Monday, January 10, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: Tomb of the Cybermen

And I'm back from holiday hiatus. And what better note to come back on than a Second Doctor story?

"Tomb of the Cybermen" was originally considered as the final episode of the 1966-1967 season but the decision was quickly made to push it back to become the opening of the 1967-1968 season. As such "Evil of the Daleks" became the season finale for '66-'67 and "Tomb" would become the first regular episode for the new companion Victoria Waterfield, played by Deborah Watling.

One of the biggest things "Tomb" is notable for is that it is one of the few "lost" stories to be found in whole. Due to the BBC's tape wiping destruction program (which I've mentioned elsewhere) "Tomb" was one of those stories which had been destroyed. In 1991, however, complete film copies were found in storage at a Hong Kong TV station and returned to the BBC. "Tomb" would also be the last complete story to be found. Single episodes of some serials have been located and some surviving clips have cropped up in the years since but "Tomb" was the last serial where all parts of the story were located.

So now shall we venture into the Tomb of the Cybermen?

The Plot: An archaeological team on the planet Telos uncovers the remains of a Cyberman civilization. The Doctor arrives with his companions Jamie and Victoria and insists on joining the expedition -- afraid that the Cybermen may not be as long gone as thought.

It soon becomes apparent that there is a saboteur among the team -- someone with an ulterior motive. When that motive is finally revealed the Doctor finds himself the last line of defense against the Cybermen and a madman. Will even the Doctor's intelligence allow him to save all the lives in his hands?

My Take: Okay. Elephant in the room. Let's get this out of the way first. Toberman. Toberman is a black, nearly mute, servant to Kaftan, one of the members of the archaeological expedition. To American audiences in particular Toberman checks off the boxes on a number of uncomfortable stereotypes. I am not, however, familiar with race relations in Great Britain so I am going to reserve judgement. Also, reportedly, the character of Toberman was supposed to be seen wearing a hearing aid -- indicating that he might have had some other physical disabilities. We'll just leave it that Toberman is likely to make most viewers cringe. Including me.

Now that we're past that....

The story itself is nothing particularly new but script writers Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler give viewers a story packed with wit and one liners and the Doctor getting to really do what he does best -- be the smartest guy in the room effortlessly. They also showcased something new from the Cybermen -- a new leader known as the Cybercontroller. Bigger, stranger, and harder to stop, the Cybercontroller became like the villain in a horror movie -- no matter what you throw at him he keeps getting back up.

Davis and Pedler also didn't forget the heart of the story either. There is a scene between the Doctor and Victoria that is rightfully heralded as one of the best bits of Classic Doctor Who. The Doctor comforts his companion who has recently lost pretty much everything she has ever known and at the same time offers one of those rare revelations about himself. The scene is not only perfectly pitched to tug on the heartstrings, it does so without becoming overly sentimental or schmaltzy. It is also played with a light touch by both Troughton and Watling.

The script also rather favors Victoria. Too bad it would be the last time viewers would ever see her so spunky. True, she does some boneheaded things but that is balanced by a determination to prove that just because she's a girl doesn't mean she can't handle herself, a little bit of snark, and even the ability to handle a gun (although it is strange that this sheltered Victorian girl could shoot so well right out of the gate). After this story, though, the character of Victoria would start a long, slow, slide into being mostly a screaming damsel in distress. Here, though, Watling manages to convey a young woman who is an odd mix of innocence and spirit. She also makes the viewers believe that, despite a wardrobe change, Victoria is and remains a Victorian lady.

And speaking of performances... Troughton, after a year on the job, is completely comfortable as the Doctor -- as is Fraser Hines as Jamie. The two actors present some of the best of their comedy double-team here with puns and jovial insults flying fast and furious. The rest of the guest cast has some problems, however. Actor George Pastell as Eric Klieg is delightfully smug and superior but Shirley Cooklin as Kaftan is a bit too much. She seems more like a femme fatale character who wandered onto the set of the wrong TV show. Plus the character is basically named after a loose, flowing article of clothing. It's impossible to be dignified and taken seriously when your character is named after an outfit. Most of the rest of the actors are serviceable and not particularly outstanding. A special place of ire, however, is reserved for George Roubicek who plays Captain Hopper. Roubicek's American accent isn't horrible in and of itself but he definitely is trying too hard at it and that makes it rather wince inducing.

The set design and special effects for "Tomb" were also pretty well done. Sure, the Cybermats are a bit more cute than frightening (seriously, I think I want a remote controlled Cybermat toy) but the Cybermen base and the tombs below have an alien look to them and the bas reliefs and other art decorations on the wall lend an air of looming menace. The tombs themselves are strange and intimidating but it has to be said that the Cybermen emerging through saran wrap is somewhat less than stellar. But who cares? Overall, the set design team really went above and beyond for this story.

Even with the uncomfortable stereotype of Toberman, "Tomb of the Cybermen" is still a fun romp and one of the Second Doctor's best stories. There is action and adventure, intrigue, madness, and high stakes all around. Who could ask for anything more?

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