Cybermen in the Sixties
Note: this is a different draft from the one that appeared earlier today. Firefox’s Session Saver plugin decided to reload the old version of this post into the database before I could stop it. A friend who suffered my frequent advocacy of Session Saver will no doubt be laughing evilly now.
Update two: John has found the earlier version of the article in his cache. I’ve rescued the best jokes from the earlier version. I think.
Before beginning, I’d like to point out for fellow obsessives that David Banks, an actor who played the Cyberleader in Doctor Who during the 80s, wrote a vast tome called… wait for it… Cybermen, which features possibly the most elaborate fictional working-out of the narrative underpinnings for the variations in Cyber-design ever devised. It even has diagrams. To be fair, it also has a quite interesting section tracing the cultural origins of the Cyber design and is therefore quite possibly one of the main reasons that I’m now a cultural studies researcher rather than, say, a designer of killer robots.
It also has a rather wonderful opening section that sets the Cybermen in a historical and cultural context and probably helped make me a cultural studies scholar rather than, say, an inventor of killer robots.
Cloth Faces and Accordions
The Cybermen made their first appearance in the 1966 four-part story, “The Tenth Planet”, which of course was also William Hartnell’s final story as the first Doctor. Unlike the Daleks, their appearance was radically different from every later design variation.
The most striking thing to note is how much more human they look than the later models. They have organic hands, and their faces are swathed in cloth rather than covered by metal. The original Cybermen are more flesh and blood than their descendants; their suits seem more like protective clothing than robotic armor. The original script for the story makes this even more clear: they were to appear to be entirely human at first glance, and only on closer inspection would it obvious that they were cyborg creatures.
The faces, if you ignore the massive halogen lamps attached to the top of their heads, are perhaps the most distinctive feature of the first Cybermen. The blank sockets for eyes and the gash of a mouth make them horrifyingly skull-like, and the way they would talk by opening their mouths and letting sound issue forth like a loudspeaker, rather than by the movement of muscle and bone, is quite unsettling. All in all, these original Cybermen appear tragic, more like victims of horrific injuries, clumsily bolted back together, than the powerful robotic beings of later stories.
Only two features would remain constant after this design — the handle-bar ears (toned down) and the chest-mounted computer unit. The latter at this stage is enormous, clearly weighing down its carrier. It’s strangely reminiscent of the “gargoyles” in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, individuals who carry around so much immersive computer gear that they are almost entirely oblivious to the world around them.
Silver and Rubber
A generation of Doctor Who fans were scandalised when a minor British celebrity admitted, on a video documentary, that she found the silvery rubber fetish Cybermen of the later 60s stories to be a bit sexy. And it’s true they are a vision of silver spray-painted rubber wetsuit fetishware. Although you also had the silver boiler-suit variation. But by this point, you also saw the end of any semblance to organic life. The cloth faces gave way to hard metallic armour. Still with the handles, but the round eye sockets would sometimes also feature a tiny etched tear-drop at each corner.
The chest unit computers were toned down, made less spangly and more functional. An attempt was made to suggest exo-skeletal supports — to begin with, these were long sections of coiled springs connected to ping-pong balls. There’s an interesting representational tension there between the gestures towards a realist aesthetic in the depiction of computing technology and the more suggestive realisation of the mechanical components of the Cyber-body.