THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

  1. Rise of the Cybermen
  2. The Age of Steel
BBC
Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel

Story No. 179-180 You will be upgraded
Production Code Series Two Episodes Five and Six
Dates May 13 and 20, 2006

With David Tennant, Billie Piper,
Camille Coduri, Noel Clark
Written by Tom Mcrae Directed by Graeme Harper
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: No more pain, no more disease...


Reviews

"Yesss, Delete, Control, Hash, all those lovely buttons..." by Damon Didcott 30/5/06

On a parallel Earth, strange things are happening and a madman dreams of steel. Unexpectedly stuck in this situation, the Doctor is disturbed to find things happening that he's seen before, a different take on an old foe but with all the same designs on changing mankind into something very, very different...

First things first, I liked David Tennant's performance a lot. You can see how inspirational the Doctor can be, scooping people up in his little whirlwind of energy and coming through with ideas when it counts. He's cheeky and chirpy, but with enough flashes of seriousness and darkness to even things up. Funnily enough, I found a couple minutes of Sally Phelan more affecting than a whole episode of a Dalek feebly reaching for the sunlight, thanks to the way it was understated (rather than ramped up with dramatic chords) and the tender way Tennant played it. His enjoyment of being in Mrs Moore's company, his angst about Mickey and Rose yet again going off and leaving him to clear up the mess, his anger when the Cybermen refuse to take his surrender, and his joy when he gets the TARDIS working again. Best of all is the scene in Cybercontrol, a wonderfully literate and passionate argument from the Doctor against the whole ethos of Lumic's Cybermen while giving out clues and resolving the entire situation all in one go. I always loved the almost poetic words and delivery the Seventh Doctor used to defeat Light, and here the Tenth shows the same ability to befuddle his enemies before ensnaring them in an unseen noose. The "I'd call you a genius, except I'm in the room" line was pure Tom Baker and made me smile, as did his very funny response to Rose and Pete being captured.

Mickey the Idiot. After a very underwhelming p-p-p-pizza start in Rose and a first season in which he often seemed to be stuck in a Groundhog Day of breaking up with Rose over and over again, Noel Clarke has really gained some momentum this season and finally gets a chance to shine. The exploration (and indeed just the existence) of his back story is long overdue. At last he's getting some of the attention from the script that Rose enjoyed. I found him to be a more interesting companion in The Girl in the Fireplace because he reactions were still fresh, and that good work continues here. He seems to fit more into the 'traditional companion' role than the more in-depth Rose, but that isn't a bad thing. I've really warmed to the guy.

And wonderfully, this is thrown into even more contrast when he plays his 'double', Ricky, the self-styled freedom fighter. Ricky is tough, streetwise, the man with the plan. Or at least tries to be. Even with this very different attitude and general competence there are still moments when Ricky can't help but be like Mickey, such as being London's Most wanted... for parking tickets. You get the feeling that if there wasn't anything to rebel against, Ricky would create a problem just to give him something to do.

It seems like Mrs Moore is the true brains behind the group (a likeable turn from Helen Griffin) with her vast knowledge of technical wizardry and bag full of tricks, like the A-Team combined into one middle-aged woman (thankfully without the mohawk). Although Ricky's distrustful nature and capacity for violence is so different from his own, Mickey still knows where the guy is coming from and doesn't want to let him down. Mickey isn't not some granite-chinned hero taking on the dangers of the universe with a smarmy grin; he's often scared out of his wits and yet continues to do what's right. We haven't had a companion this prone to fear and self-preservation since Turlough. It's a contrast that I appreciate, so Mickey's attempts to find the courage within himself become even more heroic. Of all his performances on the show, Clarke should be proud of this one.

Rose has a difficult time of it this week, with some tough emotional issues to face. I did find her side of the story to be a little weak at the core. I know how much she misses Pete, we saw that in Father's Day, but she seemed to have found peace in that story. Moreover, if suddenly seeing his picture opens everything up to her again and she wants to see him, she's been travelling around with the Doctor for a while now. She knows how much danger to the timeline occurred the first time round due to her actions, and even if that doesn't happen again she's fully aware that this is a place where her own life has no bearing. It's not her Earth. Mickey picks up on it instantly, a nice post-modern approach to save us several minutes of them wandering around marvelling at stuff like "Look, the papers have different names!" and so on. So even with all this knowledge, she still goes after him... despite her deep love for her father, this is a motivation where Rose chucks all sense out of the window, chasing after someone she knows won't recognise or understand her. Having said all that, Billie still works as a good foil for the Doctor, and delivers in the scenes with Pete and Mickey. She can really wring the most out of high-drama moments like those, and just as with similar efforts in Father's Day I was hooked.

There was a lot of anticipation about Graeme Harper returning to direct Doctor Who, after his lauded work on The Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks. He certainly throws everything he can into the mix, and judging from his comments on the DVDs for those two previous stories, he must've relished the availability of hand-held and crane operated cameras. The shots of the zeppelins slowly drifting through the London sky were beautiful, and the point-of-view shots of the cybernisation process were very chilling. Someone's been watching Revenge of the Sith too, with a cute nod to the Darth Vader mask being lowered. It's really with the second half, which is mainly comprised of chases and running about, where you can see Harper's quality. Handled incorrectly or just in an average way, they can be very dull, but Harper's quick edits and choice of shots give a lot of life and energy to these segments. And then when we need something slower, such as the Doctor and Mrs Moore making their way past dozens of inactive Cybermen in a tight tunnel, he cranks up the tension with moody blue lighting and a claustrophobic angle. I enjoyed spotting the little directorial flourishes he added to the material. I loved how he shot one Cybermen, smashing through a window with a hefty boot, from such a low angle it looked like it was practically crashing through into your living room. And though we KNOW that the Cybermen are in this episode from the title, and what they look like from all the publicity shots in magazines and the Radio Times and so on, Harper still gives us shots of a foot here, an out-of-focus shot there, to build up to their big reveal.

