Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) — Are you my cyber-mummy?

“Now, there is a distinct element of risk in what I’m asking you all to do. So if anyone wishes to leave, they must do so at once. Not you, Jamie.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: 7 out of 10 defective Cybermats

Sitting Duck’s review: As you might expect among Doctor Who fandom, everyone has their favorite incarnation of the Doctor. While Tom Baker may be Top Dawg in this regard, I’ve always had a soft spot for Patrick Troughton. Not only did he have a wonderfully expressive face, but he also acted through body motion in a way reminiscent of the great silent era comic actors. The only other modern actor with a similar ability who comes to mind is Rowan Atkinson, particularly as Mr. Bean. This makes the fact that so many of the serials featuring Troughton being available only in audio form even more tragic. Another mark in his favor is how he and Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon were arguably the greatest Doctor/Companion match-up.

So you can imagine the excitement back in 1991 when a fully intact copy of The Tomb of the Cybermen (hereafter TotC) was unearthed at a Hong Kong TV station. At the time, it was the only complete serial from the Troughton era featuring Companion Victoria Waterfield as well as the Cybermen. Thanks to these factors, it quickly gained the status of a Classic.

But it’s inevitable that Classics eventually become dismissed as overrated, and their flaws grotesquely magnified. TotC has been no different and suffered the additional indignity of accusations of racism. Are these charges valid, or is it just sour grapes?

Our story begins with the TARDIS arriving on the planet Telos (which is definitely not a gravel quarry outside Gerrards Cross). As the Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazier Hines), and Victoria (Deborah Watling) explore the area, they encounter an archeological expedition led by Professor Parry (Aubrey Richards). Their goal is to unearth and explore an ancient Cyberman installation believed to be located on Telos in hopes of learning what became of them. The entrance has just been uncovered, which is a step in the right direction.

But all is not well. Expedition backers Kleig (George Pastell) and Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) are constantly undercutting Parry’s authority and have ulterior motives of a less academic nature. What’s more, expedition members are dropping like flies as they run afoul of traps within the structure. Then there’s the question of whether or not the Cybermen are as dead as believed (don’t be silly, of course they’re not).

When you get down to it, TotC is a mummy movie with science fiction trappings. So your love or hatred of that particular monster movie subgenre will probably affect your ability to enjoy this serial. Though I have good news for those who despise the trope of the expedition’s Token Girl being the reincarnation of the mummy’s star-crossed lover. That little cliché is not present, seeing as how there’s no feasible way to include it in this setting. If you’re favorably disposed to mummy movies, TotC features an ingenious reskin of the basic concept, as well as a creative reimagining of an Egyptian-style tomb. The use of the Cybermen was an inspired choice, as their impassive faces can be regarded as analogous to the funerary masks of the pharaohs.

As is usual with serials from this point in the show’s history, the best parts come from the interactions between the Doctor and Jamie. There’s just something magical about the way Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines were able to creatively bounce off each other. This particularly comes through in the bits they came up with on their own and inserted without the director’s prior approval, knowing that the brutal shooting schedule allowed for fewer retakes than an Ed Wood movie.

Victoria has always been one of those Companions whose sole purpose is to be pretty and to scream, both of which she excels at. Though in this serial she’s not a complete Load, and at one point shoots a Cybermat. Still, the bulk of her screen time involves her being rather useless. Nothing against the actress herself, since you can only do so much with such thin material. Still, the character being replaced with Zoe couldn’t happen soon enough.

An aspect that hobbles some of the acting is the attempts by certain performers at non-British accents. George Pastell gets a pass, as he’s originally from Cyprus and therefore comes by his accent honestly. Shirley Cooklin sounds like she’s trying to imitate Pastell’s accent, doing so with mixed success. But the real ear grater is George Roubicek as Captain Hopper. I think he’s intended to be an American, though I’ve never heard any American talk with whatever that accent is supposed to be. He’s clearly struggling to maintain it while delivering his lines, and his performance suffers as a result.

Special effects in Classic Doctor Who have always been less than convincing, especially to modern eyes. It’s easy to get the impression that funds for the effects budget were obtained by rooting through the furniture in Broadcasting House for loose change. To a certain extent you let it slide, only taking issue with the really shoddy work. In the case of TotC, that would be the scene where Toberman carries the Cyber-Controller over his head and tosses it on to a control panel. It’s just so painfully obvious that it’s really a mannequin.

Time to address the issue of the purported racism in the portrayal of Toberman, the serial’s sole black character. Personally, I believe the issue is overblown. If there’s any sort of unflattering typecasting going on here, then it’s more out of sizeism so to speak. Roy Stewart was a tall, butch fellow, and such performers are often cast in Dumb Muscle roles. The part could have been assigned to Bernard Bresslaw (an actor who did almost nothing but big, dumb guys in British film and television) and the end result would have been no different. Though it certainly didn’t help that an early draft had Toberman being deaf, with rewrites dropping that aspect aside from him being inarticulate.

Examined in greater detail, there are definite flaws which cannot be ignored and rather hurt its case for being a Classic. But while the label may have been applied prematurely in the heady enthusiasm following its rediscovery, the merits of TofC do outweigh the faults and is worth seeing at least once.

Didja notice?

  • Rather touchy, aren’t we?
  • Archaeological bombing
  • Yeah, you let him know who’s boss
  • It’s a kilt, not a skirt
  • Don’t know which button to press first? That guy has a serious death wish
  • Locks in the cyber-freshness
  • Khan lifting
  • The Cyberman must be giving him a wedgie
  • I’m sure whacking it with a thermos will do the trick
  • Gah, cyber-hinders!
  • The perils of unattended weapons
  • Ego massaging
  • The power of the rewind button
  • The Cybermats were designed to be radio-controlled. However, the electrical fields generated by the studio equipment mucked up the signals. As a result, they had to go with low tech alternatives like dragging them about with bits of string.
  • The Cyber-Controller’s head featured a pulsing brain which required battery changes between takes. However, the low resolution black and white cinematography made it impossible for viewers at home to notice that detail.
  • Previously, George Pastell had appeared in two of Hammer’s Mummy movies in antagonist roles.

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