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Posts Tagged ‘Cybermen’

As far as early-period Patrick Troughton stories go (a vintage I would classify as covering everything from Power of the Daleks to The Faceless Ones), The Moonbase seems to have a slightly higher profile than most, and the reasons for this are not too difficult to discern: it contains a famous monster in one of its more iconic manifestations, it’s one of the first manifestations of a story template which would, in some ways, come to define the era, and – and I think we shouldn’t overlook this – half the story actually exists, as opposed to the scraps and isolated episodes which are all we possess of so many others from this period. Perhaps the story is most famous these days as the source of the Doctor’s justly famous ‘…some corners of the universe have bred the most terrible things…’ speech, an iconic moment if ever there was one.

None of these necessarily guarantee a good story, of course, and I suspect that even the greatest cheerleaders for Troughton, or indeed the Cybermen, could seriously argue that this is one of the all-time greats. The story itself has a sort of charming simplicity. The TARDIS materialises on the Moon in the year 2070, which the Doctor is quite pleased about even though he was actually aiming for Mars. His companions, Ben, Polly, and Jamie, insist on staying and having a look around.

the-moonbase-cyberman-and-jamie

The travellers discover that the Moon is now inhabited, primarily by the inhabitants of the titular outpost. The purpose of the Moonbase is to control the weather on Earth using a whizzy gadget called the Gravitron, but it is experiencing a bit of a crisis: a mysterious space plague is affecting the crew. Needless to say, the Doctor finds himself drawn into discovering the source of the infection, which turns out to be, of course, the Cybermen.

You might with some justification wonder why the Cybermen are spending all their time sneaking about the Moonbase’s pantry and hiding under sheets in the infirmary rather than simply taking the Moonbase by force of arms (something which they seem quite capable of). There is, I suppose, some sort of justification for this typically byzantine plan, in that the Cybermen need humans alive to operate the Gravitron for them (gravity waves are apparently one of the many things to which this most vulnerable of monsters are martyrs) and a frontal assault on the dome would risk simply killing everyone inside.

But even so. It’s hard to shake the impression that this is Doctor Who at its most melodramatic – the shapes of many Doctor Who stories are to some extent determined by the requirements of the form, in that there are a certain number of episodes to fill, and so on, but with The Moonbase this is perhaps more obvious than with most. Hence the fact that the Cybermen wait until the second half of the story to actually do anything other than sneak about, the fact that the Moonbase commander goes from blaming the Doctor for the base’s problems to putting him in charge of solving the mystery in a breathtakingly short period of time, and so on.

However, I don’t want to kick the story too severely on these grounds; there are many other equally bad offenders and it is at least less repetitive in its plotting than its closest forebear, The Tenth Planet – quite apart from the base-under-siege scenario and the presence of the Cybermen, The Moonbase does recall Hartnell’s swan-song in the curiously muted and low-key role played by the Doctor himself – Hobson, the commander, is much more obviously dominant , and while it’s the Doctor who comes up with a way of disposing of the Cybermen (in an abrupt and quite possibly inadvertantly funny climax), it’s other characters who handle most of the other challenges of the adventure (the companions come up with the idea of killing the Cybermen by spraying them with nail-varnish remover quite independently, for example).

If the story isn’t as Doctor-centric as a modern audience might expect, it’s not really about the Cybermen, either. Quite apart from being largely absent from the first half of the story, when they appear they are at their least impressive and most generic. What are they? Where do they come from? Why are they attacking the Earth? The story doesn’t bother to answer any of these questions, not least because none of them are central to the story. Any generic adversary could fill in for them, and the sometimes-bitchy Cyberman dialogue (talk of ‘stupid Earth brains’, and so on) might even sound better coming from someone else.

So what is this story actually about? It’s this which makes The Moonbase interesting, if only as a cultural document. Let’s consider that title, for a start – you would never call a story The Moonbase nowadays (Moffat would doubtless dismiss it as ‘not slutty enough’), any more than you would call a story The Space Station or whatever. And yet, in 1967, the idea of a moonbase was considered in-and-of-itself an exciting enough idea to make it into the title of a story. Audience sensibilities have changed over the years, of course, but one thing perhaps worth considering is that viewers in 1967 would have considered themselves to be citizens of the Space Age, with manned lunar missions planned for the very near future, and an actual moonbase almost an inevitability. The Moonbase crew, perhaps significantly, does not contain anyone identified as Russian, but in all other ways this story is a product of the same vision of a unified technological utopia one sees not only in other Doctor Who stories from this period (especially those by Kit Pedler), but also the Gerry Anderson canon and the original Star Trek.

