This article covers the episodes Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel, which together form a single Doctor Who story.
Bringing back the Cybermen was a tricky business, simply because they have been done badly so many times. With such a low hit rate and so many traps to fall into, the odds were against getting them right. Tom MacRae’s approach here isn’t bad, basically focussing on all the things that made them frightening, so in many ways this tries to cobble together some of their greatest hits. You can tell that the inspiration is the 1960s. Despite the high-tech look the Sixties design is there, with the tear-drop eyes and a more streamlined overall appearance.
Then there are the voices. The early Cyber voices used to be scary. Really weird and freaky. Nicholas Briggs is a great choice to voice the Cybermen. Not only is he the voice of the Daleks, but he has had plenty of practice experimenting with different Cyber voices in Big Finish audios. Presumably he had plenty of input into how they would sound, as they draw heavily on the Sixties voices, modulated and disjoined, similar to the Big Finish ones.
The Cybermen’s greatest hits are The Tenth Planet, The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion, and MacRae cobbles together the scary conversion stuff of the first two of those, plus the Invasion of London big spectacle. The latter doesn’t work quite so well, in the absence of major landmarks for Cybermen to stomp by. We know how powerful an image it was to see Cybermen marching down the steps of St Pauls. More of the same would have been a nice touch here. Where the story is more successful in paying homage to The Invasion is in borrowing two of its best scenes: Cybermen in tunnels, and the rope ladder escape from the roof. Nicked from The Tomb of the Cybermen we have the Cyber Controller, complete with a different design with a visible brain. But before we have the Controller, we have John Lumic.
There is a noble tradition of actors playing it broad in Doctor Who, and stories such as The Horns of Nimon are all the richer and more fun because of that. But there is a time and a place for everything. A more subtle performance from Roger Lloyd Pack could have shown him as a genuinely frail, dying man, who creates the Cybermen out of sheer desperation. I suspect this is what MacRae was aiming for, and it would have been a much more realistic origin story, but it somehow gets lost between page and screen and instead we have a big bad that happens to have a disability. So basically Davros. And when Doctor Who shows us genesis stories for both its major, iconic monsters, and has both created by megalomaniacs without the use of their legs, without addressing why that has happened with any credibility, it starts to look decidedly dodgy. The whole alternative genesis story for the Cybermen is far less compelling than the real ones anyway, and opened up a can of worms when Cybermen from “our universe” eventually appeared, muddying the already confusing mess that is Cyber continuity.
The concept of parallel universes has become reasonably commonplace in science-fiction over the years, overused in the various Star Trek spinoffs and the whole premise of Sliders. However, it has hardly been touched upon in Doctor Who, so it feels like there is a whole bunch of untapped potential to be explored. The only major exception is Inferno, a much-loved Seventies story. The last time the Doctor was in a parallel universe it was a horrible defeat for him, to the extent that it was shown to be his greatest fear in The Mind of Evil. No wonder he is so keen to get out of it as soon as he arrives.
The concept takes precedence over the Cybermen plot for most of the first episode. We are shown a world that is a skewed version of our own, where technology has been taken to extremes. It is a warning, and one that gave birth to the idea of the Cybermen in the first place. Our expectations of a parallel universe are also cleverly subverted. As soon as we meet Ricky we are expecting him to be another Eye-Patch Brig, a “bad” version of Mickey, and the story plays on that for a while, until we realise that this is actually the same person as Mickey, with the only differences as a result of circumstances in his life. In fact, everyone we see in parallel is a more successful version of what they want to be, rather than an evil twin, which is what parallel universe stories almost invariable do. This is a much more intelligent and realistic approach to the idea, and the new improved versions of familiar characters plays nicely with the theme of the story, with the Cybermen being the new improved versions of the humans. In all cases this becomes a parable for being careful what you wish for in life. New improved is generally worse.
This is a big important story with a lot going on, so let’s have some random thoughts:
- Noel Clarke’s Mickey has always been a great asset to Doctor Who and it was a clever decision to make him into a full companion. The Age of Steel is his finest moment, and the series once again shows its core values: the Doctor helps ordinary people to do extraordinary things and develop beyond their normal potential. The decision to write Mickey out makes sense in dramatic terms, but it is certainly a great shame. He was deservedly a hugely popular character and it is sad to see him go.
- There is quite a lot borrowed from Dalek stories as well as previous Cybermen adventures. MacRae goes for a similar approach to Dalek, having the Cybermen bring out a strong negative reaction in the Doctor. He seems to be genuinely frightened of them and his first instinct is to try to surrender.
- Predictably there is an occupied Britain/war theme similar to The Dalek Invasion of Earth, complete with curfews, state controlled media, military in charge, fascism creating monsters, the resistance (Preachers) and even zeppelins in the sky.
