Saturday 22 May 2021


First transmitted Feb/March 1967 
Written by Kit Pedler

Beware plot spoilers!

“They are not dead. They are altered.” 
- A Cyberman

Cybermen 2.0 (From Prototype to Production)

'The Moonbase', and its possible you got this far without me, was a moon craze story. The highpoint of which, at least as far as science fiction was concerned, was right about now - just before the Apollo landing. When the anticipation was at its height, before a bunch of spoilsports came back to tell us there were no green men to be seen, and lurking behind those rocks were only more rocks. Check out how excited Ben and Polly are to be bounding about up there, even after they've seen alien planets. (It also establishes the great 'Who' tradition that you only need spacesuits for alien planets if its one one we've already heard of.)

Strange then, the feeling that we've been here before...

We have work crews that go up to the surface only to get offed, rescuing rockets that fall hopelessly into the sun, a room where vital operations occur but Cybermen can't enter (last time because radiation, this time just because)... this reappearance of the silver darlings either shamelessly recycles plot elements from 'The Tenth Planet' or swaps superficial points. There's the same base under siege, but the Antarctic (already transposed from the Arctic in 'Thing From Another World') gets swapped for the Moon.

But it's a bit like a band performing a cover version. The beats gets repeated verbatim, but every nuance is somehow shifted until much of the resemblance becomes almost ostensible. There's new wine in those old bottles. And the new look to the Cybermen makes this the clearest. The clunky prototypes of ‘Tenth Planet’, struggling behind their cumbersome chest packs to fire those ray guns that look strangely like car headlights, are now streamlined for mass production.

El Sandifer has said “If the Doctor faces the Daleks or the Zarbi, it's an attempt at creating a popular and marketable monster. These monsters are supposed to happen multiple times.” Which would seem to make sense. A hero requires a rogue’s gallery, after all. But that’s a post-hoc reading which only applies after the Hartnell era.

Let's remember that before this the show had only one recurrent adversary. The Mechanoids. Nay, I jest. The Daleks. And there was never much of an attempt to create a functional chronology for them. Initially casually killed off, they were only brought back after public acclaim. Leading to a rushed half-cocked excuse for their continued existence. Whereas the Cybermen not only reappear much sooner than the Daleks, a mere five stories later, their reappearance is placed in the last story's future. There's a timeline being built for them. It's diegetic.

Making past events part of the current narrative was then unusual. This was a teatime viewing show, with neither a known fan audience nor iPlayer catch-up. It was transmitted, then it vanished. So, while characters in the early seasons would comment on adventures gone, these were incidental to the current plot and the show was for the most part anti-self-referential. While the Tardis crew would recognise the Daleks, they'd normally be new to everyone else within the storyline. And there'd be little or no narrative trajectory to the re-matches, it would all just happen again somewhere else. Moreover, even if the returned Daleks were no longer tied to their city, they were only changed enough to make the new story happen.

But here, human society has moved on – from space missions to Moonbases. And so have their enemies. Part machine, the Cybermen have had a product upgrade. Sleeker, shinier, they're Cybermen 2.0. They even come from a different planet to the Tenth of their predecessors. (Though this exposition was cut from the broadcast version.)

The Cybermen treat this new Moonbase very differently to the old snow base of 'The Tenth Planet'. They did use some subterfuge to enter it, but from there they plainly identified themselves and calmly explained what they were going to to do. There was as much guile to them as there is to the operating system on my computer. “Resistance is useless” was their virtual catch-phrase. They reacted to Polly's defence of human values with such puzzlement they may even lack a theory of mind altogether. They see human variation but perceive only the absence of efficiency. Whereas version 2.0 has seemingly been upgraded with sneak circuits. They are even wont to taunt us - “clever, clever!”

The Perpetual Divide

With 'Tenth Planet', we saw how the notion that the Cybermen are stand-in Reds can't withstand scrutiny. Yet the moon craze was part of the space race, which was itself little more than a function of the Cold War. Which means this marks the ideal time and place for a 'Red Scare' story. And the script still doesn't show the slightest interest in any of that. The Moonbase is as international as the Antarctic base, and it's there to serve the Earth as a whole.

Yet the show suffuses itself with a Cold War atmosphere, not through its antagonists but with the whole base-under-siege scenario. In essence, its the Cold War antagonisms universalised (in quite a literal sense) and at the same time psychologised. Here’s something I wrote about Francis Bacon’s paintings of the era: 

“It probably is hard for the young folk of today to understand how all-pervasive the Cold War felt at that time... It came to feel not merely political but existential, as if Berlin Walls inevitably imposed themselves not just between nations but between (and within) individuals... it transcended the unique conditions which created it and inscribed itself back through history.”

In short, conflict is essential and eternal. Within and without. It's part of the very fabric of things. This doesn't need explaining or justifying. It's just the way things are.

So, just as the Cybermen get an upgrade, the show’s new formula is similarly refined. They're not just better, they're badder. Literally so. As Jack Graham puts it: “This is the story... when they were no longer fighting to save their planet but to steal ours... when they became overtly and deliberately evil.”

That clash-of-values conversation their clunky predecessors held with Polly seemed central. There is a moment here where, accused of acting out of revenge, they ask “Revenge? What is that?” But their actual mission, “to eliminate all dangers”, is mere rewording. More significant is when they comment “you are known to us” and the Doctor responds equally calmly “and you to me”. Frequently, what exchanges they have are conduced not face-to-face but over the radio. Which leads us onto...

This is the story where the Doctor makes his mission-defining “they must be fought” statement, mentioned in an earlier instalment but which can now be seen in context. Andrew Harrison calls this his “Agincourt speech”. Wrong again, Andrew Harrison.

It’s El Sandifer who shrewdly points out that Troughton's delivery “is not triumphant, but rather the weary acceptance of a duty”. It's somewhat akin to the first Spider-man story in 1962, with it's well-known line “with great power comes great responsibility”. A line originally delivered not from some heroic pose atop a commanding rooftop, as it would be so often reproduced, but confined to a caption as “a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness”.

The Silver Hands and the Shadows

For the first two episodes, the Cybermen are withheld, to the point where the first two cliffhangers are almost identical reveals. Take the scene where they bump off that surface party. We first see their intruding shadows on the human's backs, then – even when the assault takes place - the two groups are never in the same frame. Mostly we see only sinister shadows, or close-ups of claw-like hands. We hear people screaming things like “the hand! No, don't touch me! No! The silver hand!”

Hands are of course body parts but only parts; they can be presented as dehumanised instruments of power. In the recent 'Power of the Daleks', Ben describes one of the tentacled things that live inside the casings as “a sort of disembodied hand. A sort of claw”.

The James Bond films might give us the most egregious use of this trope - we first see Blofeld only via his menacing hands, even though his identity wasn't actually being disguised. Hands which of course contrast with the open face of the hero, forever ready for his close-up. All of which could be suggesting the Cybermen’s… well, cyber basis; they're an assemblage, a series of parts which have been put together, a parody of the integrity of the human body.

And, were this still 'Tenth Planet', that might even have been it. Yet this time something else is afoot. There's the contrast of those sinister shadows intruding on the gleaming white of the futuristic Moonbase, a place which would seem to have no place for them. Let’s start off with the point that, unusually, the Moonbase staff all know of the Cybermen, but believe them to be dead.

As Jamie and Ben start the story double-booked for the action hero role, Jamie soon gets relegated to the sub's benches. In the time-honoured tradition of actors demanding holidays, he takes a bump on the head and retires to his bed. But, unlike that tradition, he doesn't then vanish off-screen. Instead, feverish, he sees a prowling Cybermen and perceives it as the Phantom Piper of his Highland culture. And he's not altogether wrong. Like the Piper they are here to take away the dead, to transport the plague victims off for conversion. This time they can dispense electric shocks from their hands, like a pseudo-scientific version of the touch of death, felling the mortal with a gesture.

We're now so used to the Cybermen being associated with death, it might be hard to remember this is where the notion first showed up. In 'Tenth Planet' they represent a terrible state of un-life, an attempt to cheat death which ends up cheating life, which they then seek to reduce us to. This time they're Phantom Pipers, to take us away. And in this newfound association these once so logically minded creatures take on so many of the Gothic tropes associated with death.

They still use the word converted, Ben sourly commenting he doesn’t like it. But now they mean something else by it, they even offer as synonyms “altered” and – most importantly - “controlled”. In 'Tenth Planet' their plan was to make us like them, into more Cybermen. Here humans become their drones, still working the control room but on their behalf. (In a manner remarkably similar to the Robo-men in the Daleks' second showing.) They're likened to zombies in the transcript. The fear is no longer that we will be made into machines, but that in dying the plague victims will become minions of death.

The Appliance of Science

With the slightly wearied authority of the schoolteacher, Base Commander Hobson's not exactly the duplicate of Dr. Barclay from 'Tenth Planet'. But after General Cutter's hysterical trigger-happy Americanisms, he's reassuringly and soberly English. His crew have affectionately nicknamed him Nobby. Cutter's military mentalities have been left behind. (“We're all scientists here, you see. No room for idle hands.”) The script throws up some tension between him and the Doctor, at one point contriving a rather arbitrary deadline, but rather half-heartedly.

And what are all these scientists doing on the moon? It seems they're controlling the Earth's weather via the Gravitron. Rather than watching the skies, they're there to sort stuff out back home. (Another reason not to go overboard with 'Thing From Another World' comparisons.) It seems in the intervening years the weather has become some sort of problem. (Those crazy sci-fi concepts!) Handily, the Gravitron seems powerful enough to control things even when they’re on the far side of the Earth.

As this might suggest, none of the science is actually very credible. But it follows the codes that suggest this is that scientific sort of science fiction, in the way soap opera codes are meant to suggest 'real life'. (It's presumably linked by fuzzy logic to the way the moon affects our tides.) And it suggests a society where a lofty but benevolent group of boffins sit above us, calmly regulating our lives. A little over three years earlier, Harold Wilson had made his celebrated speech about a new “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat” of a scientific and technological revolution. And the whiter-than-white Moonbase seems something of a visual analogy of that.

Take the cause of the plague. This ultimately seems inserted into the story to give the Doctor some scientific deduction to be getting on with. (While simultaneously demonstrating his eccentricity.) There's no way for the audience to guess the solution, and in fact when it arrives it doesn't make sense anyway. (The Cybermen are drugging the sugar. But given they've gained access to the whole stores, why not choose something everybody takes? Wouldn't that suit their purpose better?) But it establishes the principle of scientific reasoning.

True, the Cyber-plot is to take over the Gravitron and weaponise it through those 'converted' drones. But it’s also the Gravitron which is used to defeat them, blasting them into space. (After the sonic prison bust of 'Power of the Daleks', the Doctor's taking “sonic control” of the Gravitron seems a second precursor of the sonic screwdriver.) It's a long way from the Conscience Machine, which had to be switched off at the end of 'Keys of Marinus'. 

This all ends (as the Wikipedia plot summary puts it) as “Hobson and his team reorient the Gravitron to its proper use”. Once the Cybermen represented the threat of amok technology. But during their upgrade they switched sides. Now they're the Gothic, and are fought off with the appliance of science – deductive reasoning (finding the cause of the plague), chemistry (Polly's anti-plastic concoction) and above all physics (the Gravitron).

Except the switch from un-life to death isn't really accomplished that neatly. Half-way through, after two cliffhangers in a row of Cybermen being revealed, they're flushed out of the shadows. And when their stealth tactics fail, they suddenly remember they have an army. “We must invade now!” they decide. “Prepare the weapons.” Oh yes, the weapons. They should come in handy. A second Cyber-ship appears out of nowhere and pretty soon they're back to saying things like “resistance is useless.”

If it takes two more episodes until the Gravitron finally sends them packing, all that's effectively interesting about the Cybermen is gone from that point. When we shone a light the shadows they inhabited, we also effectively lost the creature with the habitat. Like a tag team, the silver figures of death are replaced by generic invading robots, the hands of death by booted marching feet. (The fourth episode opens with them advancing on the Moonbase.) If they're supposed to now be death in a scientific story, well then what is the techno-fix for death? The workaround is to quite literally whisk them off stage, then cut to some cheerleading. Which is a trifle dissatisfying.

Lost In Transition

Contrast this to 'Dalek Invasion Of Earth'; putting Daleks on Westminster Bridge established something which became so intrinsic to the show it's hard to remember it ever had to be added. Putting Cybermen on the moon isn't the same sort of deal. The paradox is that, for a script that ushers in such new approaches for both the Doctor and the Cybermen, it doesn't actually take you in the direction it points in.

The problem with this story isn’t that the Cybermen change from one thing to the other. (Even if the first one was ultimately more interesting. Different was always going to be a precondition of more.) The problem is that it arrives too soon, and catches the Cybermen mid-morph. It’s a bit like the old movie trope where Jekyll drops behind the desk and comes back up in his full-on Hyde make-up. Except here he does it too soon and his Gothic make-up’s barely applied and already falling back off.

They’re in some indeterminate state, between the technology-gone-alien of their first appearance and the Gothic horrors of... we'll get to that, honest. Perhaps consequently, it never really tastes of either fish or fowl. And perhaps befitting a story without its own identity, it feels like it has no core. It shuffles rather awkwardly from the one foot of the shadowy, skulking Cybermen to the threatening army of the other.

As Brian May puts it “in a nutshell... a story of two halves, and quite different ones at that. An interesting and intriguing first half, full of suspense and shadows; followed by a boring, unengaging, runaround of a second half that lacks any sort of tension or excitement.”

Half full then half empty? Harsh but fair, Brian May. Harsh but fair.

Further reading: A must-read item from Jack Graham on the Cybermen and the Borg. More focused on the Borg than our silver shadows, but must-read nonetheless. Key line (at least to me) “the Borg are a nightmare that liberal capitalism had about itself”.

No comments:

Post a Comment