By Michael Hickerson and Ben Ragunton
If you were to create a list of the most influential people in the 50 year run of Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton’s name would have to be near the top or at the top of that list. Fifty years on, the concept of regeneration and changing the lead actor is an integral part of the series’ longevity, but back in the day it was a huge risk for the show. A lot of the credit for it working so well is squarely on Troughton’s shoulders and it’s little wonder that most modern Doctors cites Troughton’s work on the show as one of their primary influences when they step into the role.
“Tomb of the Cybermen” kicks off the fifth season of the show (though it was filmed as part of season four and held over as the season premiere). This era is one that’s filled with monsters attacking various human settlements for a wide variety of reasons. It’s one of the most fondly remembered by those lucky enough to have seen it and it’s the one that has the largest number of missing stories from the early days of show.
Fans of a certain age may recall that for years, “Tomb of the Cybermen” only existed as off-air audio recordings. Fondly remembered by fans, it was often cited as the best of an era and was held up as an example of how great Doctor Who used to be. Then one day in 1992, a complete copy of the story was found in Hong Kong and fandom could (eventually) see the story and judge again for themselves. Did the story live up to its reputation? Fans will still debate that to this day…but the recovery of this story and the 1996 TV movie were the two most significant events in Doctor Who during the “wilderness” years.
It’s easy to see why BBC America picked this as an example of the Troughton years.
Hickerson: I’ll just go ahead and say it–this is one of my favorite stories from the classic series run. I clearly recall where I was when I heard the news that it had been found and I couldn’t wait for it to be released on VHS. Of course, this was back in the day when America was six or so months behind on the VHS release and that meant I had to wait a loooong time to finally see it. I clearly recall picking it up at my local video retailer after having to special order it and sitting down to watch. I was determined to only watch one episode and then stop so I could savor new (to me) Doctor Who. But four episodes later, it was all over and I was ready to watch it again and again and again. This episode cemented why Troughton is so fondly remembered and just what this era made such an impression on fans.
Ragunton: I have no memory of when it was announced that this story was recovered. When I lived in California I was very much plugged in to the Dr Who community. The show had enormous popularity in the California Bay Area, specifically around San Jose. What I do remember was when it had been announced that we were finally, after many years of only seeing Tom Baker episodes, that we were finally going to get to see the classic stories staring all the way back at the beginning with “An Unearthly Child.” At this point everything in Dr. Who was brand new to me. I do remember that most of the Troughton episodes at that time were missing, but there were a few that were complete for us to enjoy. Then a few years after that I ended up moving to Arizona and there seemed to be, aside from a few small fan groups and clubs, very little interest in Dr. Who. I didn’t have much access to international news, especially that from the UK, so when it was announced that Tomb had been recovered it slipped right by me. It wasn’t until I was in a video store and actually saw the DVD available for purchase that I learned that Tomb was found, and at that moment my jaw just hit the floor. I purchased it right there and then and couldn’t wait to watch a classic piece of Dr. Who!
Hickerson: It seems our paths crossed long before Slice because it was San Jose where I first discovered Doctor Who and became a life long fan. Ahhhh, the good ol’ days of KTEH and Doctor Who airing six days a week. I was so young and new to fandom I had no idea how spoiled I was getting the opportunity to see every complete story of the show in just over two years. It’s interesting to note that while we have a lot of complete Dalek stories from that era, we don’t have any complete Cybermen stories –well, except this one, of course. And yet the Cybermen are such a huge part of the second Doctor’s era and the series history. After many attempts to find a monster that would rival the Daleks, the production team finally hit paydirt with the Cybermen. And looking at them here, it’s easy to see why they were so memorable to fans of that day. Their size was so imposing–they literally towered over Troughton and Frazier Hines as Jaime. I feel like they lost this sense of being so imposing in later serials in the 70s and 80s.