The positivity of this kind of science fiction just comes across as rather charming and a little naive now. I am aware that, as I write, there is a permanently-manned space station floating around somewhere above my head (well, broadly speaking), and every now and then a US President in need of a poll bump will announce a manned Martian mission, but I don’t think of myself as living in the Space Age, nor any kind of techno-utopia. We live in a darker, more beleagered world, I think, and our SF reflects this – to the extent that our SF is even about world building any more. Perhaps the dominance of internalised, character-oriented fantasy is itself the result of a reluctance to raise our eyes and look around us at the world we are making for ourselves.

That’s as maybe. Whatever The Moonbase‘s flaws as a narrative (and they are numerous) it is at least refreshing to recall such loftily-spirited, optimistic times. The Moonbase may be set in 2070 – but it’s a 2070 which now only exists in the past.

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So, in the last week I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m only really going to be impressed by one or two episodes of Doctor Who every year, that’s better than nothing – even if it is about the same average as in the mid-80s, and a definite decline from the situation five years ago. And, when one of those really not bad episodes comes along, the thing to do is to make the most of it.

I had unusually high expectations for Nightmare in Silver, simply because it was written by Neil Gaiman – I’m not what you’d call a massive Gaiman fan, but I like nearly everything of his that I’ve encountered and he did write The Doctor’s Wife, my favourite Matt Smith episode so far. Set against this, of course, there was always the possibility of Difficult Second Episode syndrome and the fact that – judging from the behind-the-scenes promo material – Gaiman was invited back partly with a view to making the Cybermen less rubbish, a task which has defeated virtually every writer in the history of the series (I’m no great fan of Eric Saward’s writing but he could justifiably have ‘Wrote a story where the Cybermen were genuinely impressive’ put on his gravestone).

It's only in silhouette that you really appreciate the value of the handles.

It’s only in silhouette that you really appreciate the value of the handles.

So, how did it all turn out? Well, there was the sense (usual, these days) of a story being squashed down to fit a 45 minute time slot, the same typical sense of jolly superficiality, even when the story was going into some quite dark places. On the whole though, I enjoyed it at least as much as any of the other episodes this season – wasn’t mad about Tamsin Outhwaite’s prominently-lipsticked near-cameo, and the quality of the child acting wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but I liked Warwick Davis very much. I got the sense that there was the seed of quite a dark story about redemption and guilt buried here somewhere, but it seemed to get lost in the running around and shouting that a 45-minute story apparently requires these days. Not quite so sure about Matt Smith’s performance as (spoiler incoming) the Cyberplanner – I know it’s Matt Smith, and the makers of the series seem to think that a sort of manic camp is the best way his talents can be exploited, but would a Cyberplanner really call itself Mr Clever and say things like ‘toodle-oo’? If they’d put in a line about the Cyber-implants mimicking the Doctor’s own personality, I’d have bought into that much more happily.

So, there’s my opinion – an above-standard episode by current standards, which translates objectively to mean ‘decent enough’. Critical faculties duly exercised, let’s dig into the geeky stuff, starting with – when’s this episode meant to be set?

Well, we’re repeatedly told it’s a thousand years since the last Cyber War, and what looks very much like a Human-led Empire is the dominant space power. I’m favourably disposed towards David Banks’ theory that there was a Cyber War in which humans weren’t involved, happening round about the 22nd century (it’s the one referred to on-screen in Revenge of the Cybermen, which must happen prior to 2526 as it’s discussed as a historical event in Earthshock – for some reason, this is one of those fairly straightforward pieces of continuity which some people bend over backwards to explain away), but it’s strongly implied there’s going to be another one round about 2527, following the events of Earthshock itself – Banks suggests that Attack of the Cybermen is set during the final stages of this war, which he dates as concluding in 2530.

This would therefore give the earliest possible date for Nightmare in Silver as around 3500AD – however, there is that Human Empire to take into account. The Earth Empire seen in Frontier in Space, and so on, is shown to have been in decline by the 30th century, and nearly every chronology agrees that the second half of the fourth millennium is the era of the Galactic Federation. On the face of it, then, it seems fairly unlikely that the Cyber War mentioned in Nightmare in Silver is one previously referred to in the TV series.

