Centuries Ago, By Our Time


Doctor Who and the Cybermen, 1980s Target reprint cover.  The edition I own.

Title: Doctor Who and the Cybermen
Televised as: The Moonbase
Written by: Gerry Davis
Teleplay by: Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Screen Credit to: Kit Pedler
Televised in: February/March 1967
Published in: February 1975
Chapters: Seven through Eleven

That 1980s Target reprint cover finally corrects the look of the Cybermen; unlike the picture on the the first edition, this is the correct depiction of the Cybermen of The Moonbase.  Except that it makes them look gold instead of silver.  Oh, well.

Doctor Who and the Cybermen is retitled from the TV serial because it’s the first novelization to feature the Cybermen, even though it wasn’t their first TV adventure. And so, the original back-cover blurb spends some time introducing us to who the Cybermen are, promising us that their “threat is almost as great as that of the mighty Daleks”, before moving on to tease the story with a dramatic attack of capital letters:


The book price has also jumped up twice now in a year, from 25 pence to 35 pence. It’s the mid-’70s, man, and the economy is terrible everywhere.  And Gerry Davis is given screen-writing credit for the original serial on the book’s copyright page, even though the serial itself gave screen credit only to Pedler.  So, no matter which copy of the book you own, looking at the front cover or back cover or copyright page is almost as rewarding as reading the text.


Of course, as I’ve talked about last time (and the time before that and the time before that), this was pretty much the book  that started it all for me  with the Doctor Who novelizations.  The book has improved with age, too.  Davis’ writing style is effective and taut.  Where last time I focused mainly on how he introduced the Season 4 TARDIS crew and the Moonbase itself, this time I want to talk about how he contrasts the cold and logical machinations of the Cybermen, versus the hot-tempered and disorganized striving of the humans who run the moonbase.

The book itself begins with a prologue (titled Chapter 1, which is not what prologues are for, not really) entitled The Creation of the Cybermen. If you’re reading the books in publication order, this is the debut of this particular essay, which will become quite familiar over time; if you’re reading the books in story order, you’ve already seen it before, in Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet, but this is where it began.

Centuries ago, by our Earth time, a race of men on the far-distance planet of Telos sought immortality. They perfected the art of cybernetics – the reproduction of machine functions in human beings. As bodies became old and diseased, they were replaced limb by limb, with plastic and steel.
They became dehumanized monsters. And, like human monsters down through all the ages of Earth, they became aware of the lack of love and feeling in their lives and substituted another goal – power!

The second half of the essay is unique to this book, telling us that “By the year 2070, [the Cybermen] had become as known and feared in the galaxies as the Viking raiders of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries”. We’re given the story’s exact date, too: the Cybermen first land on the moon, to invade the moonbase and thereby conquer the Earth, on October 15, 2070. Which will be my 97th birthday. You know what I’ll be reading on that date.

The huge silver monsters that had once been men had achieved their first objective …


As they would do on TV, the Cybermen spent the first half of the book as silent phantoms, seen only when abducting unconscious crewmembers or zapping Polly in the head. They arrive as an actual force with the Episode 3 material, and this is where Davis crams as many stage directions regarding the Cybermen, likely taken from his original scripts, as he possibly can.  Even without the cover illustrations or video of the TV story, you can see and hear the Cybermen very well, thanks to how Davis writes them.

Their voices (which are kind of hard to understand on TV, in both this serial and their next one), are said to vibrate “harshly, as though computerized”. Their English is “perfect” but “flat… much more like a robot or a computer than a man”. Hobson stares “thunder-struck” at the “huge silver creature” – on TV, Morris Barry cast tall actors to play the Cybermen and short actors to play the moonbase crew, a casting pattern that would recur throughout the Troughton years.

Their weapons are particularly horrific on the printed page, much more so than on TV.  In the book, the Cyberweapons issue a loud metallic rattle, and a base crewman dies horribly:

As the others watched in horror, smoke began to pour from the openings in his clothes. His eyes went blank. His body seemed almost to shrivel up. His face twisted and contorted, and he crashed toward the ground. [….] The man looked as though he had received a colossal electric charge. His face was almost black, his close-cropped hair shriveled as though badly burnt.

