Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Attack on the Cybermen 03 - Tomb of the Cybermen

I think I've had my moment of realisation.  Sadly it's not the one I'd hoped for.  I'd hoped that it would be "Wow, yeah... the cybermen really are great" and that I could post something glowing tonight.  However, I've had the next best thing I guess. I know where my dislike of the cybermen has come from.  It's not a brilliant thing to realise, because it's probably going to make me stand out even more from fandom with my opinions than I already do.

I don't like the cybermen because of "Tomb of the Cybermen". It's four episodes that should have remained lost forever, soundtrack included.

Right then, more than usual, this post is going to act as therapy for me.  It'll probably open up all kinds of other cans of worms but hey, that's the great thing about therapy sessions, you never know what you'll end up hating.  Errrrr, so I'm told.  At its heart, I'm sure there's a good story here.  The cybermen, weakened through lack of resources, set a trap with the intention of luring the greatest minds there, pinching their bodies and slowly rebuilding the cyber race.  I'll admit that, simplified down to that level, it's a reasonable idea.  The problem comes when you expand it to include the detail of their precise plans and then it REALLY goes pear shaped (not, unlike, the cyber controller).  It doesn't help that what we get in this story doesn't really then tie in with Attack of the Cybermen, a story which I'll reach soon enough.  Throw in some very dodgy production values (yes, I know, it was the 60s, shoestring budget and all that), a Doctor that doesn't feel overly Doctorish and you end up with a story that let me down on so many levels that it couldn't help but put me off cybermen for a very long time.

I'll happily admit that the first 16 minutes or so of episode one aren't too bad. The production clearly wants to be a feature film, the TARDIS console room even has an echo (which doesn't quite tie in with the visuals as in some shots it still looks very small) and the music sounds vaguely cinematic. The explosion looks semi-decent (though when we get to the studio footage it doesn't really look like a set of doors that's just been blown into accessibility) and, in a nice piece of continuity to The Moonbase, the TARDIS seems to "land" rather than materialise.  We've got the stylised cybermen on the walls (which does tie in well with the whole trap aspect of it) and the inside of the main room in the tomb looks...  okay, so once we're inside the tomb itself then a certain element of cheapness starts to enter the production.  Cheapness I can forgive if the story's half way decent but, sadly, once the plot proper starts up then my ability to watch without wanting to throw something at the screen starts to drop.  It's a story based, allegedly, around logic.  Yet nothing in it seems in any way, shape or form, logical to me.  Maybe it's just the story's attempt to be wrong with authority.  All of the dialogue involving the mathematical sequences sounds, to my slightly mathematically inclined ears, as though someone's given the writer a scientific dictionary and told them to just use words at random without bothering to look at what they mean.  The first one to make my teeth grind was when we're told that the logic sequences are based around a binary to digital conversion.  Given that binary is basically digital logic, yeah... my brain probably should have taken a holiday at that point but instead it stayed to be told all about sequences and logic functions.  It really, really should have taken a break.

Then there's the cybermen's plan.  They freeze themselves in a huge tomb (which seems to contain less than a dozen of them) and hide the controls to it behind "logic" puzzles.  Luckily for us, there's a convenient "reverse" function to pad the plot out.  Now, one huge problem that I do have with this (on the science front), is the whole freeze thaw process.  Every substance has something called a specific heat capacity.  This is the energy that you have to put in to raise the temperature of one kilogram of it by one degree.  The cyber tomb is a fairly sizable affair, several levels high and quite a few cells wide and the ice over it looks fairly thick.  So there's got to be a good few kilograms of ice covering it up.  Throw the lever and, kapow, the ice all melts in seconds.  What's more, the floor isn't covered with water all of a sudden (oh how I would have loved to have seen a health and safety risk assessment for that in the 60s) so there is, presumably, extra energy put in to change the water into steam (calculated using a slightly different concept called specific latent heat).  Basically, there must be a HUGE power source needed to get all that done in about 5 seconds.  Even weirder is that when the system goes into reverse, the ice magically forms over the tombs once more which means that there's probably some sort of water wall that has to pour down over them and a huge heat pump to take the energy away from the water to get it to turn into ice.  So, apart from wasting huge amounts of energy on the thawing process, the cybermen also have a recharging room where they can recharge one cyberman at a time.  Still, there only seem to be about 9 of them on Telos so it doesn't matter, the queue won't be that long.

Something that is very present in this story is the threat of being turned into a cyberman.  You belong to us, you will be like us, we now have a catchphrase.  For the time being though, I'm going to hold off on commenting on the threat for one very good reason.  I don't actually understand it and want to know more about it.  I don't, for one moment, expect I'll learn much about it in future stories but it's a nice idea.  All we really know from this story is that it seems a fairly mess-less process to give Toberman a three-fingered cyber-arm instead of his own.  Just why this design of cyberman thinks that three fingers is a good idea I'm not too sure.  Sadly the costume budget doesn't stretch to much past a silver glove with three pointy fingers but I know that in future stories we learn there's a reason that the cybermen look like normal men in baggy silver suits.  Still, a man in a baggy suit is still better than the really rough looking one we see at the end of part one (though, admittedly, part two gives a non-sensical reason for this, just why would a cyber weapon be designed to destroy a cyberman?).

Then there's the cybermat.  Forerunner and far superior to the modern series' cyber-shayde, this first appearance of the cybermat raises a huge number of questions that never really get answered in this story.  Firstly, why are there two sizes?  Is the implication supposed to be that these are organic devices that actually grow and mature? Secondly, why is everyone so frightened of them?  I used to have pet rats (I miss them terribly at the moment) and to be honest I was more afraid of Psycho at feeding time than I ever have been of the cybermats.  They just look so fragile that one encounter with a cheap Doc Marten knock off and they'd be history.  Or, at the very least, you could jump over them.  Finally, the Doctor knows about them, another part of this mythology that I'm building up in my mind that the cybermen are "significant".  I'm starting to wonder if there isn't a "missing" Hartnell story that features the Doctor's first encounter with silver style cybermen and cybermats, it would explain a lot.  (Dear Big Finish....)

Okay, so the cyber plan sucks, the cybermats aren't a plausible threat in this one and they'd be better off as heating engineers than galactic invaders.  But there's another reason why I truly dislike this story.  With the exception of the poor guy who died trying to open the doors in episode one, every other death in the story is thanks to the presence and actions of the Doctor.  He opens the doors into the weapons testing room, he presses the button that opens the hatch to the tomb, he's the idiot who puts the cybercontroller into the revitalisation chamber without a decent plan for not letting him out... Yes, Doctor, you are responsible for a LOT of deaths in this one.  You're also seemingly responsible for the magic production of a cloak but that's a minor crime compared to the blood on your hands in these four episodes.  You opened the tombs, you caused the deaths.  It's your fault.

Finally, some other random things I really don't like about this story:
- the weird gurgling noises the cybermen make in the battle scenes.  Wha???  Did they cybertise Bill and Ben?
- Toberman being one of the few instances in Doctor Who where someone being hypnotised doesn't make their acting more wooden
- Victoria, the victorian, selecting a mini skirt
- the cybermen saluting the emergence of the cybercontroller seems a rather emotional response
- the cybercontroller not having a chest unit (yes, it makes him look different, but it leaves you wondering why the rest have them in the first place)
- locking the baddies in the weapons testing room along with the ummm weapons.

When I was younger I remember all the hype about this story.  Second to Tenth Planet this was the other holy grail.  DWM had comments from the uberfans telling us how wonderful this story was, how it was an absolute classic... then the wretched thing turned up on video.  Take one teenage fan, tell him that the world's best Who story has just been found... then show it to him and make him realise that it's a pile of kak, a nonsensical mess of a story with production values that didn't even let it fall into the style-over-substance category.  Tomb of the Cybermen, you let me down.  And you ruined cybermen for me for the next few decades.  I despise you.


  1. James, forgive me but - I can't see *any* Doctor Who you'd be pleased with by these standards? Surely they all have zero budget and fantasy science?

  2. The weird thing is that there are plenty that I do love and thoroughly enjoy (and I'll probably post about a couple of them tonight just to prove it :) ). I think the problem is that the cybermen stories don't have the charm, wit or style to make me forget about the other problems and that's the sign of "bad" Doctor Who.

    You're right, there are plenty of stories where this is the case, such as something like "Creature from the Pit" where the science is just plain wrong and the effects are awful. But there's something else about the story that charms me over. I adore "Creature from the Pit", I love "The Visitation" and I could watch "Delta and the Bannermen" over and over (well, I already have). I guess it's that cliched "undefinable quality" affair. If is has enough good features, I'll forget about the bad. The cybermen stories just really don't have the good bits to make me overlook their flaws. Mind you, a good story shines out as though it were gold plated and I can't ever see that happening with cyber stories ;)