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The Machinery of Survival

Cyberfaction and Cybernisation

By Peter Adamson

To the vulnerable human body in Doctor Who there are two different threats from a typical alien monster. The most common of course is physical assault; brutal, grievous, and usually fatal, but the less common example is transmogrification - turning the human body into that of the alien. Further beyond the Krynoids, Wirrn and Haemovores of the series' mythos are the Cybermen, who do not merely transform the human body into one of their own so much as, by means of surgery, reshape it irreversibly.

It's the stuff of nightmares, but a less-seen aspect of what we know of the Cybermen. Recruitment - cyberfaction; the technique of turning living humans or humanoids into genderless, emotionless cybernetic creatures. To become a Cyberman means losing one's physical appearance, one's capacity to reproduce sexually, and one's emotional response to the outside world. It is the utmost removal of an individual identity - in short, a living, endless existence to which the respondent's own natural and moral reactions are denied. There are clear advantages to cybernisation, as witnessed by some of the Cyber-race's would-be allies. Tobias Vaughan proudly displayed a Cyber-enhanced body in The Invasion, but the bottom line for him was as with all of the Cybermen's victims: bargains with aliens have no validity - those who are no longer of service to the Cyber-race are waste material.

This outlines one of the major differences between the Cybermen and other main monsters such as the Daleks. While the latter will employ alien races as shock troops (Ogrons, humans), they will destroy them when they have no further use. The Dalek-conversion efforts of Davros aside, intermingling of alien species with the Dalek race is anathema. Cybermen carry no such racial qualms, and it is altogether possible (though never confirmed in the television series) that in the ranks of the Cyber army there are the captured and converted bodies of Martians, Draconians and Vogans as well as humans.

The television series

Cybermen also do not share the Dalek obsession with form. Throughout the series their appearance has changed and developed, sometimes to dramatic lengths. Sure enough, the Cybercontroller is essentially the equivalent of a Dalek Emperor, but there the similarities end. Conceivably the Cyber-director and Cyber-planner could be no more than enhanced brains in a machine - a further step in the cybernisation process, being piecemeal human as opposed to an intact creature. Cybernisation is characteristically ruthless in its efficiency and expediency - it dispenses with the worthless and invalid, the vulnerable and the withered, and places the remainder in a near impenetrable suit of silver armour. Compare this to what is commonly called a Dalek: a survival/war machine with an intact, mutated organism inside it.

It is a popular assumption that this is ultimately all a Cyberman amounts to: a brain in a robotic body. Indeed, the evidence for this is greatly conflicting. At least from the outset, there have been instances of other human parts being part of a cyber-whole: The Tenth Planet Cybermen had human hands (though as they survive undamaged in arctic conditions perhaps they were already in some way bionic). There is also the suggestion of a human skull and cranium visible under their surgical stocking-clad heads. After Earthshock fans speculated that the moving ‘flap’ behind the glass ‘chin’ of the cyber-face suggested an organic face behind the mask. Despite this, when the Doctor removes the faceplate of a fallen Cyberman in Attack of the Cybermen, all there is to see are wires and circuit boards and a suspended ‘jaw’. Elsewhere in the story, however, the prospect of ‘cleaning out’ a helmet to use it as a means of disguise is treated with assured repulsion, so perhaps there is enough unseen organic matter under the helmet to confirm the presence of at least an organic brain. Attack, proving itself to be quite the resource book for cyberfaction, also shows the hand of the slave Bates, which (pre-Terminator 2 it should be noted) features underneath a silver glove, a mechanical hand capable of greater strength than its human counterpart.

