Maximum Utility

The literature of terror is born precisely out of the terror of a split society and out of the desire to heal it. 

– Franco Moretti

People often compare the Borg, the cyborg gestalt from the Star Trek franchise, to Doctor Who‘s Cybermen.  Both races were conceived as humanoids physically augmented with technology, hence a certain superficial visual resemblance, particularly between the Borg and the earliest Cybermen, from 1966’s ‘The Tenth Planet’… which has just been released on DVD, if you want some way for this post to be halfway relevant to anything.


But the Cybermen were written by various different writers, under different conditions, with different levels of interest and different levels of knowledge of past depictions, over the course of nearly five decades.  The Borg, by contrast, were written by a small number of tightly associated people, under the aegis of a carefully controlled franchise, over the course of just under 15 years.  The two ‘races’ differ markedly in the circumstances of their production and in cultural profile.  As noted, the Borg’s various appearances weren’t separated by the same kinds of time-lags, and weren’t a product of the same kind of radical turnover/variety of ‘authors’.  Also, the Borg’s concentration in time, and their near-immediate claiming of a significant and visible role in global 90s narrative culture (owing to their success and the global success of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs), gave them a prominent position within a concentrated historical moment: the 1990s.  The Cybermen, by contrast, disappeared from television during that same historical moment, and before that they had only enjoyed a smaller cultural spotlight in one country – Britain – during the late 1960s.  By 2006, when the Cybermen tried to reclaim their place in culture, and went on to be more globally recognisable than they’d ever been before (owing to the international success of 21st Century Who), the historical moment of the Borg was long over.

Even so, the similarity of the Cybermen and the Borg is real, and rests upon kindred incoherent anxieties about capitalism.


There’s a real incoherence at the heart of the Cybermen.  They are definitely communistic monsters, expressing a ‘Soviet-version’ of the associations between the loss of individuality and collectivism.  They seek the total upgrade of the universe, working towards a chilly utopian telos lacking any inequality or freedom.  But they are also deeply corporate monsters.  They merged or allied themselves with International Electromatics in ‘The Invasion’.  IE was an expression of capitalist standardisation and mass production.  Everything they make is the same, from their disposable radios to their CEO’s offices.  This is explicitly linked to capitalist production and business practices, and is implicitly linked with the uniformity of the Cybermen.

Someone’s not a very efficienct typist.

In many ways, the alliance between Tobias Vaughn and the Cybermen is a business partnership, with the invasion a hostile takeover.  The partnership is possible because, in Vaughn’s ultra-streamlined corporate context, there is a synergy with the Cybermen. …

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