Of course, the major attraction for this story was the re-introduction of the Cybermen. After the Daleks had come back so successfully, the pressure was on to deliver again. Unlike the Daleks though, the Cybermen had gone through extensive redesigns before, even after their first appearance way back when. The challenge was to come up with something new while still retaining the most iconic characteristics. The good news is that once again I think they've really hit a home run. The handlebars, the electronically-altered voices, the silvery look and brute strength are all present and correct, but these new Cybermen have a real feeling of massive weight. Instead of guns they now have the ability to channel electricity through their hands, killing with a touch. It makes them more of a short-ranged threat than before, there are a couple points where a cybergun would've come in extremely handy, but it's still a nice new gimmick. Their voices are an interesting mix of the harsh buzz of the Troughton-era Cybermen crossed with the deeper tone of the 80s Cybermen. A line or two sounds a little obscure, but in the main I had no problem understanding them. They get the "You will be like us" line again too, nice touch.

They're a lot noisier clomping around; the sight of a row of Cybermen marching towards you in perfect file is unnerving. They've returned to their emotionless nature and, soft spot in my heart though I'll always have for the exxxxxcellent Cyber Leader, it suits them better. They come across as extremely creepy and menacing, their faceplates looking even more skull-like and harsh. I'm also extremely happy to see the emphasis put on their role as metal zombies, looking not only to conquer us but to actually turn us into them as well... this body horror has always been my favourite part of Cyber mythology.

I found Roger Lloyd Pack's performance as Lumic to be a little too theatrical, if not hammy at times. I did get used to it as the story moved on, and by the end his voice sounded very fitting, but in general it came across as a little too grandly manic. In his wheelchair-cum-life-support-system he was bound to draw comparisons to Davros, which is unfortunate due to the strength of Michael Wisher's performance in Genesis; it's a hard act to top. I found it easiest to accept that he was already barking mad by the time we see him for the first time; it makes his proclaiming and goggle-eyed look more suitable. I won't say it was a bad performance, just a bit more melodramatic than I've expected from the new series so far. It's his final scenes that play out the best, his gravelly voice very threatening.

As for the rest of the supporting cast... I was glad to see Shaun Dingwall return, it's certainly a novel way for him to come back. He didn't have the same material as in Father's Day but worked well with what he had and still showed good chemistry with Billie Piper. I wondered if they'd flip his character around and make him into a ruthless con artist, however that didn't happen. His life with Jackie seemed a bit superfluous to the story, but when he ended up on the run it provided a good drive for the character, with a great eerie conclusion to his attempts to mount a rescue. Also good to see an old face in Colin 'Lilt' Spaull pop up again as Lumic's right-hand man, a devious rodent of a chap that nearly ends up doing the right thing out of purely selfish reasons.

Finally, there are some elements that fall flat. The main one that comes to mind is how the TARDIS is suddenly stuck in a very perilous situation where everything seems lost, the script working hard to put over the danger, then a little 5-minute nose around by the Doctor is enough to resolve all the problems. They did so well in making things seem desperate that the technobabble solution just deflated all the tension. The 'cyber handles' on Jackie looked a little bit silly, just the bleeping ear pieces would've done the job, and I thought it was a real shame we didn't get to see more of Mickey's nan.

A tighter first half, a bit more restrained menace from Lloyd Pack, and some ironing out of little quibbles would've made this one of the absolute classics of Doctor Who. But it's still not too far off. An in-depth look at the very roots of the Cybermen and their way of thinking, lots of action with real drive and pace, a bucketful of scares and chills, a quickfire Doctor that takes moral strength from his life experiences, genuine emotional pull, and Mickey rising to the occasion. It's great, one of the best Cybermen stories ever, and just good Who in general.

And after being a dinner lady, isn't Billie just a highlight in that maid outfit?

Rating - 8/10 (Very Good)


Solid as a Rock by Thomas Cookson 8/6/06

I think these were overall the Series 2 Doctor Who episodes I'd been really waiting for. As I said in my Christmas Invasion review, my sense of anticipation of each new episode is nowhere near as strong as it was last year. In fact, so far it's been pretty void. New Earth didn't impress me much, though repeated viewings do give me the odd chortle now and again (and maybe the odd woody too), Tooth and Claw showed a distinct improvement, School Reunion I loved and had really wished it had been a two parter (despite my initial reservations about the bitch-fight moments) and Girl in the Fireplace (which further confirmed to me Steven Moffat's love of Sapphire & Steel) was perhaps even more remarkable. But still I didn't find myself caught in the passion of expectation of episodes to come. I still didn't pick up a hunger for more, until this episode.

