Saturday 28 January 2023


Concorde 2, Brighton
Fri 20th Jan

“Where you been?” someone shouts as they take the stage. He gets back a deadpan answer about road miles from Glasgow. But we all know. This isn’t just the first night of the tour, but the first Delgados appearance since 2005. (Before I started this blog, which I believe officially places it in pre-history.) 

Which of course raises the question of which Delgados we have back. Their indie credentials included being John Peel faves and launching the Chemikal Underground label, but musically they’d throw in the changes. (I made a hamfisted attempt to span their eras here.) When string players assemble on stage, it seems a give-away. This is going to be the time of ’The Great Eastern’, where such things augmented their sound.

In fact they pretty much play through everything, even their sparky power-pop origins. (When, in their own description, “two of us couldn’t play very well and two couldn’t play at all.”) They concentrate on their middle three albums, true, but that’s as it should be.

As the night goes on, we discover two things about those strings. First, appealingly, it’s the very same players as back then. Also, they’re used as sparingly as they were back then. It’s like the way only certain letters require accents, they embellish precisely where the music needs it and no more. Too disciplined to come in just because they’re there, they just sit quiet much of the time. Then and now a band credo seems to be “only do something where something needs doing.”

I don’t seem the only soul glad to see them back. The venue’s sold out, and pretty much every number gets only a few notes in before being met by applause. One comes to an emergency stop when a lead gets yanked, only to meet a bigger round of applause the second time. Quieter sections reveal pretty much everyone is listening, no-one talking. All of which makes of a pretty good start to a years’ gig-going.

Have they changed much in the interim? Not a whole lot. Songs so precision-engineered don’t lend themselves to radical reworkings. Alun Woodward’s fey, indie voice seems almost uncannily unaltered, but Emma Pollock’s, who was perhaps a little more rock even then, has gone more that way. Which can change the overall sound. ’Accused Of Stealing’ (always a personal favourite) probably isn’t played all that differently, but comes to sound more like the Velvets covering the song. Which is not at all a bad thing.

Someone else shouts if there’s any new songs. “Not yet”, they respond, a little teasingly. You never know your luck…

‘The Light Before You Land’…

Brighton Philharmonic
Brighton Dome, Sat 21st Jan 

This programme was designed as a “Winter journey… exploring Arctic landscapes”. But more importantly, in a sign Brighton Philharmonic may be becoming more adventurous, every work was by a contemporary composer - all born within the last century, all bar one still living and one younger than me.

The opening ’Twine’ by Rolf Wallin, for marimba and xylophone, I confess did little for me. But the accompanying visual, by Kathy Hinde, a semi-abstract collage of river sediment and algae, was splendid. Hinde’s visuals continued throughout the night. And if they peaked at that point, they were all pretty darn good. Always inscribing themselves on your eyeballs, but never dominating over the music, more instillation pieces than mini-films.

It’s a peculiarity of life that Johny Greenwood is the guitarist of the risible Radiohead, yet can make music worth hearing when left to his own devices. This was a suite from his soundtrack to ’There Will Be Blood’. Six short movements were fitted inside sixteen minutes, of widely varying style and - it should be said - quality. Some did just sound like film music, when that’s the last thing film music should ever do. But others were way more inventive. Two successive movements I mentally dubbed ’Slide’ and ’Pluck’ after their dominant style of playing, with ’Slide’ seeming to shimmer in from somewhere else.

Philip Glass’ ’Glassworks’ from 1981 was described in the programme as “an immediate hit” which “introduced… minimalism to a huge public”. Which of course means it’s really post-minimalist. You listen to individual lines rather than a composite, and at points a particular player leads. Glass himself has confirmed he deliberately wrote something more cross-over, and the title has more than a little of the calling card about it.

Does that matter, when the music itself sounds this enthralling? (Partly because Glass can write so exquisitely for solo piano.) Only that, when minimalism when post-minimalist, a lot of the sense of nature left it. Those churning, flurrying wind instruments sound more like a machine. A serene machine, neither Victorian heavy industry nor malfunctioning Microsoft software, but still a machine. I think I tend to picture some dashing adventurer/ eccentric inventor sweeping along in some gleaming limousine, possibly powered by elegance alone. (Akin to the way Neu! can evoke the machine sense.) While his earlier works were more like mini-ecosystems. Notably, Hinde’s visuals shift away from nature scenes, to city squares and similar.

Of the two John Luther Adams pieces, ’Drums of Winter’ worked the best. Unlike anything I’ve heard from him before it was short and punchy, the polyrhythms of four pounding drummers. It could have been played to a rock audience and got a similarly euphoric reception.

While ’songbird songs’ did seem a regressive step in imitating birdsong. Nature can be an endless source of inspiration to art, but art imitative of nature is always going to be merely constrained. Some did work better than others, particularly ’mouring dove’ with its eerie Ocarinas.

’Cantus Articus: Concerto For Birds and Orchestra’, by Einjuham Rautavaara completed the night. As all that might suggest, the composer’s from Cleethorpes. Only kidding, its Finland. It tackled the bird song question more elegantly by playing back recordings over the music. Which confirmed the sheer strangeness of them, perhaps emphasised by being out of context. 

Musically, it was the most ‘classical’ work of the programme. I suspect when people used that word they really mean Romantic. And I was to read afterwards Rautavaara has been described as Neo-Romantic. At times my somewhat inexpert ears were reminded of Stravinski. But it had the sublime sense of the otherworldly that the best Romantic music has. There were points where the bird song enveloped the music, like a flock of feathers had somehow blown in the venue, and others where the two essentially met in the middle.

Psst! Brighton Philharmonic! Still three more seasons to go!

Saturday 21 January 2023


First broadcast: Nov/ Dec 1967
Written by Brian Hayles
This is a preliminary warning. PLOT SPOILERS reside beneath the surface of this review

“The mission must be carried out. The computer has ordered it.”

The Thing of It Is…

After ’The Tenth Planet’, barely over a year ago, ’Doctor Who’ decides to shamelessly rip off ’Thing from Another World’ (1951) for a second time.

Although it seems unlikely writer Brian Hayles re-watched the film, if he’d even seen it in the first place. That would have taken such time and trouble, in those far-flung days. He more probably worked from a kind of folk memory. Which allows for much more slippage and variation, without anyone involved even necessarily noticing. Let’s compare…

The film ends with the iconic “I bring you a warning” radio broadcast, the Red Menace encapsulated in one neat little clip. But overall, little of the anti-Soviet stuff gets said out loud. The Thing acts with malevolent intelligence but makes only animal noises rather which would be hard to interpret as diatribes on the benefits of command economies.

It’s seen solely through the eyes of the crew, at a distance or in darkness, or (more often) both at once. And the human characters are split between the airmen and the scientists, a division given a very white-versus-blue collar aspect. Chief Scientist Carrington insists “there are no enemies in science, only phenomena to study”. While the airmen instinctively understand the blood-and-claw nature of reality.