Morris Barry, bless him, didn’t coax quite such a convincing death on TV – in fact, the animators who did up the missing Episode 3 for the DVD release (which is otherwise some lovely monochrome work, steeped in shadows which flutter across the peripheral vision) didn’t manage to make the death quite so convincing.

Davis, too, always seems to come up with the right visual word to convey his intended on-screen actions.  I spent a bit of time talking about the overuse of adjectives by Brian Hayles in the previous novelization, and, while your mileage may certainly vary, I think Davis does the much better job of using words to paint pictures.  As Gerry Davis writes, the Cybermen don’t just walk, but rather engage in a “slow ponderous march”.  When they weren’t walking, they “were as still as two suits of armor in a museum.  The only thing that indicated life was a very slight whirring noise, which seemed to come from the chest unit every time they were about to speak”.  They direct the controlled humans “as a shepherd directs sheep dogs in the Welsh mountains”.  The Cybermen’s inexorable march on the moonbase – the Episode 3 cliffhanger – is likened here by Ben to “marching along like the guards on parade”, and carrying a bazooka (for the kids in the audience, Ben helpfully explains what a bazooka is). Optimistically, Davis announces that there are 30 of the Cybermen, in all.

Also, amusingly, the Doctor looks for a historical parallel to this march of the Cybermen:

“[T]his march towards the base is probably a show of strength, to scare us the way the Zulus used to intimidate their enemies with their famous slow march.”
Hobson looked a little blank at the mention of Zulus.

Davis differentiates his Cybermen, too – one has a red line across his chest unit.  The Cyberleader (a role not defined on TV until Revenge of the Cybermen in 1975) has a black helmet, and even an indvidual name, Tarn.  This is a vestige from the serial’s first draft, coming soon after The Tenth Planet in which the Cybermen were still individually named. The Cyberleader here is taller than the others and “had a noticeably deeper voice”. Another Cyberman is called Krang, if you need it.

Davis also restores to the Cybermen their relentless logic.  On TV, during their long Episode 3 monologues, the Cybermen derided the Earthling brains as  “stupid”, which is either bad directing or a conscious shout-out to Plan 9 From Outer Space, and mocked the humans as “clever, clever, clever”.  For the book, Davis turns “stupid” into “rudimentary”, and replaces the “clever” broadside with a more illuminating lecture on how the Cybermen never would have made a similar mistake.

The Cybermen’s defeat-by-gravity in the book is written in Davis’ elegant prose:

Like dangling puppets, they accelerated rapidly into the black of space.  Finally, dwindling, gleaming spots of light, they diminished into the stars …


Animated Cybermen (and poor Ralph), from the DVD’s animated Episode 3


While the Cybermen themselves are vividly written, Davis makes them stand out as even more alien, by contrasting them against the emotional and inefficient Moonbase crew.

Hobson, the Moonbase commander, is an impressive study in leadership.  Almost every other “base-under-siege” story from Seasons 4 and 5 featured mentally ill bosses gradually (if not illogically) breaking down under the strain, but Hobson stands out by being utterly and ordinarily sane, and the book turns him into a Yorkshireman, to highlight this even further.

Polly finds Hobson gruff, but reassuring.  His accent “seemed to get broader and more Northern” when irritated.  The staff tolerates his occasional intemperate outbursts as “a necessary letting-off of of steam” for the older man.  He treats a frightened Polly, in the aftermath to the Episode 1 cliffhanger, which “more gentleness than might have been expected from the irascible chief”.

He directed operations with a word here and a word there; more gentle hints than shouted commands.  The real leadership qualities of the man were now evident, thought the Doctor, watching him from the end of the room.  The base was in good hands.  Despite his occasional bluster and irascibility, Hobson was a man in a thousand.  It was doubtful if he would crack now.


Not this Hobson.