I'd say that emotional impact was a key to this episode's insidious effect on me. I was decidedly repelled by the soapy melodrama of The Christmas Invasion, but come School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace, their stories of ladies in waiting and the wonder and melancholy of time travel did capture me in their poignancy. In fact I always find myself shedding a tear in The Girl in the Fireplace in the scene where one of the clockwork robots starts winding down. But none had quite lingered with me so deeply as this story: there is something about this story's emotional content that stings and actually leaves me quite distressed afterwards, in a way that I could only say about the stories The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Web of Fear, Inferno, Dalek and Parting of the Ways.

I had a feeling that Steve Cassidy hated this one (since he told me Father's Day put him out) though I was wrong, but I know for a fact that bitter old Ron Mallett held it in nothing but his usual mean despondence and contempt (that is if he actually saw it)! Maybe what strikes me about the emotional content of this episode is that a certain wall is put up against the characters' emotions and won't let them get through; in this case it is the parallel universe setting. A place where Rose and Mickey don't belong and they can't admit to anyone here who they are or where they come from. In this way a lot of the emotions aren't said, or aren't received with twee wholeheartedness. Rose has found that in this universe, her father is still alive, whilst Mickey is similarly relieved to find his grandmother hasn't passed on, but neither can actually explain how they feel to their loved ones. Particularly Rose, who in this universe has no place with her parents since she was actually never born. Mickey is wonderfully capable here, by the way; he just seems so resourceful and streetwise, and blends in superbly to this familiar, yet unfamiliar environment.

But of course the centre of the episode is all about Rose. In Father's Day, we had come to expect a wonderfully sentimental portrayal of Pete Tyler from Shaun Dingwall, having seen him play his moments with Rose in such a passionate, explosive and hands-on way that only a father would feel. Maybe it's disappointing to see this sentimental edge absent here, but then again maybe it isn't. This is a Pete Tyler who grew older and outlived his youthful optimism. For all his money, he has been unfulfilled for too long. He is simply a worker drone in an unhappy marriage and his fatherly instincts never came to fore. Similarly with Jackie, if she comes across as particularly obnoxious here, this is probably deliberate. In an unhappy marriage and with no daughter to bring out her redeeming nurturing instincts (it's interesting actually because the last time we saw Jackie, she was into the festive spirit and was for once perfectly charming) she is at her ugliest here, wealth has brought out the worst in her and Rose's absence has prevented the best of her from winning out. As common as Jackie was as a council-estate dweller, she makes a far worse snob, positively hating everyone beneath her who pampers her. The scene where Rose gets a nasty scolding from her mum for trying to give her female advice about Pete is a brilliant unexpected stab of reality. It lets it be known that we don't live in an empathising world, in fact often attempts to empathise with people are taken as an insult or a threat (actually the scene could have made Jackie the one in the right, asserting her right to privacy despite her fame, but the script allows her no such kindness and lets her be as reprehensible as she pleases), and in a way the episode is acknowledging the heartless way that society really is, and is saying that we are still not far off a Cyberman's world (despite the propaganda there is nowadays about how we're supposedly living in a ?omanly' and ?mpathising' society- propaganda is all it is). But it's the conflict within the drama and how it roots itself perfectly in the plot and setting that makes it terrific emotional drama to me.

In many ways I see it as the story that those who criticise the emotional emphasis of the new series can point at and say "That's the right way to do it!" Whereas perhaps Boomtown instead had an emotional material sub-plot that was such a far removed side show to the main event that it did perhaps seem boring by comparison, What we see here on the emotional front is a story that gets its emotional impact from the science-fiction elements in an inseparable way, where the dead loved ones that the characters once knew are alive here in this alternative reality. Some fans have described the scene where Rose gets a scolding from her mother as a long-deserved moment for Rose. I wouldn't be that mean spirited, but I would say it came as a nicely unexpected moment and yet simultaneously one that was bound to happen sometime. Overall the emotional material of the series has been pretty twee; whenever Rose is upset, she has plenty of people close to her to turn to for a shoulder to cry on and for encouragement: the Doctor, her lap-dog Mickey and of course the safety of mother's arms. For most of the episode, Rose is moaning, trying to work herself up emotionally about how the Doctor won't let her see her father. But in a way that works, because it's an indulgent kind of mopeyness that isn't yet going to experience the real pain that the Doctor has warned her about (oh and her kitten-like pouting to the Doctor when he starts to get curious about Pete Tyler's job description here is great!). By the same token, Mickey's cliche-ridden chat in his reunion with the doppelganger of his long dead Gran works because it is true to reality in some ways: most young men these days do hide their emotions and when they start to try and express them, cliches are often the only method of communication to hand that they rely on. Actually there is at the end a lovely huggy moment, but the whole desperation and pain of it and how it says so much in just the "clinging for dear life" kind of hug without saying a word that it feels utterly sincere and breathtaking.