Despite this, there is great evidence for behaviour of organic origin among Cybermen from Revenge of the Cybermen onwards - the most obvious being their new-found vulnerability to gold. In Revenge it clogs their breathing apparatus, weakening them. In Earthshock, this continues - labouring their breathing and slowing them down enough so that sufficient quantities will asphyxiate them. Mercifully this vulnerability isn't even mentioned in Attack - presumably there is no gold on Telos - though Silver Nemesis more than makes up for this where the metal acts as a contact poison. Compare this to The Moonbase, where no breathing apparatus is mentioned - otherwise they'd be in trouble on the Moon. So what can we infer from this? We might assume that the term ‘breathing’ is a somewhat arbitrary one; after all, breathing or respiration needn't be confined to the pulmonary sense - skin breathes as well, for example. Perhaps the apparatus mentioned in Revenge is something more all-encompassing; after all, heavy, laboured breathing isn't something necessarily symptomatic of an interrupted flow of oxygen (or whatever it is one breathes). Perhaps the blockage itself contributes to overheating, or overfeeding of whatever gases are required for routine functions. The usual assumption is understandable, however, as the by-then customary chest unit of Cybermen from The Moonbase on does, according to Polly, resemble the symmetrical arrangement of lungs. Of course, a further interpretation could be that Cybermen don't breathe air at all, but an oxygen-rich fluid mixture - the viscous white foam seen oozing from the chest unit of a crushed Cyberman in The Tomb of the Cybermen?

Is this what's inside a Cyberman? If you prick them, do they not bleed? Noting the above ‘foam’ in Tomb, in The Five Doctors, the Cyberleader slain by the Raston Warrior Robot spews a more fluid ‘milky’ liquid. This may have been influenced from outside the series by the ‘death’ of the android Ash (played by Ian Holm) in Alien, but the continuity is nice, if possibly unrealised. Whether this matter is organic in nature or something more akin to brake fluid is unknown. Certainly, the dying rogue marauder in Attack is stained with greenish ooze - perhaps the same matter aged or infected. It's worth observing also that the Cybercontroller, repaired but undeniably longer lived, spurts green fluid when one of his external tubes is ruptured by the Doctor's sonic lance, as does a Cyberman in Earthshock Part Three. Perhaps then we have an instance of many different fluids operating within a Cyber-body, just as a variety of humours make up that of a wholly organic one. Finally, upon their entrance into the Cyber-tombs in Attack, Lytton, Peri and the Doctor all remark upon the all pervading smell of (presumably) decay and tissue corruption therein - “the smell of death”.

Cybernisation: the machinery of survival

So what happens when a human victim is turned into a Cyberman? What is removed, and what kept? There's the irresistible notion that of all the organs only the brain remains intact - the Cybercontroller keeps his after all (assuming it is his and not someone else's), and the Cyberplanner appears to be little more than one. We might imagine the following organs being candidates for removal: the skin, heart, kidneys (Lytton's conversion in Attack indicates both a red-plug and a liver-shaped plug with green marking - perhaps heart and dialysis?) and digestive organs - remember that Cybermen run on [electronic?] power, not organic fuel. From here we ought perhaps to distinguish between what is removed and what is replaced. Genetic material is, presumably, not exchanged or carried down a further generation - therefore reproductive organs may be regarded as the most redundant of all. Revenge indicates that respiration of some form occurs, and the histrionics of the afflicted Cybermen of Earthshock onwards might imply that this is in some way connected to vocal mechanisms. The heart is replaced, probably by a pacemaker and pump, because the white fluid inside a Cyberman is obviously kept under pressure - when released it ‘spurts’. We might also observe that the Cyber-body is a mimicry of the structure of a higher organism - having an internal skeleton (Bates' armature hand in Attack) with circulatory system and logically placed organs. This is in contrast to lower organisms like arthropods, which have an exoskeleton and ‘soupy’ insides - not a circulatory network of veins and arteries (potentially replicated by the exterior tubing in Earthshock onwards). In the Who universe the Wirrn and Menoptra are examples of the former - possibly also the Ice Warriors if we take the Doctor's comments in their debut literally. And speaking of the second Doctor's observations, we may suppose that eyes are also replaced. Tobias Vaughan's blink rate is slower than normal in humans - a giveaway of his own conversion?


