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Origins And Return Of The Cybermen
by J.C. Hartley
In his 1925 novel Heart Of A Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov satirised Soviet society by having a professor transplant the genitals and pituitary gland of a human into a dog that, over time, comes to resemble a man. The satire might be on the concept of the 'new Soviet man' or on how easy it was to advance within Soviet society even with the habits of a dog; or perhaps it is a warning on the dangers of scientific meddling. It is certainly in a tradition of belief that ascribes defining human emotional characteristics to parts of the body. The adapters of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein usually have the Creature go wrong due to some mistake in the source of the spare parts, an abnormal brain being the favourite. There is also a tradition of flesh memory in horror fiction, where sentient characteristics or imperatives cling to limbs or organs, notably in The Beast With Five Fingers, W.F. Harvey's short story, made into a classic horror film in 1946, where a dead composer's severed hand goes on a murderous rampage. Just as the heart in folk-wisdom is seen as the seat of the emotions, or indeed as the essence of personality, there exists the belief that personality or defining traits might cling to organs separated from their original owners. The conceit continues into the present day, the Adverts' 1977 hit Looking Through Gary Gilmore's Eyes made play of the fact that the executed murderer made his eyes available for organ donation. The first human-to-human heart transplantation was in 1967, three years after a human was implanted with a chimpanzee heart. Media references to these events dabbled as much in the kind of folklore already described here as in hailing an advance in modern science.
While the notion existed that organ transplantation might allow some shred of personality or defining characteristic to transfer from donor to recipient, another trend to emerge from the medical advances of the 1960s was the postulated use of machines to support, enhance, or replace the functionality of parts of the body. Kidney dialysis existed as a theory at the end of the 19th century and was in practical development from as early as 1913; heart-lung machines, spare part surgery, and the development of cybernetics in the 1960s, led Dr Kit Pedlar, scientific adviser to the Doctor Who series since 1966's season three story The War Machines, to imagine the effect on a race forced to replace organic matter with metal prostheses and machine systems.
Pedlar and script editor Gerry Davis wrote The Tenth Planet, the final four-part story of the fourth season of Doctor Who, broadcast in October of 1966, and notable not only as being the first appearance of an abiding enemy of the Doctor, but as being the final appearance, specials aside, of the first Doctor, William Hartnell, and consequently the first to introduce the concept of regeneration.
The Cybermen are from Mondas, a wandering planet and formerly Earth's twin prior to its drifting out of the Solar system, they have systematically replaced their organic parts with machine parts as a reaction to dwindling resources and as a means of survival. The approach of Mondas, now fitted with a propulsion system, drains power from the Earth and the Cybermen are revealed to be planning to invade and destroy the Earth. Eventually Mondas absorbs too much of Earth's energy and is itself destroyed, which eliminates the Cybermen themselves who drew their own motive power from their home planet. It is revealed that the increasing mechanisation of the Cybermen has eliminated emotion from their make-up; as well as being a speculation about the future of a cybernetic humanity, the theme has been a regular one in science fiction, even used politically in terms of concerns that industrialisation of the means of production would reduce a human work force to mere automatons.
The Cybermen not only want to invade and destroy the Earth but also wish to take the crew of both the Arctic base and the Tardis back with them to Mondas to become Cybermen themselves. This forcible conversion is an abiding theme of Cybermen stories, ensuring their own survival as a race by the creation of other Cybermen. The ITV SF series UFO, broadcast in 1970-1, featured a dying alien race harvesting human beings for their internal organs, a more grisly variation on the theme.
There is the suggestion of some form of flesh-envy within the cyber race. The elimination of emotion from the Cybermen, either as a by-product of the process of cybernation or as a deliberate attempt at 'improvement', is variously handled within the creatures' appearances. They often seem to react with anger, or their attacks seem to be fuelled by the desire for revenge, very emotional responses. Inevitably they invite comparison with those other perennial survivors of the Doctor Who canon, the Daleks. Various motivations have been mooted for Dalek behaviour, in line with the twin strands of origin stories that have been pursued over the lifetime of the Doctor Who series. The urge to conquest, driven by the trauma of their mutation, whether by accident or design has, over the years, and particularly in their latter incarnations, become a hatred of difference in others, and a perverted ideal of racial purity that has seen civil war between rival Dalek factions. These storylines suggest an evolution in the presentation of the Daleks, notwithstanding blips such as their description as a race of robots in Destiny Of The Daleks in 1979. Apart from alterations to their appearance, there seems to have been little evolution in the presentation of the Cybermen race. It was perhaps frustration with this evolutionary dead-end that prompted their reappearance as the machine shells from a parallel Earth in the revived series.
