The Daleks might be the most iconic of Doctor Who villains, but the Cybermen are – at the risk of extermination – the more interesting. For while Dalek creator Terry Nation, who grew up during the Second World War, based the pepper-pots on Nazi values – presenting them as the manifestation of hatred and conformity – the Cybermen are rooted in a question more complex and tragic than the simple desire to kill: what does it mean to be human?

Just like the Daleks before them, the Cybermen were reflections of the era that created them. In 1966, the show’s scientific advisor, Dr Kit Pedler and writer Gerry Davis were fascinated by innovations in prosthetic surgery and the ethical issues it brought with it. If, they asked, you became more machine than flesh, were you still technically human? And what makes a human anyway, is it the physical or the emotional? At what point do you cease to be you? This is why, despite all the different forms the Cybermen would take over their 49 years, their ideology remains the same: human existence, physically and emotionally, is weak and cruel – the Cybermen are the saviours.

As the original Mondasian Cybermen join their modern descendants in new episode World Enough and Time, it seems like the perfect time to delve into the history of the Cyber menace…

Mondasian origins

The Cybermen made their first appearance in William Hartnell’s final story, The Tenth Planet, in 1966. And it was here, on Earth’s twin planet of Mondas, that the age of steel truly began – born out of desperation and pain.

The Tenth Planet (1966)

Mondas appeared in the skies of Earth in 1986, during the First Doctor’s final story. The chilly tale saw the increasingly frail Doctor, in the company of Ben and Polly, arrive at an Antarctic base. Through the explanation given in the story, we learned that Mondas’ arrival was in truth a return; we discovered that the errant planet was Earth’s lost twin, which drifted away from us “…on a journey to the edge of space.”

Originally twinned with Earth, Mondas is essentially our planet ravaged after drifting out of the solar system and into the abyss of space. Isolated and frozen by their distance from the sun, Mondas’s people suffered. That is until some brain-box had the idea of replacing failing organic parts with cybernetics to allow them to physically weather the brutality of their new environment. In order to psychologically deal with their grotesque new forms, however, they were also stripped of their emotions – eventually rendering them cold, harsh and cruelly logical. Emotions were rubbish, the Mondasians concluded, and being an unfeeling machine was just swell. Everyone should be like this – whether they liked it or not. It was, after all, for their own good.

Mondas was destroyed, eventually, but the Cybermen lived on in their charitable cause to conquer the galaxy and set existence free from its chains of thought and feeling – ‘upgrading’ as they went.

The Tenth Planet Cybermen, despite looking like they were built on Blue Peter, were eerily zombie-like. Being the earliest version, they were a hodge-podge of patchwork humanity and cybernetics. The outline of their human faces, for example, were noticeable underneath their cloth masks and their hands were still clearly flesh and blood. They even had names – even if they were names like “Krang”. They wouldn’t last long.

Derek Martinus, who directed The Tenth Planet, recalls working with the original Cybermen

The date: 1966

The place: Ealing Studios

The story: The Tenth Planet

The Doctor arrives at South Pole Tracking Station, which is about to be invaded by the Cybermen. It is the aliens’ first appearance on the show, and William Hartnell’s last as an ailing Doctor (he will regenerate into Patrick Troughton at the end of the story).

Director Derek Martinus, seen here with production assistant Edwina Verner hauling a Cyberman to his feet, recalls, “The Cybermen costumes were very hot to wear, and it was difficult for the actors to see. They were also very bulky and the actors tended to fall over.”

Even before that, casting had caused problems. Martinus adds, “It was quite funny because we were in the office of Doctor Who and the reception was full of very tall men. We felt they should look impressive and as menacing as possible. I got the agents to trawl through their books to see who was over 6ft 4in.” But, he adds, they had to be actors, too, to convey the necessary sense of threat.

With new creatures, an outgoing star and Antarctic location to simulate, not to mention blizzard conditions, it was an especially challenging adventure. Polystyrene chippings were used for  snow. “When they had the wind machines going it choked everybody.”

As the Cyber-empire evolved, so did their style. After a popular first outing, they returned a mere three serials later for Patrick Troughton’s Moonbase. It was here that their pragmatic nature was fully realised, with their look changing – sometimes subtlety, sometimes drastically – with every appearance. With Moonbase and their famous follow-up story, The Tomb of the Cybermen (set on their new adopted home of Telos), they became sleeker and more streamlined – exchanging the cloth masks and oversized chest units for a body, seemingly, made from tin foil. For Invasion (again, a second Doctor story), they became bulkier and, bizarrely, wore lace-up shoes.

After their popularity with the Second Doctor, the Cybermen were totally absent from the Third Doctor’s era and didn’t return until seven years later with Tom Baker’s Revenge of the Cybermen. This time, due to their weird allergy to gold, the last great Cyber-War was over, but one ship – along with the Cyber-Leader – remained. This would be their only appearance alongside the Fourth Doctor and it would be another six years before producer John Nathan-Turner decided to bring them back with a big re-design for Fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s Earthshock, which saw them trying to – shock! – destroy the Earth. From here on in, the Cybermen were much bigger and more mechanical – with only subtle varying elements being introduced, such as transparent chins and, in their last story, Sylvester McCoy’s Silver Nemesis, cricket gloves for hands.

