Doctor Doctor Who Guide

The first two part story of the second series of Doctor Who, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’/‘The Age of Steel’ sees the return both of the series’ second most popular monsters, and director Graeme Harper, returning to the series after a break of nineteen years. And for the most part, it’s a successful return for both.

‘Rise of the Cybermen’/‘The Age of Steel’ takes place in a parallel universe, which has two effects. The first is that it allows writer Tom McRae to introduce the Cybermen to a new audience without having to explain Mondas, as a result of which he is able to write a contemporary origin story for them without any baggage (although the story acknowledges the past with Rose recalling the Cyber head in Van Statten’s museum back in ‘Dalek’ and the Doctor explaining that there are Cybermen in their universe). The second is that, as in ‘Inferno’, all bets are off, and whilst we don’t get the end of the world here, we do get the conversion of a regular character into a Cyberman. This concept is explored a great deal in ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, as Rose discovers that her Dad is still alive and Mickey goes off to find his grandma, but whilst there are several scenes in this first episode that worryingly threaten to lead to a trite and happy conclusion and cover the same ground as ‘Father’s Day’ but with diminishing returns, it actually pays off. Rose’s interest in and concern for her parallel parents is understandable and gives her an emotional stake in the fate of this alternate world, but it is handled in unexpected ways: Jackie’s conversion into a Cybermen is dealt with swiftly and in a matter-of-fact way that emphasizes the horror that they represent, and at the end of the story Pete discovers that Rose is his daughter and, to her obvious disappointment, beats a hasty retreat.

But more importantly, as noted, the parallel universe is a crucible in which to recreate the Cybermen without contradicting the past, but whilst thrusting them into a recognizable world and thus doing exactly the sort of thing that Russell T. Davies sort to do in series one. This story acknowledges ‘Spare Parts’ as an inspiration, and when I reviewed that story I noted that Big Finish, unconstrained by a Saturday teatime time slot, could exploit the body horror represented by the Cybermen in ways that the television series had never really been able. ‘Rise of the Cybermen’/‘The Age of Steel’ has the same constraints, but comes closer than any television Cyberman story to really exploiting the horror of the creatures. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” seen, as facile pop music is played over the screams of people being forcibly converted and the whirring of electric saws, manages, in the hands of Graeme Harper”, to become chilling. Then there is the issue of emotion; given Davies’ approach to the series, I was half-expecting some kind of Kroton the Friendly Cyberman type rubbish once the Doctor and Mrs. Moor discovered the emotional inhibitor, but McRae instead uses an approach more akin to the idea of the Cerebraton Mentor of ‘The Invasion’, the Doctor understanding, “They’d realize what they are… I think it would kill them.” And indeed it does, as the emotional inhibitors are switched off thanks to Mickey and the Doctor and the Cybermen scream and convulse before exploding. McRae also uses the notion to emphasize again the nightmarish nature of the Cybermen; the pitiful sounds of the damaged Cyberman, with its emotions restored, asking why it is cold is quite unpleasant, especially since there is obviously no way of reversing its fate. Likewise, when the Cyberman that approaches Pete and Rose tells them that it was Jackie Tyler, the episode momentarily threatens to tread the tiresome route of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘I, Borg’. Instead, all that happens is that the Cyberman recognizes Pete and has them sent to Cyber Control before blending back into the crowd, their lack of individuality made plain as Rose hollowly states, “They all look the same.”

It helps considerably that the Cybermen are at their most scary since the nineteen sixties. When I first saw a still photograph of their new costumes, I had some sympathy with the argument that they looked worryingly like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. On screen though, they work extremely well. Throughout ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, Harper keeps them out of sight until the end, either showing them out of focus in the background, or just allowing the viewer glimpses of parts of them. When they do appear in full focus as they attack the Tylers’ mansion, they are enormously intimidating; the moon suits of the eighties are long gone, and these Cybermen look like metal juggernauts, powerful and virtually unstoppable. They lumber less than in the past, instead marching remorselessly and unspeaking, Harper filming them from low angles to make them look bigger than they are. There are admittedly moments in ‘The Age of Steel’ as they march around London rounding up victims when they look like they are touching cloth, but in the confines of the factory or on the zeppelin, they are terrifying. Harper gets some great edge of seat moments out of them, including their chillingly silently presence in the tunnel and the sudden thrill as they start to jerk into life, and the Doctor and Mrs. Moor’s narrow escape through the hatch. The Cyber Controller’s pursuit out of the Doctor, Rose and Pete at the end blatantly rips off Aliens, right down to the creature pulling itself free of its moorings as fire starts to consume its lair, but it provides a final adrenalin rush for the episode as the trio narrowly escape.

