Doctor Who: defending Closing Time’s Cybermen

The presence of the Cybermen in Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who didn’t please everyone. Here, Andrew defends their depiction in Closing Time…

This article contains spoilers for the Doctor Who story, Closing Time.

It is 12.58pm on Monday the 26th of September. All around the country, grown men are packing away their Cybermen action figures in specially constructed tombs made from shoeboxes and clingfilm, and placing them at the very back of the freezer.

Children are, for once, silent. Women are tearing their dresses, replacing them with sackcloth, and weeping openly in the street. In village squares throughout the land, bonfires are being constructed from copies of The Cybermen by David Banks. One man, in his late 30s, a small tidy beard replacing the hair that is receding from his forehead, takes an age to finally let go and give his book to the flames.

“E…e…excellent,” he stammers, before finally breaking down and collapsing to the ground, there to be later removed by the emergency services, who have been inundated with literally hundreds of identical callouts.

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I, on the other hand, thought that Closing Time was quite good. Which, if you’re in any way involved with its production, is probably not that great a compliment. It was very funny. The Cybermat was both fan-pleasing and effective, and, crucially, it remembered an integral part of why the Cybermen can be such effective villains.

Admittedly, the exact nature of their pitiful existence varies a bit, but the best Cybermen stories are ones where you get a genuine sense of their tragedy. Closing Time toyed just long enough with the idea that Craig might be converted before using that as the resolution.

It did not, as is often the case with modern Who, spend any time detailing the science behind it, but at least it suggested the idea and it’s not hard to extrapolate the technobabble: Craig is to become a CyberController – essentially a walking, talking computer server – but is not so far gone from his humanity that he cannot respond to his baby crying. But he is far gone enough that he is connected to the proximate Cybermen he is to control, so his emotional response bypasses the Emotional Inhibitor circuits, causing fatal breakdowns.

See? Totally fine.

And anyway Tobias Vaughn builds a bloody raygun that does the same thing in The Invasion, and no one has a problem with that. So there.

Astonishingly, there has been a certain amount of outcry from people who think that this episode removed the possibility of the Cybermen as a credible threat as they were defeated ‘by love’.

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First of all, this resolution isn’t entirely new. Frequently, the Cybermen are defeated by an act of irrational emotional behaviour by humans, be it self-sacrifice or simply a gut-feeling that they must be stopped. Just because the connotations of ‘love’ make it potentially saccharine doesn’t make it any less valid a way of defeating supposedly emotionless creatures. It’s just a different take on the trope.

If Craig had died and taken the Cybermen with him, people would have been a lot more forgiving, because apparently the four or so minor characters who were converted weren’t enough. More dead people, prospective Cyber-writers, and then the mob may be swayed.

It certainly worked in Earthshock, a good story, but one that could really have used any monster from the show’s past to have a similar impact. Closing Time had more in it about the Cybermen than Earthshock by a long way.

They are few in number. They are damaged. They were dormant in a, frankly, cool underground spaceship until they found a source of power. They still posed a threat, but were weak. Crucially, for me anyway, they were converting people as quickly as they could because that’s all they knew how to do. They were trying to survive in a desperate situation, but have no emotional response to it, just a logical process, a mechanistic routine.

Is there anything about that scenario that isn’t deeply sad? Whereas in Earthshock they just kill loads of people, quite horribly, which works very well in that story. However there’s pretty much bugger all to say about what the Cybermen are.

In fact, despite the fact that Earthshock was a triumphant return, the Cybermen in it are problematic. As I’ve said, they’re merely ‘villain-of-the-week’. It could be Sontarans or Ice Warriors in that story instead. The Cybermen do, however, look great, but there are some very odd things happening to them.

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First, they now have a leader who says things like “Excellent” and clenches his hand into a fist, all the while strutting around with the body language of someone who is incredibly pleased with himself. David Banks’ performances as the Cyber Leader are very entertaining, but from a pedant’s view, they’re utterly rubbish Cybermen.

Coupled with the fact that, essentially, all these new Cybermen are Red Shirts waiting to die (saying ‘NEEIIIIGHYURGH’ when they do, like a horse that’s been kicked really hard), and in the meantime they just stand around apparently having a chat about how the whole ‘We Must Survive’ thing is going, make ‘Leggit’ motions to their comrades, and become increasingly vulnerable to gunfire, gold, and their own mass stupidity.

The 80s Cybermen are not good Cybermen, from getting massacred by a single robot in The Five Doctors to being taken out by gold coins and arrows in Silver Nemesis (honestly, how utterly useless would gold arrows be against every single creature that wasn’t a Cyberman?).

Attack Of The Cybermen misses the point by being about the Cybermen’s history, as opposed to being about them. Also they imprison the Doctor in a room with explosives and someone they’ve arrested for being a terrorist.

We’ve come a long way from cold, ruthless logic.

Not that the 70s was much better with its single Cyber-outing. In Revenge Of The Cybermen (“We’re into revenge. We like revenge now. Revenge is cool.”), the Cyber Leader is played with hysterical campness, and their weakness for gold is introduced. Apparently they were defeated with something called ‘The Glitter Gun’. Coupled with the ‘Bitchy Queen’ style Cyber Leader, this conjures up images of human resistance fighters taking out squads of Cybermen while dressed like Lady Gaga, cheering “Woooooo!” as they fire. It isn’t big on dignity, but it is huge on camp.

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Even in the 60s, the monster’s heyday, the Cybermen were often just there to boost the ratings, featuring in several tedious stories to balance out their classic appearances in Tomb Of The Cybermen and walking down the steps outside St Paul’s in The Invasion. It’s not a coincidence that the much-lauded Big Finish story Spare Parts makes much use out of the Cybermen’s inherent tragedy, and was a huge influence on their return in the 2006 series.

The Cybermen have always been used badly by writers, despite their iconic status. It makes the negative reaction to Closing Time all the stranger, as to my mind there is nothing in that story that is worse than what they’ve already been through.

If anything, it nailed an aspect that most stories miss out completely.

Any monster can kill you, but Cybermen can do something worse. Yet you’re supposed to feel sorry for them.