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Saturday, 11 May 2013

Tomb of the Cybermen


It is now just under a month since THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN was unleashed on an unsuspecting public and already much has been written regarding this 'lost classic' of the Troughton era. Some of the reviews have been wildly verbose, drawing conclusions and describing images which do not appear in the story - the memory is still cheating! Some have simply sung its praises. But what is the story actually like? Does it stand up to the accumulated memory and hype of twenty-four years?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes it does.

THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN has an ambience, it has a mood and a feeling which sets it apart from all the other Troughton material which still exists. Don't get me wrong, I still love episode two of THE EVIL OF THE DALEKS, episode one of THE WEB OF FEAR and what remains of THE INVASION, but THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN takes that enjoyment one stage further.

To try and analyse just why THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN works is perhaps a job for media researchers and psychologists. The plot is very simple: a power-hungry logician revives the Cybermen as he thinks he can control them and use them to gain more power. He is wrong. To bring this idea out to length Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler spin out their tale with subplots and yo-yo the revival of the Cybermen (the set-piece): they are defrosted and then frozen, defrosted and then later returned to their hives, are revived again and finally frozen for good.

This simplicity is not evident on screen as we are presented with a disparate group of people who all cope with the problems they face in different ways. There is sufficient interest in the sub-plots (the Cybermen's weapon-testing room, the revitaliser and the Cybermats) to keep the story moving and we are drawn into the problems and narrative whether we like it or not.

One of the most atypical elements of the story is the Doctor himself. Troughton is playing a new version of the character. There is evidence to suggest that the Doctor knew even before the TARDIS arrived on Telos what he would find there, and he gives so much help to Professor Parry's team that one starts wondering if it is the Doctor who wishes to see the Cybermen revived and not Klieg.

Troughton has always been described as the manipulative Doctor, and that trait is on view here: he does not admit to being an archaeologist but leads the others to make that assumption by commenting: 'Does it show?'; he gets Toberman to open the main entrance doors by suggesting that he might be too afraid to do so; he manipulates Kaftan and Toberman by first showing that he knows full well who ( ... or what!) sabotaged Hopper's ship and then by insisting on staying in the main control room unless Toberman accompanies him into the lower levels.

All this subtlety is nothing compared with the amount of help that he affords the archaeologists. He shows them that there is no further danger from the exterior doors, he points out the two side exits in the control room and activates the equipment to open them, he gives Klieg the mathematical equations to open the hatchway and quietly intervenes when Klieg gets the sequence slightly wrong.

All this can be explained away by the Doctor's comment that he knew that Klieg wanted to revive the Cybermen and he simply wanted to see what he was up to, but another interpretation is that the Doctor, insatiably curious as always, wanted to see the Cybermen's tombs himself, and that he also wanted to see the creatures revived - he certainly didn't seem overly upset by Klieg's actions.

Someone commented to me that THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN would make a marvellous seventh Doctor story and I can see what they mean. McCoy's pro-active Doctor would be well suited to the plot and dialogue and Ace could easily fulfil the Jamie/Victoria role. In fact, McCoy's portrayal of the Doctor is closest to Troughton's version in this story.

THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN has a very good cast. While George Roubicek's American accent is a little rough, and Clive Merrison's is even worse, the other characters are very believable. George Pastell's Klieg is underhand and devious, maintaining an even keel and presenting insanity in a cool, calm manner. Shirley Cooklin's Kaftan is somewhat under used, but she manages to bring across the character well although her motivations are somewhat muddled - she is not apparently insane, so why is she going along with Klieg's plans? The remainder of the crew: Hopper, Viner, Callum etc, are all nicely played. Cyril Shaps' paranoid and twitchy Viner is an especial delight to watch.

It is interesting to ponder how the production would have turned out had Morris Barry managed to obtain his earlier choices of cast. These included Vladek Sheybal as Klieg, Desmond Llewellyn as a character referred to as a 'tall welshman' - any guesses as to which part that was! - and John Wills as the imposing Cybercontroller.

Mentioning Morris Barry brings us to the direction and here we find the problem area.

Barry was presumably a competent director in some other field, but the evidence presented in his three DOCTOR WHO stories tends to suggest that he was not totally happy with the science-fiction concepts and stresses imposed by DOCTOR WHO.

THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN is a puzzling directorial mix of excellence and dross. Episode one contains some truly fantastic shots, in particular the tracking shot of Toberman's feet along the quarry until the ground suddenly drops away to reveal the rest of the archaeologists in the ravine below and the superb forced-perspective shots of the rocket ship and the tomb doors. In fact all the material shot on location in the Gerrards Cross Sand and Ballast Company's quarry is excellent. Other nice touches are the continuation of action in the background, for example when Jamie introduces himself to Hayden and shakes his hand when they split up to check the rest of the Tomb's surface complex and the excellent pan and mix when the Cybercontroller gives mental instructions to Toberman.