For, as was not uncommon for the time, the Cold War is seen less geopolitically and more as something innate. The Thing turns out to be a plant that lives on blood, hence its well-known description as an “intellectual carrot”. Reversed polarities which mean the film could as easily have been called ’Revenge of the Root Vegetables’. The Thing is other, just like the Soviets are, so exists in antagonism to us and we to it.

Now… none of that sounds very ’Doctor Who’, does it?

”Escapades in Computer Land”

’The Thing’ starts in a bar, establishing a normal world for the title creature to invade. ’Ice Warriors’ kicks off with a crisis in a computer room. In fact, the New Ice Age setting is so established it might almost have been a story on its own. (Compare it to, say, the Monastery we’ve just seen.) It would have been a solid story, if not a terribly original one. In that computer room, attendant staff talk in clipped tones. We then cut to a field party sounding more human, while scoffing at the computerised schedule.

“The mighty computer”, as its sarcastically tagged, soon becomes a synecdoche for a mechanised society. To the extent that base chief Clent himself defers to it. (“I must inform the computer immediately for its decision.”) Despite the line (yes, really) “the computer says no” it’s not one of those megalomaniac computers so commonly encountered in SF, which likes to say “I am now your maaaaaster” boomingly, while lightning blots fly out from its diodes. Instead it behaves pretty much like a computer would. And so it represents is a folly people have done to themselves.

As we discover, an over-reliance on synthesised foods has cut back on vegetation and so reduced the carbon dioxide in the air, triggering this freeze-out and impending threat of glaciers. (Just go with it…) Which seems to have only exacerbated the existing problem. The advancing glacier, intractable and unpredictable, becomes Clent’s adversary, his White Whale. He enthuses: “What a triumph! Science the victor over nature, and it happened in my sector.” (Prematurely, as you may have guessed.) His stick is simultaneously rod of authority, used for pointing at people, and walking aid.

By contrast, the Doctor refers to “creative scientists,” which would seem to apply both to himself and boffin-in-chief Penley, who’s absconded from Clent’s “escapades in computer land”. As is not uncommon in SF, science is seen as a creative art, progressing by flashes of insight rather than consolidated research. The computer’s not a problem in itself, but by itself it is inadequate. Hence nothing functions until the Doctor replaces Penley. But Clent’s Fordist, kit-part mind baulks at recognising this because it places elements of the process outside his control. (His slightly bizarre name perhaps suggests ‘clenched’.)

”Not Of Our Time…”

Hayles always claimed his inspiration for this story had not been Hollywood but news reports of mammoths frozen in ice. True, the Thing get frozen but only briefly, the notion of being stuck down there from one Ice Age to the next is Hayles’. (Not said out loud, but presumably to get around Mars now being a dead planet, as it was in ‘Quatermass and the Pit.’)

The helmeted warriors are first assumed to be Vikings, and while this is soon disproved in a more symbolic sense it never goes away. (Originally, they were more closely modelled on our helmeted invaders.) So we’re given the double-barrelled explanation they’re “not of our time, nor of this planet.”

In an almost complete reversal of ’Tenth Planet’, there’s a paucity of rule-book-bound guards. In fact there’s precisely one, Walters, who does perhaps two guard-like things and spends more time complaining he’s been conscripted. Instead, in a sexist era, most of Clent’s underlings are obedient women. No wonder the base is so easy for Penley to steal from. When The Ice Warriors enter the base, you half-expect them to say the door was open so they wandered in. But then ’Tenth Planet’ thrust a mechanised mind-set onto the Cybermen. Here the Ice Warriors get the militarism.

It’s Walters who first hits on their name - “Proper Ice Warrior, isn't he?”. After which they’re alternately called simply “warriors” or “ice giants”. Tall actors were sought out, and in repeated shots tower intimidatingly over others. And it’s commonly, if entirely inaccurately, assumed primitive people were bigger than us. These warriors are our tribal instincts and brutish urges, repressed, buried, now thawed out.

Storr, could not have been made any more of a stereotypical wild Highlander if… actually, he just couldn’t have been made any more of a stereotypical wild Highlander. (The actor Angus Lennie was brought back the next time they needed a stereotypical wild Highlander, in ’Terror Of the Zygons’.) Anyway, he tries to side with the Warriors, who are “against the scientists, that’s good enough for me.”

Though Clent’s shown to be more at fault than Penley, the story also hints heavily the two need to reconcile to survive. Without Penley, or some other creative mind, Clent’s computations are useless. But without Clent, Penley’s attempts to acclimatise himself to the new realities of “an avalanche waiting on your doorstep” seem entirely dependent upon Storr, whose Highland brogue forever contrasts with Penley’s soft tone.

At one point the Doctor warns of another character: “He’s a scientist and a bit inclined to have his head in the air. You know what they’re like.” “Aye, I certainly do”, Jamie replies sagely.

In fact it’s effectively ’Tenth Planet’ in reverse, where it’s us humans who have become too mechanised, and this time what comes flying back at us out the ether is the buccaneer spirit. This may seem like the series is contradicting itself, but it doesn’t really matter much. Firstly, SF is really just a set of cautionary tales. More importantly, this is just a way of telling the same cautionary tale, just a different way up. The problem in both is the mechanised mindset. In one we see it from without, presented as an alien force. In the other from within.

And this is no hidden subtext. The story is insistent on it all, if not actively belligerent. ‘Characters’ tend to embody a position in a philosophical debate, and the dialogue tends to consist of them reiterating this. It’s not some backstory to fill the bits where a monster isn’t chasing Victoria around. This is in the great SF tradition of A Story About Something.

”…Nor Of This Planet”

As has been said, Red Menace stories try to ‘other’ Those Darn Commies and so fixate on creatures which skulk indeterminately in the shadows. In ’The Thing’, conversation with it not exactly flowing, the crewman merely guess the monster is from Mars. Here the Ice Warrior Varga (named, let’s note) has told us this five minutes after de-frosting.

But if the Red Menace trope really only occupied the early Fifties, the Cold War lasted longer with that, and so different ways arose to frame the earthly enemy. So, soon after explaining just why the Cybermen can’t be considered commie hordes, that’s pretty much exactly what the Ice Warriors turn out to be!

A kind of mutually assured destruction soon emerges. Clent can’t use the Ioniser on the glacier with their spaceship present, as it will trigger a nuclear explosion. While they call this a “secret weapon” which they fear he will use, melting the glacier and drowning their engines. In ‘The Moonbase’, the Cybermen are sneaking in the title base from the start… actually, probably before. Here the two sides mostly remain within their own camps, only outsiders like the Doctor and Penley venturing twixt the two.

