How Neil Gaiman did away with the "clanky clanky steampunk" Cybermen

This Saturday, renowned author Neil Gaiman returns to Doctor Who, with a brand new mission: make the Cyberman actually terrifying again. We talked to Gaiman, along with some other reporters, and he explained how he became the new Cyber-controller. Spoilers ahead...

So we took part on a conference call with Gaiman and some other reporters, earlier today. Gaiman seemed pretty happy to discuss some in-depth spoilers about his Cybermen episode, which we've also seen. But we'll vague out those parts of the interview, since the episode airs in a few days anyway, and you might as well find out that stuff when you actually see it.


Gaiman didn't want to return to Who

After Gaiman's first episode, "The Doctor's Wife," was so well-received, he got an email from showrunner Steven Moffat, asking if he would like to do another episode — and he said no, because he just didn't have time "and life was just mental." Then Moffat wrote back and said that if Gaiman ever did have time to write another episode, they wanted him to "make the Cybermen scary again," and Gaiman was hooked.

When he was a child, Patrick Troughton was his favorite Doctor, and he particularly remembered the second Cyberman episode, "The Moonbase" — how quiet and sneaky the Cybermen were. "I was terrified of them, much more scared of them than I was of the Daleks, because they were quiet, and they slipped in and out of rooms."

So even though Gaiman liked the look of the "clanky clanky steampunk Cybermen," he knew their time was over, and it would be fun to make them more scary.


In fact, in Gaiman's original script, you never hear the Cybermen at all, except when they thump their chests — but the production team changed it, and the Cybermen actually do make a fair amount of noise in the aired version of Gaiman's episode. But still, he feels as though he's made them a much more menacing monster again, so that the next time they appear, people will be much more perturbed.


Cybermen on the beach

Gaiman originally wanted to have his episode take place at an actual fairground, perhaps in the 1950s — he liked the idea of an English beach town, with millions of Cybermen coming up out of the sea and stepping on the beach pebbles. (If you've ever been to Brighton or similar towns, you'll know that pebbles are a major feature of the beaches there.) But this idea was nixed for budgetary reasons.


Gaiman's script always involved a battle of pure wits between the Doctor and the Cybermen, while Clara was more active and kept everybody else alive. But during the writing, Gaiman decided to give Matt Smith more to do, causing Smith to curse loudly on set at the way larger than usual amount of dialogue he had to memorize. Still, Gaiman had "too much fun" with this, and he could see that Smith was having too much fun, as well.

More like the Borg?

The Cybermen have some new features in this episode, some of which are quite similar to the Borg from Star Trek — I asked Gaiman if he was trying to reclaim the Cybermen's legacy here, since the Borg basically took a lot of the Cybermen's features and extrapolated them a lot further. Gaiman admitted he's never really watched Star Trek: The Next Generation — he's practically memorized the original Star Trek, but TNG aired while he was moving to the United States and living someplace without television reception. Gaiman "could quote you the entirety of 'The Trouble With Tribbles' with my eyes closed, but knows nothing about TNG.


" I suspect this is more of a case of a certain amount of parallel evolution, but I would love to reclaim the 'cybernetic menace' crown," says Gaiman. He enjoyed creating the "cybermites," which are like the successors to the Cybermats — he'd heard that the Cybermats were supposed to be based on silverfish, so these are much closer to that inspiration.

And he was keen to see the Cybermen actually improving themselves: "They talk about upgrading. Let's see them upgrade?" His cellphone looks way different than it did five years ago, so the Cybermen ought to be constantly improving and raising their game, too. He included tons more stuff in his story about why these new Cybermen are so dangerous, that didn't make it to the screen this time around — but if he did a sequel, he'd like to include way more about how to deal with a Cyberman if you find one.


The Cybermen actually started out with Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis looking at things that were happening in the 1960s, like heart transplants, and trying to imagine where they could end up. And Gaiman is philosophical about cybernetic upgrades — he wouldn't wear Google Glasses, because they "look very silly," and he doesn't necessarily think you should check your email while you're talking to people. "Learning to be present while you're present is a very good thing." But his friend recently got an artificial knee, and he thought that made total sense — he wouldn’t mind having lots of bits of him replaced, as long as he still felt like himself.


Adds Gaiman: "I like the idea of downloading my consciousness into a computer and then invading every computer in the world and taking over." And hen he hastily added: "Oh, I shouldn't have said that. Forget I said anything about taking over the world."

Gaiman wants to create a new monster

Now that he's revamped the Cybermen, Gaiman would really like to create a new Doctor Who monster, "and have it be one that's interesting enough and fun enough to come back written by someone else." Or even revamped completely, down the line. He would love to feel as though he'd left something behind, the way Terry Nation left us the Daleks or Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis left us the Cybermen. "I love that the Great Intelligence has come back, but I miss the Yeti," says Gaiman.


And this time around, he sounds actually optimistic that he'll do another Who episode, in spite of his impossible schedule — "I think they'll have me back, they seem to like me on Doctor Who, and I definitely like them."

There's no understating Doctor Who's impact on Gaiman's evolution, as well — he knew the mythos of Doctor Who before he knew Roman or Greek mythology. At age three, he was obsessively watching the show, at age five he made his father buy him the Dalek World book and learned that Daleks can't see the color red — in which case, are the Red Daleks invisible to their friends? He knew what TARDIS stood for, and the fact that the food machine spat out candy bars that tasted like bacon and eggs.


And one thing Gaiman liked about the Troughton era was the feeling "that events had consequences and some of those consequences were going to be lethal." In stories like "The Web of Fear," things were "big and complicated," and the Doctor didn't necessarily know everything. He faced "huge, terrible things," and always won — but at great cost. Troughton was the Doctor that Gaiman imagined running away with — not the scary William Hartnell. He didn't have the miniskirt he would have needed to run away with Jon Pertwee's Doctor, and he was too old by the time Tom Baker came around.


Why does the TARDIS hate Clara?

Someone asked about the fact that the TARDIS, which Gaiman re-established as having a personality, now hates Clara. Gaiman responded that he grew up "definitely considering the TARDIS a character in Doctor Who, and the only really constant — not just companion, but character — in some ways more consistent than the Doctor." He didn't think he was breaking canon or doing anything new by giving the TARDIS a personality, just reminding people that the TARDIS is also a living entity, which some people had forgotten.


Adds Gaiman, "I love the idea of a TARDIS who doesn't particularly like a companion," just as the TARDIS particularly liked Leela, during the Tom Baker. "It was part of the script that, for reasons never adequately explained, the TARDIS really liked Leela a lot, [so] if she doesn't like Clara, that's something that may never be explained."

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