‘Rise of the Cybermen’/‘The Age of Steel’ also features some effective characterisation. Obsessive Cybermen creator John Lumic is the sort of ranting madman that used to be a staple of the series, and Roger Lloyd-Pack hams up the role for all that he’s worth, especially when delivering lines such as “I suppose a remark about crashing the party would be appropriate at this point, aha-ha-ha!” Opinion is divided as to whether this sort of thing is wise, and several fans have criticized Lumic already, but I’ve always found ranting megalomaniacs in Doctor Who entertaining, and I find Lloyd-Pack’s performance rather enjoyable. McRae also gives him some reasonable characterisation, his megalomania motivated by an understandable need to survive, which his colossal ego inevitably transforms into world domination. This is hardly Earth-shatteringly original, but it is sufficient to meet the story’s requirements, and when he is inevitably forced to submit to an upgrade of his own, Lloyd-Pack conveys his obvious fear convincingly, as he impotently protests, “I’m not ready.” Once he becomes the Cyber Controller, he also serves as a villain with whom the Doctor can spar, thus stepping into the role previously filled by David Banks’ charismatic Cyber Leaders, as the Doctor gives a defence of the need for emotion and the Controller makes the case for the prosecution.

Other supporting characters include the President, portrayed as a wise and thoughtful leader and made all the more commanding by Don Warrington’s superb performance. Although he’s little more than a henchman, ???’s Mr. Crane is an oddly memorable character too, and his sudden realization that he’s in out of his depth results in the oddly satisfying scene in which he manages to wreak Lumic’s life support system before a Cyberman dispatches him. The Preachers also work quite well as rebels who turn out to include a middle aged woman who keeps weapons in her handbag, and “London’s most wanted for parking tickets”. Shaun Dingwell returns as Pete Tyler and gives a solid performance, making him as likeable as he was in ‘Father’s Day’ but a great deal more capable and confident, and pairs up with Rose in ‘The Age of Steel’ to enter the factory; both actors make their characters look suitably terrified this point. Harper even manages to get a decent performance out of Camille Coduri, which I wouldn’t have believed possible, although the trite coda with the “real” Jackie is an unpleasant reminder of what we usually get.

All of which brings me to the regulars. David Tennant is much the same as he usually is here, although he does start to smell slightly of ham when he’s confronting the Controller. But worthy of particular note is his performance at the end of ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, as the Doctor realises just what he’s dealing with. Tennant makes him look terrified, as he grabs Rose and legs it out of the house, and this significantly contributes to the effectiveness of the Cybermen at this point. His repeated attempts to surrender have an air of panic underlying them, and it is important I think that the resolution to the cliffhanger, dismissed by some as a shameless McGuffin, sees him risking his means of getting home to save their lives. Billie Piper too manages to look frightened quite a lot, and McRae’s script requires her to show how Rose is feeling through facial expressions and body language than some previous scripts. For the record however, the moment when she jealously asks the Doctor, “Who’s Lucy?”, is profoundly irritating.

But in many respects, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’/‘The Age of Steel’ is Mickey’s story. Mickey, and Noel Clarke, have come a long way since ‘Rose’, which gave us a frightened and ineffectual buffoon via the medium of slightly wooden acting. Clarke has really made the role his own however, and in this, his final story, all of his hard work pays off. He might snarl his way unconvincingly through the role of Ricky, but as Mickey he’s brilliant. The touching scene in which Mickey meets the parallel version of his grandma implies that Mickey still feels guilty that he didn’t repair the torn carpet that caused his gran to fall down the stairs and kill herself, and Clarke lets all of this show on his face. ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ sees him indignantly realize, “You just forgot me!” when he’s been holding down a button for half and hour, and then, with a mixture of triumph and regret, head off to find his gran in defiance of the Doctor, knowing that the Time Lord will follow Rose, not him. This sows the seeds for ‘The Age of Steel’, as Mickey refuses to carry on being “the tin dog” and insists on joining Jake’s raid on the transmitter. Interestingly, the real turning point for Mickey here seems to be the moment when Ricky grudgingly shows him approval, perhaps seeing Mickey literally happy with who he is, and in the latter half of the episode he comes into his own. He convinces Jake to spare the guards, asking him, “If you kill ‘em, what’s the difference between you and the Cybermen?” On board the zeppelin he proves extremely brave, tricking a Cyberman into destroying the transmitter, before he gets to save the day, with a little help from the Doctor, by hacking into the Cybus Corporation systems and finding the code to deactivate the emotional inhibitors. He also gets to come to the rescue of the others, holding the zeppelin steady over the burning factory. His decision to stay behind, bid goodbye to Rose and step out of the shadow of the Doctor, is a fantastic departure from the series, and the Doctor’s heartfelt, “Good luck, Mickey the idiot” is actually more touching than his last hug with Rose. His final scene in the program is lovely, as he tells Jake, “Let’s go an liberate Paris.” “Just you and me? In a van?” “There’s nothing wrong with a van. I once saved the universe in a big yellow truck.”

So overall I think ‘Rise of the Cybermen’/‘The Age of Steel’ works extremely well, not only as a return for the Cybermen and Graeme Harper but also as a farewell to Mickey. I do however have one major criticism. I’ve given this a brief mention in previous episode reviews, but by now Murray Gold’s music is reaching a point where it is actively starting to drive me insane. Ladled like treacle over nearly every scene, it simultaneously manages to be both bland and yet impossible to ignore, endlessly recycling the same saccharine riffs during emotional moments in an attempt to tell the audience what to think. Even Keff McCulloch’s worst excesses irritated me less than this, perhaps because however bad his scores were, someone different would punctuate his audio manure when the next story came along. Gold’s role as series composer though means that we get the same tepid music week after week after week. And there is no end in sight.

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