Morphic resonance on Doctor Who

by John Quiggin on July 9, 2006

The first episode of the new series of Doctor Who was screened in Australia last night, and the preview of coming episode showed our old friends the Cybermen. As my son observed, they’re the least satisfactory of the Doctor’s enemies because they are just second-rate Daleks. Today, I opened my copy of the London Review of Books, to find the exact same observation from Jenny Turner, reviewing Kim Newman who objects to the cliched, but apparently universally true, observation, that children watched the series from ‘behind the sofa‘. Support for Rupert Sheldrake, or just evidence that the series reliably produces the same responses in lots of viewers?

Also in my mailbox, after a return from travel was an issue of the Scientific American with the front page headling Do Stem Cells Cause Cancer ? (answer, apparently, yes). My immediate thought was to wonder how long this will take to turn up as a talking point in the Republican alternate universe.

On the time travel theme, this post illustrates the differing lags in transplantary movement, at least in the direction of Australia. Harry’s post on this arrived at (more or less) lightspeed, the LRB more slowly, and the initial event, the Dr Who series itself, more slowly still.

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1

derek 07.09.06 at 4:11 am

The first episode of the new series of Doctor Who was screened in Australia last night, and the preview of coming episode showed our old friends the Cybermen. As my son observed, they’re the least satisfactory of the Doctor’s enemies because they are just second-rate Daleks.

Oh, did you just pick the wrong day to post that comment. You see, the last episode of the new series of Doctor Who was screened in Britain last night, in which the Daleks themselves made the very same remark.

2

John Quiggin 07.09.06 at 4:33 am

Now that’s morphic resonance!

3

Reinder 07.09.06 at 4:35 am

…and then proceeded to PWN the silvery goons. That was the most satisfying aspect of the whole giant fan-wank-fest.

4

Daniel 07.09.06 at 4:43 am

The Cyberman are actually much better than the Daleks from an industrial design point of view. Obviously the writers spend a lot of time with the Daleks in coming up with rationalisations for their main drawback (the stairs thing), but the Daleks have a number of other flaws when considered as fighting machines:

1. The eye stalk. Monocular vision is bad enough in itself, but such a vital system ought to be kept in the body of the machine and properly shielded, not held out two feet in front of the Dalek where it is so vulnerable that a Dalek can be effectively blinded by hanging a hat off the eyestalk.

2. The plunger. This is crazy; enough work has gone into the rest of the Dalek that it makes no sense to have its only manipulation tool be so utterly crude. The Daleks never really managed to overcome this problem, and were always dependent on unreliable slave races to operate their spaceships and mining machinery.

3. The modular design. The Dalek is meant to be a fighting vehicle equivalent to a tank! And yet the shell can be dissassembled with a sonic screwdriver in only a few minutes, giving access to the more or less helpless green blob within.

4. Even the “exterminator”, an otherwise excellent weapon, is severely limited in its field of fire because of a bad choice in locating it on the front of the Dalek rather than a more logical turret positioning.

Face it, evil genius or not, as an industrial designer, Davros was dreadful. The Cybermen on the other hand are pretty well designed with few genuine weaknesses; it is always a difficult task to shield an air intake so I am not going to score too many points off the designer for that one.

5

Daniel 07.09.06 at 4:43 am

The Cyberman are actually much better than the Daleks from an industrial design point of view. Obviously the writers spend a lot of time with the Daleks in coming up with rationalisations for their main drawback (the stairs thing), but the Daleks have a number of other flaws when considered as fighting machines:

1. The eye stalk. Monocular vision is bad enough in itself, but such a vital system ought to be kept in the body of the machine and properly shielded, not held out two feet in front of the Dalek where it is so vulnerable that a Dalek can be effectively blinded by hanging a hat off the eyestalk.

2. The plunger. This is crazy; enough work has gone into the rest of the Dalek that it makes no sense to have its only manipulation tool be so utterly crude. The Daleks never really managed to overcome this problem, and were always dependent on unreliable slave races to operate their spaceships and mining machinery.

3. The modular design. The Dalek is meant to be a fighting vehicle equivalent to a tank! And yet the shell can be dissassembled with a sonic screwdriver in only a few minutes, giving access to the more or less helpless green blob within.

4. Even the “exterminator”, an otherwise excellent weapon, is severely limited in its field of fire because of a bad choice in locating it on the front of the Dalek rather than a more logical turret positioning.

Face it, evil genius or not, as an industrial designer, Davros was dreadful. The Cybermen on the other hand are pretty well designed with few genuine weaknesses; it is always a difficult task to shield an air intake so I am not going to score too many points off the designer for that one.

6

Daniel 07.09.06 at 4:43 am

hmmm the double post thing is happening to me again.

7

Ajax 07.09.06 at 5:17 am

“2. The plunger. This is crazy; enough work has gone into the rest of the Dalek that it makes no sense to have its only manipulation tool be so utterly crude. The Daleks never really managed to overcome this problem, and were always dependent on unreliable slave races to operate their spaceships and mining machinery.”

Reminds me of a Charles Barsotti cartoon in The New Yorker in which a dog dressed in a suit is berating a human employer with:

“Remember, you weren’t hired to think — you were hired because you have opposable thumbs.”

8

Idiot/Savamt 07.09.06 at 6:53 am

[Electronic screech mode]
“You are superior in only one respect! You are better at dying!”

Oh yes, love that Dalek dialogue.

The Cyberman episodes are pretty creepy. But I think the best ones are “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit”. But now I’ve got to wait until October for Torchwood…

9

tom s. 07.09.06 at 7:49 am

“the “exterminator” … is severely limited in its field of fire because of a bad choice in locating it on the front of the Dalek rather than a more logical turret positioning.” – fixed, I believe, in the current incarnation, as it can now do the full 360.

10

tom s. 07.09.06 at 7:50 am

And on the other side of the ledger, crucially,

(-1). It’s a lot easier for 8-year-old boys to draw a convincing dalek than just about anything else.

11

vinod 07.09.06 at 7:50 am

I can’t help but disagree on this one. The Cybermen have a terrific history.

Right from when the First/Second doctor entombs their race on Talos and through the fourth doc intervening in their rivalry with the Vogans whose planet is made entirely of the only substance the robot dudes are vulnerable to (gold) right until Earthshock where (spoilers) Adric martyrs himself and his crashlanding of the neutron-bomb rigged spaceship kills off all the dinosaurs and the Cybermen unwittingly cause the rise of homo sapiens.

They got a bit sucky after that, but I blame the writers for that one.

12

Alison 07.09.06 at 8:24 am

The cybermen are more frightening because they are right in the ‘uncanny valley’ – they look a bit human but not quite human enough. I thought they were more frightening back in the day, when they were less armoured and less butch.

13

Christmas 07.09.06 at 9:05 am

Let’s face it: as they are, the Daleks and the Cybermen are both pretty barren concepts. The Daleks have never grown beyond a stale metaphor for Nazi Germany – and do we really need Doctor Who to tell us that Hitler was bad? – and while Cybermen have always looked terrific, they’ve always been treated as glorified robots. To the extent that science fiction has any resonance beyond that of particularly gaudy action films, it’s that it tries to say something about the world we live in. If it’s saying little more than “watch out for crazy robots!”, I’m not all that interested.

Both Daleks and Cybermen are potentially interesting, however. The Daleks could easily be retooled into a broader metaphor for fascism instead of a narrower one for state-sponsored genocide, which works particularly well with the old shtick of Daleks being monsters made from human beings (that is, you can have some planet which is turning its soldiers into Daleks to win a war or root out terrorists or whatever, and then you get the incredible creep factor of young volunteers willingly turning themselves into Daleks for God and Country). With the Cybermen, I’m less interested in their weird Mondas/gold mythology than I am with the fact that they’re not really evil, they’re just incapable of emotion, which means they’re only driven by self-interest. A planet of Cybermen should be like a planet full of robot libertarians.

14

Steve 07.09.06 at 9:38 am

Wait … the cybermen are aren’t second-rate daleks. Don’t they assimilate people, where the daleks just exterminate?

15

Belle Waring 07.09.06 at 10:14 am

I was really scared of the daleks when I was a kid, but I never had to go behind the sofa. probably the copious amounts of second-hand pot smoke just immobilized me.

16

Frank 07.09.06 at 10:34 am

I confess that I am old enough to have watched Quatermass and the Pit from behind the sofa (I think, in this case, that an EP explanation is more apt than MR). There was also a David Whitfield (!!) B side that would make me dive behind the sofa when it was played: ‘The Rudder & the Rock’—it was about the Flying Dutchman.

17

bi 07.09.06 at 12:59 pm

Christmas: And let’s throw some stuff about stem cells and cancer into the mix while we’re at it — maybe The Doctor can travel to the Republican alternate universe and, I don’t know, do something there. What I mean is, wasn’t Doctor Who was supposed to be about mindless fun all along?

18

Christmas 07.09.06 at 2:42 pm

What I mean is, wasn’t Doctor Who was supposed to be about mindless fun all along?

Doctor Who was never completely devoid of social commentary. The old show took time to mock Thatcher surrogates and media excess inbetween blowing up robot monsters. There’s nothing wrong with pure escapism, but the best stories work on more than one level.

19

Ron F 07.09.06 at 5:42 pm

Damn! Daniel beat me to it with the “stairs thing” :-)

I started watching late in the Patrick Troughton incarnation and the Cybermen always had the edge over the Daleks in the fear department.

That said, it was the Ice Warrior that really scared the crap out of me and there was no hiding behind the sofa because there was a wall there.

20

gene 07.09.06 at 11:24 pm

my friend Mr. M___ watched the old who show from the closet. i tried to avoid looking at it. it made me feel like my dad died in the korean war or equivalent. M was a close friend whose taste in sci-fi ran wierd. and whose home life was dominated by an alcoholic father and prig or a mother. they were older. his older sister knit him a long who scarf. i’d watch that program if ralph fiennes starred. i wish hollywood would kill it.

ps. we also watch “young sherlock holmes” 50,ooo times, but that was as much me as it was him.

