Until We Could Be Almost Completely Replaced (The Invasion)


It’s November 2nd, 1968. Between now and December 21st, a mine explosion will kill seventy-eight in West Virginia, twenty-two will die in a factory fire in Glasgow, two will be shot by the Zodiac Killer, and numerous people will die in the Vietnam War, including 374 civilians in Laos when the US Military targets a cave in the incorrect belief that it housed Viet Cong troops and not refugees. In addition, Upton Sinclair will die in a nursing home in New Jersey, Enid Blyton will die in a nursing home in London, and John Steinbeck will die of heart failure in New York. A flu pandemic rages, ultimately killing one million, and the world drifts ever-closer to the eschaton. Also, The Invasion airs.

Miles and Woods begin their elaborately judicious review of The Invasion—a document that manages to at no point actually indicate if they like the story—by noting the peculiarity of its title. This is the definite article, as the saying goes—not an invasion of Dinosaurs, Androids, Zygons, nor even of Daleks, but simply the invasion—a type specimen against which all others are to be recognized. Given this, any interpretation must start with the money shot—the Cybermen marching down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Contrary to Philip Sandifer’s lengthy attempt to brag about having been to London/plagiarize Alan Moore, the relevant fact here is not which London landmark the Cybermen are tottering down (St Paul’s is mostly notable for having a staircase down from an instantly recognizable view, as opposed to any larger mystical significance) but simply the sense of juxtaposition between iconic cityscape and iconic monster. 

Let’s pivot from here to the moment immediately before the invasion cliffhanger, in which Isobel and Captain Turner reflect on the serene, peaceful nature of morning in London right before this peace is shattered. The episode is not subtle about this—the scene is meant to build up tension, with Isobel’s last line immediately before the invasion begins being to reflect on how "Looking at all that peace out there, it's so difficult to imagine” the Cybermen attacking. This is a familiar line of thought about the nature of civilization and society, and the way in which its seemingly solid and constant normalcy can abruptly shatter—one that resonates even more in 2020 as we waltz with unsettling calm into the jaws of climate change than it did in 1968 as cultural memory of the second World War began to fade into the seeming permanence of the Pax Americana.

This impermanence is increasingly shifting to be a part of Doctor Who’s brand. From The War Machines through the Troughton era we’ve watched as the base under siege formula, with its paranoid dread and BBC-achievable claustrophobia, became the default setting of the series. But The War Machines always promised an even more direct simplification of this: having the monsters attack contemporary Britain. The Invasion was consciously designed as a trial for this approach, establishing UNIT as a ready-made set of supporting characters for a regeared version of Doctor Who that would, in fact, mostly consist of various aliens invading contemporary Britain.

Because this is a sales pitch, it gets the lavish treatment—ergo St. Paul’s. But let’s look closely at whats actually being sold here. The usual line, coined by Troughton’s successor (who will spend most of his tenure remaking this story), is the fabled “a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec.” The implication here is twofold—first, that the horror is more personal and intimate than, say, dying of radiation poisoning in an alien city. The second, that the familiar location of your toilet is going to be made strange by the addition of a robotic Abominable Snowman. Both of these claims are, however, tenuous. One need only watch the agonies suffered in the early episodes of The Daleks to see that this is a horror far more profound than a homicidal teddy bear. And as for making things strange, well, The Invasion puts paid to that. There’s nothing strange about the Cybermen. They’ve made five appearances in the last three years, slotting relatively seamlessly into the role vacated by the Daleks as the marketed attraction of the series. Their presence does not make anything strange—quite the opposite. They trumpet out the presence of the brand. 

In this regard, their presence at St. Paul’s Cathedral is telling. The Cybermen are not taking a shit in South London—they’re parading down a tourist attraction. Medium and content are, in other words perfectly aligned, with everything set not in the realm of the familiar and the intimate, but in the realm of the (nationalistically) branded epic. What is this about? How you should tune in next week.

It’s fitting, then, that the Cybermen’s human co-conspirator should be an electronics magnate who says shit like “Uniformity, duplication. My whole empire is based on that principle. The very essence of business efficiency.” This is a description of the Cybermen, yes, but it’s also a mission statement for Doctor Who. 

That it’s a description of the Cybermen, however, marks yet another change in the basic notion of what the monsters are. In their debut they are a notion of humanity gone wrong rooted in Lovecraftian notions of space as a source of horror. A few months later they’re lurking communist infiltrators threatening humanity’s future in space. Then they take a turn as the villains in a Mummy story before lurching back towards the commies at the end of the season. Now they’re back and are connected to the growth of consumer electronics. This malleability (shall we troll Mr. Sandifer and call them mercurial?) reinforces their status as brand ambassadors, but that doesn’t invalidate the truth of what they are here, in this story.