Continuity, always a problem in the Doctor Who universe, is compounded in the case of the Cybermen's appearance, as advancements in production values over the course of the series has meant an increasing sophistication so that they appear sleeker and more advanced in stories that should pre-date The Tenth Planet. This could be explained in terms of the gradual deterioration of Cyberman culture as Mondas suffers, so that their first appearance reflects the desperation of failing spare-part technology. The Cybermen also flirt with time-travel, which may have affected their appearance over time but overall the inconsistency may be ignored as one of the many paradoxes that afflict the series, without diminishing our enjoyment of it, as well as providing something to do for those fans who endlessly seek to provide chronologies for events and explain away apparent failures in continuity.
The return of the Cybermen in a season four story (with the Doctor played by Patrick Troughton in 1967), The Moonbase, also written by Pedlar and Davis, established them as a fixture in the canon of Doctor Who villains. Set on the Moon in 2070, where a poorly realised device called the Graviton helps to contain the worst excesses of climate change, caused by the environmentally unstable nature of the Earth. It is a stock Doctor Who situation where a small isolated community is threatened by an outside force with wider-ranging ramifications for the world at large, and as such is a virtual reprise of The Tenth Planet. However, the Cybermen themselves have altered quite dramatically and signal the movement to a more metallic appearance as opposed to the 'Egyptian Mummy with metal bits' look of their debut. These Cybermen do not need to breathe but their plastic chest plates are vulnerable to an attack by chemical solvents.
The third appearance of the Cybermen, opening season five in 1967, is considered a classic. The Tomb Of The Cybermen takes place on Telos, which is said to be the Cybermen's home planet, in apparent contradiction to The Tenth Planet where it was Mondas. This confusion would be sorted out later in the series, when we discover that Telos was a world conquered and colonised by the Cybermen. An archaeological expedition financed by the Brotherhood of Logicians is seeking to gain entry to the tombs to search for artefacts. The nominal leader of the expedition is Parry, but Klieg of the Brotherhood gradually asserts authority as he reveals his plan to waken the dormant Cybermen and ally them to the Brotherhood to bring about the rule of logic and rationality on Earth. Inevitably, the Cybermen are not interested in alliances and aim to convert the humans in the expedition and the Doctor and his companions into Cybermen themselves.
Cleverly designed sets and the use of close-ups in fairly static camerawork make the best use of limited space, which is claustrophobic and intimidating. The emergence of the Cybermen from their frozen tombs is an impressive spectacle even if they return to them in short order, and by the device of reversing the film. A notable departure is the Cyber-leader who has an impressive brain case visible through his transparent helmet; this over-developed organ gives him some form of mind control power. The Tomb Of The Cybermen reverses the situation of their previous two appearances in that while The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase were siege stories, essentially the same siege story, The Tomb Of The Cybermen sees the creatures bearded in their own lair.
Given the breakout format of The Tomb Of The Cybermen it was business as usual for The Wheel In Space, the last story of season five in 1968 and written by David Whitaker from a Kit Pedlar story. Here, Cybermen attempt to take over an Earth space station, to use as a staging post for an invasion to plunder the Earth's mineral resources. This storyline introduced Wendy Padbury as Zoe Herriot, a parapsychology librarian, and an interesting piece of character development makes her highly trained in maths and logic but bemoaning the fact that her training has turned her into something like a robot, or a machine, while leaving her short on emotional experience. The parallels with the Cybermen are obvious. If the threats offered by the Cybermen were too often repetitious and predictable the writers at least attempted to offer contrasts with human behaviour. General Cutler in charge of the South Pole base in The Tenth Planet allows his fear for the safety of his astronaut son to overcome his sense of duty. Klieg of The Brotherhood of Logicians in The Tomb Of The Cybermen seeks to emulate the Cybermen's emotional bypass. The human characters confronted by the Cybermen are offered a behavioural choice, either embracing what it means to be a flawed human, or seeking the logical perfection which at its extreme means a makeover as a Cyberman.
