This is one of the outstanding episodes of Doctor Who, serving as the mission statement for the show’s second-best monsters. And in an odd way, the Cybermen have never been as impressive as in these scenes. They look impressively weird – as uncanny as the Daleks, but made more horrible because of the recognisable bits – the human hands, and the eyes, sunken in dark sockets. Krail says, ‘You do not seem to take us seriously’ but these aren’t just buzzing robots out to conquer the galaxy, they’re something else entirely. They aren’t evil, they’re just indifferent – they have no malevolence, they just don’t care at all who or what has to suffer, as long as they survive. At least here, it’s nearly impossible not to take them seriously: this is the most impressive monster introduction since The Survivors.
In fact, there’s noting intentionally fun about this episode at all. The death of the two astronauts, whose fate forms the heart of the episode, is genuinely horrible and upsetting in a way Doctor Who rarely is (especially to this child of the 80s who remembers the real-life 1986 Challenger disaster). The crew of Snowcap Base are desperate to save them; the Cybermen don’t even try to hinder the futile efforts as they’ve already written off the astronaut’s chances, and can’t see the point in fighting the inevitable. Although Krail states that they ‘are only interested in survival’, the fate of the Cyberman that confronts Ben in the Projector Room suggests that they don’t even care about their own lives. They’re an absence of humanity: arguing with them is like arguing with Alexa.
In context, Robert Beatty’s choleric General Cutler makes absolute sense – the fire to the Cybermen’s ice, unable to control his emotions, and personally invested in the ‘first interplanetary war’ in a way the Cybermen can never be. Caught between these two extremes, the TARDIS crew are, again, little more than passive observers. Polly tries to debate with the Cybermen; Ben kills one, and the Doctor gravely warns of terrible consequences, but had they not turned up, everything would have happened pretty much the same. They spend most of the episode literally sitting on the sidelines. Kit Pedler is definitely more interested in his Cybermen: this could as well be an episode of Out of the Unknown.
Next episode: The Tenth Planet – Episode 3