Friday, May 20, 2011

My Writing Gets Worse and Worse (Tomb of the Cybermen)

Oh no! You took it out of its original packaging! Now it's
worthless!
It's September 2, 1967. Scott Mckenzie is at number one with "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)," the basic subject of which we discussed on Wednesday. The Beatles' anthem for the same events, "All You Need is Love," is still at number six, having peaked at number one in July. A week later, Engelbert Humperdinck, who has increasingly become the very image of the establishment for the purposes of these metaphors, takes number one a week later, and holds it for the remainder of this story (and a third of the next). The rest of the charts remain pleasantly psychedelic, however, with Keith West, Flowerpot Men, and The Move keeping the dream alive.

In real news... basically, hung over from the summer, the world spends September taking a breather. Seriously, it's slim pickings. The Vietnam War drags maddeningly all, The Doors have an iconic performance on The Ed Sullivan Show... and ummm... yeah.

Whereas on television...

Well now, that's actually a good question. What did happen on television that month? I mean, specifically related to Doctor Who. The story of what aired those four weeks has changed over time, and for the first time really since The Gunfighters we have a case study in evolving views of the show. 

Let's begin with the objective facts. To kick off Doctor Who's fourth season, the Cybermen were brought back for their first of three actual title appearances. This time, they're in a tomb on the planet Telos, where apparently they shuffled off to have a nice long nap after the whole Moonbase thing went tits up for them. And in 1974, seven years after transmission, the BBC junked the tapes to free up space, leaving it as one of the missing stories.

Novelized in 1978, Tomb of the Cybermen got in under the wire to be one of those stories we mythologized and pulled off the job with aplomb. To wit, Haining's book, discussed previously in The Gunflighters entry, declares it "the peak of its kind."  Howe, Stammers, and Walker, in the Second Doctor Handbook, give it two nines and an 8, calling it things like "One of the true classics of this era" and "another cracking good story." These latter reviews, though, come post-1992. i.e. after the story was discovered in Hong Kong by a television station that had failed to properly dispose of them back in 1970. Still, they represent an orthodoxy regarding the series and the Troughton era in particular that it is impossible to avoid.

See, prior to being found, that viewpoint was the viewpoint on Tomb of the Cybermen. It was one of the series best stories, it was missing, and large swaths of fandom would readily bargain with their or their family's vital organs to get it back. So before we look too deeply at what we get when we see the episode, we should ask why this is.

It's easy to pick on David J Howe here, because of the three commenters in the handbooks and in the Doctor Who: The Sixties coffee table book, he's the one most willing to just lay his prejudices on the table. He unabashedly likes Doctor Who for the monsters, and thinks that when it does things like "historical" stories it's boring. He's the archetype of the account of Doctor Who's history that says that the historical was killed because nobody liked it (demonstrably untrue, looking at the ratings of The Highlanders), when as we've already discussed, the truth of it was considerably more complex. 

From the viewpoint of a fandom that actually has access to the historicals (of which, remember, only three [plus 100,000 BC]  exist in their entirety, making them something that depended on audio and reconstructions to understand), this sounds ridiculous. But we have to understand, the idea that fans might actually engage in detailed analysis of the whole of Doctor Who is a comparatively new idea. Prior to that, views about the series were heavily controlled by the published literature on the matter, which was itself heavily controlled by a particular school of superfans among whom Howe is distinct only inasmuch as he actually admits to his biases.

We also need to pause and make it clear that whatever flaws Howe, Stammers, and Walker's accounts of Doctor Who may have, the quality of factual research they conduct is impeccable. However odd their critical opinions of the show may be, they've conducted the best scouring of BBC archives to date to get accounts of the production of stories. As first drafts of history go, they're phenomenally good. 

