Doctor Who: a celebration of the Cybermen

News Andrew Blair 19 Apr 2012 - 18:31

Andrew argues the number two villains in the world of Doctor Who aren't quite the opponents they're cracked up to be...

 

A few months ago, I listened to the audio version of The Tenth Planet. It's a fun, undemanding base-under-siege, B-movie yarn, and is notable for two things: the regeneration of the First Doctor into the Second, and the debut of the Cybermen. This emotionless, logical cyborg race is firmly entrenched as the second most popular monster in Doctor Who history, behind only the Daleks. It's obvious why. Impassive, tragic, and utterly inhuman; the Cybermen are the Gary Barlow of fictional alien races.

Since listening to The Tenth Planet, I have come to the conclusion that the Cybermen have really good PR people. They're idealised as being powerful creatures of incredible strength and power, but watching their stories it becomes apparent that they're nothing like that. 

They often aren't emotionless or logical. They aren't a mighty army of super-strong soldiers.  They skulk. They plot. They bide their time. In The Tenth Planet they need the element of surprise to kill red shirts, but otherwise have been killed by their own weapons, radiation (any radiation, apparently), electricity, enhanced humans, insanity, shiny jumping robots, bullets, chessboards, gold dust, gold arrows, gold coins, and a Cerebration Mentor. This is a special gun that fires emotions at them, making them insane. This is completely different to killing them 'with love' because it is a gun and therefore 'science-fictiony'.

The Cybermen are fairly consistently portrayed: they will hide somewhere while using subterfuge (traitors, mind control, Cybermats, Tobias Vaughn, etc.) to gain access to their target, and aim to control it by weakening the population so as to reduce the amount of combat necessary. They are not fighters, although they are capable of doing so against small numbers. Think of the classic Cyberman kill: they sneak up on someone before delivering a powerful, spine-shattering blow. It isn't really until The Invasion that we see them attacking an opposing force, and that force outnumbers and defeats them. That force is UNIT. That is to say: UNIT manage to successfully attack and destroy an alien threat. UNIT. If the Cybermen could feel emotions at this point, it would quite possibly be embarrassment.

The concept of the Cybermen being powerful is a fallacy. Their starting position is always one of weakness, and they have to use deviousness and manipulation to overcome this, such as in Army of Ghosts where they take over the world through strength of numbers (and then, um, stand around in peoples' houses a bit) and even in Earthshock - by far the most gung-ho portrayal of the Cybermen, and the first with an overwhelming army on screen - they are reliant on human treachery and android guards. Unlike the Daleks, we rarely see Cybermen on screen attacking enemy forces. If you do, it is likely they will have engineered a scenario to give them an advantage. 

Are the Cybermen popular for their gift for strategy then? Maybe, or possibly because their pitiful nature makes them a truly intriguing opponent; a sect of Frankenstein's Monsters, all cold, ruthless logic and sociopathy. From Krang, leader of the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet (who is strangely reminiscent of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) to David Banks' relentlessly entertaining yet technically rubbish eighties Cyberleader ('When the tower is in our hands, he will be...' *Slow Fist Clench* '...destroyed.'), this is coupled with a hint of underlying humanity (either physically or emotionally) to unerring effect. When confronted with an impassive metal face in the wake of a callous act the true horror of the Cybermen starts to emerge. 

Their best stories completely immerse themselves in a hideously brutal pragmatism, and bring to the fore the element of tragedy innate in the Cybermen: they are like this only because their world was dying, and replacing their organic matter was the only way to survive. That's all they want. This is what makes the buzzing, monotone implications of 'You belong to us. You will be like us.' all the more chilling. Placed in this near-certain-death situation, it's no wonder they chose harsh and unfeeling decision making, and their haunting electronic bleat of the mantra 'We will survive.'

It also helps that they're one of the more visually arresting 'Man In Suit' monsters that Sci-Fi has to offer, as long as you don't look at their feet. If there's one thing the Cybus Industries Cybermen from 2006 should be commended on, it's that their feet don't look like boots sprayed silver. Otherwise, there's a plethora of designs to pick from, leading to a notion that there exist different 'tribes' of Cybermen from different eras with different conversion techniques to explain differences in appearance. It's that or between each meeting with the Doctor the Cybermen go off and discuss what went wrong, and nearly always arrive at the answer 'Wow. We got our look so wrong' and follow it up with a variation on 'Next time let's go with guns in the heads and flares, right? Right.'

Mostly, though, they look pretty good. Monochrome helps, but you can't deny that the designs of Earthshock (1982) still hold up well today, and look even better sprayed silver for Silver Nemesis (a shame that the Cybermen are superfluous and not a little ridiculous in that story). However, the sixties saw a succession of excellent variations on this initial design (which, while cumbersome, has a sort of underlying horror to it by virtue of its hastily-put-together look), culminating in such iconic moments as the Cybermen emerging from their tombs on Telos or walking down the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, unopposed after having rendered nearly the entire planet immobile. Also a special mention for the Cyberman painted matt black in Attack of the Cybermen for tunnel camouflage. It's indicative of their methods that their most iconic moments involve hiding or walking around slowly with no-one to oppose them.

Over the years, to varying degress of success, there have been a lot of Dalek stories that utilise the nature of the Daleks as a starting point for the narrative. There have been fewer Cybermen stories like this. In fact, possibly their best story is a Big Finish audio-play called Spare Parts that was an influence on the 2006 storyline Rise of the Cybermen. However, the new series has yet to deliver a stone-cold classic Cybermen story, and there were arguably only two from the original run that attained that status (Tomb of the Cybermen and Earthshock), a lower strike rate than the Daleks certainly. 

The Cybermen are often used as a 'Villain of the Week' and, although this in itself is no bad thing, certainly Earthshock could have worked nearly as well with Ice Warriors or Sontarans. The problem is that, on screen, we have yet to dig really deeply into the inherent tragedy of the Cybermen. We've seen that Steve Moffat can use them well, turning them into nightmarish creatures with metallic tentacles and endless backup systems which is completely in-keeping with their overwhelming instinct to survive. Brilliant as that scene was it was not a whole story, and that is something that fans have been craving for years on screen. Closing Time, in Series 6, featured the Cybermen but only really as a background threat, rather than the focus of the story, and that move angered some fans who feel that the Cybermen are due another hit. 

Presumably there is another Cyberman classic out there somewhere, but it is biding its time, hiding, waiting until conditions are right for it to emerge and overwhelm its opposition. 

They are, after all, always on the look out for fresh converts.

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