Are the Cybermen the most tragic villains in Doctor Who? Is there a tragedy to their story and character?
Following on from my article on ‘What Makes the Daleks Scary‘, I want to talk about that other iconic villain from Doctor Who – the Cybermen. For, while the Daleks perhaps look the least like us, the Cybermen look a little more humanoid and so the immediate analogies may come a little easier. But I don’t want to re-hash much of what was said in my Daleks article about the fear of a thing all too familiar. Instead, I want to look at an aspect of the Cybermen that has, I think, been lost a little more recently. And that is the utter tragedy of them.
Now, let’s get something out of the way from the start. I will be talking about the classic era Cybermen (the ‘Mondasian’ Cybermen) primarily, but much of what I have to say does still apply to the Cybus branded Cybermen.
In the original series, we first meet the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet (1966) and their backstory alone can send shivers down your spine. Just as artificial limbs, lungs, hearts, and more were becoming widespread, the writers of Doctor Who introduced a race of near-humans who had slowly but surely replaced almost every body part with something artificial. In the end, they had even removed their own emotions.
Here is the first tragic slant to the Cybermen’s story. Every step on their journey was done with the best of intentions, to improve life, to avoid pain and suffering, to make things better, and make people better. But at some point, things seemed to have taken a sinister turn. People’s identities were shunned, people’s joy, and love, and hope were all stripped so that they could survive. With this in mind, they go forth into the galaxy, seeking to spread their ways to others, truly believing that they have what’s best in mind. They really do think they’re in the right as they Cyber-convert people.
You only have to listen to the way the speak about it consistently to realise that they are stuck believing this.
Cyberman: Our lifespan was getting shorter, so our scientists and doctors devised spare parts for our bodies until we could be almost completely replaced […] Our brains are just like yours, except that certain weaknesses have been removed […] You call them emotions, do you not?
Polly: But, that’s terrible! You mean you wouldn’t care about someone in pain?!
Cyberman: There would be no need. We do not feel pain.
Polly: But we do!
– Tenth Planet (1966)
Time and time again, the Cybermen come back to the refrain ‘We will survive’. Especially in The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967). The very beginning of the Cybermen was born out of the desire to survive in a cruel and hostile universe, an environment that was killing them. And so they looked out at the rest of the galaxy, and saw that it too was hostile, that life everywhere struggled. And so they set out to help.
We will survive.
And that is all that mattered to them, in the end. Survival at all costs. They threw away everything that stopped them from surviving, reduced themselves to the minimal amount of humanity to still classify as surviving. They survive without purpose, without goal, and without any reason. They just survive, and they want you to survive, too. A dire warning, perhaps, about the dangers of discarding all that makes us who we are in the name of survival at all costs.
It is very difficult to defeat an enemy who is committed to a cause they believe is right, not just for themselves, but for the whole universe, too.
However, they are not, it seems 100% committed, and herein lies much of the tragedy. Not only do the Cybermen change and morph over time – showing a willingness to admit mistakes and adapt accordingly – but they also engage in lengthy dialogue. Unlike the Daleks who swoop in and exterminate all resistance, the Cybermen are much more likely to engage in argument, to present their case, and listen to retorts. Weather or not they agreed to any arguments made against them is another issue, but the fact of the matter is they could be reasoned with. They understand reason, and they understand argument. Theoretically, it might be possible to talk them out of something.
They even have internal arguments – the Cyberleader and his lieutenant are often seen in conference, discussing what course of action to take. They are not completely cold, unthinking robots. They still have their humanity in there somewhere. So, when it comes to the final act, and all negotiations fail, the Doctor must be faced with a terrible realisation… There was another way.
They could have reasoned with them, if he’d just found the right words, the right argument, the right approach.
It was possible to talk to the Cybermen and have them listen, but when that fails, it goes against the Doctor’s very core.