All of which said, and let's be fair, this is obviously what we've been building to for five paragraphs now, they're dead wrong. You can start to see the wheels come off in the coffee table book, actually. Just look. When talking about the start of season five, they say "The changes made by producer Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis had succeeded in revitalising the series, and this was reflected in a ratings increase from an average of around five million viewers per episode at the start of season four to an average of around seven million at the end, accompanied by a rise of about percentage points in the average appreciation figure, which now hovered around the 55 mark."

Dear lord, where to begin. First of all, yes, the series gained ratings over season four, having started in the toilet for The Smugglers at 4.5. On the other hand, deeper analysis hardly makes these numbers look good. If we take the start of Innes Lloyd's new direction as The Moonbase - the beginning of a run of three base under siege stories in a row, then the series shed two million over those three stories, managing to come in at 6.4 million for The Evil of the Daleks - the lowest rating the Daleks had ever had by a considerable margin. 

But more to the point, Innes Lloyd's watch started way back in The Celestial Toymaker, which made 8.3 million. That's an aberration - The Ark before it was 6.5 million, The Gunfighters after it was 6.3 But even that's around where Evil of the Daleks was for Monoids and Clantons. From The Gunfighters to The Smugglers, Lloyd managed to drive away 25% of the show's audience. Yes, he won a fair portion of them back over the course of season four, but he was the one on whose watch they'd all left. (Mind you, a lot of that was just down to ITV running Batman opposite Doctor Who) And calling the AI figures "around 55" is a bit ambitious, given that their peak was 56 during Evil of the Daleks. 56, mind you, was a number the series hadn't seen since... The Ark. So again, Innes Lloyd has, by the start of season 5, managed to mostly undo the ratings damage he'd seen on the show. It's tough to call this a revitalization. It's more a semi-successful application of defibrillator paddles. 

But the real lunatic moment of the HSW book comes when they say "The effectiveness of The Tomb of the Cybermen can be attributed in part to the fact that its central plot was a variation on the successful formula established the previous season." In other words, Tomb of the Cybermen is awesome because it's a base under siege, and bases under siege are awesome. This point is so strange in 2011 that it needs to be put down and picked up again later.

All of this said, it should surprise nobody that once this story was found in 1992, its reputation suffered a bit. It's easy to say that this is just a matter of nothing being able to live up to the reputation the story had accrued. As remembered, this was a piece of sublime horror. In practice, it was rush-produced television with a few moments where it transcended its limitations. But Doctor Who fans have been forgiving of far worse. Yes, the reputation of this story was overinflated, but not so overinflated as to justify the degree to which a fair segment of fandom has turned on it.

But treating this story's newfound battered reputation as just a matter of the effects doesn't capture what happened here. The first major blow was probably The Discontinuity Guide, which made the quite sensible observation that shortly after the big "Cybermen break out of their tombs" sequence the plot stalls out entirely, and that the last two episodes feature them climbing back into their tombs and going back to bed. This is true, and once you notice it, its hard to quite enjoy the story the same way again.

Then there's the villains. Not the Cybermen, who do a perfectly competent job of showing up, having the classic bit of stock music "Space Adventure" blare, and then faffing around patiently until the Doctor defeats them. No, I mean the human villains, Klieg, Kaftan, and Toberman. The first thing to notice about the villains is how the show helpfully made them all easy to identify. Just look for the characters who aren't white! It's simple! Yes, not only are Klieg and Kaftan both nondeterminately ethnic (belonging to that classic sci-fi ethnicity "Shifty"), but Toberman... oh, man. A basically mute giant black strongman. This from the guy who functionally wrote most of our favorite piece of racial sensitivity to date, The Celestial Toymaker. And the one who wrote the novelization of that story, where he manages to get the word "Chinese" three times into one sentence describing the Toymaker. (He is, as it happens, "lounging in a black Chinese chair behind a lacquered Chinese desk inlaid with mother-of-pearl and scenes of Chinese life." Also, the Toymaker is Chinese. If you were wondering.) So yay. Casual racism. Ooh, and the residents of Shiftystan are the ones who are obsessed with logic, just like the Cybermen. I see what you did there, Gerry, you scamp. And by scamp I mean "xenophobic and racist jerk."