There’s also the issue of the Cybermen we see in the story, too: this is the same model shown to be operating in the early sixth millennium in A Good Man Goes To War (there’s an article to be written on how much store we should set by the varying appearances of recurring Doctor Who monsters, but let’s take this at face value for now) – which, incidentally, suggests the Cybermen of that period are at a peak of military power beyond anything seen elsewhere in the series. These same Cybermen appear decrepit and obsolete in Nightmare in Silver, suggesting the story takes place in an even more distant future.

This suggests the empire we see in this story could be the Third Great and Bountiful Human Empire (the First Empire appears to have existed from the 25th to the 30th centuries, the Second round about the 42nd), for which we have never received an on-screen date – there’s plenty of room, given the Fourth Empire doesn’t appear for nearly 200,000 years. The implication that this is an intergalactic empire, and the existence not just of planet-busting but galaxy-destroying weapons, suggests a date in the very distant future is not unreasonable.

And yet even here the Cybermen are still around and perceived as a deadly menace: not bad for a race who once lost in a fair fight with UNIT. It’s tempting to construct a narrative in which virtually every previous appearance by the Cybermen (certainly all the ones set between 1979 and the 26th century) portrays the very early and rather fragile beginnings of the Cyber Race, with Nightmare in Silver (and, if you like, A Good Man Goes To War) our first glimpses of them as a mature and established power (in the circumstances I’m hesitant to use the word ‘culture’). That’s what I draw from the references to the Cyberiad and the high level of technological sophistication depicted here (just the sort of evocative little touches you’d expect from a writer of Gaiman’s ability), anyway. (Could’ve done without the bullet-time Cyberman, though.)

It certainly leaves a lot of unanswered questions and room for manoeuver in further stories featuring these Cyberiad-Cybermen, which is very nearly mission accomplished all by itself in terms of revamping the race: previously, the Cybermen were usually generic robots-in-all-but-name who were not very good at infiltrating remote outposts – the Cybermen’s Big Thing, the concept of conversion, is more often used as colour for a story than its absolute core. Are these Cybermen interesting enough to justify being brought back for any reason other than the fact that they’re an iconic big name bad guy? I would certainly give them the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, Neil Gaiman seems to have smacked into the usual problem modern writers encounter when trying to make the Cybermen less rubbish – you’ve got an impersonal, cybernetic culture which in many ways has more of the characteristics of a sentient plague, where the individual members are drones and the worst thing they can do to you is to destroy your sense of self. You can give the Cybermen new tricks and tinker with the styling all you like (and I think the new-model Cybermen are an improvement) but on paper the Cyberiad is arguably more like the Borg Collective than ever before. I’m not the first person to say that in many ways Star Trek actually ‘did’ the Cybermen better than Doctor Who, but it’s still true, and this is a headache I don’t really see going away. Still, for possibly the first time ever the Cybermen look like they could actually give the Borg a good showing should it come to a fight, and this in itself suggests that Nightmare in Silver achieved at least some of its ambitions.

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I’ve frequently said that one of the most striking things about the original run of Doctor Who and the revived version of the series we enjoy today is not the difference between them, but the level of similarity and continuity – and that’s continuity on a thematic and tonal level, rather than in terms of in-universe history (though this is also true).

Nevertheless there have been changes, and probably the most central and important is the genuine shift in the emphasis of the storytelling. Original-run Doctor Who is, like practically every other action-adventure-fantasy series of the sixties and seventies, a plot-driven enterprise – stories aren’t initiated by or derived from the characterisation of the regulars, or indeed anyone else. The revived series, on the other hand, is much more character-driven: exploring the relationships and personalities of the characters is the primary motivating force behind many of the episodes. The Doctor’s Daughter was written mainly to explore the Doctor’s attitude to parenthood, The Girl Who Waited is a fairly off-the-wall character study of Amy Pond, and Doomsday – seemingly a vehicle for the long-awaited Dalek-Cyberman showdown – merely uses this as a spectacular backdrop before which the Doctor and Rose say their somewhat protracted farewells.

dalcyb

The closest original-run Who gets to anything like this is in a few of the later Andrew Cartmel-commissioned scripts, and – much earlier on – The Green Death, which is the old-style series’ most creditable attempt at writing out a companion in a satisfying manner. Most of the rest of the time, the plot is paramount, with the characters just there to serve its demands more often than not.