21

3lobed 07.10.06 at 9:51 am

The Daleks never really scared me that much, although the story of their creation from human stock had its creepy side when I got old enough to understand it, as did Davros’ brilliant megalomaniac speech in answer to the Doctor’s “vial of virus” hypothetical. The Cybermen were cool in a Terminatoresque “wade into the enemy gunfire” way, but not scary (although the Cybermats gave me one or two nasty turns).

But the Zygons – hoo boy, the Zygons. Behind the sofa was no good for those bastards, the first time I saw one on screen I bolted clean out of the house and down the street.

22

headtrip 07.11.06 at 3:33 am

I hardly saw an episode. But the books! Read most by 81′. The one where the fog descends upon London and monsters lurk was a fave. The Axons too. I still remember the moment I got “K9”.

23

Saint Fnordius 07.11.06 at 5:05 am

The Daleks and the Cybermen were two different types of stories: the Daleks are the threat of extinction, of pure hatred. They don’t want to subjugate, they want to exterminate. Slave races are also doomed, once their usefulness ends. They are the archetypical Armegeddon Foe.

The Cybermen are more of the vampire and zombie threat: monsters who will make you into one of them. The old story of the Fate Worse Than Death. The concept of the Cybermen was cleverly stolen and perfected by Paramount Pictures in Star Trek: the Next Generation with the Borg (though they were eventually watered down).

24

CulturalSnow 07.11.06 at 6:00 am

Since the Daleks got over their stair phobia (which they did back in the days of Sylvester McCoy), their position as mack daddies of badness is unassailable. The Cybermen have been on a downward trajectory. The gold thing was embarrassing; now, it seems, anyone with a big gun can take down one of them. They might just as well be Ogrons, or any similar flesh-and-blood thug.

Btw, did anyone notice that the actress who played the Torchwood boss (who was eventually Cybered, but turned renegade, and cried blood) was called Tracey-Anne OBERMAN. The potential for another spin-off, about a posse of Jewish Cyberman, is immense.

25

Matt McIrvin 07.12.06 at 12:04 am

The new series played up the similarities between Cybermen and Daleks, apparently so that it could all lead to that Cyberman/Dalek trash-talking smackdown in the second-season finale.

The two-parter that established the new series’ alternate origin for the Cybermen even had them being created by a mad genius in a wheelchair and attacking people while muttering “delete delete”, both of which are really much more Dalekian touches, and weren’t in the old show.

In the original series they were somewhat more different variations on the theme of mad cyborgs. The key difference is that Cybermen are supposed to have no emotions (with all the usual contradictions that come up when you try to tell stories about emotionless characters); whereas Daleks have exactly ONE emotion. Cybermen just wanted to survive and propagate their race, and had no moral quibbles about how to do it; Daleks actually wanted to kill everybody.

(And my wife points out that the Daleks’ backstory mutated repeatedly even in the old series; Davros wasn’t introduced until the Tom Baker era, though Terry Nation had thought up a sort of proto-Davros in Dalek comic strips he wrote earlier.)

While the show was off the air (and after), a company called Big Finish produced Doctor Who audio dramas distributed on CD with some of the original actors. One of them was a very different Cyberman origin story written by Mark Platt called “Spare Parts”, which convinced me that, properly handled, the Cybermen can be really interesting. He had to work with a lot of loopy continuity–on the old show, there was a bunch of Velikovskian nonsense about how the Cybermen came from a twin Earth named Mondas that got knocked out of our solar system–but what he came up with was remarkably poignant and atmospheric; there’s a tragic sense that the people of Mondas don’t want to become Cybermen but don’t see any workable alternative.

26

Matt McIrvin 07.12.06 at 12:27 am

…Also, it’s actually even more complicated than the Daleks being about extermination and the Cybermen about assimilation; because the Daleks have done their share of trying to assimilate people Borg-style as well, in one or two 1980s Davros-centric serials on the old show, then under the direction of the mad Emperor Dalek in the first-season finale of the new show. They also use mind-controlled slaves as it suits them.

I suppose that in a show that runs that long, you can find examples of every possible cheesy monster plot.

Also, the only Doctor Who monsters ever to frighten me in childhood were the Autons. I was flipping channels idly, and came to a second-string PBS affiliate on which some strange mannequin-like person had a hand that popped open to reveal a gun that shot people, and I was sufficiently creeped out to look up the name of the show and decide not to watch this Doctor Who thing again.

I guess it was either “Spearhead from Space” or “Terror of the Autons”. If it was the former, that makes a particularly good story, since I think “Spearhead from Space” (Jon Pertwee’s debut, and the first serial in color) was the first Doctor Who serial ever to run on many American PBS stations. So that would mean I was freaked out at pretty much the earliest possible opportunity.

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