Sunday 10 April 2011

The Dark Half

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.


  1. Richard Pilbeam11 April 2011 at 10:52

    "Apparently, he was originally supposed to be deaf (with a visible hearing aid). Some people say that this would have contextualised his behaviour"

    My understanding is that it was supposed to be a futuristic cyborg hearing aid, which is why they're so interested in converting him first, since he's already on the way. Not that this makes the character any better (or the one he played in Terror of the Autons).

    Actually, Roy Stewart was a fairly interesting character. He opened and ran (from memory) the first multi-racial gym in Britain and was active in black liberation movements... which makes the roles he was offered even more depressing.

  2. Your points are valid, though in addition I also can't help but notice how at the same time as the 'ethnic' characters are either evil or mute stereotypes, "Tomb's" Anglo guest characters are presented as largely weak, ineffectual, cringing, or (in the case of the Americans) inarticulate. Hardly anyone except the Doctor makes a positive impression.

    Fresh on the heels of another ethnic mute, Kemel, what else does Season 5 offer? A lot of blacked-up anglo actors playing Tibetans (albeit without any noticeable stereotyping), a surprisingly multi-ethnic cast in "Enemy" which contrasts the sympathetic Fariah and Denes with Trout's Mexican bandito, and a pretty diverse, if unidimensional, crew of "Wheel."

  3. Yeeeees... except that none of those other examples are quite as bad.

    Kemel, for example, is undoubtedly an ethno-cultural stereotype... and yet his physical disability (muteness) doesn't seem to effect his intelligence or moral sense, both of which are fully developed and independent, to the point where he makes ethical decisions for himself and turns against his old master (Maxtible, who is totally Anglo and an utter shit). He has a nationality, an identity and a meaningful interior... of sorts.

    'Abominable Snowmen' is not one I feel able to comment on, since I know very little about Tibetan monks... but it does seem comparatively free of racial stereotypes... though we have the old thing about Eastern culture acting as a vehicle or carrier for an external, uncanny force.

    'Enemy' is so weird, it's hard to evaluate.

    'Wheel' is the worst apart from 'Tomb', with its loquacious, pugilistic Oirishman and the frankly bizarre attempt at a Chinese (?) character.

  4. Interesting that the ethnic villains in Tomb are also presented as more intelligent than the Anglo goodies... does this suggest a subconscious representation of an enfeebled post-Empire Britain?

  5. To be honest, I'm not sure they *are* presented as "more intelligent". I mean, their plans are ludicrous, their schemes instantly seen-through by the Doctor, their goals obviously illogical (despite their talk about logic in zealous ideological terms), their actions frequently wrongheaded and inefficient...

    They're more proactive, but that's their foreign fanaticism (the concept of fanaticism being a being a very key idea in Western European / American fantasies about evil Easterners).

    They're more *effective* than, say, Parry or Viner (in the sense that they power the plot more) but "more intelligent"? Hmmm... not sure.

    But on the point about the "enfeebled post-Empire Britain" showing in the well-meaning but bumbling Anglos... yeah, maybe. I mean, there was a lot of that post-imperial self-pity going around. Still is.

  6. You lost me with the first line. Y-a-w-n.
    It may well appear racist by modern standards but it's a very cheap shot to apply 2011 standards to something that ancient. I would interpret the attempt at diversity in the characters' ethnicity to be a positive intention at a time when such intention was rare. I don't think anyone looking at this in the context of WHEN it was made would seriously suggest there was an intention to be racist. You're looking at it with 20/20 hindsight, look at it in context.

  7. Well, Anonymous, Tomb of the Cybermen isn't exactly Huckleberry Finn. Even by 60's standards, Pedler & Davis showed some serious lapses in judgment with Toberman. Maybe not intentional racism, but at the very least, stupidity. I cringe at his Hulk Smash-style moment in ep 4 when he bellows "Evil!" at the Doctor's urging. Is he deaf? Is he mentally challenged? What were they going for?

  8. We had all this revisionist nonsense years ago when Paul 'PC' Cornell wrote in SFX that Captain Scarlet (1967, similar vintage to Tomb) was racist... this is despite it featuring female characters in roles which were forward thinking for the time, all of differing racial backgrounds and doing the same jobs (and none in the kitchen like most TV at the time). We've had this nonsense over 'Weng Chiang' too, people regurgitating PC dogma and rushing to take the high ground. Hurling accusations of racism at old TV is, I repeat, a very cheap shot not least as many of those involved are not around to put their side. You should qualify your statement as to whether you mean racism compared to 2011 standards or deliberate intended racism at the time. Your accusations of racism aren't so much 'idiotic' as ill-considered. Tomb isn't perfect by any stretch, but when you look more closely at the world when it was made, it will appear more intentionally positive than negative regarding race. Maybe not forward-thinking enough for 2011, but nevertheless more so than most in 1967.

  9. Anonymous,

    1. The issue of authorial intentions is neither here not there, relates to nothing I wrote and misses the main contention of the essay: that racist representations piggybacked into the text on the back of tropes inherited from colonialist gothic fiction. There is no need for me to "qualify" my meaning to any attentive reader of what I actually wrote.

    2. Speaking of "looking more closely at the world when it was made"... 'Tomb' is NOT progressive or positive even by the better standards of the late 60s. This was a time when the Civil Rights movement in America had been the locus of struggle and controversy for over a decade. By 1967, Civil Rights had developed into Black Power, which demanded cultural dignity as well as legal equality.

    Indeed, 'Tomb' is an embarassment even by the standards of other Doctor Who stories from roughly the same era, i.e. 'The Tenth Planet', which features an intelligent senior astronaut who just happens to be black.

    3. Given the tone of your comments here, don't you think accusations of "rushing to take the moral high ground" are a little dangerous?

  10. 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.

    That's interesting; it's not how I saw it. I thought the script was playing the English characters as ineffectual hand-wringing bumblers. The only exception gets himself killed by being too rash, just as the man who first tried to open the tombs did.

    It seems to me at least arguable that this story is playing with four different forms of stereotype: English, US, African, and, um, Untrustworthy-Generic-Foreigner. The problem isn't that only the English are portrayed well, it's that a) an English writer having a dig at English stereotypes is an utterly different kettle of badgers to playing around with stereotypes of other races and cultures, b) English/US is are not equivalent geographical constructs to Africa/Shiftystan (TM Sandifer, natch), which makes things so much worse, and c) stereotyping heroes and stereotyping villains are very different problems.

    In strikes me as a kind of writing exercises a clueless person might set themselves - what if white people were slaves, what if women were in charge - that tosses out centuries of oppressive politics and culture in order to make the most facile of points, all the while proving that if you can't figure out the importance of context, then you're part of the problem.

    1. True. But Tomb ain't subtle. Essentially it boils down to Anglos=nice, Foreigners=evil.