Why I’m Against A ‘Genesis of the Cybermen’ Story
Guest contributor James Blanchard explains why he’s not a fan of Capaldi’s idea exploring their origins.
Let’s start with a disclaimer: in a different world to this one, where summer is cold and Graham Crowden got the job of the Doctor, and where Genesis of the Daleks was but the abstract dream of many hopeful fans, I’d probably be arguing against that, too. ‘Do we need to recount the origins of such an established monster?’ I asked. ‘What could we possibly hope to add at this point?’ Bear in mind, though, in no respects is that a foregone conclusion; Genesis of the Daleks beat the odds in so many ways, breaking out of a rather basic idea by having a genuinely brilliant aesthetic design, a villain that both fulfilled the standard mad-scientist role and brought heaps of charisma with it, as well as an honest and deeply thought-out moral conflict at its heart. Genesis of the Daleks could’ve been very boring indeed, if it weren’t for the gallons of creativity injected into its structure.
It seems to me that many fans want to get this particular bolt of lightning to strike twice. Even Peter Capaldi himself wants to see where the number-two-monster comes from, in this so-called ‘Genesis of the Cybermen’. But every time it comes up, I find myself wondering…well, why?
It’s probably important to note I’m not familiar with any expanded-universe explanations of the Cybermen’s origins, but from what I understand, The Tenth Planet gave a fairly comprehensive account of where the silver nemeses come from. They started out as humans on Earth’s twin planet, they began replacing their parts with machinery, and things got out of hand. Solid stuff to introduce a monster with, if not exactly ground-breaking. But I genuinely believe one of the greatest strengths of the Cybermen as a monster is how very quickly they detached themselves from any hard-and-fast origins. It really added to this vaguely mythological sensibility the Cybermen seem to have in some stories, like they’ve always been here, and always will be here, tied to the very idea of eternal life.
An origin story, to my mind, can only really detract from that. If we knew the exact circumstances under which the Borg were created, wouldn’t The Next Generation lose that edge of fighting against something almost impossible to overcome, that made it so great? Furthermore, the impression I got from The Tenth Planet was that the Cybermen were the result of a very long social decline; it was not simply ‘and now there are Cybermen’, but a much more subtle and insidious process with no exact start date. Can Genesis of the Cybermen really encapsulate that idea, without distilling it down to something much more simple and less compelling? The Daleks are fire — an explosive moment of creation is befitting of them. But to me the Cybermen are ice — a creeping cold, something that clings and conquers slowly. To detail the movement of a glacier isn’t great entertainment.
Let’s also think about the fact that this has kind of been experimented with on television anyway, through Rise of the Cybermen. An experiment, in my opinion, which wasn’t very successful; the story isn’t without merit, but most of its merit is detached from its monsters. There’s the usual slew of criticisms one can throw its way — the Cybermen were far too noisy, far too obvious thematically, and far too dumb to hold honest credibility — but what seals its tomb for me is the lack of creativity in trying to hold up its fairly basic story. I enjoyed it enough at the age of nine, but on reflection John Lumic smacks so much of a poor-man’s Davros one has to fumigate the room. It shows emulation without understanding; both characters are standard crazy-science-people, sure, but what made Davros special is the fact he had a big blue eye in his forehead and a little girl’s scream and very clearly couldn’t actually see what he was doing. What did John Lumic have?
Then there’s the setting; Genesis of the Daleks is a true dystopia, an absurd world made creepy by its utter detachment from what we know, the victim of some dramatic interregnum. It’s macarbly beautiful. Rise of the Cybermen, conversely, is set in…London. A London with some zeppelins and earpods, but no more. And no need to worry, because it’s a parallel London, so consequence is nicely offset.
I’m not just ragging on Rise of the Cybermen for the sake of it, here. Rather, I’m trying to highlight how the elements of a ‘Genesis’ story need to come together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. The Dalek origin benefited immensely from some honest and hard-working creativity. Am I suggesting that the current writers of Doctor Who couldn’t pull that off? No, of course I’m not, Doctor Who is my favourite show because of how imaginative it is. But let’s consider the elements that Genesis of the Cybermen would need to function:
Firstly it’d probably need a scientist, to actually create the Cyber-bits. This scientist can either be evil or sympathetic, both of which are tropes thoroughly trodden over by Doctor Who and science-fiction as a whole. How many times are we going to let Doctor Frankenstein get away with this nonsense? Then there’s the conflict, which, naturally would be ‘join the Cybermen…or don’t’. Now, I think the past fifty years of show has shown us that becoming a Cyberman isn’t generally a good idea. The only way I can see this carrying weight is if life for the humans in that story is if their life is completely and utterly miserable. But then, how are we meant to stand in opposition to the Cybermen in future, when they are no longer the worst-of-all-possible-options? They are meant to be the villains, after all. And finally, there’s the moral conflict of whether to stop the Cybermen ever existing. The answer to which is obvious — do you want more Cybermen stories in the future? Well you best not destroy them. All of these feel very obvious, and not especially entertaining, and even derivative towards my favourite monsters.
Perhaps its a failure of my imagination more than anything else (which as an aspiring writer doesn’t bode well), or even ignorance of elements from the expanded universe that could be adapted well into a TV story. If that’s the case then, if and when the time comes, consider my words digested. But I can’t imagine myself enjoying writing Genesis of the Cybermen, and if I can’t enjoy writing it then I struggle to imagine myself enjoying watching it either. It would not be the intelligent imaginative storytelling that I’m so invested in Doctor Who for.
By all means, the origins of the Cybermen are something to play around with. Perhaps they are older, or more mysterious, or more other-worldly than we truly know. But I think the crux of my argument is this: when it comes to world-building, and the mythos of races, doubt is more compelling, and frankly more fun, than a straight answer. Let’s carry on building forwards, rather than going back, and sketching in answers to questions that don’t really need to be answered.