As Doctor Who enemies go, the Cybermen have been remarkably prolific, second only to the Daleks. From a production standpoint, it may have something to do with being able to just shove an actor into a tinfoil suit. But the truth is that the Cybermen are a world away from the pepper-pot space Nazis and, for all their outrageous plans, are to be pitied.
Admittedly, I’m biased; the Cybermen have been my favorite Doctor Who foe for a long time. What fascinates me is that, unlike the Daleks, they weren’t born out of hatred or megalomania. There was no cackling mastermind rubbing his hands together in glee in their creation. Instead, they were the product of a desperate, dying world.
Their origins were touched upon in The Tenth Planet, William Hartnell’s final (regular) appearance as the Doctor. They were created on Mondas, Earth’s lost twin planet, which had been sent hurtling off into space. They had excised their emotions as a “necessary” measure, and even though they’re clearly men in suits upon rewatching the serial, there’s something deeply distressing about their sing-song voices.
But it’s Marc Platt’s superb Spare Parts, one of Big Finish’s Fifth Doctor audio dramas, that really sheds light on the sheer horror that spawned them. I’m not going to scrutinize the science, but deprived of the Sun’s warmth, Mondas’ population (a 1950s equivalent society) has been forced to live in underground cities. Their numbers are down to the thousands, and while anarchy hasn’t yet erupted, the ruling body’s propaganda is becoming increasingly ineffectual.
Spare Parts is relatively narrow in scope, and rightly so, choosing to bring the Doctor into contact with one specific family. Their plight is Mondas in a microcosm; the father struggles to maintain an upbeat attitude for his teenage children, even though he had to sell his late wife as transplant material. His own heart has been replaced with a clunky mechanical substitute that flutters and flaps like a distressed budgie. His resentful son is champing at the bit to sign up for what, unbeknownst to him, is actually Cyber-conversion, while his daughter’s health dwindles each day.
I won’t spoil their ultimate fate, but despite the Doctor’s (fleeting) interference, this is a world hanging on to a cliff by its fingertips. The only hope the populace has is to become Cybermen, who are able to survive in this desolate world. The scientist partly responsible for creating the Cybermen doesn’t strip them of their emotions because she believes it makes them superior; it’s because otherwise they’d be driven mad. And while she views her creations as a grim necessity, she ends up descending into alcoholism.
The story also recontextualizes the suits seen in the original Tenth Planet serial. Yes, it’s true they’re crafted from whatever Doctor Who’s costume and prop departments had to hand. But in-universe, they’re so rough and ready because of the desperate rush to save the populace and the limited resources available, like trying to build a space suit from the junk in your garage. As a result, they’re actually more disturbing to behold than the later, more streamlined Cybermen.
You could argue that Spare Parts’ status as canon is questionable, even though the TV series has acknowledged the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures. But Spare Parts influence goes beyond the original Big Finish drama. Marc Platt was credited in the Tennant-era “Rise of the Cybermen” and “Age of Steel,” both of which were partially inspired by Spare Parts. The concluding two episodes of new Doctor Who’s tenth series told a very similar story, albeit set on a spaceship. And of that story’s antagonists, the Master was the only one with any real malice — Cyber-conversion was once again the last resort of an otherwise doomed populace.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but barring a couple of Cyberleaders who really hammed it up in the show, most Cybermen are similarly lacking malice. As misguided as they are, they genuinely believe that emotions are a weakness and that they’re preserving and elevating those they convert. You could certainly question the sanity of John Lumic, creator of New Who’s alternate-dimension Cybermen, but he still shared that belief.
At least, that’s what they believe until their own feelings are reimposed, at which point their existence becomes an agonizing nightmare. This of course assumes that their feelings are simply shut off in the first place; the other, more distressing possibility is that that the part of them that feels exists as a passenger, Get Out-style. And while they don’t value the individual, they owe their very existence to the fear of death, the drive to survive against all odds. If the Cybermen had the capacity for honest, unfettered self-reflection, they’d realize they were on shaky ground.
The icing on the misery cake is that, with little sense of self, they show no interest in preserving their past. Combined with their drive to convert others and their many subsequent defeats, this means there are likely no actual Mondasians left. They may have assigned themselves a mission, to “save” people from their fragile flesh, but the society they were created to preserve is barely a memory. And going forward, those they convert similarly lose whatever made them unique.
The Cybermen’s tragic roots make them infinitely more interesting than the Daleks, who are driven by sheer hate. They deserve to be more than just “villain of the week,” and doomed to pursue an ultimately hollow purpose, they deserve our pity too.