Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Tomb of the Cybermen

Chapter The 52nd, where some Cybermen long thought lost are located again.

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria arrive on the planet Telos and bump into an archaeological team searching for the last resting place of the Cyber race, which has long since vanished from the galaxy. The team find the tombs but have to complete logical tests before they can be accessed. They open them with help from the Doctor (even though he thought it was a bad idea, but he can't help showing off). The tombs turn out not to be tombs, but cryogenic pods, and the Cybermen not dead, only sleeping. Two members of the team, Eric Klieg and Kaftan (not their real names but stage monikers from when they toured their magic show round the working men's clubs), plan to use the Cybermen to take over Earth, but the Cybermen are planning to convert them and the rest of the humans into new Cybermen so they can, well, take over Earth. Neither side gets to take anything over, as the Doctor refreezes the Cybs and reseals the tombs that aren't tombs.

Watched the 'Revisitation' version of the DVD, which reinstates the video look of the studio-recorded scenes using vidFIRE, which you're likely either to know already or not be interested in so I'll shut up about it now. The whole family (The Better Half, two sons, 10 and 7, and our youngest, a girl of 4) sat down to watch this enthusiastically. As has become the norm, we stripped the watch over several days during and after the Bank Holiday weekend. Everyone thought the Cybermats were cute.

First-time round:
It was Monday 11th May 1992, the day of Tomb's VHS release; it must have been - I didn't wait to buy this, and I didn't wait to play it. I probably purchased it in Woolworths in Durham, as I would have had to go in there anyway to buy The Twin Dilemma, which was an exclusive release for Woolies released on the same day. Because of the hoo-hah in college when it was first found - see the Deeper Thoughts section below - there were a number of people more than the usual crammed into my friend Mike's room to watch. It was unheard of - we had to bring in more chairs! I can't remember, but I very much doubt that many stayed after to watch The Twin Dilemma.

The Tomb of The Cybermen clearly had some money spent on it: large cast, lots of film both on location and in studio, lots of lovely expensive looking detailing on the sets - look at the cyber symbol spray-painted onto the cling film that the Cybermen pierce through during the justly-celebrated wake-up scene. Lovely. Some effects, which had been talked about reverentially when they were but the memories of a lucky few, turned out to be a bit ropey when they were finally aired for a mass audience (e.g. some obvious Kirby wires and empty cyber-suits used in battles). Toberman's half-conversion into a cyberman is never very clearly shot, and quite a few characters have to act in naive ways to push certain moments of the plot along. The overall impression, though, is of a highly polished production.

What it isn't, mind, is particularly scary: in a story about a descent into underground tombs, one might expect shadows, or the turning of corners in fear of what lay beyond, of sudden movements out of the corner of one's eye, or strange noises disturbing the eerie silence. There's none of that on offer from the story, which takes place in the most brightly lit final resting place money can buy, with no corridors either: probably because a fair chunk of the budget's been spent on the very impressive main hall set, there's only one scenery flat, which characters gamely race in front of and behind, pursued by Cybermen. Everything is too big and shiny to allow for menace of the creeping, cobwebbed sort. Even the aforementioned 'cybermen emerging from pods' scene, though wonderfully shot, cut and underscored with their 'Space Adventures' music, is more balletic than frightening. There are a few unsettling moments wrung from this set-up: the trippy weapons testing room stuff, for example, or the magnificent impassive face of the Cybercontroller in close-up at the end of episode 2, with his buzzing alien vocals: "Eew-ah will be like uzzzzz".

Mostly, though, it's a straightforward linear action story, with only some attempts early on to bring depth to the script by adding lots of talk about symbolic logic. It's a peculiar brew: one part Bertrand Russell, two parts James Whale Universal horror pic; when Klieg is tapping on buttons and the tomb's opening, he entones lines about "If and only if" and "Fourier series" etc. as if he's saying "It's alive! It's allliveeee!!!" It must have seemed a good fit, to introduce a fixation with logic as the driver for these emotionless beings, but it does create a rod for the cyber-back ever after. The Cybermen always manage to do something stupidly illogical in every story - here, it's not putting an opening control on the inside of their casket when they buried themselves alive. It might be better to quietly ignore the logical theme, rather than draw attention to these flaws.

On the subject of Klieg, it is somewhat unfortunate that he and his other conspirators are the only three characters in the piece with skin pigmentation any shade darker than paper white. The story's not racist, at least not intentionally so - George Pastell, who played Klieg in fantastic villainous form, had been in a few Mummy movies previously, and was cast at least partially to call back to that - but for a production team, which a season earlier were positing a future with black and white astronauts shown as equals, to include a black actor playing the silent manservant muscleman is a backward step, and one they should have avoided. But Tomb's not really deep enough to be offensive. What we basically have here is as season opener in the modern mold: a simple action-packed story to kick things off, with larger-than-life villains and monsters, and an emotional bit with the new companion. 

