Doctor Who: the top 10 Cybermen stories
As the current series of Doctor Who races towards its conclusion, Rob Hill lists his ten greatest Cybermen stories…
There are many races and beings returning for Doctor Who's season finale. Daleks. Silurians. River Song. Rory. Sontarans. At this point I would be unsurprised to hear an ‘exclusive' report of Lord Lucan, riding a flying pig over the plains of Brigadoon with a kitchen sink strapped to his back, playing some part in the resolution to the story.
But there is one old enemy we know is in the midst of it all, too. It's the race that made strapping a circuit board to your chest cool years before the Borg. The metal monsters from Mondas. Or Telos. Or Earth, depending on which ‘origin' story you're watching.
That's right, they have a backstory more confusing than Heather Mills-McCartney - it's the Cybermen! In honour of their latest return, here's a rundown of their ten greatest hits.
10. Revenge Of The Cybermen, Tom Baker, 1975
The 70s weren't a great time for the Cybermen. In fact, this was their only outing. Trotted out repeatedly during the Patrick Troughton years, they gave Pertwee a complete bypass and came back here, flares and all, to meet the Fourth Doctor. In many ways, this is a complete clunker of a story. There's a lot of dull plotting going on about humans betraying each other in pursuit of gold, and even a suicide bombing, but there are also numerous contributions here to Cyber-lore.
And, of course, some complete abuses of common sense.
In this story, we learn that Cybermen are vulnerable to gold, as it is non-corrodible and suffocates their breathing apparatus. Aside from the suggestion that technically advanced cyber-technology still relies on air vents not getting blocked, one is left to wonder at what stage during the construction of their super-mega-dust filter did a Cyberman decide to introduce testing with gold.
Or, having established the issue, why they didn't immediately correct it, being as they were magnificently skilled surgeons. Aside from this, large chunks of the plot in this story rely on the Cybermen invading Voga, Planet of Gold, on the grounds that as it's made of gold it ought to be destroyed so as to prevent people from using its resources to attack them in future. A plan that makes about as much sense as a society of hayfever sufferers trying to stamp out their problem by going out and mowing everybody's lawn. But I digress.
We also get the first appearance of the Cyber Leader. As with most Communist societies, the Cybermen have decided that some (cyber)men are more equal than others, and they now have a clear leader, as designated by the black bits on the sides of his helmet. This tradition has continued up until the present day.
Sadly, with every innovation must come an excretion, and so we see the last of the Cybermats, the little steel plated rat-pets the Cybermen used to take with them everywhere. For even an emotionless metal man needs a best friend.
9. The Next Doctor, David Tennant, 2008
Cybermen. At Christmas. During the Victorian age. In the snow. This should have been magnificent. And, in some places, it is. The scene where they disturb a funeral, marching through a graveyard slaughtering dignitaries, lives long in the memory after the rest of the plot has been forgotten.
This episode relies heavily on continuity established during the previous two series - the Cybermen are desperate, they've been cast out into the Void, and the small army we have here are scavengers, clinging to survival with whatever they have left. Trapped in the 19th Century, they don't even have computer access to maintain data links or shared memory banks, and rely on plug-in infostamps (memory sticks) for information. Given the consistency and reliability of their usual information, one presumes they usually use Wikipedia.
The episode is good for the occasional bit of humour, particularly when the Cyber Leader gets a cracking one liner in against Dervla Kirwan's Miss Hartigan. As Hartigan complains that she was promised by the Cyber Leader that she'd never be upgraded, he turns to her and deadpans, "that information was designated a lie". Hartigan also gains the distinction of being the first person to ever experience sexual tension with a Cyberman, enjoying a cosy relationship with the Cyber Leader, walking arm in arm with him and making one innuendo about looking forward to seeing him ‘rise'. Crikey. At times the chemistry between them almost melts your screen.
Aside from all this, David Morrissey is camping it up as Jackson Lake, the nearly-but-not-quite Doctor, a human who has accidentally blasted himself in the face with an infostamp containing Dalek-owned information about the Doctor and allowed it to take over his mind, to the point where he believes himself to be the very same man. The information, incidentally, appears to be short video clips of previous actors who've played the main role, all taken from past episodes.
