Fans of Doctor Who who have watched the show since they were children have, at some point in their lives, got to accept the fact that the Cybermen aren’t very scary. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Cybermen were considered to be one of the scariest monsters in all of Doctor Who, and the 1967 Patrick Troughton episode Tomb of the Cybermen is often considered to be one of the scariest episodes of classic Doctor Who.
So why aren’t the Cybermen scary anymore? The answer to that question involves several phases that take place at different points in Doctor Who’s history, the first of which being that they have never truly been used to their full potential. The Cybermen are twisted and mutilated versions of ordinary humans – a terrifying concept that revolves around an equally terrifying conversion process involving body horror and psychological trauma. And yet we never get to see this on screen.
And this leads us to the first phase to our answer of why the Cybermen are nowhere near as scary as they should be – the full potential of what they represent cannot be fully exercised on a TV show like Doctor Who, that caters to family audiences and relies heavily on its reputation as a show for all ages. It is for this exact reason that the Cybermen have an equally strong reputation as silly tin foil men that stomp around like robots, rather than their real potential as a truly terrifying monster.
This leads us right onto the doorstep of the second phase of reasoning as to why the Cybermen are no longer scary, and that is the way in which they were handled by the writers of Doctor Who during the 1970s and 1980s. Following the success of Tomb of the Cybermen, and their equally strong impact in episodes such as The Moonbase, The Invasion and, of course, their debut episode The Tenth Planet, the Cybermen were firmly entrenched in Doctor Who mythos by the time the Fourth Doctor came along, but it was during his era that the Cyberman episodes began to decline in quality. Revenge of the Cybermen is considered by many to be the worst story of Season 12 and perhaps even one of Tom Baker’s worst episodes, and the appearance of the Cybermen in episodes like The Five Doctors and Silver Nemesis have them serve as little more than cannon fodder and not the central focus of the episode.
Only Attack of the Cybermen stands out as a story that actually involves the conversion process of a human into a Cyberman, with Lytton’s conversion being both haunting and disturbing, but aside from this the vast majority of later classic Cyberman stories deviate massively from the overall point of the Cybermen, which is to warn us of the dangers of technology and present a horrendous potential future where humans are horrifically altered to the extent that they are barely human anymore, and instead present them as angry robots who march around and then die. So, overall, not a fantastic record for the Cybermen in later classic Doctor Who then. The only area of Classic Doctor Who media post-1970 that seems to actually use the Cybermen properly is the 2003 Peter Davison audio story Spare Parts, considered by many to be the strongest story of the Cybermen.
So, what about NuWho? Russel T. Davies made a bold move when he decided to ‘reboot’ the Cybermen for the new series, particularly since he rewrote them from the ground up, establishing his Cybermen as totally new, with a new origin story and overall design. The debut story of this new breed of Cybermen, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, offered a promising premise as regards to making the Cybermen scary again, as there are some truly scary elements to the Cybermen in this episode – the fact that they can still remember who they used to be leads to a harrowing scene where a Cyberman reveals itself to a man as his wife, and in his distress he loses sight of which Cyberman it actually was that told him – and as all Cybermen are identical, he can’t figure out which one it is. A Cyberman ‘autopsy’ that takes place in this episode also reveals that the Cyberman specimen under study is actually a woman called Sally who was about to get married when she was captured and converted. Harrowing stuff.
So surely this means that the Cybermen have been redeemed? Well, unfortunately not, as there are still one or two problems with Russel’s representation of the Cybermen, and the Cyberman episodes of NuWho in general, and it is that there is too much of a divide between the Cybermen and the humans in this incarnation of the metal men. They appear too robotic, speaking in monotonous voices and generally appearing more like a race of hive-minded robots than remnants of humanity. Whilst there are some elements of body horror in the NuWho Cyberman episodes, such as the Torchwood workers in Army of Ghosts and the Cyberman head opening to reveal a human skull in Pandorica Opens, the concept of body horror in regards to the Cybermen is practically abandoned in NuWho. Ironically, it is the often lambasted Cyberwoman, an episode of Torchwood penned by none other than Chris Chibnall, has possibly the most focus on body horror in a Cyberman story, particularly since the show is not child-friendly, but again this is a form of media outside of the mainline TV show which, for the most part, tragically misused the Cybermen between the years 2007-2015.
However, after a dreadful period during Matt Smith’s era where the Cybermen literally destroyed themselves because of a baby crying, quite possibly their worst defeat yet, and were redesigned and subsequently rehashed into an app during Peter Capaldi’s first series, something happened that no-one expected. The Cybermen finally returned in full form during the first part of the finale of Series 10, World Enough and Time, and they were actually scary again. This episode finally realises the full potential of the Cybermen as a monster, presenting them as terrifyingly mutilated former humans and focusing in detail on the horrors of the conversion process. The scene in the ward with the partially-converted people desperately attempting to communicate the fact that they were in terrible pain is terrifying, and it made the Cybermen terrifying.
So it would seem that a scary Cyberman episode is possible, albeit rare, both in Classic Who and in NuWho. We can only hope that Chris Chibnall continues the tradition that Moffat has started by making the Cybermen truly scary again after almost 50 years.