By Ben Stevens, on 6 October 2011
In what amounts to either a delicious coincidence or a scheduling coup, the Institute of Archaeology held its ‘Cybertut: Archaeology Discovery, Tutankhamun and Cyberman’ event last week, just as the ruthless Cybermen reappeared in the latest series of Doctor Who.
For those of you who don’t know, these emotionless cyborgs replaced their body parts with robotics in a supreme act of self-preservation and vie with the Daleks for the title of the Doctor’s greatest adversary.
So, what is the link between them and Tutankhamun? This was exactly the question posed by a new documentary, Curse of the Cyberman’s Tomb, which was screened at the event – following a short introduction by Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society and UCL PhD student John J Johnston.
In the 1967 story, starring Patrick Troughton, the TARDIS lands on the planet Telos in the 25th century where an archaeological expedition from Earth is trying to uncover the lost tombs of the Cybermen, who are now thought to be extinct. The Doctor helps the expedition team to open the tombs – only to discover that they have walked straight into the Cybermen’s trap and now face the prospect of being converted into Cybermen themselves.
Interviewed in the documentary, Dr Debbie Challis (UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology) wryly reflected on the rather unorthodox method used by the expedition team to uncover the Cyber tomb in the first place: explosives.
Exploring the Cybermen’s desire for physical perfection, she pointed out that the SS had an archaeology unit that was established to find evidence to prove Nazi racial theories.
One of the other interviewees, academic and broadcaster Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, noted that the tomb of Tutankhamun not only influenced the TV sets aesthetically, with their hieroglyphics and booby traps, but also their layout – as the Cyber tomb displays very similar geography to Tutankhamun’s.
He also pointed out further parallels in the way that the Cyber-conversion process resembles mummification – they both involve the removal of organs – and the Cybermen’s emotionless faces look not unlike Egyptian death masks.
No documentary on Tutankhamun is normally complete without a mention of the infamous “curse”, which claimed its first supposed victim when Lord Carnarvon – who bankrolled Howard Carter’s expedition – died the year after the tomb was discovered.
However, Professor Frayling poured cold water on this notion by explaining that Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite, while the theory is now that the health of the other expedition members was affected by polluted air from Tutankhamun’s tomb.
To explore the themes raised in Curse of the Cyberman’s Tomb further, John J Johnston chaired a discussion afterwards with Professor Sir Christopher Frayling and Doctor Who writer Simon Guerrier.
When asked about the reasons for the Tutankhamun influence on Tomb of the Cybermen, Guerrier put it down to Doctor Who’s frequent habit of “nicking” ideas from anywhere.
Professor Frayling, meanwhile, suggested that Ancient Egypt would have been a clear, recognisable historical period for an audience – thanks directly to Howard Carter’s 1922 expedition, which, he argued, was an unparalleled mass-media event and, to a large extent, defined the public image of archaeology for many years.
The fact that the Tutankhamun exhibition was touring the world from 1961–67 – which no-one outside Egypt had ever seen before – would also have put it high in the public consciousness.
Guerrier also cited the influence of Hammer horror films: by 1967, Hammer had released three mummy films and George Pastell, a stalwart of The Mummy and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, was cast in Tomb as the treacherous Eric Klieg for this very reason.
Highlighting a link with UCL, Guerrier explained how Dr Kit Pedler, then head of the electron microscopy department at the Institute of Ophthalmology, was brought in as an ideas man for Doctor Who and went on to co-write Tomb.
It was Pedler’s appearance on a BBC programme about the possibility of brain transplants that prompted story editor Gerry Davis to contact him in the first place and eventually led them to co-create the Cybermen.
The double hooks of Egyptology and Doctor Who meant that this lively event was well attended and attracted audience of all ages – though quite what the young fans of Matt Smith made of it is hard to say…
One aspect that rather surprisingly didn’t get discussed was Tomb of the Cybermen’s Tutankhamun-like rediscovery in 1992.
A victim of the BBC’s policy in the 1970s of junking old programmes to save space (early episodes of Dad’s Army suffered the same fate), the complete story was discovered in the archives of Asia TV in Hong Kong.
Seen by many fans as a lost treasure, the story shot straight to the top of the video charts when it was released on VHS in 1992.
Ben Stevens is Content Producer (Editor) in UCL Communications & Marketing.