Characters in old-style Who are really defined by their plot functions, which is why so many of them end up feeling a bit samey once you dig past the surface detail. There’s a case for arguing that most old-style stories are populated by characters drawn from a Tarot deck of archetypes: the Renegade Time Lord, the Plucky Girl, the Scientist Destroyed By His Own Hubris, and so on. Look at the Brigadier, and then compare him to Captain Hart from The Sea Devils, Lieutenant Scott from Earthshock, and Group Captain Gilmore from Remembrance of the Daleks: these characters are all variations on the same theme (most of them even have the same moustache): the Military Ally.

Nothing very exceptional there, I suppose, but given that the characters are there to serve the needs of the latest story’s plot, it’s not very surprising that – in the earliest stories at least – many elements of the series are jarringly different, in some cases so as to be unrecognisable.

For example, the TARDIS, these days, is a wondrous, almost unquantifiable piece of alien magic-tech – internally vast, sentient, indestructible, possessed of near-mystical powers on occasion. Other than the sentience, most of the rest of it doesn’t really get established until a few years into the show. It suffers dismayingly banal circuitry problems in Marco Polo, there’s a casual reference to searching ‘everywhere’ inside the TARDIS in another of the first Doctor’s stories (which doesn’t seem to take that long!), while in The Sensorites the eponymous aliens happily cut the lock out of the TARDIS door (one of those awkward moments people seem to avoid talking about).

The Doctor, also, famously undergoes a radical and fairly swift transformation across the course of the first two seasons – the hostile, cantankerous, startlingly ruthless and self-interested alien of the initial couple of stories rapidly mellows into someone much more approachable, and finally into a genuinely heroic figure whose first impulse upon meeting the Daleks on 22nd century Earth is to ‘pit [his] wits against them and destroy them’.

But it’s with the Daleks themselves that the demands of the plot-driven approach become clearest. Doctor Who monsters seem to have their own section of the Tarot deck of archetypes, from Slavering Beast (Aggedor, the Magma Beast, and so on) to Robotic Servitor (Vocs, Chumblies, Quarks, etc) to Belligerent Vegetation (Krynoids, Vervoids, Vaaga Plants, et al).

What is the Daleks’ place in the deck? For most fans the answer will come with a reflexive speed that should make us suspicious, to say the least: they are the embodiment of unthinking racial hatred, an allegory for Nazism and the horrors of ethnic cleansing. The overriding obsession of the Daleks, we are assured, is to kill all other forms of life, and they will go out of their way to exterminate any other living creatures they encounter.

This is the modern characterisation of the Daleks – well, up to a point, and this is something I’ll come back to – but, upon going back and looking at many of their older stories, what’s striking is how little this is referenced, and how often it is directly contradicted.

I would argue that the Daleks’ place in the hierarchy is simply as the Chief Recurring Monster. As such they are the quintessence of the Shorthand for Evil which I discussed in the early installments of my look at the Natural History of Evil: when what the monsters are doing is more important than who and what they are, or indeed why they’re doing it, then you can call in the Daleks.

Of course, I may be getting that backwards in terms of how the scripting process worked, but the end result is more or less the same: Terry Nation’s later Dalek scripts, with one obvious exception, aren’t that interested in the Daleks themselves except as a sort of all-purpose menace. He hasn’t put any thought into the creatures themselves, about how their essential nature influences their behaviour and makes them monstrous.

It is interesting, though, that exactly the same can often be said of the Cybermen, and it is surely indicative that the Cybermen have only really been successful as a recurring adversary during those periods when the Daleks have been off the scene: the five year gap at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, and again in the early 80s. Both races are cyborgs, both (usually) appear robotic, both epitomise conformity. Surely it’s arguable that they both default to the same archetype, and as a result can’t both prosper at the same time? With the Daleks on the scene, the Cybermen really are superfluous to requirements (which the Daleks’ easy slaughter of the massed Cyber-forces in Doomsday may be an acknowledgement of).

(Which also leads me to wonder if something similar may be the case with the Ice Warriors and Sontarans: both essentially default to the Alien Warrior Race archetype, and one makes their debut in the same year the other makes their final appearance. But I digress.)