And when Varga replies to Victoria’s offer of help (“They would not help me, they would keep me as a curiosity, and they would leave my warriors for dead, or destroy them”) it rings with more than a little truth.

The Klingons first appeared in ’Star Trek’ earlier that year. Similarities aren’t exact. They’re more caste-based and duty-bound, the Ice Warriors more utilitarian and calculating. (Accused of being “monsters” they reply “it was necessary.”) But they’re more similarity than with any other ’Who’ adversary. With the Daleks there’s the endless trope of their taking on allies, until their usefulness is over. Conversely, the Ice Warriors never lie or cheat, and take umbrage when they consider themselves betrayed.

There’s a sense they believe as fully in their wrong way of life as much as we do our right one, so in a way should be respected. Both were established as adversaries, but a future episode saw the two sides uniting against a common foe. (With ’Star Trek’ in ’Day of The Dove’ the following year, with ’Who’… well, hopefully, we’ll get that far.)

(Demonstrating their origins, New Who brought them back for a Cold War story, so much later that it counted as a historical setting. It was called ’Cold War’. Unfortunately, that proved the smartest thing about it.)

A show staple is medicalised garlic, a magic potion to defeat the monster dressed up as a chemical. The more everyday this is, the better. The nail varnish remover in ’The Moonbase’ is a classic example. Here, rather inelegantly, there’s three…

The first is the best, but alas is rather casually thrown away. Its ammonium nitrate, which as Victoria points out more is commonly known as stink bombs. Which has a particular effect on the Warriors due to the peculiarities of the Martian atmosphere. And defeating invading aliens with stink bombs seems quintessentially ’Who’, daft but possessed of a quirky charm. On a par with having a bright white computer room whose crew wear op-art uniforms, but which still has a chandelier.

The final one is the Doctor reworking the Warriors’ own gun against them. (Which has a particular effect on them as they’re mostly liquid. Not like us then…) Not bad. But the middle one, wait for it…

Penley turns up the heating on them.

Yes, Penley turns up the heating on them. Not endearingly daft, just plain silly. Worse, it exposes a fault-line in the story. The Ice Warriors are forever saying things like “ice is our friend”. But it’s not their natural habitat, Mars is no ice planet, they just got themselves stuck in it and then with their name. And it’s precisely because they’re cold-blooded that reptiles need heat.

As mentioned earlier, they were originally more akin to Space Vikings. The ’About Time’ guide says the idea to turn them reptilian arose during rehearsals. So perhaps as initially scripted they were acclimatised to cold to the point of being near-allergic to heat, were never fully rewritten.

We know the change was made largely to make them distinct from the Cybermen. And it could have been associated with their Martian origins, already known to be a desert planet. Shannon Sullivan credits the idea to Martin Baugh, the costume designer. But perhaps the impetus wasn’t visual.

Successful monsters on the show, at that point just the Daleks and Cybermen, had been given distinctly monstrous speech. You only have to hear them set against normal human voices, and much of the work is done. Whereas those beeping Zarbi never got a callback. The Ice Warrior rasp follows in this lineage, while actually sounding like neither. Ironically it was the last-minute thought, which actively screwed with much of the plot-line here, which went on to give the Ice Warriors their enduring appeal. The reason for their frequent reappearances? It’sssss probably thisssss.

Coming soon! Onto other things, but back to the good Doctor before long…

Saturday 14 January 2023


First transmitted: September - November 1967
Written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln
Plot spoilers! And not just for this story! (Maybe just skip this one if you don't like plot spoilers)

”Why does someone wish harm to the monks of Det-Sen?"
- Khrisong

Making The Yeti A Threat Again 

After Atlantis but before Loch Ness... it was inevitable the Abominable Snowman would show up on ’Who' someday. The hirsute fellow was a surprisingly late addition to the Western canon of folk monsters, due to the relatively late exploration of Tibet. Though longstanding in local folk mythology, he didn't gain his more dramatic stage name until acquiring an English agent in 1921. ('Yeti' in Tibetan means simply 'bear of the rocky place'.) He was in short one of the last wild things to be hunted down.

And it wasn’t really till the mid Fifties that his career truly took off, with salacious newspaper reports on Himalayan expeditions. (Even his name was coined by a journalist, Henry Newman.) These soon spread into films, with the Goons parodying the phenomenon (with ’Yehti’) in ‘55. From there he became ubiquitous, appearing in the central cast list of monsters in films such as ’Monsters Inc’ (2001), because he couldn’t not do.

Such stories were the latest iteration of a broader trope, which has resonance because of the ‘between’ nature of the man-beast. In folklore this creature often haunts the edges of towns, sneaking in under darkness. Neither fully feral nor human, his relationship to us is ambiguous. So we’re both drawn and repelled. More modern stories tend to be about attempts to seek him out, capture and categorise him, in an attempt to reassert order on the world. Which never, ever go wrong…

Yet this is more than a decade later and much of that had already been revised. In Nigel Kneale's 1957 film 'The Abominable Snowman' he twists the story by revealing the thing is not between but beyond, an all-wise being simply waiting out man's hubristic rise and inevitable fall, communing only with some Buddhist monks. The protagonist states “it isn’t what’s out there that’s dangerous, so much as what’s in us”.

Herge's 1960 comic album 'Tintin in Tibet' is less radical, but still imagines a sympathetic monster, capable of care, with a “human soul”, but misunderstood – in the mould of King Kong and Marvel's Hulk. But significantly both work in the other great cultural export of Tibet, robed Buddhism, manifesting ancient wisdom through the medium of Jedi mind tricks. And both rely on a Boo Radley ending, coming to the conclusion they're best off undiscovered.

Haisman and Lincoln faithfully reproduce many of Kneale's elements - the signifying footprint in the snow (despite a distinct lack of snow), the two Western parties who run into one another, the bumped-off hunter, the psi-powered monks and so on. However, after years of shamelessly ripping off Kneale like no-one was supposed to notice, despite his Yeti film being heavily borrowed from in the predecessor to this story, not only do they turn those elements into a whole new plot they seem to treat the original as a kind of canon.

By now the Yeti had been rehabilitated into fiction's equivalent of polite society. Here, even as it keeps that abominable title, it chiefly refers to its critters as Yeti and explains they're “timid creatures”. So it reverses the twist – it’s when they up and start killing that people get perplexed.

And if the Buddhism in these stories is similarly given a particular slant, perhaps that's standard. Westerners are often attracted to the exotic trappings of Tibetan Buddhism – the robes, the chanting and so on become spiritual bling. But at the same time they're less keen on its ascetic insistence on discipline. So they try to populate its form with the content of Zen Buddhism. (Which is actually Indo-Chinese.) 

