Tag Archives: cybermats

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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Sanity, sleeptime and The Wheel in Space (1968)

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Hello from the future! Oh look at you back in 2015. Did you enjoy Peter Capaldi’s first season? Wait until he’s rejoined by Amy and Jamie and the TARDIS implodes from the utter Scottishness of it all. And when he gets to the planet Delphon where they communicate with their eyebrows. He does himself a serious injury and is forced to regenerate… Oops, sorry. Spoilers.

But, inhabitants of the past, I have brilliant news. The omnirumour turned out to be true! Every missing episode returned! And you lot thought you were well off when The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear came home from their extended Nigerian holiday. Well here in the future, we have ’em all. Except Time-Flight. We lost that one deliberately.

So what do you want to hear about first? The delights of Marco Polo? The thrills of The Power of the Daleks? Of course not, you’re desperate to hear all about The Wheel in Space aren’t you?

Well, I’m not sure you’re going to be overjoyed with Episode 1, let’s get that out of the way first. For the most part it’s a two hander between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. And while that sounds brilliant on paper, this is also a kind of one episode filler before the main action starts.

So the Doctor and Jamie land on an abandoned rocket. They’re forced out of the TARDIS. So they have a look round. There’s a silent plodding robot. Then Jamie settles down for a nap. Honestly, when one of your two characters decides to sleep in the middle of an episode, you’re on shaky ground.

And this is filler written by former script editor David Whitaker, so this gives him scope for taking up time with some of his pet subjects. The TARDIS trying to communicate with its crew via pictures on the scanner. Lots of faffing around with a food machine. Mercury. All his greatest hits. Hmm, maybe Jamie’s onto something with that snooze.

Late in the episode (just enough to get paid) the crew of the Space Station W3 turn up and prepare to blast the mysterious rocket out of the sky. The Space Wheel is familiar territory to anyone who’s paid at least passing attention to Season 5. There’s a mixed group of personnel in spacy costumes led by an autocratic male commander. But specifically, this is a multinational crew, so what this really feels like is The Moonbase, which in turn really felt like The Tenth Planet. So innovative, this series.

In Episode 1, the Doctor hit his head and so he spends Episode 2 unconscious, while Troughton takes a holiday. Focus shifts to the Wheel and Jamie has to carry the episode, which also introduces us to new brainiac companion Zoe Herriot (perky Wendy Padbury). Now, this will be familiar to you folk back in 2015, because The Web of Fear had its Doctorless episode 2 returned as well. The good news is that Wheel in Space covers his absence better, with all the introductory stuff about the Wheel – stuff you’d ordinarily expect to find in Episode 1 – being played out. Still it’s always a like a bit less of a party when the Doctor doesn’t show up. So this is another episode which might disappoint when you finally get to se it.

Episode 3, of course, you know and love. But watched in isolation, you may not realise that this is the episode when the Cybermen finally turn up. That’s one third of a monster story without its monster. That’s some delayed gratification. It’s also unusual because the Doctor spends the whole episode in bed. Luckily people keep bringing him plot points to discuss, so he doesn’t have to move much.

He doesn’t actually get out of bed until half way through Episode 4, so he’s well and truly rested. He tries to convince this week’s grizzled base commander that the Cybermen are on the Wheel and are a menace. But Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner) is having nothing of it.  ‘He’s a strange man to be in a position like this’, says the Doctor and he’s spot on, and not just because his accent wavers from South African to American and back again.

Jarvis dislikes his 2IC Gemma Corwyn’s (Ann Ridler) habit of playing armchair psychologist (in fact the script takes a few jabs at psychology in general, which a number of characters treat with disdain), but the irony is he’s gradually going crackers, and maybe a psych assessment would help. Plus his lines are all delivered with a kind of halting mania, so that when it’s his turn to take a nap mid episode (Seriously! Stay awake through the whole story please!) it’s a blessed relief for the other characters and the audience.

But the most, um, astonishing performance is Episode 4 is that of Peter Laird, who plays Chang. I don’t know anything of Mr Laird’s background, but I’m willing to bet he isn’t/wasn’t Chinese. This, in the worst yellow face tradition, doesn’t stop him putting on an oriental accent. His delivery of the line ‘I’m on my way’ is particularly cringeworthy. If the performances in The Talons of Weng-Chiang make you feel a little queasy, this one’s even worse.

In Episode 5, something approaching tension builds when the Cybermen attack the Wheel and kill Gemma. You feel genuinely sad when this happens. She’s the only character in the whole thing who seems to have her head screwed on right, and one of the few who’s not putting on an outrageous accent. Although she’s very quick to suggest electric shock therapy for Jarvis. You can’t trust those psychologists. Still, it might just be time to attach those electrodes, as Jarvis finally checks out, once Zoe stuffs a dead Cybermat under his nose. ‘Not true, not true!’ he mumbles, despite the tinny, googly eyed evidence in front of him.

And because the story only has two Cybermen at its disposal, much fuss is made about their ability to control humans and thus these walking zombies become surrogate monsters. There’s some fun to be had when two of the Cyber contolled humans (Laleham and Vallance, who sound like a snobby manchester store) take on gruff Irish crewmember Flanagan (James Mellor). Turns out the Irishman is itching for a stoush. ‘If it’s a fight you’re after, I’m your man!’ he roars. ‘You need a few lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!’ No wonder that when Flanagan himself is zombified and turns into a quietly spoken rather passive fellow, the Doctor immediately spots something’s up.

And by then we’re on to Episode 6, which again you know all about and which finally brings the Doctor face to face with the Cybermen. There’s a scene where the Doctor lures them into a room and electrocutes them (Is this the ECT machine Gemma was keen to break out? Were those Cybermen depressed?) and while Troughton enlivens it where he can, it’s all very contrived and stagey. Which is true of the whole story really, a longer, flabbier retelling of other Cybertales.

I hope I haven’t disappointed you too much, history dwellers. But not every returned story can do an Enemy and turn out better than its reputation. But until the whole story is returned to the archives it might comfort you to think that you already have the story’s two best episodes on hand.

LINK to The Ribos Operation. Both introduce clever new companions.

NEXT TIME… I can’t see the point of Paris. So let’s home share with The Lodger for a while.