Memory Cheats: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 23/02/2013 - 5:53pm in

Poor Pat Troughton, the Doctor to suffer most from the BBC's archive purge. When the ABC repeated all of the complete surviving Doctor Who stories in the mid-eighties, they could only get their hands on (I think) the Dominators, the Mind Robber, and the Krotons; not the most fondly-remembered stories from his era. When the extent of the tape destruction was revealed in the late 70's fans mourned the loss of such classics as the Ice Warriers, the Web of Fear, the Invasion, and - perhaps most of all - the Tomb of the Cybermen.

Miraculously, a copy of Tomb eventually emerged from the archives of a Hong Kong TV company in 1991, and was promptly released on VHS. A friend sent me a copy, which I recall sat unwatched for some time before I felt ready to commit to it. I was well aware of the high esteem in which this story was held, it's much-lauded memorable set-pieces, and in fact I thourougly enjoyed the novelisation by co-writer Gerry Davis through multiple readings. I think I had probably been persuaded by the rather ropey Troughton stories I had already seen that indeed "the memory cheats", and that the story as it was would be a terrible disappointment compared to the story as it should have been.

So, armed with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. There's a bit of location filming in episode one, in the ubiquitious alien-planet-quarry that was to become so familiar in 70's Doctor Who, putting me at ease right away. Overall, it's a rollicking tale of overweening hubris, intemperate curiosity, and good old Platonic lust for justly warranted philosopher-king power.

The sets are well-designed, making the tomb and it's ante-chambers look as if they really were built by and for soulless giants. On the downside the bloody great knobs and levers haven't aged so well, the creaky cyber-rejuvenator is a bit naff, and the less said about the realisation of the first-gen cybermats, the better.

The guest cast are generally very good. Villians Kleig and Kaftan (Of course they're villians; everyone in space who's not British is a villian, unless they're American, in which case they're gung-ho men of action) occasionally veer close to Boris and Natasha territory, but generally manage to keep the manic staring into the middle distance, hand-wringing, and sinister grins to a minimum. The character of Toberman, Kaftan's hulking monosyllabic black manservant, is a bit more of a worry to a modern viewer, but to be as charitable as possible, perhaps it's just a coincidence that Kaftan's hired muscle happens to be black, and frankly it's remarkable to even see a black actor on television in the 60's.

The archaelogists that form the core of the mission are quite well-rounded characters; special mention must go to the splendidly cowardly turn by Cyril Shaps, which he would reprise as similar characters in a number of later Doctor Who stories. The aforementioned gung-ho American crew of the mission's spaceship are tolerable plot widgets, and even the usually insufferable Clive Merrison (of whom more later) isn't given the opportunity to chew too much scenery, though he appears to have based his accent on somebody's bad impersonation of John Wayne.

The regular cast are splendid. Patrick Troughton is just brilliant. He was one of the first British actors to consciously decide to specialise in television, not being much inclined towards "all that shouting in the evening" that comes with stage work. Consequently his performance is tailored for the small screen and beautifully nuanced. Frazer Hines, who played Jamie for all but the first of Troughton's stories, is not quite in the same class, but the pair make a charming comic double act. Deborah Watling, in her second story as Victoria, proves herself to be more than just a good-looking screamer. She's capable of holding her own when the bullets (and the equivalent weird popping, flashing, burning, smoking cyber-things) are flying. And there's a lovely little scene between Victoria and the Doctor where they talk about memories of their families; his shrouded in ancient mystery, and hers just recently murdered by the Daleks. A nice reminder that the emotional content in Doctor Who wasn't an invention of Russell T. Davies in 2005.

Speaking of which, if there's one critical flaw in the story, it's the rather perfunctory denouement. To avoid spoilers, all I'll say is that a certain character redeems himself by doing a certain quite heroic thing, then a certain terribly heroic thing. If the same scene was done post-2005 there'd be tears and a generous helping of Murray Gold's thickest syrup laid on with a trowl for a good ten minutes (so I suppose you can over-do it). Instead it's all a bit "well, that's that, then". That aside, it's a little gem, with the third appearance of the Cybermen, and Troughton really hitting his stride in the first episodes of his second series in a classic story for "the monster Doctor".

