Memory Cheats: The Tomb of the Cybermen

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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".