Saturday, 3 January 2009

Digging out a Dr Who classic: Excavating 'Tomb of the Cybermen'...

With the Cybermen back on TV in the Christmas ‘Dr Who’ adventure and stomping about the Royal Albert Hall in the brilliant ‘Dr Who Prom’ on New Year’s Day, I felt in the mood to do a bit of time-travelling of my own and remind myself of the glittering heritage of these silver giants, first introduced to the series as the first real rival to the Daleks, way back in 1966 in William Hartnell’s final story ‘The Tenth Planet’. So I dug out my DVD of the 1967 Patrick Troughton story ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ and, whilst not really intending to compare and contrast, decided to try and pinpoint exactly what it is (or was) that makes (or made) the Cybermen the number two on the Doctor’s most-dreaded list…

I freely admit that I haven’t really watched much ‘classic’ ‘Dr Who’ in the last few years. The consistent high quality and stellar production values of the 21st century version has made going back and watching the creaky, cardboard and tinsel episodes from the 1960s and 1970s an ever more painful experience and, in all honesty, much of the 1980s stuff remains as unwatchable now as it was then for entirely different reasons. But watching ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ again, two episodes at a time, has actually been a bit of a revelation. It’s been a bit cathartic. It’s also stopped me being so damned sniffy about a show which, even in the 1960s, was still just about the best show on TV – and episodes like ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ demonstrate just why.

Let’s get the silly stuff out of the way first. Yes, ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ looks seriously cheap; its entire budget probably wouldn’t cover David Tennant’s hair-gel allowance for one episode of the new series. As was the series preference at the time, the ‘money’ (such as it was) was spent on a couple of big centrepiece sets where most of the action would take place over four weeks. The sets here are fairly pitiful things; the ‘hallway’ to the actual ‘tomb’ is your fairly basic BBC 1960s studio with a few free-standing consoles (all those big flapping levers!)and tubes and a raised dais hatchway which opens fairly unconvincingly and leads the characters down into the tomb, itself comprising a few walls, computer terminals and bits of fake snow meant to represent the sub-zero environment of the tomb. By today’s standards it’s all pretty laughable. ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ is set in the far future but it’s all looking distinctly low-tech in a very 1960s style. And it’s all so wooden (and I don’t mean the acting). The great formidable entrance doors to the tomb itself are yanked open with the grating sound of cheap plywood dragging across a studio floor; at one point the Cyberleader is imprisoned in a steel revitalisation unit which he later bursts out of with all the grace of a man quite literally tearing his way out of a cardboard box. The Cybermen themselves, hidden in their admittedly-impressive ‘tomb’ (and there seems to be an army of about seven Cybermen hidden in this massive underground ice chamber) burst out of thin sellophane before going on their rampage and the unfortunate giant Cyberleader, freed from his years of frozen slumber, is revealed to be crouching there like a man who’s had the toilet stolen from under his…er…nose. Elsewhere guns whoosh and pop out of sync with their dubbed sound effects, fight scenes are gracelessly mounted (there’s no attempt made at all to hide the thick Kirby wire which lifts poor Toberman into the air as he’s hoisted aloft by the Cyberleader during their first struggle) and the cybermats (a nice idea and obviously the forerunner of the Cybershades from 'The Next Doctor' but, frankly, rather more impressive) look like clockwork mice with particularly big comedy eyes.

And yet…and yet.and yet two things conspire to make ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ somehow more than just a great piece of old telly. Patrick Troughton and the Cybermen. If you’ve seen Troughton in one of his criminally-few episodes left in the BBC Archives you’ll know what a great performer he was as the Doctor, imbuing the character with a deceptively-impish charm, a knowing guile which generally confounded his enemies who just thought he was a bit of a buffoon. It’s all here in ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’; he stumbles and bumbles about the place, part-clown part-incompetent and yet he’s always in control, he always knows what’s going on and, inevitably, no-one ever pays him much attention until it’s too late and people start dying. Troughton’s teamed up here with his classic companion pairing of Jamie the feisty Scot (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) in her first trip in the TARDIS. Victoria is practically the stereotype of the screeching girl companion of the 1960s, light years away from the wild and independent real people characters of Rose, Martha and Donna from the new series. Yet despite all the screeching and panicking, Victoria still displays a bit of gumption here and there and is more than capable of sticking up for herself against some gun-toting murderous logician.

And the Cybermen. Ah, yes, the Cybermen; that’s why we’re here, that’s why I’ve revisited this particular story. The reasons why Russell T Davies and his team gave their series a different sort of Cyberman with a different sort of backstory, have been chronicled again and again over the last few years. The new Cybermen are huge and militaristic, stamnping about clanking and hissing and muttering their ‘Delete’ catchphrase in their gently-modulated voices. They’re an impressive bunch and they’re as cool as Hell. But they don’t hold a candle to this lot, they really don’t. The Cybermen here, subtly updated from their earlier appearances, really depict the essence of the creatures as originally envisaged. These are people, humanoids, thinking beings who, for various reasons, have had to abandon their ‘humanity’ and transfer themselves into powerful robotic machines. They’ve exchanged fragile flesh and bone and blood for near-indestructible, indefatigable cybernetic limbs and organs – whereas the new Cybermen are just brains transplanted into machine bodies. The 1960s Cybermen, particularly in ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, really come across as people who have surrendered their humanity. They don’t move with the style and grace of their modern counterparts but it’s all there in those emotionless, unchanging faces, the mouth-flap which drops open during speech, the clipped, buzzing, monotone voices; they sound like malfunctioning machines as they chase after the humans who have invaded their tomb, buzzing animatedly and furiously. The ‘electric shock’ treatment they dish out to their victims may not have the flash of the 21st century variant – depicted here as a crudely-imposed electic charge crackling between Cyberman and victim – and yet it seems entirely in keeping with the slightly clumsy, proto-technology feeling that the Cybermen have at this point. It’s almost as if they’re being portrayed as ‘work in progress’, a species which has taken a drastic and dehumanising step without really quite having the technology to pull it off properly. Basically, here the Cybermen look like aliens, we can see their strength, their cold and icy logic (excuse the pun) and their ruthlessness and devotion to their one cause – turning people into Cybermen for the sake of their race and their future.

‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ was missing from the BBC archives for years due to the Corporation’s bizarre 1970s policy of ‘junking’ (ie wiping) old tapes for reuse in the mistaken assumption the episodes recorded would never be of any further use to them. Tapes of ‘Tomb’ resurfaced years ago and the story was hastily released onto VHS where it was met by a wall of ‘erring’ and ’ahh, well…’ from the fans who’d always held it out to be a ‘Dr Who’ masterpiece based on a few black-and-white stills. Perhaps we were all looking at it from the wrong perspective, focussing on its visual shortcomings rather than the things which really made it work. Viewed now, randomly, and away from the white heat of 1992 expectation, and with the new Cybermen well-established, it’s possible to go back and see the strengths underneath the cheap visual exterior. Yes, some of the acting’s a bit wobbly (the pilot of the spaceship banging on about “the rocket” may look like Andy Patridge out of XTC but he gets my vote as one of the worst actors ever seen in the series) and the baddies are a bit pantomime (George Roubicek and Shirkey Cooklin chewing up the thin scenery as Klieg and Kaftan) but it’s Troughton’s charming, captivating performance and the raw power and eerie threat of the Cybermen that keeps the whole thing going and makes it actually rather compelling.

If you’ve not seen ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ for a while – or, indeed, ever – it’s worth taking a look as it really is quite a lot better than its more recent reputation might suggest.

SOON: Demons…Hustle series five…the Bill…and a film you must not miss!!!

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