Sunday, 25 June 2017

Specieswatch: The Cybermen

The Cybermen are one of Doctor Who's most popular and endearing foes, making their first appearance in the 1966 serial The Tenth Planet and making return appearances right up to the present day.

Artwork from The 15th Cyber Legion, who, contrary to other cyber legions, don't seek to enslave or destroy other lifeforms, but instead raise lots of money for charity.

Fictional History

Millions of years ago, Earth had a twin planet. Named Mondas, it shared Earth's orbit and, for reasons not entirely understood, the two worlds were mirror images of one another in the layout of their landmasses.

At an unknown point in time, Mondas was flung out of its orbit. According to some reports, this was the result of the arrival of the Moon in Earth's orbit, the perturbations causing Mondas to be ejected from the Solar system (and the native sentient species on Earth, the Silurians, to take shelter in vast underground caverns).

According to most histories, Mondas wandered to the outskirts of the Solar system over the course of millions of years. As it receded from the Sun, Mondas became less and less habitable. The planet's dominant intelligent species were humans evolved in parallel to those on Earth, although some suggest they actually evolved at a much faster rate (due to the worsening environmental conditions). Like humans on Earth, the humans of Mondas developed an industrial civilisation. However, unlike Earth which became divided between squabbling factions, Mondas was united, its people working together to survive as the habitability of their world decreased and the planet grew colder.

The Mondasians turned to both cybernetics and space travel to try to save their race. At one point in time they were able to make contact with a formidably advanced humanoid species and were able to procure the use of a 400-mile-long, 100-mile-wide colony ship to help evacuate tens of thousands of people from the planet. The details of this chain of events remain unclear, but it is known that the would-be colonists perfected cybernetic transformation and created the first human/machine hybrids, or Cybermen. Simultaneously, the people on Mondas itself were able to create their first AI systems. The combination of the two phenomena resulted in the creation of a new species, enhanced humanoids utilising biological brains welded to formidable computing power and cybernetically-enhanced bodies. This came at the cost, however, of emotions and imagination.

Calling upon their scientific knowledge, the Cybermen halted the movement of Mondas away from the Sun and began the slow, multi-millennial task of returning it to its original orbit. They also utilised FTL technology (possibly ransacked from the alien colony ship) to settle planets in other systems. The most successful of these colonies was located on the planet Telos but others were scattered across the galaxy.

During Mondas's return to the inner Solar system, the Cybermen detected signals from Earth and learned that the humans of that planet had forged a significant industrial civilisation. They sent a scouting force to invade Earth circa 1975, but this was defeated by machinations of the Gallifreyan Time Lord known as the Doctor.

The original Cybermen in The Tenth Planet.

Eleven years later Mondas drew close to Earth and the Cybermen mounted an assault on the planet, storming the planet's Space Command in Geneva and a major base in Antarctica to forestall any space-borne attack on their homeworld. The Cybermen's plan was to absorb energy from Earth to replenish their dying homeworld, convert the population of Earth into Cybermen to replenish their own ranks and finally destroy the planet with humanity's own weapons of mass destruction to prevent any resistance being mounted against them by any surviving humans. However, the intervention of the Doctor (shortly before his very first regeneration) saw Mondas absorb too much energy and disintegrate, killing all of the Cybermen present (reliant on energy from Mondas).

With Mondas destroyed, it fell to the colonies outside the Solar system to mount renewed attacks: these invasions were designed to either conquer Earth as a new homeworld, forcibly convert the population into Cybermen or both. An attack was mounted on Earth in 2070 via the planet's Moonbase and another attack via a station located deep in interplanetary space. Both attacks were thwarted by the Doctor in his second incarnation, ending the threat of the Cybermen for several centuries.

An iconic shot from The Invasion.

The Doctor was also present when an Earth exploration team inadvertently awoke the main Cyberman colony on Telos in the 25th Century. This sparked a renewed period of hostility by the Cybermen towards Earth, culminating in the Cyber Wars. Humanity discovered that the Cybermen had a weakness to gold, which could corrode their internal systems, and swiftly made use of this to defeat the Cybermen en masse. An attempt to use a space freighter to destroy Earth in the early 26th Century was thwarted by the Doctor in his fifth incarnation, albeit only at the cost of the life of his companion Adric. Later, the Sixth Doctor aided the Cryons, the natives of Telos, in destroying the Cyber colony on the planet and reclaiming their homeworld.

These defeats reduced the Cybermen to tiny remnants in deep space, on remote colones or on ships in flight. Several centuries after the end of the Cyber War, the Doctor, in his fourth incarnation, helped thwart a renewed Cyber offensive using Space Station Nerva and the Voga asteroid, the source of much of the gold used in anti-Cyberman weaponry. One group of Cybermen apparently discovered a time-travel capable vessel and travelled back to mount an attack on Earth in 1988, but was halted by the Doctor in his seventh incarnation.

The Cyberman threat appeared to have been contained, with the Cybermen playing no role in the Time War. However, the course of history was altered when it was discovered that, in an alternate timeline, a more aggressive race of Cybermen had been created. These alternate dimension Cybermen invaded our universe and were halted by the actions of the Tenth Doctor, the Torchwood organisation and a squad of Daleks known as the Cult of Skaro. Another faction of these Cybermen breached the dimensional boundary to invade London in 1851 with a huge war machine, but were again stopped by the Tenth Doctor.

The Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors confronted several renewed threats to the galaxy from the Cybermen, who appeared as a resurgent threat in the far future. The Twelfth Doctor also stopped an attack on Earth in the early 21st Century by Cybermen working in concert with "Missy", the regenerated incarnation of his old enemy, the Master.