Being less doctrinal and more experiential, it appears more adapted to our individualised way of life. (Though whether they actually grasp any of that or simply read what they want into it is another matter.) In Herge's story, for example, psychic powers are personalised, the 'gift' of one particular Monk rather than part of the Monastery's teachings.

So if 'Who' has a somewhat schizo approach to Det-Sen Monastery, perhaps that's par for the course. It is a Monastery, with “strict discipline and self training”, and not some Tibetan equivalent of a hippy commune. But, this being a Troughton story, it has to double as the de rigueur base under siege. Which of course is a metaphor for the closed mind. So chief sentry Khrisong busily orders his underlings while still more busily distrusting the Doctor. “Let them meditate! Let them consult!” he cries in derision. “I will act!” You could call him trigger-happy, if he was armed with anything more than a stick.

The story even takes steps to avoid it's own natural get-out. As Yeti start attacking people you could imagine him reactively falling into a military mentality. Yet dialogue between other Monks seems there specifically to tell us that he's just that kind of person.

”Formless in Space... I Astral Travelled”

In a rare early example of retconning, the Doctor has not only been here before but is there to return a relic. He even knows its Master, Padmasambhava. (Or as Jamie calls him 'Padmathingmy'.) And 'old friend of the Doctor' is a pretty clear nod that this is a character to be trusted.

...which of course is exactly why we shouldn't. Because Padmathingmy has fallen under the psychic control of the Great Intelligence, a disembodied force seeking to make itself manifest. The Yeti are actually robots at his malevolent command.

Now, by this point in 'Who' history, mind control might seem somewhat hackneyed. We've already had it in 'Keys of Marinus’, 'Web Planet’ and 'The War Machines’ to name three. (In fact the beeping of the spheres which control the Yeti is quite similar to the Zarbi signalling in 'Web Planet'.) And of course it's hard to escape the notion that these are plain cheaper to stage. You don't even need the rubber suit, just tell an actor to put on his sinister voice and you're away.

Yet, as we've seen, all those Hartnell examples are about the separation of mental from manual labour. This time it takes Buddhism as a set of synonyms for Western psychology. The Great Intelligence, that’s a name the Ego would like to adopt. Its as if his achievements had led Padmathingy not to enlightenment but to a pride which then Bunyanesquely rears up at him – his ego manifesting as an alter ego. When it states proudly “I am much power!”, the formulation of words seems telling.

Or on the other hand it could actually be Buddhist after all. At least by the standards of this sort of thing. The Great Intelligence's plan is like nirvana in reverse, an incorporeal being desiring to get back on the wheel. Padmathingmy can be seen as stuck in the state between death and rebirth, which Buddhists call Bardo. Initiates are taught to surrender to this process, but some trap themselves by clinging hopelessly to what has gone before. The plot involves him living hundreds of years past his natural span, then at the end welcoming death as “rest” and “peace”. (Which would make for two stories in a row about accepting the inevitability of death.)

And of course retconning a prior connection between him and the Doctor establishes an equivalence between the two. When Victoria attempts to explain the Tardis to a novice monk, he counters that his Master's astral travelling is pretty much the same thing. (Though oddly Jamie later shushes the Doctor against mentioning their mode of transport.) A plot point is his concealing his presence from the Doctor, to avoid giving away that he's hundreds of years old. Just like… oh, you guessed.

And these suggestions permeate the story. When Jamie first sees the Doctor on the Tardis monitor in his Himalayan fur coat, he cries “beastie!” And the same fur coat leads the explorer Travers to claim it must have been the Doctor who murdered his buddy, and Khrisong to insist he has the Yeti under his control. (Right plot, Khrisong, wrong perp.) There's even the suggestion that in returning the relic the Doctor is on some kind of pilgrimage. Certainly it's his managing to achieve this task which convinces the Monks to stop leaving him out as Yeti bait.

Ghost Traps and Chains

And beyond the Tardis and astral flight, there's a fair amount of paralleling in the story. The Doctor takes two objects from the Tardis, the relic and an electronic triangulation device (to track the Yeti). A captured Yeti is held down by a magic ghost trap, but also heavy chains. (A double precaution a monk describes as “wise”.) It's very 'Who', his science and their religion merely one thing seen from different angles. But how does it play out?

In the finale, Travers rushes out to the mountain where the Intelligence is physically manifesting, armed with his gun. To no avail, of course. While the Doctor and his crew find a room behind the sanctum, literally the power behind the throne. It's full of machinery which they promptly smash up. To no avail either. After all, we've already seen how the GI controls them by moving Yeti pieces around a game board rather than by any mechanism.

But then they break a pyramid of spheres. Throughout, the GI has been represented by these geometrically pure objects, like they're the portal-like link between his Platonic realm and our world. The Doctor finds the spheres inside the Yeti early in the story, but initially dismisses them as too light to contain any mechanisms. Not the mountain, not the mechanisms. It's a neat final twist, there to tell us what sort of story this was. It's an inner story, concerned with the workings of the mind.

But it pulls the twist only by utilising its own contradictions. Why are the machines there then? Just as a decoy? Beyond that, why go to the trouble of building the robot Yeti at all? Khrisong's question up top is quite a good one. The intra-story reason seems to be to scare away those pesky interfering monks and explorers, but before the Doctor shows up no-one seems much of a threat. And why model them on a creature everyone knows to be timid? Perhaps if the GI had tried this in England he’d have frightened everyone off with giant robot squirrels. Beyond that, just how were the Yeti built, with what materials? We're told it took Padmathingmy many years, which poses time as a solution for lack of materials.

It's much like Wotan's War Machines. There's two separate stories, joined together only in a plan that defies coherence. Not only can you imagine the story working without the robot Yeti stamping about, at times they seem keen to show you just how it would work – through spiritual possession, levitation and so on. The monastery could seem to be haunted by 'evil spirits', the faithful being driven out. Or perhaps the GI could have animated the actual Yeti into attacking, just as he turns people into his thralls. But we have to have killer robots, because killer robots are the sort of thing you have to have on 'Who'. 

While the equivalence between the Doctor, the GU and Padmathingmy seems not even undeveloped but merely hinted at. You expect at least an 'Exorcist' moment where the GI suddenly tries to possess the Doctor, but no.

The Curious Case of Victoria 

After an introductory story in which she was no more than a plot piece, and a follow-up where she obligingly stepped into a death trap, this time Victoria's even dressed differently. Her explorer's trouser suit makes her look like a principal boy in a panto. And this time she does stuff.

Yes, actually does stuff.

Alas, it doesn't help.

She's driven by a new-found curiosity, first insisting to Jamie she wants to go exploring despite what the Doctor said. Then once in the Monastery she becomes intent on reaching the Sanctum, off limits even to the monks. Of course she's being plot driven. She gets in there to discover it harbours ill deeds, stumbling on a revelation rather than confirming suspicions. But her cavalier disdain for the customs of her hosts makes her look brattish, like space travel has finally given her her teenage years. And, in a story which otherwise gestures at Buddhist sympathies, it doesn't seem at all clear we're supposed to be bothered by this.

