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Doctor Who: Tomb of the Cybermen

(BBC; US DVD: 13 Mar 2012)

Science fiction teaches us not to bother. Don’t investigate that derelict spaceship. Don’t try to figure out what “soylent green” is, because figuring stuff out only causes trouble. Sure, there are wonderful discoveries to be made, but sometimes it’s important for buried secrets to remain hidden, deep in the ground.


Of course, if no one bothered there would be no stories, and that wouldn’t do, especially if it meant being denied a chance to enjoy the excellent “Tomb of the Cybermen”. When the TARDIS arrives on the planet Telos the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his companions Jamie (Frazier Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) encounter an archaeological expedition in search of the lost tomb of the Cybermen. In this timeline the Cybermen have been missing for 500 years, and the archaeologists are determined to find out why. Though expedition leader Professor Parry’s (Aubrey Richards) motives are purely scientific, financier Eric Klieg (George Pastell) and his associate, Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin), have their sights set on the power which the Cybermen represent.


The opening scenes, shot on film at a quarry outside London, have a documentary feel and evoke the dread of Night of the Living Dead. After blowing up half a mountain, the expedition discovers a door to the Cybermen’s tomb, and inside are hieroglyphics of the titular villains, stylized figures which appear on doors and walls and machinery. It’s a creepy and clever mishmash of the creatures’ iconic faces and Egyptian (or, perhaps, Mayan) imagery.


The tomb is filled with booby traps, and the story begins to take on a claustrophobic feeling. There’s a continuous drone in the background, throbbing and bleating as the expedition probes deeper and deeper into the tomb. After one group member falls victim to a trip, archaeologist Viner (Cyril Shaps) starts to lose it. “It’s this damn building. It’s alive. It’s watching us.” It’s scenes like this which lend credence to the old saw about British children watching Doctor Who from behind the couch.


To make matters worse, someone has sabotaged the crew’s rocket ship, stranding them on Telos. Klieg uses the time to crack the code of the tomb’s power source and help him achieve his ultimate goal: the resurrection of the Cybermen.


That resurrection is the most engrossing scene in the entire story. The Cybermen’s mantra, “You shall be like us” is a chilling threat to a person’s autonomy. The villains’ identical robotic appearance is an excellent visual metaphor for this loss, but their rebirth hints at another. The Cybermen emerge from their frozen stasis in pods arranged along a structure similar to a hive. Robot arms press through plastic seals emblazoned with hieroglyphics, then the creatures descend and take their place as they await the Controller (Michael Kilgarriff) who emerges from a chamber at the bottom.


This insect-like birth is disturbing, but it’s also a marvel of special effects, no small feat for a show known for its shoestring budget and less than convincing visuals. The black and white broadcast is particularly suited to the Cybermen, their metal casing and empty eyes appearing much more sinister in the stark contrast.


Klieg’s plan for enlisting the Cybermen as his soldiers goes nowhere, of course, and it’s up to the Doctor to stop them from emerging from their tomb. In many stories the Doctor doesn’t play an active role, preferring instead to step back and bide his time until the right moment. Troughton blends in with the archaeological crew, sometimes popping up to correct or annoy Klieg. When he asserts himself, he does so with a kind of grudging authority, like a passive-aggressive retail manager. He’s onto Klieg from the beginning, but lets him go through the motions because he’s certain he’ll be able to clean up the mess.


Late in the story Troughton’s Doctor shares a tender moment with Victoria, who’s only just joined the Doctor on his adventures in time and space. Victoria misses her father, and asks the Doctor if he ever misses his family. He says yes, but that their memories need not make them sad, that there will be other things to remember. “ Our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing, because nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.” That’s as good a summary of Doctor Who at is best there is.


Bonus features include test footage of different swirling, psychedelic patterns for the show’s title sequence, two sets of commentary from actors and crew, and the requisite making-of. The best feature, “The Curse of the Cybermen’s Tomb”, has Christopher Frayling, known for his studies of popular culture, and Egyptian expert Dr. Debbie Challis finding parallels between this story and Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun. Frayling is quick to squash the idea of the pharaoh’s curse, but it’s worth noting that both the expedition to the Cybermen’s tomb and into the Valley of the Kings racked up significant body counts.

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Jeremy Estes lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


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