It works better this way in how Rose is pushed more to aloneness and that following her heart has actually for once caused her pain instead of happiness: rejected harshly by both her parents, with Mickey wandering off by himself and the Doctor is discouraging her in every way and by the end of it, he should be "I told you so"-ing. The unexpected cavalierness of the moment almost allowing Rose's shock to mirror that of one of Lumic's first victims who wasn't prepared to realise just how insane the bad guy was. This is a world in which money and goals mean everything, a reactionary world of extremes, and one in which the Doctor really is the man you should listen to, but unfortunately no-one does. Rose has often had a way of easily befriending people, and yes has often done so without any cultural sensitivity (as in The Unquiet Dead) but never suffering for it and it did seem as though somewhere along the line this needed to get testy or dangerous and here it does. And that's not all, we get one of those protracted emotional dialogue scenes that absorbs the characters in a touching scene (a good one though) whilst the Cybermen surround them unawares and make the kill - and believe me people die, so the dangers of the plot for once aren't stopping for anything or anyone, no matter how emotional they get. Which to me is nicely reminiscent of the old series, like Victoria losing her father to the Daleks: the worst thing that could have happened to Victoria, actually does happen and all of Victoria's love for her father can't bring him back. In the same way, Larry in The Dalek Invasion of Earth dies strangling his robotised brother Phil when he realises his brother is no longer human.

In a way by making the Tylers of this dimension so emotionally vapid, it actually for once allows the moral confrontation between heroes and villains to be given plenty of room to be the centre of the episode's passion. It is the President of Britain, played brilliantly by Don Warrington who really shows moral courage in standing up to the insane cyber-creator Lumic. He even apologises to the Cybermen for what has been done to them; the Cybermen were made from the city's homeless and perhaps the President's apology reflects how he knows that he enforces the ruthless class system that made these poor homeless souls so vulnerable to unnoticed abduction (all this said at the backdrop of the rich snobs of the Tyler's party - perfect). In this heartless parallel world, he is briefly the closest thing this world has to a Doctor of its own.

Roger Lloyd Packer to my mind was great in the role of Lumic. That piercing stare, that robust calculating delivery in a gruff weathered voice. With iron determination, wonderfully reminiscent of Davros' first story, and even showing moments of pathos in his personal heart-on-sleeve plea to the president: "I am dying!" A great old school Doctor Who villain that I think we all deserved. I've never understood fans who actually slammed his ham performance. I loved the little sunovabitch. I kind of wanted him to win and to conquer all the vapid masses of upgrade-obsessed sheep that characterise modern society (even the resistance fighters felt a bit too shady and volatile - although the presence of the Tardis crew does bring out their better angels in the end). Hell I would have gladly watched Lumic get his own spin-off series.

The Cybermen look absolutely great, by the way. Russell was right to have them in steel rather than silver: they really look like they could trample you or rip your arms out of your sockets in a matter of seconds. Their stomping movement is perfect, as is their computerised speech. The scene of Cyber-conversion has a certain disjointedness that allows it to be dramatic without being too intense, that allows it to lightly imply rather than go straight for the jugular and in a way it works. I've always liked how Doctor Who can be suspenseful without being hammeringly or heart-poundingly intense.

The directing of Graeme Harper was every bit as great as I'd hoped. I was perhaps expecting it to retain more of the kind of cyber-punk atmosphere of Revelation of the Daleks, but I must say the episode worked wonderfully. Maybe it is because it showed Graeme Harper's wonderful trademark of landscape shots or because it gave such a wonderful image of the subversion of contemporary society (whereby perhaps the lack of cyberpunk made it feel less exotic and more real) or because of just the sheer menace of the Cybermen, conveyed by limited and unpredictable frameings that let the Cybermen either sneak or storm into view unexpectedly. But whatever it was, this story had something truly solid about it, something well-sheened and glowing that made me hungry for more, and for giving it more repeat viewings than any other in the series. And I think that cliffhanger really brought me back into the series. To see the Tenth Doctor doing something sensible but un-Doctorly that finally allowed me to really consider him a distinctive character in his own right. And also because, hey, it was a wapping cliffhanger, but I definitely knew that my hunger for more episodes had been ignited at full flame. And no pun intended but it was positively electric.

But wait, I'm talking about the two parter aren't I? Well I'll try not to say too much about the plot without spoiling it, but it generally kind of matches up, although it's got a few faults too. There's a wonderful blend of the light and the dark in this follow-up episode, that whilst aggravating to some fans, worked for me, since Doctor Who has always been about the jolly prevailing over the horrific and traumatic, a perfect juxtaposition of jovial comic-strip action and haunting body-horror.

Speaking of which, there is a scene involving a guest character mid-way through that was so haunting and tragic, and appropriately half-muffled that it's the one moment from the story that stayed with me the most. This is the story that mainly gives the rest of the cast the chance to shine, after the Doctor dominated last week's episode with his omnipotent presence that people ignored at their own risk. The rest of the cast get moments to be heroic, to be vengeful, to reveal their own past, to be jubilant and to meet unexpectedly tragic fates. I had actually read some very implying spoiler messages on the IMDB boards (a place where no-one seems to care how big their spoilers are in their thread titles; please don't go there, for your own good), and for that reason the episode really had me on my toes, terrified about who might bite the dust, and there were plenty of dangerous and reckless moments that left characters literally dangling, to make me worry greatly, since anything could happen. And I am saying no more!

The episode's layout is appropriately more spread out than last week's as it shows the unstoppable flow of the silver tide onto the streets. If only we could have seen Daleks in the outdoors too last year. There was something especially gut-churning about this episode, something more explicit in its view of the gory details of the Cybermen, and the final bloodbath is as harrowing and disturbing as anything in Evil of the Daleks or The Deadly Assassin and it's great. It goes straight for the jugular, it doesn't allow you to flinch from the horror and the sheer sadness of it all.

Regarding the themes of Cybermen, I'd have said any kind of technophobia overtones wouldn't really work in today's context. We all thought that machines and computers would take over one day, or that people would become more mechanised as they live by the computer. That in the future we'd probably all be talking in the same clinical vocabulary as the characters in The Ark in Space. It seems however that the opposite has happened. Text messages and emails are on the most irritatingly common level, the internet tends to be used for the most banal and trivial of pursuits. In fact, looking at some of the fury expressed in flame wars and the perversity and sadism of some of the sick websites out there, as well as phone-recorded happy slappings, I'd say that if anything, the internet has reduced people to their most savage, primal and vitriolic state rather than turned them into machine automatons. A world where the machines take over probably would be a safer world, though a frustrating one.

But what this story comments on is just how docile the internet/mobile phone culture can be. How vapid everyone is and how a man of Lumic's passion can take over so easily. People live in a world of mindless consumerism and dissatisfied wealth, and they believe everything they hear in the earpiece-direct news propaganda complemented with absorbing entertaining trivia that is only really absorbing because we get it in stereo. Just like how The Long Game commented on how the information age reduces education and learning to a washout and forgettable experience, this has its points to make about how naive and apathetic we are becoming to political events. The old Doctor Who message is reinforced here: watch your leaders, don't ever trust governments. There is actually a nice little Jubilee moment where the Doctor observes "Maybe you humans like to be subjugated, thinking perhaps you'll have an easier life." And it is pretty spot-on, with more than a kernel of truth: if you're not institutionalised into this society, you are truly lost.

But by the same token part 2 had its moments that tripped up, and I've got to say that I started to dislike Murray Gold's music for the first time. I actually have always liked his distinctive and emotive music, certainly far more than most fans did, but in this one at the end of the story he was repeating his notes far too much and it was making the emotional highs far too predictable and easy to time in an emotional scene that was to my mind carried on far too long and was too laboured, and dare I say it, in which Billie Piper's performance was for the first time a bit half hearted. Still, that wasn't the moment that made the story, and a good job too. This was brilliant stuff: I was never that fond of the Cybermen in the Old Series but this story has made me a fan of the tin men.


A Review by Ron Mallett 1/11/06

Let's redesign the Cybermen to try and appeal to all the fan-boys out there, sling in a bit of sexual tension and angst to keep the new core audience happy and... what's that? A plot? Some meaningful themes? Oh, they'll sort themselves out! As for something original... forget it.

Why is it, whenever there is a science fiction story written about a parallel Earth, zepplins are always paraded about as a viable alternative mode of public transport? I can't really imagine a more inconvenient form of transportation and imagine the loan repayments; not to mention the helium bills... I mean, really.

There was a sort of half-hearted attempt to expand the emotional myopia gripping the series by "exploring" the love Mickey has for his Gran. He has a chance to be with her and save her from falling down the stairs due to some problem with the carpet in her flat he never fixed in his own Earth. Still angst ridden though. What does he do at the end of the story? Does he go home to her? Sod that, he's off to Paris to save the world in an A-Team van. I told you it was half-hearted. Actually I think The A-Team had more convincing storylines and emotional depth than this series, as impossible as that sounds.

Were the new Cybermen that impressive anyway? Well, they will probably translate well into a lucrative line of toys with all their limited articulation in the joints. Oh, and I loved the "C's" on their chest, that must have taken months to figure out.

Did I like anything about this story? No. People often attack Attack of the Cybermen for being unoriginal, missing the point that Tomb of the Cybermen was believed lost forever at the time and it gave people of my generation a chance to enjoy that sort of a story. There was a point and it had an element of true originality added to some definitive anchoring in the established mythology - typical of the later Peter Davison/Colin Baker era. This story didn't.

Even Roger Lloyd-Pack's Mavic Chen/Tobias Vaughan impersonation was tedious, uninspired and a symptom of a story that was constructed from several elements from several previous ones. When will these villains learn not to create menaces they can't control and destroy them? Come on, that stuff went out with black and white televison!


A Review by Finn Clark 11/12/06

I enjoyed this two-parter. It's traditional, which is at once its weakness and its strength. It's what you'd expect from an alt.universe "Genesis of the Cybermen" story, with unimaginative plotting and absolutely no surprises. This is what you'd get if you commissioned a hundred authors to write a hundred such stories, then threw away anything that they hadn't all written. It's not even better than the ones in our heads. This might be what happens when you try and fail to adapt Spare Parts before carefully erasing anything that might upset Marc Platt, but it still sometimes seems to be going through the motions.

However on the upside, it's a Genesis of the Cybermen! Lowbrow appeal is still appeal. The big metal bastards are coming and they're on the cover of the Radio Times. It may not be sophisticated but it's just what the season needed, especially in the absence of The Christmas Invasion. It breaks the formula. For once its monsters aren't being overshadowed by Female Guest Star Of The Week, but are instead the main attraction. As usual, no one seems able to write a proper two-parter (part twos apparently being the big problem), but it doesn't feel so slow if you compare it with some classic series stories. It has room to breathe, which you can't say for everything these days. However most importantly, at last the Doctor's up against a foe who'll trouble him for more than about fifteen minutes of B-plot.

One of my main complaints in fact is that after a great build-up in Rise of the Cybermen, we don't get enough Cyber-action in The Age of Steel. They're goons. They follow Lumic's plan all the way, creaking into predictable action instead of actually pitting their wits against the Doctor.

Unfortunately it's set in an alternate universe. This isn't my favourite plot device, to put it mildly, but I quite liked how they used it here. I like the difficulty of getting there. The TARDIS reacts badly to alt.universes. The script throws in a continuity patch for the sake of the comics, books and audios, but it's established very clearly that coming here nearly killed them and the Doctor's not planning on returning in a hurry. I enjoyed the Doctor's reaction, if only it's basically mine too. ("Gyaaaaaaah, an alternate universe. Get me out of here!") It also has a certain level of sophistication, assuming that the audience have some familiarity with the basic concept instead of just going "Oooooh, an alt.universe".

The "TARDIS is dead" scene doesn't quite work. We know it's not! That needed a little more establishing. Furthermore there was no need to visit an alt.universe to do a Genesis of the Cybermen, although it had ramifications for the regulars and for the season as a whole. Either you ignore the audios and comic strips and merrily trample on everyone else's ideas, or else you assume from all the different Cyber-geneses that the metal monsters are just a bad idea which keep evolving independently. Nevertheless this parallel universe allowed fun with Mickey and Pete Tyler. It's incidentally quite clever that Pete made it big. It lets Rose's family plausibly be at the heart of the action, despite the presence of presidents and international conglomerates.

"We fell through a crack in time. When we leave, I've got to close it." I admire the neatness with which the new series resolves possible problems before they arise. Here the problem is that the TARDIS is repeating this supposedly impossible journey and yet never be able to return. It's like that Tooth and Claw line answering Rose's question about killing a werewolf with moonlight: "You're 70% water, you can still drown."

The alt.universe is even thematically relevant. It's about replacement. Mickey and Ricky replace each other. Cybermen replace humans, a dog replaces Rose and this universe replaces ours. I'd better stop there before anyone starts thinking I like alternate universes, which is so far from the truth as to have passed beyond the laws of physics, but I didn't hate what we get here.

The zeppelins look nice, though.

I like these Cybermen. Despite everything I've said, the script has some nice ideas about them. It's almost a cliche to hear a speech about emotion and small beautiful things, so here instead we get the Doctor's homage to sickness and mortality. That's so clever! "The Cybermen will just stop. You'll stay like this for ever." There's also the hibernation tunnel, which is a hell of a place. The Age of Steel's biggest innovation might be its dormant Cybermen, which aren't strictly speaking new, but still hadn't been done before like this. Ironically they're scarier when just waiting than when stomping about.

The Cybermen get the best lines: "You will be rewarded by force." I'm not wild about 'delete', but on the other hand Lumic says 'excellent'. I also like the fact that the Cybermen aren't cool. Any other TV show in the world would have turned them into sleek badass Borg-a-likes, but these ones are clunky, a little goofy and the product of an aesthetic going all the way back to bandages and corrugated cardboard in The Tenth Planet. They're also part of the general art-deco style of this two-parter, which somehow reminded me of a 1950s feel that's become associated with the Cybermen through Spare Parts, Illegal Alien and Loving the Alien. And while I'm wibbling about continuity, note also that the links with The Invasion are so strong that we even get a rescue involving our heroes climbing up a rope ladder to a helicopter/zeppelin. The main difference is that Billie doesn't get an upskirt camera shot, which given the fact that she's wearing a maid outfit was probably a crushing blow for fetishists everywhere.

This story may feel a bit old-fashioned, but ironically it's doing stuff that had never been done before in a televised Cyber-story. I've seen all kinds of theories about "What Tom MacRae Did Wrong" and they're usually citing philosophies and subtleties that never came within a million miles of a Troughton "base under siege" or a Saward deathfest. It's only the books, audios and comic strips that really dug into all that. No, for me one of the biggest disappointments was that the Cybercontroller never looked as creepy as it did on its Radio Times cover. The camera seems to be more interested in its chair than its forehead. However I like the fact that the Doctor has to do something horrible to beat the Cybermen, about which he's not happy.

It even does interesting things with a running theme of this season: the acceptance of death and change. The Cybermen's problem is twofold. They're going way too far with forced evolution (like the Krillitanes), but at the same time they're rejecting death and sickness (like Cassandra). Override the natural forces of evolution and thus stop it dead. You could draw Marxist-Leninist analogies.

Of course it's also the Mickey Show. That aspect of things is hardly understated, but that doesn't mean it's not good. Think back to much criticism Mickey drew at the start of Eccleston's time in the role, yet by now he's the most interesting of the regulars. He gets some good stuff here, not to mention a laugh or two. "No, it's a good kitchen." The only problem is with Jake, who surely either used to sing in a boy band or is a genetically engineered clone from their toenail scrapings. He's not great. His delivery of "you're nothing" could have been better, for instance, and his relationship with Mickey isn't all it could be. A better actor could have done more with their scenes, although in fairness one does get the impression that he was very very very very good friends with Ricky. Mmmm, ducky.

By new series standards, the acting is surprisingly weak. As well as Boy Band Dude, there's Roger Lloyd-Pack. He's not bad, but he's the least interesting big name guest villain to date. Simon Pegg in The Long Game last year showed that a fairly thin role can still be great fun with a top-quality actor. Lloyd-Pack gets more screen time than almost any of them, but doesn't add much to what's on the page. In The Age of Steel, I'm not even wild about David Tennant. He plays it surprisingly light, with one particular line delivery in his confrontation with the Cybercontroller that I dislike. However I'm prepared to believe that, as with The Christmas Invasion, this might be part of a hubris season arc.

