Monday, 21 January 2013

Spare Pants

Doctor Who
Rise Of The Cybermen and The Age Of Steel
Series Two, Episodes Five and Six

Hmm.  Cybermen.

With the Daleks back on our screens, it was inevitable that Doctor Who would dust off its second-most-famous monsters at some point.  But that's the thing with Cybermen: they're second-best.  And for good reason.

The idea's creepy.  They're mostly-mechanical people who skulk around turning everyone else into one of them.  Creepy, right?  So why do they mostly settle for blowing stuff up and killing people, just like every other sci-fi villain?  The whole they-used-to-be-people thing never really makes a difference.  No wonder Star Trek saw an opening and invented the Borg, who are essentially the same thing, only actually creepy.

In their defence, they can bust a move.
Fortunately, the tedious tin-men have an ace in the hole.  Their origin story is an absolute belter, and it's never been done on screen.  It's the subject of a dazzling audio drama, Spare Parts, and why not just straight-up adapt that?  The tale of a people forced to mechanise themselves or die, it's some of the most poignant and compelling Doctor Who you're ever likely to find, and it's just what the Cybermen needed.  Had it been a television script thirty years ago, rather than an audio drama made after the series finished, it'd be one of the major highlights of Doctor Who.

And, well, that's not what we have here.  Spare Parts is credited for inspiration, but what made it to the screen is more like a Doctor Who panto, guest starring the Cybermen.  "It's alive!"  "You're not God!"  "Noooooo!"  So much for poignant and compelling; this is more the stuff of really cheesy B-movies.

Okay, down to business.  How do the Cybermen go about Rising?  Well, an insane megalomaniac (sigh) has come up with a way to improve mankind, whether they like it or not.  Using his popular Earpod technology (geddit?), he remote-controls people straight into factories to be processed as Cybermen.  Meanwhile, the homeless are led into lorries, using the unlikely promise of hot food and a bath, so they too can be carted off to factory-land.  Well, that was easy.

Where's all the good stuff?  The tragedy, for a start.  If they're not choosing to become like this, it stops being about heartbreaking inevitability – which was what made it terrifying, and therefore good in the first place and just becomes another bog-standard nutter forcing his way on the masses.  You've seen that before.

I'm not saying this had to be exactly the same as Spare Parts, but if you're going to fundamentally cut the bit that inspired you to begin with, wouldn't a few fresh ideas make better substitutes than whatever's in the Sci-Fi Cliché Bargain Bin?  Standing in for the good stuff is some lame satire about depending too much on technology.  As for the business of herding hobos with a dodgy bit of "Step right up, sir!", it's considerably less chilling than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Absolutely none of this is helped by Roger Lloyd-Pack being hysterically over the top in every single scene as the megalomaniac, but then what else is he supposed to do with a wheelchair-bound Dr Evil who says things like "And how can you do that from beyond the grave?"

Some of the most poignant and compelling... ah, never mind.
So the origin story is liberated of its terror and its heart, and the mad scientist's a write-off.  What about the actual Cybermen?  Well, they look pretty cool, although the stomping-in-unison teeters terrifyingly close to Thriller.  The voices, courtesy of Nick Briggs, aim for robotic monotone but just come off unintelligable.  Maybe that's just as well, as they're mostly saying moronic stuff like "We are Human.2" and "Delete!"  (And not content with their embarrassing "Exterminate" rip-off, they're soon crowing about "Maximum deletion" as well.  What, as in the difference between Deleting a file and emptying the Recycle Bin?)

Obviously it's sad that they used to be people, but as they're frogmarched to their doom, and as we're dealing with a parallel universe anyway (specifically a quite nasty parallel version of Jackie Tyler), the point never hits home.  Nor is it explored in any depth.  There appears to be no actual use for a human brain inside a Cyberman, as they're almost entirely mechanical anyway.  If you remove all the emotions and humanity, well it's tragic in a blunt fashion, but what's the actual point of having a brain, then?  Why not a robot?  (There's a completely brainless Cyberman at one point, and that one works well enough.)

