I remember being rather horrified one summer morning long ago when a burly, cheerful labouring man, carrying a hoe and a watering pot came into our churchyard and, as he pulled the gate behind him, shouted over his shoulder to two friends, ‘See you later, I’m just going to visit Mum.’ He meant he was going to weed and water and generally tidy up her grave..... A six-by-three-foot flower-bed had become Mum. That was his symbol for her, his link with her. Caring for it was visiting her...The flower-bed is an obstinate, resistant, often intractable bit of reality, just as Mum in her lifetime doubtless was. As H. was.
1: Old Monsters
In 1964, no-one was particularly calling out for a sequel to what I shall persist in calling the Dead Planet. We didn’t care how how pacifism worked out for the Thals, or if they ever managed to rebuild their civilization. All we wanted was for the BBC to “bring back the Daleks”.
Reports of Dalekmania may have been exaggerated. It was the year of Hard Days Night; the press was adding the word “mania” to everything. But there were definitely lots of Dalek toys in the shops. They only vaguely resembled the TV Daleks, but they were dome-shaped, legless, and had antennae of various shapes sticking out of them, so you could see what they were meant to be.
That’s why people liked the Daleks so much. A toy manufacture, a comic book artist, or a kid with a box of crayons could foul up the arrangement of slats and balls and discs and still end up with something Dalek-like. They are a bit like a clockwork robot, given one more twist so that the human shape is gone altogether, and then physically constructed at life size. We liked Robbie the Robot at the same time and for the same reasons, but he was too obviously a toy and too obviously silly. Yes, you know that the Daleks are not robots and I know that the Daleks are not robots but the distinction between is not one that bothers anyone else. The Daleks are the BBCs outer space robot people. The most robotty robots ever invented.
The story that, for consistency’s sake, I will have to call World’s End was all about taking the toys out of their box and playing with them. It was props, not plot, that everyone cared about.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, every alien to appear on Doctor Who was hailed as “the new Daleks” or “the BBCs answer to the Daleks.” Quarks, Chumblies, Mechanoids: only we fans remember them. The only ones who were remotely memorable were the Cybermen. But they were never as iconic as the Daleks. They men in silver suits, and the silver suits kept changing. There was only ever one Cyberman toy.
If you went to Doctor Who conventions during the classic era (as I am ashamed to say I did) you will know that the one question someone invariably asked the produce was “Are you planning to bring back any old monsters.” The answer was generally “if some writer came up with a great story that happened to feature an old monster, of course we would” which is, being interpreted, no.
The fans were like everyone else. We wanted see the old toys brought down from the attic. This was before the era of DVDs and repeats: the only way I was ever going to see a live Ice Warrior was if one attacked Peter Davison on the telly. But there was another thing as well. Graham Williams and Douglas Adams – and, indeed, Tom Baker – regarded Doctor Who mostly as a TV format. They saw their job as producing fun TV, and weren’t particularly interested in what had gone before. So a once in a blue moon appearance by the Cybermen and a twice in a blue moon appearance by the Daleks was a promise that the Guy With The Scarf still had some connection with the Guy With the Yellow Car.
New Who could perfectly well have jettisoned the history and told us that Christopher Eccleston was playing a brand new character. A re, as the young people say, boot. But it didn’t: the first story was a riff on Terror of the Autons, and the first three seasons had climaxes involving Daleks, Cybermen and the Master. That’s a big pledge of loyalty to the fans, and also a definite aesthetic decision.
But it still feels like “bringing back an old monsters” and “dusting down the old toys”. There’s no attempt to give the Daleks a coherent back-story or sketch out the history of the Cybermen. Iconic villains are reinvented every time they appear. The Next Doctor has no more connection with Age of Steel than Invasion does with Moonbase.
Daleks are evil cyborg fascists who want to rule the universe. The Cybermen are evil robot fascists who want to rule the universe. The Sontarans are evil fascists who want to rule the universe. There is no reason for the Cybermen to be in Death in Heaven, except for the fact that we are meant to be excited to see the old toys again. Moffat loves to quote himself, and he loves to quote old Who. We know we are watching Cybermen because they march down the steps of St Pauls and burst out of tombs. If they’d been Daleks they would have emerged from the Thames and trundled across Westminster bridge. You can be completely sure that if Moffat ever does a Yeti story, they will take a trip on the London Underground and need to go to the lavatory in South London.
