Of all of the early stories featuring arguably the second most iconic ‘monster’ in the Doctor Who, The Tomb Of The Cybermen is the one that has become most regarded as a classic. The reasons for this are likely twofold; first is that it was one of the first recovered complete stories of the series to be released on VHS in the 1990s and so, compared to other stories from this era of Doctor Who, has had longer to be seen, but also because it is still, for the most part, a compelling and well constructed tale.
Set on the planet Telos, The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and the newly arrived Victoria (Deborah Watling) get caught up in the middle of an expedition to find the last resting place of the Cybermen, just as the expeditionary force discover the main doors to the titular tomb.
From here the first couple of episodes present a paranoid thriller kind of story, actually reminiscent of The Thing, as certain members of the team start to exhibit different motives than archeology putting all, but specifically Jamie and Victoria, in harm’s way at every given opportunity.
From here the motives are revealed, along with the Cybermen, and things step up a gear and the story shifts into the more traditional mode of The Doctor doing his best to outwit the monsters, mostly through words, while his companions and other members of the team provide the necessary action.
While stories from the entire original run of Doctor Who often have a slower pace than more modern TV, Tomb Of The Cybermen does keep things moving more than many, making it a much easier watch for a modern audiences, as there is a lot going on and it does leave me thinking at points if some of the modern episodes simplify things a bit too much.
This, all told, creates something of a landmark episode for Doctor Who that establishes The Cybermen as being a great recurring villain, second only to The Daleks, while also giving Patrick Troughton’s take on The Doctor room to shine in all his mischievous glory that has echoes leading right up to today as there are moments where it seems The Doctor knows much more than he is letting on and that there is another side to this character (though not as explicitly as in today’s stories).
Unfortunately there are a few things that, while a product of the time of its production, do make The Tomb Of The Cybermen a slightly uncomfortable watch. Firstly is the treatment of Victoria who spends most of the story getting told to stay put and keep out of trouble and, with the bigger cast of the expedition, she is relegated to an almost nothing role at times.
Even more uncomfortable is the character of Toberman (Roy Stewart), whose portrayal is, for want of any other word, heading well into racist territory. For the first couple of episodes he is portrayed a near mute slave character doing simply as he is told and being ‘the muscle’ for the more devious members of the party.
As the story continues he becomes a more integral part of the plot, though still largely mute, only making utterances comparable with ‘savage’ roles from films of the TV of the first half of the 20th Century, and this culminates with him squaring off with a Cyberman in a scene that, having now seen Django Unchained, is worryingly reminiscent of its “mandingo” fight scenes.
Though it has these two aspects, The Tomb Of The Cybermen, while a product of its time, remains one of the great black and white era Doctor Who stories and, while I am speaking as a fan, if you want to get into the older stories, there are few better places to start than this – afterall it was my first taste of The Doctor on TV in the 1960s.
Here’s a fan-made trailer for the series as there doesn’t seem to be an official one: