When asked about the scariest Doctor Who villains, fan have all sorts of responses. The Daleks are the go-to, but there's new-era villains like the Weeping Angels, or everything from Autons to Zygons. But this week's Doctor Who was a chilling reminder that there's actually only one true answer: The Cybermen.
When the Cybermen made their nu-Who debut in 2006's "Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel", they really only paid really lip service to their tragic, terrifying origin. The episodes spent more time having the Cybermen stomping around on the streets with their own snazzy, Dalek-esque catchphrase ("Delete! Delete!") than they did examining the true horror that lies beneath their surface. Their return and design upgrade in season seven's "Nightmare in Silver" went a step even further, turning Cybermen into cheap Iron Man imitators, all rocket boots and detachable limbs and superspeed, and even their return at the end season eight in "Dark Water/Death in Heaven" relegated them to empty goons rather than a true force to be feared. So for years now, they have been relatively impotent as a threat to the Doctor and his friends. It hasn't helped that more often than not, modern Doctor Who has repeatedly decided the only way to beat the Cybermen is to overwhelm them with the power of love, a trope the show falls back on far too often.
But the Cybermen were never really meant to be knock-offs of the Star Trek: Voyager-era Borg. When they were first envisioned, they were meant to be a chilling extrapolation of what creators Dr Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis saw as the future of prosthetics and cosmetic surgery, humankind chopping bits of itself until what was left was more machine than man. Only their very first incarnation, the Mondasian Cybermen — who only appeared in a single Who serial (William Hartnell's last outing as the first Doctor, "The Tenth Planet" back in 1966) — has ever tangibly captured the gruesome, tragic roots that sit at the heart of the concept behind them as monsters.
"World Enough and Time" brings the Mondasian Cyberman back, to chilling effect. Steven Moffat might have re-jiggered their origins a bit by housing the Mondasian refugees on a time-dilated colony ship rather than on their original homeworld, but he nailed what makes the villain unique — the horror, pain and sheer gruesomeness of the process that turns human into Cyberman — perfectly.
The penultimate episode of Capaldi's final season is a masterclass in build-up and horror, from the initial shocking moment Bill's chest is torn open by a laser blast, to its creepy exploration of the shocking experiments being done on the lowest floors of the ship, and then to its ultimate revelation of the birth of the Mondasian Cybermen. Like the Cybermen themselves, it's slow, but stubbornly relentless, with the tension constantly on the rise until its climactic cliffhanger.
Crucially, their original 1966 designs make the horror of what the Cybermen are literal rather than just conceptual, from their skull-like masks to their pallid, fleshy hands. The Cybermen should never have been clad in armour: The dichotomy of human and robot parts together and visible at the same time is what helped make them so incredibly unnerving in the first place. Sure, that design might look a little retro in 2017, but here it's used to stunningly creepy effect. After all, this is the story of how they came to be, so these first Cybermen are supposed to be rough. They're the product of a desperate people trying to save themselves from oblivion through an operating table. They're not supposed to look sleek; they're supposed to look as rough and mangled and messed up, just like the actual process that converts humans into them.
By using Bill to root that horror on a personal level for the audience — we see her die, horrifically, we see her saved, and then in the heartbreaking moment we see her possibly lost forever as one of the first fully converted Cybermen — "World Enough and Time" also hammers home the other aspect of what makes the Cybermen so scary in comparison to something like the Daleks: People we know and people we love could be inside them. Daleks are alien parasites inside a tank; the Cybermen are us. Chopped up, gouged and scooped-out remnants of humanity, a horrifying mix of flesh and metal, their emotions subdued to avoid the unconscionable horror of living with your human nature replaced by cold steel and colder logic.
Although "World Enough and Time" rightfully spends much of its time building up to the reveal and creation of the original Cybermen, it throws down another fascinating gauntlet for the finale to pick up: John Simm's Master being disappointed at the thought of his successor not being evil any more. Turns out the Master has been involved all along in the creation of the Cybermen, and knew of Bill's tragic fate, although we don't get that much time to explore it just yet.
Missy's slow evolution into a possible force for good is derailed by the physical manifestation of her past incarnation literally showing up and challenging her. It's a fascinating moral dilemma only Doctor Who can do, thanks to the magic of regeneration. As excited as I am for the scenery-chewing cheese-off that will be Michelle Gomez and John Simm on screen together, their very literal argument about good and evil could be something very special to watch unfold.
There is a lot going on here, all of it leading directly into the final episode of season 10. If it can stick the landing, we could be in for one of Doctor Who's finest season finales in years.
Assorted Musings in Time and Space:
- I'm suddenly very miffed that the BBC ended up revealing the news of both the Mondasian Cybermen and John Simm's return ahead of time. On the one hand, there's a damn good chance it would have leaked anyway, so they got to control it. On the other hand, God, can you even imagine how much crazier this episode would have been if you didn't know either of them were coming? Until the words "Mondas" came on Missy's computer screen and John Simm ripped off that disguise?
- It pains me to admit how long it took me to realise that Bill's grungy "friend" down in the hospital was Simm under layers of makeup. He did a hell of a good job with that accent — I only pegged it as him when he first encountered Missy.
- If you want another excellent version of the Cybermen's origins, I suggest listening to the wonderful Big Finish Audio Drama Spare Parts by Marc Platt. Starring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, it's that story that originally inspired their return in 2006, but it's often considered by fans to be one of the definitive stories about the Cybermen.
- The final shot of this episode being a lone tear drop swelling out of Cyber-Bill's eye socket — creating the tear drop look later Cybermen designs would add that the originals didn't have — might be one of the most hauntingly brilliant shots Who has done in a very long time.
- I'm sure it's all smoke and mirrors, but if the episode's opening scene is really how Peter Capaldi's Doctor is going to bow out, it's a beautiful callback to the first Doctor's exit from the show, also on a snow-covered planet — and even because of the same Cybermen!