Skin of Metal, Feet of Clay (Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel Reviewed)

Rise of the Cybermen

I hadn’t realized until recently how much of this season is about immortality. Consider: New Earth and Tooth and Claw feature aliens which have been alive for generations and at least one which has lived long past her time (Cassandra). Then in School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace, the Doctor is brought face to face with his de facto immortality compared to the humans he loves (Sarah Jane, Rose and Reinette). And now we come to the Cyberman two parter, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, which feature creatures who fought off death by sacrificing their souls.

Not that this actually goes anywhere this season. Looking ahead, there’s no punchline, and the commonalities of the first six stories peter out. Still, it’s a nice touch.

But nice ideas petering out best describes the Cybermen two parter, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel. This storyline, possibly the most hyped of the season, featuring the return of Doctor Who’s second most popular monster and possibly its greatest director (Graeme Harper, whose Caves of Androzani is still considered among the best stories, if not the best story in the program’s history), is nice to look at, has many elements to enjoy, but doesn’t live up to its promise, and the big problem is the Cybermen themselves.

Some time after the events of The Girl in the Fireplace, the TARDIS has an accident and falls through a crack in time. The Doctor, Mickey and Rose are initially afraid that the timeship is dead, and they’re lost between dimensions, but Mickey discovers that they’ve landed on a parallel Earth, one with Zeppelins and a black president of Great Britain. The planet appears to be slightly more technologically advanced than Earth, with everybody wearing bluetooth devices and downloading the latest news and the daily joke right into their brains.

Of course these advances have a dark side. They’re largely the result of Mr. Lumic, a mad genius whose business success has given him influence in just about every company in England and has put his devices in every home in the known world. But Lumic has grander plans than making Bill Gates his pool boy. Crippled and ailing, Lumic is fighting against his own mortality, and decides he wants to take the people of Earth with him. He has a major upgrade planned for humanity and, unfortunately, the Doctor has seen it before.

Doctor Who’s new Cybermen have their merits. Late in Rise of the Cybermen, Lumic’s Cybermen crash a party (pun unfortunately intended and delivered) organized by Rose’s parallel parents, Jackie and Pete Tyler. When they bash their way through windows, Erin turned to me and said, “now that’s something the Cylons can’t do.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Battlestar Galactica have done monster thrashes before.”

“Yeah, but the Cybermen are so much more there.”

And it’s true. The Cylons are marvelously scary monsters, but they’re also masterful CGI creations. And being masterful CGI creations, they still feel less real than the Cybermen, who are impressive men in suits. Even so, Rise of the Cybermen invites comparison with Battlestar Galactica’s metallic enemies, and that leaves the program open for criticism.

As I said earlier, Doctor Who owns the Daleks. They’re as much of the popular culture of Britain as the TARDIS itself, and any science fiction show that tries to imitate their tank-like appeal is going to be seen as a copycat. That said, even though the Cybermen are widely seen as Doctor Who’s number two villains, the concept of a mechanical man — even a mechanized human — is a far more pedestrian science fiction concept. While Doctor Who has been off the air, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica have taken the idea and run with it. By the time Doctor Who’s Cybermen stomp back onto our screens, they’ve re-entered a crowded field.

And what differentiates Doctor Who’s Cybermen from Star Trek’s Borg or Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons? The two American shows have pulled the cybernetic concept in different directions: the Cylons are machines which have achieved humanity, while the Borg are humanoids who have lost that humanity. Doctor Who treads a middle ground: the Cybermen are humans who have lost their humanity, but they fight with the ruthlessness of Cylons. Middle grounds are nice in things like politics, but as a distinctive narrative, it leaves much to be desired.

Doctor Who has a unique genesis story for the Cybermen. In 1966, they were presented as former humans from a planet called Mondas that shared Earth’s orbit until millennia ago when it somehow went skittering out of our solar system. The humans on the planet, being more technologically advanced than we were, used those technological means to keep themselves alive while the environment collapsed. Things went okay until they replaced their brains with computers, at which point they lost their souls.

The scientific ludicrousness of Mondas aside, the suggestion that the Cybermen were human once still lends these creatures a considerable dramatic punch. The Doctor’s visit to a parallel universe allows the revived series to neatly reboot the concept, and possibly explore again how humans could ever consider sacrificing their humanity.

The danger, of course, is that a new Cybermen origin story would closely mirror that of the Daleks, where a crippled genius pulls the Kaled race into the Dalek era, whether they want to go or not. The key to making the Cybermen succeed here is to go places we haven’t gone before.

In the Doctor Who radio play entitled Spare Parts, starring Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor, Marc Platt explores this concept in detail. The origin story of Mondas is brutally described, as every other option for the Mondasians’ salvation is systematically removed. The creation of the Cybermen becomes something that is coldly logical. Early reports that Marc Platt might have received a payment from Russell T. Davies due to similarities between Spare Parts and Rise of the Cybermen filled me with hope that we might see something approaching this brilliant radio play being adapted to the television screen.

Sadly this was not the case. Thus the tragedy of the Cybermen — a tragedy that Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica do not explore, remains unexplored on Doctor Who, missing a great opportunity for the show to set itself apart from the two other television science fiction institutions.

Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel have other problems as well, especially on the writing front. Although the story is set up to deliver a wonderful spectacle, it achieves its storyline through a series of plot contrivances. Consider:

  • Why does Lumic bother to crash Jackie Tyler’s 40th birthday party, except for effect? It might be a show of force against the British President, but as shows of force go, it’s over quite quickly. Lumic already has control over most of the population of London through their bluetooth earpieces — which the President himself is wearing, so why bother?
  • Does nobody drive in London anymore? There are several scenes where Londoners receive their daily downloads through their bluetooth earpieces. These are wonderfully creepy sequences where everybody on the street just stops and stands silently for several seconds… until you realize that if anybody did this while in a car, they’d wake up in a box of twisted metal on the motorway. Perhaps nobody does drive anymore — perhaps the van that the resistance fighers use is another piece of contraband — and instead people just walk, take the Underground or travel by Zeppelins, but even these airships would have accidents if their pilots were forced to surf the Internet.
  • There is very little rhyme and reason to who Lumic and the Cybermen choose for conversion and who they choose for deletion. In one case, the Doctor’s imminent deletion becomes fodder for a quick cliffhanger, but later a Cyberman is able to detect the fact that the Doctor has two hearts and shows enough initiative to take him to Lumic for further investigation.

The dialogue is also overblown in places, providing moments of unintentional hilarity. Consider this exchange in the teaser between Lumic and a hapless scientist as the Cyberman prototype is unveiled. When the hapless scientist mentions that the United Nations will have to be informed, Lumic grabs a piece of scenery and has lunch with it.

Lumic: “How will you tell them… from BEYOND THE GRAVE?”
Scientist: “I-I’m sorry, I don’t know what…”
Me: (facepalm!)

One imagines the dialogue from the extended version.

Lumic: “All right… How will you tell them… WHEN YOU’RE PUSHING UP THE DAISIES?”
Scientist: “Uh… Sorry, I don’t follow.”
Lumic: “How will you tell them… WHEN YOU’RE SIX FOOT UNDER?”
Scientist: “Um… Still not getting you.”
Lumic: “How will you tell them… WHEN YOU’RE IN A PINE BOX?”
Scientist: “I’m sensing a little hostility, here.”
Scientist: “Oh! I get it, you’re being sarcastic — Yerk!!” (Thud!)

Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel are more about spectacle than narrative. Fortunately, the narrative holds together enough to support the spectacle. These two episodes form two hours of enjoyable television, and there are lots of nice little touches, both funny and tragic. Witness the creepy use of In the Jungle during the first Cyber conversion scenes.

There are also plenty of tips of the hat to previous Cybermen stories. The resistance fighter Mrs. Moore provides an excellent supporting role as she and the Doctor infiltrate the Battersea factory by the cooling ducts, only to discover that these are lined with Cybermen in cold storage — a nice recollection of Tomb of the Cybermen. Then there is the scene when the Doctor and Mrs. Moore end up shutting off the emotional inhibitor on a particular Cybermen, who turns out to be a young woman who had been on the eve of her wedding. David Tennant plays this tragic moment well, and his grief when he shuts down the Cybermen’s emotional inhibitors and makes them realize what was done to them, is a highlight. And the scene where the Doctor communicates to Mickey how to shut down those emotional inhibitors is artfully done.

Indeed, David Tennant is in fine form here. In the scene where Rose and Mickey decide to go off in separate directions, much to the Doctor’s consternation, is a highlight. It is the season in microcosm. You really sense the Doctor’s fear as he feels himself losing control of the situation. There’s Rose desperation for a complete family, and Mickey’s frustration at being a spare wheel in the relationship.

But it’s Mickey’s story that steals the show. Actor Noel Clarke has really done wonders here, and the producers have surprised me by bringing forward a compelling subplot about somebody who wasn’t even intended to be a companion. Mickey, you will recall, was reduced to cowering behind Rose during the first story of the Doctor Who revival. While Rose took to life aboard the TARDIS like a fish to water, it was Mickey’s fish out of water story that made for more compelling viewing. The Age of Steel caps things off nicely, making Mickey rise above his timid origins and grasp his future in both hands. It’s a remarkable development, well written and well played.

The heralded return of director Graeme Harper is a bit of a disappointment, but only because the series around Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel is so strong, and he finds himself amongst directors who are as good as he is. Harper gives us an episode that looks good, and functions despite the flaws of its storytelling. And that is Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel in a nutshell: an episode that looks good, at least, despite the flaws that lie under the surface.

Random Notes

  • You notice that, when the President of Great Britain asks if Lumic is insane, that Pete Tyler nods even as he says, “that’s not the word I would use.” It’s a nice touch, which foreshadows the revelation that Pete Tyler is the mole in Lumic’s organization.
  • There’s a great visual moment, when the Doctor realizes what’s happening, and Rose sees the Cybermen marching on the house. They run into the party room — nobody else is aware of the danger — and they just share a look. And in that look, volumes get spoken. It is remarkable chemistry — almost telepathy — that’s on display here.
  • When Ricky meets Mickey, I loved the line: “Somehow Cybus Industries has perfected the art of human cloning… or your Dad had a bike.” It’s an interesting touch that this Earth’s Mickey is called Ricky, given that the ninth Doctor continually called Mickey “Ricky” last season. But what’s up with that? Did the Doctor know something we didn’t? It’s never explained and, on some level, I find that annoying — another example of something that’s superficially cool, but which doesn’t make sense when you look deeper.
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