Buried Treasure

Review of The Tomb of the Cybermen: SE (#37)
DVD Release Date:  13 Mar 12
Original Air Date:  02 - 23 Sep 1967
Doctor/Companion:  Two, Jamie McCrimmon, Victoria Waterfield
Stars:  Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling
Preceding StoryThe Evil of the Daleks (Two, Jamie, Victoria)
Succeeding Story:  The Abominable Snowmen (Two, Jamie, Victoria)

This particular story seems to engender reactions on polar opposite ends of the scale. Either it's the greatest Cybermen story of all time (it's reportedly Matt Smith's favorite), or it's racist schlock. I personally find myself somewhere in the middle. There are distinctly racist facets, I can't deny that. However, they don't put me off the story entirely because I find I'm able to approach them as "historical context" - that is, I can recognize that society has evolved in the past 45 years, and like everything, Tomb is a product of its time. I don't have to agree with the presentation of the dark-skinned Toberman as a nigh-mute servant ("dumb muscle," if you will) to find the rest of the story entertaining.

If we're going to nitpick about yesterday's attitudes that irritate us today, we may as well talk about the women, too. As actress Shirley Cooklin (Kaftan) puts it (see Commentary Track 2, below), female characters in that day and age were primarily "set dressing." The dark-skinned characters were the baddies; the ladies were there to look good. Interestingly enough, the character Victoria even comments with frustration on her lot when told she doesn't get to go with the others down to the catacombs: "Who'd be a woman?" (It doesn't help that the spaceship captain with the bad fake-American accent responds with "How would you know, honey?", marking her as even further down the social ladder due to her youth.) Despite all this, I can't help enjoying Tomb.

In fact, I think this is probably my favorite Cybermen story (along with just about everyone else, I'm given to understand). After all, it's pretty iconic. I mean, it introduces the Cybermats, for one thing. And it's the first complete (extant) story to feature Cybermen, so it's the earliest instance still available to modern audiences when the cyber-conversion process is discussed (and, in fact, shown to a certain degree). When the Controller says they'll use these people to help them control Earth, Jamie is incredulous. "But we're human. We're not like you." "You will be," intones the Controller. How utterly creepy must that have been when it first went out? The simple, understated menace mixed with body horror must have sent thousands of children scurrying for cover.

Speaking of key, creepy moments, how about when the Cybermen first emerge from their honeycomb? In fact, that music is immediately recognizable to many fans, and was one of the pieces discussed at the "More Magical Moments of Doctor Who Music" panel at this year's Gallifrey One (you can hear it starting at about 18:50 - and the panelists' own rendition (20:00) of the particular phrase I have in mind (heard oh-so-briefly at 19:20, and again at 29:58) - in the recording at the above link). That's pretty much the moment that immediately comes to mind when I think of Tomb.

But there's plenty more to love. Troughton as Two is in top form. He's both almost childishly curious and clearly the cleverest person in the room. He manages to be eccentric without being clownish and, as pointed out in the commentary track, exhibits a sense of vulnerability mostly absent from the other Doctors, such that we actually believe he's in mortal peril. He also gets a beautiful speech about remembering lost loved ones: "I can when I want to. And that's the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget." And that, my friends, is reason enough to bring this one back in front of our eyes from time to time.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Commentary Track 2
Just like the other Special Editions released (in R1) this month, the update includes a new, additional commentary track. In this particular case, there are different commenters for Episode 1 [actor Bernard Holley (Peter Haydon, the guy who died at the end of Ep. 1) and script editor Victor Pemberton] than for the other three [Frazer Hines (Jamie), Deborah Watling (Victoria), and Shirley Cooklin (Kaftan), with Reg Whitehead (one of the Cybermen; in fact, he was the first one ever, back in The Tenth Planet) joining in on Episodes 3-4]. Stories from the set, of the way working in television was forty-five years ago, and of reasons for the longevity of Who are nearly constant, and well moderated by Toby Hadoke. I particularly enjoyed hearing Hines' sense of humor first hand.

The Lost Giants
The "making of" this time progresses from discussion of the new production team to casting to the Cybermen and filming on location or in studio. One of the actors interviewed is Michael Kilgarriff, who played the Cyber-Controller. Apparently Dalek controllers aren't the only ones to get forgotten and left on set while everyone else goes for tea!

