Rise Of The Cybermen and The Age Of Steel
Series Two, Episodes Five and Six
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.|
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.|
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.|
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!