How do you solve a problem like the Cybermen? Doctor Who’s other great race of baddies have often felt like a second-best prize after the iconic Daleks, delivering a similar concept – biological creatures obsessed with uniformity trapped inside robotic shells – with a less visually arresting design.
Of course, there have been plenty of great Cybermen stories in both the classic and modern series, and plenty of Doctor Who writers have found brilliant ways to keep them relevant. But often, they can come over a bit bland and difficult to connect with. They’re not robots, but an army of faceless drones who are programmed to never emote are, by definition, sometimes a hindrance to creating high drama.
So why have the Cybermen’s most recent appearances in Doctor Who (specifically series 12’s eighth and ninth episodes The Haunting of Villa Diodati and Ascension of the Cybermen) been noted as such an improvement? Well, oddly, it’s because what made the Cybermen special – their lack of emotions and uniformity – has been carefully stripped away. Patrick O’Kane’s lone Cyberman Ashad (lone being a synonym for unique) and his framing within the series has provided one of the most interesting takes on the villains since the sci-fi drama was rebooted in 2005.
After all, the Cybermen’s status in modern Doctor Who has been a bit mixed. While their grand return in 2006 revived the body-horror idea of conversion, the race themselves were demoted to a secondary, Earthbound menace (famously an army of Cybermen couldn’t take on a single Dalek), a long way from the galaxy-crushing menace they had once been.
As time went on their stories became less central and momentous, with the Cybermen only turning up for odd one-episode stints (The Next Doctor, Closing Time) and cameos without providing much menace. An attempted revamp in 2013 fell flat, and by 2014 the Cybermen had essentially become a rent-an-army for Michelle Gomez’s Missy.
2017’s World Enough and Time revitalised the concept by taking them back to their roots, recreating the original Cyberman design to create a genuine scary and horrifying background for the species – but really, the Cybermen here were just monsters, directed by the Master (John Simm/Michelle Gomez) without any real grand scheme of their own. It was an incredible story, but it still didn’t feel like a Cyberman story.
But this year? This feels like a Cyberman story. Once again they’re presented as a dangerous, galaxy-spanning threat, and in creating Ashad series boss Chris Chibnall has given the Cybermen a face and a voice they haven’t had in a long time, borrowing again from the Daleks’ playbook to provide a focal point for the Doctor to face off with. After all, what is Ashad but the Cyberman equivalent of Davros, albeit a Davros with a very different relationship to the founding of his species?
It feels almost wrong that the most interesting Cyberman in years isn’t really a Cyberman at all – he has his emotions, individuality and freedom of thought intact – but really the character only works as well as he does because he comes from within that context. If Doctor Who had just created an angry cyborg villain from the start, that’s just the Gunslinger from A Town Called Mercy.
Seeing an angry Cyberman plays against expectations because Cybermen weren’t angry before (well, they weren’t supposed to be, but this time it’s an intentional part of the plot rather than something accidentally creeping into the script). The full weight of the species’ history over the years adds depth and context to this new take, which simultaneously gives the baddies a “face,” Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor someone to play off and adds to the story by giving the Cybermen new motives.
And it helps that Ashad’s half-converted, rusting design and characterisation by O’Kane plays off so well onscreen. Doctor Who has experimented with old, battered Cybermen before (most notably in The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang), and Chibnall himself had a half-converted human in his Torchwood episode Cyberwoman, so it’s possible to see the seeds of this idea in the past.
With Ashad, the cracked helm and free arm of the familiar Cyber-body create an intriguing, almost sympathetic image. While the new “Warrior Class” Cybermen are fun, it’s probably the Lone Cyberman design we’ll all remember. Somehow, the image of a broken Cyberman quoting poetry in an 18th-century mansion is more visually arresting than all the CGI bells and whistles Doctor Who can bring to the fore.
Of course, whether or not series 12’s finale will stick the landing remains to be seen. Given how much else there is to resolve in The Timeless Children (namely the Master, the new Doctor, the Timeless Child etc) it’s hard to imagine that the Cybermen will dominate the narrative in quite the same way, and it might be that they end up overshadowed just like they were in their last big finale appearance (2006’s Doomsday, when the Daleks took a central role as well).
If that is the case, I can only hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this lone Cyberman, or the last time Doctor Who’s perennial bridesmaids got their own time in the spotlight. There’s still time to convert us all into Cyber-fans.
Doctor Who: The Timeless Children airs on BBC One at 6:50pm on Sunday 1st March