Black clouds converge over every graveyard on earth. Magic rain falls from the sky. Dead bodies rise up out of their graves. “That’s weird. Look at that” exclaims an extra, possibly hoping for the Clumsiest Exposition of the Year award “How come it’s only raining inside the graveyards?” This is not a Cyberman story. This is some kind of gothic horror story. The creatures emerging from the grave yards shouldn't be outer space robot people but ghosts or vampires of some kind. The urge to bring back old monsters has rendered this story meaningless.
There was a 1985 story in which the Daleks took over an alien funeral home because they needed a supply of dead bodies to make new Daleks out of. Just saying.
Let's imagine that this story was called Day of the Space Zombies. Let's suppose that a previously unknown race of Space Zombies want to invade the earth. Being Zombies, they possess and animate the bodies of dead humans. But nowadays, the human race (i.e English people) mostly cremate their dead, and The Walking Small Urns Full of Grey Powder doesn’t sound as intimidating as The Walking Dead.
What would you do if you were Space Zombie? You’d create a scare story that makes cremation go out of fashion. So when the curtain goes up, we discover the humans have been taken in by a whacky new religion that says that dead bodies remain sentient. Burning your granny’s body hurts her just as much as burning her alive would have done. So the human race (i.e the English) start going to great trouble to house dead bodies in comfortable mausoleums. They can even go and visit them if they want to.
After a few years, when these new mausoleum's are full of perfectly preserved dead people, the Space Zombies Clouds come to earth and drip drip drop the dead people come to life, pour out of the mausoleums, fall an army, and set about conquering the entire universe and world.
It’s an impressively sick idea. Many people do behave as if Granny can hear them when they visit her grave; some of us talk as if a dead person is harmed if their grave is desecrated; a lot of people think that people cannot “rest in peace” without a decent burial. Far from being the one simple, horrible possibility that has never occurred to anyone throughout human history it’s a basic gut-level belief shared by the whole human race. It exists alongside traditional beliefs in Heaven, or a scientific beliefs that dead people are just dead.
In 2006 the Cybermen inveigled themselves into human homes by pretending to be ghosts. Just saying.
This Space Zombie story makes perfect sense -- the kind of story-book sense that Doctor Who is supposed to make, at any rate. It would make sense for the Doctor and Clara to go to one of the 3W mausoleum to talk to Dead Danny. It would makes sense for the dead to rise up out of conventional grave yards. Granted, some of the bodies must be in a pretty advanced state of decay -- we are specifically shown a grave stone dating from the eighteenth century. But it makes some kind of sense for the main thing that Space Zombies need to be human skeletons. More sense than for that to be the essential ingredient of a baby Cyberman, at any rate. If what you have is an army of corpses, then it makes sense that some of those corpses have residual memories of people they loved when they were alive. That happens in Zombie films, doesn't it? The scene in which Cyber-Danny asks Clara to end his suffering would have been much less ludicrous if he had been a resuscitated body begging for a silver bullet. The final reveal, in which it turns out that Someone or Something had saved the life of Kate Stewart would have had far more impact if what we had been looking at was the rotting remains of Nicholas Courtney. (Buried in a fully dress uniform, I have no doubt.) Thinking about it, I am actually quite cross at having missed my chance of seeing the Doctor saluted by Zombie Brig.
The actual script seems to think that we are talking about Zombies rather than technologically upgraded humans. Listen to Cyber-Danny:
“This is the earth’s darkest hour. We are the Fallen. But today, we shall rise. The army of the dead will save the land of the living.”
And, indeed, Missy, who we will come to later, in her Edwardian dress and black umbrella, would have made more sense at the command of an army of spooks rather than an army of sleek silver robots. (Surely if she is in league with the Cyberpeople, she ought to be a high-tech Cyber-Mistress?)
In short: a quite good if a little bit sick for 8pm on a Saturday night idea for a story has been hijacked by the voice of a young boy in the back row of a Doctor Who convention.
“Are you going to be bringing back any old monsters?”
"Why yes." says Steven "Yes, we definitely are." And the whole thing unravels.