On top of that... the plot here is... well, OK. Klieg's plan is that the Cybermen, because they're totally logical, should be willing to help Klieg and his logic-obsessed lackeys take over the planet. This is perfectly normal by Doctor Who standards. Then we have the Doctor. When he shows up, the entire archeological expedition is about to give up and leave due to the deadly electric doors. Problem solved. Nobody is going to wake the Cybermen. Unless the Doctor were to do something staggeringly stupid like help them open the doors and get to the Cybermen, we should all be fine and we can just go home.

Needless to say, he opens the doors. And continues helping them. His eventual explanation? He wanted to know what Klieg was up to. Yes, the Doctor has helped unleash the Cybermen in order to confirm that the bad guy wanted to unleash the Cybermen. So that's maybe not his best plan ever. Thankfully, he's got plenty of people willing to lend a hand to make sure he doesn't look like the stupidest guy in the story. Victoria spends her debut adventure as a companion as a sniveling peril monkey that occasionally wakes up and tosses off a bon mot at a bad guy or sexist jerk, and who has exactly one good scene with the Doctor, an emotional bit in episode three in which it is obvious that someone realized that Victoria never had any real characterization and was hastily added to the TARDIS crew.

Thankfully, the Cybermen are happy to be idiots as well. Their plan, and I promise you I am not making this up, is as follows. See, they're running out of power. So they've retreated to their base on Telos and gone into hibernation, setting up a bunch of fiendish and deadly traps so only very smart people can get to them, at which point they can convert the smart people into Cybermen. Accordingly, once the humans make it to them, they crawl back into the tombs to conserve power until they can kill all of the humans. Oh, and they try to convert Toberman.

But the grand prize in "how exactly is it you don't kill yourself getting out of bed in the morning with that level of stupidity" goes to Klieg himself, who, in the climax of the story, decides that if he has a Cyberman gun then he'll be the Cybermen's equal and they'll have to listen to him. It is worth pondering why, exactly, Klieg thinks that a Cybermen gun - something the Cybermen presumably have rather a lot of - is such a massive threat to them. Of course, everyone acts as though the Cybermen gun is particularly deadly. Mind you, it leaves the first human it hits alive, so if it is deadly, this means that the Cybermen - a seemingly monolithic race of conquerers - have designed their weapons to be more deadly to themselves than to the people they're conquering. As the Cyberleader said in The Moonbase, clever, clever, clever.

Here's the thing you may have noticed - all of this should have been visible from the novelization, telesnaps, and other stuff that existed before 1992. The story makes no sense, is flagrantly racist, and has no climax. All of these problems were not surprises at all. When we lionized the story, we did it in spite of all of these obvious shortcomings.


How did we, as a fandom, manage to do this? Much of it comes to one of the fundamental fault lines in Doctor Who fandom - whether or not one prefers Doctor Who made for Doctor Who fans, or Doctor Who made for casual viewers. Monster stories are unabashedly for Doctor Who fans - or at least, they were by the time Howe, Stammers, and Walker were working. For one thing, they provided facts. You could separate a Doctor Who fan from a civilian because Doctor Who fans knew all the Cybermen stories and could describe how the Cybermen were redesigned for each one, whereas normal people just remembered finding it creepy when they burst out of their tombs, but couldn't honestly tell you if that was the time they were on the moon or not.

The danger of this view will begin to become apparent later this season, and will begin becoming something of a massive problem when it means that we are actually expected to take things like The Invasion of Time or Warriors of the Deep (or, God help us, this story's "sequel" Attack of the Cybermen) seriously just because they have returning monsters in them. Which is ultimately where monster fetishism falls flat - the fact that the show conclusively demonstrates in the 80s that returning monsters do not automatically equal compelling drama.

But there's something deeper going on here. Fundamentally, the view espoused by Howe, Stammers, and Walker - that this story is great because it executes the formula well - requires us to view Doctor Who as a show that plays it safe. Doctor Who, in this view, exists to do stories that feel Doctor Who-ish. This is a view that describes most television shows well. Certainly it describes well the Adam Adamant-Avengers-Batman style of show that Doctor Who is overtly aspiring to in this period. The thing is, the one show it doesn't describe well - or at least it didn't before Innes Lloyd showed up - is Doctor Who, which previously thrived on the fact that it would shove something like The Crusade right after The Web Planet. Whereas nothing, frankly, since The Moonbase has felt even remotely strange as a follow-up to what came before it.

This latter view is behind the Great Rethink of the Troughton era, in which it's criticized for exactly what HSW praised it for - being an endless succession of identical base under siege stories. And the fact of the matter is, it's a fair critique. Coming at them in sequence, which we can finally do now, there's almost nothing new to say about Tomb of the Cybermen that we didn't say in The Faceless Ones, The Macra Terror, and The Moonbase. The show, at this point, is almost beyond criticism, good or bad. Every story simply tries to perform the formula correctly. Generally it succeeds. This time is a little more racist than usual, and with a bit of a stupider plot, but there are some good set pieces. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether "nice sequence of the Cybermen breaking out of their tombs" makes up for "horrifyingly xenophobic and racist" in the grand scheme of things.

But frankly, it's tough to complain that the BBC junked most of these stories. With no interest in repeating black and white material in a color market and no home video yet, why keep nearly a dozen basically interchangeable stories? What does any one have that the other eleven don't? Why would we consider rescuing another one of these a greater contribution to culture than, say, any of the missing Top of the Pops performances, or any other BBC show from the era that's got holes in its archives? To be quite honest, unless you're an obsessive Doctor Who fan, why the hell would you care about the show in this era? 

And since we're now kicking off season five, praised as "the monster season," which really just means that out of seven stories, six of them are bases under siege and five of them feature monsters that make a repeat appearance (although two of those are the Yeti, who make their first and last two appearances this season), we're going to need to either find some answers to that question or get very depressed and very cynical. Or, you know, both.

But when it comes to Tomb of the Cybermen, watched in sequence, it's really tough to come up with a good answer. The scenes with the TARDIS crew are fun, which they'd better be given that we now have nothing resembling an audience identification character. Instead we have our charismatic lead, his comically thick Scottish sidekick, and Victoria the peril monkey. They're all well performed, although if we're being honest Frazer Hines's schtick is starting to get a bit thin. As with Ben, any actual performance notes are buried under his accent. Deborah Watling is a revelation, adding a level of plucky charm to the companion that we haven't seen in ages, but it comes right at the point where it almost stops mattering who you hire in the role. Polly was a normal person, and when we saw her in terrible danger we were supposed to respond with something resembling empathy. Victoria is a pretty person, and when we see her in terrible danger we may as well just break out Laura Mulvey and start explaining how the male gaze works. (Which, actually, is currently planned for Wednesday.) Yeah, Watling does well with it and the character is likable and fun, but this is the companion stripped down to its most brutally functional - the cute thing that gets menaced.

The cast, in other words, is forced to hold the show together on sheer charisma. Thankfully they have it, but it's maddening to see the show just kick up its feet and decide that the cast can carry it. Yes, they can, but that's not the point.

But this does lead us to the one thing that does make this base under siege different from any other base under siege - a second reconsidering of the story that we need to take seriously. See, it's a known fact that when Matt Smith began reviewing performances of past Doctors in preparation for the role, he fell in love with Patrick Troughton. And specifically, he fell in love with this story, supposedly calling Moffat in the middle of the night to rave about it. (He also supposedly wrote a piece of Doctor Who fanfic to prepare for the role. Enjoy imagining that any given piece of ridiculous id vortex Doctor Who fanfic could have been written by Matt Smith.) 

So yes, at this point we're left just ignoring most of the story and watching Troughton to see how he might have influenced Smith. But since Troughton is the only consistently watchable thing in this story anyway, that's hardly a flaw. For all the stick I gave this story above, I have nothing bad to say about Troughton at all. The man was a genius.  So let's look at how Troughton plays the Doctor, and how that influenced Smith. 

And by look, I actually mean look, because today we are proud to present TARDIS Eruditorum's first ever video blog. It's embedded below via YouTube, and works well enough for where we're going to leave off. See you Monday, where we'll have an exciting trip to INSERT SETTING HERE to fight INSERT MONSTER HERE.


If this post has somehow persuaded you that you'd like to see Tomb of the Cybermen, you can buy it from that Amazon link there and give me some money. 

17 comments:

  1. You don't need to convince me. I ADORE Tomb of the Cybermen, and find it to be one of the most consistently watchable Who stories ever. Troughton is magical and it features my favorite iteration of Cybermen. Probably my favorite story of the whole 1960s.

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  2. Nice to be able to put a voice to the ideas. More vidblogs please. As a drama teacher I was very impressed with your breakdown of both Troughton and Smith's techniques. I think Troughton was the first to define the character of 'The Doctor' as totally (and I think uniquely in drama) reliant on the actor's creative decisions. Thus opening up the role to each actor's interpretation until we get to Smith's brilliantly post-modern (and I suspect instinctively) fractal approach. In essence - A little bit of all the Doctors goes a long way.

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  3. A spectacular entry, and also truly, genuinely funny in places. I don't often actually literally laugh out loud while on the computer, but a few of your phrasings here made me do so.

    I'm particularly enjoying the fandom reception history you're outlining here. It's a relief to finally understand where so many of those 'common wisdoms' came from in the first place.

    I'm sure the video blogs are quite time-intensive, but more of them would be wonderful. You did a terrific job with this one. My eye is not very well-trained to notice the nuances of actors' performances, not on any conscious level anyway; this helped a great deal. The clips you chose worked well to illustrate your points, points which I think would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to make purely verbally. Well done.

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  4. I enjoy the video blogs, and they're not a heck of a lot of trouble. Mainly it's a matter of picking things where they're actually preferable to text. It has to be something that's specifically about camera angles, blocking, acting, or something else visual. It also has to be something that can be done in a relatively short clip.

    In practice, this means they'll increase later in the blog. I don't think, other than the very first episode, that there's any Hartnell episodes I could have video blogged. The nature of the acting and filming meant that there just weren't many scenes with a high concentration of incidents worth commenting on. Once 2005 hits and the show is made by people with non-linear editing programs, on the other hand, I'm not sure there's any episodes I can't videoblog. (Not that I will videoblog every new series episode - just that I could.)

    Until then... well, there is a basic film studies lecture to be had about Laura Mulvey and the Ice Warriors, as I said. ;)

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  5. Oh, sure. No need for video where text will do. Since it was your first, I just wanted to let you know that the experiment was quite a success. :)

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  6. Nice job on the video! I'll definitely be watching for future installments.

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  7. You're saying that Innes Lloyd took a progressive series and converted it into binary notation, taking the sum of the integrates and expressing the result as a Power series?

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  8. If you're going to reference old Mummy movies, but with a sci-fi twist, then you need as many visual cues to Egyptology as you can. And an international cast is one of those cues - the rival colonial powers looting the ancient relics of a foreign kingdom, employing or enslaving Africans as they go.

    And once you've got that setup, it can't hurt to throw in a quick parable about Africans throwing off the shackles of slavery, albeit at great cost.

    I think it's more lazy than xenophobic.

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  9. First of all, I never saw the Troughton influence on Matt Smith until this video blog. It instantly elevated Matt's performance in my eyes (and I already thought he was in the top 3 best Doctors, including Troughton.) How he was able to digest some of these techniques is quite a testament to acting ability and knowledge. I was also very enlightened about Troughton himself.

    The problem of Toberman. Yes, the black mute is definitely a cliche and his redemption through sacrifice is his entire purpose in the story. I can see that it might be racist in Britain (Colonial native sacrificing himself for his betters … it is a bit Kipling, isn’t it), but in the U.S. there would be very few chances in that day and age to see a man of color presented as noble. However, that argument is silly ... since it wasn't shown on PBS until 1992.

    I do love this story and eagerly await a rerelease with vidFIRE in the US. (vidFIRE, a technique I also love ... and only a Doctor Who fan would think of ... I'd like to see a Matt Smith episode vidFIRE'd ...) Yes, the plot and the all the rest don’t work, but what does work … or remains in the mind … is the incredible imagination of the episode. It is filled with moments. The moments may or may not make the story work as a whole, but they definitely fill it with enough to have provided some rich memories. And, like the Tenth Planet, I do still like it when I see it again.

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  10. Very interesting that Troughton's influence on Matt Smith's Doctor gets its first major mention here. As I was watching this episode (before I read this entry), I actually noted how much I was reminded of Smith. It hit me more strongly on one of Troughton's quick thinking, quick talking moments that Smith's Doctor does so often and so well, but now with your video comparison, I definitely see much more resemblance in their performances. Smith has done an excellent job taking inspiration from Troughton rather than trying to copy his performances.

    In a comment to a previous entry (for Planet of Giants), you had mentioned that this was one of the episodes where the series takes a huge leap forward in quality. Now that I've watched it and all the episodes leading up to it, I'm curious to know what exactly you meant by that. I had hoped you'd cover it in your article above. If you did, I missed it. I know it's hard to compare because this is one of the few surviving serials compared to many preceding it. Nothing of major note jumped out at me as being such an improvement, so I was hoping you could expound on what you meant when you wrote that.

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  11. I can't, honestly. I deleted that claim from the Planet of Giants essay when I revised it for the book, having discovered my memory of this story was far superior to the actual story. The leap forward I knew happened somewhere in the Troughton era in fact occurred with Power of the Daleks.

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  12. Power of the Daleks makes much more sense. I feared I was frightfully obtuse to be unable to pick up on the great leap forward in quality one should see in Tomb of the Cybermen. I'm glad to know that's not the case. Thank you.

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  13. Do we know what ethnicity the characters Klieg and Toberman were scripted as? Because the names actually suggest German characters.

    As for Kaftan, it's a middle eastern word, but also a Russian word.

    Klieg also strikes me as a a precursor to the Master -- and in some scenes, with some of his facial expressions, to Simm's Master. Of course it helps that he keeps calling himself "Master."

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  14. Interesting to note you became tired of Jamie at about the same point that Sue (over at Wife in Space) later became.

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  15. Oh wow, where to start...

    After not being entirely convinced on your views on The Celestial Toymaker, the racism is flagrant here. And what makes it astonishing is the discovery that the role of Kaftan was specifically written for the actress... who was married to Peter Bryant, the incoming producer! Why yes, I'll sign off on implying my wife is not to be trusted on account of her skin colour.

    One thing that bugs me, though, whether it's your analysis or anyone else's, is describing this as a 'base under siege' story. The definition of 'base' must be tremendously loose, then, if it applies to 'a room we walked into a couple of hours ago and the attackers are actually the ones who belong here'.

    As to the quality of the show as a whole, while the script deserves criticism, there's also the performances. Some of the actors are atrocious. Troughton is good, Watling is fun with her bits of dialogue designed to be against the image of her as a pretty piece of Victoriana... and I found myself fervently hoping some other characters would die to get them off the screen. Sadly, in some cases this failed to occur.

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  16. Toberman ends up "saving the day" at the end, so he is a racist because.....he's mute? That's like saying Oddjobs racist in Goldfinger (he's a korean mute manservent who loves killing
    )

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    1. The character is a racist depiction because he is a word-for-word lift from the Big Book of Stereotype Black Characters. The fact that the character is heroic doesn't negate the racism any more than saying you're dressed up as Martin Luther King Jr makes it okay to go to a halloween party in blackface.

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