On Balance...

Buddhists are big on balance, and there's a balance to be struck here. The way the GI's intrusive force goes almost entirely unexplained makes for something more effective than the banal biography Moffat later gave him. But rather than striking right this merely becomes imbalanced the other way. There's some intriguing themes and images, but they tend to lie about undeveloped and disconnected on the surface of a standard adventure story. Overall, the closest cousin to this story is 'The Faceless Ones’. In many of it's themes it feels like a dry run for 'Planet of the Spiders', despite that coming so much later. You may be best off foregoing your 'Who' fixation and watching the Kneale film instead.

Further reading: 'How Buddhist is This Series?' In the first 'About Time' volume, Wood and Miles came up with an intriguing reading of 'Web Planet' based on a biography of the writer. In the second volume, they do a similar thing...

Saturday 7 January 2023


(aka 'They Just Won't Let It Lie') 
First transmitted: September 1967
Written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Plot spoilers happen!

“We know the Cybermen died out many centuries ago.” 
- Viner
“No they didn't, you daft twit!” 
–Every child in the land

Going Gothic

'Tomb of the Cybermen' is one of those iconic 'Who' stories. Iconic enough in fact for the review site 'Tomb of the Anorak' to be named in its honour. (After the immortal line “will you please see about the anoraks?”) As with its predecessor Cyberman story, 'The Moonbase’, it pushes the action forwards by setting things further in the future – in a time where the silver darlings are believed to be extinct. But it's unlike its predecessor story... well, in about every other way.

We've already seen how the show was already casting its net wider – borrowing from movies as much as other TV shows. The Cybermen's original appearance, for example, fed from both Brit TV's 'Quatermass' and Hollywood's 'The Thing From Another World'. Yet 'Tomb of the Cybermen' ups the ante and plunders a whole genre for source material.

As John McElroy wrote in his intro to the published script (Titan Books, 1989), this story “had no basis in factual science and took the team into a new genre”. Which one? That was helpfully telegraphed in the title. There's a reason why this one isn't called 'The Cryogenic Chambers of the Cybermen' or 'The Freezer Units of the Cybermen' - beyond those not being terribly snappy titles.

While 'The Moonbase' part-paved the way, this is the point where the Cybermen nudged out some mummies to fully embrace the Gothic. They don't so much borrow as strip-mine. Extensive research reveals Gothic fiction took the term from a previously existing architectural style, and titles often came from settings - as in perhaps the first Gothic novel, Walpole's 'The Castle of Otranto' (1763). And even with Walpole his first excursion into the gothic had been architectural, building Strawberry Hill. 

None of which is surprising. For, in a genre which prized mood above plot, setting was often integral. A frequent Gothic trope was to have architecture stand for psychological states; ruins for insanity, secret passages duplicity and so on. Consequently settings are commonly given as much significance as characters or plot.

And notably here the sets for the Tomb, where the story almost exclusively takes place, take on almost exactly this function. Viner, the inevitable 'canary' character whose function is to fall prey to superstition first, cries “It's this damned building! It's alive, it's watching us, it'll get us!” The surprisingly good design provides much of the story's effectiveness, giving him and the others something they can react against.

The Gothic might initially seem a strange step to take for Pedlar and Davis, whose first act had been to take the show in a more Science Fiction direction. At times described as Dark Romanticism, it originally set out to repudiate the Enlightenment, scorning the supposed advances brought by reason and scientific enquiry to revel in the supernatural. Even when Gothic tales weren't set in the past, before the over-bright illuminating light of the Enlightenment had been switched on, they demonstrated how the past never really was past. Just like the dark, it never actually went away.

Of course Gothic monsters continually erupt in SF, but normally in a more managed way. Traditionally, Science Fiction doesn't incorporate the Gothic so much as pick up the gauntlet thrown down to the Enlightenment, then counter-attack with a laser gun. The Gothic's disruption to consensus reality rises only to get slapped down by reasonable scientific explanation and techno-fixes, to become dissipated by the tale's end like shadows before the dawn. To misquote Goya, the slaughter of monsters produces reason. 

(And this was more true of the SF of this era, before 'Alien' made popular SF almost a sub-genre of horror. We've already seen how 'Quatermass and the Pit' tried to “swallow horror into SF”.)

And yet it proves itself quite a potent ingredient, for a show which was never 'proper' Science Fiction. And just as the Cyberman are part (but only part) machine, the Doctor (in his Victorian attire) is part (but only part) Gothic. When, for example, he cracks the code to open the Tombs there's little pretence that he isn't actually reciting a magic spell. (Troughton doesn't even fluff the term “integer”, it was mis-written in the script.) The electric cable he lays to keep the Cybermats at bay is also a magic circle. The Doctor is a wild card, an alien set against the aliens, the weird against weirdness.

Overall, the Gothic works in 'Who', and in SF in general, precisely because it isn't a neat fit with a clearly defined function. It works because it jars, because it disrupts. It’s like an awkward plug fitting, providing spurts of sparks rather than a smooth flow of power. In fact it works so well that it's surprising it took this long to be embraced. (Unless you count the Haunted House section of 'The Chase’. Which we don't. That was more flirtation than embrace.)

The Ungrateful Dead

Despite their protestations, locking themselves in a vault without an escape hatch might not make the Cybermen sound like the most logical of races. But it's a fitting objective correlative for their role in the story. As was first brought up in 'The Moonbase' but now comes into its own, they are the dead. The dead who will not stay dead. The length of time elapsed since the previous story allows them to pass into folklore for the human protagonists, the same role Pharaohs played in the classic Gothic. On one level, ‘Tomb’ is a successor to those folk tales about the fool who thought he could make a deal with death – and the fairly inevitable consequences which ensue.

The two conversations the Doctor has with Victoria about his age might seem like general characterisation, incidentally placed inside convenient gaps in proceedings. In fact they fully reflect this story's themes. Firstly, look at their context. As we never see inside the archaeologists' rocket ship, the Tardis becomes the only interior other than the Tomb. And, just as she does with the Tomb, Victoria sees inside the Tardis for the first time. There's even a similar emphasis on the two sets of swing-doors opening, and on her as she steps through them. The two become opposite poles.

The Doctor tells her first his age, then that he can remember his long-gone relatives “when I want to. And that's the point really: I have to really want to... the rest of the time they... they sleep in my mind and I forget.” Of course this is the dead as they are supposed to be, living on as our memories. It contrasts with the Cyber Controllers anti-nature assertion “to die is unnecessary”.

Logic plays a large part here, a surprisingly large part when you consider it’s entombed in a narrative which makes no sense whatsoever. The bad guys, who've secretly come to awake the Cybermen, are members of the Brotherhood of Logicians. Their credo is “everything yields to logic”. And of course the Gothic surroundings make this into a curse. For in Gothic tradition rational thinking is always a curse, and curiosity kills archeologists as easily as cats. When the Doctor claims “some things are better left undone”, he's virtually reciting the Gothic credo that counters the Brotherhood.

In a neat twist, the code-barriers and traps that keep the explorers out of the Tomb turn out to be filters – like aptitude tests in job interviews. The Cybermen only want the brightest and best to gain access, the choicest goods for conversion. The hypnotic target wall found by Jamie symbolises the whole Tomb. It's the place that pulls at your attention like a magnet, until you've lost control of your own will. The Cybermen are ostensibly short on power. (Though they seem to have a rejuvenator ray in that very tomb. Perhaps it’s their best one so they don't like to use it much.) But there's an equivalence between power and curiosity, as if it's human curiosity which gets them up and running around again, as vampires gain sustenance from our blood.

However, this leads on to a point where the Gothic tradition and science fiction do not spark creatively so much as bumper crash. The Doctor cries to the Logician as he opens the vault “You fool! Why couldn't you leave it alone?” Perhaps an odd thing to say, seeing as he's just helped him do that very thing. He clearly suspects the man's motives, and has surmised the Cybermen still live, yet goes along with the whole thing anyway.

There is something half full/half empty about this. Of course it has to be the Doctor who performs such a vital story function; in a genre show he has to look like the protagonist. But let's generously go with the half full side. Moments before, the same man has shown the Doctor his notepad, and the Time Lord's curiosity cannot help but be aroused. The Doctor is as caught in the honey pot as everyone else, unable to heed his own warnings. (Though we lack a scene where he expresses regret over any of this.)

As logic and science are, in the Gothic tradition, the problem it stands to reason they cannot be part of the solution. The transitional 'Moonbase' Cybermen were offed by the appliance of science. Yet this time Polly's patented anti-Cyberman recipe is quite forgotten. This time the only thing that stops them is sheer brute force. (Luckily they have a forceful brute to hand. More of that anon.) There were even complaints on broadcast at the level of violence.

Though the Gothic exists to be a disruptive force its at root a conservative genre – quite literally, it wants to make things how they were. Inject it here and you turn everything almost completely upside down. In 'The Moonbase' its unquestioned that humans should have built the base and controlled the world's weather. It's just unlucky the Cybermen show up to misuse them. While in 'Tomb' the archeological expedition, before even asking whether it should have accepted funding from such shady sources, should never have set out. The rocket should not have landed, or even taken off from wherever it came from. Everyone should have stayed home and closed the curtains. The dead should have been left to lie, all doors left unopened. Just accept things as they are.

But of course, the Gothic appropriations tell only part of the story. The Gothic intrudes, but doesn't entirely over-write. The 'Tenth Planet' Cybermen, the Cybermen created to exemplify the growing influence of the machine, do not entirely go away or yield to their successors. While in 'meaning' terms the new Gothic might dilute the clarity of their earlier appearance, in story terms combining the two ingredients makes for a more-potent cocktail. The Cybermen become both undeath and unlife, the dead who won't stay down and the revolt of the machines.

And where the two unite is in the Cyberman motifs that fill the tomb walls (example above). For almost half the running time that's all we see of the buggers, but the story is made more effective for that. As described in the script, “the unchanging faces of the Cyberman motifs stare down at them from the walls” - and it serves to steep the atmosphere. It's the King's seal, the sign that proves we are in his domain, but at the same time the corporate brand. And both draw their power from the force of repetition, seen until they become both ubiquitous and near-subliminal. And have not corporate brands replaced Kings' seals, occupying our lives so prevalently that we stop noticing they are there?

This uniting is also exemplified by the much-celebrated bravura sequence of the Cybermen's emergence, their hatching mixing the organic with the metallic. They are literally switched on, by the pulling of a lever. But the dialogue also likens them to drone bees in a honeycomb, clustering round the Cyber Controller as their Queen.

The Return of the Living Racists

If there is less taken from 'Quatermass' than previous Cyber-instalments, there's something else borrowed from Nigel Kneale – the 1957 Hammer film 'The Abominable Snowman'. Kneale's interest lies less in the elusive Yeti themselves than in the varying motivations of the expedition members. Essentially, the British scientists are contrasted against the American financiers, one group wanting to study the creatures, the other to capture one and put it on show for bucks. It's a morality play, almost a kind of Tibetan pilgrimage, in which these different motivations lead to very different outcomes.

Pedler and Davis take this scenario, but split the American party into two. One group essentially become the military, the rocket ship crew who remain off-stage for much of the running time. (They mostly work like the cavalry in reverse, buggering off at the first sign of trouble.) But there's a third group, who (following Kneale) have financed the expedition for their own ends. Except what had been petty-minded greed here becomes lust for power. And, most infamously, instead of Americans - they’re now all non-white.

Hence the ongoing debate over whether this story is racist. Though quite why there has to be one is a bit of a mystery. Let's spell out what should be obvious. I do not imagine... I shouldn't think anybody is imagining that Pedler and Davis were secret white hood wearers determined to port their supremacist agenda onto teatime TV. The racism is almost certainly unthinking. Some have tried to use this as some sort of defence, as if unthinkingness exonerates the unthinking. It doesn't. It's not the intent that makes racism racist. It's the racism that makes racism racist.

What's more its sweepingly racist. Klieg and Kaftan (yes, really, Kaftan, see above) are some unspecified form of Arabic or Asian. (Kaftan, see above, is introduced in the script as “a dark-haired Middle-Eastern woman”.) As if that were not enough, they're then given a giant, monosyllabic black “manservant” - Toberman. Whose main duty seems to be to impose. (Though he branches out into a bit of lurking every now and then.) Why offend someone when you can just offend everybody?

And as for the widespread fannish defence that 'Tomb' was merely “of it's time”... This airy excuse ignores that these episodes were broadcast in 1967, where (just one example) the Black Panthers had formed the previous year. Who were both aware of racism and opposed to it, as I recall. But not only do these blithe references to “the past” blindly disregard any actual consideration of those times, not only do they ignore previous developments in 'Doctor Who', they even ignore previous developments in 'Doctor Who' made by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis!

Of course, we've already seen how both their previous Cyberman stories indulging in ludicrously stereotyped Frenchies and Italians. Of course, they took the 'Star Trek' supposition about pluralism – that in the future we're all be past racism, but someone British or American will naturally remain in charge.

Perhaps you could even argue that this was a reconsolidation of power, a tactical retreat in the face of Civil Rights demands. (“Okay, you can have one black woman aboard. But she just does the phones, okay?”) But this is where the phrase “of it's time” can be used genuinely - in those times such baby steps arguably were advances. And when even so limited advances are followed by a 'don't trust the darkies' plotline, we've gone from “I have a dream” to “still stuck in the same nightmare” in one easy trip.

