Introduced as far back as 1966, the Cybermen have the unusual honor of being the first monster to ‘kill’ the Doctor. Ofcourse the Cybermen are not actually responsible for the 1st Doctor’s regeneration, but they do appear in the last William Hartnell story, where viewers saw the character die for the first time, only to be reborn in another form. Created by script writer Gerry Davis and medical scientist Kit Pedler, the Cybermen are unique in that they are monsters that say much about humanity and its obsession with technology and fear of death.
They’re also pretty cool.
Appearing opposite 6 of the seven doctors in the classic series (even Pertwee got a brief scene in the Five Doctors), the Cybermen are an awkward adversary it must be said. They are meant to be cold emotionless beings encased in metal life support systems yet they continually show anger, fear, annoyance and even pride. Eric Saward who wrote two of the three 1980′s Cybermen stories took it on the chin saying that it was just impossible to write a scene with an emotionless villain. How can a villain gloat without showing emotion, anyhow? They are also meant to be impervious to harm yet anything from pocket change to nail polish remover can kill them stone dead. Nevertheless, they captivated audiences and aside from the Daleks, still hold a special place in the hearts of the program’s viewers.
The initial Cybermen story, Tenth Planet, is looked upon as rather primitive and unsophisticated which I think is unfair. A run-of-the-mill ‘base under siege’ story, the plot can easily put you to sleep. However. the Cybermen themselves are just terrifying! The design is mad, a cloth mask with holes cut out for eyes and mouth, the entire body wrapped in a kind of rain slicker and various electronics strapped to the body as if placed there in desperation. It looks crazy and mush-shapen and that is what makes it so scary to me. Even the voice was unsettling, supplied by veteran vocal actor Roy Skelton. Roy would speak his lines into a machine that would distort the sound of his voice and the actor would mime the delivery. The end result was like watching an animated corpse communicate.
As a viewer, I only saw this initial version in action when the ‘Hartnell Years’ vhs tape was released in the 90′s and I was gob-smacked. The off-time voice and bizarre body movements clashed with the 80′s version I had become accustomed to.
Hartnell’s successor Patrick Troughton could possibly have fought more monsters and alien invasions than any other era of the program. In fact he battled the Cybermen four times in his three-year run as the lead. Each time the villains returned they changed slightly, being redesigned by the costume department for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Special effects also advanced greatly, allowing Cybermen to control minds from a distance and even burst from a hybernation sphere (truly one of the weirdest scenes I’ve witnessed in Dr Who).
The motivation of the Cybermen is rather iffy for some reason. The Cybermen in Tenth Planet were a dying race looking for new bodies to extend their lives, the villains seen in most of the other adventures are by and large monster looking to destroy humanity full stop (which is odd behavior for a race devoid of emotion). The Daleks, in comparison, are much more straight forward extreme Nazis who will kill anything that is not a Dalek. The initial idea behind the Cybermen was that they were dying off and needed more raw material and a new home, making them a kind of parasite on humanity. It’s a shame that this concept wasn’t more firmly accepted by the production team rather than just bringing them back as a baddie because the public loves them.
The later Cybermen stories range from classics like the Invasion and Tomb of the Cybermen to the forgettable until 1982 when the Cybermen returned in Earthshock. The appearance of the Cybermen was a genuine shock to viewers simply because they existed only in the minds of anyone old enough to have seen the 60′s episode or in the pages of Dr Who annuals and monster books. At least, that’s how the story goes. I’m assuming that most viewers just blotted out the very poor outing Tom Baker’s ‘Revenge of the Cybermen,’ which is fair enough.
Earthshock is a fan favorite for many but I have to confess that aside from the nostalgia factor I don’t see the appeal. A meandering plot, awful guest actors and an argument from the Doctor that Cybermen need to enjoy a home-cooked meal make the story rather low on the classic totem pole. Yet… it did re-introduce the Cybermen and it did so to great effect. The design was a massive step away from what we had seen previously and screamed that this was a show with a budget to the viewers.
The new ‘Cyberman march’ theme tune was also an instant classic and is the only piece of 1980′s incedental Doctor Who music to make an emotional impact of sheer creepiness, something the 60′s composers did every week.
Unfortunately the Cybermen were brought back in 2006 in the new Doctor Who series.
This version never really worked for me, which is a shame as I’m partial to Cybermen. The fact that they are from a parallel Earth takes a large part away from their relevance and their Riverdance-style movements are almost as laughable as the new catch-phrase ‘delete.’ I mean, what kind of battle cry is that?
Nevertheless, the Cybermen live on.
Just this month, Attack of the Cybermen was released on DVD. A Colin Baker adventure, this one is often forgotten by fans as it is hemmed in by the revered Earthshock on one end and the dismal Silver Nemesis on the other. That being the case, it is neither great nor awful. The first episode contains an unusual amount of atmosphere all thanks to Maurice Colburn who reprises his role of intergalactic mercenary Lytton. Lytton’s bank job and the escape of the two prisoners on Telos make the bulk of the first 45 minutes and are very well done, polished examples of 1980′s TV. Unfortunately, the rest is not and withers into the land of plastic rayguns and children’s entertainment. But the folks at the BBC thought of this and included some stellar DVD extras including a retrospective on the Cybermen, a visual journey through their varied designs and even a special segment on a real live cyborg who implanted a microchip in his nervous system.
While the activities of Kevin Warwick are strange and unusual, they are also very feasible. I’m glad that it made it on to the DVD because while it is an obvious connection from fiction to reality, it also drives home the message that the Cybermen had back in 66, the horror or death and our inability to escape it will drive humanity to extremes.
Pretty heady stuff for a goofy British sci-fo show, huh?
Doctor Who Lost in Time Collection of Rare Episodes – The Patrick Troughton Years 1966-1969 (contains segments of the Moonbase and Wheel in Space)
Doctor Who – The Tomb of the Cybermen
Doctor Who – The Invasion
Doctor Who – Earthshock (Episode 122)
Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen (Episode 138)