DOCTOR WHO - The Potential of the Cybermen
Over the next couple of weeks we're celebrating the Doctor's silver nemesis with a range of Cybermen themed articles. To get things underway, and ahead of the Series 8 two-part cyber-finale, Tony Fyler makes the case for them to be used in bolder ways.
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 now, only the brain counts 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 Portrait 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 in 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. Or the Cybermen as that other thing they represent – zombies – newly-dead brains being harvested from labs and graveyards and allowed to live again, and forever: Night of the Cybermen?
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.
Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk