Doctor Who - The New Series

Tuning up the Cybermen

There's very little I could add to this node that isn't already covered above in exhaustive detail by Mitcharf and Master Villain (and seriously, how come that excellent latter article only has four C!s? Come on, people!), so I'll instead offer a little criticism on the origins of the Cybermen seen in the newest version of Doctor Who.

The new origin The original Cybes were a lost race of humanoids who had replaced all of their body parts to survive in the deep cold of space, and whose only purpose was to convert all other sentient species in the galaxy into fellow Cybermen, exploiting the natural resources of planets such as Earth in the process. The new Cybermen, introduced in season two episode five, "Rise of the Cybermen", hail from a parallel universe (a clever way of scrapping the complicated continuity behind the old lot). They are innocent people who have been kidnapped, stripped of everything but their brains and nervous systems and put into metal bodies by insane genius John Lumic.

Lumic, who controls the vast Cybus Industries corporation, is developing Cybermen as a way for humans to survive even when their bodies fail. However, the process is agonisingly painful, so he equips each Cyberman with an emotional inhibitor chip that turns them into emotionless drones driven by pure logic. Gripped by insanity, Lumic reacts to the rejection of his plans rather badly and sets in motion a plan that will see humans across the world being transformed against their will into mindless robots. After Lumic dies, the Cybermen, recognising humans as being weak and inferior, subsequently decide to continue his work by attempting to convert everyone they can find.

The criticism While I love the new look for the Cybermen, I do feel like producer Russell T. Davies and Tom McCrea, author of their debut, have missed a trick with their new origin story. The original Cybermen, in case you'd forgotten, were developed as an expression of 1960s tensions about artificial body parts, being a race of people who had replaced so much of their bodies that they had become more machine than man.

For this update, writer Tom McRae pitched a story - based on the audio Who tale Spare Parts - which had people on a dying Earth upgrading their body parts in special shops. Davies didn't think this was credible, so they worked out this version, which uses the Cybermen as a metaphor for Western society's obsession with being on the cutting edge of technology.

The problem here is that the threat shown in the actual episode bears very little resemblance to the supposed commentary. Nobody gets upgraded into a Cyberman body through choice, which means that the 'Cyberman as fancy new phone' thing just doesn't work. Nobody is running around making you use the best new phone technology are they? Nobody from Nokia is gluing their latest Bluetooth whatsit to your ear, so how does this work as a metaphor?

To be fair, McCrea does try to iron it out a little with the EarPods, which are communication devices that fit into the ears at all times and can upload data directly into the user's brain. These are a logical extension of mobile phones and while I can't see people buying into something that would cause them to stop dead in the street while it uploaded information (think of the thievery that would be going on!), it does follow the 'upgrade obsession' logic that the episode espouses.

Unfortunately, this story is called "Rise of the Cybermen", not "Rise of the EarPods", and it's the titular cyborgs who have to carry the weight of the metaphor - and, to put it simply, they don't. Now, I don't think this is a serious problem with the episode (there are enough of those to make up for it, mind you) but I do think that it's a shame that the new Cybermen have stomped onto the scene without quite the same thematic impact that their ancestors brought.

So what could they have done that would have updated the Cyberman ethos to make it a bit more relevant to this decade? I can think of two...

Alternative one The first is cyberisation as fashion statement; an extension of body modification addiction that some people have. You know those guys who split their tongues and get more metal shoved into their bodies than Julius Caesar? You ever notice how they just can't seem to leave it at fifteen testicular piercings and a half-dozen sub-dermal ball bearings? Right.

Granted, the body modding scene is still very niche, although the acceptability of piercings has increased to the point where tongue, eyebrow, nose and bellybutton piercings are no longer rare sights on British streets. And of course, there are breast implants, collagen injections and the like, although their purpose is - in theory - to look somewhat natural. Still, it's not entirely unfeasible to imagine an alternate world where prosthetic limbs and organs are so advanced that people are willing to get them not just to improve their lives (hands that can type at 5,000 words a minute? Eyes that can provide automatic night vision? Shape-changing penises? Literal buns of steel?) but also to keep up-to-date with body fashions. Outlandish? Surely it's no more so than an Earth where people will watch and participate in televised torture and murder, as seen in Russell T. Davies's episode "Bad Wolf".

So in this world where body modifications are used not only to improve lives but also keep on the cusp of fashion, our bad guy - another John Lumic, this time running the world's biggest 'body shop' - offers free thought implants to improve mental acuity. A new age for mankind! One where the gift of intelligence is available to everyone, no matter what their genetic heritage. But either he decides to use them to take over the world or someone/something co-opts the implants. Or maybe they work a little too well and suddenly logic overrides emotion. Whatever happens, we get a subset of humanity that is working on pure logic with a mission to transform the rest of the galaxy.

Now this might seem a little costly for the effects boys, but in this world cybernetics are so advanced that they are indistinguishable from real body parts - unless you want to show off with neon eyes, metallic arms and satyr-style legs. Naturally once the nu-Cybermen take over, all concepts of aesthetics go out the window and we can get back to the old-school clompy robot style.

Alternative two The second idea is closer to the original story concepts used for the old-school Cybes. In most societies, those with access to large amounts of money can afford better healthcare. This is true even in Britain, where its socialised healthcare system is generally passed over by those with money in favour of private health companies such as BUPA. Clearly, therefore, if synthetic kidneys, cybernetic limbs, eye-cameras and brain enhancements were realistic options, those with the cash would be able to afford the good stuff while everyone else would have to make do with (eurgh) second-hand goods. Possibly literally, in the case of robotic limbs.

Now if you put this conceit into a society without any kind of serious healthcare options for the underprivileged and wind on time by a few generations, you would get a world in which the rich live longer and longer and accrue more and more money, which allows them to live longer and longer etc.

From here on, it could run pretty much the same as above; the rich types with their swanky top technology decide to improve their brains as well as their bodies and end up turning themselves into proto-Cybermen. It would even play into the themes of everything having a limited lifespan and the meaningless of life eternal that have turned up frequently in the series, most obviously in 1.02, "The End of the World" and 2.03, "School Reunion".

There would follow, of course, a human resistance movement lead by the lower classes and the Luddites, which The Doctor could help spearhead. The Robotoffs get blown up, which would play well to a modern British crowd, while humanity survives to live another day. Hurrah! Oh, and Billie Piper gets her kit off at some point. Look, it's my story all right?

Disclaimer I'm not saying that these ideas are necessarily better ideas than the ones used in the episode or that I could write a better story than "Rise of the Cybermen" (well... maybe...). I also appreciate that these would have resulted in drastically different stories to the ones shown one the telly and may also have not fit well into the season as a whole. That's fine. What I am saying is that the episodes we got didn't use the thematic and symbolic options that the Cybermen represent to their fullest. And I think that's a shame.