The man behind the Cybermen

❉ Fifty years ago today, the Cybermen appeared for the first time on TV screens. Here, we uncover the story of their creator.

Another month, another gaggle of fiftieth anniversary celebrations for ‘Doctor Who’. The first change-over from one ‘Doctor Who’ unto another is significant enough, but 8 October 1966 introduced to the three year old programme its first genuine rival for the Daleks – the Cybermen. Where they succeeded over virtually the whole of the Hartnell menagerie of Voord, Mechonoids, Zarbis and Chumblies was that they had fictional ‘legs’ and this allowed them to reappear again in other stories without necessarily going through familiar motions, and allow for development.

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The Cybermen (Photo: BBC)

The Cybermen were the perfect expression of what the recently installed production team of Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis wanted to bring to the series: plausible and intelligent science fiction. The snag was that they had no real experience with the form and couldn’t expect to brief writers who themselves had little understanding of the genre, yet they were determined to take ‘Doctor Who’ away from the colourful and literary ambitions of their predecessors, John Wiles and Donald Tosh, whose final commissions to the series, The Celestial Toymaker and The Gunfighters, were causing enormous production and scripting headaches. Less history and more guts, Lloyd famously stated. ‘Doctor Who’ was a science fiction programme at heart, so where better to find science fiction ideas than from a scientist?

They found their man in Dr. Kit Pedler, a research biologist who specialised in the eye. With two doctorates to his name, he was currently Reader of Anatomy for the University of London, working at the Institute of Ophthalmology in the electron microscopy unit, which he himself had set up in the early sixties. He looked into the vacuum of an electron microscope and explored the structures and circuitry of the eye that no one had hitherto knew to exist, and fantasised about replicating it as a circuit diagram. In conjunction with computer scientists in a Canadian University, he tried to find a way of developing an artificial retina, a pattern recognition machine that could conceivably one day enable the blind to see.

Pedler was starting to broadcast on the radio and had made an appearance on BBC1’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ in late 1965. His ideas in how the back of the eye functioned like a computer in the way it processed images was getting attention in newspapers as well as the medical and scientific journals. He also loved science fiction in all its forms, including the comic strip adventures of Dan Dare, the pilot of the future in a comic aimed for children of all ages. This was no literary snob.

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Kit Pedler (Photo: Radio Times)

Furthermore, he wanted to write and jumped at the chance of working on ‘Doctor Who.’ He was beginning to grow disillusioned with the rigid and unimaginative culture of the scientific world, one that declined to take responsibility for anything done in the name of science, and how their research was used in the real world. That was somebody else’s problem, preferably a politician or businessman. Pedler disagreed and he was not alone in this view. His ideas would later find expression in the ground-breaking television series he created with Davis called ‘Doomwatch’.

A 'Tenth Planet' Cyberman (BBC)
A ‘Tenth Planet’ Cyberman (BBC)

Why did Kit get the ‘Doctor Who’ job? Because he had an imagination. He didn’t automatically say ‘No, that’s impossible’ to a far-fetched scenario presented to him by Davis. This was not the case in some of the other candidates Davis and Lloyd approached, some of whom dismissed the idea of a planet approaching the Earth, a premise that was ultimately used in The Tenth Planet and often mocked by the Superior ‘Doctor Who’ Fan, always willing to point out any flaw in a story before General Public spots it and demands a full report by Monday morning. How could this possibly slip past the scientific advisor, they ask? Doesn’t he know ALL science?

Pedler’s job in ‘Doctor Who’ has often been incorrectly labelled as scientific advisor but he was not there to check for scientific accuracy. This misunderstanding was largely the fault of both Lloyd and Davis, who in rare interviews described Pedler as such as a kind of shorthand for his true function. Pedler was there as an ideas man, a think-tank. He got on very well with Davis, which was fortunate since he had to steer Pedler into the direction they wanted. Pedler wanted to write about vampires and Star Monks on a religious quest.

Lloyd hoped that someone with a scientific background could generate story ideas coming from the rather exciting developments and predictions for the future that were occurring in the 1960s, in physics, technology and biology. There would be a moon landing soon. Pedler and Davis devised the basic mechanics behind The War Machines, a mad computer and how it could take over the world from the top of the Post Office Tower. This was then turned into a script by Ian Stuart Black and directed with an energy seldom seen on ‘Doctor Who’ by a young and hungry director called Michael Ferguson. It was when Davis asked Pedler about his feelings towards current trends in medicine that their gamble paid off and the Cybermen walked in.

Cybernetics is nothing to do with making supermen, it is the study of automatic control systems and self-regulation, the human body being a good example. In the 1950s, the ‘lunatic fringe’ of cyberneticians (as ‘The Guardian’ put it in 1965) fantasised how the augmenting of space pilots would enable them to survive the hostile and taxing conditions of deep space travel. You could even do away with the need to breathe…

The Cybermen in The Tenth Planet are astronauts, and in Pedler’s original script for Episode 4, they intend to operate on the Doctor and Polly in order for them to survive the journey back to the tenth planet in one of their spaceships. Pedler wondered how much of your human identity would be lost if we went down this route of replacing healthy organs with apparently superior artificial replacements simply for the sake of it. Would we become monsters?

Rather than give the Cybermen to another writer, Pedler, never one to walk before he could run, asked if he could write his own script and the producers agreed. This was an extraordinary achievement for a novice. Someone who had never written for television before was usually given a ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’ or perhaps a fifty minute procedural police drama, but a four part serial was quite another thing, especially one with so many budgetary constraints.

Theoretically, Pedler had plenty of time to write his own scripts, no doubt with plenty of advice and input from Davis, who had by now finished editing the previous series and didn’t have to gather new stories for a while. Practically, Pedler had a demanding day job but wrote during the weekends or in the early mornings, sometimes in his office during spare moments.

Pedler discovered that although he could come up with dialogue and situations, he couldn’t push forwards the story and became too bogged down in detail, which may owe something to his training as a research scientist. Davis remembered that Pedler gave up after only a few pages and asked for collaboration, but this is unlikely, although Davis certainly would have advised and prepared the final drafts. This may explain why the finished story jumps forward suddenly in places. Part One is full of good examples of their double efforts – set up expository dialogue followed by sudden plot advancement, again often criticised but Davis did not hold ‘Doctor Who’ as literary perfection, but as great entertainment.

Kit fell dangerously ill in June 1966. We could be commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of a one-off writer, a man only remembered for his ideas in William Hartnell’s last ‘Doctor Who’ story, and not the amazing teacher and thinker of Alternative Technology in the 1970s. He rapidly recovered from his operation but Davis had to get the finished scripts rewritten and this gave him a chance to receive a co-credit and payment on the last two episodes in recognition for his work collaborating with Pedler above and beyond his usual input. The BBC tried to pay Pedler for only two episodes but from his hospital bed he insisted he wrote all four and had only delivered two rewritten episodes before he fell ill. Pedler learnt a lesson: get an agent. There was no ill will, and the Pedler/Davis writing team became very successful.

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The Tenth Planet is simply full of ideas – the space shot gone wrong, International Space Command, the Z-bomb, and not least the Cybermen, a lot of which came from the pages of the ‘New Scientist’ in 1965. Pedler must have shown costume designer Sandra Reid the issue where the American Air Force were trying to develop an exo-skeleton to enable people to lift weights far greater than possible. They can be seen on the pipes and joints of the Cybermen. There was even a small article on the possibility of a tenth planet in our solar system. One element lost was how the Cybermen still retained their humanoid faces and their heads covered in a skullcap which hid a computer.

The Tenth Planet was transmitted on Saturday nights in October 1966 and has the rare distinction of being a serial where the viewing figures went up each week. Perhaps the appearance of the Cybermen on that polar landscape galvanised more of the audience to tune in. Viewers for Episode 3 were hopefully not too disappointed by their virtual absence. More still tuned in for Episode 4. No doubt it helped that the story was directed by Derek Martinus, whose vivid, imaginative and pacey direction was in sharp contrast to how he handled his first ‘Doctor Who’ a year earlier where he barely altered a camera position for more than a minute or two.

One idea that was not in the original script was added during the summer, and surprised anyone watching on 29 October, who hadn’t read during the summer a small press announcement that William Hartnell was leaving ‘Doctor Who’. The new conclusion was almost certainly written by Gerry Davis, but the idea behind it has Kit Pedler’s fingerprints all over it.

In later years, it would be called a regeneration…


❉ Michael Seely’s biography of Kit Pedler, ‘The Quest For Pedler’ (Miwk Publishing, 2014) can be purchased directly here. You can hear Michael Seely discussing his book with Miwk here.

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