The Golden Age of Cybermen Part 1: From The Tenth Planet to The Moonbase

Golden age of Cybermen The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase

For the Doctor’s 52nd birthday, a time to look at a race of monsters who would have once understood the importance of that number. Our long removed cousins, tragic victims of universal fate. Jokerside looks at the Golden Age of the Cybermen from 1966 to 1967.

The Cyberman arrived in a barrage of firsts and barely left the screen in the years that followed as they made a fair stab at replacing their pepper pot despotic rivals who’d brought Doctor Who to international attention.

Devised from science as much as drama, they collided with the demise of the First Doctor and the arrival of the base under siege story they would become synonymous with. Within three years they were only one shy of the Daleks in terms of villainous appearances. And while the Dalek’s schemes had become ever more diabolical during the First Doctor’s tenure, the Cybermen adopted an understandably more reserved approach while they continually upgraded and altered themselves. It’s a shame that the unsettling surgical mask approach of their first appearance would soon be encased in metal. But at least we’ve not seen a New Paradigm. Arguably…

The Tenth Planet (Season 4, 1966)

“They will not return”

Doctor Who The Tenth PlanetThe first words of the Cybermen. Not malicious, not a direct effect of their actions. Just a factual statement that the two spacefaring humans in question cannot possibly survive. They are proved right.

Three things began with The Tenth Planet, a serial that together with the succeeding Power of the Daleks, form the two most important in Doctor Who’s history. Those serials would test the show’s ability to survive thanks to the brilliant innovation of regeneration. But as hardly a side-line to that, The Tenth Planet marks the first appearance of recurring rogues the Cybermen and the first of a great Who staple – the base under siege story.

The setting is effective, fulfilling the isolation required by a good base under siege story and effortlessly shows the physical superiority of the Cyber race compared to humans. A mean trick in the first cliff-hanger reveals the Cybers to us as they assault face-covered humans – each is a distortion of the other in the Antarctic blizzard. We soon find that these are creatures of necessary logic but their chief tools are physical walloping and cumbersome chest-mounted ray guns.

Silver chic

“You will be wondering what has happened”

The design of the Cybermen is phenomenal. Bulky and inhuman. Their only appearance without metal face plating allows the simplified distortion of the human body to shine through. The eyes, holes, the mouth opening perpetually during their effective monotone, distorted speech. The face that resembles a surgical mask. The identical nature and similar voices that link all Cybermen is very effective in positing their threat and holding up a warped mirror to f humanity. In hindsight it’s touching that we see this early phase of Cybermen, where they still retain individual designations – something writer Marc Platt has developed with great success in Big Finish audios Spare Parts and The Silver Turk. And In the nicest way, this iteration of the cyber race, the Cyber Mondasians, wear their Achilles heels on their… Well, heads and stomachs. The lumbersome lamps on their heads serve to draw power from their planet, an excellently engineered short range and long range system if you think about it. And below the bulky chest unit that we’re told replaces their heart and lungs, and undoubtedly every other major organ in the torso, a large two handled weapon that are as effective when turned against them as they are plowing down humans. And their hands, their horribly human hands…

Emotional triangle

“You must come and live with us.”

The Cyberman are set in an Antarctic emotional triangle. In opposition are the Doctor and rational humans, and then the increasingly deranged and emotional base commander Cutler.

The Doctor gets to hang in the background and rail against both parties before falling ill, a fact necessitated by William Hartnell’s poor health and inability to record the third episode. It doesn’t make too much of a difference to the story as his passion carried through his companions and sympathetic scientists. What is intriguing is that the Doctor appears knowledgeable about the Cybermen. The Five Doctors would later add some substance to this, the Fifth Doctor throwing away the idea that the Cybermen weren’t allowed to take part in the ancient and controversial Game of Death as they were too well equipped. As unbelievable as it seems, that’s an accusation more easily levelled at the 1980s Cybermen than those we meet here.

Against the simple emotion-free Cybermen, it’s Cutler who provides dramatic, if slightly one dimensional, interest. Already unhinged and brutal in the opening crisis of the story, the contrived device of his son being sent up in the replacement shuttle is all the trigger needed to rip all of his hinges off. He would sacrifice the planet for his son, exactly the kind of emotional response that sits in opposition to the Cybers. When communication fails, and assuming the worst for his son, he is determined to kill a defiant and stoic Doctor in revenge. It’s the unironic weaponry blast of the Cybermen that saves the Doctor.

Emotionally they are simply unemotional. There is little strategy beyond their main game, and they happily invite humans to engage in the futile task of landing their errant Zeus IV rocket, regardless of their definitive logical assessment. If we didn’t know better, that might be an indulgence. Still, they clearly have more understanding than they let on. If they can’t comprehend emotional response, they wouldn’t be able to grasp the importance of hostages.

An odd foreshadowing is in the Cybermen’s refusal to engage with the Doctor’s negotiation while a rocket is aimed at their planet. We’re never left in any doubt that the Z-bomb can cause devastation. The Cybermen are clearly vastly technologically superior to humanity, as Ben says “advanced geezers”, but the fear of the human rocket exposes their shameless plan to blow up the Earth ahead of time. Not able to process fear, perhaps they could have sourced a better solution to manning the death-trap radiation chamber.

In the end the Cybermen fall for the simple power overload ruse. Like their Dalek precursors on their first appearance, they’re tied to it. In this case, they expire with it – their civilisation collapsing like a mouldy house of cards. It’s an end as tragic as their existence, although it’s wishful thinking on behalf of humanity to imagine they are defeated for good. They’re too good a mirror after all. And as lean as The Tenth Planet is at developing them, it’s effectively conveys the crutch of their switch; between the need for survival to a desperate and unavoidable way of life.

In the shadows

We have freedom from disease, protection against heat and cold, true mastery. Do you prefer to die in misery?

What’s extraordinary is how little we see the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet. Appearing at the end of the first episode, before quite happily engaging in conversation – and taking a very soft approach to cyber conversion when they offer to take a handful of humans to their planet to live. Where emotions won’t be necessary.

Having already proved that the fiends are prone to their own weaponry – quite possibly an early example of the arrogance that sits along their irreversible belief in upgrading – by the fourth episode Ben has correctly deduced that they are just as defenceless against radiation. That seems an odd slip in their upgrading campaign considering how many of the elements natural to Earth must exist on its twin Mondas. It’s unfortunate that the show’s structure doesn’t allow for that tenth planet to enjoy a steady and slow arrival, creeping past other orbiting bodies on its way to Earth. The envious eyes of Martians seem to have had very little influence on the high science script Kit Pedler and Script Editor Gerry Davis produced.

A chilling strangeness comes from the idea that Mondas is not just a twin planetoid, but a mirror of Earth. It’s a new and impossible planet that everyone’s strangely familiar with. More than celestial neighbours, there’s no mistake that these Cybermen are intended to be very much like humans, if strangely advanced.

Must try harder

“Mondas? But isn’t that one of the ancient names of Earth?”

Sadly, for all their advancement, their plot is ropey. We’ve already seen Daleks attempt to pilot planets but here the Cybermen manage it with ease, returning to their true home not to claim Earth but top up the depleted ‘inherent’ energy of Mondas. Unfortunately, during that undoubtedly vast time preparing to return they never really developed a safeguard against Mondas overloading. The result is that for much of its running time The Tenth Planet is waiting for that old staple: letting the villains destroy themselves through their own greed.

A few things may have fallen to the wayside during The Tenth Planet’s production. Gerry Davis has said that the Doctor’s first regeneration was intended to be boosted by the energy released by Mondas’ explosion, but fortunately that doesn’t come across on screen. It’s also possible that these Cybermen had made the difficult decision to wait for their Terran cousins to develop weapons of sufficient technology to destroy planets as an awkward off switch. That’s a risky strategy, but again, whether down to their ignorance or arrogance they were happy to start drawing energy without putting in any overload safeguards.

Almost two decades later, Attack of the Cybermen would show us time-traversing Cybermen for the first time. A year prior to the arrival of Mondas, Cybermen of the far future attempted to cripple Earth by redirecting Haley’s Comet into the planet and so paradoxically sparing their planet’s fate. As they discover, especially with a nostalgic Doctor around, some things are just locked in time.

Plot Cyber-rating: A great start as the Cybermen not only engineer enviable planetary propulsion but maintain sufficient communication bandwidth on nearby planets. Must be at least 5G. Neat ships, quick mobilisation… But they should have realised that you always, always install a breaker circuit or even better an off button to prevent power surges. So, a miserly knock down for this ill-thought out plot. Though an extra handlebar could be added for the unique computer graphics that bookend each episode. Three handlebars out of 10.

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The Moonbase (Season 4, 1967)

“From our point of view, we’re under siege”

Doctor Who The MoonbaseEx-script editor and co-creator of the Cybermen Gerry Davis has stated
that the Cybermen’s first appearance tripled the show’s viewing figures after they’d slumped in the ruffles and bodices of a historical adventures. At a time where Terry Nation had left his Daleks in others hands, there was certainly a need to establish a memorable rogue. And so, within four months, and boasting a modified look, the metallic foes returned.

“I must say it does sound a little odd”

In terms of chronology, the early Cybermen tales are wonderfully out of order. The Moonbase, Patrick Troughton’s first scuffle with the Cybermen, is actually his third in their timeline albeit he’s logically encountering different factions. Still, on the moon of 2070 the Cybermen are well known to humanity and also dismissed as long defeated. They’ve already become mythical. That knowledge can be inferred to include their invasion of Earth in the late 1960s, and then attempt to drain the planet of its power two decades later, almost a century before The Moonbase. It’s less easy to pinpoint The Wheel in Space although it’s probably easy to slot that in a few decades before The Moonbase – and after all, it is the furthest adventure from Earth. Fortunately for script writer Kit Pedler, or perhaps fortuitously, the Cybermen have every reason to tell this Doctor: ”You are known to us”. Not that it alters their plans in any way.

The Moonbase has come in for some metal stick, but it’s a superior base under siege story, especially during its first two episodes of creeping dread and misdirection. Pedler effectively rewrote The Tenth Planet with The Moonbase and it’s a better story for it. Not least because the Cyber-plan is ground-breakingly simple. No matter how smug the metal heads are about it, and how badly they let it slip through their new tri-fingers.

Silver chic

“I don’t like that word converted”

The redesign is quite total, but logically there was no need to retain giant head lamps to relay energy from the home planet that exploded 90 years before. To match, the chest units are modified, smaller, vertical and evidently incorporating features like aerial receivers. There’s no bulbous weaponry feeding off the units this time as weaponry has been brilliantly internalised. They may not be quite as ruthless with their homicidal thumping (inexplicably) but they can now emit electricity from their hands, capable of rendering a human unconscious. That’s a feature continued in the new and non-Mondasian Cybermen of the New Series – albeit combined with the contact of The Tenth Planet Mondasians. And those hands, at the end of their new ping-pong joints are totally different. The unsettling human hands have gone, encased into three prongs that have paired digits off. It’s eye-catching if not as creepy or efficient. The whole body is now encased in metal. Though these Cybermen, which some have posited as a later Cyber Faction who took a nomad route from Mondas thus surviving to attempt this fourth attack on humanity, have similar faces to those of The Tenth Planet it’s a shame the plastic sheeted surgical masks were lost with their home world. And while the moving mouth pieces are more of a distortion of humanity, they sacrifice some of their disconcerting creep for what must be some kind of Cyber joke.

Emotional differences

“They’re not Cybermen mate, they’re just flesh and blood like us”

As a virtual rewrite of The Tenth Planet, there’s the chance to run with and against expectation. Though time may have placed this adventure further down the timeline, it was only months after the Cybermen first appeared for the TARDIS crew and the audience. While the Doctor and his companions Ben and Polly are familiar with the metal giants and their weaknesses, the foes inherent upgrading add doubt.

And as a follow-up base under siege story, a lot of emphasis falls on the crew compliment. Scientists just as before, this crew are not only more diverse but a lot nicer without a military component. You can tell they’re a naturally affable bunch as one of them’s played by Script Editor Victor Pemberton. Against the more generic character types seen in The Tenth Planet, both leader Hobson and his main French and Danish underlings do a better job at fleshing the piece out. Crucial is Hobson, never the arch-tyrant Cutler was in the previous story and as a result, capable of retaining many of his team and with a fine line in curses (“You devils, you killed him”). You can tell Hobson’s cut from a different cloth by his persistence in calling his crew by their first names. His softer though no less commanding presence loses the first story’s strong, manufactured emotional tug but makes for a more fulfilling piece. In fact, it’s all the change this upgrade needs on the side of the human victims.

It’s Hobson who accuses the Cybermen of enacting revenge during the control room occupation repeat from The Tenth Planet. That’s a claim the Cybermen refute, stating it’s “to eliminate all dangers” before rather smugly lauding the simplicity of their plan. “Only stupid Earth brains like yours would have been fooled” says the lead Cyberman before unnecessarily chanting “Clever, clever, clever”. If there was a question how long logic could rule emotion behind those metal masks it’s less than two stories. To rub it in, the excellent Benoit (André Maranne, mid a tremendous run of Pink Panther films) later escapes a Cyberman on the satellite’s surface after one forgets that their guns cannot function in the vacuum. Mimicking the Cybermen’s wariness of the human Z-bomb in The Tenth Planet’s rocket, these Cybermen are also strangely unsettled by the potential arrival of more humans. An incoming ship prompts them to take immediate offensive action that detracts from their main goal. Otherwise, while the first Mondasians we encountered were able to understand the emotional pull of hostages, this set don’t take the advantage. There is no irony to their use of dead or lost humans as salves; it simply reinforces their lack of feeling.

Revenge may be a moot point for these Cybermen, but persistency is not.

In the shadows

“Evil is what I meant”

The Cybermen remain in the shadows for the first two episodes despite taking a staggering leap in the cliff-hanger of part one. On several occasions the metal giants avoid detection, demonstrating incredible skills for stealth. Even later on, when Benoit is on the surface, it’s a sniper’s eye that reveals the presence of the Cybermen. This time, the Cybermen don’t need to take the coats of humans to feign entry to this base. Instead, they’ve hatched a method of infecting humans with a virus, lowering opposition and creating a zombified slave force. All very good and logical, up to the point that it’s dependent on late 21st century humans taking sugar in their coffees. That could have gone badly wrong, but instead splits the crew in two. In fact, there is a brilliant raising of emotional stakes when Pedler has the augmented Cybermen exploit the organic weakness, and need for sustenance in the humans. Clever, clever, clever. It’s something that the Doctor in full medical mode eventually deduces, although he spends much of this adventure silent. Perhaps it’s tradition, having passed out for much of The Tenth Planet. He’s not shunted off for a lie-down by any means, there’s some brilliant slapstick and Troughton comedy to fill the gaps (and irritate the humans) while he reaches for an answer.

Later, when recognised and dismissed by the Cybermen intent on fulfilling their multi-phase plan, there’s the Doctor’s superb internal and external dialogue. Marvellously distracting, but expertly played by the impeccable Troughton. It’s hard not to read the Second Doctor’s mock faint as soon as humans seize the advantage in the fourth episode as a comment on his previous incarnation’s weak role in defeating the same foes. At the same time, the Second Doctor is peerless in creating danger at this time in his life. His speech on the corners of the universe, remains one of the tenets of Doctor Who to this day. It’s just a shame it comes too early in the story to relate specifically to Cybermen. Once those metal fiends are revealed, hiding in plain sight as they were, they soon fall to a succession of set-piece throwaways that rob them of some of that darkness.

Must try harder

“Everything’s got a weak point, just a question of waiting until it shows up”

So the Cybermen’s initial plot is a one line pitch act of genius. If humans are so unwise as to establish control of the Earth’s weather from the moon with a minimal crew the base is ripe for the sabotaging. The early onset of arrogance can be the only explanation for the minimal Cyber forces and the timing of their random reveal at the end of the second episode. Following on from Ben’s deduction in the fourth episode of The Tenth Planet, their use of human slaves only encourages humans and Time Lord alike to question their weaknesses.

Silliest of all is the sonic unit that controls the slaves, constantly left unguarded and with a rather confounding dial interface for their hefty digits. Most of their technology seems designed to challenge them, although there’s no denying the impact of their silent stalking in spacecraft, ready to take a slow and deliberate march across the moon. We should all be very thankful they did that, but it exposes their main issue at this juncture. It’s not the big ideas they have trouble with but their problem solving.

“They get us every way, those creatures”

While they may know the Doctor, they still fall for letting “what’s your name?” Ben out of their sights. This time, their early control room occupation is not destroyed by their own weaponry by Mr Muscle (Cocktail Polly). Resolutely outside the base for the rest of the adventure, the Cyber forces request back-up before variously removing the communication aerial and re-engaging their human slaves to deflect the support rocket (one the Doctor doesn’t attempt to save, no doubt knocked sideways by the mention of the Doppler Effect). Of note in the spasmodic radio communication between the humans and Cybermen is the moment that Hobson brilliantly cuts off them off mid-“Resistance is usele…

Later comes brute force, after a march to surround the base that falls back to projectile weaponry. Not clever, not clever, not clever. It’s unlikely a civilisation that had previously developed planet propulsion couldn’t have developed gravity manipulating tools well before mankind but it adds credence to the idea that this Cyber Faction is nomadic (although questions where the other forces were lurking). The projectile proves to be their undoing. After an early success puncturing the base dome, albeit solved by a drinks tray (not the show’s weakest hour as some would have you believe, but rather comical), the Doctor’s suggestion that the weaponry can be deflected is soon turned against the Cyber-crew themselves.

Theirs is a metal kitchen sink approach come the end, though fault must also lie with the Doctor who surmises that gravity may conquer the rogues halfway through the third episode and takes an inordinately long time to make the connection. There are so many lapses and mistakes, it must be the something on that egg of a moon.

It’s left ambiguous whether the Cybermen suffer the same Sun-locked fate as the humans they had earlier condemned to a long and fiery death once they’d floated from the moon’s surface. But as with much of this adventure, it’s certainly iconic. That’s not to say the Moonbase is style over substance. It’s easy to see how the Cybermen had made their mark. And with plenty of potential to explore their hierarchy and hive structure, things would soon get even more iconic.

Plot Cyber-rating: Straight off the chest unit, it’s 10 handlebars for effort, especially as the Cybermen keep the smugness around passable. They have a simple plot and a target that would serve them very well, although it does expose massive misconceptions on the Cybermen’s part when it comes to the vacuum (well, lightness) of the moon’s atmosphere and the human’s use of the graviton. Taking repeated, grasping mistakes into account: Six handlebars out of 10.

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Next Time: Concluding the golden age of the Cybermen from their tombs on Telos to their Invasion of Earth…

Compiled: with help from one of my favourite childhood books, David Banks and Andrew Skilleter’s Cybermen; the BBC’s Essential Cybermen; the DVD edition of The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase, both with sadly but generally well animated episodes.

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