The Curse of the Cybermen's Tomb
It doesn't take much imagination to see parallels between Tomb and Egyptology. Now you don't even need that, as two experts (Christopher Frayling and Dr. Debbie Challis) point out some of the influences of popular archaeology (e.g., the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb) on this story. Though it's obvious once it's pointed out, I hadn't previously thought of Cybermen as analogues to mummies, or Cybermats to scarabs. My favorite bit, though, was when Frayling declared about the story that "you can tell the baddies, because they look bored when the archaeology takes place."

Cybermen - Extended Edition
A history of the Cybermen - from Mondas, Telos, or Cybus Industries - this piece covers the gamut. It's hosted by writer Matthew Sweet, who talks about things like why we find Cybermen creepy, how complexly rubbish their plans can be, and why it's relatively easy for us to justify our part in their destruction each time they meet their doom.

The Magic of VidFIRE
I'd heard of VidFIRE before, but I didn't know what it did or why it's so amazing. This extra explains the Video Field Interpolation Restoration Effect, and how it helped to make the episodes in this release look better than ever before.

Because Tomb was "lost" for so long, and has only been back in the BBC's possession for the past 20 years (found complete in Hong Kong in 1992), there is perhaps an extra element of "recovered classic" that leads people to hail it as a wonderful story. However, I think there's more to it than that. It's got plenty of classic science fiction themes (and memes), and a great performance by an amazing Doctor. If you haven't seen it yet, it's high time you did.

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Comments

I started reading this entry, but stopped and went back to your review of 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' first. As with that episode, there are racial overtones that we, in 2012, are more sensitive to than probably the average viewer in the 1960s and 1970s. I wanted to get a read on that. The most troubling thing for me, watching 'Talons' now is not the pervasive racism, which would not be uncommon at the time the story was set, nor in the time that the story was shot, but the racism of the Doctor himself. I understand the changes of attitude and the challenging of casting back in the day, but to hear the Doctor dropping casually racist comments is still hard to hear. But you can't separate the one from the other. The Doctor wasn't saying those things, the writers (creatures of their time) were. But Deep Roy is incredibly creepy as Mr Sin, and still gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.
The pronunciation of Chiang never set well with me since I first watched the episode 20 years ago, and I've never pronounced it correctly. That was further reinforced. Living in Thailand, everybody knows that the city of Chiang Mai is not pronounced "Chi-yang-mai" but "Cheng Mai."
As far as 'Tomb' goes, I've put the same rules into effect that I do for 'Talons,' inasmuch as it is a product of its time. Yes, Toberman could be considered a horrible racist stereotype. Yes, Kaftan (really? Kaftan) is there to be evil window dressing (and a racial stereotype, to boot). Perhaps I miss something, being neither female nor black. But neither of them bother me too much. First, again, they were products of their time. Is that a real excuse? Maybe not. But the die is cast now, and there's not much we can do about it. I could see Toberman just as easily played by a giant white man. And Kaftan (really? Kaftan) fits very well into the evil femme fatale villain roles that were popular then. Maybe growing up, watching 'Star Trek' warped me, but she's not that much different from many female baddies on that and other '60s shows - including the beehive. (The Romulan commander in 'The Enterprise Incident,' for example.)
We're (many of us) so used to being sensitive to others nowadays that it can sometimes colour our thinking in unproductive ways. Racism, sexism, homophobia are horrible, yes. But let's be careful about how we frame things from the past as we look back at them. I guess, as "a gay" I'm kind of fortunate that there weren't negative anti-gay stereotypes in 'Who.' I mean, there were Turlough and Captain Yates, but they're not that negative.
I think that 'Tomb' is a cracker of a story, and the regulars are amazing (see Troughton's family speech above). It's not as wonderful as some might believe; certainly not as wonderful as people thought it might have been before it was rediscovered, but it's still really good. If Toberman and Kaftan (really, Kaftan?) really bother somebody, they should think about how far many of us (not all of us, mind) have come in the intervening years. And if they're really bothered, which I couldn't blame them for, they should take it off their viewing rotation.

By seaninthailand (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I really like the way you've presented the viewing-it-through-the-lenses-of-our-time argument. When you can take it in context - not condoning the presentations of characters like Kaftan (really? Kaftan), but understanding them as a product of the time/culture in which they were created - the story is still quite enjoyable.

Thanks for the comments! Glad to have you on board! :)

By mrfranklin
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