I recently got a chance to see the newly released "The Tenth Planet" DVD, which featured an incredibly brilliant animated version of the missing fourth episode. Though a lot of people find the story to be a little slow and listless, a common complaint in many early serials, I consider the story to be not only brilliant but absolutely terrifying.
The reason being that the Cybermen, making their debut in the series for the first time, have never been this frightening ever again. No other enemy has undergone such continued radical redesign throughout the series as the Cybermen have, and to my mind neither later classic Cybermen or the modern variants are particularly scary. They're threats, but they don't reach down and shake you.
The Costumes: There's no denying that classic Doctor Who, and even some of the modern Who as well have featured some silly-looking monsters. Hartnell's reign in particular is full of them. Monoids, I'm looking at you.
However, the first Cybermen were utterly brilliant. Rather than the harder shells they would eventually develop, their skin was more plastic and they still had flesh-and-blood hands. They were essentially the most human of the Cybermen, and that made them even harder to look at because they resembled people with frightening mechanical additions rather than robots.
To put it another way, you know what makes Jason Voorhees such a striking figure? It's because from a distance you see nothing but his hulking form and black spots where his eyes should be. Closer up, you can see just a touch of the face behind the mask, that one baleful eye. The first Cybermen were like that.
The Voices: When you think of the Cybermen's voices, it's always an emotionless, electronically manipulated drone. It's the epitome of machine-like sameness, and frankly it gets a little old.
The first Cybermen had a voice distinctly different from those of later incarnations. Their delivery was in a strange sing-song manner, and it is totally unnerving. It's like the way Daleks talk, but colder and more sinisterly inhuman.
Though like all Cybermen they claim to have replaced all emotions with logic through the process of cyber-conversion, there remains in their speech enough human smugness and misplaced superiority that a comparison to Gestapo agents is not out of line. Later Cybermen just can't pull it off.
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The Motive: I like to argue that Daleks represent extreme right-wing philosophy and the Cybermen represent an extreme left-wing one. Daleks want the ultimate status quo, themselves as they are and as the only example of life. The Cybermen, though, have a more benevolent goal though it's executed in a horrifying way. They truly believe that they have saved themselves from pain, fear and other horrors, and they devoutly want to share that gift with other humanoid races. That we resist the change is proof to them that we need it.
Except for the first Cybermen. They do suggest taking humans back for conversion into other Cybermen, but that that is completely incidental. It's just an afterthought. Their real goal is simply to siphon off the energy of the Earth to restore their own supplies, and if it causes the death of everyone else, then so be it. In this incarnation alone do the Cybermen combine all their most terrifying aspects with those of creatures like Daleks and other enemies. In a sense, this is them at their most deadly if not most powerful.
The Realism: The modern Cybermen seem utterly unrealistic. Even the latest redesign for Neil Gaiman's "Nightmare in Silver" is still too cartoonish to bring real fear. They might as well be the cybernetic ninjas from the first season of Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Well done, but ultimately they could be CGI and you would hardly notice, especially with that ridiculous lockstep marching and the catchprase "Delete."
If something like Cyberconversion actually did occur, it would likely look much more like the first Cybermen. Sure, I'll stipulate that the modern ones represent the result of a high-tech industrialized world unlike the world of 50 years ago, but that actually makes it even worse. How can you be frightened of what is essentially a murderous, mobile smartphone app, operating in perfect sync with its fellows? No, the last vestiges of individuality and the ugliness of the meshing of man and machine are much more frightening than the animated suits of armor we have now because it's really not all that far off in terms of possibility.
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The Hidden Message: "The Tenth Planet" was William Hartnell's last outing as The Doctor. Poor health drove him from the role he had grown to love. Human frailty finally turned a hero to millions into just another man.
And what does in the First Doctor narrative-wise? Old age and weakness from one battle too many and the grand, energy-sucking demands of a coming new world he is not fit to face in battle. The Cybermen come to Earth as a possible future as well as a threat, and the man that has already become our planet's protector is almost powerless to stop it. In the end, doing so kills him.
Maybe that's what scares me the most about those clunky, plastic first Cybermen. They are undone by the very flesh they claim to have overcome, but they take even The Doctor down with them. It's a huge metaphor for the struggle of life over weakness, and the ambiguity of it cuts deep.