The BFI’s celebration of Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary continued on Saturday with the classic Second Doctor story ‘The Tomb Of The Cybermen’.
Like last month’s screening of ‘An Unearthly Child’, the event quickly sold out as dedicated fans trooped into National Film Theatre 1 to see one of the show’s most acclaimed serials. As the presenters pointed out, Patrick Troughton’s Doctor was the worst victim of episode wiping, with a shocking number of stories lost. Watching ‘The Tomb Of The Cybermen’ was a powerful reminder of how sad a loss this is.
The Doctor, Jamie (Frazer Hines) and their new companion Victoria (Deborah Watling) arrive on Telos and find an archeological expedition intent on exploring the last resting place of the Cybermen. The monsters are thought to have died out, and expedition leader Professor Parry (Aubrey Richards) wants to find out why. Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) and Klieg (George Pastell), the financiers, have a much more nefarious reason for coming along and the team soon find themselves face to face with the metallic menace.
There’s more than a hint of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains Of Madness in the discovery of the Cybermen’s frozen tombs, and the cast convincingly sell the horror of the prospect of being recruited into their mindless army. Neil Gaiman has pointed to this story as an example of why he wants to make the Cybermen scary again, and he should certainly have a lot to work with for his new episode. While elements of their costumes, and most notably the Cybermats (which are now adorable rather than scary with their bulging eyes), have dated, there’s a real menace to them. Their body horror methods combine with their imposing physicality for a very scary foe indeed.
While some of the serial is problematic (the character of Toberman is a troubling reminder of different times) or clunky (take a bow, sexist G-man Captain Hopper), so much of ‘The Tomb Of The Cybermen’ is wonderfully light and witty. The main reason for this is Patrick Troughton’s immensley skillful performance as The Doctor. He’s occasionally prone to the jitters but he’s incredibly sharp, and his off-hand one-liners are just fantastic. Witness his indulgence of Klieg’s grandiose masterplan, only to deflate it with “Well, now I know you’re mad. I just wanted to make sure.” Or his attempts at a one liner: “You might almost say they’ve had a complete metal breakdown! I’m so sorry, Jamie.”
Troughton gives The Doctor a warmth that was missing from the Hartnell era. It’s hard to imagine the First Doctor coaxing Victoria into the Cybermen’s tomb rather than snapping at her to come along (or holding hands with Jamie, for that matter). There’s also, for all his fussiness, a clear sense that he knows exactly what he’s going on. As Klieg and Kaftan move ahead with their evil plans, they seem to be completely unaware of The Doctor hovering in the background. They don’t have him fooled for a minute.
Steven Moffat introduced the screening and emphasised the serial’s influence on the feel of the show today and on Matt Smith’s incarnation of The Doctor. Patrick Troughton’s son and biographer Michael was on hand to talk about how his father’s fear of typecasting nearly led to his turning down the part, and how brilliant it was for a young boy to have the Doctor for a dad. This month’s panel included companions Anneke Wills (Polly) and Deborah Watling (Victoria), Shirley Cooklin (Kaftan), Bernard Holley (Peter Haydon), Michael Kilgarriff (Cyber Controller), and Michael Ferguson (director of ‘The Claws Of Axos’ and ‘The Seeds Of Death’).
Wills and Ferguson spoke about how the experiences of working with Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell compared. Both were clear that Hartnell was often difficult to work with, especially towards the end of his tenure (although Ferguson emphasised that this has been exaggerated), and were effusive in their praise and love for Troughton. All the panel talked about how he was an instinctive, sensitive actor and perhaps the best actor to take on the role. Watling talked about her memories of being convinced to join Troughton and Frazer Hines in the BBC club at lunchtimes, and how she surprised the producers with her determination to leave after one year: “They said ‘You’re bloody well not!’ I said ‘I bloody well am!’” Kaftan remembered Hines’ attempts to chat her up being cut short when he realised she was the producer’s wife, Holley fondly recalled that he was paid for two episodes despite being killed off in the first, and Kilgarriff talked about the difficulties of the claustrophobic costume.
While the panel for ‘An Unearthly Child’ was a little more broad in its scope, what came across at ‘The Tomb Of The Cybermen’ was the utter admiration and affection for Patrick Troughton, as well as a joy that their work is still being discovered and discussed to this day, from conventions to Big Finish audiobooks. The scene in ‘The Tomb Of The Cybermen’ that impressed me most showed just how important Troughton was to the development of a more sensitive Doctor and illustrates the show’s potential for wonder with a lovely simplicity. When he wakes up to take his turn on watch, he consoles Victoria, who is grieving for her father. She assumes that, at 450 years old, The Doctor no longer remembers his family, which he tells her simply isn’t true:
“Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they… they sleep in my mind and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. To remember. Our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing, that nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.”