In The Tomb of the Cybermen, just as in Death to the Daleks, the TARDIS crew join up with another team that have arrived on a quarry-like planet, where there are lots of A-list Doctor Who monsters waiting in the wings. In both stories, this joint group, including an untrustworthy male on that other team, gains entry to and then investigates a large building on the planet where everyone faces booby traps and tests of their intelligence.

Deeper Thoughts:
A personal story: The Tale of Two Elections. The country in which I live is fast approaching a general election, followed by negotiations to leave the European Union. There isn't any probable outcome from either process that isn't miserable and difficult. In times like this, it's good to remind oneself that sometimes - rarely, and perhaps insignificantly in the big scheme of things, but sometimes - things happen that are wholeheartedly, unquestionably good. This is a story of one of those times, from back in 1992, another election year, and another time of misery for any left-leaning person like what I am. I was lucky enough to share this event with many friends, chief among them my good pal, fellow fan, and collector of many mentions previously on this blog, David, the man who provided me with my first ever pirated videos of Doctor Who.

In Autumn 1991, I started my fresher year at St. Aidan's College in the University of Durham. I travelled up from the beautiful South on the train for that first day alongside Zahir, a schoolfriend of mine who was starting at Durham too. Zahir was also a fan, and a mutual friend of the other schoolmates I've mentioned on the blog before: Alex, and Dominic (he who provided me with my first official purchased Doctor Who videos). By the time of starting at this seat of learning - though I didn't have all of them with me - my Doctor Who VHS collection had reached 30-odd tapes. As great as it was as a long-time fan to see those episodes, and the ones from David, no excitement could match being finally able to own and view The Tomb of the Cybermen.

Perhaps the excitement of starting a whole new chapter of my life, and studying for a degree, should have exceeded that of watching four times 25 minutes of 1960s creaky teatime TV. I was wrestling in my head on that train journey in 1991 with the notion of putting aside childish things. I'd mentioned to Zahir that there was a Doctor Who convention early on in our first term, and wondered whether it would be fun to go. He, probably quite rightly, said we'd be too busy and too poor for such a thing. I could have reinvented myself then, left all of my old life behind me, but I had the fortune (I suppose it was fortune) to arrive at a college and university that was as Doctor Who-obsessed as I was. In my first week I met David, as recounted in the 'First Time Round' section of my earlier blog post here; additionally, future Doctor Who Magazine editor Gary Gillatt was at the same college at that time, and was involved with the university paper Palatinate, which published at least one extensive Doctor Who article during my first term. In previous years there had been a weekly Doctor Who night in the JCR, which we kept going in a smaller way with viewings of every new video I obtained in my friend Mike's room, as he was the only person with a video player of his own.

In that heady environment, the news of Tomb's return was sheer Lazarus stuff: a miraculous return from the dead; and not just of any story, but the one that was top of so many fans' lists for the most desired find. Since the first big search after the gaps in Who's archive were discovered in the late 70s, early 80s, returns of episodes seemed to have dried up. Late in January 1992, though, in my second term of my first year, I got back to my room after lectures one day to find a photocopied article blu-tacked to the door. Tomb of the Cybermen was back, back, back! David had made copies from the newspaper, and stuck them up thus on every door whose owner he thought would be interested (these were in the stone age days before WhatsApp, and much more fun because of it). When I finally caught up with David in the college bar, he still had a handful of his homemade flyers. I asked him how many episodes of the story had been found - the most recent finds had been one or two orphaned ones at most, never stories in their entirety - and when he replied "All of them" we both literally danced around that bar in joy. It may seem silly to you, but I stand by the reaction, which was honest in that moment.

The video was rush released a term later, and I snapped it up on the day of release, as recounted above. But in between, there had been that general election in April 1992; I watched for most of the night at Zahir's house back home during the hols; we were the only two left-leaning people remaining in Worthing at that time, or at least that's how it seemed. It was a night where brief initial optimism turned to crushing disappointment for us. The polls leading up to the day had consistently put Labour narrowly ahead, and the exit poll showed it was a hung parliament, still leaving hope that over a decade's worth of ruinous Thatcherism could soon be rolled back. But result after result coming in gradually filled in a different picture: we had five more years of Conservative rule. I've obviously been reminded of that night a lot recently, not just in 2015 (although the exit poll had the decency to be more accurate in 2015, not getting my hopes up), but in every recent wrong-headed decision at home and abroad.

The story of The Tomb of the Cybermen tells us not to be rash enough to let loose forces we can never hope to control, but I fear it's too late for that moral. The story of its recovery shows us that, if we're patient, good things can happen at unexpected times, and we should never give up believing things that are lost can be brought back. I'll cling to that.

In Summary:
Ignore any unrealistic expectations arising from its loss and rediscovery: it's the Smith and Jones or Partners in Crime of its day, and succeeds wholeheartedly if taken as that.

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