Rogue’s Review: Cybermen

September 9th, 2011

A woman’s fingers erupting from a robot’s wrist, a wet brain punctured by wires and encased in metal, animal hair sprouting behind a cyborg faceplate, emotions crushed beneath inhibitor technology.

Cybermen? It could be argued.

Terrible as they might be, the threat of assimilation posed by the Cybermen has never been reducible to an individual loss of humanity or the “deletion” of the human species, it’s more perverse than that. Metal and flesh are the most unnatural of bedfellows, that’s why the Terminator peeling off his face to reveal the metal skull beneath is so much more memorable than a thousand other scenes of extreme physical violence given life in modern cinema. It’s part of the reason Burrough’s insect typewriter is so horribly disturbing, and why the meaty technology of Grant Morrison’s X-Men’s next generation sentinels, and techy meatnology of Cronenberg’s entire ouvre, stand apart from the banal horrors of most contemporary genre fiction. It’s why H.R. Giger’s “Biomechanical” [a really fantastique link].

The cyborg is sexy and repulsive, utopian and terrifying. It promises the dream of superhumanity but threatens the very idea of human nature. It offers an all-enveloping embrace but of the very strangest kind. The Cybermen, the original Borgs, are to be feared not merely because they have laser guns and superstrength, but because they threaten all that we are – spirit, flesh, culture – and that’s how we like it. In some deep dark part of us we want to be buried under all that lovely invulnerable armour, or have our consciousness freed from its fleshy prison to enjoy the anti-delights of a perfect mechanical world.

Of course, the basic Cyberman is the very definition of unsexy, or at most only sexy in the design sense of the word. Dieter Rams sexy. Which isn’t to say that the allure of the cyborg doesn’t manifest through the plot from time to time, or that the brute body horror of what cyborgs represent is never given play, but the chaps at the Beeb didn’t build them with those concerns in mind.

There’s no doubt that Doctor Who creators should continue to have a great deal of fun with that stuff – it’s fertile silicon soil – nevertheless I can’t help feeling that there’s something prosaic about the elements under discussion, in as much as they’ve been so well served by science fiction in general. They’re in the Cyberman’s DNA, to be sure, but they don’t describe anything specific about the Cyberman concept. As ever with these Rogue’s Review things I find myself looking for those features which aren’t shared with other genre staples, that can or could make a concept stand out, and as ever weirdness is a good place to start. So here’s a definitive list to counter the one I opened with:

Mondas the reverse world, a trip to the edge of the universe, vulnerability to gold, the enfleshment of the Cybermen.

It’s perhaps because I’m not a Dr Who expert that a recent encounter with the Cybermen’s first appearance in the series of episodes entitled The Tenth Planet (1966) realigned my view of them. I’ve always suspected Cybermen were odd, with their gold allergy and their pharaonic steel head-dresses, and, with respect to the iteration I grew up around at least, their eerie silence. Admittedly the latter probably wasn’t intentional, but the absence of clanks and screeches when they moved their alien alloy frames struck me as extremely peculiar as a child.

My inability to frame the bizarre Cybermen of The Tenth Planet within a history, in the way that a proper fan could, meant that I had no way of instinctively rationalizing the raw craziness of the concepts as presented. These weren’t the Ultron-lite storm troopers of Nu-Who, or even the blank robo-nazi drones of the Tom Baker era, with their dull pseudo-fascist overtones.

Their home, Mondas, the tenth planet, was Earth’s upside down twin. The Cybermen were once our solar brothers, apparently, but ended up sealing themselves inside a machine world in an effort to escape death and pain, before shortly setting off on a jolly trip to “the edge of the space”, from which they’d recently returned. These Cybermen felt supernatural. It doesn’t take a learned student of the occult to start reading mystical symbolism into all this talk of hanged Earth’s sloughing off the divine light of the sun to explore the dark reaches of reality. Of men rejecting flesh for base metal, a new form of being sickened by the pure gold of the alchemist, bound to some inverted ideal. The Qliphothic man?

Here’s a dumb Wikipedia quote that just begs to let the Cybermen in

“According to Israel Regardie, the qlipothic tree consists of 10 spheres in opposition to the sephiroth on the Tree of Life. These are also referred to as the “evil twins”. They are also the “Evil Demons of Matter and the Shells of the Dead.”

