In the closing episodes of ‘the War Games’ the Doctor realises he will need the help of his own people, the Time Lords, to fix the damage done by the War Lord and War Chief.
Knowing that he will be punished by the Time Lords he tries several escape attempts but they outsmart him at every turn and put him on trial.
His companions, Jamie and Zoe would be sent back to their own times, remembering only their first encounter with the funny little Time Lord.
Despite the Time Lords acceptance that he was doing right in his adventures, and fighting the evil that dwells in the universe they would still punish him for his transgressions, sending him into exile, and changing his appearance for the second time.
For many Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor is the definitive Doctor, and certainly the first Doctor to set the character template that is still recognisable today.
Fiercely loyal to his friends, and to doing what is right, yet with a charm and wit that he would use to disarm and befuddle his enemies.
This funny little man with an iron resolve would come up against a veritable menagerie of monsters and wrong doers and always best them during his time at the Tardis console.
Sadly many of his stories would be lost to the BBC’s shortsighted archiving policy, meaning he was sorely under-represented in DVD’s and repeats. Luckily of course it was decided that some of his (and William Hartnell’s) partial stories would be animated. The first animated episodes were the two missing parts of the eight part Cyberman epic ‘the Invasion’.
This proved to be a popular move and would soon be followed with releases of more of his partially complete stories. Adding to that the relatively recent finding of ‘the Web of Fear’ and ‘Enemy of the World’ means we can see more of his Doctor than ever since his run ended.
We also have the fully animated release of ‘Power of the Daleks’ coming in a couple of months allowing us to watch his very first story for the first time since airing.
In the 1980’s Pat would return to the role of the Doctor in the 20th anniversary special ‘the Five Doctors’ and ‘The Two Doctors’ winning him a whole new generation of fans (myself included) who had never had the chance to see him in action.
It’s fair to say he struggled with the heavy workload during his time as the Doctor and didn’t overly enjoy it.
Luckily later in life he would return to the fold and became a regular at conventions (often larking about with Jon Pertwee, aping the friction between the two incarnations we would see in ‘the Three Doctors’ and ‘The Five Doctors’) much to the fans delight.
We as fans owe a great deal to Patrick Troughton. Had the role of William Hartnell’s successor been given to a lesser actor I doubt the show would be where it is today. Luckily Patrick was a character actor of considerable skill and range and his portrayal would ensure the shows longevity after the original lead actors departure.
And what better way to celebrate him, but with a weekend dedicated to this wonderful Doctor!
In 1966, the man we knew as The Doctor surprised us all.
As we watched, he landed his TARDIS in 1986, at the Snowcap Base on Earth’s South Pole. He faced the Cybermen for the first time. And after an exhaustive battle of wits to save the planet, he lay down, fell asleep, and changed.
Right before our eyes, the man we’d known as the Doctor for the past 3 years, became someone else. The oft grumpy crotchety white haired Grandfather we had grown to love ‘renewed’ himself, and woke up more as a slightly bedraggled fun loving Uncle.
We all know now why the BBC took this course of action as William Hartnell had become too ill to carry on, but the concept of renewal, or regeneration as it would later become, was a stroke of genius that allowed the show to continue long past its perceived lifespan.
As the first regenerated Doctor, much like his companions of the time in the show Ben and Polly, none of us knew what to expect from this new version of our favourite character.
The character actor Patrick Troughton brought a renewed vigour to the role. Under Hartnell, the Doctor could be a rather serious soul (although he had his fun moments), but Troughton brought a lot more fun to the part. His one-liners, his reactions, his facial expressions. Whether he was with Ben and Polly, or his later companions, Jamie, Victoria or Zoe. Whether he was facing the Daleks, the Cybermen or the Ice Warriors. The Second Doctor became one of the most beloved regenerations. And that’s all thanks to Patrick Troughton.
The Second Doctor’s catch phrases:
- When I say run, run. …RUN!
- Oh, my giddy aunt!
- Oh my word!
- You’ve redecorated. I don’t like it.
- I would like a hat like that.
- That’s very civil of you.
When Patrick stepped down from the role at the end of the epic serial The War Games in 1969, we thought we’d seen the last of the man that had come to be known as The Cosmic Hobo (thanks to his hairstyle and clothes, amongst other things), but he returned three more times to the role, in 1973’s The Three Doctors, 1983’s The Five Doctors, and 1985’s The Two Doctors – cementing his place as one of the most beloved actors to carry the role, and one of the most beloved Doctor’s.
Patrick sadly passed away in 1987, whilst attending a Doctor Who convention. Despite leaving the role full time in 1969, he never really stopped being The Doctor. Setting a precedent for all those that followed.
His two sons David and Michael followed in his footsteps by appearing in the show, with David even taking on his father’s role as the Second Doctor in two audio plays back in 2011, keeping Pats memory alive.
A selection of Cybrids. Blended Cybermen, old and new combined.
Tony’s going to hospital.
The Harvest is the third of three experimental stories from Big Finish, for which the brief appears to have been pretty exciting from the word go: do something new with companions and Cybermen.
The Fifth Doctor Cyber-story, The Gathering, takes Davison’s Doctor back to Earth to find Tegan, decades after she left him, her life quite small and unsatisfying, and very nearly over. It’s a story that doesn’t let the Fifth Doctor off any of the hooks Tegan caught him on, and refuses absolutely to give him any easy, time-travelling way to solve Tegan’s problems: perhaps uniquely, it’s an audio that if anything hardens the sentiments of a companion towards their Doctor (at the time it was the first – and was presumed also to be last – audio story Janet Fielding would do for the company, so it could afford to feel final). It tells the somewhat low key story of a piece of relatively unimpressive Cyber-technology, and how it can still have important consequences for Tegan’s life. The Gathering, the Sixth Doctor’s entry into the loose trilogy, finally takes Peri home to deal with the fallout of her reckless decision to run off into time and space – to face her family’s disapproval, their heartache, their hurt feelings. Where Tegan hardens her attitudes towards the Doctor, Peri discovers how time and space have changed her, giving her the resources to stand up for herself and her actions, while still being compassionate to those she loves. If Tegan’s story is an ending, Peri’s is almost a rebirth, set against a much more full-on Cyber-story – think town under siege, weaponising the dead, uber-future Cybermen and a race against time before the Cyber-threat goes critical.
In contrast, The Harvest, the Seventh Doctor story, does something relatively straightforward in terms of companions – it starts the journey of one: staff nurse Thomas Hector Schofield, known to his friends as Hex, gets involved in the life of the Doctor and Ace, going by her surname of McShane at the time, when strange and creepy things start happening at his place of work, St Gart’s hospital, London.
If the companion journey in this story is comparatively straightforward, the Cyber-story is probably the most breathtaking of the three by virtue of its potential. Dan Abnett takes a fresh look at the Cybermen and asks one fundamental question: what would happen if the Cybermen decided they didn’t want to be Cybermen any more?
It’s a question that entails the reversal of much of their traditional body horror, but it also puts us more viscerally in touch with that horror than we usually get, as what we’re dealing with here are Cybermen intent on replenishing themselves with flesh, blood, sinew, and an emotional cortex of responses. The Cybermen have always had the essence of bodysnatchers, but seldom more potently than here, as nano-surgeons at St Gart’s try to find appropriate tissue to make this gothic nightmare come to pass. Incidentally, if you thought the plot of Deep Breath was original, you’re about ten years too late – The Harvest was released in 2004, and basically lays the pathway down which Deep Breath would eventually tread, machine creatures adding flesh to their frames in an attempt to become more and more human.
