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Excavating Cybermen
An interview with Paul Vanezis, Stephen James Walker & David Buck about the 1992 find of Tomb of the Cybermen
by Mark Parmerter, March 2004

Delirium.  Disbelief and delirium.  These were the two emotions which swept through Doctor Who fandom in early 1992 when it was announced that Tomb of the Cybermen, the four-part Patrick Troughton adventure broadcast in September of 1967 and junked by the BBC during the 70's, had miraculously survived the ages and been returned to the archives from…of all places…Hong Kong.  Of all the missing episodes unearthed prior to and since the recovery of Tomb of the Cybermen,  no other find has managed to match the excitement and level of expectation which accompanied this particular story's return.  Here Doctor Who Restoration Team member Paul Vanezis will discuss in detail Tomb's dramatic return to the UK from Asia, distinguished Doctor Who author & researcher Stephen James Walker reminisces about watching Tomb during its original 1967 broadcast and the impact its return has had upon its fan status as a 'classic,' and longtime Whovian David Buck reveals that a UK Doctor Who fan's girlfriend (working in Hong Kong at the time) may have been responsible for the most exciting missing episode discovery in Doctor Who history…

Tomb of the Cybermen was, in 1967, the most powerful and shocking season opener ever presented by Doctor Who.  Materializing on the planet Telos, The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) & Victoria (Debbie Watling) encounter an archaeological expedition searching for the lost tombs of the Cybermen.  The Cybermen are soon revived by traitorous members of the expedition who are seeking the Cybermen's help.  In the end our heroes escape, having refrozen the Cybermen within their underground tomb.  Bristling with dramatic violence and frightening images, this story aroused both praise and criticism and quickly became something of a fan favorite.   Indeed, Tomb effectively set the tone for Season Five, which also produced many other frightening images:  furry yet ferocious Yeti stalking the London underground;  towering, armored Ice Warriors stalking our heroes through the snowy landscape of England during a second ice-age;  and many harrowing moments from Fury From the Deep, perhaps one of the most frightening Doctor Who stories ever.  Replete with images of the emotionless Cybermen awakening like mummies from their tombs and a suspenseful, claustrophobic atmosphere unlike anything previously seen in Doctor Who, Tomb was a genuine, traditional horror story.

Prior to its rediscovery, Tomb was one of those legendary Doctor Who adventures which gave rise to the image of frightened young viewers scurrying behind their sofa to watch in anticipatory fear.  Walker admits, "Yes. I did find it very scary indeed!  I didn't watch it from behind the sofa, though!  Did anyone ever really do that?  Aren't sofas generally placed against the wall?  I actually remember very clearly my Dad saying to me, "If you're finding this so frightening, why don't you just turn it off and do something else?"  I may even have contemplated taking his advice for a few moments.  But only for a few moments. I wouldn't have been able to bear not knowing what happened next!  And, to be honest, I think my Dad wouldn't have been too happy, either, as he was pretty engrossed in it himself."

One of Tomb's many strengths was the multitude of dramatic scenes and memorable images created by director Morris Barry, as well as principal writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis.  And so despite the passage of time, Walker reflects "I remembered all of the story pretty well.  I suppose the thing about Tomb that most stuck in my mind from the original transmission was the scene of the Cybermen emerging from their tombs, and in particular the emergence of the Cyber Controller.  The fact that the Controller had a domed head and no chest unit really amazed me at the time, as a young kid!  I also recalled being very impressed by the design of the Cybermen's base, with those bas-relief figures on the walls."

Tomb reached its dramatic, televised conclusion on September 23, 1967 and – regrettably – all but vanished as far as UK fans were concerned.  It never enjoyed a repeat broadcast in Great Britain.  The series was offered for overseas sales as 16mm film recordings, but only four countries purchased the adventure (Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand) before the original videotapes were wiped by the BBC in September, 1969 and all other copies junked by the close of the 70's.  A fan favorite, a Doctor Who classic…gone.

Gone maybe, but not forgotten.  For over a decade Tomb would appear on various fanzine top-10 lists and be regularly considered one of the greatest achievements from the black-and-white era of Doctor Who.  As Stephen James Walker notes, "Prior to its recovery, Tomb was certainly held in very high regard by Doctor Who fandom;  in fact, it was viewed as one of the series' greatest classics."  During the 80's the hunt for missing episodes was in full swing as many lost treasures were returned from overseas archives and film collectors.  Then, in December of 1991, the unexpected happened.  Asia TV contacted the BBC, inquiring as to what should be done with certain BBC film prints still retained in their archives - the same Asia TV which returned The Web of Fear Episode One (also from Season Five) in 1978 with reassurances that they held no other BBC material.  Paul Vanezis explains "As far as I am aware and from what I heard at the time, the return of the material was arranged by Adam Lee [BBC Archive Selector] at the Film and Videotape Library in Brentford.  He knew, after being contacted by Asia TV that material was available, and he had been sent a list which included four episodes of Doctor Who.  There was also stuff like Softly Softly, etc.  There was no indication of actual serial codes or titles of the films, just series titles."  So until the material arrived back in the UK it would be a mystery as to what Doctor Who episodes were included in this material.

Events resumed in early January, 1992, and involved Vanezis as well as David Stead, David Jackson and Adam Lee.  As Vanezis explains,  "David Stead had recently left the Film Library as a librarian and was on attachment to BBC Enterprises.  I think he was in Materials Acquisitions, whatever the department was that pulled together material for re-versioning programmes.  David Jackson was I think head of BBC Video or head of the video part that released Doctor Who."  And, as previously mentioned, Adam Lee ran the BBC Archive.  Vanezis explains "I was working on a 35mm animation at the time and was away at a viewing on the Wednesday (January 5th, 1992).  David Stead had been trying to call me all day.  He eventually got hold of me on the Thursday.  It seems that he had been called by someone at the Film and Videotape Library asking if he had seen a package from Asia TV.  It had been expected at the Film Library but had not arrived and was nearly a month late.  David went down to the loading bay at Woodlands where he worked (then BBC Enterprises, now BBC Worldwide) to see if the package was there.  He had already seen the parcels on the loading bay and no-one seemed to know what was in them.  David went through the parcels and found in the last one at the bottom the four tins of Doctor Who.  He opened each tin and looked at the film leaders which all said Doctor Who MM, followed by the episode number.  He knew it was a Troughton but couldn't remember what story MM was.  It was around 10 minutes later that it dawned on him.  He didn't tell anybody about the find apart from me, his then wife Alys, and David Jackson until the Thursday the 6th.  He took the films into Jackson and told him what a killing they could make if the films were rushed out onto video!"

As expected, David viewed the prints that very day at Woodlands, no doubt marveling at the irony of such a discovery.  A longtime Doctor Who fan, it was Stead who had returned a 16mm film print of Episode 3 of The Wheel in Space to the BBC in April of 1984, and had just recently provided the BBC with a good-quality audio copy of Tomb which was to be released in mid-1992 as part of the Missing Stories audiotape series.  Now, here he was unexpectedly watching that very long-lost adventure - the first British fan to do so in over two decades!   Vanezis surmises, "As David had already found missing episodes before and was a big film collector, he wasn't greatly surprised to find Doctor Who in the package, but I know he was over the moon that it was Tomb."

What then?  As Vanezis explains, "The actual films were transferred to Beta SP at a facilities company called JCA after being cleaned at the Film Clinic.  The Film Clinic would not have viewed the films, just put them through the ultrasonic cleaner.  The JCA booking was very hush-hush."  Meanwhile, BBC Video was formulating plans to rush release the video in May, while at the same time trying to deal with the rumors quickly spreading throughout the BBC and into Doctor Who fandom.  In an effort to keep their newfound discovery a secret for a little bit longer, the BBC apparently began a counter-rumor that the find was merely episodes of An Unearthly Child in Arabic!  As Vanezis notes, "It was some considerable amount of time before any official announcement was made, and it was becoming quite hard to keep the secret."  As for the counter rumor, "I never heard it, but it's possible that Adam Lee had told people it was An Unearthly Child as fans outside the BBC had discovered that four Doctor Who episodes were being returned from Asia."  Meanwhile, tensions were rising between the Film Library and BBC Enterprises.  Vanezis elaborates,  "I know that Adam Lee was not happy that the films had been sent to BBC Enterprises [rather than the Film Library], but bear in mind that Asia TV would have been contractually obliged to return them to BBC Enterprises because the films were owned by Enterprises - that's why they didn't go directly to Windmill Road.  Nor was Adam Lee happy that David Jackson had refused to send the Doctor Who films back to the Film Library immediately, but Enterprises were well within their rights."

Then, after weeks of growing speculation and rumors, Adam Lee officially confirmed that not only had Tomb of the Cybermen been recovered, it would also be rushed onto home video in May.  Doctor Who Magazine screamed "TOMB FOUND AT LAST!" while the Dream Watch Bulletin (Formerly Doctor Who Bulletin) announced "THE GREATEST FIND OF LOST DOCTOR WHO EPISODES EVER!"  In a personal commentary published by DWB, series historian and researcher J. Jeremy Bentham aptly declared "It is a dream come true - almost an apotheosis in fact.  After so many years of searching, the last three of which have yielded no finds whatsoever, to suddenly see recovered every episode of the most sought-after story of all is to have scaled the summit of the episode hunt pyramid."

Prior to its BBC Video release, Tomb was presented (along with existing episodes from The Daleks' Master Plan, The Evil of the Daleks, The Ice Warriors and The Web of Fear) at a special Tombwatch screening arranged by BAFTA (British Academy of Film & Television Arts), reviews of which were published in DWB.  David Howe wrote "To sum up Tomb of the Cybermen, it is most definitely a classic of the era.  It shocks, pleases and entertains all the way through and features some quite outstanding performances.  Yes, it does have some faults, but these are far outweighed by the positive elements," while Keith Hopkins wrote "To say that it is a story with everything would be a little hyperbolic, but it isn't far off.  There may be no gold in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but as far as I'm concerned, it's 24 Carat."   Reviewing the official video release, Gary Russell of DWM wrote "Frankly, I really enjoyed it.  I could go on forever about what's good in The Tomb of the Cybermen.  Alongside The Ice Warriors I think Tomb is the very best 'recovery' that the BBC have been lucky enough to get, and full marks to them for rushing it out," while DWB's Julian Knott wondered "Has Tomb of the Cybermen lived up to its reputation?  Well, yes and no.  No, because no story could live up to the expectations we all had for it.  Yes, because whatever minor and insignificant faults the story has (and most are very minor and very insignificant), it is a wonderful story, handsomely made, superbly directed and brilliantly paced."

The official BBC Video release of Tomb featured a special introduction provided by director Morris Barry, discussing its recent return.  Sadly, Tomb author and Cybermen co-creator Gerry Davis had passed away in late 1991 and never knew that Tomb had been unexpectedly recovered.  And although most (if not all) in fandom were thrilled by Tomb's return, some were inevitably doomed to experience disappointment upon watching this highly regarded 'classic' for the first time.  As Walker recalls, "Those fans who grew up with Doctor Who in the sixties, who understood the context in which the stories were originally broadcast and who were familiar with British television of that era, generally thought the story was wonderful, and lived up to all their expectations or - for those like me who saw it on its original transmission - memories.  Those fans who were too young to have seen the black-and-white stories when they originally went out were generally disappointed, because they had unrealistic expectations and a lack of understanding of what TV shows in general, and Doctor Who in particular, were like in the 1960's.  Of course these are generalizations, and there were exceptions to the rule."

In June of 1992 DWM's Adrian Riglesford provided readers with some fascinating background details regarding Tomb's recovery, writing in an article entitled "Lost Tapes" that "It was stored in a TV company vault with numerous other cans of BBC television product.  They were moved when a war broke out in that country and the vault was damaged by shell-fire.  Eventually, the film-stock ended up in another vault in Hong Kong, from where a batch of material arrived back at the BBC towards the end of 1991.  In amongst these cans of Softly Softly: Task Force and Mogul was a certain set of four Doctor Who episodes about a race of humanoids being excavated from their own vaults!"  In truth, as Vanezis explains, "It's rubbish.  There has been no war in Hong Kong in the last 40 years.  He probably became confused with Cyprus, where three Doctor Who episodes were stored in a vault and destroyed in fighting in 1974.  The destroyed episodes were parts four and five of The Reign of Terror and The Aztecs part two."  As for the possibility that further missing episodes reside in Hong Kong, sadly this may remain forever a mystery.  Asia TV has proven uncooperative over the years regarding BBC inquiries, and Vanezis notes "We know that Asia TV didn't know what they had [at the time of Tomb's return] or if they still have any more Doctor Who episodes due to their print records being destroyed in a fire."  So with a 14-year-span between the return of The Web of Fear Episode One and Tomb of the Cybermen, TV Asia should be due to provide another surprise 'round about…2006?

Speculation has long centered on the possibility that Tomb existed in the collection of a UK film collector prior to its return from Hong Kong.  These rumors were bred from two sources:  first, an overheard conversation at the Fitzroy Tavern in London, December 1992, between Doctor Who Restoration Team member Steve Roberts and longtime missing episode hunter Richard Landen, during which Landen supposedly surprised Roberts with the news that a well-known Doctor Who fan held a copy of Tomb before its return from Asia.  The details of this conversation were mentioned by Ronald McDevitt in the Doctor Who fanzine Metamorph #14, and have been included in Paul Lee's article Missing Without Trace, available online for well over a decade now.  As Vanezis reveals, "The conversation between Richard and Steve was deliberately winding up Paul Lee."  However, "It is true that at the time there was much speculation that there were episodes of Tomb floating around, but this was because an excellent audio of the story had just come to light.  Nobody believed that such a good audio recording could come from an off-air where people recorded stuff using a microphone.  Of course, now we have all the missing episodes in excellent quality (comparatively) so the idea that people could not make good recordings from the TV in the sixties is ludicrous."  Rumors were also circulating at the time that a poor-quality copy of Tomb had been returned to the BBC following the return of the Asia prints - a story which has also been discounted.