A new age, a new upgrade

When 2005 Who came around, after 17 years since their last appearance, the lovable iron-clad murderers were as prevalent in the fans’ minds as the prospective identity of the new Doctor. But when Christopher Eccleston’s era began, Russell T Davies vetoed the frights in shining armour in favour of the Daleks, who took centre stage in Who’s return. David Tennant’s Doctor, however, was not so lucky.

As it transpired, the Cybermen had been tucked away in a parallel universe all along under the auspices of Trigger from Only Fools and Horses. Viewers were not so surprised by their reappearance, having spotted the clue in the episode’s title, Rise of the Cybermen – but the look on Tennant’s face was one of the more memorable Doctor grimaces of recent years, making the moment we heard the dreaded “Delete!” emitting from the familiar, relentless plated faces all the more ominous. Not to mention their sleeker design where no weapons were needed; just a simple electrocuting touch.

Director Graeme Harper spoke of the Cyberman’s very geometric looking redesign, saying that their snazzy new threads were inspired by Art Deco designs, such as pleated, 20s structures – and, in particular, the aesthetic facets of Fritz Lang’s early sci-fi movie classic Metropolis – to give the feel of an alien architecture, but encasing human brains to create the ultimate horror. It certainly worked, turning Parallel Earth from a twin world to a grim dystopia. In the second of the two-parter, of course, the Doctor made sure this new manifestation of the Cybus Cybermen were at least a little bit thwarted, before hastily sealing off the parallel universe, conveniently leaving his attractive assistant’s boyfriend behind too.

For a while, that seemed very much that for the Cybus Cybermen, up until the series two finale, with the Daleks themselves scoring an own goal in inadvertently reintroducing the Cybermen to planet Earth for a galactic royal rumble in which there was no winner.

Due to one of those pesky rips in time and space that tend to cause a spot of bother every now and then, it was subsequently revealed in the 2008 Christmas special that a few metal megalomaniacs had seeped into Victorian London too, under the callous gaze of Miss Hartigan, another cold-hearted human whose traits invested themselves quite nicely into the Cybus incarnations, reminding us that as long as there were people as metaphorically iron-fisted to match the Cybermen’s literal steel knuckles, the Doctor would keep running into them.

Once Steven Moffat took over from Davies, it was expected the Cybermen would get an old-style makeover. With budgets only extending to a Dalek re-design, however, it wasn’t to be. Even so, Moffat still managed to render a single rogue Cyberman head, in The Pandorica Opens, scarier than entire legions of invading forces. From this point on, the Cybus design prevailed even when the Cybermen in question were, as in Closing Time, supposedly the original Mondas model. All in all, it was around this point that Doctor Who realised it didn’t really know what to do with the villains, relegating them to the meagre fate of being defeated by James Corden’s baby and smack-talked by Rory the Roman.

Harder, better, stronger, faster

With Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver, in 2013, the Cybermen would be upgraded once again – this time looking a lot sleeker and more advanced. These Cyberman, according to Gaiman, were a mixture of Mondasian and Cybus, his rationale being that the Cybus Cybermen who were “zapped off into time and space” at the end of The Next Doctor eventually met the Mondas Cybermen. Cross-breeding and exchange of technology resulted in the new variety.

As well as a new design, these Cybermen also had new abilities, including the talent to move super-fast. As Gaiman told Collider: “I just figured that my phone doesn’t look anything like what it looked like five years ago, and that didn’t look anything like what it looked like ten years ago. My computer looks nothing like it looked like, 15 years ago. I thought, ‘Cybermen talk about upgrading, so let’s watch them upgrade. What would an upgraded Cyberman do?’ I thought one of the things it would do is move pretty fast. I loved the idea of a Cyberman that was essentially so dangerous that, if you find one on your planet, you blow up the planet.”

After Nightmare in Silver – where they went out with a bang – there wasn’t much seen of the Cybermen beyond a nifty cameo in The Time of the Doctor in which we see a Cyberman made out of wood. But that didn’t last long once Peter Capaldi took over the Tardis, with series eight’s two-part finale Dark Water/Death in Heaven featuring a Cyberman army with Michelle Gomez’s regenerated Master Missy at their helm.

There were no notable design tweaks this time, but their method of harvesting bodies was altered, with dead bodies whose consciousness had been saved to a Time Lord hard drive filling the metal shells. These Cybermen were also able to fly and “seed” themselves through rain onto already-dead buried bodies, though they were totally enthralled by Missy rather than acting out their own aims. Well, except for the recently-converted Danny Pink and a certain Brigadier brought back from the dead…

The return of the Mondasians

And so to the present day, and we’ve come full circle. As well as bringing back 2006 and 2013 models of the Cybermen, the series ten two-part finale World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls sees the Twelfth Doctor facing the Mondasian originals, and they’re creepier than ever.

At this stage there’s not too much we can reveal about them, but suffice it to say there’s a pretty disturbing origins story and both Missy and John Simm’s Master are involved…