Of course there’s more to it than that – there’s a cogent, if depressing, commentary on human greed and the ever-present need of nations to get ahead of other nations any way they can, and there are twists which even having come so far it would be unfair to spoil for you. But The Harvest also seeds a couple of New Who Dalek stories of which neither Abnett nor Big Finish could have had any idea when it was released. If Evolution of the Daleks proposed the unlikely scenario that the last Daleks in existence could feel jealousy for human beings and want to emulate them, the leap is easier to make in terms of the Cybermen here, because they aim to operate from a position of logic, and logic dictates that the people of Mondas responded to extraordinary pressures, but in the absence of those pressures, the need to be in Cyber-form should be re-assessed. In essence, the idea of Cybermen who change their mind is shocking, but rational (rather than having to be explained away as a mechanical fault, as in the case of Rusty, the humanist Dalek from Into The Dalek). There’s also a sense of similarity between The Harvest and The Wizard’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, with the idea of a desperate, aching closeness to something wonderful, a détente between the Doctor and one of his oldest enemies, only to have that potential snatched away close to the end.
Make no mistake about it, The Harvest is a suitably emotional ride, given the subject matter. It also shows Ace and the Doctor as having come a long, long way together, able to trust each other implicitly. It’s an evolved Ace from her on-screen days, a relatively grown-up Ace after the events of audios like Colditz and The Rapture, which saw her ditch her nickname and reclaim the surname from which she’s always been hiding. In terms of its dynamic, it’s an example of something that has been done successfully since on audio, and taken rather more as a stimulus for comedy episodes on-screen too – the idea of the Doctor going long-term undercover in an environment to assess some alien chicanery and put a stop to it. Back in 2004 though, this was still an unusual idea – that the Doctor would take the time to blend in with human beings, rather than forcing events to go his way with his usual mystique and button-pushing. It’s a scenario that brings a sophistication of performance out of McCoy and Aldred that makes for easy listening despite the high-octane emotional loading and the gothic concepts at work within the story.
And what of Hex, the new boy? Philip Olivier, then best known for his work on the soap opera Brookside, delivers characterisation by the bucketful. Abnett’s script allows him a proper journey (most akin, in TV terms, to that of Donna Noble, going from ‘What the hell, this makes no sense!’ through his deep compassion and ability to rapidly process the bizarre realities of this life of Ace’s and the Doctor’s, and decide he wants to be part of it). Late in the story, he’s throwing his knowledge as a nurse into the fray, helping save people from death and harm as the body count rises, and able to take command of situations when needed, even when faced with rigid authority structures which see him as little more than the lowest life on the ladder.
The Harvest gives Hex a rollercoaster of an introductory story (it’s not really an origin story – we learn much more of his origins as he goes along), showing him as having the right stuff to join the Tardis. It also delivers a Cyber-story that to this day is unlike anything that’s been tried since, for all its uniqueness rather dissolves towards the end. It gives us a timely lesson in the susceptibility of humans to greed and self-interest, even at the expense of the lives of the little people, and it stands as the most linear and satisfying of the three stories in a very unusual and dynamic trilogy.
If you haven’t tried these stories yet, give them a go – and in particular, invest in The Harvest. Not only does it begin a whole new series of adventures for the Seventh Doctor – the Hex stories – that include many of the most inventive that Doctor has yet had, it’ll make you yearn for an on-screen Cyberman story that dares to flirt with this much invention, let alone this much heart.
Tony argues for the Cybermen to take pole position.
The Cybermen are frequently thought of as Doctor Who’s Silver Medal Villains, the second mega-hitters in the show’s history and, next to the Daleks, Who’s creepiest, most successful returning villains.
Here’s the thing – to me, the Cybermen will always be scarier than the Daleks. More interesting than the Daleks. In short, and there’s no other way to put this, better than the Daleks.
It is of course quite hard to explain why that should be so – the Daleks turned Doctor Who from an interesting programme that went on to be about cavemen into must-watch TV. Their second story expanded their potential hugely, and remains an all-time classic, their design is iconic, their voices still have the potential to scare the bejesus out of children, no matter how old they are, and philosophically, they’re a combination of Nazism, atomic horror and the screaming ego of a five year-old with a gun. What have the Cybermen got that competes with that?
