…and the Fleshy Hands of Doom
I was so pleased to see them return in Earthshock. I love them dearly, I really do, but letâ€™s face it, for second-best, runner-up bad guys in Doctor Who, the Cybermen are a pretty dismal bunch. Take a look at them skulking about in cargo holds and tombs and sewers. Observe their ridiculous posturing. Smile ruefully at their increasingly barmy plans for universal domination using mind-altering transistor radios or weather machines installed on the moon. It is pitiful isn’t it? And here they were in Peter Davison’s first season, back for the first time since the mid 70’s, with another paranoid and pointless plot to blow up yet another perceived threat to their species.
The truly sad part is that it must have started off so well for these guys. They must have felt so pleased with themselves back on Mondas, when they took their first tentative steps out on the bold path to galactic conquest. How smug they must have been in their fancy new wetsuits with golf ball trim. How their hearts must have swelled with pride beneath their shiny new chest units. Not a human being you see, but a post-human: the forging of man and technology into a new and higher form, boldly making its way in the universeâ€¦..
If they have some residual capacity to feel emotion (which I rather think that they do), donâ€™t you think that theyâ€™d be ever so slightly disappointed by how badly this whole grand adventure has turned out? Look at them now, a scattered, disparate band of survivors, lurking in tombs and tunnels, their emotions cauterized, probably to counteract the sheer boredom of their lonely existence as they endlessly and pointlessly tinker with the design of their headgear and experiment with new catchphrases. A truly wretched existenceâ€¦
However, Iâ€™d argue that it is precisely this aura of tragic pathos that makes them both so compelling and so frightening. They really are, in the true sense of the word, a tragedyâ€¦. A sorry tale of progress thwarted, potential distorted and a future squandered. If a major theme for Doctor Who is the tension between humanity and godhood, then it’s only fitting that the Cybermen clunk their way back into view. They can be regarded as having right royally messed up the whole transition from one state to the other.
They thought they were buying into a transhuman singularity betwixt man and machine, but ended up pathetically letting their own humanity slip through their fingers. And it is this, this over-riding sense of having completely and utterly and totally screwed up, that is to me the defining quality of the Cybermen.
Predictably, it was, number four, the most richly lyrical of the Doctors, who had already nailed their pathetic plight, in a great line from the story Revenge of The Cybermen:
“You’ve no home planet, no influence, nothing! You’re just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship”.
And in their heart of hearts (which is still down there somewhere amongst all that clutter), they know this to be true don’t they? They know how much they’ve traded for their fancy technology and their wind-up sidekicks. They know the price they’ve paid for enhanced strength and a handy built-in reading light. Look at the catchphrases: ‘You will become like us’ is not a triumphant boast, but the mournful self-recognition of a much reduced race, who have to scavenge parts, organic and technological, in order to cling on to their very existence. Witness the Cybercontroller, desperately scrabbling at the door of his own tomb, chanting: ‘We will survive!… We will survive!”… hardly an ambitious manifesto is it?
Yet their tragedy is our horror. Their plight is our fright… because I’d argue that it is the very fact that we retain some residual sense of kinship with the Cybermen that makes them so terrifying. Prise the lid off a Dalek and you’ll find a green mass of mutated hate, spitting bile at all its’ inferiors, but pluck the tinplate from a Cyberman and I’m willing to bet you’ll find something that is recognisably ‘us’.
Whatsmore, that recognition cuts both ways: The Daleks would rather die than admit affinity with any species (which is why Dalek Sec’s recent Manhattan-based hybrid was such a blasphemy), but right from their first meeting with the Doctor the Cybermen have accepted the base similarity between us and them, however much they have ‘improved upon’ the template.
As Cyberman Krail admits in Tenth Planet (when they were still utilising quaintly old-fashioned individual names):
“We are called Cybermen. We were exactly like you once, but our race was getting weak. Our life spans were getting shorter, so our doctors and scientists devised spare parts for our bodies until we could be completely replaced.”
Hey, he even admits their home planet and ours are separated twins, just to compound the point. And it is at precisely this point that they become scary. They become mirrors to our souls because, of course, in them, we see us….our fear of technology, our fear of loss of identity and most importantly, our fear, deep down, of the future….
This is why it’s ok that the Cyberleader in Attack of The Cybermen looks like he’s had a few too many pies, or that one Cyberman appears to be telling another one a joke in that scene from Earthshock. It’s also why it’s so important to state that the Cybermen are NOT robots, even though they feature frequently in internet articles and lists as such.
This ‘robotic phallacy’ is why I despair of the new Pete’s World variations on the Cyberman theme. I saw the production team on Doctor Who Confidential, marching the actors up and down until they could march in precise, automated unison, like little metal soldiers. Since when have Cybermen done that?
Cybermen do precisely what you or I would do with a fridge strapped to our chest and a searchlight stapled to our head: they shamble about a bit in a slightly ungainly fashion.
It’s a shame to criticise the new stuff, but I don’t think that the new version is anywhere near as scary as the earlier ones. Consider the very first version in Tenth Planet – I’m sure that in part their costumes in those early days were the result of financial expediency. It is certainly clear that, in later incarnations, much more money was spent on headpieces, rubber wetsuits and the like, culminating in the engineered, hi-tech precision of the current incarnation which appears to have had more design-input that the average family car, but nevertheless, it’s hard to beat what a good friend of mine refers to as the original ‘burnmask look’.
Lumbering fellows, with their obviously human physiognomy concealed mummy-like beneath bandages, strolling in from the snow, with, horror upon uncanny horror, fleshy hands upon display! There’s something very creepy about hands… This taps straight into that place – the one inhabited by zombies and wraiths and the hordes of the undead. How many robots in Scooby-Doo? One or two? How many creepy hands extending from hidden panels in the wall? Every week mate….
And that, my friends, is the very place tapped into by the genius of the eighties Earthshock redesign. The chilling horror of that slightly opaque mouthplate, with the definite hint of something raspingly organic beneath. Such a good choice of body part too. The brain is far too cliched.
Similarly, little peepy eyes in those skull sockets would be far too obvious, but the mouth… such a sensual organ… the remnants of memories of laughter and song upon those decayed lips hidden far beneath the surface….
That little tongue, my friends, is the horror of the unheimlich….. the true horror of the Cybermen….
Read more from Doppelganger at his blog, deadlydoppelgangers.blogspot.com