Sunday, 29 November 2015

Fate of the Cybermen: The Cybermen of NuWho

Written 1/10/15.

This is Cyberman Month, where we've been looking at the original five black and white stories featuring Mankind's cyborg nemesis. I've also covered the five other Cyberman stories from the Classic Series, under Phillip Hinchcliffe in 1975 and later John Nathan Turner through the 80s. But what of the Cybermen now in the revival of the show? I've certainly covered all of the episodes, but it's often harder without hindsight to pinpoint the design and story changes which have brought the Cybermen from the swinging 60s into modern living rooms. So, in this article, I will be examining the history of the Cybermen in NuWho, and wondering where they might go from here.

This was in fact the first publicity image
of the Cybusmen. I love the head tilt.
The Cybusmen - 2006-9
Seen in: Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, Cyberwoman, The Next Doctor

Russell T Davies waited until the second series of the revived show to bring back the Cybermen, spending his first season giving a similar treatment to the Daleks. While they were made shiny gold and layered in a number of different political metaphors, the Cybermen were given an entirely new origin story. Instead of originating on Earth's twin planet Mondas, the Cybermen of an alternate universe originated on Earth itself, created by a disabled human scientist, John Lumic, who wished not only to end human pain and suffering, but also to prolong his own life and unite the world under the brand of his company, Cybus Industries.
     These Cybermen are strong, and sturdy, their design featuring a more angular face and a headplate which from behind recalls a roman helmet. Much was made of the Cybermen's reduction to "stampy metal robots," in the fan consciousness at the time, but this is somewhat unfair - if anything, these Cybermen harken back to the "boiler-suit" design from the middle three Sixties stories, except this time with a budget to fully execute the idea. While their voice was fairly memorable and well done (ta to Nicholas Briggs), they were imbued with a few new catch-phrases indicative of the change in their overall philosophy - "Delete", "Upgrade" and similar phrases likening their thoughts to computer software.
     That change in philosophy is a distinctly modern one. The original Cybermen were a reactionary fear to the use of cybernetics in medicine - artificial hearts, artificial limbs. They were the whole concept of prosthesis medicine taken to a logical extreme, in which a person's entire body is replaced and thus, in the eyes of Kitt Pedler and Gerry Davis, so is the soul. RTD's Cybermen - or the "Cybusmen" as fans call them - are an attempt to apply the same method to capitalism, more specifically to companies like Apple. Rise of the Cybermen sees everyone on the Alternate Earth owning a Cybus Industries "earpod" which downloads information directly into people's brains, and from this we can see the Cybusmen as a particularly heavy-handed message to not let corporations tell you what to think and what to feel.
Of course Chris Chibnall would give a Cyberman a metal bra
and heels. Talk about fetishes.
     But allegory aside, one area where I think that the Cybusmen excel over their previous incarnations is the fear and paranoia that they produce. Conversion between human and Cyberman was only actually seen in a single story of the Classic Series - the often derided Attack of the Cybermen. With the Cybusmen, we see the population of London marching into factories, waiting outside little cubicles, and then wandering in as their brain is surgically extracted from their body and placed into a Cybus Industries shell. It's obviously not as gory as I'm making it sound, but the whole idea of extracting and reprogramming the brain rather than slowly switching body parts means that becoming a Cyberman is an act of complete and utter dehumanisation. Some of my favourite moments from the Rise/Age two-parter came when the Cybermen ended up for one reason or another referring to their former selves, especially the Parallel Jackie Tyler, which just hits you as a gut-punch that this person, while not dead, is irreversible changed. It's fantastic.
     The Cybusmen within Series Two were at their most effective. I was glad that the show used them sparingly, and used them to influence a large part of the show's ongoing mythos. While Cyberwoman was quite, quite ridiculous, it had all of the body horror, all of the adult fears about losing the ones you love, and it also presented the whole idea of a single Cyber-conversion unit as a terrifying thing. While their execution in The Next Doctor was a little more experimental and weird, I think it was still an interesting use of the concept, and I can't really think of anything more awesome to do with your cybernetic guys than to stick them in Victorian England and make them create a slave-driven steampunk mecha. Oh. Yeah.

Hold on... that's a Preacher gun. From the Parallel Universe.
The Cybusmen never even wielded those, this is ridiculous.
The Fake Cybusmen - 2010-11
Seen in: The Pandorica Opens, A Good Man Goes To War, Closing Time, Nightmare In Silver (briefly).