Balancing these moments of excellence are some really crass pieces of direction. Foremost among them are two sequences which make everyone cringe when they see the story - the Cybercontroller picking up Toberman and throwing him, and then Toberman doing the same to the Cybercontroller. In the former case the kirby wire holding Toberman up is painfully visible, and in the latter it is obviously an empty Cybercontroller suit as the head falls off! In both cases a better dramatic effect could have been achieved with close-ups, tighter editing and more imaginative camera angles.

Other wincing scenes include the dramatic moment of horror when Toberman's arm is revealed to be cybernetic. This is completely spoilt as Toberman's arm is out of shot at the top of the screen at the time! When the drugged Victoria falls asleep, Deborah Watling's performance can best be described as unconvincing and her ability with Kaftan's gun was impressive - she was able to hit the tiny Cybermat on the first attempt. Perhaps she had been taking shooting lessons.

Other questions thrown up by the script and direction include why, having trapped the Cybercontroller in the revitaliser, does the Doctor activate the equipment? It did not happen when Victoria was trapped so why does it happen this time? Where does the rope come from that the Doctor and Jamie wrap around the revitaliser? And why do the Cybermen make silly Donald Duck noises all the time?

The biggest directorial problem, however, is that Barry does not give enough information about the scenes he is presenting. When Hopper descends into the lower levels to try and rescue the others, dramatic tension is lost because we do not get any sense of location - we do not know how far Hopper is from the main tomb, we cannot see things from his point of view and we feel distanced from the action as a result. There is not enough variation in the camera angles and this problem occurs time and again throughout the story. The Cybermat attack, while containing brilliant performances from the cast together with excellent use of stock music (another of the story's successes), ultimately fails as we never get to see exactly how many Cybermats there are, where they are in relation to the humans and what danger or threat they pose. We never see them actually hurt anyone so what is everyone so frightened of? When Toberman kills the Cyberman by smashing its chest unit, the horror is diminished because of the dogged use of a single camera shot which is too close to clearly see what is going on. The Cybercontroller's death is far better in this respect as we see the creature writhing on the floor.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, is the Cybermen's emergence from the tombs. The lack of different camera angles fails to instil a sense of size and magnitude to the occasion - the main tomb set at Ealing Film Studios was over 29 feet high and we see it only in long-shot and in close-up. Where are the tracking and panning shots as the Cybermen emerge? Where are the low and high angle shots to give scale? Why did we never see the tombs from the human's point of view - the long shots are nice but no way are they what the humans could see. These scenes could and should have been so much better.

Another problem is the reuse of material in reverse to show the Cybermen returning to the tomb. The first time we see the tomb start to defrost, we can clearly see the Cybermen break open the membranes and emerge from the cells. Then the process is thrown into reverse and we see them magically reseal the compartments behind them. Then we have the full emergence and when, later in the story, they return to the tombs to be frozen once more, we again see this miraculous ability to reseal the compartments. The concept of the Cybermen being able to reseal their cells is good - after all, how did the sealing membrane get there in the first place? But different shots should have been filmed. One to use in forward mode, to show them breaking out, and another to be reversed. In this way the reversal of the film would not have been quite so obvious.

The central sequence of the Cybermen emerging is nevertheless powerful and effective, and it is easy to see how younger viewers could be moved to nightmares by some of the imagery presented.

One of the most important images in a DOCTOR WHO episode is the very last picture you see before the credits appear. This is what will stay in the viewer's memory, and which will also hopefully bring them to watch next week. THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN has some very strong episode endings indeed, and there is little wonder that younger children had nightmares as a result. Episode two's conclusion, with the blank and frosty mask of the Cybercontroller telling the humans that they belong to the Cybermen is terrifying, and episode three's climax of the Doctor (apparently) being shot guarantees a week waiting on tenterhooks to see what happens next.

To sum up THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN, it is most definitely a classic of the era. It shocks, pleases and entertains all the way through and features some quite outstanding performances. The Cybermen are impressive and mostly effective, and the production is generally slick and entertaining. Yes, it does have some faults, but these are far outweighed by the positive elements.

On a very personal note, I find myself wondering exactly where my vivid memory of a Cyberman having his chest unit ripped off and spewing foam comes from. I thought it was from this story but apparently I was wrong. Perhaps the memory does cheat after all!

David J Howe