As familiar as most fans are with the aforementioned rumors regarding Tomb, it is likely that most readers have never before heard the following story, provided by longtime fan David Buck.  Buck, who has himself found and returned missing material such as Z-Cars and Mogul to the BBC, shares a story which suggests that, just maybe, it was due to the efforts of a UK Doctor Who fan's girlfriend, working in Hong Kong, that Tomb was ever unearthed at all.  Buck explains, "About one year before the discovery of The Tomb of the Cybermen from Hong Kong, a member of our non-DWAS local fan group in Colchester - who wasn't much of a fan himself, but came along with a friend who was - mentioned that his girlfriend was a student from Hong Kong and had recently returned there after completing her course at Essex University.  She had started a job in a TV company's archive and had mentioned to him in passing, because of his slight interest in Doctor Who, that there were black-and-white episodes of Doctor Who featuring the Cybermen in this particular TV archive.  The rest of us of course scoffed at the idea at the time and suggested that he ask her to send us copies on VHS!  In hindsight, of course, there was absolutely no reason to doubt her, so we missed out on recovering the episodes by about a year.  If such a scenario were to arise these days, we could easily pass the information on to the BBC, but that wasn't quite so easy in the days before the Doctor Who Restoration Team was established."

Buck has been reluctant to share this story in the past, as there are no solid means with which to verify the account, yet "You have my absolute assurance that it did indeed occur.  I think if people would accept the story, it does very strongly suggest that the BBC prints returned from Hong Kong were not returned merely as part of a vault clear-out, after all they could have just chucked them away, but were in fact returned to the BBC specifically because this girl pointed out to her bosses that a lot of material there was missing from the BBC Archives."  Buck's tale is a fascinating one, although it too provides unanswered questions of its own.  The most obvious mystery:  how would this young lady have known the Doctor Who prints she had found in the Hong Kong TV company's archive were black-and-white and included the Cybermen?  Vanezis has stated that the returned film leaders only mentioned Doctor Who and the serial code (MM) followed by the episode number, so the film cans and prints themselves would not have revealed a story title;  additionally, TV Asia's print records had been destroyed in a fire.  Is it possible that this young lady was in the process of re-cataloguing material when she found Tomb?  Is it possible that she ran the first few minutes of an episode on a projector, out of curiosity or cataloging necessity, thereby discovering the tantalizing details later passed on to those few in the UK?  It is likely we will never know…but, as Buck concludes, "A girl comes to work for them, spots some items she thinks could be missing BBC shows, and within a year the archive sends back to the BBC all the film prints they hold - bit too much of a coincidence in my book!"

Irregardless of why Tomb was ultimately returned to the BBC in 1992, and who was directly or indirectly responsible, fandom has never been the same since.  Those who experienced the joy of hearing that such a highly-regarded lost classic had been found cannot help but still long today to have that feeling matched by the similar excitement of a future recovery.  And those who doubted, prior to Tomb's return, that anything significant would further be found cannot help but want to be proven wrong…again!  In 2002 Tomb was released worldwide on DVD, offering an exciting array of extra bonus material, including a 30-minute feature based on the 1992 Tombwatch event.  And with a new Doctor Who TV series scheduled to return in 2005, it is hoped that a new generation of viewers will discover Doctor Who's illustrious past as well as its rather incomplete televised history.  Walker recognizes "Tomb of the Cybermen is certainly an excellent example of the Patrick Troughton era, and probably would be the best place for most people to start if they wanted to know about that era, given that so many of the other stories are sadly missing or incomplete."  And with the surprise find in 1999 of William Hartnell's The Lion and in 2004 of Day of Armageddon, many fans are hoping that the next missing episode(s) discovery will be that of another Troughton classic, one that would match the level of excitement generated by the return of Tomb of the Cybermen and one which, likewise, would provide fans with another glimpse of what made the black-and-white era synonymous with young viewers scurrying behind the sofa to watch…

Thanks to Paul Vanezis & Stephen James Walker for their invaluable time, effort and enthusiasm.  Thanks also to David Buck, Richard Bignell, Julian Knott, Dominic Jackson, Robert Franks & Ash Stewart.  For complete details regarding the production of Tomb of the Cybermen visit Outpost Gallifrey or the official BBCi Doctor Who site.