- There is a lorry in Rise of the Cybermen with ‘International Electromatics’ on the side. This fictional company featured in the The Invasion. I am not ashamed to say that I adore little references for the fans like that.
- “Delete!” This is a new catchphrase for the Cybermen, who have previously never chanted things like the Daleks. Like Cybermen saying “Excellent!”, it doesn’t fit well with the idea of emotionless cyborgs. The Daleks chant “exterminate” precisely because they have emotions, and all of them are hatred.
- ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ starts half way through the track. RP
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The view from across the pond:
So when Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, it was just a matter of time before Daleks turned up again therefore it was equally likely that, sooner or later, their humanoid counterparts would do the same. Thus Rise of the Cybermen was probably one of the single most anticipated episodes of the season. This time, the Cybermen got a reboot, being a product of our world, not the planet Mondas as was originally envisioned. Like their salt shaker predecessor, they are now created by a man in a wheelchair, like Davros, but with a far more disturbing voice. (Davros sounded synthesized, Lumic sounds like he worked for the Devil!) And both races now have their own “battle cry”. (Although I still have doubts about whether or not “Delete” ever sounded creepy.) For fans of Twin Peaks, the Doctor’s line “it is happening again” is both appropriate and frightening as the Cybermen are back!
There’s something marvelous about finding the TARDIS pitched into darkness without power in a nowhere land. Unfortunately, it turns out to be London. Maybe that’s a bit funny, but I’m not sold. Still, it makes for a heck of an opener. Rose’s parents, Pete and Jackie, are back and they bring a lot to the story and leave us with some threads that get picked up later. Jackie is funny as ever as she realizes she has no idea why she needs signals from Venezuela and is irritated with Pete for pointing it out. Noel Clarke, playing both Mickey and Rickey, proves his acting talent and gives Mickey a fantastic farewell. And Tennant is perfect; summing up beautifully at the end that they went “far away”. Even through all the turmoil that Cybermen tend to bring with them, the episode has a lot of humor too. Mickey holding a button for half an hour was cold, but comical and Rose being the family dog added a laugh I wasn’t expecting! And a throw-back to The Invasion comes in the form of International Electromatics making a resurgence. Bravo to the writers who care about the history of the show.
The problem I had with part one is that it ends with Cybermen reaching out chanting “delete”. But why stop moving? A better cut would have been if they were walking forward, closing in, not standing still, reaching out. So the resolution at the start of the following week is a bit “deus ex machina” where the Doctor has the ability to fry the attackers. And that was what brought the episode down a little. There are a bunch of little issues with the episode. I won’t break them all down, but it needed polishing and didn’t get it. Don’t misconstrue: overall this was a strong story. And I don’t think it’s a huge leap to see ourselves moving in this direction one day. The notion of staying young forever with mind intact, even in an exoskeleton of metal is probably appealing to a great many people. Considering how far we’ve already come with Bluetooth technology and VR headsets, this episode hits the mark for something truly chilling because it can easily be our future. And that’s important to remember: the Cybermen are chilling, like Sally in part two, the bride who was converted into a Cyberman or the amazing scene where cyber-Jackie just blends in with all the others. Some version of Cybermen could be us in the future; not in salt-and-pepper shakers! Being totally at one with the machine… it is happening already.
Some random thoughts:
- Lessons from the Doctor are always appreciated. I love the line: “Talk about execution and you’ll make me your enemy and take some really good advice, you don’t want to do that!”
- The production crew do nail some things, like the score and the beautiful camerawork when the cyber-mask comes down towards the camera.
- Don Warrington (the President in part one), was known for his role as Rassilon in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventures. Was it intentional that the Doctor had the idea to attack “above, between, below”; same attack used to infiltrate Rassilon’s tower in The Five Doctors?
- Excellent writing: Ricky tells Mickey he’s alright because he hangs out with smart people. Maybe a message for young viewers?
- Blunders: How is it that the Cybermen make so much noise when they are walking but the Doctor and Mrs. Moore don’t hear the Cybermen approach when they are looking at the dead Cyber-Sally?
- Also, the Cybermen even from the classic series were known to proclaim things with glee, failing to hide their emotions. Lumic, the CyberController (which is a question in and of itself) is rather proud when he states, “this is the age of steel and I am its creator!” He also screams as he falls off the ladder on the way to the blimp. Not quite as unemotional as they should be!
- Lastly, if Mickey stayed in the alternate universe because his grandma needed him, so why is it that the first thing he sets out to do is go to Paris? Isn’t there a carpet that needs mending first? Or has he given up on his “gran”?
The Cybermen had always been great villains and made for fantastic stories. Let’s hope they also serve as a warning for the future not a template for it!
I’ve upgraded this review… time to do the same for a few others. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Idiot’s Lantern