The following appearance of the Cybermen, the third of Troughton's tenure, for season six in 1968, was another classic. The Invasion saw a mysterious and powerful industrial complex International Electromatics being used by its managing director, the sinister Tobias Vaughn, as a front for another Cyberman invasion of Earth. It is interesting how through the Troughton, and later the Jon Pertwee, years the industrial-complex is presented as the root of evil, producing malevolent alien artefacts and dehumanising its workforce to the level of automatons. It is either a social criticism worthy of Frank Capra or a reflection of a decade of fraught industrial relations in English politics. This storyline although full of unnecessary padding, and some frankly risible by-play between the leads, is full of good ideas, and the alien threat is almost sidelined by the masterful playing of Vaughn by cult TV favourite Kevin Stoney, who reprises the kind of double-dealing human villain he created as Mavic Chen in The Daleks' Masterplan.
The writer Derrick Sherwin seems to have grasped that while the Cybermen's soulless logic is a horrifying concept it makes something turgid of their very remorselessness, creating a banality of evil. In Vaughn, there is a complexity of motivation lacking in his allies. While ostensibly preparing a bridgehead for the Cybermen's invasion, Vaughn is using the resources of his company, and cyber-technology, to develop a weapon against his allies, so that he will retain the upper hand and be able to seize power for himself when the Cybermen have done his dirty work. Vaughn is partly cybernetic; he has cyber body parts able to withstand being shot, while his brain and consciousness remains human, albeit of a warped and cruel ambition. His decision to turn against the Cybermen and use his weaponry, a machine generating emotional impulses, to destroy them is not motivated by a realisation that his loyalties should lie with his own kind, but rather his attack is fuelled by rage and a desire for revenge, when the Cybermen launch their invasion and refuse to conform to his own plans and ambitions. In the end it is his very selfish arrogance that determines Vaughn's own version of humanity.
Kevin Stoney was to appear again in the very next Cybermen story, only some seven years later in season 12 in 1975, with Revenge Of The Cybermen. Tom Baker was the Doctor and Gerry Davis provided the script. Stoney played the Vogan leader Tyrum, under heavy make-up. This story benefited from location filming in Wookey Hole caves in Somerset but has been attacked for the portrayal of the villains, who display a whole array of the emotional responses that are supposed to be inaccessible to them. Their appearance has been changed yet again with helmet-mounted weaponry and distinctive flaring on the legs of their costumes. The storyline revolves around their attempts to destroy the planetoid Voga, which is almost entirely composed of gold; a substance which it is revealed is deadly to them as it clogs their breathing apparatus. These Cybermen breathe, unlike those that attacked The Moonbase, yet despite their antipathy to gold they are able to function on the surface of Voga. The story is notable for the creation of the Cyberman-killing 'glitter gun'. The failure of scriptwriting logic, endemic to the whole history of the series, only highlights the impossibility of maintaining the internal logic of a race devoid of emotion. The Cybermen are at their best when they are ancillary to the storylines in which they appear, as in The Invasion.
By the appearance of the fifth Doctor played by Peter Davison the series was being tinkered with, ending up being broadcast in a couple of midweek slots instead of the traditional early-evening Saturday slot. Doctor Who: The Television Companion points out that this was to a have a lasting effect on public perception of the series, and ultimately was to pave the way for its suspension by the antagonistic controller of BBC in 1984 Michael Grade. Earthshock, written by Eric Saward and broadcast in 1982 for season 19, saw the return of the Cybermen after another seven-year lull. The early episodes are powerful, switching between a freighter on its way to Earth and a military force investigating attacks made on a team of palaeontologists by mysterious black androids in a cave system on Earth of the 26th century. The androids are revealed to be under the control of an invading force of Cybermen concealed on the freighter. While breaking out of the siege storylines of earlier incarnations, Earthshock owes something to Revenge Of The Cybermen. The design of the Cyber leader and his lieutenant is certainly impressive, with what looks like elaborate tooling on their suits, but the old emotional flaws are as ever in evidence. There is a spectacularly nonsensical scene where the Doctor and his military allies observe two cyber guards apparently chewing the fat, complete with elaborate hand gestures like expendable emotional goons in adventure series the world over. The story falls down, as always, with excessive padding, made up of mistaken identities, and wrongful arrests and accusations; and, as in Tomb of the Cybermen, the cyber army is revived but only to be placed back into suspended animation. The story is strongest in its interplay between its human characters, particularly friction between the Doctor and his companions. Adric, the Doctor's young companion from E-Space, sacrifices himself to save planet Earth, and the Doctor kills the Cyber leader with a gold badge belonging to the boy. The use of weapons and an increasing body-count was to be a growing motif of the series, possibly post-Star Wars, while many critics were questioning if the Doctor had had his day in the light of more sophisticated examples of small and big-screen SF.