The Doctor, along with his companions Bill and Nardol and an apparently rehabilitated Missy, then encountered the Mondasian Cybermen on a massive colony ship they were apparently using to flee their dying homeworld. The Doctor discovered, to his horror, that a previous incarnation of the Master had apparently helped create the Cybermen and that his companion Bill, who had been "converted" as per the Master's instruction, may have become the very first Cyberman.

Behind the Scenes
In the mid-1960s Dr. Christopher "Kit" Pedler, a medical scientist and parapsychologist, with an interest in science fiction, was recruited by the BBC to lend expertise to several of their television programmes, most notably Tomorrow's World. The Doctor Who production team recruited him because they wanted to do more stories about real science and harder SF concepts, as these seemed to be resonating more with audiences.

Pedler's first contribution became the story idea for the story The War Machines. Gerry Davis, the show's script editor, was impressed by Pedler's talent to find a good story and they decided to collaborate on a script. Pedler had an interest in the growing field of cybernetics and transplant surgery, and told Davis about a conversation he'd had with his wife about how many of a human could be replaced by machinery before they were no longer human. This led to the creation of the Cybermen.

The Cybermen were cyborgs like the Daleks, but the Daleks had been forced into their state by the need to survive a nuclear war and were no longer recognisably human. They had also discarded positive emotions, but retained negative traits such as hatred, prejudice and rage. The Cybermen were much more recognisably humanoid and were completely emotionless and amoral. Whilst the Daleks wanted to exterminate all other lifeforms, the Cybermen were keener on converting other races to become like them, a more horrific concept.

The Cybermen were a huge hit, with their first story, The Tenth Planet, being one of the most popular stories from the black and white era of Doctor Who. The story also saw the Doctor regenerated for the first time, with William Hartnell replaced by Patrick Troughton. The producers had found a replacement for the Daleks - who were being retired at the end of the fourth season following licencing issues with creator Terry Nation, who was trying to launch a spin-off series in the States - in the nick of time. The Cybermen returned for four further adventures in rapid succession: The Moonbase later in Season 4, Tomb of the Cybermen and The Wheel in Space in Season 5 and The Invasion in Season 6 (which also introduced UNIT).

The design of the Cybermen changed several times. In their first appearance the Cybermen were still recognisably human, with their faces covered in a type of close-fitting cloth, human hands and moving mouths. Although some considered this eerie and frightening, some fans felt it wasn't particularly scary. For their second appearance in The Moonbase their suits became much more robotic. The Invasion added large panels to either side of the head. The one constant in their appearances has been "handlebars" on their heads.

The Cybermen as they appeared in Earthshock.

The Cybermen did not appear during the Jon Pertwee era, apparently as the production team couldn't come up with a good story for them. They did return in Revenge of the Cybermen in Season 12, Tom Baker's first season on the show, but after this did not appear again until Season 19 in 1982. Producer John Nathan-Turner wanted a big action "blockbuster" story for Peter Davison's first season as the Fifth Doctor and script editor Eric Saward was really keen on bringing back the Cybermen.

A significant amount of money was spent on this story, which pitched the Doctor and a team of space marines against the Cybermen for control of a huge space freighter. Interestingly, considering it was made four years before the movie Aliens (to which it has some superficial similarities), the story had a link to that franchise in that some of the Nostromo sets and props were re-used in this story. This story also killed off the companion character of Adric, played by Matthew Waterhouse, who was not popular with fans (at least not until he was killed off!). Adric remains the only long-term Doctor Who companion to have ever been killed off, with the previous fatalities (Katarina and Sara Kingdom, both in the 1965 serial The Dalek Masterplan) having only been companions for a few weeks before dying.

The return of the Cybermen was extremely popular with fans, so they were brought back in Season 20's The Five Doctors (where three squads of Cybermen menaced both the Doctor and the Master on Gallifrey) and Season 22's Attack of the Cybermen. Less successful was their return for the 25th anniversary special, Silver Nemesis. The story was bitty and unsatisfying, with some poor writing and acting. It compared unfavourably to the season opener, Remembrance of the Daleks, which was later taken by fans to be the real anniversary story.

After the show's long rest, the Cybermen was reintroduced by Russell T. Davies in 2006. Fearing their backstory was too confusing, Davies deliberately had these new Cybermen hail from a different origin on an Earth in a parallel universe. After Davies's departure, new producer Steven Moffat quietly shifted back to using the Cybermen of the original timeline (albeit using a very similar design).

After Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor, he asked Moffat if there was a way of bringing back the original 1966 Cybermen from Mondas, as he considered these to be the scariest and most disturbing version of the creatures. Moffat complied in two of his three final scripts for the series, World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls.

The Tenth Planet (1966)
The Moonbase (1967)
Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)
The Wheel in Space (1968)
The Invasion (1968)
Revenge of the Cybermen (1975)
Earthshock (1982)
The Five Doctors (1983)
Attack of the Cybermen (1985)
Silver Nemesis (1988)
Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (2006)
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2006)
The Next Doctor (2008)
The Pandorica Opens (2010)
A Good Man Goes to War (2011)
Closing Time (2011)
A Nightmare in Silver (2013)
The Time of the Doctor (2013)
Dark Water/Death in Heaven (2014)
World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (2017)

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Mike said...

I just saw "World Enough and Time" two days ago and I thought it was horrible. A great concept ruined by a bad script and huge plot holes.

Anonymous said...

Noticed the logo at the top is from the 15th Cyberlegion facebook site and includes members images, did you ask permission to use it?

Adam Whitehead said...

I actually found it in a mass of uncredited Cyberman images, but happy to add a credit and link. Thanks for that.