Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Cybermen are overrated and normally pretty rubbish

We're not very good really.

Sometimes there's no clever title available, sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.

The continuing popularity of the Cybermen is a mystery to me. Well maybe that's not quiet true, I'm aware of all the reasons why they are supposed to strike a cord, I just don't buy any of those reasons. The reality is that in general they feature in mediocre and overrated stories and are themselves the Who equivalent of a greatest hits CD.

A cheesy classic apparently.

Going through their appearances throughout the show we do have some classic moments. The Tenth planet has the reveal in the snow (albeit this is a cheesy “Kirk fighting the Gorn” sort of classic) and the associative greatness of being the first ever regeneration story. In the second Doctor's era we have the Cybermen breaking out of their tombs and then the walk down the stairs of St. Pauls. Then nothing till the 5th Doctor era when we have the episode one reveal and the glory that is Adric getting blown to crap (again entirely associative). Then that really is it until the new series when we get the incredibly disturbing “In the Jungle” scene (up there with Reservoir Dogs ear-ectomy) and the Yvone Hartman “I did my duty” bit. Then finally we have another snow scene.

Maybe that should be a greatest hits EP!

The thing is that for the most part these scenes could've been any old baddy. The Haemavores would or the Sea Devils would've been just as creepy coming out of the Tombs or walking down the steps of St. Pauls. Do the Cybermen of The Invasion bear any real resemblance to the Cybermen of The Tenth planer? Hardly. Would history have missed the Cybermen if The Invasion had featured that design, but called them the Cyberbots. Its really only the new series that has created a legitimately great uniquely Cybermen moment that gets to the heart of what is supposed to be so cool about the Cybermen (“In the Jungle” and “I did my duty”).

All that being said, the truth is that these scenes did all feature the Cybermen and that must have factored into their popularity. However, this meagre greatest hits collection of moments alone cannot account for their popularity. For a start off the Autons have almost as many classic moments in their 3 stories as the Cybermen have in their 10 television stories. So what are the reasons why they have endured?

Well its difficult to argue that it is the design. As the picture above shows its never been remotely consistent. Whereas the Daleks have maintained an almost totally uniform look for the entire history of the show (bar the odd emperor model) the Cybermen have constantly changed and constantly deviated further and further from their human origins (thus undermining their own mythos entirely).

There is always of course the argument that Cybermen are a perfect foil for the Doctor himself. Just as the Daleks stand in opposition to the Doctor by virtue of being hate filled fascists; so the Cybermen are in opposition to the Doctor by virtue of their lack of emotion. This seems persuasive, but the reality is that this is just not true. The Cybermen stories from Tom Baker to Sylvester McCoy inclusive all feature Cybermen being overtly sarcastic, boastful, macho (HEXcellent) and sadistic. The stories of the Black and White era feature less overt emotions, but they are there nevertheless. The new series has fared a little better, but this leads to a further problem. When the Doctor is in conflict with the Daleks (or indeed the Master) the conflict operates on several levels. The intellectual, the emotional and the physical. The problem with the Cybermen is that when they genuinely are emotionless, you have the Doctor railing at what is essentially a non-responsive robot which diminishes the intensity of the scene (Picture Eccelston vs the Daleks in the climax of Bad Wolf, now picture that with the Cybermen in place of the Daleks). On the other hand when the Cybermen show emotion in those sorts of scenes it undermines the whole point of the Cybermen!

To be fair the Hartnell production team had no idea of the mediocrity they were unleashing on the future of Who. To be fairer still the original Cybermen were not mediocre as such. The original Cybermen were, in their first story, a genuinely interesting concept. The Tenth Planet as a story is both confusing and mostly tedious. But the Cybermen themselves are interesting. The low tech “shit we've run out of budget” look actually serves them well because they clearly retain an element of flesh. Also I love the way that their mouths simply stay completely open when they talk (revealing a buzzing electronic voice) and then close when they are finished. There's no movement to make the words, which is a cool feature in my mind. They also have names, so there's an element of underlying individuality there. This makes sense. Even the new series gets this wrong. A removal of emotions will not totally eradicate a persons individuality, our memories and they way we think would remain. It doesn't make sense that the Cybermen are, form The Tenth Planet onwards, so generic. It totally undermines the notion that they are cyborgs and not robots if they all act exactly the same.

But of course it's not the Hartnell era Cybermen that people remember. Indeed when they are shown on TV its generally with a hint of derision. I think the key to the popularity of the Cybermen is the Troughton era. They weren't particularly well used then, certainly not as well used as in The Tenth Planet, but they looked more high tech and imposing. They were also used regularly and they had most of their classic moments in that era. Thus their popularity is somewhat circular. They were/are popular because they were used a lot and they were used a lot because they were/are popular. I really don't think there is much more to it than that.

The role of the Cybermen role in the Troughton era was to be a shorthand bad guy. If the writers wanted a bad guy that needed little explaining or motivation (and they didn't want to pay Terry Nation for the Daleks) they brought in the Cybermen. The fact that there was frequently no plot justification for doing so, or that doing so was contrary to the very nature of the Cybermen was not a problem. The Troughton era was certainly the zenith of the Cybermen in the mythology of Who. But again its all smoke and mirrors. Take Tomb of the Cybermen; I can understand this story's legendary status when it was missing. But its been back in the archives for around 20 years now and you've still got people talking like its a classic story. It isn't, its slow and badly plotted (the Doctor helps a bunch of crackpots release the Cybermen just so he can lock them up again). The Invasion is brilliant and hardly feels padded at all for an 8 episode story, but the Cybermen are almost incidental. The success of the story hangs on Tobias Vaughan and the Brigadier.

Whether it is a coincidence or not, the Cybermen never really recovered from the shows transition from black and white to colour. The Pertwee era never even bothered with them preferring to get its fix of classic moment from the Autons. When they returned in the Tom Baker era it was once again in a substandard, dull runaround with decidedly emotional Cybermen. Earthshock was purposely a throwback to the Troughton era. All very well and good when there was getting on for 15 years between Earthshock and The Invasion, less good now the DVDs can be watched back to back and you can see how truly unoriginal Earthshock was. The Five Doctor's once again uses them as generic bad guys, but they barely make it into nuisance territory. By the time of Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis the show had given up. There's no effort whatsoever to do anything creative with the Cybermen and there's nothing threatening or disturbing about them either.

The new series hasn't fared much better with them either. The first problem was how to revive the Cybermen. The Tenth Planet template was not open for use, Star Trek: The Next Generation having both appropriated it for The Borg and done a better job with that template than Who ever did. The 70's don't really provide a template and the 80's were the epitome of naff. That only really left the Troughton era. This is essentially what we got another retread of the 60s with bluetooth and ipods thrown in. Once you strip away the nostalgia and the gimmickry of “upgrading” there's nothing of any substance left. And again there is a quality control problem with their stories. Rise of the Cybermen, Age of Steel and The Next Doctor are much better stories than any of the 70s or 80s stories featuring the Cybermen, but they are amongst the poorest offered by the new series. Army of Ghost and Doomsday are awesome, but the Cybermen quickly play third fiddle to the Daleks and the separation of the Doctor and Rose. Moreover RTD openly admitted using the Cybermen as shorthand bad guys for The Next Doctor, contrast that with his zealous protection of the Daleks.

Naturally the Cybermen will return in the future and there are plenty on the fan forums looking forward to The Moff returning to the Cybermen of our universe (as opposed to the Cybus industries models). I personally think that this will not make a difference. If the Cybermen are to be truly worthy of their reputation a more fundamental approach to their use will be needed.

Whilst a wholesale return to the ethos of the Tenth Planet will not be possible because of The Borg, there can be a return to the idea of some individuality to each Cyberman. The new series has so far been able to keep emotion from the characterisation of the Cybermen and this should be maintained. Inspiration can also be taken from the spin-off media. The “in the Jungle” moment was one of the finest uses of the Cybermen because it was so gruesome, this is an aspect of them that should be emphasised. Poncing around spaceships with clenched fists and randomly exclaiming “excellent” is neither intimidating or interesting, people being shovelled into brutal conversion chambers is. The Novel “The Killing Ground” shows the way on this one, focusing on the conversion process itself (The Next Generation had the same success with The Best of Both Worlds”). A Cybermen story should always have the dread of this process at its core, it should be an ever present dread in any Cyberman story.

The comic story “The Flood” provides further raw materials for the future. On a superficial level the design is fantastic. The Cybermen have never looked as good as in this story (when they are not invisible that is!).

We were fucking brilliant.

The use of the Cybermen in this story is also brilliant. They have the human race begging for conversion by overloading them with emotion. This is the way to do it. The Doctor in the middle ground between emotional overload and a total loss of emotion, it also fits the whole Emo thing that is going on at the moment.

Spare Parts on the other hand is shockingly overrated.

Next time around The Flood or The Master.

No comments: