Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen Special Edition DVD Review: A Great Time Piece with a Fun Story

The Doctor of my youth was Tom Baker. When the reruns aired on PBS just before the Primetime shows would start, I was fascinated and confused by the stories. This was a show seemingly filmed on a low budget, with a hero with a long scarf and yet there were usually really cool monsters and aliens. But I always seemed to encounter it within a larger story and didn’t watch it consistently enough to make heads or tails of what was happening. Fast forward to 2005 and I was able to start a new series with Christopher Eccleston and I was immediately hooked. Most stories took place within a single episode with an overarching storyline for the season.

Since the relaunch in 2005, there have been six seasons (confusingly referred to as series in the UK) and three different Doctors. But it’s also been some of the best science fiction television of the 2000s. I used this new material as a jumping off point to go back and revisit the previous 26 seasons of Doctor Who. I’ve just recently finished all of the First Doctor, William Hartnell. That Doctor is grandfatherly and relies on his Companions to often help get him out of problems he encounters. His character can border on senility from episode to episode but he’s wily and takes pleasure in outfoxing his adversaries. The Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, is one I knew very little of before now.

BBC Worldwide has just released Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen (Story #37) on a special two-disc DVD set. The story consists of four episodes aired in September 2-23, 1967. By the time the episodes aired, the series was already four years old and entering Season 5. Patrick Troughton had taken over just after the start of Season 4 and this story comes directly after the very popular story – The Evil of the Daleks. The Doctor has two Companions at this time – Jamie, a Scottish man (Frazer Hines) who would accompany the Doctor for more episodes than any companion and Victoria, a Victorian-era woman (Deborah Watling) who came to be with the Doctor in the previous story.

The Tomb of the Cybermen is typically derivative of the Dcotor Who stories of this era. They pull together a fun combination of myths, old films, and contemporary culture. This story adds depth to the story of the Cybermen started a year earlier in The Tenth Planet. This is a case where previous knowledge of the series lends depth to the current storyline. The Cybermen are from Mondas, once a sister planet of Earth. The Cybermen were once human like us but have replaced many of our body parts with machine parts to make themselves stronger. With only 30 minute episodes, this story is typical in that it doesn’t slow down to tell much backstory. Maybe because it is aimed at a much younger audience, the main focus is moving the story forward.

The most obvious influence comes in the title of the story. The set-up in the initial episode is like that of many classic mummy films. There is an expedition that is entering some tombs that could easily be set in Egypt or similar desert setting. The makeup of the landing crew and their mission on a mysterious planet recalls what would have been a very popular show in the minds of science fiction fans at the time, Star Trek. There’s a building of suspense typical of Doctor Who – the supporting cast, including the Companions, reach a dead end or get into trouble and the Doctor solves the problem with logic and intelligence. He mentions to Victoria that he is 450 years old. It’s this experience that he draws upon to solve the mysteries. In many ways, he’s portrayed by Troughton as a combination of Sherlock Holmes and a curious Huck Finn.

The story unfolds over the four episodes at a rather nice pace. The show is certainly in a groove at this point, understanding how to break the basic story into four parts, ending each episode on just the right beat. The escape of the Cybermen from their frozen tombs is a highlight of the story and I can see where it might be creepy to their audiences at the time. There is almost an amniotic birth as they emerge from their frozen slumbers. The Cybermen as villains are interesting in what they share in common and the differences they have with the Doctor’s other biggest nemesis, The Daleks. In the Daleks, there is a sheer absence of humanity that is frightening. In the Cybermen, they are humanoid and almost a sympathetic monster. Much like the Terminator would be portrayed later in popular culture or the Cylons, there is still the ancient memory of their humanity.

The story ends with one lone Cybermat (a tiny Cyber-insect that appears to be a scrubbing bubble almost) escaping the tomb. The ending seemed a bit anti-climatic and after so many deaths, both sides seem to just say “Okay, see you later.” and go their own ways. The Cybermen will continue to haunt future Doctors and they have a place in the new series of episodes, just updated. There are similarities to The Borg from the Star Trek series in the way the Cybermen exist as a colony with a leader, much like ants or bees.

The new DVD release comes with numerous extras including two audio commentaries with the Companions (one including a few other cast members), some short pieces on the music and effects and a couple interesting docs about the show – one a making of (“The Lost Giants”) and one about the history of the Cybermen to the present day (“The Curse of the Cybermen’s Tomb”). There’s plenty here for the “Doctor Who” fan to sink their teeth into. But it’s hard to recommend it to someone who’s only seen the present day version of the series. There’s a different tone to the stories from this era, aimed at a younger audience, and the B&W and sometimes terrible effects (there’s clearly a hook picking up one actor by his pants as he’s about to be thrown) that is laughable when it’s not meant to be.

The release of these older stories are important for those of us that want to know the origins of characters we love. Important that popular and important television from over 40 years ago not be lost. This is a great time piece with a fun story. I hope you can set aside modern sensibilities and just enjoy the ride.

Shawn Bourdo

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