Any ramifications of all this are thrown away as quick as possible.  The Doctor, faced with cyborgs who used to be people, chooses to explode them rather than let them expand what humanity they have left.  Well, we can't go dealing with any actual issues, can we?  That girl, who's getting married tomorrow but for the slight inconvenience of being a Cyberman?  Not that she has an especially bright future ahead, but it might have been worth a shot, or at least an informed decision about whether she can continue to exist.  Nope: she's better off dead.  Just like New Earth, this raises horrific questions and then steamrolls over them, trading emotion for a comedic montage of exploding heads, adding a cursory "I'm sorry" from the Doctor to make it all better.  How utterly useless.

Perhaps in a generous attempt to leave the good version of this story in tact, Rise is set in a parallel universe  it concerns a whole different bunch of Cybermen.  Fair enough.  Parallel universes are a sci-fi staple, and you don't often see them in Doctor Who.  (The last one was in 1970.)  So what's this one like?  Sigh again: same universe, plus earpods, zeppelins and a totally unexplained military curfew.  Goodness, what breathtaking imagination.  Like so much else here, I honestly wonder why they bothered.

Still, it does throw up a few possibilities, and some of them work.  Mickey gets to meet his nan, who died in our universe, and his brief moments with her have real impact.  It's nice to see Mickey eke out a life away from Rose, and his eventual departure makes sense.  He's The Best Thing In This, hands down.  It's just a shame he hangs around with Jake, a shiny-faced Cyber-fighter who looks and sounds like he's in a soap opera, and his own horribly ridiculous doppelganger, Ricky.  (The extent of Noel Clarke's transformation is a frown and a silly voice.  What were they thinking?)

Worse than Ricky, oh so much worse, is the decision to have Rose meet her still-alive parallel dad.  Let's count the ways this doesn't work, shall we?  It trivialises Father's Day, an episode that explored these emotions in depth.  It makes Rose look like a horrible brat for thinking her lack of existence in this universe is solely to blame for ruining Pete and Jackie's marriage.  It makes the Doctor look like a moron for failing to keep her away from Pete and, as predicted, leaving Mickey to fates unknown.  Rose's eventual failure to kidnap alterna-dad, and the sobbing that ensues, seems less like a tragic outcome and more like Little Miss Greedy not getting her way.  Urgh.  There's just no part of this that works.  Why go there in the first place?

Tennant, here modelling a variety of Halloween "Doctor" masks.
Dum de dum.  What else?  Well the plot's so stupid, full of brains-being-welded-to-things and other genius ideas, it's fruitless to explore it in depth.  (Although I will say that finding out the Cybermen's kill-code, texting it to the Doctor and having him jam the entire phone into the nearest computer orifice is profoundly dumb.)  In all this, the Doctor barely registers.  So brilliant just two episodes ago, David Tennant has become a shouty, ineffectual plonker, and the script affords him little more opportunity to grow than seeing which ridiculous noises and faces he can make.  Yet again there are occasions when the Doctor yells at people to do or not do things, and they just ignore him.  It's getting old already.

Is it written in stone somewhere that the first two-parter in a series has to be really stupid?  Actually, that's not fair: Aliens Of London has some brilliant character development and wit mixed in with the dross.  Rise Of The Cybermen is nothing but a drossfest.  Delete!


  1. So when I tried to watch season 1, I saw The Long Game and RAN AWAY. Eventually I decided to give the show another chance. So I tried to watch season 2, and saw this. AHAHAHAHAHAH. It just wasn't meant to be.

    Also, I guess this version of Cybermen is like when they invented Davros back in the 70s and totally ruined the Daleks,

  2. I don't think Davros ruined the Daleks - at least, not at first. They were doing one Dalek story per year at that point, so I can understand them thinking "What else can we do with them?" A recent story, Planet Of The Daleks, was pretty much a remake of their first story. Ideas were getting thin. We hadn't seen the genesis angle before, and we all know Terry Nation loved equating Daleks with Nazis. So, simple: Dalek Hitler!

    Of course despite killing him off at the end, they brought him back for every subsequent Dalek adventure after that. They did at least split the Daleks up because of him - some following him, some not - which does reclaim a teensy bit of their independence from just being Frankenstein's lackeys. But they're always a bit less interesting when he's around, just like the Borg when there's a Queen about. (Although I like the actors who played her, and the stories she's in.)

