As Target Books used to remind us in the opening pages of their Cybermen novelisations…
“Centuries ago by our Earth time, a race of men on the far-distant planet of Telos (sic) sought immortality. They perfected the art of cybernetics – the reproduction of machine functions in human beings. As bodies became old and diseased, they were replaced limb by limb, with plastic and steel… and brains replaced by computers.”
As with most good science fiction, writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis took a recent series of technological innovations and imagined a potential logical conclusion. At the time, pacemakers, prosthetic limbs and artificial implants were all prolonging life and mobility for the sick and injured.
A good thing surely to harness new technology in this way? But where do you stop? Should you stop? If something’s broken, then surely you fix it?
But in fiction, at least, those who attempt to play God are always punished and the Cybermen paid dearly for their actions. Not that they were ever able to realise it.
Target again: “They were immune to cold and heat… their large, silver bodies became practically indestructible. Their main impediment was one that only flesh and blood men would have recognised: they had no heart, no emotions, no feelings. They lived by the inexorable laws of pure logic. Love, hate anger, even fear, were eliminated from their lives when the last flesh was replaced by plastic.”
Here then was the unique selling point for the Cybermen. Made almost indestructible by their physiological enhancement, they lost the vital component that would allow them to use their new-found power for good: their emotions.
The loss of emotion might be seen as a welcome release from negative feelings, like despair and heartache, and this idea was explored with the Danny Pink character in the series 8 finale.
But this lack of emotion robs the Cybermen of the joys of flowers, sunsets and well-prepared meals too. And also renders them pitiless, remorseless and terrifying.
While the Daleks are organic mutations in armoured tanks, driven insane by hate, their would-be successors in the Doctor Who canon, though similarly encased in metal, developed a more abstract deformity.
The 1970s US series The Six Million Dollar Man showed us the advantages of partial cybernisation. Because Steve Austin was left with his mind intact, he could use his new abilities as a secret agent – for ‘good’, within the frame of reference of that series.
But as the Cybermen found to their cost with Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion, partly converting a human without enslaving the brain, can be counter-productive. So what happens when the human brain is also replaced by a computer?
Well number-crunching may now be a breeze but that which made you ‘human’ is now absent. You will no longer know nor care about your loved ones. You will have no compassion for others, no concept of right and wrong even – only a cold, logical approach to achieving your goals.
And what could be more frightening than a race of creatures like that? The answer is such a race wanting to make you as they are.
So this is where the Cybermen succeed as a Doctor Who adversary: they’re coming to get you and, if they don’t kill you, they’ll subject you to painful surgery in order to steal your body and mind and recruit you to their army of the living dead.
And this body horror is a crucial component of their success.
We see the silver giants first in The Tenth Planet, as cloth-faced semi-zombies – heavily augmented but with their hands still intact. We know them to be immensely strong so their arms must be hybrids of flesh, bone, steel and plastic.
And their faces… bandaged after a horrific series of operations? It’s never made clear but the larynx has certainly been replaced with something electronic, operated by moving the apparently still-organic jaw.
Glimpses of real eyes can be detected behind the dark eye panels on their faces. This may be more by accident more than design in production terms but it certainly adds to the eeriness of the overall effect.
But as early as their second story, The Moonbase, they seem to be little more than robots and this status has continued to this day, save a glimpse of some organic-looking lower jaws in Earthshock.
It was a great shame to lose the more visibly human characteristics of the original design. The Cybermen are so much scarier if you imagine organic material clinging to life within the metal exoskeleton.
But the body horror element lost in their redesign was to be transferred to the treatment of their victims.
In The Moonbase we see the Cybermen infect and enslave the resident humans. Their objective moves to a more physical conscription in The Tomb of the Cybermen, shown graphically with the unfortunate Toberman. His limbs are replaced and his mind taken over, the intended fate of all the humans who broke into the ice tombs of Telos. As the Cyber Controller flatly intones, “You belong to us. You shall be like us.”
But perhaps the most disturbing depiction of the pains of cyber-conversion is Lytton’s grisly fate in Attack of the Cybermen. We last see him part-way through the process – mindless, butchered and barely alive.
The 21st century incarnation of Doctor Who also delivered a gruesome re-imagining of the cybernisation process in The Age of Steel: an automated assembly line of whirring blades and humans lined up to enter, like livestock in an abattoir.
But now we have Cybermen who can remove heads and limbs at will and so, it would seem, are finally entirely robotic. Their ability to upgrade instantly in order to overcome their opponents makes them so dangerous that whole planets are destroyed just to stop their advance. And their latest outing presents us with new Cybermen spawned from the long-dead by a form of cybernising pollen.
So we have never been further away from the original concept of the Cybermen.
If the replacement of body parts is no longer a concept that provokes even a slight feeling of unease then perhaps it’s time the Cybermen were laid to rest, as this was the idea behind their creation and the key to their success.
Let other alien races stomp around in unison, upgrade instantly and weaponise the dead.
The Cybermen should be powerful and menacing, yes, but essentially just like you and me – if we were to lack that crucial spark of humanity.
Now that is truly frightening.