Women, men and The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)

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Here’s a story which has taken a long and winding path. Fondly remembered from its original screening, then lost for 25 years. Found in Hong Kong and rush-released to an eager fandom, some who found it matched every rosy memory they’d ever had, some who found it disappointingly hokey.

Some subsequent critical analyses found it lacking; the plot sags in the middle, the Doctor’s (Patrick Troughton) modus operandi is illogical and its attitude to race is highly suspect. But still, it commands affection, scoring highly in various polls. Steven Moffat still loves it and talks about it all the time. Famously, it’s the story that turned Matt Smith into a gushing fan. We’ve been around the block with this one.

Me, I came to it in 1992, like so many others. I bought it on VHS, even though my family didn’t own a VCR to play it on.(My mother, always suspicious of television, having read an alarmist book on its effect on children, luridly titled The Plug-in Drug, only had a TV set in our house under sufferance, to borrow a phrase from Tomb. The thought of shelling out for a machine which recorded TV programs for repeat viewings was a bridge too far.) So I rented a VCR for a weekend. God knows how many times I watched that tape that weekend. Etching it into my memory.

What a glorious thing watching a previously missing episode for the first time is. That sense of utter amazement at what you’re seeing. And how equally amazing that it’s become a periodic treat for Doctor Who fans in the 25 years since Tomb was found and rushed into our homes. Tomb, The Lion, Day of Armageddon, Air Lock, The Underwater Menace 2 and most stunningly The Enemy of the World and nearly all of The Web of Fear. Those exhilarating days when you hit play and watch long lost Who. May there be many more.

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So raking over the ashes of Tomb is something we’ve been doing for a long time. Every frame of it has been pored over and no doubt by undertaking that detailed look, we’re also trying to recapture some of the magic of that first, revelatory viewing. But here’s something I don’t see talked about much: among its towering monsters, tangled storyline and bad guys with foreign accents and dark skin, it’s a peculiar place to find an old fashioned battle of the sexes.

That we only get two female characters – tremulous new companion Victoria (Deborah Watling) and exotic villainess Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) – is a stereotypical norm, hardly surprising for 60s Doctor Who. But there’s also the funny positioning of how a woman should behave. In The Tomb of the Cybermen, of all things.

Victoria develops a sparring relationship with Captain Hopper (George Roubicek) who clearly thinks Victoria is too mouthy for his conception of femininity. “Who’d be a woman?” complains Victoria at one stage, having been prohibited from heading down to the Cybermen’s subterranean tombs. “How would you know, honey?” he snaps back.

Such a strange observation about Victoria, who this story positions as the terrified female of so much pulp fiction; worried about what to wear, potentially frightened by the TARDIS taking off, needing to be coaxed and chaperoned into the adventure itself. Suddenly, she’s so pushy she’s not even female anymore? Not to worry, it’s not long before she reverts to type and needs to be rescued from something.

Except that she gets her own back on Hopper later on, saying sarcastically to him, “It’s comforting to know that we have your superior strength to call on, should we need it.” Apart from being a very strange thing for Victoria to say, it’s part of a macho strain running through Tomb, where male characters are judged and needled about their physical strength.

It starts with a light-hearted moment, where Jamie (Frazer Hines) finds himself unable to open the doors to the tomb. Embarrassed, he claims, “well, I’ve no’ had much exercise lately!”, to which the Doctor archly replies, “Quite.” Muscleman Toberman (Roy Stewart) is on hand to take over and succeeds at this feat of strength, where Jamie, no slouch in the physical fitness department, failed.

Later on, chief whiner Viner (Cyril Shaps) is similarly taunted about his lack of brawn. When investigating the restoration room with Kaftan, she tells him that she’s sent Toberman away. “We do not need any other protection now that you are with us,” she says, with a subtle but loaded squeeze of his bicep. At once, she positions the women as needing protection and Viner as the one to supply it. But Viner is a slight, weedy chap. It’s clear the comment is meant to undermine him.