Ragunton: The impact of the Cybermen comes from the idea that they were once flesh and blood, and that they continue to assimilate others and convert them into Cybermen. Any impact that I personally feel is when I see something that reminds me of any biological component, and while the Cybermen are clearly threatening today, I don’t get that same impact as when I see them in older episodes, especially in “Tomb”.
Hickerson: The whole turning humans into more Cybermen is a chilling idea…and long before we the Borg were a blip on the radar. I will admit I find the black and white Cybermen far more effective as monsters than the ones we got in the color stories.
Ragunton: Again, I find the older Cybermen more scary and effective as monsters, and part of that stems from when this episode came out. This was aired originally in 1967, and some of the science fiction that was being released dealt with the evil of technology and how we could possibly be de-humanized by it. The Cybermen clearly epitomize that idea, and while the Daleks showed us a monster that lived inside of a mechanical casing, seeing a humanoid being with electronics attached to it could prove to be terrifying in an era where the idea of having any portable electronic device was a foreign idea. We can still see something human, or at the very least, humanoid, in these Cybermen, and even today I still feel “uneasy” when watching them here in “Tomb”. That is something which I don’t quite experience when watching the Cybermen of today.
Hickerson: There’s a lot of what made the Troughton era so effective and memorable on display here. It’s interesting to note that for close to a year and a half, the series told the same basic story over and over again and yet the public ate it up. I’m referring to the “base under siege” storyline where you have a group of isolated humans who come under attack by some monster or another with the Doctor squarely caught in the middle. The interesting thing is that “Tomb” tweaks this a bit. Yes, we have an isolated group of humans under attack, but this time the threat is from within–in this case from the Cybermen lying in wait in the tombs underneath, waiting for a group of humans smart enough to fall into their trap and give them more victims to become Cybermen.
Ragunton: I personally liked this twist. I have found that some of the best stories have the threat come from inside the setting, thereby almost trapping the protagonists of the story. When the threat is outside, the heroes can always barricade inside somewhere, but when the threat is inside, there is no where to go, and that really helps to drive up the dramatic tension of the story.
Hickerson: And it’s the only complete story with the team of the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria. I like the trio. What impressions do you have?
Ragunton: Well I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Victoria. Of all of the “fish out of water” companions, she really fills that part here in this story. Perhaps it is because she is still new in the show and hasn’t properly integrated herself as a member of the TARDIS crew.
Hickerson: I think the story does show why this group is so fondly remembered, though. Especially Troughton and Frazer Hines.
Ragunton: Jaime and the Doctor have already had plenty of time together, and the chemistry between Frazier Hines and Patrick Troughton is practically legendary in Dr Who lore. With Victoria, I’m not exactly feeling that right at this time. Perhaps as the series progressed she did fit in which is why this team became rather popular, but my introduction to the Troughton era had Zoe in “The Krotons,” and I do find myself quite partial to that trio. Again, “Tomb” is the only episode that I have ever seen with Victoria so it’s hard for me to properly assess this team. Given the popularity that is ascribed to them it is safe to guess that as later episodes were aired the audience got to see a better developed and integrated Victoria.
Hickerson: And yet there’s that lovely scene between the Doctor and Victoria while everyone is sleeping and they’re guarding against the Cyber-threat. That has to be one of the top scenes in all of Doctor Who and it showcases so much of what made Troughton great. That along with the subtle way the Doctor manipulates events throughout the story. I think that’s why the novels and audio adventures have had such a difficult time translating the second Doctor era…so much of what Troughton did was so physical. The moment where he pushes the buttons and helps Kleig with the logic problem to open the tombs is one of my favorites. (And I have a lot of favorites in this story). Another is the cliffhanger to episode two that just chilled me the first time I saw it. The Controller announcing, “You belong to us, you shall be like us…” Amazingly well done.
Ragunton: Absolutely yes! In fact I find them to be the most effective of any villain from that era. It goes back to what I said earlier, about the de-humanizing they represent. They also have a zombie like quality about them. They are totally relentless and one of their goals is to assimilate others, which is what zombies would do through infecting them. I can also easily see how the 60′s Cybermen heavily influenced Star Trek and how they brought about the Borg, but I find the Cybermen here to be far more terrifying. They were, for the most part, fully mobile, which in my mind made them more dangerous than the Daleks, but they had intelligence. They were single-minded, but appeared to be quick to adapt. And even though the manner in which they spoke was not directly threatening, the electronic manner of their speech would just give me chills!
Hickerson: The interesting thing about the Cybermen in the classic series is they rarely had the same physical appearance and voices from appearance to appearance. But you always knew who they were. And Tomb offers us up two other aspects of Cyber-mythology — the Cybermats and the Cyber-Contoller. Both do come back, but I’d argue they were the most effectively used here…:
Ragunton: The Cybermat and the Cyber Controller were interesting elements as part of the Dr. Who mythos. I’m not entirely sure what the genesis of the Cybermat was, but I suspect it was a plot device developed by the writers to help drive along the story and keep the action going while the Cyberman were trapped. I remember seeing the Cybermat return in the Tom Baker episode “Revenge of the Cybermen,” but I was so disappointed in how it was used. While we saw it inject venom after biting Sarah Jane, it never felt quite as dramatically threatening. Even though the Cybermats here moved slowly and seemed somewhat unthreatening, their appearance is what made them somewhat scary, and that is something that was lost until its most recent return in the Matt Smith episode “Closing Time.” Only then did the Cybermat come across as truly threatening again.
As for the Cyber Controller, I honestly don’t ever remember seeing that type of Cyberman ever return. Instead we were given the Cyber Leader, but he never appeared to be any more threatening than the rest of the Cybermen. He was simply designated as leader by different coloring in the helmet. The Cyber Controller, with his brain like head, made him very disturbing to look at, and was yet another reminder that the Cybermen are part humanoid. I would have enjoyed seeing a further development of the Cyber Controller, and I firmly believe that had it been done right the Cybermen would have evolved, from a story telling perspective, into not just the most threatening of the Doctor’s villains, but perhaps the scariest as well.
Hickerson: The Controller actually comes back — played the the same actor — in the Colin Baker story, “Attack of the Cybermen.” Which it’s interesting how much of that story calls upon the Troughton era stories and how at that point very few fans had seen them since their original airing! But that’s a rant for another time and era…
And while “Attack” isn’t one that fans hold up as a classic, I think you can hold “Tomb” up as a classic. Yes, as Steven Moffat says in the introduction, the plan doesn’t make a lick of sense if you think about it, but the story is so atmospheric and Troughton is on the top of his game here that it all doesn’t really matter. Just sit back and enjoy an example of the era.
Ragunton: I think this episode is absolutely amazing. Even after having watched so many outstanding episodes with my favorite Doctor (Jon Pertwee), this one still wows me. The Doctor is at his absolute finest here. We not only get to see how very clever he is in working out the mathematical formulas and symbolic logic, but the manner in which he determines how utterly insane Eric Klieg is perfectly demonstrates the level of whimsy that we’ve come to know and love in Dr Who!
There are a number of Dr. Who episodes from the Troughton era which I have seen and enjoyed, but I really feel that this one is the best. The writing could almost be called ahead of its time in terms of pacing, and the incidental music we hear when the Cybermen are leaving their tomb is absolutely haunting. If I were to have any issues with this episode it would be with some of the stereotypes. The ship’s pilot, who I assume was supposed to be played as an American, was almost ridiculous in his somewhat bullish approach and delivery of lines. Kaftan and Klieg were not just stereotypes, they were practically caricatures in their villainy. Still, when one considers the era this episode was produced it can be easy to forgive these flaws and perhaps should be appreciated for in their television historical context. The episode is still outstanding and it’s easy to see why it stands out as a Dr. Who classic!
Next up, it’s a journey into exile with the third Doctor as he battles the Autons for the first time. We’ll be checking out “Spearhead from Space” when BBC America re-airs it on March 31.