    A thought recently occurred to me: the Cybermen are a great idea, but they've always played second fiddle to the Daleks. Somehow, they're just not as scary, and not as dangerous. Meanwhile, the same idea (more or less) goes on to be easily Star Trek's Most Dangerous Villain. So, that show's Daleks. They're what could have been for the Cybermen!

    1. I don't like the 'Davros made Daleks' idea because it goes against what we learn in their very first appearance. They weren't made deliberately - it was the result of years and years of radiation fallout.

  3. Oh, and: I cannot believe the episodes you ended up watching to see if you liked the series. Couldn't be The Empty Child, could it. Oh no. Couldn't be Parting Of The Ways.

    1. Well, Parting Of The Ways would have put me off too.

  4. I love Davros, especially in the Big Finish Audios, but I'd like to see them construct stories around him that have NOTHING to do with the Daleks. The whole 'curing universal hunger' thing is fantastic, let's see him put his phenomenal mind to work on some other problems - I'd love to see what perverse solutions he comes up with!

    As for the Cybermen, and this story in particular, I kinda like them, they're a lot more interesting as monsters than the Daleks, when the story actually plays to their strengths. I like the parallel universe origin - it's far less silly than the twin planet origin - and it's nice to see characters we know (sort of - alternate Jackie and Mickey) get done in by a monster, it's more frightening and effective than just exterminating/upgrading/whatever a random extra or minor supporting character. The stomping's a bit much, and John Lumic kind of sucks. I love the zeppelins though, and the use of cell phones and 'ear-pods' :D

    I think the Cybermen aren't working so well for the New Series because they've had their gig stolen by the Daleks, the thing that made the Cybermen unique and scary - the stripping away of one's personality and humanity with a good dose of body-horror. When you have Daleks doing the same thing, converting humans and 'stripping away all emotion', the Cybermen just come off as poor copies. The other problem is that the Cybermen LOOK too robotic (especially the 2013 redesign) - it's easy to forget that there are former-individuals in there. That's what the Borg have over the Cybermen - it's obvious that the Borg are using people as parts, which ties into all sorts of existential angst in modern society as well as just being icky (it's why the original 60s Cybermen are scarier than subsequent versions - you can see their HANDS!). I maintain that the single most effective use of the Cybermen in the New Series is the head and arm in 'The Pandorica Opens', because we get to see the yucky bits, and there's something really perverse about machine components hunting for organic components. More of that, please.

    Unfortunately, the New Series Cybermen have been shown repeatedly to be defeated by emotion/the power of love etc, and that combined with cute companion Cyber-heads and being mostly used in cameo-capacity has led to them becoming the butt-monkey of the series (well, not as much as the Sontarans, but that's another discussion). To restore them, the creators SHOULD have focused on what made them creepy in the first place, making them MORE organic, not less. and they should have had the guts to actually, permanently convert a recurring character, like Craig. And of course, the Daleks have to go back to doing what they're supposed to be doing - exterminating, not assimilating.

  5. I'm not fussed about the twin planet exactly - I just adore the idea that they gradually made this choice for themselves, replaced a bit at a time. That's beautiful and horrifying, and it's on another stratosphere to this story. (Where the people don't choose - it's the whim of a megalomaniac. Snip, snip: instant anti-drama!) You're right that it's nicely horrifying seeing a version of Jackie and Mickey get offed, though.

    Definitely agree that the Daleks should stay away from "body horror". Not only does it rip off the Cybermen - it totally muddies the Daleks. They're not interested in converting people. In Parting Of The Ways, the Daleks developed crazy self-loathing because they had genes that weren't pure Dalek. Why would they start doing this? Plus it's yet another boring repeat of The Empty Child. No wonder Moffat hasn't overseen any decent Dalek stories, and gave them "a rest". He's clearly got no idea what to do with them.

    But alas, the Cybermen. They're ridiculous now. (And they got worse in Nightmare In Silver, and AGAIN in Time Of The Doctor. Cute? Really?) I'm not so sure about the Sontarans, though: they've never convinced me as scary bad guys. I've often said this in forum-land, but I wonder if they're just too ridiculous-looking to escape being Doctor Who's Ferengi. (Who also started out scary.) For what it's worth, Strax makes me laugh.