I sit here on a humid – but very wet – day in Sydney, thinking about the forthcoming (16th February to be precise), Doctor Who episode, The Haunting of Villa Diodati which, by all accounts features the Cybermen.
Or at least a Cyberman. And not just a Cyberman but Lord Byron and the Shelleys telling each other ghost stories at Lake Geneva. So based on what little we know, it would seem to be a take on the events of 1816 which Mary Shelley later described as featuring “incessant rain” during that “wet, ungenial summer”. Ironic, considering my immediate surrounds.
Anyway, the historical record tells us that the rain kept Byron, the Shelleys, Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, indoors at Byron’s rented home in Switzerland, the Villa Diodati, over several days. So the five turned to reading fantastical stories – including Fantasmagoriana – before devising their own tales. This is the famous backstory to Mary Shelley getting the idea for what would eventually Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and Polidori came up with The Vampyre, the start of the ‘romantic vampire’ genre. Not a bad few days for creativity, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Presumably the Doctor Who episode will feature “the lone Cyberman” turning up and menacing the Villa Diodati, perhaps inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. We don’t know yet, although any of you reading this in the future will know the answer, of course.
Knowing that this story is on the near horizon, I went back to the Big Finish audio The Silver Turk which features the 8th Doctor running around Vienna with Mary Shelley and encountering… some Cybermen.
Clearly, it’s not going to be the same story as the Villa Diodati one (the Doctor has taken Mary forward in time from 1816 to 1873 for starters), but I wanted to have a recent grasp of the audio so that I can make any comparisons if they arise. Enjoyable homework for me.
The upshot of this listen was that I was yet again struck by how good some Big Finish Cybermen stories are and, compared to the silver giant’s appearances on TV, how much better the audios often are. Now, is this because of the audio medium itself? I don’t think so. You could film The Silver Turk very easily for television and it would be wonderful.
Below is a list of Cybermen stories in Nu-Who. I’m ignoring stories where they just appear as part of a larger story, eg: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, A Good Man Goes To War, or The Time of the Doctor and am just concentrating on main performances in stories.
Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel – Quite silly, really. This is the one that actually gives a legendary Big Finish Cybermen audio – Spare Parts – great kudos and its author, Marc Platt, even received a fee for so-called reused story elements; as well as being credited in the end titles. And I say “so-called” because I see very little in common with Spare Parts. But not in a good way. The story is inferior, provides an unwanted and strange alternative backstory to the Cybermen that I still shake my head at to this very day, and is generally unsatisfying.
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday – The Cybermen exist in this story to provide a huge army of stomping robots for the Daleks to mow down, making every 10 year old child’s dream of Daleks V Cybermen come true. But is it a good Cyberman story? Is it bollocks. Is it even a good story overall? Next.
The Next Doctor – This is almost a good story, and the introduction of the CyberKing is quite cool – although having it stomp through 1850s London and apparently never be remembered by the population is quite weird. Ultimately, however, the episode ends up concentrating more on the Jackson Lake character and is he, or isn’t he, “the next Doctor” and the Cybermen aren’t as front-and-centre as they could be. Oh well.
Closing Time – Another story where, even though the Cybermen are the Big Bad of the episode, it’s more about Cybermats stealing electricity from a department store while Matt Smith jokes around with James Corden, trying – but failing – to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle nature of the last time they made a story together; The Lodger. Some actual Cybermen lurk in a ship underground, but they might as well not be there at all. Not exactly their most interesting Nu-Who outing to be sure.
Nightmare in Silver – Gosh there were high hopes for this one. After writing the absolutely sublime, The Doctor’s Wife, Neil Gaiman (yes, Neil f-ing Gaiman!) returned to do a Cyberman story. Oh, this was going to be the greatest story ever written… surely? And yet, it was terrible. If Gaiman had tossed out the “Angie and Artie” storyline, and not bothered with the Smith Doctor having Cyber implants and acting like a lunatic, this could have been a really dark, scary and entertaining story, set against the backdrop of the same theme park as a clever juxtaposition. But… no. The story has too much going against it.
Dark Water/Death in Heaven – Ah yes, the one where Cybermen can now be made out of not just corpses, but even the dust left behind in ancient graves, thanks to “magic rain”. And it even enslaved the Brigadier – one of Doctor Who‘s most noble characters – into the shell of one of the Doctor’s worst enemies. Some perversely see it as some sort of great tribute. I see it as absolute nonsense and in very poor taste. And if “the lone Cyberman” being talked about in Series 12 turns out to be the Brig… heads will roll. It was a bad idea to begin with (again, in very poor taste after the real-life passing of Nicholas Courtney), so doubling down on it would be rank stupidity. No doubt they’ll do it.
World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls – Here, at the end of our list, we have an actual good Cyberman story. And weirdly, this owes a HUGE debt to the Big Finish audio, Spare Parts, yet doesn’t credit it, while the earlier-mentioned Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel DID credit the audio, and was nothing like it. What a weird world we live in. Truly nuts. Regardless, this origin story for the Cybermen, while not taking place on Mondas iteself, is still “of our universe” and leaves room for Mondasian Cybermen to evolve as well. I like that. It also has tons of good Doctor/Master/Missy dialogue; a companion being killed off (albeit she gets conveniently magicked back to life by a puddle of space fuel); and also the perfect moment for a regeneration, but as Chris Chibnall didn’t want to write a Christmas episode to debut Jodie Whittaker, Steven Moffat took the opportunity to not have the Capaldi Doctor regenerate here, and instead regenerated in the farcical Christmas special that tried to destroy the First Doctor’s legacy with new fans.
When you look at all those stories, it’s clear that Cybermen on TV haven’t been well served, yet have been on audio. Spare Parts got mentioned a few times above. And this whole piece started with me listening to The Silver Turk. But there’s so many more good Big Finish Cyberman stories. There’s even stories which don’t feature the Doctor and are all the better for it. Listen to Cyberman Series 1 and 2. It’s fantastic. And as I said earlier, I don’t think this is some trick of the audio medium. I think all the Cybermen stories I’ve heard on Big Finish could be TV episodes – and really strong ones. Far better than the stories we’ve had. Which is something I find incredibly frustrating as I love the Cybermen, but the way they are seen by the vast majority of fans – which is on TV – is generally an inferior way to enjoy stories about them. So do Cybermen have a TV problem, or something else?
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