While it might sound like pure fantasy, since 1997 when a team of British scientists announced the cloning of Dolly the sheep, science fact has quickly been catching up to science fiction. On 9 March (2013), it was reported that the first genetically engineered humans have been born, sparking debate about the morality of science being used to guide human evolution: a subject first explored in Doctor Who in 1966 with the creation of the Cybermen.
After Terry Nation withdrew his Daleks from Doctor Who, it was decided to introduce new star monsters to series. But who or what could come close to replacing the Daleks? That was the difficult conundrum then script editor Gerry Davis posed to the unofficial scientific advisor to the series Kit Pedler as Doctor Who approached its fourth season.
Reflecting on his own fears as a medical Doctor of "dehumanising medicine" Pedler delivered in spades. Pedler imagined a race of human beings who had been forced by circumstances beyond their control to slowly replace most - if not all - of their vital organs and limbs with steel and plastic replacements. Ultimately even replacing large parts of their brains with computers and neurochemically programming out their emotions altogether. In effect, surgically erasing all traces of their humanity and transplanting it with cold technology and uncompromising logic. Pedler and Davis called these new nightmarish life forms Cybermen.
In the 1974 Target Book adaptation of the first Cyber-story ,The Tenth Planet, Gerry Davis described the fictional origins of the Cybermen:
Centuries ago by our Earth time, a race of men on the far distant planet 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. Finally, even the human circulation and nervous system were recreated, and brains replaced by computers. The first Cybermen were born.
Somewhat ironically, though, despite this apparent evolutionary leap forward Pedler reasoned that such beings would be driven solely by the most primitive of biological instincts … the will to survive whatever the cost. A frightening contradiction that made itself felt much more prevalently later on when Pedler and Davis decided to revisit the initial concept behind the Cybermen for the BBC series Doomwatch in the Seventies, oddly enough in an episode starring second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Far from battling the Cybermen, though, on this occasion Troughton does everything he can to become one of them! In the words of Troughton’s character: "I keep trying to tell them machines can't catch diseases!"
In the season two episode In The Dark a terminally ill man Alan McArthur (Patrick Troughton) desperately tries to prolong his life artificially by replacing his dying body piece by piece with experimental life support systems. Although the experiment is successful it has a terrible price. McArthur begins to think of himself as well as other human beings as nothing more than biological machines. Ultimately McArthur plans on cheating death forever by becoming a living brain attached to a dead machine.
It is difficult to appreciate today but the spare-part surgery envisioned by Pedler was a rapidly emerging technology at the time. In 1960, Belding Scribner invented the Scribner shunt, a breakthrough kidney dialysis machine, and in December 1967 the first successful human heart transplant took place at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. While, in hindsight, Pedler's concerns about these developments might seem premature back in the Sixties and Seventies, are they still so in 2013?
In July last year (2012) the mainstream media reported that a Russian entrepreneur had contacted a list of billionaires offering them eternal life in return for funding a hi-tech research project called "Avatar". The goal of which was "transferring one's individual consciousness to an artificial carrier and achieving cybernetic immortality" by the year 2045.
Perhaps it is more likely, however, that instead of reinventing ourselves limb by limb as Pedler envisioned, the real danger is doing it gene by gene. Like heart transplants and dialyses machines such technology will no doubt save the lives of countless people but we must be cautious that in saving lives we do not begin to think of humans as mere biological machines. As Professor Quist points out in In The Dark human beings are separated from animals by two factors: knowledge of our own mortality and human emotion.