In new Who’s opening year, Russell T Davies brought back the Daleks and in doing so, set the format for reintroducing an old monster from the classic series. He brought them back by giving new viewers just enough back story, but without wildly contradicting their history from the classic days. And that’s the way most old monsters have been brought back into the show: Sontarans, Zygons, Ice Warriors and so on.
The exception is the Cybermen. In their return appearance, Series 2’s Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, Davies and writer Tom MacRae retcon the big silver fellas, creating them a whole new backstory, in the continuity safe space of an alternative universe. In the classic series, Cybermen were our alien cousins, who had turned themselves into synthetic horrors and were intent on making us like them. Here, they are not just related to us, they are us. Borne of our own obsession with technology, these homegrown version Cybermen position themselves as just the latest in a long line of habitual upgrades.
Truth be told, it’s a better origin story than the one originally presented back in 1966. The Cyber threat is much closer to home in the version presented here; the society of Pete’s World doesn’t feel that different to our own, so it’s not that hard to imagine our own wearable technology turning against us. And if we’re worried about dissing the show’s heritage, it’s not like classic era Doctor Who ever shied away from rewriting established history. The Daleks have two origin stories. Time Lord history got rewritten.
But the Rise of the Cybermen etc doesn’t just want to rewrite continuity (and it doesn’t stick anyway. We eventually meet different Cybermen from our universe and no-one can be bothered explaining their backstory). It also wants to recreate the show’s own history. And in doing so, it gives us a peek into a very different approach to new Who which was never taken.
One of Doctor Who’s ancient, mysterious artifacts is the Leekley Bible. It was a guiding document for a potential new series of Doctor Who, which was being planned by Amblin Universal in the 1990s. Written by John Leekley, it detailed a backstory for the series which, depending on your point of view, was either a mangled misremembering of key moments from the classic series, or an innovative new take established Who lore. This summary from Tardis Wikia is indicative: A ruggedly handsome young Time Lord named the Doctor discovers that he is the long-lost son of the great explorer Ulysses, but not before the Master becomes the Lord President of Gallifrey. The Doctor must travel with the spirit of Borusa (who can only exist inside the “Time-crystals” that power the Tardis) and find his long lost father to restore the balance of peace across the universe. Yup, it’s unique.
Anyway, the Leekley bible goes on to suggest the type of stories which a new series of Doctor Who could include and rather than invent brand new ones, it suggests recycling plot lines from years past. It proposes remaking classic stories like The Ark in Space, The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Gunfighters among many others. All of them have gone through the Leekley reassembling machine, so have similarly tampered emphases as the series premise noted above: think The Daemons but during the Salem witch trials, The Talons of Weng-Chiang but in NYC. Who knows whether a full Amblin series would have taken up these suggestions, or created new storylines or mixed them together. But the point is that a valid approach to new Who could have been to simply remake old Who. After all, there are 26 years of it to mine.
All this is relevant because Rise of the Cybermen is basically The Invasion. It’s the story of a power mad tech millionaire, who embarks on a plan to take over the world, using his company’s ubiquitous consumer technology and turn everyone into Cybermen. It even reuses the name International Electromatics from the earlier story. The Cybermen are eventually defeated by being flooded with emotions. Sure there are differences, but I suspect about the same level as we might find in a Leekley version of The Sea Devils set on a Louisiana oil rig. Looked at through this lens, Rise of the Cybermen is, appropriately enough, a view into an alternative universe, where all new Doctor Who was made from reappropriating old Doctor Who.*
In one sense, constructing a series out of cover versions of previous stories would have been a difficult approach for the show to take, playing havoc with the show’s long term continuity (not that that has ever been sacrosanct). And probably in the long run, it would have only demonstrated a lack of originality which wouldn’t have served the series well. But it might have been a way of breathing life into stories which otherwise would only be watched by tragics like you and me. If not a full series, perhaps it could have led to a mini-series of specials based on the old series’ greatest hits. (Though perhaps, with animated adaptations of missing stories like The Macra Terror making increasingly bold editorial choices, it’s already happening in its own way.)
But you know what? I don’t really need to hear the greatest hits again. It’s like all those Hollywood remakes of films which were perfectly fine the first time around. Why don’t they remake bad films and make them good? Because I don’t want talented writers like Davies or Moffat rewriting Pyramids of Mars. But I would absolutely watch them make classics of Arc of Infinity or The Time Monster. Those would be challenges worthy of their skills.
I’ve managed to avoid talking about the actual story again. Long term readers will not be surprised; I do this sometimes. It’s not that I don’t like Rise of the Cybermen etc. I like it quite a lot. Just as I like The Invasion. And Inferno. And Genesis of the Daleks. And The Dalek Invasion of Earth. And Father’s Day. It’s well performed and well directed and as familiar as a comfortable pair of slippers and…
Oh yeah. Maybe that’s why we don’t just recycle old stories all the time. Don’t call us, Leekley.
LINK TO Resolution: Difficult companion/Dad relationships in both.
NEXT TIME: What the hell? Let’s Kill Hitler.
*(And yes, another piece of early source material for this story was the Big Finish drama Spare Parts but in its final form, there’s not much similarity between the two.)