In terms of imagery, of course, the Daleks and the Cybermen are quite different, and this does a splendid job of hiding just how similar they really are in terms of their narrative function (often, but not quite always). I would go further and argue that it is the imagery of the Daleks – that iconic casing, that unforgettable vocal treatment – which is central to the creatures’ success, and indeed the only constant in their presentation across nearly 50 years of TV.

daleks2

They have had wildly different origins, philosophies, motivations, and plans in this time – the essential nature of what supposedly lies inside that armoured shell has also been radically reconceived at least once. By modern standards, the characterisation of the Daleks has been shockingly inconsistent, and yet still they endure. It is because of that design, and that voice, more than anything else.

Possibly I may sound as if I’m overstating a point. But I don’t think I am, and in the second part of this essay I’ll try to prove it. We will start by going back to examine the first Daleks ever encountered, and observe how they are very different creatures to any others later fought by any of the Doctors…

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(Before we get started: funnily enough, over twenty years ago I wrote a Doctor Who story called Trouble in Store. At the time I had just started working for a major UK chain and was feeling somewhat raw at the contempt with which they treated their staff. So I vented my spleen with a story in which the Doctor arrived in a thinly-disguised version of one of my employer’s shops to discover a workforce being horribly mistreated. Perhaps more interestingly, and to make the thing actually interesting for the target audience of Who Nutters, I stuck the Cybermen in it, lurking around in the capacious shadows of the store and using Cybermats to bring about the disappearance of anyone they found wandering the aisles after dark. I don’t have a copy any more but I do recall I got very good notices from the Who Nutters who read it – rather better, I recall, than the guy who’s now writing CD scripts for Tom Baker’s Doctor – we appeared in the same publications together back in those days. As I say, the original Trouble in Store was back in 1990. Wow, right? Isn’t that freaky? But it’s true: my instinct for a really dreadful pun was well-developed even back then.)

Two hundred years later… You can look at Closing Time in a couple of different ways. There’s the episode as a fairly standy-aloney piece of good-natured rompy Doctor Who (I don’t care what the writer says, this didn’t feel like a dark story to me), and then there’s the episode as something building up to the conclusion of the season with all that implies (which, this year, feels like masses more than usual).

The first thing I am inclined to say is that this story does naught but add to my ongoing thesis that The Cybermen Are A Bit Rubbish (full thesis to the end of Season 31 can be found here). Not only do we see from the beginning of A Good Man Goes To War that the Doctor appears to barely even consider them sentient (compare the extraordinary lengths he goes to to avoid bloodshed amongst the Silents at Demon’s Run with the nonchalant way he blows away an entire Legion as part of what’s essentially a data retrieval request), we now see that while the Cybermen have revised the scale of their ambitions downwards, it’s still not nearly enough. Some races struggle to conquer the galaxy, which seems fair enough. Others have a battle on their hands subjugating a single solar system, which is almost understandable. Conquering a planet? There may be mitigating circumstances to this kind of failure. But being unable to establish dominion over C&A? Come on, guys, you’re not really trying.

I think part of the problem the latterday Cybermen are having can be traced back to their recruitment strategy. The old school Cybes, you may recall, were at least keen on bringing on-side successful Captains of Industry, hulking bodyguards, elite space mercenaries and other persons of that ilk. Recent targets for Cyber-headhunting are slightly less impressive, consisting of fat blokes from call centres, pissed-off ex-prostitutes and someone who looks suspiciously like Trigger off Only Fools and Horses. It wouldn’t be quite so bad but all three were in the frame for senior management jobs.

Even before the episode aired I cracked wise online to the effect that the Cybermen would need a damned big conversion chamber if they wanted to fit James Corden in it. But they went ahead and tried anyway. I thought for a moment this would be not only a brave downer ending, but also an audacious retcon to explain the size of the Controller’s gut in Attack of the Cybermen, but no. Instead we got a rather predictable climax with the power of paternal feelings routing the advanced technology of a terrifying alien menace: now there’s a metaphor earning its keep.

Let’s face it, this story was never really about the Cybermen but another chance to have scenes with Matt Smith and James Corden being amusing together. As such it worked rather well, although the fun was inevitably tainted by the mournful atmosphere of misery and doom pervading the show these days (mustn’t complain too much: Strictly Come Dancing‘s probably taking over the same slot so they need some kind of continuity of tone). In the wake of Moffat burps like Day of the Moon and arguably the Christmas show last year, Old Roberts is quite possibly the most consistently accomplished writer currently working on the show so there is a limit to how much I feel I can stick the boot into him. So I won’t.

