Doctor Who – Top Ten Classic Who Cyberman Stories

The early 1960s saw the genesis of ‘spare-part’ surgery with the development of gigantic heart-lung machines and research into the possibility of replacing amputated limbs with prosthetics controlled by wiring the nerve endings into the machine for a quicker response. Intrigued by the potential of these developments, Dr. Kit Pedler, the unofficial scientific advisor for Doctor Who at the time, asked his wife, who was also a doctor, about what would happen if someone had so many prostheses that they could no longer distinguish themselves from the machine – this idea would later go on to form the basis for the monster featured in The Tenth Planet, an episode he wrote with Gerry Davis. What Kit Pedler created went on to become one of the most iconic and enduring aspects of Doctor Who’s rich cast of creatures, and the Cybermen were born. Since their creation, the bio-mechanical monsters have menaced the Doctor on dozens of occasions throughout both the Classic and Modern incarnations of the show, and at over 50 years old the Cybermen have a wealth of history. To explore how effectively Dr. Pedler’s vision has been translated on screen, these are the Top Ten Cybermen Stories from Classic Who specifically. For this list the primary focus will be how effectively each episode presents the Cybermen as a threat but also how competently the nature of Cyber-conversion and its impact is depicted.

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10 – Revenge of the Cybermen

Ranking the lowest out of all the Classic Who Cyberman stories is Revenge of the Cybermen, the Fourth Doctor’s only outing with the tin men from Mondas. This episode features what is possibly the weakest depiction of the Cybermen to date – gone are the sinister electronic voices and the cold, emotionless line delivery, and this robs the Cybermen of one of their most threatening attributes. The voices are not the only thing that seems to have changed either, as the Cybermen in this story seem to act out of character – their body language, the Cyberleader implying that Cybermen have some form of ‘morality’ when not at war, and even the title: ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’. How can emotionless machine creatures want revenge? Ultimately, this episode holds the dubious honour of being the joint-worst story in the otherwise excellent Season 12, the other joint-worst being The Sontaran Experiment. The only real saving grace for either of these stories is how good the TARDIS team for Season 12 is.

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9 – The Wheel in Space

Fans of Patrick Troughton’s era long for the missing parts of The Wheel in Space to be recovered, or at the very least animated, as the only way to watch this story at the moment is to buy the Doctor Who – Lost in Time DVD (an excellent investment regardless). The fact that 4 out of the 6 episodes are missing means that only the most die-hard of Second Doctor fans will have any interest in this story until an animated reconstruction is released, which is a shame considering this episode features the debut of Zoe Heriot, one of the most popular companions in the history of the show. At six parts long, however, The Wheel in Space in its completed form falls victim to the age-old issue with Classic Doctor Who – bad pacing – with the only real upside being that the depiction of the Cybermen in this story is strong. Whilst their voices have changed from early Second Doctor stories, the effect is still menacing and suitably inhuman, and the surviving two parts of this story have some excellent scenes with the Cybermen, particularly Part Six.

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8 – Silver Nemesis

Having already been the focus of on article on how it might just be a hidden classic, it may seem odd that Silver Nemesis doesn’t rank very highly on this list – that is primarily due to the fact that most of the Cybermen episodes are just really good, but also the fact that the actual depiction of the Cybermen themselves in this episode is lackluster. To be fair, the Cyberleader does get some great lines, particularly when he is scheming with his lieutenant or manipulating the brick-headed Nazis in this story, and there is a fantastic quip about the human condition of madness, but this story suffers from having too much going on in the story and as a result the Cybermen are not given the attention that they perhaps deserved. Considering the fact that this was the next Cyberman episode after Attack of the Cybermen, an episode that delves into the more gruesome aspects of Cyber-conversion, Silver Nemesis uses its Cybermen as fodder for various other plot developments and is a classic example of episodes that include the Cybermen but don’t go to any lengths to actually add more to their mythos or character.

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7 – The Tenth Planet

The original Cyberman story, The Tenth Planet was a difficult episode to place in this ranking. On the one hand, it does a stellar job of introducing the Cybermen and what they are (or were) to the audience, but this episode was also the final adventure for William Hartnell, and the events leading up to his regeneration take the spotlight later in the story. The Cybermen themselves are imposing and utterly inhuman, yet they retain some of their former humanity, such as the human hands and the vaguely human-like heads, which is an excellent design choice. However, the plot essentially confines the Cybermen to one room, pacing up and down, which allows for some excellent dialogue between the Cybermen and the Doctor but doesn’t really allow for a depiction of their true power, aside from a few scenes in the snow in which they attack guards. Still, as this is the first appearance of the Cybermen and the first regeneration story, The Tenth Planet is still an enduring classic.

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6 – The Five Doctors

Whilst the Cybermen aren’t the primary focus of this story by any means, they do feature as one of the prominent adversaries present in Gallifrey’s Death Zone. It is interesting that the Cybermen get more screentime in this story than the Dalek does, although they may have been more to do with how shabby the Dalek props were looking at this point in Doctor Who’s production. Regardless, the Cybermen are a notable threat in this story and they nearly succeed in blowing up the TARDIS, before they are all wiped out by the Raston Warrior Robot. The scene in which the Cybermen are destroyed has been cited as one of the many examples of the Cybermen undergoing ‘forced villain decay’ throughout the 80s era of Doctor Who, a phenomenon which seemed to lessen their impact as time went on. Nonetheless, The Five Doctors is a fantastic episode and the Cybermen are perhaps the most prominently featured recurring villain in the story apart from the Master, making it a somewhat-honorary Cyberman story.

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5 – The Moonbase

Another Second Doctor Cyberman episode that his fallen victim to missing episodes, The Moonbase is definitely one of the strongest Cyberman stories in Classic Who, and thanks to the fact that the missing two episodes have been animated, the entire serial can now be enjoyed in all its glory. This episode is particularly notable as it features the first re-appearance of the Cybermen since their debut in The Tenth Planet, and with that came their first radical redesign – signifying that they had adapted since their initial encounter with the Doctor, and were now a more deadly threat. Gone are the human-like hands and vaguely humanoid face, and as if to ram home how inhuman these new Cybermen are, this was also the first time they were presented without individual names, further alienating them from their human roots and making them seem more like robotic monstrosities than ever before. As icing on the cake is the fantastic scene of the Cybermen marching across the surface of the Moon to attack the Moonbase, which is exactly the kind of show of power that the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet needed.

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3 – The Invasion

The final Second Doctor Cyberman story, The Invasion, is somewhat unique in that it is an eight-part story with four episodes missing, making it a 50/50 split of genuine and animated episodes. Interestingly, the drawings for the animation and the general art style has a distinct visual flair, something that is not often found in animated episodes as they are usually created on as limited budget as possible with little room for finesse. That said, the animation itself is rather clunky, but even that cannot diminish the impact that the Cybermen themselves have in this story. Arguably one of their most menacing outings, the Cybermen use stealth, infiltration and carefully-laid plans to instigate a total invasion of London, which leads to some iconic and enduring images akin to the likes of The Dalek Invasion of Earth – the shot of the Cybermen marching down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral is perhaps one of their most iconic stills of the Classic era, and it is chilling to see the Cybermen emerging from the depths of the London sewers and occupying familiar streets and landmarks.

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3 – Attack of the Cybermen

Arguably one of the most controversial episodes of Classic Who to air, Attack of the Cybermen was heavily criticised at the time – those who were inspired by Mary ‘I’m here to spoil the fun’ Whitehouse and her crusade against Doctor Who in the seventies complained that Attack was too violent and scary for children, an idea which seems laughable today. Admittedly, one scene in which the Cybermen torture a man by crushing his hands into bloody pulps would probably have shocked children at the time, but that is rather the point of the show, and in fairness to the production team, Doctor Who was also being criticised at the time for not having the ‘spark’ that it had before, so it seems that everyone was a critic in the 80s. Regardless, Attack holds up particularly well for a Colin Baker story, and there are some truly menacing scenes with the Cybermen, particularly as they use the darkness to hunt workers in sewer tunnels. Another sinister aspect to this episode is that in the background of many scenes in Cyber-control, unfortunate victims of the Cybermen can be seen in conversion booths, and as the episode progresses they are slowly transformed bit by bit into emotionless killers. Overall, Attack does a great job of presenting the body horror aspects to the Cybermen that the show tends to skirt around, such as depicting partly-converted Cybermen desperately trying to escape and also describing in vivid detail the stench of rotting flesh emanating from long-dead Cyber-corpses.

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2 – Earthshock

This episode is most often remembered for its ending – for those who have been living under a rock since the 1980s, this is the episode in which Adric dies, arguably the most prominent death of a character in Doctor Who (and that’s saying something). As a result of this, it is often overlooked that this is actually a fantastic story for the Cybermen specifically, as we see the full extent of their power and influence and there are some great shots that use clever editing to make it seem as though there are far more Cybermen in the episode that the BBC costumes department would allow. Speaking of costumes, the redesigned Cybermen look incredible in this story, and a tiny detail exclusive to this story that adds a really creepy element to the Cyberman design is the transparent lower-jaw of the Cyberleader and some Cybermen, which allows for more expression on the part of the actors inside the suits but also serves as a constant reminder to the audience that the Cybermen were indeed once flesh and blood, and are not simply robots. The fact that the Cybermen are ultimately responsible for the death of Adric has a profound impact on both the character of the Fifth Doctor and how the Doctor views the Cybermen following this encounter generally, which is reflected in Classic Who episodes following this and the Big Finish audios that feature the Cybermen set after this.

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1 – The Tomb of the Cybermen

It was a difficult decision to place this episode above Earthshock and Attack of the Cybermen simply because all three episodes are great in their own way – but ultimately, The Tomb of the Cybermen has to come out on top due to just how well it holds up, even today. Whilst there are some unfortunate drawbacks, such as the questionable characterisation of Toberman and some odd costume choices, overall this story is excellent and is well-deserved of its status as a classic. This episode has a reputation for being one of Classic Who’s scariest episodes, and there are some scenes that are genuinely chilling – the famous example being the sequence in which the Cybermen break out of their tombs, but others include the death of the man who attempts to open the gate and the death of the man in the weapons chamber – both are sudden, graphic and accompanied by a suitably gruesome scream, and the Cyber-tomb around which this all takes place is presented almost like a malevolent entity in itself, making every scene set within its walls convery an air of uncertainty and fear. Even after over 50 years this serial is definitely worth a watch and is among the best Classic Doctor Who serials of all time.

To conclude, it is clear that the best Cyberman episodes in Classic Who are the ones that tackle the issue surrounding the Cybermen head on or depict their power and menace to make them genuinely terrifying.

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Author: Cameron Walker

Writer, Painter, Dalek collector, Walker, General Idealist but Political Realist, Fan of Doctor Who, Star Wars, Halo, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and Ghost in the Shell, among other things. All Doctor Who discussion particularly welcome, but be warned, I am a huge nerd.

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