Doctor Who Project: The Tomb of the Cybermen

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Well, now I know you’re mad. I just wanted to make sure.

Though only two months separate the end of Doctor Who‘s fourth season and the start of its fifth, the difference between “The Evil of the Daleks” and Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis’ “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code MM) could scarcely be more striking. Where David Whitaker’s Dalek magnum opus plodded along several episodes too long and jumped from location to location, Pedler and Davis bring the Cybermen back in a taut, crisp, and focused four episode story that feels unlike any Doctor Who we’ve seen before—mostly because it feels exactly like what we think Doctor Who is supposed to feel like. This story is the ur-Who.

After a brief introductory scene bringing new companion Victoria into the TARDIS, a scene serving mostly to give a refresher about what Doctor Who is all about to new and returning viewers after the summer hiatus, action shifts immediately to a crew of space archaeologists on the planet Telos. It’s actually a quarry, of course, but the setting works inherently because these archaeologists are blasting their way into the buried Tomb of the Cybermen. You can tell because there are Cybermen on the walls next to the (electrified) doors.

I wonder who is buried here?

We’re given no excuse or reason for the TARDIS appearing here, unlike the elaborate explanations of a wonky control console or stuck fast return switch of prior seasons. The TARDIS simply lands and the Doctor and his companions just walk out to have a look around. Further, the archeological team only cursorily question the Doctor about his sudden presence and then the matter is effectively dropped, the show’s internal logic reigning supreme. In this instance, the Doctor is taken to be a rival archaeologist, also seeking the secrets of the long-dead Cybermen, and he goes with it, silencing his young companions when they threaten to blow his conveniently bestowed cover. There’s a story to be told here, so on with it.

The Doctor volunteers to help the expedition get into the tomb, and once there, he vacillates between helping and hindering. Something seems not quite right, with two members of the expedition, Klieg and Kaftan, curiously insistent upon getting in, despite the death of a expedition member by the electrified tomb doors. The Doctor knows the danger of the Cybermen, but he also wants to know just what Klieg and Kaftan are up to with the Cybermen. The story establishes (somewhat ham-fistedly) that they’re up to no good, and by the end of the first episode, there’s a sense of menace without a Cyberman in sight. One does show up right at the end of the episode, but it’s a dummy, albeit a deadly one. We do, however, meet someone new. A cute, cuddly, metallic Cybermat…

Awww. A cute little Cybermat.

Though new to us, the simplistic cyber-creature is not new to the Doctor. He digs through his Five Hundred Year Diary, established in the Second Doctor’s first story (and brought back for the first time here) and declaims its name and purpose to Victoria, who nevertheless sticks one in her bag to bring along. This re-establishment of the Doctor as nearly all-knowing echoes throughout the story, as the Doctor is also an excellent logician, showing up even Earth’s finest logical thinker, Klieg. This highly confident, exceedingly competent, and occasionally sarcastic Doctor feels like the Doctor in every story to come, regardless of the actor providing the portrayal. William Hartnell provided the irascible, intellectual base of the character, and now Patrick Troughton brings in this quiet confidence that Hartnell never quite manifested. When faced by the expedition’s guns upon first appearing, the Doctor waves them away and runs to the tomb doors to investigate instead. The First Doctor would have hemmed and hawed and tried to bluff away the guns; the Second Doctor pretends they aren’t there.

Once the Doctor helps Klieg open the inner hatch leading to the tomb itself, everyone except the women head down. Victoria protests being left behind, but the Doctor emphasizes not her safety but his need for her to keep an eye on Kaftan, who promptly drugs Victoria and seals the rest of the expedition in the tomb. Because, you see, Kaftan and Klieg have a plan. They are going to revive the Cybermen and, because the Cybermen will be grateful for being defrosted, they will help take over the Earth for the League of Logicians. No, really, that’s the plan.

Behold the Tomb of the Cybermen!

It doesn’t work, of course. As soon as Klieg defrosts the Cybermen, they take over and begin preparations to convert everyone into a new breed of Cybermen. But regardless of the plan, the Tomb itself stands as an impressive accomplishment, both as a set and as a bit of story/arc development. Unlike the maddening Dalek chronology and storyline, the Cyberman arc remains, for the time being, consistent. The last remaining Cybermen, under the direction of the Cyber Controller, constructed it as a hibernation chamber, as they were nearing extinction after the destruction of Mondas. The Doctor surmises, correctly, that the attack on the Moonbase was a last gasp effort at obtaining the needed parts and energy to keep the Cybermen going (which would place the current story in roughly the year 2600, given that the Cybermen have been dead for about five hundred years at this point). And the Cyber Controller knows the Doctor as well, saying, ““Our history computer has full details of you.” This sense of continuity also speaks to our expectation for Doctor Who, that the Cybermen are a known quantity, as is the Doctor to his long-time foes.

Cyber Controller at work.