In fact, one gets the sense that Davis has really mapped out every inch of this base and every quirk of his characters. The moonbase scientists, apart from Hobson, were pretty interchangeable on TV, most of them being credited en masse rather than by character name. But here, we learn that Sam is the “nuts and bolts” man, “the only man in the crew who understood the workings of every piece of machinery on the moon surface”, and that Benoit “made almost a fetish of his superb physical condition”.  On TV, Benoit was characterized only by his accent and tie, and Sam only by his last name, Becket (meaning that this is a future “Quantum Leap” episode, kthxbye).

There’s also a cute little moment where Hobson (45 in the book, younger than Patrick Barr who played him on TV) makes a joke about the loud noise of the Gravitron room, presumably compared to the rock-and-roll music: “Perhaps you have to be under forty to stand it”.


The slow-motion low gravity moon-surface chase of Benoit by a Cyberman looks, let’s be honest, pretty silly on TV, but it’s livened up a little bit in the book by Nils keeping up a running commentary – this would have required a voiceover over the filmed insert, which wouldn’t have been technically possible in early 1967.  Nils’ commentary, by the way, is said to have been “as exciting as that of a cup final” (as an 11-year-old growing up in the US in 1985, still years away from knowing that there was even a World Cup, I assumed that this was a hockey reference).  Davis also adds physical drama – we read about Benoit’s long loping strides, his pounding heart, his bursting lungs, the harsh grating sound of his breath as related over the base intercom.

Charmingly, Davis was proud of the very narrow diversity of the Moonbase crew.  He writes, from the early 1970s, without a hint of irony: “A great variety of nationalities was represented: British, French, Italian, German and Dutch.”  Ralph on TV was meant to be Nigerian, per the DVD text commentary (his nationality is not given in the book).  Davis’ biggest effort at diversity is a minor American character (“Chuck”, who speaks in a “slow drawl”, of course).  There had been no Americans in the TV serial… because, you know, what would Americans know from the Moon.

And as for the sets.  The DVD text commentary stresses that Davis had very specific set layouts in mind, and structured the action to optimize use of those sets.  Of course, he didn’t count on the production being demoted to little Lime Grove studio D.  But, restoring the large and spacious sets of his imagination for the novelization, he tells us that:

The Cyberman space ship nearest to the base somewhat resembled the interior of a submarine.  No concessions were made for comfort, rest or food, as in a human space ship.  Every spare inch was covered with highly sophisticated apparatus.

In the book, the moonbase also has an observation dome and a catwalk, and the business about covering a puncture in the exterior dome with a tea tray is given more gravitas, with characters having to climb up a ladder, with Hobson being too physically old and winded to make the climb, and Ben having to save the day.  If you came to this story through the novelization first, as I suspect most of us did, the TV production now stands as something of a letdown…

But I’ll give the TV serial the last word, in the interest of fairness.  One clever thing Morris Barry did on TV that surpasses the novelization is when the Doctor quietly speculates to  himself about what objects present in the moonbase could help defeat the Cybermen.  Davis narrates the Doctor’s thought processes, which is fine.  But on TV, as captured in the Episode 3 animation, Barry actually has the Doctor argue with himself, half speaking and half voice-over thoughts.  That was a pretty nifty bit of direction, if nothing else.  Also missing is a Michael Craze ad-lib on TV.  Polly points to a blip on a monitor screen and asks if that’s a spaceship.  In the book, nobody responds, but Craze, on TV, quipped “No, that’s a scanner”.

OK, that’s probably enough posts about Doctor Who and the Cybermen on this blog for the time being.  Let’s reconvene here on my 97th birthday, and talk about it then, one last time.

Next Time: Enter Tom Baker.


About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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1 Response to Centuries Ago, By Our Time

  1. Worth mentioning is that in the original scripts it’s explained how these Cybermen survived the destruction of Mondas; they actually left their home planet to explore and colonize space years before the events of The Tenth Planet, presumably developing a method of surviving independent of Mondas.. Inexplicably this was cut from the recorded version, meaning that even though Hobson argues that there can’t be Cybermen on the Moon because they all died out nearly a century earlier, viewers are never told how this group are still around. Davis restores the explanation for their survival in his novelization.

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