Once More With Feeling: The Earthshock Conundrum

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for Metro about why the Cybermen were better than the Daleks. I talked about the evolving design, the nobility behind their original quest for survival, and the fact that Closing Time is actually much better than most people think. I just reread the thing and it all seems a bit Pollyanna. But this was in 2014, before the trainwreck that was Death in Heaven, so the mood was still upbeat, and the optimism palpable. The final point was “Oh, and they killed Adric”.

There’s a reason why Earthshock is one of my favourite stories. It has a surprise first episode reveal that manages to flummox first-time viewers even today. It ends with a death and an eerily silent credit crawl, as an unpopular companion finishes his last full story even while making a poignant visual reference to his very first. It is well-written and tight and manages to find something for everyone to do. And it has a colossal bit of stunt casting – John Nathan-Turner’s biggest superpower in full flow – but somehow, against all the odds, Beryl Reid walks away with her dignity intact.

Still, it’s perhaps the best example of the great misconception about the Cybermen: that they have no emotions.

This is the point at which your brow starts wrinkling involuntarily. “Cybermen have emotions?” I can hear you saying. “Isn’t that like saying the Daleks don’t really want to kill you, it’s just their guns have a tendency to misfire?” And yes, the concept of a race of monsters built on a conceptual lie seems thoroughly bizarre. Actually, ‘lie’ is probably the wrong word, and does a disservice to Davis and Pedler. Let’s settle for ‘glaring inconsistency’ and unpack that.

At grass roots level this goes back to The Tenth Planet – a fine story, another landmark moment for Doctor Who, and the very reason we’re doing this theme week in the first place. Even as the First Doctor deals with his increasingly frailty, the Cybermen stomp – Cybermen never walk, they stomp, march, amble, and occasionally stagger – across the Antarctic in search of more recruits to swell their numbers. “Come to Mondas,” their leader informs the humans, “and you will have no need of emotions. We have freedom from disease, protection against heat and cold. True mastery. Do you prefer to die in misery?”

Mondas. Retrieved from http://janjygiggins.deviantart.com/art/Mondas-93373741.
Mondas. By JanjyGibbins.

As misguided sales pitches go, it’s right up there with “The off-world colonies: a chance to live again”, and “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. This is two cultures who are never going to understand each other because one culture has apparently removed its capacity for empathy. It’s bizarre, in a way, that the most frequent kind of exchange between the Cybermen and the unconverted is basically the same argument, endlessly rehashed. “You have no need for emotions,” say the Cybermen. “Emotions make you weak. They serve no logical purpose.” Whereupon the Doctor argues (with varying degrees of eloquence) that emotions are what make us real, while Ace lingers on the sidelines with a couple of pound coins, ready to re-enact her childhood Minnie the Minx fantasies.

You’ll have your own personal favourites, I’m sure. We’ll look at the Earthshock one in a minute, but similar arguments occur in Silver Nemesis, Attack of the Cybermen, and (most notoriously) The Age of Steel, in a conversation that Tennant handles very well, whatever our misgivings about his grinning, catchphrase-spouting Doctor. It’s almost a contractual pre-requisite: the scene designed to show the new or casual fan exactly why this metal monstrosity is the embodiment of evil, masquerading as surgical enhancement. Or it’s a reminder for the rest of us, just in case we think they might actually be on to something. Thank you for attending Cyberman Refresher 101. Please deposit your ear pods in the basket on the way out; they will not work on other space freighters.

I was a teenager when Darkman hit the cinemas. It starred Liam Neeson – years before Schindler, years before Star Wars, and years before he reinvented himself as the man who’s experienced more family trauma than Gail McIntyre – as a scientist who dresses up as a mummy after a horrific act of industrial sabotage in his laboratory. Darkman’s superpower is a handy set of face masks (although they only last an hour and a half) and an immunity to pain, which renders him more or less unstoppable, but emotionally volatile. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the notorious Pink Elephant scene, a moment of silliness which seems to foreshadow Despicable Me. (If you have seen Despicable Me, you will know why. If you haven’t, you really should.)

Superficially the Cybermen are the reverse of this, although the end result is much the same. That Cybermen experience pain of some sort is self-evident. Nothing else explains the howls of apparent agony when the Raston brings down the platoon halfway through The Five Doctors; when McCoy incinerates two Cybermen with a rocket motor in the closing minutes of Silver Nemesis; when Toberman smashes the chest unit of a warrior not long before his act of self-sacrifice at the end of Tomb of the Cybermen. Such things move outside the Whoniverse: when John Connor asks the reprogrammed T101, halfway through Terminator 2, whether it hurts when he gets shot, the Terminator’s response is typically pragmatic. “I sense injuries,” it says. “The data could be called ‘pain’.”

There are differing views as to whether pain actually counts as an emotion (Wells & Nown think it is; my wife isn’t so sure) but if we go down that road we’ll be here all day. But does it stop there? What if we look further at some of the cocksure pragmatism demonstrated by the Cyber Leaders and Controllers – which manifests as something closely resembling arrogance? I realise there are only so many ways that you can write confident self-assurance without turning the character you’re writing into a smug bastard, but you only need to watch the confrontation between the Leader and the Fifth Doctor to see what I’m driving at.