So the Void, where the Daleks and Cybermen were cast out to at the end of 2006's Doomsday, far from being ‘Hell' or the ‘the Howling' as the Doctor would have us believe, instead appears to be a place where Daleks and Cybermen can gather together and watch DVD box sets of their favourite enemy.
Everything hinges on the Cybermen launching their CyberKing, a gigantic spaceship shaped like a Cyberman with a ‘conversion centre' at its heart, ready to convert all the peoples in the world to Cyber status. Fortunately, incorporating some suspiciously Indiana Jones-esque rope tricks, a hot air balloon and good old-fashioned reasoning (and yet more info stamps), Tennant's Tenth Doctor is able to save the day, cast the Cybermen back into the void, reunite Jackson with his lost son and get everybody home in time for Christmas Dinner.
8. Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday, David Tennant, 2006
Sorry. I'm really, really sorry. I know I shouldn't include this, but I just couldn't help myself. Daleks versus Cybermen. It doesn't matter how overblown the plot is, I had to include it for that reason alone.
And for once, the Cybermen have actually got their act together! Having been on the run in an alternative dimension since the end of The Age Of Steel, they're descending into ‘our' universe in force. And, by the time they've got there, it's too late. We see millions of them. They surround the Taj Mahal. They're in China, and France, and Jackie Tyler's kitchen. The scene where one of them crashes through a family's front door, sending the youngest child screaming up the stairs only to be confronted by another of the silver giants at the top of them, is genuinely scary and will have given many a younger viewer an uneasy night's sleep.
The Doctor himself is left to concede, "this isn't an invasion, it's a victory". There's nothing he can do so stop such an overwhelmingly huge army. But, fortunately for him and in a twist of irony, something else has fallen through the crack between realities as well - four Daleks. Just four. And yet this is all that is necessary to stop a Cyber army. After a briefly teased alliance, Doctor Who's two most legendary bad guys declare open war on each other. Some of the dialogue is inspired: "Daleks have no concept of aesthetics" being one of them, along with "Daleks be warned, you have declared war on the Cybermen", to which Dalek Sec responds, "this isn't war, this is pest control!"
Many people complain about this episode on the grounds that the Cybermen get slaughtered en masse with relative ease, but to be honest, they always do. When it comes down to it, in combat, they're a bit naff. In The Five Doctors alone, at least a dozen of them get massacred by a single Raston Warrior Robot, and that's before yet more of them fall prey to a booby-trapped chess board.
Of course they're no match for the Daleks, they're ultimately just humans with bionic limbs and steel plating. It's quite right that they can't match them in battle. It's the spectacle that counts.
The cobbled together ending, where the Doctor (yet again!) casts them off into the void with the aid of some 3D glasses and a large magnet, does take a rather large suspension of disbelief. But if you can sit through the legendary ‘beach scene' coda and not feel a trace of ‘something in your eye'... well, you might just be a Cyberman yourself.
7. Silver Nemesis, Sylvester McCoy, 1988
This episode marked a turning point in Doctor Who. With audiences dwindling, Andrew Cartmel and his team of writers hatched a masterplan. They decided that too much had been given away of the Doctor's backstory, and the audience had grown too close to his character and nature. So they decided to turn him a little darker.
The Doctor, getting ever older and wearier of his constant fight against the evils, would go from being a reactive force for good to proactively looking to ensnare and defeat the evil. He would meddle and manipulate, setting traps for his foes and coaxing them to fall in. He became more ruthless and less forgiving. This story was the start of that new arc, cut short by the cancellation of the original series in 1989.
Here, we have the Cybermen attempting to capture validium, a living metal in statue form. Also searching for the metal are a group of Nazis, and a 17th Century black magic practitioner named Lady Peinforte. The Doctor knows exactly where it is, as he fired it up into space some time previously. Every 25 years, it returns into orbit, bringing with it terrible events: the events preceding the First World War in 1913, Hitler's annex of Europe in 1938, the Kennedy Assassination in 1963, and now it's due back in 1988. Thematically, this story was a celebration of Doctor Who's twenty-fifth birthday, but that doesn't half also work as a setup.
Anticipating the clamour that would arrive in search of the validium in 1988, the Doctor obtains a bow and arrow made of the metal, which give it critical mass. The metal, of course, has fantastic destructive properties which in the wrong hands would be lethal. As the statue arrives, the Doctor hands the bow to it, at which point it animates, and the Doctor orders it to destroy the Cyber fleet.
The statue takes orders from the Doctor at all times, and even when the bow is proffered to it by the leader of the Nazi group, it remains silent. At one point, the statue asks the Doctor if it may have its freedom after the fleet is destroyed, or whether she will be needed again in the future, but the Doctor just hushes her. Shortly after this, the Cyber leader is tricked into ordering the destruction of his own army, trapped by the Doctor's verbal trickery.
The Nazis and the black magic practitioner, despite some very bold claims to the contrary, are merely cannon fodder and wield precious little influence over the outcome. Pienforte, however, does claim to know the Doctor's real identity, hinting obliquely several times that he is more than "just a Time Lord", and is only stopped from revealing his true identity when the Cyber Leader unhelpfully cuts her off, declaring that Cybermen have no interest in "Time Lord secrets", and flatly contradicting masses of well established continuity. For this disservice to the viewing public, he is later killed with a gold tipped arrow.
This episode is also notable for a cameo appearance by the Queen, walking the corgis in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. An actor playing the Queen, naturally, not the Queen herself.
As for the Doctor, when pressed by Ace as to his real identity, he merely presses his finger to his lips...
6. Attack Of The Cybermen, Colin Baker, 1985
I like Attack Of The Cybermen. It's a guilty pleasure, much like Hollyoaks, Neighbours, or even spying on your neighbours. And who couldn't love it? It's just so kitsch!
This story, if you do not have a working knowledge of the previous twenty two years of Doctor Who continuity, makes as good as no sense whatsoever. The entire tale is a sequel to Tomb Of The Cybermen, which aired twenty years previously. Save for a brief and rushed explanation from the Doctor, whilst held prisoner in his own TARDIS with whiny companion Peri and murderous associate Lytton, there's no effort made to give the viewer any backstory. No wonder things got so convoluted that even French and Saunders started sending it up.
They even went so far as to have the same actor play the Cyber Controller as was cast in the original story. That's the same actor, twenty years on. In a full cyber suit, of a different design, where you can't see his face or any other identifying features. If that isn't pointless, I don't know what is. To make matters worse, said actor has put on a little timber around his midriff during the intervening years. Which makes you wonder whether the scene where another Cyberman says "it is a fat Controller" is a fluff or a rib which was completely missed in editing.
The plot itself is almost a rehash of the original. Cybermen are cryogenically stored in tombs. Other Cybermen want them out of tombs. Doctor doesn't want that to happen at all. Therefore tombs and Cybermen must all be destroyed. All in a day's work. Only the Cybermen have a plan of their own which, rationally enough, involves diverting Halley's Comet into Earth, rendering it defenceless to an attack by their home planet Mondas - Earth's twin planet. This, in their own past timeline, will occur a year later, but failed on the first attempt. Why they didn't just interfere directly in their own past and ensure they won the battle isn't clear. Maybe Cybermen like to play pinball with asteroids. They have to do something for kicks.
If all this weren't confusing enough, the aforementioned Lytton is also involved, a character recycled from 1984's Resurrection Of The Daleks, where he was a double-crossing Dalek agent who murdered several colleagues. Here, he's playing the double agent game again, with motives completely inscrutable and unclear right up until the end, where he sacrifices his own life to help the Doctor defeat the Cyber Controller.
The Doctor, aside from cheerfully knocking out a policeman, deciding that the surrounding chaos is a good time to try to fix the TARDIS chameleon circuit, and quite happily using a gun on a number of occasions, laments at the end that he badly misjudged Lytton's character. Aside from the fact that he never directly met Lytton during Resurrection Of The Daleks, he's also aware that Lytton is, as I've strained myself to point out, a double-crossing murderer. So he's on good form.
Oh, and if you've never seen it, it's worth looking it up even if it's just to see the notoriously graphic ‘wrist crushing scene'. It's no wonder the BBC were starting to worry that it was becoming a bit graphic.
5. Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel, David Tennant, 2006
Ah, David, you again. Here's the ‘Nu-Who' effort of reintroducing the Cybermen to a modern audience. Faced with the by-now baffling backlog of Cyber origin stories, the writers decided to abandon the entire notion of having to explain that Earth had a twin planet, and Cybermen were allergic to gold, and they also tried to crash a comet into the Earth, oh, and also briefly invaded another planet called Telos. They did a Star Trek 2009, as in they created an alternate universe and rebooted the whole thing there. So these Cybermen started right here on Earth.
In keeping with wanting to freshen up the whole concept, Russell T Davies appointed Tom MacRae to write the script. MacRae, as the story goes, had never really watched Doctor Who before. So when someone pointed out that his invention of an evil genius dying scientist, confined to a wheelchair and seeking an invention to prolong his life, may be a teensy-tiny bit reminiscent of Davros, MacRae protested that he was unaware that the character existed. Fair enough, I suppose. I once wrote a whole screenplay about a space empire, focusing on a battle between a fresh young hope and an evil overlord who turned out to be his estranged father. Imagine my surprise when a friend told me about Star Wars.
I have digressed again. This story is a metaphor for the human race's increasing reliance on technology. In the alternate world, they have gone beyond the realm of the mobile phone and now have an earpiece linked to an implant in the brain, via which they can download information anywhere, at any time. It's through this method that the aforementioned evil scientist, John Lumic, gains control of the populous and begins creating his new Cyber race.
To be fair, the Cyber-conversion scenes and associated surgery are suitably horrific, and the notion that homeless people are being used to experiment upon is deeply unpleasant. There's also a genuinely upsetting scene where a Cyberman's ‘emotonal inhibitor' - the chip which suppresses the emotions - fails, and the stricken Cyberman is revealed to be a woman on her wedding night, begging that her future husband not be allowed to see her and protesting that she's cold.
Where it goes wrong is that, as ever, the Cybermen are just too easy to defeat. The Doctor, cranking up his Smug Factor to 11, relays a message to Mickey Smith, who is watching via CCTV. The codeword the Doctor uses to grab Mickey's attention, by the way, is ‘idiot'. It says a lot about the man's self esteem if he's sat there going "idiot? He must be talking to me!"
Mickey sends the Doctor a text, the Doctor jams the phone into an iPhone dock, and all the emotional inhibitors deactivate, forcing the Cybermen to face the reality of what's happened to them. At which point they explode, leaving me to draw two conclusions. Firstly, suggesting that a text could be received by a phone, the phone could then be plugged into an iPhone dock, and the same message could then be circulated around a network immediately without any instruction to distribute itself, makes about as much sense as a monkey sticking a twig into a tree and every banana in a three mile radius falling off its branch. Secondly, Doctor, it's never nice to dump somebody by text. Tut tut.
4. The Invasion, Patrick Troughton, 1968
The 60s were the golden era of the Cybermen. In an era where technology was perceived to be advancing even faster than it is today, and against a backdrop of fear about the danger that technology could bring, their threat seemed more relevant and immediate. It's no coincidence that Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor met them more times than any other.
This story, partly lost in the BBC Archives but now available as a complete tale thanks to animation bridging the gaps in missing film, is the Cybermen's first attempt at an invasion of Earth. Their intention? As ever, to take over and convert. There are several elements used here which are ‘borrowed' in Rise Of The Cybermen: the use of hypnosis to part-subjugate humanity and prepare them for conversion, this time via radio signals, an a human scientist aiding and abetting the process, this time Tobias Vaughn. Vaughn, however, is even craftier than most. He's also built another device which he intends to use to control the Cybermen once they arrive.
