Cyber-Aesthetics, part one
The BBC recently—presumably to avoid a leak by the tabloid press—released the first publicity picture of the newly redesigned Cybermen, who will be menacing our screens in the second season of the new Doctor Who. It’s a good opportunity to ruminate on the shifting aesthetics of cyber-design over the last 40 years.
The Cybermen were Doctor Who’s first big—to borrow Iain M. Banks’ playful terminology—hegemonising swarm entities—creatures driven to bring others around to their own way of thinking by forcible bodily conversion. Their back-story played on contemporary fears of transplant surgery by positing a race of humanoids (from Earth’s missing twin planet, Mondas, no less) who, faced with their own extinction, replaced their own failing organs and limbs with mechanical devices, becoming inhuman and emotionless in the process. And to extend their numbers, they must go on do the same thing to anyone remotely interesting who they come across. Star Trek’s Borg are an obvious descendent.
In terms of the underlying science fictional ideas, the Cybermen were already old hat when they arrived in 1966, and, to anyone who’s read their Vinge or Banks or Stross, pretty damned creaky now—who cares about hacking off limbs and replacing them with mechanical implants now when you have consciousness uploads and neuro-hacking and singularities? But the aesthetics, the visualisation of these ideas, have always been striking—if not as staggeringly iconic as the pepperpot Daleks.
Over the next couple of days I’m going to review the major shifts in Cyber-design, and talk a bit about the cultural and semiotic evolution that occurred at each revision.