To continue with Lytton's conversion, this is so far the clearest indication of the process of cybernisation within the television series. In fact, Attack provides a number of visual ‘stages’ of cybernisation seen in the background scenes in Cybercontrol. In Part One, one of Lytton's agents can be seen in a wall niche, with silver skullcap and ‘ear-pipes’ fixed by ‘spigots’ on either side of the cranium [fig.1]. These skullcaps are completely smooth, without the ‘grille’ aspect of full Cybermen (a cooling mechanism?), so we might assume that these caps are intermediary, or might contain equipment used to ‘reprogram’ subjects. The human face, passive, is still visible, as are the neck and upper arms, although the torso appears to be altered dramatically, being concealed behind a ‘breastplate’. This is either a sheathing of the silver metal Cyber armour (in his novelisation of the story Eric Saward calls this “arnickleton: a tough alloy made from metals not found on Earth”) or, more likely, it suggests that replacement of major internal organs is complete and, presumably, the ‘foil’ suit of outer armour will be fitted over this. Later, another subject is seen, bearing slightly different applications (perhaps this is Lytton's second agent) [fig.2]. There are no overlaid pipes along the top of the skullcap, though the ‘plugs’ above the frontal lobes are present, and the ear ‘faucets’ have been replaced by sturdier ‘blocks’ - yet still not those sported by full Cybermen. Plates resembling cheek-guards are also in place. By the time he is subjected to conversion in Part 4, Lytton [fig.3] sports many of the same prostheses, though some small differences appear, such as the presence of piping. Instead of a half-moon notch in the skullcap above and between his eyes, a triangular one has been made (perhaps this suggests some clear division among subjects - is Lytton to become a Cyberleader because of his previous leadership skills?) Also of note are Lytton's hands, which were of course crushed, presumably to the point of uselessness, at the Cybercontroller's command. Here they are left bare and still bloodied from injury by the time the Doctor finds him, but despite this, Lytton is still able to grip and use the sonic lance planted there by the Time Lord. The conclusions one might draw from this are that either Lytton's injuries were repaired as part of the Cyber-conversion process, or that bionic hands, like Bates', now function beneath his skin. This is in direct contrast to other subjects, who wear the silver gloves of Cybermen (and Bates). Alternatively, Lytton's hands may not be repaired at all, but might have either endured less injury, or repaired themselves (remember that Lytton is an alien humanoid - perhaps like Adric he heals at a faster rate?) Because the central unit in his breastplate appears to be still under construction, it could be argued that Lytton's conversion is partial. Perhaps this scenario is the most likely - as Lytton's hands have been made redundant, it does seem rather illogical for them to be repaired rather than replaced, unless the damage done to them was not as critical as initially suggested. Finally, as in the novelisation, Lytton's last dialogue reveals the use of drugs in the process (they affect his brain, slurring his speech). It is also apparent that during conversion his voice has been ‘modulated’ like that of a Cyberman, although his mouth is still responsible for the formation of words. We can therefore infer that Lytton's conversion was far from complete, and indeed the exact stage he was at is hard to pinpoint, given that the other subjects by comparison only reliably appear once. To conclude, Attack provides teasing insights into cybernisation, but is far from indicating the complete process.


In conclusion...

Much of the Cybermen's appeal lies in the aspect of ‘body horror’ which is the process of cybernisation. That this process has so far been shown to be irrevocable must count as a definitive score against other ‘monsters’ from within and outside of Doctor Who, including Star Trek's not dissimilar Borg, themselves weakened by no less than three reversed conversions. The other great strength, and its additional horror, must be in the inherent method of cyberfaction. From what is seen in the series (or at least what remains to be proved otherwise), the process is essentially a surgical one. With the new SF ‘magic’ of nanotechnology open to exploitation, there is the possibility that future conversions could be seamless, bloodless and almost without suffering, to the detriment of what has become in fandom, a grotesque fascination. Born of an era before such technology could scarcely have been imagined, the idea of cybernisation, a byproduct of the surgical age, is more arresting in its mechanical treatment of the living, feeling human body. Limbs are not transformed - they're replaced, the body isn't reshaped but mutilated with alien architecture; the personality isn't enhanced, exchanged or overtaken - it, along with the humanity of its host, and the greatest parts of their once mortal body, is removed utterly.