The Cybermen, perhaps having gotten a bit tired of hanging around in cryogenically frozen tombs, this time arrive in cocoons. Nobody knows why, perhaps they sometimes come by carrier pigeon too. Or hatch out of larvae.
UNIT, here in their Doctor Who infancy, hatch a plan to repel the invasion fleet using missiles, to some success. The Cybermen, somewhat perturbed by this, decide to destroy the Earth instead of invade, using a Megatron Bomb. This awesomely powerful-sounding device is, somewhat disappointingly, destroyed by yet another UNIT missile. The missile was, however, ordered to be fired by none other than Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, making his first appearance since being promoted from Colonel, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility than any missile following orders from that man may try a little harder than your average.
3. The Tenth Planet, William Hartnell, 1966
Iconic. Unspeakably important in the context of British television history. And completely lost by the BBC. That's The Tenth Planet, of which precious little footage remains due to the much lamented tape reel storage policy the Beeb used to operate.
There are two firsts here, and although the Cyberman are making their debut, that isn't the bigger of the two. At the end of this story, the Doctor regenerates for the very first time in front of the eyes of a disbelieving television audience. The device which the show continues to use to refresh and prolong itself, allowing a new actor to be cast into the lead role without altering the character, started here.
The Cybermen themselves are a very basic model, presumably in the early stages of their development. Their home planet Mondas, the twin of Earth and once at home in our solar system, has returned and brought them with it. During its absence, the population of the planet, once as human as we are, were forced to use technology to sustain their existence, replacing internal organs and limbs and finally removing emotion to help them cope with the state they found themselves in. Eventually, they were able to pilot the path of their own planet, returning it to its original position with the intention of draining all power from the Earth and converting the entire population.
The Cybermen, as physical characters, make curious viewing here. Their costume, instead of the usual silver, is clearly cloth in places and the chest plating they use is large and cumbersome. Their voices are high pitched and arrhythmic, and when they speak, the actors merely hold their mouths open. Their persona is unusual also - they display a degree of compassion in allowing the TARDIS crew to attempt to save an Earth spaceship, which is in danger of being dragged into crashing by the increasing gravitational force of Mondas. They take prisoners. And, instead of gold, they react badly to radiation.
As Mondas and Earth struggle to co-exist, draining each other of power, it becomes clear that one will have to go. Geneva Space HQ (How quaint!) are contacted, and they suggest using Z-Bombs, a clear metaphor for nuclear arms, to destroy the Mondas. The Doctor's companion Ben is appalled by this, pointing out that Mondas may soon be destroyed by draining too much power from Earth anyway. A scientist at the base where the story plays out also points out that the ensuing radiation fallout would harm vast swathes of the Earth's population.
The Doctor, in the meantime, has ascertained that the Cybermen plan to do exactly the same thing to the Earth. Before any of this can transpire, Mondas absorbs too much energy, exploding and somehow disabling all the Cybermen. Earth also escapes unharmed.
The Doctor, perhaps shocked by the implausibility of the outcome, perhaps due to the power drain the Earth has experienced, perhaps due to old age or maybe out of sympathy for the poor souls who have to wear the Cyberman outfits, collapses and begins to transform. Saturday nights on BBC1 were never the same again...
2. Earthshock, Peter Davison, 1982
Here's a story that broke the mould. For the first and only time, here the Cybermen achieved an outright victory. They did something that for two years had seemed impossible. They gave the Doctor Who audience something it had been begging and pleading to see.
They ended the television acting career of Matthew Waterhouse.
Adric, played (loosely speaking) by the aforementioned Waterhouse, was the Doctor's companion. The character, essentially a know-it-all with a talent for maths, had not been well received by the audience, and as such, was on his way out. But no falling in love with a stange alien girl on a faraway planet for Adric, oh no. He was far too cold and logical for that. Adric simply had to die, and in doing so, became the first bonafide Doctor Who companion to do so since the William Hartnell years, and something we wouldn't see again until the apparent death of Rory in this year's series.