LEADER: I see that Time Lords have emotional feelings.
DOCTOR: Of sorts.
LEADER: Surely a great weakness in one so powerful?
DOCTOR: Emotions have their uses.
LEADER: They restrict and curtail the intellect and logic of the mind.
DOCTOR: They also enhance life! When did you last have the pleasure of smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal?
LEADER: These things are irrelevant.
DOCTOR: For some people, small, beautiful events is what life is all about!

It’s a wonderful scene, but there’s something off-key about it. A Cyber-Leader talking about the stunting of emotions shouldn’t be bragging, surely? And yet that’s what Banks spends much of his time onscreen doing. Eric Saward does his best to present neutral dialogue. But the Cyber-Leader is borderline arrogant – before he crosses the border, blasts his way through passport control and gets a job in the nearest town flipping burgers in the back room of a takeaway. When he’s not sneering at the Doctor, he’s yelling (who hasn’t done at least one impersonation of that wonderful “DESTROY THEM AT ONCE!”, presumably at a party?). Banks isn’t the only culprit, of course, as anyone who has seen Roger Lloyd Pack’s Darth Vader impression – rising from his chair with a furious “NOOOOOO!!!!” at the climax of The Age of Steel – will testify.

In a way it’s unavoidable. Cybermen rely on some emotional response to their platitudes; you need someone to look appalled. But it works both ways. The Doctor’s anger in this scene is the stuff of legend, and he holds the moral high ground, but it’s the Cyber-Leader who holds the cards – such an exchange works all the better if the antagonist is basically gloating, and Banks knows it. The alternative is just bad drama. The closest the show comes to machine interfacing with machine is the infamous Cybermen / Dalek Facetime chat about five minutes into Doomsday – we could nitpick the terminology (yes, I know Daleks are basically the opposite of robots; you get the point) but the result is the same. It is about as interesting as watching cement dry – and I speak as the former Production Manager for The International Journal of Pavement Engineering, so I know about these things. Skaro’s finest do what they can with some third-rate dialogue and certainly come across as appropriately smug given that this battle can only go one way, but that doesn’t make for a fun or interesting sequence. Really, Davies should have learned from Nation / Adams (delete as appropriate): the last time we saw the Daleks take on an inorganic foe was in 1979, and Destiny of the Daleks is largely not regarded as a classic.

This isn’t a perfect theory. It nullifies much of The Invasion, for a start. But look at something like Nightmare in Silver (a bad episode, although it isn’t entirely Neil Gaiman’s fault). The absolute best thing about it is Matt Smith. Finally unleashed from the shackles of heroism, he plays the Cyber Planner with a demented, almost hyperactive nastiness, leaping on tables and leering at Clara: it’s like a sickly, lecherous Willy Wonka with a sweet wrapper stuck to the side of his face. It is a million times better than his Terminator cameo. It is also rampant with emotion in a world where the Cybermen seem more alien to the concept than ever before. The blank looks of the Cyber fleet in A Good Man Goes To War and the glib, nondescript narrative of the skulking monsters in Closing Time seem a world away from the almost camp creations that menaced Tom Baker; for all the flaws of Revenge, the Cybermen the Doctor encounters in that story do at least possess something we might feasibly call character.

nightmare_3

Indeed, the new Cybermen are so far removed from the original design, their former humanity is virtually unrecognisable. They march, speak and think like robots. They speak in tech jargon, treating humans as software and using words like ‘upgrade’ and ‘delete’ (despite the fact that the latter seems to somehow miss the point). In their latest guises they can remove limbs, slow the passage of time, manipulate cellular growth at the molecular level, and fly like Superted: this is no longer about survival, this is The Matrix Reloaded. Even the conversion process has had a rehash: previously, limbs were replaced gradually; now, the brain is removed and placed in a metal shell, or (more recently) the bodies of the dead are reanimated. It’s been nearly 40 years since Philip Hinchcliffe stepped down, but it seems his legacy of Gothic horror is intact.

The threat of a culture of Cybernetic conversion was chillingly real in the sixties – at least it was to Pedler. 50 years down the line, with replacement hearts, artificial limbs, and 3D-printed devices a part of our supposedly enlightened culture, it’s easy to consign such fears to the archives of ‘uninformed panic’. But then I go online and I read about anti-depressants and lithium and the placebo effect. I start thinking about safe spaces and trigger words and the culture we’re building where a tendency we have to get increasingly angry about the wrong things is offset by the need to bypass the things that upset you. I look at a world where racism and bigotry and hatred are rightly shunned, but also a world where we go to extremes to airbrush history and culture so that it doesn’t cause offence, and avoid talking about things that make us uncomfortable; where abreaction is a dirty word. I look at a world where sterilisation is the new black; where certain emotions are purposely sidestepped for the sake of maintaining personal equilibrium. And with a chill in my bones, I confess it’s something that frightens me more than anything I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who.

So perhaps that’s it. Perhaps ultimately we’re keen to keep the Cybermen as inhuman as possible because it suits us. It allows the keenness of detachment: they are something horrific, but ultimately disassociated. Perhaps the further we move in the direction of such enhancement – physical or emotional – the more imperative it is that we keep its dark side at an optimal distance. Because the alternative gives us a greater connection. The alternative is to stare into the abyss of something we might become – something both more than human and less than human – and discover that we like it.