Nevertheless, a few oddities – I’m so used to expanded materials saying otherwise that actually hearing it said that Time Lords can’t be converted into Cybermen was a bit of a shock (one CD story even reveals that the basic Cyberman systems design is derived from an examination of the Doctor’s own nervous system). And the origin and background of the Cybermen really does seem to have come totally unravelled – what was a Cybership doing crashing into southern England hundreds (possibly more like thousands) of years ago? Did they get lost on the way to the Pandoricum? (Wouldn’t put it past them.) Hmmm, my geek buffers are glowing a nice cherry red, so we’d best move on…

The whole (apparent) two hundred year jump is part of my problem with this current storyline – that’s a huge (though not wholly unprecedented) gap in the Doctor’s personal history and on this occasion it’s kind of being waved in our face. Did nothing interesting whatsoever happen in those two hundred years? Plus, it’s such an arbitrary figure – why not fifty years? Or six hundred? Nevertheless, the ongoing story-arc must have its way…

Naturally, I impatiently await the end of the series, partly because I want to see what happens but mostly because I really, really want this River Song/Silence/death of the Doctor storyline to finish and go away. It seems to have been dragging on forever and sucking other, much more innocent stories into the range of its fun-draining aura.

So how’s it going to play out? As some of us figured out very early on (I mean, last season early), it looks very much as if River’s going to top (or appear to top) the Doctor and do time for it. Given that one of the threads of this series has been the Doctor’s increasing discomfort with the size of his profile currently, faking his own death does not seem completely unlikely. There is also the prospect of a Ganger Doctor in circulation who could potentially take the bullet for him.

The big unaddressed issue for me is from right at the beginning of the year, with Pond commenting that the Doctor seemed to be waving out of history at her. This has yet to be addressed on-screen (though Old Roberts has stated he thinks the Doctor does it prior to this story). Why should he be trying to draw attention to himself this way? I suspect that a tale lies in the answering of this question.

As to the Question the Silence are so interested in and the true circumstances of Dr Song’s wedding, I have no idea and look forward to discovering the answers. I just hope there are definite answers come Saturday night and that next year Doctor Who can return to resembling its standard modus operandi a little more closely.

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As a liberal-verging-on-the-out-and-out-socialist, it only makes sense that I should be drawn to things that chime with my own attitudes, and the more deeply-embedded the connection, the stronger my own affection. So it’s hardly a surprise that I can detect a rich vein of distinctly British, distinctly left-of-centre material running through my favourite TV series like lettering through a stick of rock. Doctor Who is obviously a TV show made by and for lefties.

Unfortunately, others disagree with this self-evident truth: the political activist and former parliamentary candidate Alex Wilcock has previously written about the series’ role in making him a member of the Liberal Democrats (or Satan’s Meat-shields as I believe the party is considering retitling itself), while ex-Tory MP Tim Collins once made a disconcerting habit of popping up on DVD extras extolling his love for the series.

So things are not as obviously clear-cut as they seem. What is one to do? What are the politics of Doctor Who? What are the Doctor’s own politics, come to that? I hope to shed some light on this topic, usually by coming at it from odd angles.

One such approach begins with a look at some of the criticism directed at the finale of David Tennant’s first season, Doomsday. I don’t like Doomsday a very great deal. I think it marks the first moment where Rusty Davies’ efforts to invest the series with an emotional resonance got out of control and the tail started wagging the dog. Other people have produced closely-argued critiques of the storytelling, and they seem to me to be accurate. However, one brand of Doomsday-criticism never fails to make me laugh in its sheer missing-the-pointness and that’s the line going something like this:

The Cybermen get done over by the Daleks much too easily in Doomsday.

More precisely: throughout this episode, ever-increasing numbers of Cybermen hurl themselves against four (that’s four) Daleks in mortal combat, and are effortlessly slaughtered, while the Daleks suffer no real casualties whatsoever. The Cybermen, runs the argument, are the Numero Dos Doctor Who monster and should put up a better showing than this, right?

