And so we come to number one! My absolute favourite story from the whole classic series of Doctor Who. Along the way we have reviewed some sensational adventures that are deservedly mentioned in the same breath, and others that require slightly more effort to love. Some adventures were genuinely difficult to place; even now I find myself looking at the list and wondering if one should be higher than another. For all of my pondering however, there was never any doubt which story would come first … the earliest adventure from the Patrick Troughton era to survive in its entirety; The Tomb of the Cybermen.
Part of the mystique of this story is derived from the circumstances in which I came to watch it. In 1993 I had only just discovered the delights of Doctor Who, and my dad had begun to buy older classics on VHS. Only a year prior to this however, the Doctor Who video market had received the greatest of great shocks. At this point in time, no stories survived in full from Patrick Troughton’s first two seasons as the Doctor; the earliest surviving complete story being Season 6 opener The Dominators.
It was a story on a par with the recovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear in 2013 when it was revealed in 1992 that a complete print of Season 6 opening story, The Tomb of the Cybermen, had been recovered from Hong Kong. Quickly released on VHS, it went on to become one of the best selling videos in the country, as fans everywhere rushed to view a story that had not been seen since its original broadcast in 1967. The story had taken on mythical qualities from the reminiscences of fans fortunate enough to have watched the original broadcast, together with how fans had imagined the story from listening to fan-made audio recordings of the adventure – now they had the chance to see how the real thing compared to their hopes.
At the time, I knew nothing of this – the discovery that much of the Doctor Who back catalogue was missing was several years ahead of me! Instead, I was intrigued when my dad picked up a video with a very shiny cover in the BBC Store, and promised that we would watch it at the earliest opportunity. Having developed an insatiable appetite for Doctor Who, I was perfectly amenable to his suggestion!
That first viewing has led to an affection and appreciation that has lasted almost 25 years. Tomb of the Cybermen begins with a delightful scene, in which Troughton’s Doctor introduces his new companion Victoria to the TARDIS. Troughton’s impish and infectious delight at Victoria’s astonishment permeates to the viewer, making this episode one of the very best ways to introduce new viewers to the world of Doctor Who.
All at once however, you are drawn into the action. I do not know what this must have been like for fans who had watched the story when originally broadcast, or in the very least were watching the story knowing who the Cybermen were. For me, part of the appeal and the drama was the obvious tension as the TARDIS crew arrive on the planet Telos to discover a team of archaeologists attempting to find the last remains of the Cybermen. The name meant nothing to me, and yet a sinister dread builds up from the very start, creating a nameless fear that the archaeologists might find what they are looking for.
That nameless fear became a face at the dramatic end of episode one. As one of the archaeologists falls dead to the floor, shot by an unknown assailant, the camera zooms in on a figure that had suddenly appeared in the room. A smooth metallic face, utterly devoid of emotion, it was my first glimpse of a Cyberman (or so I thought!) and sent chills down my spine. It was at that point my dad mischievously decided that it would be more fun to make me wait for part two! That memory of the cliffhanger, and the terror generated by the face of the Cyberman, remain fixed in my mind even today.
This actually explains part of the reason this story remains my favourite. In time, I grew out of my childhood fear of the Daleks coming down corridors, but I still have nightmares about this specific story – indeed, I was to later learn that any time fifth Doctor Peter Davison wanted to be serious when he portrayed the Doctor, he would remember how this story made him feel as he watched it. The story becomes properly claustrophic as we go into episode two. The ‘Cyberman’ proved to be a dummy used for target practice, but the archaeologists find themselves stranded on the planet when their rocket is sabotaged by persons unknown.
Suspecting not everyone is as they seem, the Doctor helps the party to open the entrance to the ice tombs of the Cybermen. It becomes clear that Klieg, a member of the party who helped to finance the expedition, was using the excuse of an archaeological survey to achieve his own purposes – the reanimation of the Cybermen! Relying on his associate Miss Kaftan to cut them off from the outside world until he can negotiate with the Cybermen, Klieg proceeds to activate the machinery that brings the Cybermen out of hibernation. In an iconic sequence that has influenced just about every Cyberman story since, the Cybermen break out of their icy tombs …
Klieg reveals his plans – to use the power of the Cybermen to take over the Earth, establishing himself as supreme ruler. Episode two rises to a dramatic crescendo as the entrapped archaeologists watch the Cybermen release their leader, the Cyber Controller. Taller than even the other Cybermen, no Cyber leader before or since has quite captured the menace of this austere and imposing creature. Klieg soon realises the folly of his plans, as the Cyber Controller informs him that, far from being willing to form an alliance with Klieg, their intention is to make the party the first in a new race of Cybermen!
From this point on, the Doctor’s efforts become directed into escaping from the Cybermen, and ensuring that they remain trapped within their tombs, unable to escape. Unfortunately for him, they are unable to leave the planet until the archaeologists’ rocket has been repaired, and in the meantime neither the Cybermen nor the villainous Klieg are prepared to sit quietly. The Cybermen release Cybermats, tiny metallic creatures that attack by homing on human thoughts, forcing the Doctor to mount a primitive defence. Klieg meanwhile has discovered a laser weapon which he believes can damage the Cyberman, and proposes to use it to negotiate with the Cybermen – after he first settles scores with the Doctor! As Klieg uses the weapon to form an agreement with the Cybermen, one is left to wonder if the Doctor will be able to thwart the seemingly unstoppable men of steel.
There is so much richness in this tale that even a short summary does not do it the justice that it deserves. The story is wonderful, but it is the telling that makes it unforgettable. The chemistry between the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria is wonderful, as is their interaction with the guest cast. The story was superbly directed by Morris Barry, who managed to make a small set somewhere in Ealing the home of a nightmare. One really does feel as trapped as the cast when you watch along, and could really believe that, terrifyingly, there is no way to escape the menace of the Cybermen. It is this vivid hold on my imagination that makes this story so powerful.
There is also one truly beautiful moment in episode three, which makes it even more special that the story was miraculously recovered in 1992. This is the late Deborah Watling’s first full appearance as companion Victoria Waterfield, having made her debut in episode two of the (sadly missing) preceding story, The Evil of the Daleks. That story concluded with Victoria’s father being exterminated by the Daleks, leaving Victoria an orphan in the Doctor’s care. In an astonishingly poignant moment, the Doctor talks about Victoria’s loss. Perhaps more than anything else, this capacity to feel emotion, and to have family and connections, spells out most clearly the difference between what the Doctor stands for, and the evil he opposes.
I could enthuse again and again about how special and wonderful The Tomb of the Cybermen is. I think it would be better if I instead observed why this story, more than any other Doctor Who adventure, has earned the number one slot on my list.
Top of the list is the way it has taken hold of my imagination; no other Doctor Who adventure has stayed with me in the same way that this one has. That feeling of being trapped, and being opposed by a seemingly unstoppable enemy, is a very powerful stimulus on my imagination, and was superbly realised.
Close behind that are the Cybermen themselves. They have many superb adventures, but this is the one in which they are at their most sinister. It is a strange testament to the fact that holding the villain back from the action can actually paint a more powerful picture of fear and trepidation than making the threat obvious from the start. I’ve come to find the Daleks comical rather than fearful. The Cybermen from Tomb of the Cybermen remain terrible and menacing.
Lastly, this story was the meeting point for the wonderful TARDIS crew of Season 5. The incomparable Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, with his brave friend Jamie, and his unwilling adventurer Victoria. As more of Troughton’s material has come to light, we have come to appreciate that this was present in all of his adventures; but for twenty long years this was the only complete story from Season 5; the only insight into this wonderful time for the TARDIS crew. While I find it hard to choose between Seasons 5 and 12 for my favourite TARDIS crew, my affection for the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria also make this a firm favourite.
The 1992 VHS of Tomb of the Cybermen began with an interview with director Morris Barry, where he offered some of his reflections on making the story. He concludes that interview by saying, “though I say it myself, I feel it is one of the all time greats of Doctor Who.” I cannot put it any better myself. A wonderful story in its own right, it is also a wonderful starting point for anyone wishing to discover the Doctor Who universe for the first time.
This rounds off my reviews of classic Doctor Who … for now …