Firstly, the idea of the Cybermen is much scarier. Yes, the Daleks are ‘bubbling lumps of hate’ in bonded polycarbide suit of armour, but they never had a choice about that. They were ‘born’ that way, manufactured to be a laughable lesson in ‘perfection,’ and sent out into the universe to give the rest of us a cosmic kicking.
The Cybermen are us.
You, me, all of us. The Daleks might hate every non-Dalek thing in the universe, but the Cybermen were frightened. Frightened of all the things you and I are frightened of in our pathetically short, squishy, organic, organic, emotion-driven lives. They were frightened of ageing. Of decrepitude. Of a loss of memory and function. Of going blind, or deaf, or mad. Of the frailty that comes with getting old. And of the ultimate consequence of time – of death. Mondas was not casually chosen as the Earth’s ‘twin’ planet – it was pure science fiction allegory. The Mondasians were us, with better medical facilities. At least they were in the Sixties. Now, it would be fair to say we’re just about starting to catch them up – bionic arms and legs are starting to be 3D-printed and they’re changing lives.
And that’s the scary thing. The Cybermen began with such good intentions, and the replacement of limbs and organs is absolutely a good thing for those who lack them. But Kit Pedler, who originally had the idea of the Cybermen, feared that the more we augmented ourselves, the more it would slide from necessary to easy, from surgical to cosmetic or functional, to elective. The idea of upgrading ourselves not because we lack anything in nature, but because the mechanical alternative is better is how you get from where we are right now to the Cybermen.
And as Russell T Davies was quick to point out when he took on the task of bringing the Cybermen back in New Who, we are a culture obsesses with gadgetry and gizmos, the latest cool upgrade and the race to be the same as everyone, to be socially equal. If there’s a killer app, we all have to have it. A killer game, we all have to have it. The most bells-and-whistles phone, it’s in our pocket, transforming how we spend the time of our lives.
Imagine if there was an affordable technology to upgrade your eyes, so they’d replay anything you saw, any time you wanted, straight to your brain. Imagine a slot at the back of your next, a chip that would give you mental access to Netflix at the speed of thought. Imagine a cyber-nanite pill that could eat excess fat. Reprogram muscle to grow. Rebuild neuronic pathways. Imagine you could download your entire mind to the cloud, seamlessly, every ten minutes, for rebooting in the event of accidental damage. Imagine you could retard the ageing process, be young, be strong, be desirable forever. Which of us wouldn’t take any of those elective steps on the pathway to the Cybermen?
Now imagine every heartbreak you’ve ever had. Every death you’ve grieved for. Every love that’s spurned. Imagine all the rage of passion and politics, of argument, of knowing that you’re right and someone else is wrong. Imagine all the pain of knowing others are suffering, and you can do nothing to help. That you can’t save those who die of famine, those who flee from war, those whose parents beat them, those who find the streets a safer bet. You can do nothing to help any of them.
Then imagine you could take all that pain, all that passion and heartbreak and impotence, and you could flush it, cool as lemonade from your brain. How much easier would your life be without the burden of a conscience, without the need to care.
How attractive would that be?
The Cybermen are us if we take the easy option, if we delete the painful parts of being alive because they hurt. The Daleks are screaming Nazi children in tanks, but there’s something altogether more heartbreaking about the Cybermen, and especially their certainty that their way is better.
Then, beyond the heavy philosophy of the Cybermen, there’s their aesthetic. The Daleks and Cybermen might both be former humanoids encased in metal and kept alive by artificial systems, but the Daleks don’t look like they were ever us. The Cybermen, in all their forms – from the mummified Tenth Planeters to the metallic Troughton variants, and even up to the current, somewhat cherubic mostly-androids – look humanoid. Their eyes and mouth are in the same relationship as ours, their arms and legs are like ours. The fact of their former humanity is inescapable – as is the fact that with their expressionless faceplates and their synthesised voices, they’ve lost the last scraps of that humanity to their fear and their need to survive.
