I am going to have to get autobiographical here, because The Tomb of the Cybermen is my favourite Doctor Who story. That’s not something that is unheard of. Tomb is generally placed relatively highly in fan polls, but to consider it the best of the best is probably fairly unusual, and I can’t pretend to be unbiased when I’m talking about my favourite. If I was asked to name the best Doctor Who story, I wouldn’t say Tomb, but then again favourite and best do not have to be the same thing. Favourite is something that comes from the heart, whereas best is a logical judgement, and if there’s one thing Tomb teaches us it’s that there is nothing wrong with being illogical.
So if I had to name the best ever Doctor Who story I would have to choose something like City of Death, The Curse of Fenric or Midnight. Making a purely logical judgement, I would have to put even episodes like Love & Monsters and In the Forest of the Night ahead of Tomb. I couldn’t even in all honesty name it as the best Troughton story or the best Cybermen story. But it is my favourite and I think it always will be, so I suppose I had better have a go at explaining why.
I became a fan of Doctor Who at a rather unusual time: 1992. I had watched Doctor Who before, but just as a casual viewer, starting from a very young age with some of the Davison stories, skipping out Colin and then catching the tail end of the McCoy era. After 1989 I forgot about Who and wasn’t particularly bothered that it wasn’t on TV any more. The gift of a couple of VHS tapes ignited my fan gene (no, not Tomb). I started getting interested in Who, buying the tapes, getting Doctor Who Magazine, reading what I could find, and within a couple of months I had educated myself with a sketchy knowledge of the overall pattern of the Classic series. DWM was going on about this story that had come back, which everyone had wanted, and it sounded amazing: Cybermen being disturbed in their tombs! No wonder fans wanted that back. So by the time the VHS came out I was aware of the significance of Tomb, and was in WHSmith on the release date. That video cover captured the imagination straight away. The lettering was even silver and shiny! I bought the video, took it home, put it on straight away and sat cross-legged in front of the television to watch it. Cue grainy black and white footage, some explorers trying to find the Tomb, blasting one lump of rock and getting another… and then those huge doors. I was hooked.
Although I never came to this with quite the level of expectation of older fans, some of whom were perhaps inevitably going to be disappointed, I had certainly built the story up in my mind, and it didn’t disappoint me. Perhaps I was young enough that the flaws in the story didn’t bother me. And there are flaws, I have to admit it.
If you are the kind of fan who goes looking for something to offend you in 50-year old television shows, then you’ll probably find some things to tut tut about here. This is most definitely the future through 1960s eyes, and not just because £50 is a sufficient incentive for somebody to risk his life. You can tell who the villains are because they are the superficially foreign ones, and Toberman is a walking cliché of a black slave. At least he gets to be the one who plays a significant role in saving everyone. It’s just a shame the explanation of his muteness, along with a hearing aid to foreshadow his conversion, was lost at the scripting stage. Then we have Captain Hopper, who is a sexist pig, and badly acted as well. In fact, several of the characters are sexist, so as visions of the future go this is not one of the best that Doctor Who has to offer.
I think the women had better remain here.
Then there are the flaws in the execution, with Kirby wires on show and an empty Cyber suit getting thrown around, but looking at effects failures is always going to be the most cynical and least interesting approach to viewing Classic Who. One viewer’s faults is another viewer’s 60s charm, and the one I love in particular is when the Cyberman comes up from the hatch and grabs the Doctor and Victoria lays into it with a flask. She is obviously a bit too enthusiastic and you can clearly hear the actor inside the costume going “oooof”.
Klieg is clearly the most illogical logician ever, but I think there is a point to that. Firstly he is obviously unhinged. Anyone would have to be in order to form a plan to take over the world by waking up the Cybermen and presenting them with the argument that they are logical and he’s logical so let’s team up. But this plays into two important themes. Firstly, the adherence to pure logic is shown as absurd. Critics of Klieg forget that this is actually a Cyberman story, and they remove their emotions. Klieg advocates pure logic. There’s no room for emotion there. It has to be a deliberate parallel, and every step of the way Klieg’s approach is shown to be utterly ridiculous. To criticise Tomb for Klieg’s silly plans are to miss the point completely. If you need further proof of this, just look at all Klieg’s faffing around to try to get the hatch open, compared with Hopper and Callum who just turn up and follow the wires to the right switch. Logic is blinding Klieg.
And there’s more to it than that. Logic for Klieg is just an excuse. Like religious cult leaders it’s something for him to preach, while he forges a power base. It’s pure subversion of utopian goals. He sells a vision of a utopian future based on logic, when really what he wants is to be the ruler of the world. Meanwhile Kaftan is like a disappointed wife trying to make something of a tedious failure of a husband.
One thing Tomb rarely gets credit for is breaking from the pattern of Troughton bases under siege, one of only two stories during Season Five (and the only monster story) to find a way to do something different. Tomb often gets categorised as a base under siege, presumably by fans who are not stopping to think about what they are writing, but it’s something entirely different. It’s a curse being unleashed from a mummy’s tomb, translated to the future and with the Cybermen in the tomb. The astonishing thing is that the Doctor is the one to unleash the curse.
