In the LRB, Jenny Turner reviews the new Doctor Who.
Halfway through the second series of new-century Doctor Who, and it’s looking dicey. The problem became clear to me in episode five, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, as the relaunched 1970s arch-villains stamped in their silver moon-boots across the stately home’s front lawn. Fundamentally, they just aren’t Daleks, are they? The first series, the one that was on last year, had Daleks, hordes of them, and what a delight they were: gliding like priests, talking like Nazis, chimerical yet simple, and with that unpleasantly ambiguous relation to the ground beneath them. I wasn’t aware I had missed them until, suddenly, they were back. And back, too, was that sound made when the Doctor is arriving or departing, the scraping, groaning contractions of the Tardis – so wonderful, warm yet terrifying, the sound of childbirth, I always think, as heard by the baby.
When I was young, though – I dimly remember – the Cybermen did seem quite scary, with their blank, square faces and cruel, insatiable appetites for human whatever-it-was. But actually, most of that mystery came not from their appearance, but from their name. Back then, no one really knew what ‘cyber’ meant, though we sensed a sinister power: it was always clear that it meant something geared at some point to take over. This sense of awful potency lasted pretty much through the 1980s, powering the gorgeous prescience and horror of William Gibson’s Neuromancer novels, only to peter out, pretty much, by the mid-1990s, as the dull commercial reality – the real ‘consensual hallucination’, to repurpose Gibson’s phrase – of internet shopping kicked in. There was also, after 1977, the Star Wars problem, and the visual similarity of the Doctor’s second-best adversaries to C3PO, the trite butler-robot. Which is why Cybermen no longer impress us. The metaphorical connections no longer lead adults, at least, to things we find exciting – unlike priests, Nazis, our shabby 1960s and 1970s childhoods. Or so it might appear.