Why all this focus on whether men are physically strong or not? Perhaps it’s simply part of the boy’s own adventure theme of this story. Or perhaps it’s related to the fact that there are two feats of male strength which will bring the story to its climax: Toberman’s defeat of the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgariff) in single combat and his shutting of the tomb’s doors. It’s odd that a story which is meant to be about intelligence and logic, hinges on the physical prowess of blokes.

Back to our lady friends and we still have Kaftan to deal with. She’s clearly the Lady Macbeth of the piece, as she’s the one who has to strategise on behalf of fellow conspirator Klieg (George Pavell). Even though he’s supposed to be the master planner, it’s her who has to constantly pull him into line and tell him which bit to do next. She’s also the one who has the money to fund the expedition in the first place, so in many ways she’s a powerful instigator within the story.

She’s a strong, influential presence in the story; no one taunts her about her gender, as she does to others. She’s also a figure of devotion by Toberman. It’s his fury at her death at the hands of the Cybemen which provokes him to defeat them. And in a way, it’s a failure of that physical power that he has such a glut of. He was meant to protect her, in both the literal sense that he’s her bodyguard, and in the thematic position this story takes that that’s what men are supposed to do. He’s basically made impotent; all he can do now is destroy.

So who’d be a man? Who’d be a woman? And what does it mean to be either? Amidst all the thrills and spills of Doctor Who’s adventures underground with Cybermen, here’s a story that wants to talk about gender roles. Maybe not in a very sophisticated way, but still it’s there.

This is why we’re still examining and debating Tomb after all these years. Because despite it being a familiar and straightforward story, there’s still lots of it to unearth.

LINK TO The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang: Subterranean Cybermen.

NEXT TIME… Space. The final frontier. We take a big gulp of Oxygen.

ADDENDUM: How would you know, honey?

Over on Twitter, two learned Whoheads, Will Brooks and Darth Egregious have pointed out something about the “how would you know, honey?” exchange referenced above. I’ve read this moment to be Hopper having a dig at Victoria’s ladylike-ness for being too mouthy. Both these guys have read it as a reference to her age, saying Hopper is pointing out that Victoria’s still a girl. Which has led me to consider the question, how old is Victoria meant to be?

As far as I can tell, her age is never mentioned on screen. Deborah Watling was 19 when The Evil of the Daleks entered production, so we could suppose that Victoria is the same age. Moreover, there are a few other indications that she’s an adult, albeit a young one, rather than a child.

Firstly, she’s a replacement companion for Polly, who was an adult character. While this in itself doesn’t prove anything, we know that the production team was looking for another young woman (rather than a girl) to be the new companion, because their first choice was Pauline Collins as Sam. Again, they could have changed tack after Collins declined the offer to join the show, but it does seem that the production team wasn’t planning on matching Troughton and Hines with a child.

Secondly, Victoria’s subsequent stories position her as character with sex appeal. In The Ice Warriors, Jamie jokes with her about wearing more revealing clothing. In The Enemy of the World, she’s frequently referred to as Jamie’s girlfriend. Again, it proves nothing definitively, but it’s to be hoped that the show saw her as above the age of consent and wasn’t deliberately sexualising an underage girl.

Finally, if the line was meant to signify that Victoria’s a child, why isn’t it “how would you know, kid?” or something similar? The use of the word “honey” is a little more suggestive of a romantic relationship. And that fits better with Hopper and Victoria’s ongoing sniping at each other throughout Tomb.

So as far as I can work out, Victoria’s an adult and Hopper’s line is a kind of eye-rolling snark to a woman being too argumentative for his taste. Think I’m on the wrong track? Comment away!

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One thought on “Women, men and The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)”

  1. Looking at the interpretation of logic and strength, I immediately thought of Ben Steed’s Blake’s 7 episodes Power and the Harvest of Kairos which aside from terrible sexist attitudes toward women, both address the idea of logic and computer being no match for brute strength and instinct. I would imagine Klieg wants to us the Cybermen as a strong arm force in a coup, as I can’t imagine the Brotherhood of Logicitions being tangible threat on their own

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