The simple, macabre idea that “the dead are sentient” morphs into the confused idea that “the minds of the dead, in the afterlife, somehow continue to feel what their physical bodies feel”. Spirit-Danny feels cold because his remains are in a mortuary; Spirit-Danny would feel that he was being burned alive if his dead body were cremated. But, apparently, he wouldn’t mind too much if his his physical body were allowed to slowly decompose. Surely, if you really thought that the dead experienced what their bodies experienced, you’d be looking either to arrest decomposition altogether or else to disintegrate or incinerate bodies in the shortest possible time?
We've been being teased with the "necrosphere" since the beginning of the season. In itself, the bureaucratic afterlife with patchy wi-fi and unctuous staff is quite funny. It is initially said to be a kind of Gallifreyan hard drive on which the memories of the dead are stored. This is vaguely consistent with the idea that the memories of dead Time Lords are stored on the Matrix. This hard drive contains the memories of everyone who has ever died; not just the ones who have been embalmed by the 3W organisation. In fact, it appears to contain the memories of everyone who has ever died in the universe. The half-faced man, an alien robot who was destroyed some time in the 19th century; and Gretchen, a soldier who was killed millions of miles from earth and thousands of years in the future end up in Missy's "heaven".
What Missy intended to do with this vast resource is, er, copy the minds back into the actual bodies they were originally taken from, with their annoying emotions removed. (Based on Danny's experiences, it appears that subjects have to somehow agree or consent to have their emotions taken away.) It appears that what is needed to make new Cybermen is not human bodies, but human minds. It all seems very complicated, compared with cutting someone brain out with a buzz saw, putting it into Cyberman, and then fitting an "emotional inhibitor", which was the procedure as recently as Closing Time.
What has happened, quite obviously, is that the science fictional idea that human "minds", being complex pieces of software, could in principal be copies onto computers; and the magical-religious idea that "the soul" is the animating principal that makes your body be alive have been conflated. In a magical-fantasy story about Zombies, it makes perfect sense to say that a body in a grave yard would come to live if it's soul returned to earth from the afterlife. It makes no sense whatsoever to say that outer space robot people can download stored memories into skeletons.
Oh yes. In the last five minutes it turns out that the minds that have been copied onto the Matrix can return to earth through a star gate, with flesh, bones and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature. If you can do that kind of thing without even pretending to explain it, you aren't telling anything that I am prepared to recognize as "a story" any more.
What turns the bodies in the grave yards into Cybermen is not magic fairy dust or magic lightening, but very specifically magic rain. Magic water. There are some dramatic sequences in which magic water flows down drains, floods a mortuary and magics Cyber Armour around Danny. The bodies in the mausoleum are also suspended in magic water: the Dark Water of the title. One can only suppose that this Dark Water was much more significant in the original zombie version of the script. (This couldn't possibly have been originally a sequel to Waters of Mars, could it?) The Doctor's speech -- about every atom of every Cyberman containing the plans to build a new Cyberman so that when Cybermen explode they produce, er, Cyberpollen, spoken as if this was a well-known and long-established fact about Cyberman -- is clearly a last minute handwave to re-postion Magic Zombie rain as Cyber Pollen.
The story appears to be taking place in the present day, from Clara's point of view. The Cybermen emerge from St Pauls only a few hours after Danny's car accident. (His funeral hasn't taken place; his body is in a mortuary rather than undertaker's chapel of rest.) But Clara is completely unaware of the “three words”; unaware that people are now paranoid about cremation, unaware that people spending money on preserving their loved one’s remains. But is 3W is a comparatively recent and comparatively secret phenomenon, what is the point of it? It appears that the Cybermen have gone to a very great deal of trouble to obtain 91 well preserved human bodies. Not even well preserved ones: we are very specifically shown that they have decomposed. It looks very much as if the one component that Cybermen need to steal from humans is, er, their skeleton. Is there something specific about a human skeleton with a human mind downloaded into it that enables Cybermen to turn into pollen. I give up.
Every single element in this story seems to be a magical doohickey. How does the TARDIS find Danny? Magic. How does Missy turn all the dead people in the world into Cybermen? Magic. Why does Danny, alone of all the people on earth, retain his emotions and memories? Magic.
But the purpose of all this magic is to engineer the final scene between the Doctor, Clara, Missy and Danny in the graveyard. And this scene is, I concede, very good indeed.