Comments on the storyline's racism normally focus on Toberman, a stereotype almost the gargantuan size of the actor playing him. And this may initially seem the most egregious example. But the depiction of Klieg and Kaftan, if less in your face, is actually worse. For they mark the point where the storyline breaks most from its Gothic inheritance. And its at that point the story loses even its threadbare semi-defence of merely regurgitating racist cliches, of reflecting outdated notions past their sell-by.

In Gothic fiction, Arabs would have been custodians of the Tomb. They might have died loyal deaths, fled in superstitious fear or treacherously set the party up for undead ambush. But in all those roles they would have seen those reawakened tomb dwellers as their natural masters. The old Gothic narrative of great immortal kings served by successive eras of retainers, like an earthbased equivalent to a generation starship, at least paid ancient civilisations some kind of compliment. The most backhanded of compliments, true, but a compliment nonetheless. To misquote the Wu-Tang Clan, that Ancient Egypt ain't nuthin' ta fuck with.

But 'Tomb' arose in a post-imperial era, so they get their roles reassigned. The Suez crisis had been a generation before, but the show was still broadcast to the country it had changed. In which the new African and Asian nations were endlessly presented as the upstarts of the world stage, destabilising influences, dissatisfied with the constraints of merely formal independence and now ungratefully after some actual agency. This is the moment of truth in the “of its time” defence. Yes, the racism is of its time and not some completely different time. They’re right. But they’re describing a racism they imagine they’re exonerating.

And how do Klieg and Kaftan try to establish this agency? With money. Their role in funding the expedition, and their belief this puts them in charge, is established almost straight away. Kaftan's offer of a cash bonus leads someone to rush into becoming the first fatality. It gets almost endlessly reiterated after that, in ructions with reassuringly well-spoken and white-skinned expedition leader Parry. (A direct successor to Doctor Barclay in 'The Tenth Planet'.) The script also states that Kaftan “speaks with an almost aristocratic air,” and you've probably already guessed which word I'm focusing on there.

True, this in some ways does go back to Victorian fiction, where heroes were decent sorts from noble birth, adventurers unshackled to day jobs. The aristocratic Doctor himself is an inheritor of this tradition, an inheritance which allows him to continue his personal adventures without Parry's need for backers.

Whereas, what was the Asian stereotype of the day? Of course it was the shopkeeper, the pennywise small businessman, the avaricious bean-counter. Money was at this time often seen like some equivalent of the psychic paper in later 'Who', getting people in positions where they had no natural right to be. Here, some quite contemporary ingredients are being used to thicken that old recipe for Gothic racist stew. And they sour an already unpalatable taste.

In short, Klieg and Kaftan's lust for power is predicated upon their being people in whom power would not naturally reside. So they attempt the unnatural, they try to usurp power. And after they've given up flashing money, they appropriate a Cyber-gun. Indeed, there's almost an equivalence found between the two. (“I am invulnerable with this. I shall be the master!”)

This isn't the earlier poster image of all countries pulling together, to staff scientific bases on the moon. This is the impoverished nations of Africa and Asia trying to escape Western domination by running to the only other show in town, the Soviets, and realising too late they've stepped into a still-deeper tar pit. (“You belong to us,” the Cybermen flatly tell them. “You will be like us.”) In this analogy the Cyber-gun would of course be the Bomb, the short-cut to getting noticed on the world stage. (“Now they will have to listen,” exults Klieg.)

It’s important not to take these two readings of the story – a metaphysical tale of how we face death and a geopolitical analogy – as rival or even separate explanations. Instead, each is effectively catalysed by the other. Many of the story elements resemble the vastly inferior ‘Daleks’ Master Plan’. The alliance hopelessly reliant on honour among thieves, the MacGuffin as bomb analogy. But the Daleks of ‘Master Plan’ are merely the baddest of a bad lot. The Cybermen of ‘Tomb' are a whole other thing, clearly beyond their ostensible allies.

Similarly, parables about death are so universal they can feel removed. You can’t bargain with death to just strike down your enemies, of course you can’t, it would be like trying to reason with a storm. Compounding them with a political analogy, giving characters the drive and fanaticism to pursue such a thing, it gives the theme a purchase in our lives.

And yet other elements undermine that reading. For one thing, as we've seen, the closer you get to them the less the Cybermen look like stand-in Reds. Moreover, for it to work Klieg and Kaftan would have to be the poor relations of the expedition, Cinderellas awaiting their chance to shine. But it's almost the opposite. The script gives them power solely to suggest they shouldn't really be holding it. Instead of being the servants they, and they alone, have a servant. (See how they’re willing to exploit the labour-power of black people. Why, they aren't like us at all...)

If they're like anything from the Third World they're like the elites of those countries, demonised for doing what the First and Second Worlds do routinely, just on a smaller and more immediate scale. Their problem is that the Cybermen are more like them than they are, more ruthlessly driven by the pursuit of logic and power.

Which leads to an interesting element to this story, which further derails the notion that its racism is in any way incidental. While the Cybermen hog the title, and clearly are more monstrous, its Klieg and Kaftan who are the actual villains. Kaftan suggests early they split up to shadow the Doctor and his companions, and in many ways they become those shadows. The megalomaniac Klieg is the opposite of the wise but softly spoken Doctor, whose MO is “keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut”. Notably, that staple 'Who' scene, the clash-of-values conversation the Doctor has with evil, is held with Klieg rather than the Cyber Controller.

Kaftan, meanwhile, is cunning and alluringly duplicitous against Victoria's wide-eyed innocence and trust. While for their part the Cybermen become almost like the shadows to Klieg and Kaftan. When they are inevitably killed by the Cybermen, it’s almost literally their own greed and arrogance killing them – merely given humanoid form.

While Toberman (above) is strong like Jamie only more so. But then Toberman is different all round...

Toberman's status as a servant, the fact that formally speaking he has no agency, ironically gives him a unique significance in the story. While Klieg and Kaftan's role has been to get everyone deeper in trouble, he revolts against his Cyber-conditioning to get them out of it. Most commenters see this as stemming from their killing Kaftan, his “mistress”, rather than over the conversion thing they've done to him.

More worryingly still, it also seems to stem from the Doctor's urging. He's told “they've tried to make you their slave”, as if something different was happening before. He even repeats the Doctor's words as if in some hypnotic trance (“Evil!... Destroyed!”), as if he's less being de-conditioned than re-conditioned. Which of course leaves us with that hoary old cliché of a black man sacrificing himself for some nice white folks, because he's been told to. How noble, how heroic. How fortunate it didn't have to be to one of us.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect to all this which, while continuing to foreground Toberman as someone black, is perhaps less problematic. As mentioned earlier, even in their new Gothic incarnation the Cybermen still represent the power of the machine. And Toberman is the only character in the story to suffer conversion. As Tomb of the Anorak points out, he has a name only two letters away from 'Cyberman'.