For one thing, it makes sense. The Tenth Planet Cybermen may be beloved by a certain flavor of fan, but they are sufficiently idiosyncratic that it is difficult, in a vacuum, to see them as recurring monsters suitable for replacing the Daleks. It makes slightly more sense when you consider that they were co-created by the script editor, but even still, they were obviously in need of some sort of overhaul before they could work as iconic recurring threats. The ensuing three stories, which ironically formed the whole of the period where they were the replacements for the Daleks, featured a lot of casting about obvious ideas that had nothing to actually do with the concept of the Cybermen. But here, with The Invasion, the show finds something that makes sense, rooting them in the emerging world of consumer electronics.

This is tremendously prescient. The prefix “cyber” is widely associated with computers, but this association dates to the 1980s when sci-fi writer Bruce Bethke coined the word “cyberpunk” shortly before William Gibson deemed the shared virtual computerspace of his novel Neuromancer “cyberspace.” Prior to this, “cyber” was associated with machines in the context of their interface with humanity, a notion rooted in the prefix’s original Greek meaning of steering or control. The Cybermen of The Tenth Planet make sense in these terms—people who have been replaced with artificial parts. But as the body horror of this was steadily stripped out, they became generic machine men. Connecting them with electronics makes total sense, with the added strange prescience of linking the word “cyber” more broadly with consumer technology. (Particularly on the nose is the fact that Vaughn’s office has a computer receptionist.)

This prescience explains, perhaps, why after finally figuring out how to use the Cybermen the show proceeded to abandon them, giving them precisely one story over the next thirteen years. The Cybermen make sense, but only proleptically, in a way that reaches forward towards a world that was still coming into view.

The story’s prescience is clearest around Vaughn, who as an evil tech company overlord, is even more alarmingly on the nose than the Cybermen. Veering constantly from uncomfortable charm to outbursts of petulant rage, Vaughn near perfectly predicts the techbro in all regards save for age. (And even there, with an actor who’s 47 he’s squarely between the ages of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.) This is no small thing—The Invasion successfully predicts the direction in which capitalism will expand and comes startlingly close to guessing the face that it will wear. Even the Cybermen, with their inevitable betrayal of Vaughn and insistence on converting the whole of the planet, feel on target, an accurate assessment of what computer technology, and indeed capitalism run rampant will be like—algorithms running out of control, blindly following their ideological biases without any contrary instincts.

And yet what is all of this prescience and insight ultimately in service of? The story is not a condemnation of technology and capitalist expansion. Vaughn is at least partially redeemed, even if his reasons for helping the Doctor in the final episode are, as he puts it, “The world is weak, vulnerable, a mess of uncoordinated and impossible ideals. It needs a strong man, a single mind. A leader!”, and the Cybermen destroyed his dream of becoming it. (So the story predicts Mencius Moldbug too.) He may be a delusional nutter, but in the end he’s our delusional nutter. This isn’t a story about resisting him—it’s a story about how in spite of his horrors we ultimately need him.

Taken together with its purpose selling the new future of Doctor Who, this is chilling. Sure, the future of capitalism and consumer electronics breeds cybernetic horrors from the sewers, but if our reaction to those horrors is to simply say, “dude, that’s awesome” and dutifully tune in next week, we can scarcely call that a bad outcome. The observation that as the sequels pile up audience sympathies trend inexorably towards the monsters is trite, obvious, and every once in a while tremendously insightful in spite of itself. Cybermen may be the monstrous consequence of mass production, but in the end, the conclusion we’re meant to draw is that we want more, exactly like this. (In light of this the fact that the Cybermen’s plan involves beaming a signal across the world out of consumer electronics products feels almost too obvious.)

The irony is that, in all of this, there’s relatively little for the Doctor to do. Wendy Padbury may be the one who has a week off this story, but there’s really no reason why Patrick Troughton needed to be around for most of the back half of the story, which sees him in a lab fiddling with wires virtually the whole time. People are disposable. It’s the abstract form of this that matters—the brand/icon. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the show is intending to trade in the key aspect of it premise—the TARDIS—in order to basically become Doomwatch with aliens.

We have remarked before that Doctor Who is a chronicle of British anxiety. Here that finally collapses into a glorious singularity. In grappling with Britain’s anxiety over the hegemony of mass production, Doctor Who turns into a mass produced product, ready to stamp out an endless procession of aliens processing endlessly through the country. The solution to the Cybermen is to watch them. 

Recounting the news in detail every Doctor Who story is someone else’s style, but it’s fitting that this story was airing as the final British colonial flag went down in Africa. Much of Doctor Who and the world it imagines extended from British imperialism. But the world it exists in is that of Britain’s post-empire. That the last gasp of that transition should come as Doctor Who embraces naval gazing and self-absorption over any sense of external adventure is altogether fitting. The point of marching the Cybermen down the steps of St. Paul’s isn’t to make London strange or uncanny. It’s far more prosaic than that—it’s to make the rapidly shrinking horizons of Britain seem like they still might be interesting. What do you do in the face of the collapse of imperial glory? Buy more Cybermen. 


