Doctor Who: the genius of making the Cybermen an ideology
With the arrival of series 12's The Lone Cyberman mystery, a look back at how Steven Moffat reestablished the Cybermen as a deadly threat
Warning: contains spoilers for The Doctor Falls.
Russell T Davies, for all his many virtues as Doctor Who showrunner, was pretty relaxed when it came to continuity. In his own time he had as intricate and complex a headcanon as the next fan, including some pretty elaborate theories on what happened to Torchwood’s rift and why the 12th Doctor looks like a Roman Pompeii survivor and that politician from Children Of Earth. But as showrunner, he was adept at bringing ideas to the screen, and allowing the continuity to then be argued over in the forums.
Steven Moffat meanwhile has been far keener to address and tie up loose ends. Davies brought a giant Cyberman to Victorian London and teleported the Earth halfway across space. Steven Moffat invented cracks in time that conveniently wipe everyone’s memories of those exact facts, then fills in all the gaps in the Doctor’s regeneration cycle, depicts the first Doctor actually stealing his TARDIS and makes Big Finish audios canon at the same time.
So in his last ever season finale, we shouldn’t be surprised that he threw in so much continuity that it’s easy to miss his ingenious tying up of one the most irritating continuity problems of the new series, and in the process putting the Cybermen back on their throne as one of the two deadliest threats in the Doctor Who universe.
Too many Cybermen
The problem goes back to series two of the new incarnation, where Davies brought the Cybermen back. Inspired by the brilliant Big Finish Audio Spare Parts, Davies would do an origin story, and probably thinking that having an identical twin Earth showing up in 1986 would seem a little too hokey for the new, cool, 21st century Doctor Who, he had the Cybermen arise on a parallel Earth through the proliferation of evil Bluetooth headsets.
This was fine for the general viewer, but for the fans that liked to dive right into the Who lore it posed some questions. Where were the original Cybermen? When we saw Cybermen turn up again in our universe, were these the parallel universe Cybermen or our own Cybermen, or as Neil Gaiman hypothesised, some sort of ungodly hybrid of the two?
In bringing back the Mondasian Cybermen for World Enough And Time/The Doctor Falls, Moffat could have taken his pick of any one of these theories and made them the word of God. Instead he did something much more interesting, something that casts the entire history of the Cybermen in a different light.
Here’s the speech:
“They always get started. They happen everywhere there’s people. Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus. Like sewage, smart phones and Donald Trump some things are just inevitable.
People get the Cybermen wrong. There’s no evil plan, no evil genius, just parallel evolution.”
This speech is basically a continuity hand grenade. It suggests that not only did the humans that converted themselves into Cybermen arise spontaneously and independently on Mondas and a parallel Earth, but that the Cybermen the 2nd Doctor fights on Telos in Tomb Of The Cybermen also arose completely independently of the ones on Mondas, as did the ones in The Invasion who recognised the Doctor and Jamie from “Planet 14” (and boy do fans wonder about what went on there).
Moffat even, just for good measure, name checks Marinus, a planet that only ever appeared on TV in one 1st Doctor story, The Keys Of Marinus, but which appears in the 1987 comic story The World Shapers, where it’s made out that Marinus eventually turns into Mondas.
Now instead of nearly identical monsters arising independently on two different planets, we have nearly identical monsters arising no fewer than five separate times. This is about more than the constant, brave and impossible mission to make all the contradictory stories in the Doctor Who canon line up however. It changes the very nature of the Cybermen into something far more malevolent, as well as making them eerily relevant today.
Always read the comments
The Daleks, the racist pepper pots that will forever relegate the Cybermen to also-ran status, have frequently been held up as Doctor Who’s Nazi metaphor. But the Daleks are the work of one man. If the 12th Doctor had decided to leave baby Davros in that field of hand mines it could easily have led to a much less exterminated universe. Even if you’re against child-murder, to rid the universe of Daleks you just have to get them all into one place and then blow them up. It’s been done in the first ever Dalek story, in The Evil Of Daleks (hailed as their “Final end!”), in Remembrance Of The Daleks with the obliteration of their entire planet, and during the Last Great Time War. Annoyingly there always seems to be one that sneaks through the cracks and starts it all up again, but in principal killing all Daleks is a perfectly sensible way to defeat them.
But with Cybermen that doesn’t work. Destroy every Cyberman in existence and all of their technology, turn them into dust, and the whole thing still has the potential to reappear the next time somebody thinks “If I had a robot hand this pickle jar would be easier to open”.
This changes the way we view the Cybermen, but it’s a view of the Cybermen that fits well with what we’ve seen before. They have rarely been the all-out conquerors other Who baddies have been. The first time we see them they are simply trying to survive and just don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be a Cyberman. Very often when they do show up, they are fronted by a friendly and familiar organisation, whether it’s International Electromatics, Cybus Industries, the workhouse in The Next Doctor or the 3W Institute. Even in Army Of Ghosts the Cybermen are only able to enter our world because they remind us of dead loved ones, causing us to ‘will’ them into reality.
The Cybermen aren’t a species, or an empire or some sort of robo-zombie viral epidemic. They’re an idea, a perfectly innocent sounding idea, taken to its logical conclusion, a far more potent metaphor for fascism than the hate-filled squid tanks could ever manage. As the Doctor’s speech continues, “People, plus technology, minus humanity. The internet, cyberspace, Cybermen, always read the comments, because one day they’ll be an army.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Donald Trump gets namechecked in this speech so close to that “always read the comments” line. The danger of the Cybermen isn’t that someone will open a tomb or reawaken some much shinier version of the terracotta army. It’s that the Cybermen will be forgotten and people won’t remember their mistakes.
Read more: Doctor Who – the 10 best Cyberman stories
Doctor Who – a celebration of the Cybermen
Doctor Who – what can a Cyberman story achieve?
This article originally appeared in 2017.