Memory Cheats: An Unearthly Child

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 16/02/2013 - 7:27pm in

I admit it: I'm not really a 60's Doctor Who afficianado. Although the ABC repeated the series pretty relentlessly throughout my childhood, they were loathe to repeat any black and white shows, and by the time they did show some monochrome Who in the mid-eighties, there were very few complete stories from the 60's surviving. So my Doctor Who really started in 1970 with Jon Pertwee - on telly at least. The novelisations of the 60's stories are for the most part my only experience of them, and it's actually a very suitable medium. Most of these were produced either early in the Target Books run, when the writer of the screenplay was often the only person willing to novelise it (it wasn't a lucrative gig, by all accounts), or late in the series, when Target had a conscious policy of chasing down the original writers, so the novelisations generally turned out truer to the creators' vision than the TV show could manage.

You don't have to watch the whole of An Unearthly Child, as it's really two stories in one, and the second of these is frankly pretty tedious. Until 1966 (and from 2005) each Doctor Who episode had it's own title, and "An Unearthly Child" is the title of episode one of this set. All four episodes often used to be referred to collectively as "An Unearthly Child / The Tribe of Gum". The last three episodes, barring the interactions between the nascent TARDIS crew, are decidedly thin.

I suppose that, as with Rose in 2005, when you're introducing a new audience to a show, you don't want to doubly burden them with a particularly dense story. But as a consequence, I've had no particular desire to rewatch Rose, or the last three episodes on An Unearthly Child, since my first viewing. In fairness, two decades before home video, and when the idea of a broadcaster repeating a program for any reason other than desperation probably seemed ludicrous, lack of re-watchability probably wasn't something that the Doctor Who production team were worried about.

The first episode is not just good Doctor Who, it's good television, and still pretty compelling fifty years on. It's hard to believe it was a totally studio-bound production with a punishing schedule and a shoestring budget, at least until you hit the occasional pregnant pause while an actor finds the next line. No time for re-takes. From the start Doctor Who was recorded on video tape prior to broadcast, but in the early days pretty much as-live, with minimal editing.

William Hartnell is the Doctor, but not as we come to know him in later years. He is superbly sinister and brazenly ruthless in his determination to protect himself and his granddaughter in a hostile universe that he regards far from benignly in these early days of his flight from his as-yet unnamed home. It's hardly fair to judge the performance of Carole Ann Ford as Susan, who is given the most she'll ever get to work with in this story, and it's still not much. Nobody could blame her for handing in her notice within a year.

The real surprise to anybody who's only read the novelisations is William Russell and Jaqueline Hill as schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, who in this and in subsequent stories excel as quintessentially rational 20th-century humans (a science and a history teacher, no less) coming to terms with a universe suddenly much richer - if not larger - than they previously thought.  It's odd that in later years male companions were very much the exception to the rule; here the interplay between Thoroughly Decent Chap Ian and a selfish, scheming Doctor are a delight. The contrast between Russell's thoroughly modern, naturalistic performance and Harnell's shall we say more theatrical and mannered acting technique fortunately works to the story's advantage here.

The first episode is unmissable; the subsequent three episodes of running around with/from cavemen eminently missable.

Saturday, 16 February 2013 - 11:43am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 16/02/2013 - 11:43am in

Does this sneak peek include an artist's impression of the greatly enhanced ocean views from the balconies of the "key stakeholders" whose concern for their property values has after all been the principal driver of this coastal defoliation campaign? Will we see an artist's impression of the clear line of sight from the beach up to the apartments and McMansions of our social and economic betters?

Can we get a sneek peek at the conversations that took place in the houses of the key stakeholders of the Coffs propertied elite, and the offices of the Advocate and the Council? It shouldn't be too hard; the Advocate's editor will have attended most if not all of them, and he claims to be a journalist. Perhaps a sneak peek at which coastal area is next targeted for being rendered "more open and modern" by bulldozer? Will it be Beacon Hill, where key stakeholders started campaigning in July last year before being persuaded that a setting a precedent at the Jetty Foreshores would meet with less resistance? Will it be Sawtell, as favoured by key stakeholder Keith Rhodes? If anybody knows, it will be key stakeholder Graeme Singleton.

Taken with the recent report placing Coffs Harbour at equal 8th (with the Sunshine Coast) most unaffordable place to live in a survey of seven wealthy industrialised countries, as measured by disparity between median house price and median household income, this extraordinary demonstration over the past year of the process whereby "key stakeholders" - elected to key-stakeholder-hood by virtue of wealth and/or business klout - turn their financial interests into local government policy, demonstrates beyond all doubt that Coffs Harbour is a third-world enclave in a first-world country.

Memory Cheats: A Doctor Who Newbie's Digest

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 15/02/2013 - 11:03pm in

For quite a while now, I've been wanting to compile a list of essential Doctor Who stories from the series original 1963-1989 run, for the benefit of my friends who are only familiar with the series post-2005 and find that first 26-year trove a little intimidating.

For all those in this unhappy position here is a digest of the unmissable Doctor Who stories that will enable you to bluff your way through the next high-society gathering where ignorance of the Whoniverse is as disastrous as forgetting the second verse of that Venusian lullaby that may one day save your life. You no longer need to have lived through it; with my guidance you shall all become "the Memory Cheats". (You will get that joke as we proceed.)

This isn't a comprehensive list of the good, or even the great stories. It's the minimal set of inflection points that will give the uninitiated some sense of the general flow of this extraordinary programme that was simultaneously utterly unlike anything else on television, yet oddly representative of everything on television in it's time, yet again utterly timeless, yet... Oh, bollocks; just watch these. You'll thank me for it.

  • An Unearthly Child
  • The Tomb of the Cybermen
  • Spearhead from Space
  • Terror of the Autons
  • Carnival of Monsters
  • The Green Death
  • The Time Warrior
  • Planet of the Spiders
  • The Ark in Space
  • Genesis of the Daleks
  • The Seeds of Doom
  • The Masque of Mandragora
  • The Deadly Assassin
  • The Talons of Weng-Chiang
  • City of Death
  • Warriors' Gate
  • Logopolis
  • Castrovalva
  • Kinda
  • The Caves of Androzani
  • Vengeance on Varos
  • Revelation of the Daleks
  • Paradise Towers
  • Ghost Light
  • Survival

Monday, 11 February 2013 - 5:26pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 11/02/2013 - 5:26pm

"You have arrived at your 30-day allowance of 5 free premium pages"

Oh, okay. Sorry, I thought this was a website. If you are investing time and money into a convoluted mechanism to stop me reading your material, why not just ask me not to read it up front? Or take it offline altogether? Much cheaper that way.

Update:

Wow. Defeats cookie deletion as well. They're really pouring money down that bottomless intellectual property protection pit, aren't they? I'm sure there's a browser extension, but I can't be arsed.

Hear that, intellectual property baron? You've won! Instead of a non-paying reader, you have a non-paying non-reader! (I have billions of those as well, come to think of it.) Next step: profit!!!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013 - 9:54pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 29/01/2013 - 9:54pm

I don't understand why Cory Doctorow "can't stress how exciting a development this is". Google appears to be freely giving up metadata (eg. email headers, IP addresses, etc.) to US government agencies, but drawing the line at content. In an age of guilt by association, it's like ratting someone out to HUAC as a communist, but refusing to specify whether they're Leninist, Trotskyist, or Maoist.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013 - 9:55am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 29/01/2013 - 9:55am

"Basically, the wind blew and trees fell down."

How did this guy ever get a management job? That's no way to describe an atmospheric-disturbance-related arboreal hazard scenario.

Sunday, 27 January 2013 - 10:42am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 27/01/2013 - 10:42am

Proof that uber-nerds aren't (all) humourless obsessives. Aaron Swartz, as recorded by his Boswell, Quinn Norton:

a: “I’m part of the Jewish cabal that controls the internet.”
q: “I haven’t actually heard anyone say there’s a Jewish conspiracy running the internet.”
a: “Oops.”

[…]

a: (On Lasik) “Lasers are supposed to come out of your eyes.”

More here.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013 - 11:13am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 23/01/2013 - 11:13am

Well, this is reasurring. So Coffs is actually quite affordable for people who don't need to work and absentee landlords. It's only the people who live and work here who are disadvantaged by our third-world economy.

I'm so relieved I'm taking the day off from my below-minimum-wage job to join my neighbours in the gutter. We'll crack open a can of petrol and a pack of period pain medication and celebrate the good times!

Thursday, 17 January 2013 - 2:39pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 17/01/2013 - 2:39pm

What I'd really like to do is start a satirical revue, rather like Peter Cook's Establishment club in the 60's, which did so much to stop the rise of David Frost.

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