On the plus side is Colin Spaull, whom Graeme Harper also used in Revelation of the Daleks. He plays a terrific henchman, possibly my favourite since The Green Death. He's not freakish like Karlton in The Daleks' Master Plan, but instead has a casual, realistic kind of brutality. "Let's cover up that noise."

There are other little things I like. I approve of the lack of a "next episode" trailer. I also like the fact that Rose got her comeuppance at the party. She'd gone too far there. This story never hits any heights but equally it doesn't do much wrong. My biggest objection comes from the fact that one feels one could edit it down to a single episode. A two-parter should be qualitatively different. Ninety minutes is movie-length! You need more twists and turns. Here we get an impression of the Cybermen's threat and power, but not their strength and cunning. They never start reacting to the Doctor. We've still never seen a proper "chess game" script in the new series, one of those intricate dances in which the Doctor's up against a foe as ingenious and determined as himself. This two-parter is a big dumb Hollywood blockbuster with music to match, but with some nice moments for the regulars. As a change of pace, I quite like it.


Making a Hash of Good Ingredients by Kaan Vural 30/12/11

The problem with Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel turns out to be how predictable it is.

Well, OK, let's be fair. It's not all that predictable. Did anyone expect Cybermen from a parallel universe? Or for these Cybermen to be prostheses designed by a human businessman? No, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel isn't predictable in its premise. But it is predictable in its execution. Let's come back to that later, though.

The story boils down to this: the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey take a wrong turn and find themselves on a parallel Earth, where Rose never existed, Pete Tyler is still alive, and "Ricky" leads a street rebellion against the sinister machinations of John Lumic's company, which has been abducting the homeless and the impoverished for illegal experimentation. It's soon clear that the endpoint of these experiments is the Cybermen, or at least something like them.

There's good potential in these ideas, but as we'll see, it's not really exploited to the full.

First, the setting. If you expected a parallel Earth that was in any way original or inventive, you're in for a disappointment. England has a slightly different government, corporations are a bit more powerful, certain people are and aren't alive... the cliches extend to the zeppelins floating around the sky, which was a real "oh, please" moment for me. If you're going to create a parallel Earth, fine, but do something with it! There's no examination of society taking place in this episode that couldn't have worked just as well on regular Earth.

And not only does the setting not affect the thematic content, it barely affects the characters. In Father's Day, Rose grows and changes from meeting her own deceased father. Here, the only thing she learns is that boy, her mother would sure have been bitchy if she'd been wealthy. Mickey gets a slightly better deal, being allowed to see a picture of himself as a braver guy, but the story doesn't devote enough focus to this thread for it to really work. The endpoint of this development - Mickey deciding to stay in this universe - is abrupt and awkward. Think about how long it took you to pick out an apartment. With that in mind, how long would it take you to pick a universe? But Mickey makes the decision in the space of about a day; it's either at odds with his normally reserved and normality-craving character, or rash and stupid for his emerging courageous and proactive character. Either way, his ending is not sad for me as it is just awkward and anti-climactic. The Doctor, of course, gets little to no development.

If you ask me, the setting existed for basically two reasons. The first was to provide a convenient set-up for the finale. The second was to create a story without consequences. If thousands of people had been killed and converted on "our" Earth, the show would have had to incorporate that into its history and have it affect all future human characters. Moreover, it would have been an ending that is a Pyrrhic victory for the Doctor: he stops the Cybermen, but fails to save thousands. For all its revision of the Doctor Who formula, this story and many others like it stops in its progressive tracks when it comes to inflicting actual losses. What we get instead is overpowering melodrama directed at single deaths: Should the Doctor shoot the Master? Should the Doctor destroy the big spider woman? This story doesn't have that particular form of melodrama, of course, but the fact that an actual substantial loss of life on Earth as we know it is avoided in such a contrived way only reminds me that's in never that far away.

But it's not just the setting that's problematic, it's the Cybermen and the idea behind them. Now again, the premise is actually quite promising. The Cybermen are unfeeling, dispassionate, machine-dependent beings, we know that already. That this story shows the original Cybermen to be derived from experiments on the homeless and the impoverished was a deft move. Think about it: in this story, humans and their bodies are treated with cold, calculating indifference in the name of technological progress. The result is a technologically progressive race of cold, calculating, and supremely indifferent beings. The addition of the terms "upgrade" and "delete" did feel a bit trite to me at first, but if you dig a little they're actually quite good. "Upgrade" is particularly chilling when you think about a simple PC. Imagine if Windows updates were mandatory. Then imagine someone creates a malicious update. An innocent device becomes terrifying. In the same vein, "upgrade" is just that: an innocent word, but as it happens mandatory - and it's also a form of physiological and psychological rape. "Delete" is a bit silly when the Cybermen chant it for no particular reason, but then you realize that it's typical of their approach to human beings: they're not human, they're data, and are assigned about as much individuality, autonomy, and passion as a megabyte.