We have to squint a little to see what is happening here, but watching the Troughton era in order reveals a developing story, culminating here. The Second Doctor is born from the first ever Cybermen story, with the First Doctor exhausted and regenerating at the end. When the Cybermen return in The Moonbase the Doctor decides that he is going to have to be the man who fights the monsters, so off he goes to do just that. It’s a huge departure from the Hartnell era, where the Doctor was exploring, surviving, escaping, and perhaps solving some problems as a consequence of generally helping himself. But this is very early days. The Doctor is still learning how to be the man who fights the monsters. In The Evil of the Daleks (note the significance of that title) he manipulated Jamie for the sake of that fight, and Jamie called him out on it. In Tomb he wakes up the monsters himself, so he can fight them, but also (as he actually states) to find out what Klieg is up to so he can fight him. Klieg is one of those monsters who “must be fought”, and Tomb is about that crusade. And people die. The Doctor isn’t getting it right yet. Going off on a moral crusade to fight monsters throughout the universe is going to have unintended consequences, and here is a stark example of that. If you watch this out of context it’s easy to miss, and if there’s one big fault it’s not the Doctor’s actions, but how he never gets called out on it. This desperately needed a scene like Evil with somebody taking the Doctor to task.
But I have to confess. I’m not a logician. I adore this story and always will. The Cybermen are scary, the tension is built up gradually to the moment they descend from their tombs, and that sequence is out-and-out the greatest and most exciting thing I have ever watched in a Doctor Who episode. Troughton is completely magnificent, and it’s no surprise Matt Smith also loved this story when he watched it and modelled his performance on Troughton. As a bonus, there is the most poignant emotional moment of any Classic Doctor Who story, contrasting beautifully with all the cold, flawed logic. The set design is a work of genius. The music as the Cybermen descend from their tombs is pure nightmare fuel.
It may be full of flaws, and logically I can see all too clearly that this is far from perfection. But screw logic. The Tomb of the Cybermen is perfect, and I love it. RP
The view from across the pond:
A long time ago in a state far, far away, I was enjoying my summer staying up late. It was about 11:30 at night and Star Trek would be on at midnight. I thought I’d read for half an hour and then put the book down to watch Trek. I had recently picked up this Target novel called Tomb of the Cybermen. I liked reading the lost episodes because I knew I’d never see them and I thought it as good a time as any to start this one. In the fastest read of any book I’ve ever read, by about 2am, I finished the book. I realized time seemed to warp around me as I read this story. And when I was done, I went to bed with a single thought on my mind: please, oh please, if just one story could be found, let it be this one. This was very late 80’s, maybe 1990.
It wasn’t long after that that an announcement was made: Tomb of the Cybermen had been found. (Don’t worry, fellow fans, I’ve tried that same wish for many episodes but all of the genie’s power must have been used up on Tomb!) When it was released on VHS in 1992, I was waiting for it. Gary Russell, the editor of Doctor Who Magazine (1992-1995) has gone on record stating he could “go on forever about what’s good in The Tomb of the Cybermen”. He’s right. Tomb is a masterpiece. It’s Doctor Who getting everything right. Alright, we can’t look at an episode and find nothing wrong with it, can we? Fine. The working title would have been a better name so as not to lose the excitement that would have been generated by seeing the Cybermen for the first time. The working title was The Ice Tombs of Telos. Isn’t that a better title? With that, when the big reveal comes, we’d all gasp with astonishment. Ok… that’s all I’ve got. You can cite little issues if you want, but they were a product of the time and there was no money for reshoots. (A personal favorite of mine is that when a certain gun is fired, it appears a part of it goes flying off!) But that, in no way, took away from the story. This episode is, hands-down, one of the absolute best of the classic era. I’d even say it warrants a place in the top ten of all Doctor Who!
Look at what it does. It introduces the Cybermats and even the Cyberleader! There’s a fantastic discussion between Victoria and the Doctor about his age (450, at the time) and his family, who sleep in his mind most of the time. It’s tender and heartwarming in an episode taking place in ice tombs! It’s affirmative; the Doctor cares about his companions and their emotional well-being. This Doctor is a deeply kind man. There’s continuity as the Doctor speculates that the destruction of Mondas (The Tenth Planet) lead to their failed attack on The Moonbase which in turn caused them to vanish and go into hiding in their tombs. Oh, and there’s humor! Don’t think for an instant that there is no place for humor in these foreboding tombs!
Once again, shadow and darkness is used to great effect. The visuals and the music work hand in hand. When we’re looking at the visual medium, it’s images that we are going to remember. Sometimes, music enhances our memory of those images. Tomb is an episode that can best be summarized with one indelible scene: the waking of the Cybermen. The Cybermen are mobilizing. The music is weird and jarring and marvelous; a warped sound full of drums and terror as the Cybermen begin breaking forth and climbing down from their multi-storied tomb. It’s an incredible moment. Then, they line up and open an ornamental door wherein, crunched up, another Cyberman waits. He begins to move and rise up; he is the Cyberleader. He emerges from his tomb. His face takes up the screen. It is flecked with ice as his mechanical mouth opens and out pour the words: “You belong to us. You will be like us.” The terror instilled in that instant as the credits role and the theme music plays is astounding. You know when movies of the past had posters that said things like “thrill and chills”? Yeah…. This story had thrills and chills in abundance. Indelibility, unforgettability; these are the words to best describe Tomb of the Cybermen.
Tomb of the Cybermen is one of those stories we could talk about for hours. Instead I’d recommend sitting down and watching it. It is absolutely worth the time. If you’ve gotten the feeling that I love this episode, you’re not wrong. In point of fact, I’ve never spoken to anyone who doesn’t love it. Trust me: watch it and you will belong to us… you will be like us… Cyber-ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Abominable Snowmen