The Cybermen appeared again, as principal alien villains, in the 20th anniversary one-off special The Five Doctors in 1983, written by Terence Dicks. They are little more than cannon fodder ruthlessly taken out by another android and the renegade Time Lord known as The Master. Their next appearance proper is in season 22, with the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, in a 1985 story written by newcomer Paula Moore, which highlighted the increasing violence in the series. Resurrection Of The Daleks in Peter Davison's final season had seemed a particularly shoot-em-up story, and Attack Of The Cybermen maintained the tone. Increasingly losing its way, the series seemed to be attempting to consolidate its appeal with long-term fans by making heavy reference to its own history and continuity. Inevitably, potential new fans were put off and even hardcore followers became disgruntled. Lytton the mercenary who was working for the Daleks in Resurrection Of The Daleks now appears to be working with the Cybermen. The Doctor and his companion Peri are forced to take Lytton and a group of Cybermen to Telos, the Cybermen's home world. The plan was to use a time machine to hijack Halley's Comet and crash it into the Earth to prevent the destruction of Mondas, which as related in The Tenth Planet took place in 1986, a topical note as well as fitting series continuity as the comet was due back in the Solar system in that year. Lytton redeems himself when it emerges that he is working for the Cryons, the vanquished original indigenous race of Telos. Action takes place around the tombs that featured in The Tomb Of The Cybermen, although it is thought that this story occurs after those events. The Cybermen attempt to cyberise Lytton who uses his enhancements to fight back, and again the Doctor uses cyber weaponry to kill a Cyber leader. Violent elements of the story seem to have replaced good storytelling and, for all of the apparent enthusiasm for continuity, the design of the Cybermen in the Tombs is virtually identical to those (from the future?) who have returned to revive them. One novelty is the appearance of black 'stealth' Cybermen, apparently left over from the time of The Invasion and hidden in the London sewers.
With Sylvester McCoy playing the seventh Doctor, Silver Nemesis was a season 25 story, written by Kevin Clarke and developed to officially celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, as surely Remembrance Of The Daleks had done a month earlier. Unfortunately the storyline closely mirrored that of the Dalek one, with references to Nazism, an ancient Time Lord artefact and a cloaked invasion fleet in Earth orbit. A statue, Nemesis, made of the living metal validium orbits the Earth encased in a comet on a 25-year cycle. Its proximity to the Earth results in bad times for Earth history; the last occasion coincided with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There are two artefacts related to the statue on Earth, a golden bow and a golden arrow. A group of surviving Nazis led by De Flores have the bow, while the arrow is in the possession of a 17th century would-be sorceress called Lady Peinforte. When the elements of the statue are united its destructive capabilities will be harnessed; it was originally a sort of Gallifreyan Space Defence Initiative developed by the legendary Time Lord Rassilon. The Doctor had previously launched the statue into space from the 17th century to prevent Lady Peinforte getting her hands on it; she has had its trajectory worked out and uses black magic to travel forward in time to 1988. The Nazis travel from their bolthole in Brazil, and the final element in the storyline is made up of a landing party of Cybermen.
