The imagery of that episode was so iconic that when the Kasavin took on a similar appearance in this year’s Spyfall, a number of fans wondered if they might actually be Cybermen. Chris Chibnall (and Captain Jack) had already assured us that the Doctor’s age-old foe would be returning this year, so while Ashad initially manifesting as a luminous, vaguely humanoid figure is a nice call-back, how he looks means it’s hard not to be suspicious that the ghost is really a Cyberman the first time we lay eyes on it.
Then again, if there was ever going to be an episode where Chibnall and co. could make a Cyberman thematically appropriate, it would be Cyberwom—er, this story: the night that gives birth to Frankenstein. Given the macabre collection of body parts at Byron’s disposal, there could have been any number of ways to do a more literal riff on the classic novel – cyber-remains in the secret laboratory, and so on. And yet, along with Big Finish’s The Silver Turk, this is actually the second time that Doctor Who has introduced Mary Shelley to the Cybermen but avoided the obvious path of strapping one to a bench during a thunderstorm.
Instead, the episode handles its literary allusions with a light touch. Ashad may harness the power of lightning to revitalise his failing systems, but when Mary steps forward to treat the Cyberman with the kindness and compassion that Victor Frankenstein’s creation desired, Ashad pays her back with nothing but contempt. He’s a soldier, a fanatic, and a very different take on a normally stoic species. We learn very little about how he came to be in his half-formed state, but Ashad presents us with an intimidating villain nonetheless, combining the intimidating physical bulk of a stompy cyborg with the stubborn single-mindedness of a desperate survivor.
Since its revival, Doctor Who has had a difficult relationship with the Cybermen. Specifically, the consensus amongst its writers has always seemed to be that, iconic as they once were, the level of threat the Cybermen pose has diminished over the years and needs to be restored by changing them up in some way. Modern Cybermen, judging from the stories we’ve had over the last few years, must strive to be simultaneously as powerful as the Daleks and as terrifying as the Weeping Angels. The problem is, no-one’s really figured out how.
As a result, we’ve had a 500ft tall Cyberking mech stomping around in Victorian London. We’ve seen the Cybermen evolve from utilising crude operating tables to nanotechnology that can convert people almost instantly and learn to adapt to new forms of attack via continual self-upgrades like Star Trek’s Borg. We’ve even watched them hijack the dead. Ashad is likewise supremely powerful, but the fact that he can teleport and threaten to rip the Earth apart doesn’t make him half as scary as the single-minded zeal and very human spite his displays. When he picks up the crying baby, it’s not a question of whether he’s going to kill it (this is family viewing, after all) but what on earth’s going to stop him.
Be that as it may, Ashad is still pretty overpowered by Cyberman standards – strong enough to reach the Cyberium, which is the utterly bonkers plot device responsible for all of tonight’s supernatural happenings (well, apart from Graham’s sandwich) as it sought to protect itself. Nebulously described both as a nanomachine cloud, a database, a power source and an AI, the Cyberium is supposedly the difference between the Cybermen being triumphant universal conquerors or driven to extinction.
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