Renaissance of the Cybermen

Had the Cyber-suit design been approved and given time to be completed in Earthshock, the Cybermen of the 1980s might have turned out to be an entirely different and perhaps somewhat familiar-looking incarnation of the silver giants. Costume designer Dinah Collin wanted to reduce the aspect of the ‘suit’ in the Cybermen, blending at the wrists and neck the actor's bare skin (sprayed silver) and the fabric of the costume. Over this would be arranged wires and tubing, grafted into the costume so it would be difficult to see where the suit ended and the actor began. The lower half of the faceplate would be treated in a similar way, incorporating tubing rising from the collar into the mouth, with little lower jaw actually visible. With much of their eventual silver reduced, Collin intended their livery to be black and ‘flesh’ (presumably a peach colour) - with this combination, the overall appearance of the Earthshock might have pre-empted Star Trek's Borg a further way.

So what about the Cybermats?

Cybermats appeared in three televised stories, arguably within a relatively contemporaneous point in the race's history. When first seen, they exhibit only the barest suggestion of sentience, and any notion of them being organic is pure speculation (they are on occasion referred to as “rodent-like”, though their original influence was purported to be silverfish). The real evidence comes in Revenge when a Cybermat becomes disoriented and eventually succumbs to a fistful of gold thrown on it by the Doctor, although it is later ‘reawakened’ and used against the Doctor's enemies. Elsewhere in the story the robotic notion remains, including as evidence the ‘remote’ device used to control them. Staying with tradition however, it is tempting to see Cybermats as an extension of the already cybernetic heritage, and it's pleasing to see this continued in the BBC Book Illegal Alien (see below).

Cybernisation in the novels


We finally ‘see’ underneath the facial membrane of a Tenth Planet Cyberman. This includes a “shrink-wrapped face” of “yellowish grey... deeply wrinkled... flesh... [and] a cracked, thin-lipped mouth”. There are “just cavities where the nose had been... [and] embedded in each socket, in place of the eye... a dark red crystal, almost black, multifaceted and round like an insect's eye... an [ultra-low frequency] auto-visual sensing device... wired deep down toward the visual cortex... [and connected to] a complex neural interface” [p.59].

Conversion is carried out with the aid of Thysanura organisms; silverfish-like creatures which, it is suggested, ‘inspire’ the invention of the Cybermat. A large human male (Bono) is transformed into “the mobility experiment”, the first mobile Cyberplanner - the Cybercontroller. The body is stripped of non-organic material which is later recycled into a living plastic-metal fluid - the basic element of Cyber technology from which the Controller's suit is moulded. The brain is removed (“a change from routine”) and the cranial cavity enlarged. All sensory organs are removed and the internal organs of the torso. The skin is reduced in thickness and partially replaced by the above compound in saturated solution. Optic crystals are implanted. Contrary to normal procedure, Bono's limbs are retained rather than replaced, as their length is decreed satisfactory [pp.189-90]


In one of the book's most arresting sequences, its author has ArcHivist Hegelia (of David Banks Cybermen book), undergo voluntary cyberfaction in the name of research. Usefully, the entire process is described in great, disturbing detail:

  1. Hegelia is restrained and subjected to injections within a conversion compartment, “anaesthetised... [not] because the Cybermen feel compassion for their subjects... [but because] they recognize the possibility of the brain's expiring if the body's pain becomes too great” [p.194].
  2. A “silver helmet” is fixed onto the subject's head with “internal spikes” which penetrate the cranium and brain, probably to begin the indoctrination process [p.188]. Hegelia's speech is slurred and modulated, like Lytton's after his cybernisation begins in Attack.
  3. “A hundred surgical implements... [grow] from the walls of [the] compartment, poking, prodding and inserting themselves into Hegelia's body”, beginning the process of weaving the cyber armour (the suggestion here and elsewhere is that this is made from the same material as in Iceberg) [pp.196-7].
  4. The instruments ‘rip open’ the subject's torso and vacuum pumps remove the resulting blood and flesh. Redundant organs are removed by vacuum, including the heart which is [replaced by?] “a life support system” [pp.197, 199-200].
  5. Construction of the ‘lugs’ of the outer helmet begins, though the ears are not removed. The new helmet begins to feed information to the subject concerning Cyber history [p. 200].
  6. The legs are removed and replaced with “superior, prosthetic limbs”, followed by the hands [p.201].
  7. The subject's eyes are removed and “the sockets filled with ruby ocular crystals... the inputs... routed to... cognitive processors” (see Iceberg). A chest unit is also fitted. [p.201].
  8. “Two mechanical appendages [work] to weave exoskeletal piping into the rapidly solidifying... armour”. The helmet is near completion, with only the faceplate remaining to be added. A fluid reservoir is attached to the subject's back, connecting to the limbic pipes (as the Cybermen of Killing Ground are the same as in Revenge, this appears to comply to Banks'/Hegelia's theory that the ‘hump’ in those Cybermen performed such a function) [pp. 204-5].
  9. The final stage. The faceplate is affixed, drills on its interior surface. After being sealed, further “useless organic material [is] broken down and scooped out, clearing space for efficient electronics” [p. 205].


Written from an original McCoy era story outline, Illegal Alien endeavoured to do two things to the series' Cybermen. First was the reintroduction of the Cybermats, filling the roles of maintenance drones and individual or group attack units - presumably with detachable tools for either purpose. The authors attempt to address some questions about the nature of the Cybermats in the story, in particular during an ‘autopsy’ scene where the Doctor takes an immobilised Cybermat apart:

“[The Doctor] looked down at the dead Cybermat on the desk... He had [probed] about the creature's insides. This one had originally been a squirrel. A red squirrel. These Cybermats were made on Earth. And, very likely, the British Isles. Made in England” [p.138].

This Cybermat, like the one in Revenge, is later reactivated with more sinister results, its circuitry containing a tracer that summons more 'mats to track its enemies and, later, to recycle it for their own survival. Later in the book, a human infant/Cybermat hybrid is seen.

The second idea predominant in the book is one of the horror of Cybernisation, albeit achieved less succinctly than in Killing Ground. Perhaps via an in-joke upon The Five Doctors, a very close encounter with a Cyberman reveals the open mouth-slit of the alien issuing “a wave of fetid air, like sour milk” [p.169]. The Cyberman in question speaks from a chest unit. Alternatively, the ‘Limehouse Lurker’, the latest in a line of malfunctioning, marauding Cyber units, smears itself with the blood and flesh of its victims; apparently in an effort to delay its inevitable death. Blood features strongly in this, at times, highly visceral book, but the suggestion here appears to be more behaviour from a residual association of blood with life. Elsewhere this is not addressed.

Finally, there is the reappearance of the Cyber-command unit, a hangover from Silver Nemesis, and here quite mobile, as originally intended for that story. According to Tucker and Perry, its presence negates the ‘isolated mind’ theory:

“The Cybermen's brains are part organic and part computer. Naturally they form part of an integrated network, with the Cyber-command unit at its centre... The command unit is simply a task-dedicated Cyberman with colossal processing power and the sole function of relaying instructions” [p.275].


I am indebted to the following resources for this article:

  • Banks, David, with Adrian Rigelsford, Cybermen
  • Toon, John ‘Cybermen’, an online article from ‘Here be Monsters’, an offshoot of Steven Jenkins' now vanished ‘The Velvet Web’ Internet site.
  • In-Vision magazine issues 60: Earthshock and 79: Attack of the Cybermen.

Thanks also to Alistair Hughes and Jamas Enright for their ideas and contributions.

This item appeared in TSV 59 (January 2000).

Index nodes: Attack of the Cybermen, Iceberg, Killing Ground, Illegal Alien