There is a sense that the Cybermen are only present to make up the numbers, in a story that was particularly concerned with the Doctor's own backstory in what has become known as 'The Cartmel Masterplan'. Script editor Andrew Cartmel began to drop clues that the Doctor was far more than a renegade Time Lord, and his own history was far more intimately linked to the two founders of Time Lord power, Omega and Rassilon, through the creation of a character called The Other. Lady Peinforte has apparently obtained the truth of the Doctor's origins through conversation with the Nemesis statue, but is prevented at the end from revealing what she knows. Cartmel himself was prevented from revealing what he knew by the cancellation of the series. The Cybermen themselves look impressive, are recognised as fellow-travellers by the Nazi De Flores, but are continually hoodwinked, and eventually destroyed by gold coins used as ammunition in a sling-shot by the Doctor's companion Ace. The Nemesis statue destroys the cyber invasion fleet... and that was that for the original Cybermen. The next appearance for Cybermen was to be in the revamped series and arguably represented a completely new race.
In season two of the new series, in 2006, and with the tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, the Cybermen were reintroduced as the invention of a wheelchair-bound industrialist, John Lumic, CEO of Cybus Industries. Written by Tom Macrae, in a parallel Earth Lumic is attempting to 'upgrade' humanity for a kind of immortality, where human consciousness, as represented by a chemically sustained brain, could survive in a steel shell. Humanity in this Earth was partially cybernetic already by the use of a commercially available EarPod, like the Cybermen's distinctive 'handlebar' helmet attachments, which downloaded information directly into the brain. There are obvious parallels with the presentation of the Cybermen in the classic series. An industrial complex is at the heart of a conspiracy; Lumic is terminally ill and has been driven insane by his desire to survive his failing physical shell. Human beings, vagrants in this instance, are being forcibly cyberised. Once created, the Cybermen themselves prove hard to control, in the same way that agents and allies of the original Cybermen found themselves swept aside. Lumic, seriously injured by one of his own employees, is himself cyberised by his creations. Virtually impregnable, the Cybermen are defeated by the reintroduction of their emotions and driven to self-destructive insanity by the realisation of their lost humanity. Later in the series, and written by Russell T. Davies, parallel-Earth Cybermen managed to cross over to our version, through a dimensional rift caused by the passage of a 'void ship' in the possession of the Torchwood group. The void ship, capable of moving between the void between dimensions, was revealed to contain the Genesis Ark, a Time Lord prison for a Dalek army which, when released, clashed with the Cybermen for possession of London. Since passage through the void has saturated travellers with a specific background radiation, and allows them all to be sucked back into the void by a vacuum effect, the Doctor uses this to defeat the warring factions. These new Cybermen boasted impressive production values, were more robotic, and seemed to have solved the old problem of portraying characters devoid of emotion. Clearly they were not the hotchpotch of organic spare parts and high technology they once were. As a downside something of the old body-horror seemed to have been lost.
In his review for Monomyth of the magazine In Between Hangovers #3, in which a poem, Love Songs For Cybermen, a paean to anonymous sex, appeared, D.S. Davidson found it ironic that the author's apparent erotic fascination with the Cybermen was now shared by the BBC. Presumably this was a reference to the appearance in a first-season story of Torchwood in 2006, written by Chris Chibnall, of the Cyberwoman, the girlfriend of Torchwood member Ianto Jones, who for story continuity has been partially cyberised in the Cybermen takeover of the original Torchwood HQ at Canary Wharf, and kept alive in the basement of the new Torchwood HQ in Cardiff. Partial cyberisation of humans had been attempted before by the alien Cybermen, in Tomb Of The Cybermen, and Attack Of The Cybermen, and the Torchwood story harked back to their original method of attaching metal components to human bodies, rather than the method by which emotionally-inhibited human brains are inserted into cyber shells. The Torchwood episode hinged on the inevitable suppression of compassion involved in cyber conversion. Ianto's girlfriend Lisa has become sociopathic, her affection for her old boyfriend a travesty of real feelings. In many ways this episode is truer to the original paranoia that saw the development of the Cybermen back in 1966.
It is heavily rumoured that the Cybermen will reappear in the now ubiquitous Doctor Who Christmas special in December 2008. As this is a historically set story, apparently taking place in Victorian Britain, one can only speculate whether the Cybermen featured will be the parallel-Earth version released from the void into the past, or a reappearance of the original traditional enemies of the Doctor.
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