I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ is really very racist.
The only black guy in the cast of characters is a huge, musclebound, grunting, largely-mute, henchman/thug who is shown apparently delighting in his ability to inflict violence. His speech – when it occurs – is monosyllabic, stilted and semi-coherent, with tenses that veer all over the place. He refers to himself in the third person: “they shall never pass Toberman!”. Apparently, he was originally supposed to be deaf (with a visible hearing aid). Some people say that this would have contextualised his behaviour. I say it would just have made this story offensive about deaf people as well as black people. Toberman’s main positive personality trait seems to be unquestioning, doglike loyalty to his ‘mistress’.
His ‘mistress’ is a woman called Kaftan. This really can’t be said enough. Her name is ‘Kaftan’.
I mean… fuck.
She’s evil. The actress playing Kaftan – Shirley Cooklin – gives her a nice line in insolent sneering, ruthlessness and fanatical, unblinking stares. The actress has been darked up. Common practice in 60s (and 70s) TV productions. Of course, there’s no reason why this character had to be dark skinned. She just is.
Astonishingly, some people will defend this story on exactly those lines: Kaftan and Toberman don’t need to be ethnic minorities, they just are. But the question is why? If it isn’t necessary to the plot that the baddies should be explicitly and/or implicitly non-WASPy then why are they so characterised? And would it actually be any better if the plot demanded it?
Kaftan is the partner-in-crime of the story’s main villain: Klieg. Another non-specific name. Sounds German. Possibly derived from the German surname ‘Kliegl’. The character, however, is played by George Pastell, a Greek Cypriot who spent his career playing fanatical Egyptian Mummy-wranglers, Thugee High Priests, Russian spies and other generic foreigners in British /American film and TV.
In some ways, it is this very generic foreignness that is most offensive. Toberman is a black man… and that’s it. Klieg and Kaftan have no clear ethnic identity of any kind. The name ‘Kaftan’ might suggest (by very broad association) that the character is Turkish or Moroccan… or possibly from somewhere in the Persian Gulf. Or Russia. The vague, generic ‘foreigner’ accent helps as little as the fake swarthy skin. Klieg, meanwhile, probably most resembles a fiendish stereotypical German in the script (the Germanic name, the arrogant manner, the desire to be master of the world and impose his viewpoint on everyone) but is played by a man with an Eastern Mediterrenean accent.
There is no detail and no consistency in the way they are presented. The implication is as clear as the effect. It doesn’t matter where they’re from or who they are, what their nationalities or backgrounds might be… such things may be as garbled as they are indistinct. They are just foreign, in the most unspecific way imaginable. This seems to be more than good enough as a context for their villainy.
Klieg and Kaftan, aside from being the baddies, are noticeably gauche. Kaftan is touchy and sly. She also flashes her wealth about ostentatiously. Klieg is an arrogant bully who likes putting people down and is infuriated when anyone reminds him that he’s not in charge. By the end of the story, Klieg is acting like, and being explicitly described as, a lunatic.
There are some pushy, brash, loud-mouthed WASP characters… but they’re American (thus proving that the use of stereotypes in this story is part of a wider strategy) so they also get to be pithy wisecrackers and brave men-of-action.
All the other characters are thoroughly and identifiably Northern European in nationality and/or ethnicity. And, whatever their flaws (i.e. nervousness, recklessness, touchiness), they’re all essentially nice. And decent. And sane.
No wonder Parry orders Hopper to put his gun down as soon as he hears that the Doctor speaks English with an English accent. In this kind of narrative universe, it makes perfect sense to instinctively trust the Anglo-Saxon.
Of course, a lot of this must stem from the fact that the story is heavily derived from the kind of horror films that feature posh Anglo archaeologists breaking into ancient Egyptian tombs, thus activating old curses and murderous animated corpses (which is implicitly what the Cybermen have always been… the original Cybermen were even bandaged like Mummies!)
In ‘Tomb’, the ancient subterranean stone burial chambers of Mummy films become technological freezers. “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” becomes the electricity coursing through the big doors. The curses upon those who disturb that rest of the Pharaoh / Princess / High Priest become a long-ago formulated Cyber plan to snare new recruits. The buried treasures become the power that Klieg and Kaftan hope to co-opt. The faded, dusty friezes become the Cyber icons that decorate the walls. The sinister hieroglyphics become the cryptic patterns of symbolic logic. When Klieg (with the inexplicable assistance of the Doctor) manages to work out the logic sequences which open the doors, he is also translating the magic “open sesame” contained in the sacred, arcane symbols of a tattered scroll.
Just as the tropes of this kind of colonialist fiction – which migrated into late C20th popular consciousness from Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard via Universal and Hammer movies – finds its displaced form in high-tech control panels, freezing chambers and logic junctions, so the inherent orientalism and British imperial chauvinism finds a displaced form in the way the story implicitly distrusts swarthy, fanatical, cruel, ruthless old Johnny Foreigner.