While the Cybermen admit that the Tomb stands as an elaborate trap to bring intelligent specimens to Telos in order to convert them and bring about the revival of the Cybermen species, their aim remains, as in “The Tenth Planet,” survival. The Doctor emphasizes several times that the Cybermen are evil, particularly to Kaftan’s henchman, Toberman, who has been partially converted to a Cyberman. The story, however, doesn’t do so, at least not in terms of basic motivations. The Cybermen just want to survive and seek to do so in ways that are existentially frightening (not to mention fatal) to humans, but the First Doctor never quite called them evil as the Second Doctor does here. With the revelation in this story that the events of “The Moonbase” were motivated by a need to survive as well, we see a clear distinction between the Cybermen and the Daleks, the latter being bent on conquest, the former just wanting to continue their own form of existence.

Indeed, the Cybermen are not the villains of this story. This guy is:

Only slightly mad with power

Eric Klieg (as played by George Pastell) comes across as monomaniacal, driven by delusions of grandeur. His erstwhile partner, Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) senses that he’s more interested in his own aggrandizement than the plan to elevate all the math nerds to power. Even after escaping the Cybermen once, he procures a Cyberman weapon and tries to bargain with them from a position of “power,” ending poorly, but also providing a neat summation of Cyberman logic:

Kaftan: You have broken your promise!

Cyber Controller: Cybermen do not promise. Such ideas have no value.

The Doctor eventually manages to re-freeze all the Cybermen, and he rigs the hatch controls and the main tomb door to provide a fatal electrical shock, a rather brutal measure for someone who, not minutes earlier, refuses to take a gun with him. The head Cyberman attempts to follow the Doctor, his companions, and the remaining expedition members but dies when Toberman manages to close the Tomb doors and activate the trap, though at the cost of Toberman’s life. The Cybermen are sealed in their tomb for all time. Yet, amidst the chaos of the final moments, a lone Cybermat scurries out of the tomb, unnoticed. After everyone leaves, it inches towards Toberman’s body, drawn to his cybernetic arm. The Cybermen might not be quite so finished after all.

It’s fair to point out that, had the Doctor not corrected Klieg’s calculations as he fumbled with the code to open the tomb’s inner hatch, the Cybermen would never have been revived and half the cast would have survived the story. Indeed, the Doctor’s companions both want to leave—Jamie in particular seems rather risk-averse—but the Doctor seems compelled to understand what has happened with the Cybermen and why two shady characters want to revive them. He even lets Klieg manipulate the tomb controls, despite being aware the rogue logician is attempting to revive the Cybermen, out of curiosity. It’s a bit of a deadly habit in this case.

Not looking a day over four hundred and twenty-seven.

One can forgive such excesses in a person who claims to be four hundred and fifty years old, perhaps. Pedler and Davis provide some good character depth for the Doctor here, making explicit the sense that the Doctor is older than he appears. He also references his family and how he misses them but can remember them at will. The reference immediately indicates Susan, but there’s sense that he means more than one person.

Jamie (Frazer Hines) comes across as an old hand in this story, showing Victoria the ropes in the TARDIS and making snappy, if not witty, comebacks aplenty. And yet, he’s also so much younger than the Doctor. At this point, the Second Doctor reigns alone as an authority figure. Ben and Polly could stand alone, and stand up to the Doctor, as could Steven and, slightly, Vicki before them. Jamie and Victoria simply can’t play that role. Their function as companions (and they are referred to as such in this story) seems to be as assistants rather than co-travellers at this point.

Introducing Victoria

The debut of Victoria (Deborah Watling) as a companion feels strange in this story. She’s ushered onto the TARDIS and, not five hours after the death of her father on Skaro at the hands of Daleks, she’s recovering from being drugged and shooting a futuristic gun at a Cybermat that has attacked Kaftan. All this after she’s initially afraid to enter the tomb in the first place—not an unwise attitude, given that there’s a dead body right next to the door. From cloistered Victorian daughter to gunslinging time travelling Cybermat killer is a bit of an abrupt shift, and while Watling tries to play the character as very much out of her depth, the dialogue doesn’t give her much chance for reflection. She briefly pines for her father and then it’s back to being hunted by machines that want to replace her fear with fiber optics. One might be able to argue that more time has passed since the end of “The Evil of the Daleks,” but the script suggests this story follows almost immediately.

“The Tomb of the Cybermen” has some flaws, mostly in the weak characterizations of Klieg and Kaftan (and the annoying American space jockey who pops up from time to time to complain about the repairs to his spaceship), but it stands as a taut example of the heights Doctor Who can reach when it’s not afraid to revel in the world it has created for itself. The sets are epic, Troughton plays the Doctor with aplomb, and Pedler and Davis bring needed pace (if not depth) to the script. Enjoy it, because next time, the yeti show up.

(Previous Story: The Evil of the Daleks)

(Next Story: The Abominable Snowmen)

Post 38 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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