That aesthetic of lost humanity, that blankness coming from something that we instinctively feel should be like us, makes the Cybermen more imposing, more terrifying than the sons of Skaro.
Then there’s the variability of their use. While the Dalek shadow is thrilling when thrown against a corridor wall, there’s no such thing as a stealth Dalek. Or rather, there is now, in terms of the humanoid Dalek agents, but there hasn’t been until very recently. Cybermen were doing the scary shadow thing as early as The Moonbase too, but they could also hide as humans in a hospital bed! They had plans that were deeply (in fact, some would say impenetrably) sneaky as far back as The Wheel In Space, and they’ve done everything from poisoning staff on a space station to send the survivors to blow up a planet, to crashing a shipful of themselves into the Earth, to altering the course of Halley’s comet to stealing children from an amusement arcade and turning the Doctor into one of them. The Daleks have had some whacky schemes in the past too, it’s true, but for sheer, madly illogical logic, you can’t beat the Cybermen.
Invention, multiple use, the cold aesthetic of sacrificed humanity and their interminable closeness to what we could become all, for me, make the Cybermen the most fascinating, and the scariest, of all the Doctor Who monsters. As they’ve evolved in recent years to upgrade their speed and stealth, to spread their nature by touch in cybermites and by weaponising the dead, the Cybermen have added new, more 21st century scares to their arsenal. I for one want to see where the Cybermen’s terrifying destiny takes them, and us, next.
Tony rides the Spacey Zoomer.
The Cybermen have, over the course of their fifty years of Doctor Who history, not been treated well in terms of story. For creatures supposedly governed solely by logic, some of their stories have been tortuously over-complicated, and in others, particularly in recent years, there has been more of a focus on their visual, stompy-monster threat than their philosophical underpinnings or their actual reason for being.
As such, it’s a bit of a mystery why, of all the Cyber-stories in recent years, many fans find Nightmare in Silver to be something of a let-down.
In the first instance, it’s actually about something that matters to the Cybermen – rebirth, the relaunch of their race as a power in the universe, some long while after defeat in a massive Cyber-war. For contrast, this is essentially the same basic premise as Revenge of the Cybermen, with its handful of almost glam-rock-shiny, seventies Cyber-groovers. But Nightmare in Silver actually addresses the fundamental nature of what the Cybermen are, and what they are reported to do, but have seldom ever actually been shown doing – upgrading, evolving, adapting to new circumstances by patching in new abilities, new realities about themselves. This, if anything, is the reason Cybermen want to make more of themselves – they exist to defy death, ageing and disease, and they want to make more of themselves because they honestly believe that they are better than everything else. If they’re going to be based on logic, and they’re going to believe they’re better than everything else, there has to be a reason why they believe that. The reason is that nothing should phase them. Very little should kill them. And every stratagem of those resisting their inevitable supremacy should be counteracted by a rapid evolution.
There are of course very good practical storytelling reasons why this has never been shown on screen before – if you have a creature with the potential that the Cybermen have, you have very little story: you have a marching army of Cybermen, you have their enemies trying to resist, you have their enemies’ resistance failing, and you have the Cyber-army growing. Or, conceivably, you have their enemies left with no alternative but to blow up the planet on which they happen to be standing. This is what the Cybermen should be – but it does make for fairly monotonous storytelling.
But since it’d never been shown on screen in 48 years of Cyber-history, you have to give props to Neil Gaiman (and who, after all, doesn’t give props to Neil Gaiman for one reason or another) for deciding, just once, to really show what the Cybermen genuinely are.
