Doctor Who: The Return of the Cybermen

‘Excellent,’ says Tony Fyler, watching the 80s Cybermen.

When the Cybermen returned to Doctor Who in Earthshock after an eight-year absence, they were pitched with a beautiful clarity of thought. They had been the show’s second real instance of bottled lightning throughout the 60s, only eclipsed by the Daleks in terms of number of appearances and working in both stompy monster and philosophical terms. But Revenge of the Cybermen back in 1975, while to some extent seeding what the Cybermen would become, in other ways did them very few favours – the Doctor’s rant in that story about them being ‘a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship’ hurt the Cybermen’s credibility, as did some of the story’s budget limitations and shot-choices – the Cybermen in Cyber-flares, ducking their wobbly helmets under doorways and occasionally adopting disco-strut pointy-poses left the taste of over-ripe cheese in the mouth of many viewers, which meant they didn’t appear again throughout the rest of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor, seeming to confirm the irrelevance they had assumed during Pertwee’s era.

But in Earthshock, they were reinvented, based largely on what had gone before – the Cybermen still had the most illogical plans of any alien race in Who, almost as a nose-thumbing to the notion of their being governed by logic, but Eric Saward went back to The Tenth Planet to deliver a Cyberleader with that least cybernetic of qualities – charisma - who could argue the philosophy of freedom from emotion with the Doctor (in some ways, the Cyberleader in Earthshock is not only positively flippant, but more than vaguely Buddhist, detached from the ‘irrelevancies’ of a life lived at the beck and call of emotional distraction). The Earthshock Cybermen had also been redesigned in the most 80s fashion imaginable – if they’d had metal shoulder-pads, the image would have been complete. They looked fresh, and new, and, with the exception of the moon-boots (themselves an improvement on The Invasion’s lace-up Cyber-feet!), they looked believable.

The idea of the Cybermen is that they work, just like the Daleks do, on two levels – the philosophical level, where they represent the fear of ageing and death, and its ultimate defeat by the replacement of most organic matter with mechanical elements; and the physical level, where they are towering, shadowing figures that inspire fear by their size, their indestructibility, their numbers and their uniformity. Throughout the history of Who they had largely been used in this latter way – as a monster of shock and awe, looming out of the dark or out of hostile environments, or marching, endless and indefatigable, as in The Invasion. 

Their reinvention in Earthshock was in many ways a Cybermen Greatest Hits album to remind, or inform, viewers of their greatness – there they were, smashing their way out of tubes. There they were marching (with a recognizably Cyberman music cue underneath), line after line after line towards the camera. There they were, tall, cold, terrifying, and there were those blank, emotionless face-masks, betraying nothing because there was nothing but logic underneath.

But in Earthshock, Saward really did make a decent silver fist of bringing in that philosophical element too, having the Cyberleader and the Doctor argue over the importance or irrelevance of emotions. In a way, it was a scene echoing those of other Doctors – William Hartnell’s barnstorming ‘Have you no emotions, sir?’ speech and Tom Baker’s more scornful ‘Pathetic bunch of tin soldiers’ speech, melded together and given performance points more suited to Davison’s Doctor. Indeed, it’s one of Davison’s most stand-out opportunities to define his Doctor, this battle over the importance of ‘small, beautiful moments.’ Where Tom Baker was dismissive, finding the blinkered Revenge Cybermen an irrelevance, Davison’s performance has more in common with Hartnell’s, delivering an actual argument as if trying to change the Cyberleader’s mind. This was the 80s though, and the Cyberleader essentially ‘wins’ the argument with a horror-movie move, threatening to kill a friend of the Doctor’s, in this case, Tegan. While this was merely an evolution of the Cybermen that had been before – the Revenge Cybermen were ‘positively flippant’ to Sarah-Jane as they consigned her to an impending death too – the Earthshock Cybermen were ultimately responsible for the death of a companion. That hadn’t happened since The Daleks’ Master Plan, and it shocked a nation of fans, coming as it did unexpectedly and only after a massive struggle for control of the Tardis. While the Davison Doctor proved his mettle by doing what Tom Baker’s Doctor was unable to do – jumping a Cyberman and clogging its chest unit with gold – the death of Adric at the end of Earthshock rocketed the Cybermen forward, pitching them straight back into the premier league of Who monsters. Like the Daleks, and only the Daleks, they had taken Tardis-traveller blood.

The Cybermen were back, and with Dalek stories oddly locked into an epic timescale from Genesis through Destiny leading naturally to at least Resurrection, after Earthshock, they were poised to reclaim their place as the second most scary monster in Who.

Then The Five Doctors happened, and for all that story’s strengths, in terms of the Cybermen, everything went spectacularly chest grille-up. They’re all over the place in The Five Doctors, to be sure, but what they’re most notable for in that story is the sorry business of being entirely massacred - twice. While it’s perfectly logical that they would make an alliance with the Master, his arguments to convince them of his good intentions towards them wouldn’t fool many species in the galaxy, with the probable exception of the Sontarans. And again, while it makes perfect sense that they intend to double-cross the Master, the fact that none of them clocks his erratic pattern of steps across the game board is an epic logic-fail. The idea of a Cyberman releasing its grip on the Brigadier’s wrist because it was being hit with a convenient piece of pipe is absolutely antithetical – one of the many reasons to upgrade to Cyberform is so that you can resist pain and withstand damage without losing control of your objectives, surely? And then, of course, there’s the Raston Warrior Robot humiliation. The Raston Robot is itself a fantastic creation from Terrance Dicks, but it’s a real shame that the comprehensive display of its sports car awesomeness comes at the price of reducing the newly re-engineered Cybermen to so much scrap metal.

They’d come so far forward with the impact of Earthshock, but The Five Doctors sent them back to being silver cannon-fodder.

As the 80s progressed, the Cybermen tried to rally – Attack of the Cybermen was actually quite a strong story for them, unfortunately with its traditionally mad, illogical Cyber-plotting rather mired in series history. But still, in terms of the body horror, the blank disregard for emotion and the inflicting of gruesome physical pain, Attack repairs some of The Five Doctors’ damage to the Cyber-reputation. They also did some prime, top-quality lurking in Attack – back down the sewers, and with ‘stealth Cybermen’ too. When their base is discovered and they come forward to face Lytton and Griffiths, all with the Cyber-theme to back them up, it’s pretty stirring stuff.

Annnd then there’s Silver Nemesis. The Cybermen barely need to be in Silver Nemesis – beyond the tedious role assigned them in the Nazi ideology as ‘the giants,’ and the fact that they’re silver, tying in with the silver anniversary theme, there’s very little need for them to be Cybermen at all, and the story is written for an omni-monster. They turn down the ‘secrets of the Time Lord’ without recognising, anywhere in their supposedly logical brains, that such secrets would give them enormous bargaining power, and Ace is able to kill them, instantly, by firing gold coins at them from a catapult. It’s an ignominious end to a rise that had such potential back in 1982 when their return to screens in Earthshock had put them front and centre of fan attention again.

Despite their ups and downs though, the four Cyber-stories of the 80s did a very important job. The Cybermen had appeared just once in the fourteen years prior to Earthshock in 1982. Seven years had gone by between The Invasion and Revenge of the Cybermen, followed by a second seven years of Cyber-drought – in the pre-VHS era, generations of Doctor Who fans had never seen the Cybermen, and arguably, given their performance in Revenge of the Cybermen, still more generations had never seen them be any good. Earthshock brought them slap, bang up to date and proved how well they could work, and the subsequent three Cyber-stories were a testament to their reclamation of their place in the big leagues of Doctor Who monsters. And for those who were 80s Who fans of course, those four stories would loom large in their mind, ensuring that the Cybermen would be a certainty to return when those fans ran the show in the 21st century.

Tony Fyler 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
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