Doctor Who: what can a Cyberman story achieve?

As the news breaks they're returning to series 10, we look back over the role of the Cybermen in Doctor Who...

This article contains spoilers for lots of Doctor Who cyberman stories, including Death In Heaven.

Earthshock. It’s a brilliantly realised piece of telly, a script that confidently delivers on its pulpy premise, aided by a production team buying into the excitement of the set-pieces. Who cares if the effects at the end of Part Three aren’t quite perfect? The idea, the sheer overwhelming number of Cybermen approaching – plus Malcolm Clarke’s score and Peter Davison’s reaction – is enough to keep you watching.

Although can anyone say, hand on emotional inhibitor, that Earthshock actually needs to have Cybermen in it?

Does the story work in almost exactly the same way if you put Ice Warriors,  Ogrons or Kraals (‘Resistance is inadvisable‘) in their place? Yes. Even with Kraals, Earthshock would still work. What does this tell us? Obviously that people simply want Cybermen to be in good stories, but more than that: they don’t mind if it’s not about them, per se, as long as they’re the main focus.

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Earthshock isn’t interested in examining the Cybermen’s backstory or tragedy, it just wants to spin us a yarn interspersed with a few well-deployed action scenes. Cybermen are there because of their legacy, not because they especially suit the story. Compare this to Dark Water/Death in Heaven, where Missy creates an army of Cybermen from the dead. They fit into that slot neatly, the only other monster it could really be is the vampires from State Of Decay. Similarly to Earthshock, here’s where the ‘Cybermen > Ice Warriors > Ogrons > Kraals’ influence is important. If a casual viewer hasn’t heard of the Rani, they’re probably not going to be familiar with Goth Opera and the Time Lord/Vampire war.

So, both rely on the Cybermen’s reputation, but as discussed previously on Den of Geek that reputation is an ersatz bestiary of perceived awesomeness. In other words, it’s hard to nail down what people want from the Cybermen in a way that keeps them consistent. As a regularly destroyed villain, people want them to be stronger. The show obliges in a weird way: they crop up in small roles, ready to be destroyed, but they’re at the head of a great space fleet. Powerful, but easily destroyed. It’s a recurring theme with the Cybermen, this contradictory nature.

Regarding the mixed desires of fandom regarding Cybermen: if you ask the question ‘Which is the better Cyberman story: Death In Heaven or Earthshock?’ there are arguments on both sides. Earthshock has the Cybermen as primary antagonists, who come up with their own plans and are consistently deadly. They do deploy androids on Earth to guard a bomb and rely on a traitor to gain access to a space freighter, but their deviousness is in order to bring a great army to Earth in secret. They’re not so gung-ho as to simply attack, and so still operate in the shadows as best suits them.

Death In Heaven’s Cybermen are very much a threat created by Missy, and not the main focus of the episode. While there was a Cyberman-shaped gap in the plot, it wasn’t as the main antagonist (Let’s face it, only the Master could have come up with a plan like that). And yet, because there’s the element of emotional inhibition involved, and the scenes of vampiric Cybermen armies rising from the graves, it’s also a story that says more about the Cybermen’s tragedy (a distinctive element that makes them more than a monster of the week) than Earthshock, and does include a full-on assault on a plane.

There’s a problem in combining the association with strength and the innately tragic aspects of the Cybermen. From their debut you can take both aspects, but we next see the Cybermen on the Moon, hatching (like an egg, a bird’s egg) a plan to destroy the world’s weather because reasons. Tomb Of The Cybermen is slightly more successful at blending the two, but in The Invasion the Cybermen now have a fleet. Silver Nemesis (which is pretty much only a Cyberman story by accident) shows this fleet, albeit only before it gets destroyed. Like a lot of Silver Nemesis and the Cybermen, this idea doesn’t entirely suit them. Similarly there’s an inherent oddness with a concept in Nightmare In Silver,: the idea that Cybermen were such a threat as to require blowing up a galaxy to stop them.

UNIT stopped them, for godsake. As did one (admittedly efficient) robot, four Daleks, Adric trying to solve an equation, fire extinguishers and James Corden. It’s surely not that difficult? While Earthshock mentions the Cybermen as a unifying threat, it doesn’t go so far as to portray them as so mighty, they’re a more insidious terror. Earthshock scribe Eric Saward balances their threat very well in that story (they can be killed by human lasers, but it takes effort and skill), but then in Attack Of The Cybermen they’re killed by bullets, stabbing and their own stupidity. As for James Corden, the Cybermen are one of the few creatures where ‘blowing them up with love’ is actually plausible. The vampire comparison is apt. You wouldn’t be totally shocked if someone killed a Cyberman by opening the curtains unexpectedly.

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This variety in their means of despatch doesn’t exactly tie into an idea of strength, however. There’s a lack of consistency, not limited to their appearance, which makes their vulnerability hard to gauge. Sometimes they’re a nomadic group, often they’re small in number, sometimes they’re at the head of a huge fleet, Sometimes you need to blow up a galaxy, sometimes you can just mail them a Cash My Gold envelope. Logically, something illogical is going on here.

For an emotionless, logical race, there are already signs of wobbling back in the 60s. Why do they have a target practice range? Why did they stop having names? It’s worth remembering the situation they came from: a dying planet, a pitiful situation. The reason Cybermen can come across as pathetic and desperate is because that’s their origin story. The survival instinct at their core doesn’t really combine well with the idea of destroying galaxies in fear of them, or their possessing huge space armadas.

An idea that exists in fandom that makes more sense of the Cybermen is that they are semi-tribal. The smaller, more desperate groups (eg. Revenge Of The Cybermen) are not part of the fleets we see in Silver Nemesis and A Good Man Goes To War. This explains their inconsistencies, their differences in appearance, and their various levels of technology. Some factions are stronger than other, for the viewers that want that, whereas others are more susceptible to emotional frailty and faulty parts.

It might be a useful thing to confirm this onscreen, or to bring this contradiction into focus. We already have different versions of Cybermen in the universe. Explicitly referencing their differences allows for more flexibility, and means a writer can more easily ask themselves: what kind of Cybermen does this story need?

This article originally appeared in December 2014.