It’s true, there’s a hint of a sixties Doctor Who annual about the beginnings of the story: The Doctor and Clara taking her two young ‘wards’ on a jolly whizzo space adventure – including the Spacey Zoomer! – but this sense quickly drops away once they’ve bounced about a bit in zero gravity and the Doctor has noticed the strange insects and night falls. All the jolly fun drops down to dark shadows and forebodings as the children are packed off to bed and, inevitably, Angie goes wandering off to investigate the punishment platoon.
It’s also true that there seems to be no particularly good or logical reason why the punishment platoon should have been sent to this particular space-rock, other than to provide the handy expedient of a bunch of soldiers to fight the Cybermen, and a really big bomb. But in its core elements, Nightmare In Silver makes significantly more sense than most other Cyber-stories in the show’s history. They have been there on this insignificant planet, quietly rebuilding their numbers by stealing the children who used to visit and turning them into their new recruits, their new army, just waiting for the right brain to become their Cyber-Planner. And with the arrival of new children, the time has come. The Doctor’s strange insects start scuttling, and the Cybermites do their work.
The Cybermites are a creation of genius – synthesising the idea of the Cybermat as a servant-creature and the idea of nanobots as tiny repair or conversion droids – we imagine the new Cybermen have a system full of Cybermites to perform the upgrades of which they speak, and to begin the conversion process in organic humanoids they encounter. The idea of fast Cybermen is so obvious it’s frankly amazing it’s never been shown before, so Gaiman gives it to us – if you were a creature that was an organic brain in a constantly evolving metal body, why would you choose a slow, noisy one? No, you’d be as fast as possible, as efficient as possible. Likewise with the scenes which many fans thought made the Cybermen too jokey in this episode – the detached body parts used as decoys. But again, this is what the Cybermen are, or should be: since the re-statement of them in New Who as an organic brain in a body mainly made of metal (with, we assume, most of the rest of the inefficient organic body jettisoned), the head should be able to function independently, and there’s no reason why, given a coherent program matrix of Cybermites, individual limbs shouldn’t be able to function strategically and separately too. This is the Cybermen functioning logically for once in their on-screen career.
When the first of the upgraded Cybermen makes its appearance and steals the children, the resurrection of the Cybermen can be put into operation rapidly – but then a better plan immediately suggests itself, and the Cybermen switch tack. They don’t need the children to be their Cyber-Planner: not when there’s a Time Lord brain available.
The Eleventh Doctor’s frantic and massively camp battle with the Cyberiad trying to rewrite his brain and bring him into the system as the new Cyber-Planner (that’s Mr Clever to you) has been seen by some fans as antithetical to the idea of emotionless, logically-driven creatures, but this misses the point quite spectacularly. The Cybermen respect the brain, and they have learned to make use of its creativity, its organic impulsiveness – but within reason, and only in their Cyber-Planners. Possibly they’re assimilated details of the Dalek-Movellan conflict and appreciated the need for an organic work-around for pure logic in strategic situations. The battle is also played out in a way specific to the Eleventh Doctor – every Doctor would have had a similar battle, but the specifics would have been different, because the personalities would have been different. Ultimately, we see the cunning of the Cyberiad, trying to manipulate Clara, and succeeding to some extent. With millions of revived and upgraded Cybermen on the march, the Doctor and the Cyberiad play a logic game for control of his brain – and the Doctor once again teaches the Cybermen the value of that organic intuition, by cheating (which is ultimately a way of working around the rules). But still, in the final analysis, when you have a foe as dynamic and unstoppable as the Cybermen should be, blowing them up with love should not be an option. Blowing them up with a massive, massive bomb – yes. And ultimately, there’s no alternative at the end of Nightmare in Silver – it’s the only way to beat a foe that just keeps on coming and assimilates your soldiers.
