to relate to the product (unless you count one of the three well-hidden Easter Eggs), this is an attempt to recreate what the end of The Evil of the Daleks would have looked like. It's good, but you feel that should the story be recovered it may well disappoint.

Tombwatch (28'43m) I once worked at a radio station where Andrew "he'll get me for this later" Beech got a free plug for his convention by offering a single novel as a prize. As the PA, I asked him on the way out how much the convention tickets were. So he told me, not picking up on my hint. Just give us a free ticket, you tight git! You've got a plug out of the station, what more do you want? All of which has no bearing on him introducing a bunch of self-amused luvvies in his mildly egotistical, camp "friend of the stars" way. It's interesting, but you may be sick afterwards.

Restoration (5'18m) This is the bit that makes those of us who'd forgotten how bad the VHS release was see the good work of the restoration team. However, their "three large disturbances were cut out completely" means that the return to the tomb sequence is now more surreal, with frames missing - a good or bad thing?

Introduction by Morris Barry (3'07m) Originally recorded for the 1992 video release, this sees a slightly uncomfortable-looking Barry delivering a couple of anecdotes. Parkinson missed out there.

Whatever your feelings about the extras, there's over forty-five minutes of bonus material on this disc, as well as the still photographs. Compare this to most modern releases, which seem to think that "interactive menu" counts as a special feature! No matter what people say about the BBC's attitude to Who, their DVDs cannot be said to be scrimping.

* * * *