I mean, it’s not much of a stretch, is it? Especially not when you roll in all those Lovecraftian superscience-as-magic connotations that trail Doctor Who around like tendrils on a shoggoth. None of which is to say that the Cybermen should be overtly played as supernatural, but they could be played as a lot stranger than they usually are, a lot more uncanny. Their extreme reaction to gold as a way of reinforcing their sinister otherness rather than an embarrassing secret to be swept under the carpet now that we’re in the age of militarised superheroes and rationalised batarangs.

The metallic fabric that hugs their absent human faces, the empty pits where their eyes should be, their perpetually gaping mouths combined with their hollow sing song voices to give an impression not of a blend of organic and mechanic, but of a ghost. Watching the flesh creep back in over the Cybermen’s subsequent appearances, a hand here, some skin there, put me in mind of flesh as haunting rather than a component in a fusion, or some sexual allegory. Far from encapsulating some dystopian dream these early Cybermen spoke of something banished and terrible, waiting to crawl back in. Not body horror precisely, but a way of queering our normal state of being so as to make it feel supernatural.

These are Cybermen who offer crackling, digital prayers to the void. To whom the word “delete” represents an anti-spiritual ideal, and find themselves plagued by dead subroutine’s that still mourn the organic. No wonder they have such a hard on for humanity.

Right there’s Cybermen that work for me.

Other bastards reviewed in our Month of Bastards:


13 Responses to “Rogue’s Review: Cybermen”

  1. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Rogue’s Review: Starscream Says:

    [...] Cybermen [...]

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Is there ever a case where “less impressionism” is the way to go?

  3. Zom Says:

    No. That’s what we always get

  4. Zom Says:

    Less glibbly, yeah, of course. I’ll write one soon.

  5. Bill Reed Says:

    The Cybermen really do get less interesting with each appearance. Those cloth-faced sing-songy techno-vampire communists from space– those are the real deal.

  6. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    This was great. What I really like about all of the Rogue’s Reviews, and this one in particular, is that they manage to be faithful to the original concept yet still find something new to say about it. The Cybermen are easily one of the most poorly utilized and underdeveloped concepts in the Who-niverse. I never, never, never feel any excitement when they show their face on the screen. This Review ought to be incorporated into future episodes. It would go a long way towards invigorating a tired Who adversary.

    Keep up the imaginative work.

  7. Indorkest Says:

    I love the Tenth Planet Cybermen. If you look really close when they’re on screen, you can just make out the actors’ eyes inside their stocking-masks. Nasty! And they had weird names, like ‘Talon’ and ‘Krang.’ The only other story they were featured in was one of the audio dramas produced by Big Finish called ‘Spare Parts.’ It was all set on Mondas (resembling an underground fifties’ London) and did some really disturbing stuff with the cyber-conversions. Long time since I listened to it, but I reckon it captured a lot of those spooky qualities discussed above, and it was easily the best cyber-story outside the sixties.

  8. DoctorSmashy Says:

    That original Tenth Planet Cybermen design has always been my favourite. So much creepier and more creative than their current outfits, which you perfectly described as Ultron-lite. I recently came across an unused piece of concept art for the Davies era Cymbermen that I really wish they’d gone with: Totally based on the Tenth Planet designs.

  9. DoctorSmashy Says:

    And while I don’t care for the current Cybermen much, I did enjoy the brief time we spent with the headless, decaying Pandorica guard in the last season finale. Particularly amusing was the part when the helmet split open to reveal a human skull inside, which then tried to eat Amy’s face, then all these tentacles came out for some reason and the head started moving around on its own like the love child of John Carpenter’s Thing and the Brundlefly/Telepod mutant. I do hope Moffat uses them again someday.

  10. Shade1983 Says:

    I read a blog post along similar lines a few months back. It was more focused on the specifics of Tenth Planet than Cybermen in general, but still interesting:

  11. Zom Says:

    Thanks for the link, shade. Fascinating to see a far more typical fan come to such similar conclusions

  12. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Doctor Who: Season 6B: Closing Time Says:

    [...] we’ve seen here before exactly what makes the Cybermen scary. And there are other, less-imaginative ways to make them effective, revolving around body horror, [...]

  13. Chris T Says:

    Yeah here’s a ‘me too’ for the original cybermen love. I think I first saw them in The Doctor Who Technical Manual when I was a kid.

    What annoys me most about the new ones is how loudly they stomp around everywhere.. zish!

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