“Spare Parts” and the Cybermen

“We are human.”

“We will survive.”

Two lines from the Doctor Who audio Spare Parts that together encapsulate so perfectly and chillingly what the Cybermen are supposed to be. Spare Parts, an origins story of the Cybermen featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, is a tragic tale of a small, dying human population on Earth’s twin planet, Mondas, who will go to almost any terrible measures in their desperation to survive. Spare Parts interprets the Cybermen’s origins on Mondas to be the story of the Mondasians, driven underground as their planet’s drift far away from the orbit of any sun made the surface of their planet uninhabitable, who, seemingly doomed to extinction, resort to “augmenting” their bodies with artificial, cybernetic parts to survive.

A masterpiece, Spare Parts is perhaps more compelling and genuinely frightening a Cybermen story than any shown on the television series, and certainly the most faithful to Kit Pedler’s vision for the Cybermen. It is worth saying that, in my estimation, the Cybermen have not been done exactly right on television since their first story, The Tenth Planet. After the 1960s, Cybermen stories rather lost the plot altogether, and New Who has never even come close. That’s because it’s so easy to forget what the Cybermen are supposed to be — something Spare Parts attempts to return to, and does so spectacularly.

The Cybermen are usually presented as evil killer robots, robot Daleks with legs. Certainly, it’s difficult to get any other impression from today’s stomping automatons in their Iron Man suits. There’s two things wrong with the I, Robot interpretation of the Cybermen: Cybermen are not robots, and they’re not evil. Cybermen are us, as Spare Parts sought to emphasise. “We are human,” as the Cyber Planner in Spare Parts chillingly put it. The Cybermen are supposed to be tragic. We are supposed to look at them and see ourselves in them, and see what we could become. The Cybermen are not the product of some mad scientist  who tried to create a race of perfect killers, as the Daleks are; they are what became of a human population who, in their desperation to survive, sacrificed so much of their humanity that they now blur the line between man and machine. The Cybermen are as much a warning and a “dark mirror” as they are a villain. The Cybermen are terrifying because they are essentially human, because they are still recognisable as us, and the emphasis on the humanity of the Cybermen in Spare Parts achieves this impression very successfully, such as in a particularly affecting scene in which a young girl who has endeared herself to us goes back to her horrified family after being partially processed into a Cyberman.

Furthermore, the Cybermen are not evil. They are not the Daleks. Their objective isn’t to take over the universe or eliminate inferior races. They have removed their human emotions and impulses, and are slaves to absolute logic. Their primary motivation is to survive. Although, since they make no distinction between themselves once they are cyber-processed, the Cybermen seek to perpetuate their kind by converting other human populations into Cybermen (and at the same time “freeing” those poor souls).

For these reasons, I think the Cybermen have the potential to be the scariest Who villain of all, certainly much scarier than the comparatively one-dimensional Daleks (who are nevertheless always good fun). But, portray the Cybermen as the pantomime villains they usually are, and, ironically, you disregard what makes them uniquely scary and, in fact, make them seem more corny than anything.

Apart from returning to the roots and original conception of the Cybermen very successfully, Spare Parts is an exceptionally well-composed audio story in its own right. There are a number of well-realised characters (which makes it all the more tragic when they are converted into Cybermen), and Nyssa is written very well. The mood is ominous from the very beginning, and the rising sense of crisis keeps the listener hooked all the way through, quickening into a dramatic crescendo at the end. From my personal perspective, the one thing I would have changed about the story would have been to have the population of Mondas voluntarily, and resignedly, convert themselves into fully-processed Cybermen in submission to the inescapable reality that doing so is a necessity for their survival — rather than be deceived, and then coerced, into doing so by the whim of the Central Committee/Cyber Planner. I think the former would have impressed more effectively the sense of utter desperation that birthed the Cybermen, bringing home the tragedy of the story. Nevertheless, Spare Parts is certainly a masterpiece of drama and science fiction, and undoubtedly deserves a place among the Doctor Who classics.

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