The consensus is that Doctor Who’s first Cybermen were not up to much. They looked like men with tights on their heads. The costumes were ungainly, they weren’t properly finished, and the creatures’ sing-song voices made them a laughing stock. Thank goodness they were upgraded straight after, becoming sleek, mechanical and terrifying. The way was paved for today’s army of robotic stormtroopers, marching on your home to convert you to their kind. But I lament the loss of the 1966 originals. Not only are the Cybermen of The Tenth Planet the most unnerving incarnation on a surface level, they are also truest to the ideas that are central to the creatures, the most unsettling Doctor Who has ever produced.
The shortcomings people identify in the first Cybermen costumes are clear enough, but they’re also bound to their circumstances, to the rush of a studio-bound TV production with no budget. Other flawed designs from the series have been made less cumbersome and done away with glaring problems like the visible eyes and sellotape we see here, but it’s rare for such a radical overhaul of style to take place, and so suddenly. When the Cybermen returned in 1967, the cloth faces were gone, replaced with a solid, metallic casing. It’s a shame; the cloth faces look to me like surgical bandaging (or perhaps the wrappings of a mummified corpse), and the resulting ‘patchwork’ quality suggests a desperate attempt to piece together a person from incompatible sources. Just enough remains of the perverted human form to become deeply unsettling.
The same can be said of the original Cybermen voices:
After The Tenth Planet, the voices became a mechanical drone for the remainder of the sixties, while in the seventies and eighties they became more human, more emotive – too far in the other direction. The new series reverted to the computerised buzz of stories like The Invasion (1968). But it was The Tenth Planet that always struck the best balance and conveyed the origins of the creatures. Recognisably human tones, clipped up and stitched together, trying to emulate the humanity that has been sacrificed for the sake of a longer life. The most unnerving thing technology does in day-to-day life is try to pretend it’s a person. Just like these Cybermen. They’re relatively docile. Polite statements are made of the fact that we are obsolete and must become like them to survive. The Tenth Planet shows a much better grasp of the way we design technology to interact with us than any Cybermen story afterwards.
After all, the Cybermen are a human creation. These versions of the creatures keep the closest ties to their creators, and are all the more threatening for it. The Tenth Planet’s plot doesn’t offer much sense of jeopardy, but the idea that it is a close match between human beings and our own technology is more exciting than the army of alien heavies the Cybermen have become. Nearly always, they’re now a seemingly unstoppable mass until they’re suddenly wiped out by a bomb or some other solution that dispatches them all in one go. It’s less satisfying than a hard-fought battle over the future meaning of humanity. Increasingly, too, Cybermen have become more associated in their stories with ideas of mass technology. Enormous factories and production lines, with innocent individuals ensnared within. For me, this also doesn’t always play well to the strengths of the ideas behind them.
When the emphasis is on a massive, unified army, and the threat they pose in terms of brute strength, then the individual, the emotional, the intellectual battles can be buried. The only time the old series focused heavily on an individual’s conversion was in the form of body horror, as Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) undergoes the slow, painful process in Attack of the Cybermen (1985). There was physical agony of the process there, but nothing of its aftermath. This is something the Cybermen’s 21st century revival in 2006 did better. A robotic shell asks about the bridegroom she’s supposed to marry the next morning. Characters we know introduce themselves from within their new bodies before they’re lost in a metal crowd. In 50 years, these moments most effectively channel the horror of the Cybermen. The idea that someone might slip out of consciousness and awake with no feeling towards the world around them or any of the memories they possess. They’re most distressing when it’s clear there are individual human beings still within – the Cybermen of The Tenth Planet have names, remember. Comedy sci-fi names like Gern and Krang, but names nonetheless.
Executed to their full potential, looking and sounding as they did at their beginning, the Cybermen embody the bleakest concept the programme has ever come up with. It emerges best not when they are a gigantic invading force, but when they appear to us as benevolent. They are walking cadavers, and they offer that as the perfect escape from sickness, death and grief. And, most frighteningly, people do surrender themselves willingly. It effectively happens in Rise of the Cybermen (2006), a satire on our slavishness to technology. It happens too in seminal Doctor Who Magazine strip The Flood (2004-5). And the Cybermen attempt to explain and persuade before trying to force submission in The Tenth Planet.
But all too rarely do these instances arise, for they expose best the tragedy of the Cybermen: that they are us, and we will be them. They were never creatures of conquest, but of desperation. They are the ultimate surrender of the human spirit – and the closer they to human beings in design and voice, the better. The first immortal beings Doctor Who ever showed us were ourselves. And we paid a terrible price to get there.