His climactic fight with the Cyber Controller, his wrecking of the control panels, in some ways recalls Frankenstein's rebellious Creature. This comparison of course underpins the racist notion – perhaps the ultimate racist notion – that he's somehow less human. Yet it also recalls John Henry, the strong black labourer who raced against a steel drill, a machine built to do a man's job, and died in victory. Here the steel drill is merely given humanoid form.

Notably, virtually the final shot is of Toberman lying dead on the ground, while the Cyberman icon remains on the upright tomb doors. (The only place where the icon is a full figure.) It's the brand, the exemplifier of the machine, which remains. The Cybermen aren't dead, because they can’t be, the Doctor's merely switched them back into stand-by mode.

Admittedly, when considering the racism, it should be conceded no-one here gets what you'd call a developed part. If the Gothic showed an interest in human psychology it zeroed in on flaws and rarely attempted anything approaching characterisation. Mostly what we get served here are stereotypes, you know pretty much everything about everyone from their first scene. There's no development, rites of passage, character 'journeys' or anything remotely similar. The situation at the end is almost the very same as at the beginning, except that more people are dead.

This doesn't matter so much for the story-specific guest cast. But Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling struggle with badly underwritten parts for both Jamie and Victoria. In one particularly absurd scene, Victoria obligingly steps into a death trap of her own accord. (Will there be a future episode where she offers to tie herself to a railway line? “Which knots would you like me to use, Doctor?”)

As alluded to earlier, even the introductory scenes for Victoria tend to really be about the Doctor. And by this point, conversely to all else, Troughton is taking to his role as the Doctor with relish, dominating every scene without ever seeming to. And he has one line which seems his disruptive credo - “the best thing about a machine that makes sense is you can very easily make it turn out nonsense”. It's almost an exact inversion of Klieg's “everything yields to logic”. Perhaps ultimately that's what the Doctor managed to do to science fiction, take one of the most post-Enlightenment of genres and switch its lights off.

When Good Art Turns Bad

Truth to tell, when something is this racist it grates more than a little to simultaneously be saying how nice the set design is. Yet when good art has bad content we do need some variant on the old saying “hate the sin, love the sinner”. The racism cannot be overlooked, explained away or excused, and those that try are part of the problem. But at the same time the racism is not the sum total of the episodes. How can it coexist with the things we may want to engage with?

There is a an argument most often made in bad faith, but is at root genuine. If we airbrush away all from the past that now seems unsightly to us, we will be sanitising the past. We’ll be lying to ourselves, and worse - we will leave ourselves unable to see how far we have come, which only increases the risk of our falling back. There’s a balance to be struck. We don’t want ’Birth of a Nation’ broadcast to tots at teatime. But neither can we pretend that such a thing was never made.

In short, how do we react when good art turns bad? Perhaps George Orwell has some answers. Let's turn to his 1944 essay 'Benefit of Clergy' on the then-shocking art of Salvador Dali...

“It will be seen that what the defenders of Dali are claiming is a kind of benefit of clergy. The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people… So long as you can paint well enough to pass the test, all shall be forgiven you.”

...which is hopefully a point of general agreement. But Orwell continues...

“Not, of course, that Dali… ought to be suppressed… it is doubtful policy to suppress anything, and Dali's fantasies probably cast useful light on the decay of capitalist civilisation… He is a symptom of the world's illness. The important thing is not to denounce him as a cad who ought to be horsewhipped, or to defend him as a genius who ought not to be questioned, but to find out why he exhibits that particular set of aberrations.” 

The comparison is of course inexact. Despite the widespread wailing about ‘cancel culture’ no-one to my knowledge has suggested DVDs of ‘Tomb’ should be burnt. And unlike Dali’s carefully calculated outrage, the truly shocking thing about ‘Tomb’ is that it seems to regard its racism as perfectly unremarkable. But the comparison is there.

The route out of this impasse lies in that phrase “a symptom of the world’s illness”. ’Tomb of the Cybermen’ is a symptom of the world’s illness. And symptoms are useful to Doctors. We should worry less about what it tells us about Pedler and Davis and more about what it tells us of late Sixties British society. In short we should be taking the “of-it’s-time” defence and reversing it, turning it from a supposed shut-down into the starting point of our enquiry. How could such a thing be made at this time? Did no-one see the problems? Did audiences not object?

One possible weakness of this approach is that it is self-selecting. We are scarcely likely to start spending our spare time watching old episodes of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’, just to assess their role as cultural barometers. But what might be a weakness might also be an advantage.

The really remarkable thing about ‘Tomb’ is how much it jars against the Whoniverse’s self-image, which extends into the self-image of it’s fans. (Hence of course the widespread disavowals.) It’s precisely because Pedler and Davis elsewhere exhibited relatively progressive views that they exacerbate the ire in some and the excuse reflex in others. But more pertinently it tells us something about the extent of casual racism in late Sixties Britain, that it had not retreated to retrograde elements – it could still hide in plain sight.

And, rather than be a problem to overcome, in many ways this lays out what is interesting about 'Doctor Who'. Of course huge swathes of what is nominally SF merely transpose the tropes of colonial fiction into a new setting – troublesome dark tribesmen becoming equally troublesome green skins. It's just to be expected. You could point it out with your eyes closed.

But 'Who', a product of the 'enlightened' BBC, was always implicitly promising to do better than that. So it follows that its limits and inconsistencies will form a rough and ready map of the limits and inconsistencies of the contemporary liberal mind. Not to crow at their imperfections. Still less to try and outdo one another in after-the-fact indignation. But to navigate the past by that map.

So the racism is a fairly hefty hurdle to get over. Mileage may vary on it. If you do manage to get past that, then this story does genuinely become something of a classic. Pedler and Davis's stories can often feel the epitome of early 'Who', simultaneously iconic and absurd, inventive and cliched. Looked at functionally, the plot is really a whole lot of running around, in which rather predictable people do rather predictable things in order to push everything along. (The Doctor manages to be both predictable and inconsistent, surely some triumph.) But that might well be the frame rather than the picture.

What you remember is the set-pieces and images, which gain a resonance that rises above all of that. Perhaps what most epitomises this story is that no new music was recorded for it. Yet the 'Space Adventure' Cyber-theme is so best matched to the awakening Cybermen, that it always feels as if it must have been purposely written for it. It's the sequence of the Troughton Cybermen. Overall, by Gothing up the Cybermen, Pedler and Davis gave them an endurance and longevity they would never otherwise have possessed. While the show itself would return to the Gothic again and again.