Danger Mouse 1 year ago

Insightful and interesting as ever, doctor.

And, of course, in the story the TARDIS becomes invisible, signposting it's future (or lack thereof) in the UNIT era.

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CJM123 1 year ago

Really liked this weeks essay. It inspires two thoughts though.

Are the Cybermen the only time a 1960s Science-Fiction name managed to sound relatively futuristic in the 1980s and 1990s?

And secondly, what was the last truly bizarre and new Doctor Who story? City of Death? Vengeance on Varos? Paradise Towers? Father's Day? Hell Bent? Actually, maybe there are more than I sometimes admit.

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writepaperfor.me 1 year ago

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Przemek 1 year ago

This was an intriguing take. It reminded me of Lindsay Ellis's video essays on various pop culture hits that, more often then not, raise a point akin to "this popular thing is very problematic and its production actively harms people who work on it"... and then inevitably reach the same cynical conclusion: "but I like it and I want more of it produced". She is aware of this cynicism and often ironically comments on it, as if that changes anything.

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JFrancis 1 year ago

Now I can't stop thinking about how, back during one of the big merchandise pushes for the 10th (?) Doctor era, one of the products was a remote control Dalek painted in a Union Jack pattern. Symbolism that has only grown more obviously apposite as the years have passed, perhaps, but ultimately another cynical marketing stunt that -- I want to say, reduces iconography to brand, but that feels tautological.

Oddly enough though, for all that the Daleks are unquestionably part of the brand, they have resisted hollowing out rather better than most parts of Doctor Who (TM). Their kitsch has never quite become detached from a mix of the horror and silliness of facism that became coded into them after a couple of stories. Something like 'Remembrance of the Daleks' or 'Dalek' makes sense and manages to be about something in the way that, say, 'Silver Nemesis' abjectly fails to be. The Cybermen were divested of any meaning from their second appearance, reduced to an 'empire of evil' rather than the world of indifference they originally embody.

As you say, 'The Invasion' actually takes steps to counter to this, embedding them in computerised capitalism. The enhanced workers offer a way to reposition the Cybermen as a source of horror beyond mere Red Scares: to become like them is to become the perfect tool of the production line, part of a strong, hypnotised workforce without the need to eat, sleep, love or hate. The same tools that permit the rich to become immortal condemn their employees to unceasing drudgery. Something like that. I'd probably like to see it played as the mode of thinking that wants people to change to better fit the system rather than the other way around. Company health insurance and HR-mandated CBT ending in undead zombie robots.

Nothing like that has happened, of course. Perhaps 'Age of Steel' toyed with this notion but as a gimmick, not a plot point. The Cybermen remain resolutely un-strange. 'The Invasion' plays its part in that, presenting them at their most robotic - a version that proceeds to entirely overwrite their original, weirder incarnation by pre-dating the near-future of 'The Tenth Planet', and leaves us with endless shots of stompy metal men parading over contemporary landmarks. The Cybermen homogenise themselves.

Even in their best appearances since, they've been disconnected from anything other than 'being a Doctor Who monster'. I sincerely doubt that will be reversed in the era which has managed to strip away even the Daleks' meaningfulness (*cough* 'Resolution *cough*). Some extended media appearances counter this trend (I'm thinking 'Spare Parts', of course, and 'The Harvest', and in comics, 'The Good Soldier' and 'The Flood'), but those are depressingly sparse.

I suppose that it's rather fitting that after 'The Invasion', this version of the Cybermen is reduced to cameos on other people's televisions.

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wings io 1 year ago

The second, that the familiar location of your toilet is going to be made strange by the addition of a robotic Abominable Snowman. ..

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Larry W 1 year ago

This is probably my favorite Zoe story ever. She gets more character shading and stuff to do than in most other stories.

She is more playful and relaxed with photographer Isobel than she was with Jamie and the Doctor, during her entire run. She got to destroy a computer out of spite and became the darling of the UNIT control room by working out missile trajectories to destroy the Cyberman invasion fleet.

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Anna Mike 11 months, 3 weeks ago

It's interesting to read this article about The Invasion and the story of Cybermen as it's written in an interesting way to make us continue reading to know what happens at last. Though, what stuck with me is the mentioning at the first para about "A flu pandemic rages, ultimately killing one million" because it connects us with our current fight against the Corona Virus (Covid 19).

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Mike Rooney 3 months ago

I am so happy to come across this piece of write up, very much advanced my understanding to the next top level. Great job and continue to do same.Pelle Pelle Soda Club Leather Jacket

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