‘We had no idea that the Cybermen would turn out to be so successful and popular.
It’s nice to have been in at the birth of something like that.’
Director Derek Martinus speaking in 1992.
Alongside the Daleks, the Cybermen are one of the staple ingredients of Doctor Who. For some, the Cybermen are far more terrifying and effective than the Daleks. With the Daleks, there seemed to be certain limitations: the creatures could apparently not negotiate stairs, could not move very fast, and looked like robots, although they were not.
The Cybermen, on the other hand, looked like people. They had legs and could walk up and down stairs with ease. They could run and hurry and it was obvious that there was nowhere you could hide from them.
A further aspect of their character which touched a nerve, was the idea that they could take a human being and physically turn them, against their will, into a Cyberman. This chilling concept made the Cybermen more than just an enemy to be defeated. If they caught you, then you wouldn’t just be killed, you would become like them.
These very adult concepts came about because story editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd decided that the show needed a scientific adviser. ‘I was trying to get someone who might provide ideas and vet programmes, hardening the science,’ explained Davis. He considered several notable scientists, including astronomer Patrick Moore and Doctor Alex Comfort – better known as the author of several good-sex manuals – before one of Innes Lloyd’s former colleagues in the BBC’s Outside Broadcast Unit recommended Doctor Kit Pedler.
Davis and Pedler found that they enjoyed a good working relationship and this resulted in Davis commissioning Pedler on 17 May 1966 to write the storyline for what was to become the first Cyberman adventure.
Pedler had long been fascinated by computers and the human brain. ‘I was thinking,’ Pedler explained in 1979, ‘that although I could imagine a logical machine reasoning to itself and manipulating events outside it, by no stretch of the imagination could I envisage a machine producing a poem by Dylan Thomas.’ It was from these initial thoughts that Pedler developed the idea of the Cybermen, a race of humanoid creatures who had replaced almost all their body parts with machines and who had as a result lost their humanity.
Speaking in 1968, Pedler commented that he had been discussing the idea of spare part surgery with his wife who was also a doctor. ‘We conceived the idea of someone with so many mechanical replacements that he didn’t know whether he was a human or a machine.’
The first draft scripts for 'The Tenth Planet', the story that was to introduce the Cybermen, were completed by Pedler, but when Davis requested some re-writes in June 1966, Pedler was able to complete the work for only episodes one and two before he fell ill. Due to the pressure of time, Davis stepped in and completed the final two episodes.
In Pedler’s final script for episode two, the following description was given:
THEY ARE TALL, SLIM WITH ONE PIECE, CLOSE FITTING SILVER MESH UNIFORM, THEIR FACES AND HANDS ARE NORMAL BUT UNDER THE HAIR ON THE HEAD IS A LONG SHINING METAL PLATE STRETCHING FROM CENTRE HAIR LINE FRONT TO OCCIPUT. (THIS COULD BE DISGUISED BY A HAT)
THEIR FACES ARE ALL RATHER ALIKE, ANGULAR AND BY NORMAL DEFINITIONS GOOD-LOOKING. ON THE FRONT OF THEIR TRUNKS IS A MECHANICAL COMPUTER-LIKE UNIT CONSISTING OF SWITCHES, TWO ROWS OF LIGHTS AND A SHORT, MOVEABLE PROBOSCIS. THEY ALL CARRY EXOTIC SIDE ARMS. AT THE SHOULDER JOINTS THERE ARE SMALL, RAM-LIKE CYLINDERS ACTING OVER THE JOINTS THEMSELVES. INSTEAD OF FLESH THERE IS A TRANSPARENT, “ARM-SHAPED” FOREARM COVERING CONTAINING SHINING RODS AND LIGHTS, BUT THERE IS A NORMAL HAND AT THE END OF IT.
‘Kit Pedler was a very interesting guy,’ recalled the story’s director, Derek Martinus. ‘He was a brilliant research doctor and was working on this sort of thing himself. That made it fascinating, the fact that this fantasy of cybernetic men was just an extension of what he was working towards as a researcher in real life.
‘The perennial problem with Doctor Who is that inside the monster there’s always got to be a human being. You’ve got to try and make a costume that can be worn by an actor, yet at the same time change the shape so that it looks less humanoid. The development of the look of the Cybermen came from discussions between myself, Kit Pedler, Sandra Reid [the Costume Designer] and Gerry Davis. Gerry and Kit would put their four penny worth in, but Sandra and I evolved it between us.’
The original Cybermen reflected their origins as humanoids. Their bodies and limbs were covered in a transparent plastic material through which could be seen various coloured tubes. The head was encased in a grey material with eye and mouth holes cut in. When the creatures spoke, their mouths opened but although the lips quivered, they did not move in sync with the speech that emerged. They also had a vestigial nose visible on their faces. Their hands were still human, but their feet were encased in shoes. On their chests they carried a complex technical unit which supposedly replaced the function of their heart, lungs and other organs. Hung underneath this unit was a gun. This was a large, rectangular device which was held in both hands.
‘We made the basic suit from a sort of plain knitted cotton jersey fabric,’ Reid explained. ‘On top of this was a clear plastic which made it very hot to wear – it was a marvellous way of slimming. In between the jersey and the plastic we used coloured strips made from a nylon tubing material. This was painted with a special spirit-based paint which we used in the theatre for painting fabrics because it doesn’t flake off.
‘The jersey head mask was separate so that the actors could take it off when they got too hot. We placed strips of silver vinyl around the eyes and the mouth, stuck onto the fabric. The black ear piece was made from foam rubber and the lamp-like device on the top of the head was made from fibreglass.’
With the look of the Cybermen decided upon, what they would sound like was another priority. Everyone working on 'The Tenth Planet' knew that the Cybermen’s voices had to be something special. ‘There was endless discussion about the Cybermen’s voices,’ confirmed Martinus. ‘I wanted something that had an eerie feeling to try and get away from the human voice but we didn’t want to repeat the Dalek voice. So we came up with the idea of them opening their mouths and then not closing them again. We hoped that would add an other worldly feel to it. We also developed the Cybermen’s elliptical speech patterns which worked quite well.’
Roy Skelton, who had previously worked on Doctor Who providing the voices for the Monoids in 'The Ark' was contracted to provide the Cybermen’s voices. They were intoned in a sing-song fashion which, when combined with the visual of the Cybermen opening their mouths and then closing them again at the end of the speech, without moving their lips in between, brought the required alien feel to the creatures. In the final episode of the story, Peter Hawkins, who had been voicing the Daleks since their first appearance, also provided some of the voices.
The Cybermen were deemed to be very successful and on 18 November, less than a month after the story completed transmission, Davis commissioned Pedler to write an outline for 'The Return of the Cybermen' which was re-titled 'The Moonbase' for production.
The Cybermen were here to stay.
David J Howe, adapted from Doctor Who: A Book of Monsters (BBC Books, 1997)