Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
There are two main threats in the Doctor Who universe: the Daleks and the Cybermen. One of the horrors of Cybermen is that they were once human (or Mondassian, mirror-Earth human). If you’re not aware of this Doctor Who villain, Cybermen are humans who have had their brains removed from their bodies installed in the metal suit.
The methods by which they are made to forget their humanity and obey the order to assimilate every human and kill everyone else make appearances throughout the television show. I’ll detail them here, describing how the Cybermen are prevented from regaining their humanity and focused on the goal of forcibly converting everyone else.
Before she “died”, Doctor Who’s companion bill became the first full Cyberman. The Master in disguise tricked her into being converted, but not before she’s shown a headset. She asks the headset will prevent the pain that the partially converted clearly suffered. She’s told no, it will keep you from caring. Such a device would explain why Cybermen don’t care if their comrades are killed or if they themselves die, too.
The Emotional Regulator
An alternate universe the Doctor, Rose and Ricky entered turned out to be the birthplace of that universe’s Cybermen. These Cybermen were mostly wiped out because their emotional regulators were turned off in mass. The Cybermen reverted back to their individual selves, horrified and terrified of what they’d become. Some killed themselves, some killed each other, and many self-destructed. That was the point.
It is reasonable to assume any other universe’s Cybermen have such a device. After all, you can feel far more emotions than pain. Even if you’ve lost most of your organs, you’ll at least have the pituitary gland and maybe others, as well. Habits driven by emotional triggers could still exist, as well, where you could react to something and then sense the change in response between now and your prior self. An emotional regulator to prevent horror, grief, or empathy with their victims would be another way to keep Cybermen emotionally “stable” and focused on their jobs - converting other people and killing everything else.
The Removal from the Body
Most people don’t appreciate how much control the Cyber-Controllers gain by removing people from their bodies and putting them in networked mechanical suits. If someone starts to behave erratically, they could be rendered unconscious or killed by terminating life support remotely. I wonder if all Cybermen carry the self-destruct devices they were shown to carry when Danny Pink was briefly resurrected before he and all other Cybermen were driven to self-destruct.
These control mechanisms are similar to the Daleks being driven to die, kill themselves and kill each other if they deviate from the acceptable baseline. This means any Cyberman who thinks for themselves too much is probably stuck in cold storage until corrected or deactivated. If some mechanism affects an entire group of Cybermen, a remotely controlled detonation prevents the social contagion from spreading.
On the Mondassian ship, Bill woke up in a barn imagining herself as herself. Looking in a mirror, she remembered that she no longer looked that way. She was able to remember her name and talk to the Doctor about what happened, but she said she may need to be terminated because she could feel the system working against her. Bill’s case demonstrates that even if you regain your sense of self, the machine has built in mechanisms to fight this.
You can’t escape the purging of the soul of the Cyberman suit the way you might if you had Borg implants removed. Nor can you leave the suit. Nowhere have I seen someone roll out an alternative body to stick the disembodied brain in or even a jar to plug it into a virtual reality matrix. That may not be something anyone has tried because they cannot break into the suit to rescue the brain within. If you think you can’t get it out, why come up with an alternative home for it?
Removal from the body also allows the person to be manipulated and limited in a number of ways. When you can’t smell or taste, the deep memory pathways invoked by that sensation lie dormant. When touch is reported as bare tactile sensations through hardened gloves, you don’t remember how your child felt when wrapped in a blanket like this or the strong grip like a friend’s hard handshake.
Anything that’s particularly evocative could be filtered from vision or hearing the way we have internet filters to block content. You’d be allowed to scan the fresco for potential targets for upgrading, but you can’t appreciate the beauty of the canvas. Music becomes noise, though spoke words are processed for possible information.
That removal from the body also prevents any contamination of the Cyberman with diseases, parasites or chemicals that would alter the brain and cause erratic behavior. At most, you can get to them with a computer virus or radiation. But you won’t alter them the way a Dalek could by absorbing DNA on contact.
There’s another subtle aspect to the Cybermen’s control over subjects. The Borg may convert you to their collective by altering the mind and body. You can look in the mirror and see the remnants of the old, unaltered flesh. You may have lost an eye, a hand and part of your brain, but your body remains. Turn off the connection to the collective, and the individual personality can assert itself. The implants can often be removed and the nanites deactivated. You’re likely suffering PTSD, survivor’s guilt, depression and who knows what else, but alive. If you escape, you can truly escape with nothing but nightmares and, perhaps, a few extra artificial organs.
For those in the metal suits, disconnection from the collective doesn’t terminate the internal controls. If they did experience the glimmerings of personal awareness, looking down at the metal suit could create a sense of unreality. Who wants to think about that? If you did, you may go insane … and die because of built in controls. Start shooting up your peers in vengeance, and they’ll fill you.
Suppose someone did regain awareness and a degree of sanity. A mentally restored Cyberman walking around in a Cyberman shell isn’t much of an option when any humans around you will kill you for their safety. In contrast, the disconnected Borg like Seven of Nine’s former work squad can find people to remove the worst of their implants so they can pass for normal people. No matter what happens, that shiny metal suit remains your prison until your death.
In short, it is better to be Borg than Cyberman.
The Cybermen are probably the precursors to Star Trek’s Borg, but they are more horrifying in a way because of all the ways they are prevented from ever being restored to themselves. While these plot devices gave the Doctor ways to defeat the Cybermen, it only adds terrifying complexity to their design and a complete system of control we know they'll never escape.
© 2019 Tamara Wilhite
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 31, 2019:
Thanks, Tamara, you spelled it out fabulously. Your gift at making things clear is admirable. The Cybermen appear twice as terrifying than my beloved favorite bad-guys the Borg. But that is what makes great science fiction. Thanks again.
Much respect and may your day be peaceful,