Moffat's first move upon taking the show was to hoist a major redesign onto the Daleks, who had to be included at least once per year in order to fulfil the BBC's contract. However wise that decision was given that as of writing we just had a massive Dalek episode and not a single "New Paradigm" Dalek actually appeared, it led to the apparent explanation that the Cybermen couldn't be redesigned, because the budget had gone towards the new Daleks and the new Silurians. Why bother to bring them back, then, if it's going to be a continuity nightmare? Ha. Moffat doesn't care about keeping continuity within the show as he runs it, only in making references to Classic Who in some bizarre effort to please the fanbase.
     In this period of the Cybermen's history, there was a motion to distance the show from their alternate-universe origin, with the idea being that the Cybermen we were seeing were the originals from our Universe. However, the only concessions made to this were the removal of the "C" plate in the centre of their chests, and the fact that they now apparently have vast fleets of interstellar spacecraft that The Doctor can blow up as and when he pleases. Their catchphrases have changed as well, with at least one Cyberman screaming the Borg cry of "Assimilate" and for some ungodly reason having tentacles in its head. At least one fan theory espouses the idea that some of the Cybusmen remained in our universe at the end of Doomsday and found some of our Universe's guys, who decided to copy the design in the name of style.
Skulls are more funny than scary, particularly when they start
chattering at you. What's it going to do, bite you to death?
     The show attempted to make these Cybermen better in Closing Time, an episode which somehow managed to be the most disappointing thing in Series Six - no mean feat, I'll tell you. They had them skulking under a department store, kidnapping people, converting them and making the use of Cybermats for the first time since 1975. But, of course, they had to spoil it by having the Cybermen's weakness to emotion (admittedly weaponised by both The Invasion and The Age of Steel) become so absurd that the sound of a child crying for his father became enough to melt solid steel.
     It says a lot about the Moffat era that they simply didn't care enough to try and work out what these Cybermen were all about. There's no ideology behind them, no basis in any form of metaphor or idea, they are just cut-and-paste villains who borrow a lot of their catch-phrases from The Borg. Which, when you mention it, goes to describe our next lot...

Some Cybermen face designs look happy, others sad. These
are in a state of constant dumb surprise.
The Iron-Man-Borg-Lovechild - 2013-Present
Seen in: Nightmare In Silver, Time of the Doctor, Dark Water/Death In Heaven

The excitement when I saw the publicity photos for Nightmare In Silver was just ridiculously high. I love the Cybermen, and I love Cybermen stories, at least in principle. Every time there's a new Cybermen story or redesign I tell myself that this time, it's going to be good. It's going to work, there's going to be a point to them again. The Cybermen are best when they are both A.) working off of your fears about being robbed of your humantiy and B.) working as a metaphor for some aspect of ourselves that is leading us down a bad path. The best Cyberman stories have these elements, be it the original fear of medical technology in The Tenth Planet, of unguarded militarism in The Invasion, or of dehumanising Capitalism in Rise/Age. The most recent incarnation of the Cybermen? They are completely gone. Any hint of being about something is gone, and the Cybermen are now mostly just empty villains.
      Their initial appearance in the romance-novel-sounding Nightmare In Silver brings with it a lot of promise. Their design is given a technical upgrade when a "Cyber-mite" (evidently an evolved version of the Cybermats) absorbs and reverse engineers a newer piece of technology. The Cybermen which result from this have super-speed (an ability seen in a single sequence in their very first appearance and then never again) as well as the ability to both adapt to energy weapons as they're being fired upon and to assimilate people using tiny organisms. In other words, the Borg. I make this comparison a lot on this blog, and that's because it's perfectly warranted, especially after that episode., While the idea of a plague which could rob you of your humanity is still pretty scary in principle, it lacks the body-horror and deeply personal elements which make the Cybermen effective.
Death In Heaven returned some body horror to the Cybermen,
even if it went about it in a weird way.
     Ignoring the ridiculous wooden Cybermen of Time of the Doctor (fuck that episode, seriously), their next appearance was in last series' finale, Dark Water/Death In Heaven, where they have become tools of The Master. This two-parter did good and bad things with the concept. On the one hand, the whole idea of downloading the minds of the human race and resurrecting them in robotic shells is key to what made the Cybusmen work, and so that was really effective. What wasn't effective was this whole business of these new Cybermen apparently having an entire human corpse inside them, which seems to go against the entire idea of having them now so easily transferred via a "Cyber-virus". Why attempt to forcibly combine the two ideas, when the whole "downloading people" thing is scary enough? Having people actually rise from their graves as Cybermen with their original bodies and suggesting that one of them is The Brigadier is effing ridiculous. It made the episode funny rather then terrifying, which as is the case with Capaldi's stuff so far, it was a hair's breadth from being.

The Future

There were accusations flying around during the Wilderness years that any interesting things that could be done with the Cybermen had already been done, and not just in the show, but in the extensive material from the Expanded Universe. Then, Rise/Age appeared, an adaptation of the audio Spare Parts, which was an origin story for the Cybermen of our Universe, similar in style to the way that Genesis of the Daleks had breathed new life into the metal pepper pots by revealing their history and ideological purpose. Whether or not you believe that everything good from Rise/Age came from Marc Platt and Spare Parts, I don't think that there is a Cyberman story which better combines a really good origin for the Cybermen, a set of body-horror moments which scare and unsettle, with what is a fairly decent adventure story.
The one on the right has discovered that her husband Gerald
is having an affair with the pool boy, and the one on the left
was the one trying to cover it up.
     There are so many possible stories that you could develop using the Cybermen from either Universe which would be fulfilling to a purpose of some sort, and genuinely fun at the same time. We don't need a full history lesson a la Attack to explain where they've come from - if necessary, just stick in some minor background dialogue, because the people who notice that stuff will love it and people who don't will love the story for being a good story. The Cybermen have always been for me the dark mirror of humanity, always a vision of what we may become, either literally or in metaphor. It's what makes them so powerful to me, and why after all these years, they're the ones I remember the most. I bought Earthshock, I bought Attack, because the most exciting thing for me about rewatching The Five Doctors over and over again was watching the many different ways the Doctor defeated the Cybermen. One can only hope that there will come a story good enough to inspire that same devotion and love in future generations.

Thanks.

1 comment: