‘The Tomb Of The Cybermen’ at 50

­­❉ Flawed? Politically incorrect? Well, duh. But there’s still a lot to enjoy and admire.

“Fan insecurity demands that all the perceived flaws of a story have to be exposed and magnified and explained and apologised for before the Common Herd is allowed to enjoy. I am here to say nonsense. The Tomb of the Cybermen is enjoyable entertainment and a marvellous slice of Doctor Who.”

“We will survive.” Apt words from the Cyber Controller there, which could have been uttered by the film prints themselves when all four episodes of this previously lost Doctor Who classic were recovered from Hong Kong in 1992. The sensational discovery of a complete Patrick Troughton story came from the fifth season which had been held up as one of the very best, even though so few episodes survived. No wonder one commentator in magnificent fan magazine DWB likened the news as the return of the Holy Grail.

This was no exaggeration. If the fifth series was the greatest, The Tomb of the Cybermen was its pinnacle. Fans of a certain vintage, which includes myself, will recall how our opinions of what and wasn’t ‘Classic’ Doctor Who was informed by the memories of the fans who sat glued to their TV screens in the 1960s. The Tomb of the Cybermen was a masterpiece of spine-tingling moments, some beautiful character moments, and with the ultimate team in the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria.

Others preached caution over over-expectations. Twenty-five years had passed and television was unrecognisable from those halcyon sixties days. Only the box on which we watched it on was a similar shape. There may be flaws, they warned… This could have the same look and feel of the much derided The Krotons. Well, duh. Nothing from a 1960s television production is flawless. The sets wobbled in Z Cars and Adam Adamant Lives! If fans were expecting some piece of cinematography Kubrick style from director Morris Barry, they deserved to have their expectations crushed.

The majority watched the video release in May 1992. Some of us took off the day from work. Most of us loved it. Those who didn’t almost felt offended they hadn’t. Arguably only The Celestial Toymaker has suffered as much by not living up to expectations it could never possibly reach.

Worse, it makes for uncomfortable viewing for the more politically sensitive viewer of 2017 with the villains being foreigners. Their muscled, strong and silent henchman, Toberman, shares characteristics with the mute Turkish wrestler and would-be henchman of the bad guys in the previous story, The Evil of the Daleks. He too died trying to save the day. Episodes 3 and 4 contain a couple of howling production blunders which could not have gone unnoticed in 1967, even with 405 line definition TV, but they went unremembered.

If like me, you had heard the crystal-clear audio recordings (of what sounds more like a film print than an off-air video transmission), you would know how certain scenes sounded abysmal or lacked an expected impact. For example, the much-vaunted revival of the Cybermen, pictures of which fascinated me whenever Doctor Who Weekly or the Monthly magazine reproduced them. And the angry wasp wobble of the Cybermen unsure what to do with their prisoners in Episode 3. Grab their shoulders and push them round for a bit until a telecine insert finishes playing.

Fan insecurity demands that all the perceived flaws of a story have to be exposed and magnified and explained and apologised for before the Common Herd is allowed to enjoy. I am here to say nonsense. The Tomb of the Cybermen is enjoyable entertainment and a marvellous slice of Doctor Who. There is a lot to enjoy and admire.

This was the last story to be four episodes long for over a year. Slower paced six-parters would become the cost-effective norm. The story bounces along at a cracking pace, barely giving you the chance to spot the logic flaws in the story.

Episode 4 is a roller-coaster. Morris Barry excelled at atmosphere. His cast are frequently portrayed on the edge of their nerves, especially Cyril Shaps who really understood where the writers, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, were aiming, a sort of nostalgic 1930s horror film. Another notable aspect of the programme is the near constant music in the background, a real eclectic mix of styles and sampled and electronically treated  ‘stings’. The grams operator must have had three arms. Morris Barry even got his sound effects from BBC records. Some of these will be quite familiar to fans of 1965’s The Space Museum. The Production Assistant of these stories was the same gentleman, Noel Lidiard White.

The filming of the Cybermats was particularly strong. They crept, they sped, they jumped, they even had pulsating fangs! There was such a large cast Morris Barry had difficulty in containing the amount of people in one shot, leading to very crowded scenes. The Cybermen had an interesting choreography although in some scenes they never seemed quite certain in what they doing. Yet when they worked, they were effective, but never quite reached their Moonbase creepiness from earlier that year.

1992 was just before the dawn of fan researchers setting foot inside the BBC’s Written Archives Centre in Caversham, just outside Reading. We did not know back then that the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria did appear on location. It was often stated they weren’t allowed out to play in the Gerrard Cross’ sandpit. Rumours had it that Toberman was supposed to be deaf. Well, allow the BBC production file on Serial MM introduce a little myth-buster: the “hearing aid” Toberman would wear was only for Episode 4. It was a description for a Cyber-control unit Toberman first seen in scene 7, page 17 of the script. ”Toberman is wearing a hearing aid type control in his ear,” Wardrobe is told and then later informed it has been cut.

The Tomb of the Cybermen is the beginning of a new series but marks the end of Gerry Davis’ time on the programme as either script editor or writer. The continuity which he and Kit Pedler brought to their Cyberman stories would soon be thrown out of the window when a new production team bought Pedler’s storylines and went their own way. Yet the legacy of the story lived on, spawning a sequel in 1985 called Attack of the Cybermen. That was considered controversial for its violent content, but alleged author Paula Moore wasn’t hauled up before irrational parents and David Coleman in the way Kit Pedler was. But that fiftieth anniversary is a few weeks away…

❉ Michael Seely’s biography of Kit Pedler, ‘The Quest For Pedler’ (Miwk Publishing, 2014) can be purchased directly here. You can hear Michael Seely discussing his book with Miwk here.

 Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017.  Click here to order.

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