Nightmare in Silver is an example of the kind of storytelling you cannot do too often. But it’s an example of absolutely what the Cybermen should occasionally be seen to be like – implacable, unstoppable, evolving round every obstacle and leaving you nowhere to go. In the history of the show, they’ve been killed with everything from gravity to radiation, gold dust to cleaning fluid, their own self-realisation, and *ahem* love. Nightmare In Silver stands alone in painting them as a galactic threat, and admitting that what you need to defeat them is not cleverness, because they can think their way around cleverness faster than you can create it. Some threats, some bullies, you have to beat with a show of brute force, and if you’re human, rather than a super-intelligent Time Lord who aims to be better, your only real option is to hit them, hard, before they can lay a Cybermite-infested fist on you. There are elements of the storytelling that are questionable, and that make it seem like it’s aimed at younger fans, but in terms of the representation of the Cybermen as a real, logical, implacable threat, the show has never done better.
Nightmare in Silver is the apotheosis of that thrill in Tomb of the Cybermen when they wake up en masse. It’s why the Invasion resurrection thrills. Why the sight of all those reviving Cybermen in Earthshock sends chills down your spine – it’s the ultimate on-screen realisation of the idea that when the Cybermen march, you cannot run and you cannot hide. You cannot reason and you can’t out-think. You can only kill or be killed: that is the true nature of the nightmare in silver.
Tony thinks logically about the Cybermen.
The Cybermen have never been used to their full potential on screen.
Ahhhh – thank you. I’ve been wanting to get that off my chest for quite some years now.
The Cybermen are Doctor Who’s silver medal monsters. Only the Daleks outrank them in the show’s history, and the reason for that is that, like the Daleks, they work on two levels – the immediate, threatening, scary monster level and the philosophical level, embodying a primal human fear.
The Daleks are what happen if you raise a child in darkness and isolation, teach it its superiority and instruct it in hatred, then trap it in a tank for its whole life. With their genuine belief that they are superior, they glide on screen and scream at you, but they also embody both a fear of nuclear poisoning, and the rigidity of mindset that comes with a racial superiority complex. They’re both demented loveless children and out-and-out Nazis in tanks.
The Cybermen, if anything, embody an even more primal fear – the fear of ageing, of decrepitude, and of death. The Cybermen are what happen when a society’s ability to keep death and ageing at bay is equal to its fear of those material constants. They’re what happen when the trend for cosmetic, elective plastic surgery tips the balance of life and death in favour of living forever.
This philosophical reality of the Cybermen – the Dorian Grey factor, where the longer you live and the more you replace, the less human or humane you become – has been woefully underexplored in their on screen exploits.
There’s very little in the science fiction world that organic systems do better than the potential of engineered systems. Creative thinking is the great exception. New Who has fundamentally re-written what the Cybermen are, and taken them in a positive direction, by saying that the main component that remains organic in them is the brain – the thing, ironically that makes individuals unique – and that all or most of the rest of them is now mechanical. This would surely be the logical way for the Cyber-race to progress, improving the robotic components, and reducing the limitations placed on their evolution by the decay and degeneration of their organic parts.
But if that’s what the Cybermen are, they’ve been massively underutilised.
Throughout the Classic Who years of course, they were largely used for their ‘stompy monster’ potential, which is undeniably great – get a Cyber-shape looming out of the Antarctic snow, or its silhouette thrown across a lunar landscape, and you still get a tingle of fear at the size of the things. Get them marching out of sewers and down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, or get them bursting out of tubes on a cargo ship and marching in ranks towards you, and you get the distinct sense that dying is the least dreadful thing that’s going to happen to you today. But New Who made a stab in the Russell T Davies era at understanding the philosophical level on which the Cybermen ascend to an extra pitch of fear. By giving them an ‘alternative’ origin, the show rewrote the vital part of them, inasmuch as only the brain counted as organic – but then went back to using them largely as stompy villains, marching into dinner parties, or marching around the world as ‘ghosts,’ having them as comedy relief in A Good Man Goes To War and The Big Bang, and even ‘blowing them up with love’ in Closing Time.
Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare In Silver was decried by large swathes of fandom, but, just as The Age of Steel did for them back in Davies’s time, it fundamentally took the Cybermen forward. Why would they be stompy – if they were constantly evolving, upgrading, refining themselves (and they have over the years had more physical redesigns than any other creature), why would they not be fast? Fast, and silent. The detached hand sequence was played unfortunately for laughs, or at least evoked laughs by its similarity to a Red Dwarf sequence, but this is exactly the point about the potential of the Cybermen – they should have independently programmable limbs and bodies. They should have detachable limbs, and yes, their heads should be able to function turned around 180 degrees or entirely detached. The Cybermites were a brilliant evolution of the Cybermat idea, but they could be taken further – combine technological advancement with the Daleks, essentially, and use their own nano-cloud technology – you should be in danger of becoming a Cyberman simply by being in the same area as a single Cyberman; like Borg nanites, there should be clouds of tiny Cyber-mites that turn living flesh into metal, that rewrite mental pathways and shut down the areas responsible for emotional response – no more of this “stored” or “restorable” emotion, so you can destroy the Cybermen by unlocking emotion in them. They should simply look at you when you try a manoeuvre like that, and keep on coming.
What’s more, for creatures ruled by logic, they have a sentimental attachment to their old, organic, body shape (which of course is the result of being largely played by human beings). To restore the Cybermen to the level of body-horror, have them strap on limbs, weapons etc as needed. Why not have Special Weapons Cybermen? What about Cyber-zerkers: Cybermen that are overclocked, as it were, to take out maximum resistance in a suicide mission and retain as many standard Cyber-units as possible. It would be a mistake to lose the traditional Cyber-look of handles on heads, but there’s no fundamental reason why the Cybermen have to remain looking like men at all.
The Cybermen have always been effective on screen for their stompy villain routine. (Well…maybe notsomuch in Revenge of the Cybermen, but mostly…). They’ve never really been utilised to the best of their capabilities in terms of what they philosophically represent.
Not so in audio – in stories like the loose trilogy, The Reaping, The Gathering and The Harvest from Big Finish, there are three quite different but equally audacious takes on the Cybermen, but of course, audio is free from the expense of rendering such dynamic inventions as fill these three episodes on the screen.
In terms of stories which would use modern Cybermen to a greater percentage of their philosophical, body-horror potential, why not have the Cybermen, through a semi-Cyberised slave like Tobias Vaughan, going into commerce: providing overpopulation solutions to overcrowded worlds, or coming as saviours or gods to worlds where the inhabitants are all dying of plague – offering physical immortality to the old and seeing how many people would volunteer for conversion.
For a low-budget idea that stays true to the core of the Cybermen, why not have them revolutionise the beauty industry – one pill, one time, and you never age again; only gradually do you find out that the Cybermites are swarming through your body, turning you into something else, your fear of ageing and death giving you the ultimate Picture of Dorian Grey makeover that the Cybermen truly represent. Why not have them set up sleeper cells through organ replacement banks and blood transfusions? Granted, you might traumatise a generation of children from ever going into hospital, but they’re already scared of statues, so what’s left to lose? At least the beauty industry idea might reinforce the original philosophical idea of the Cybermen – that over-augmentation results is people who are somehow less human. Or to emphasise the newly more mechanical superiority of the Cybermen, what could be more Cyber than a computer virus, infecting servers around the world, allowing pathways through cables for the Cybermites to do their work.
When you have such a richness of symbolism wrapped up in a monster – the fear of ageing and death; the bargain of Dorian Grey; the zombification of humanity and the fetishisation of technology to the point where the next techno-upgrade is immortality, it’s a shame that the Cybermen should have been used for so long either in over-complicated and strangely illogical plots (The Wheel In Space, Revenge of the Cybermen, Earthshock, we’re looking at you, among others) or for the symbolism only of their strength and their blunt trauma effect as soulless monsters. Dig a little deeper and the Cybermen could be the kind of villain to blow the Weeping Angels away and reclaim their rightful place in the topmost echelons of the Who monster hierarchy.