The Daleks might be the most iconic of Doctor Who villains, but the Cybermen are – at the risk of extermination – the more interesting. For whilst Dalek creator Terry Nation, who grew up during the Second World War, based the pepper-pots on Nazi values – presenting them as the manifestation of hatred and conformity – the Cybermen’s roots are in a question more complex and tragic than the simple desire to kill: what does it mean to be human?
Just like the Daleks before them, the Cybermen were reflections of the era that created them. In 1966, the show’s scientific advisor, Dr Kit Pedler and writer Gerry Davis were fascinated by innovations in prosthetic surgery and the ethical issues it brought with it. If, they asked, you became more machine than flesh, were you still technically human? And what makes a human anyway, is it the physical or the emotional? At what point do you cease to be you? This is why, despite all the different forms the Cybermen would take over their 46 years, their ideology remains the same: human existence, physically and emotionally, is weak and cruel – the Cybermen are the saviours.
And now, they’re back once more to take on Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor in the series 12 finale Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children. That makes this the perfect time to take a look back at the history of the Cyber menace…
The Cybermen made their first appearance in William Hartnell’s final story, The Tenth Planet, in 1966. And it was here, on Earth’s twin planet of Mondas, that the age of steel truly began – born out of desperation and pain.
Originally twinned with Earth, Mondas is essentially our planet ravaged after drifting out of the solar system and into the abyss of space. Isolated and frozen by their distance from the sun, Mondas’ people suffered. That is until some brain-box had the idea of replacing failing organic parts with cybernetics in order for them to physically deal with the brutality of their new environment. In order to psychologically deal with their grotesque new form, however, they were also stripped of their emotions – eventually rendering them cold, harsh and cruelly logical. Emotions were rubbish, the Mondasians concluded, and being an unthinking machine was just swell. Everyone should be like this – whether they liked it or not. It was, after all, for their own good.
Mondas was destroyed, eventually, but the Cybermen lived on in their charitable cause to conquer the galaxy and set existence free from its chains of thought and feeling – upgrading as they went.
Derek Martinus, who directed The Tenth Planet, recalls working with the original Cybermen…
The date: 1966
The place: Ealing Studios
The story: The Tenth Planet
The Doctor arrives at South Pole Tracking Station, which is about to be invaded by the Cybermen. It is the aliens’ first appearance on the show, and William Hartnell’s last as an ailing Doctor (he will regenerate into Patrick Troughton at the end of the story).
Director Derek Martinus recalls, “The Cybermen costumes were very hot to wear, and it was difficult for the actors to see. They were also very bulky and the actors tended to fall over.”
Even before that, casting had caused problems. Martinus adds, “It was quite funny because we were in the office of Doctor Who and the reception was full of very tall men. We felt they should look impressive and as menacing as possible. I got the agents to trawl through their books to see who was over 6ft 4in.” But, he adds, they had to be actors, too, to convey the necessary sense of threat.
With new creatures, an outgoing star and Antarctic location to simulate, not to mention blizzard conditions, it was an especially challenging adventure. Polystyrene chippings were used for snow. “When they had the wind machines going it choked everybody.”
The Tenth Planet Cybermen, despite looking like they were built on Blue Peter, were eerily zombie-like. Being the earliest version, they were a hodge-podge of patchwork humanity and cybernetics. The outline of their human faces, for example, were noticeable underneath their cloth masks and their hands were still clearly flesh and blood. They even had names – even if they were names like “Krang”. They wouldn’t last long.
As the Cyber-empire evolved, so did their style. Popular from their first outing in the first Doctor’s last story, they returned a mere three serials later for Patrick Troughton’s The Moonbase. It’s here that their pragmatic nature was fully realised, with their look changing – sometimes subtlety, sometimes drastically – with every appearance. With The Moonbase and their famous follow-up story, The Tomb of the Cybermen (set on their new adopted home of Telos), they became sleeker and more streamlined – exchanging the cloth masks and oversized chest units for a body, seemingly, made from tin foil. For The Invasion (again, a second Doctor story), they became bulkier and, bizarrely, wore lace-up shoes.
After their popularity with the second Doctor, the Cybermen were totally absent from the Third Doctor’s era and didn’t return until seven years later with Tom Baker’s Revenge of the Cybermen. This time, due to their weird allergy to gold, the last great Cyber-War was over, but one ship – along with the Cyber-Leader – remained. This would be their only appearance alongside the Fourth Doctor and it would be another six years before producer Jason Nathan-Turner decided to bring them back with a big re-design for fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s Earthshock, which saw them trying to – shock! – destroy the Earth. From here on in, the Cybermen were much bigger and more mechanical – with only subtle varying elements being introduced, such as transparent chins and, in their last story, Sylvester McCoy’s Silver Nemesis, cricket gloves for hands.
A new age, a new upgrade
When 2005 Who came around, after 17 years since their last appearance, the lovable iron-clad murderers were as prevalent in the fans’ minds as the revelation of who would play the new Doctor. But when Christopher Eccleston’s era began, Russell T Davies vetoed the frights in shining armour in favour of the Daleks, who took centre stage in Who’s return. David Tennant’s Doctor, however, was not so lucky.
As it transpired, the Cybermen had been tucked away in a parallel universe all along under the auspices of Trigger from Only Fools and Horses. Viewers were not so surprised by their reappearance, having spotted the clue in the episode’s title, Rise of the Cybermen – but the look on Tennant’s face was one of the more memorable Doctor grimaces of recent years, making the moment we heard the dreaded “Delete!” emitting from the familiar, relentless plated faces all the more ominous. Not to mention their sleeker design where no weapons were needed; just a simple electrocuting touch.
Once Steven Moffat took over from Davies, it was expected the Cybermen would get an old-style makeover. With budgets only extending to a Dalek re-design, however, it wasn’t to be. Even so, Moffat still managed to make one rogue Cyberman head in The Pandorica Opens scarier than entire legions of invading forces. From this point on, the Cybus design prevailed even when the Cybermen in question were, as in Closing Time, supposedly the original Mondas model. All in all, it was around this point that Doctor Who realised it didn’t really know what to do with the villains, relegating them to the meagre fate of being defeated by James Corden’s baby and smack-talked by Rory the Roman.
Harder, better, faster, stronger
With 2013’s Nightmare in Silver, the Cybermen would be upgraded once again – this time looking a lot sleeker and more advanced. These Cyberman, according to Gaiman, were a mixture of Mondas and Cybus Cybermen. His rationale being that the Cybus Cybermen who were “zapped off into time and space” at the end of The Next Doctor eventually met the Mondas Cybermen; cross-breeding and exchange of technology resulted in the new variety.
As well as a new design, the new Cybermen also had new abilities, including the talent to move super-fast. As Gaiman told Collider: “I just figured that my phone doesn’t look anything like what it looked like five years ago, and that didn’t look anything like what it looked like 10 years ago. My computer looks nothing like it looked like, 15 years ago.
“I thought, ‘Cybermen talk about upgrading, so let’s watch them upgrade.’ What would an upgraded Cyberman do? I thought one of the things it would do is move pretty fast. I loved the idea of a Cyberman that was essentially so dangerous that, if you find one on your planet, you blow up the planet.”
After Nightmare in Silver – where they went out with a bang – there wasn’t much seen of the Cybermen in Matt Smith’s era beyond a nifty cameo in The Time of the Doctor in which we see a Cyberman made out of wood. But that didn’t last long once Peter Capaldi took over the TARDIS, with series eight’s two-part finale Dark Water/Death in Heaven featuring a Cyberman army with Michelle Gomez’s regenerated Master ‘Missy’ at their helm.
There were no notable design tweaks this time, but their method of harvesting bodies was altered, with dead bodies whose consciousness had been saved to a Time Lord hard drive filling the metal shells. These Cybermen were also able to fly and “seed” themselves through rain onto already-dead buried bodies, though they were totally enthralled by Missy rather than acting out their own aims. Well, except for the recently-converted Danny Pink and a certain Brigadier brought back from the dead…
The return of the Mondasians
In 2017, the Cybermen came full circle. As well as bringing back 2006 and 2013 models of the Cybermen, the series ten two-part finale World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls saw the twelfth Doctor facing the Mondasian originals, and they were creepier and more dangerous than ever. Almost too creepy, in fact…
Converting the Doctor’s companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) and countless others, the various generations of Cybermen were built and created in a time-dilated spaceship (helped along by John Simm’s Master), and waged war on what was left of the Mondasians as they stood beside the Doctor.
In the end, the Doctor triumphed even as the Cybermen ended the life of Capaldi’s incarnation (even if he did hold off a regeneration for another episode), and we hadn’t seen or heard from them since – until they made a spectacular return in the 2020 series.
The Cybermen Ascend
In Doctor Who series 12’s eighth episode The Haunting of Villa Diodati, fans were introduced to a new breed of Cyberman, half-converted, rusting and still filled with human emotions.
Formerly the human called Ashad, this Lone Cyberman had travelled back in time to pick up a Cyberman AI called Cyberium with a view to rebuilding the Cyber-Empire.
Going forward, we know the Cybermen will have a new, shinier look as well (above) and we can only hope it’s a grand return for some of Doctor Who’s best villains. Could it be time, once again, to be converted?
Doctor Who airs on BBC One on Sundays