Well, hoo hoo, ha ha, which series have you been watching? Doomsday manages to get this much right at least: the Cybermen have always been presented as a bit rubbish throughout their time on the show.

I am breaking no new ground when I suggest that if ever a Doctor Who monster needed to be wrapped in a scarf by its mum and careful where it went upon leaving the house, it is a Cyberman, as their list of allergies and impediments is remarkable. Dauntless cyborg warriors they may be, but they are variously (and extremely) vulnerable to radiation, gravity, induced emotional states, and (most famously) gold. There’s a bit in Attack of the Cybermen (another lousy story, of course) where the Doctor declares ‘The Cybermen have only one weakness…!’ which would have been funny enough even had he not gone on to describe a brand new one – emotionless they may be, but apparently they can’t resist going to help each other out whenever they get into trouble.

And, prior to their encounter with the Daleks at Canary Wharf, the Cybermen are on the receiving end of an astounding number of beatings. Their basic tactic upon coming under fire seems to be to march forward into it regardless. This one-in, all-in approach shows admirable solidarity and esprit d’corps, and is not out of character as we shall see, but it does result in a number of spectacular Cyber-massacres. They even get handed a bloody good hiding by the old ‘ooh sarge bullets don’t stop them aaargh’-style cuddly UNIT, the only really big-name monster to do so.

When they're not being massacred the Cybermen enjoy clubbing as much as anyone else.

As time goes by, the Cybermen do appear to make some tactical progress, in The Five Doctors abandoning their ‘let’s all keep walking anyway and see how it turns out’ approach in favour of ‘let’s all stand around looking at each other in bemusement’ upon encountering the Raston Robot. The result of this is, unfortunately, yet another massacre. Cheeringly, by the time of Silver Nemesis the Cybermen seem to have learned their lesson and actually choose to run away when confronted by a seemingly-invincible force. We should not let our view of the boys from Telos be coloured too much by the fact that the seemingly-invincible force in question is one man with a bow and arrow.

In the wider universe, the Cybermen are also presented as very much the poorer relations of the monster set. The Daleks forge galactic alliances, master time-travel and destroy the oldest and most powerful civilisation in the universe! The Sontarans engage in an epic war lasting for millennia, and, while they don’t actually conquer the oldest and most powerful civilisation in the universe, they give it a damn good try and leave the Time Lords with a big cleaning bill when they fail. Meanwhile, the Cybermen are hanging around space stations and moonbases trying to sneak in, and when that fails they all go and hide in a big fridge. And when the monster alliance builds the Pandorica prior to The Pandorica Opens, guess who gets stiffed with hanging around on guard duty? Even then the Cyberman in question manages to get himself mugged by Bronze Age tribesmen. Nice work, trooper!

We hear a lot about Galactic Cyberwars and the Cybermen being barred from the Death Zone, but I just suspect the former is the result of the Cybermen employing a good PR consultant, while the latter – well, you can’t blame the Time Lords for wanting to keep things credible – it’s called the Game of Rassilon, not Really Easy Target Practice for Everyone Else.

What, you may be asking, has any of this to do with the politics of Doctor Who? A fair question, and to answer it let us consider the political ideology of the Cybermen. What clues can we derive from their behaviour? They famously don’t seem to get on with those notoriously right-wing Daleks – who rightly suss the Cybermen out to be lightweights – and are famously egalitarian. Beyond occasional declarations of ‘You belong to us’, made to lesser races, they don’t seem to go a bundle on personal property, either (excepting black paint, which is the exclusive preserve of Cyberleaders). We have already discussed their touching solidarity and unwillingness to let each other suffer alone. It’s obvious, really: the Cybermen are socialists.

Not in your monolithic, Stalinist way, of course (this is the preserve of those Cybermen knock-offs spiritual cousins of the Cybermen, the Borg), but in the vaguely-embarrassing, hanging-around-on-street-corners style of Socialist Worker activists. They have a strong set of core beliefs but no clue whatsoever about how to put them into practice. It’s touchingly pathetic, really – no wonder they have those little tear-drop things drilled into their eye sockets.

So there we have it: our first clue that the politics of Doctor Who are not as clear-cut as one might think. The series is not as wholly uncritical of left-of-centre ideologies as one might have expected – even if, through the very ineptness of the Cybermen, it seems to be suggesting that the true dangers lie elsewhere. The Cybermen are there not really to be hated but pitied. And then blown up.

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