The Tomb of the Cybermen [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Tomb of the Cybermen

Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor
Companions: Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield.
Written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis.  Directed by Morris Barry. Produced by Peter Bryant. Script Edited by Victor Pemberton.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  September 1967 (Episodes 1-4 of Season 5). I

The Tomb of the Cybermen is one of the classic Doctor Who stories that I have seen more times than any other, and that’s partly because it’s the classic story that I have owned the most. Up until 1991 Tomb was one of the many “lost” Doctor Who stories. It’s recovery was big deal because it had a reputation as a classic, and because of how many stories from the era were unavailable (at the time there were no complete stories featuring Deborah Watling). So when it came out on VHS, I was quick to buy it.

That tape is long gone but later I bought the story again as part of a DVD set called “The Doctor’s Revisited.” Later still, I’ve wound up owning two different digital copies of the story on iTunes, simply because it’s belonged to different packages of Second Doctor stories that I was buying. And now with my Britbox subscription, I have access to the story there as well.

Spoilers Ahead!

Thanks to the fact that I’ve been watching this story fairly repeatedly over quite a period of time, my perceptions of it have evolved a fair bit. Because of its classic reputation, it was easy to point out its flaws when it was first rediscovered–numerous flaws in the production and the narrative really stood out like a sore thumb. But rewatching it now I feel like I can also enjoy its many strengths.

One of those strengths is atmosphere. The whole adventure takes place in three main locations–outside on the surface of Telos, in the upper rooms of the tombs, and in the depths of the tombs where the Cybermen actually are. The surface of Telos is obviously a quarry but the sequences are there are effectively directed, and it’s completely believable that it’s another planet in a Doctor Who context.

It’s actually better that there’s no attempt to make it especially alien (for example, by employing some sort of miniature or matte painting to represent an extraordinary vista). This is a boring, barren world whose only interest is that it houses the resting place of the Cybermen.

Effectively, once the story moves indoors, it never comes back out again until the very end (when everyone is leaving). That helps to create the sense of confinement that serves the story so well.

The upper chambers of the tombs are a pretty neat set. The controls are a bit clumsy and the “extraordinary logic” required to decipher them all seems a bit slapdash, but the location itself is great fun. It offers suitable opportunities for exploration, danger and mystery, and it all contrasts nicely with the lower rooms.

The large honeycomb full of frozen Cybermen doesn’t look completely believable, but hats off to the production team for making it multi-storied. That gives the episode’s sense of menace the scope that it needs.

I’ve long-held that the Second Doctor is as key to the formation of the character as we know him as the First. All that stuff about the Doctor playing the fool to lull his enemies into complacency, or showing fear in the presence of monsters whilst still being universe’s champion in fighting against them, or even just verbally sparring with villains and megalomaniacs–that’s all the Second Doctor, and that’s on full display here. Certainly it impacted Matt Smith in the 2010’s–the word has it that Steven Moffat actually sent him this story to help him acquaint himself with the show and the character, and Smith came away impressed and inspired. And it’s no wonder why–Troughton’s performance is top-notch and shows the perfect blending of fretfulness and courage.

And there is also a decidedly tender side to the Doctor, as seen in his conversation with Victoria about family, loss, and the adventures that fill their lives.

Frazer Hines is reliable as always as Jamie, the Doctor’s old friend and stalwart companion in danger. And I quite like Deborah Watling as Victoria. The character of course suffers from being a girl in 1960’s television–she screams a fair bit and occasionally shows a lack of clear-thinking, such as when she ignorantly gets inside a big metal box or decides to stick a Cybermat into her handbag. But she also shows her backbone, such as when she shoots that Cybermat with a gun, or throws shade at the irritating Captain Hopper.

And most of the guest cast are also solid, including the likes of George Pastell as the insane Klieg, Shirley Cooklin as Kaftan, or Cyril Shaps as the fretful Viner. Toborman is a bit of a troublesome character–the story’s only non-white person is a fearsome giant of an enforcer, who is redeemed at the end but never really goes beyond being a bit of a brutish savage. But still, I like the character. He’s got presence, and think Roy Stewart does a good job giving him some personality.

Less successful is George Roubicek as Captain Hopper, who is an irritating character with a gratingly unconvincing American accent. There are some other American accents in the story that are not all that great either, but Hopper’s is the worst.

Beyond that, there are some notable weaknesses to the production. There is an infamous bit, for example, where Toborman is held aloft, supposedly by a Cyberman, but clearly in actuality by wires. And then later, he returns the favor by picking up the Cyberman Controller over his head, who is handily played for the shot by an obvious dummy. Of course, these problems are just cosmetic , but they may be too much for some. I was always bothered by the way the Doctor seems to be desperately trying to convince Parry, Klieg and the others not to go deeper into the Cybermen’s tomb while at the same time helping them do it. In fact, I’ve heard some theorize that the Doctor was really manipulating the situation, to get the people to do what he wanted at their own expense (like the Seventh Doctor might do at times, especially in the novels) but this is clearly not what is being presented on screen.

On the whole, The Tomb of the Cybermen holds up quite well. The Cybermen themselves are towering and threatening. It has one of my favorite iterations of the show’s regular cast, and in spite of its obvious weaknesses, I think it’s one of the show’s best Cybermen stories.

One thought on “The Tomb of the Cybermen [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The Tomb Of The Cybermen is a fine reminder of how refreshingly simpler the earliest years were for Doctor Who. I first saw it when it was restored and released straight to VHS. The DVD was the first classic Doctor Who story that I bought for my nephew. So I’m glad that it was selected for the Revisited editions. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

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