The TARDIS crew are investigating a cargo ship orbiting Earth, awaiting permission to land once its cargo is inspected. The Doctor decides to undertake a brief inspection himself and, unsurprisingly given the inclusion of the story here, finds a number of Cybermen. This prompts them out into the open, their cover blown, and their original plot to assault the Earth whilst it is being visited by several dignitaries for an interplanetary peace conference ruined as a warning has been sent to Earth.
Out of spite, the Cybermen lock the co-ordinates of the cargo ship for Earth, proclaiming the anti-matter engines will wipe out all life on the planet upon impact with the surface. They then force the Doctor and his other companions, Tegan and Nyssa, off the ship at gunpoint and into the TARDIS in order to save themselves from the explosion.
Adric, left on the bridge with some of the cargo ship's crew, makes an attempt to work out the mathematical code protecting the lock, but his first attempt causes the freighter to jump in time 65 million years backwards... around the time, as the Doctor observes from on board the TARDIS, that a large object struck the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. Undeterred, Adric continues his efforts, until an off-target shot from a Cyber-weapon destroys the command console, leaving Adric unable to complete the task and staring death in the face.
The TARDIS crew, taking advantage of a distracted Cyber Leader, regain control of the TARDIS, but not in time for Adric. He grimly muses that he'll never know if he was right about the code, and then the freighter collides with the Earth with lethal impact. The Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa stare at the viewing screen in horror, and for the first time in its history, the credits roll silently over a still shot of Adric's shattered badge.
In the storyline, the Doctor was unable to rescue Adric because of damage caused to the TARDIS console during the gun battle with the Cyber Leader. Although I suspect he was just tired of the pompous little chap.
But... if Adric caused the ship to jump in time and wipe out the dinosaurs, thus providing the spark for human life to begin on Earth, does that make him... God? Oh, Great Waterhouse. Forgive me, for I have sinned...
1. Tomb Of The Cybermen, Patrick Troughton, 1967
The greatest. The undisputed champion. The archetypal and never bettered Cyberman story. I may have spoken tongue in cheek, for I have greatly enjoyed all the stories listed so far, but this is by head and shoulders the king amongst them.
It would be almost without purpose to describe the plot, as so much of it is as you have read above. The Cybermen are in cold storage in tombs, we're back on Telos, the Cybermen have misled human allies who are assisting them in their bid for dominance, so much old hat. But the point is that all the stories that followed borrowed heavily from this one. They started here. The material is recycled because here it was fresh, and innovative, and imaginative. The scale is huge, the tombs themselves a visual which still impresses now, forty years later.
The Cybermen we see here are a proper malevolent threat, sealing themselves in the ice and waiting for an intelligence great enough to decode the controls to the tombs and free them, in order to then convert those beings of intelligence and prepare a new invasion of Earth. There's an emotion here to the human sacrifice. Toberman, one of the men who helped assist the Cybermen, sacrifices his own life at the end in order to ensure that no more escape from the tombs.
I'm almost left with nothing to write about as I'd merely be covering old ground, but if you're a Doctor Who fan and you've never seen this, you really, honestly, absolutely must. If the drama with the Cybermen weren't enough, we also get for the first time an insight into the Doctor's past life.
Victoria, his companion, fresh from the loss of her father, asks the Doctor if he ever thinks about his own family, a topic never previously mentioned on the show save for his granddaughter Susan. The Doctor, taken aback but full of compassion for her, explains that he can indeed remember his family, but due to being so old now, and their being lost so long ago, he has to "really want to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget, and so will you."
A heartfelt moment of vulnerability from the character, who in the same episode exclaims "Our lives are different to anybody else's. That's the exciting thing. Nobody in the universe can do what we're doing." This is the Doctor, the wanderer, the lonely God of the Russell T Davies era, crystallised perfectly four decades before his interpretation of the show hit the screens.
And, to link it all together and bring us right back up to date, incumbent Doctor Matt Smith has cited, on numerous occasions now, that it was Troughton's performance in this story that defined the Doctor to him, from his mannerisms to his outfit. Glimpses of Troughton have been evident in Smith all series long, but can he emulate his hero in his battle with the Cybermen? There's only one way to find out... (anyone who shouted "Fight" please leave now).
Until next time...