Then again, there are problems with the execution. Firstly, I don't like the look of the Cybermen at all. In earlier incarnations, they looked like people with suits stretched over them, the result being an eerily human-like creature that was absolutely mindless internally. The Cybermen of The Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen (not to mention the Autons) hit that uncanny valley of things that hid a purely mechanical clockwork behind a facade of almost-humanness. In contrast, these Cybermen look like robots, or even worse, puppets. They don't particularly look like people or move like people. If someone said to me that they were just robots, I would believe them. You can't say that about the earlier versions of the Cybermen. Another problem is the voices, which seem designed to sound menacing. The Tenth Planet had Cybermen with human voices, but sentences delivered in a high, toneless sing-song voice like the G-Man from Half-Life. Tomb of the Cybermen had voices much like Microsoft Sam: not only electronic, but grating; almost disembodied, as if their voices didn't belong to them and someone else was speaking through them. The point is, Cybermen need to inhabit that line between man and machine, and the result needs to be eerie. These guys don't come off as eerie.

John Lumic himself is really the other side of the problem. Though Lloyd Pack gives us a passable performance, the character is sorely underwritten. Lumic is basically a rip-off of Davros, except less deformed and with less of a philosophy. In both cases, the fact that they are crippled is appropriate since their creations are essentially prosthetic devices. However, you never get the sense that anything more than self-preservation is driving Lumic. Why would he want to turn everyone else into Cybermen? If he doesn't care about people, then he has no reason to want to improve them. If he does care about people, then he'd instantly recognize that Cybermen weren't the answer. We're given enough motivation for him to want the process for himself, but not really for others. (Davros, on the other hand, was an egomaniac, but motivated by his own grander plans for creation.) This is really where the word "predictable" comes in. The story is basically Genesis of the Daleks, but without the substance. In both cases we have an alternate reality at stake (a future without the Daleks, a parallel universe with Cybermen), but in Genesis this is the basis for a moral question, whereas here it has little relevance. In both cases we have a madman striving for an end we know is evil: in Genesis we peel away the layers around Davros, learning his true loyalties and just how strong his visions and convictions are, but in this story it's just a madman who succeeds, then fails. In Genesis, the nature of the Daleks is a commentary on the world that gave rise to them: the political, social, and technological conditions; in this story, the Cybermen are a commentary lacking in political dimensions and as such come off as a jibe against pop culture trends. The Daleks are shown parallels with superweapons, with dehumanizing fascism and rigid militarism; the Cybermen are shown as parallels with iPods instead of abortion, cosmetic surgery, or escapist drug use.

Now here's my general view of how this story should have gone. Try this on for size:

I would have dumped the parallel universes conceit altogether in favor of a focus on the main plot... but if we're going to stick with it, fine. If you ask me, the whole Cybermen schtick should have been dropped. The episodes made no effort at keeping their involvement a surprise, which I found sort of disappointing. I'd have changed the title to something a bit more vague and removed any in-the-face suggestions of Cybermen (such as the opening scene).

Lumic should have been split into two characters: one a ruthless entrepreneur who's in the business of convincing people they want augmentations they don't really need (an extreme of our current body image/smart-phone crazes), and the other a crippled scientist who is genuinely devoted to creating technology that will help everyday people. Let's call the scientist John Lumic, and the entrepreneur Pete Tyler. Lumic would design bodily prostheses for the masses, but Tyler would have a bit more vision: What about technology that can make us genuinely happier? If chemicals can alter our states of mind, why not electronics and machinery? Tyler (who happens to be rather loose with his adherence to medical ethics) presses Lumic to create prostheses that can regulate brain function, allowing users to select their moods. The product is a hit and manufactured for millions. But a ragtag group of anti-corporate, pseudo-Luddite activists (let's call them the Preachers) want to show the world how immoral this technology is. They hack into Cybus Industries and introduce a software upgrade that wipes the mood generators clean, resulting in a population of emotionally stunted, purely mechanical men who, in their minds quite logically, believe the mood generator's advertisements ("making people's lives better") and begin to bring this product to the masses, whether they want it or not. The result is the machine revolution that creates the early Cybermen.

This has some consequences for the protagonists. Instead of being inspired by Ricky, Mickey is instead motivated by his other self's mistakes to become a problem-solver - to put right the horrors he himself could have created. The Doctor could be antagonistic to Tyler, but sympathetic to Lumic; the result could have been a scene where the Doctor pleads with a conflicted Lumic to stop messing with the human mind, a contrast to the Doctor's famous scene with Davros, where the antagonist is totally single-minded instead of basically compassionate, if short-sighted. Pete Tyler, instead of being a bit of a hopeless dreamer, is a confident businessman, but his limitless vision means that his confidence is dangerous. While the Doctor is unfeeling towards Tyler, Rose could have tried to sway him. Jackie... well, I'm not sure what I'd have done with her.

Now I don't want to pretend that I could write a better story than Macrae - that would be highly presumptuous - but hopefully I've demonstrated how the ingredients forming this story could have been rearranged in a slightly more balanced and effective way.

It should be said that both the acting and dialogue were up to the standard of the New Series, with the developers actually caring about Mickey for a change (I always preferred him to Rose) and with the regular cast giving it their all. True professionals that they are, they play the roles as they've been written and they play them with conviction. Roger Lloyd Pack, for all the lack of script behind his character, convinces as the misanthropic bastard he's meant to be. And whatever problems I have with the Cybermen's appearance, hey, at least it doesn't look cheap.

For me, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel was basically competent, but pretty much forgettable other than its introduction of a Cybermen variant I don't like. It has some important links with the season finale, so if you're going through the New Series it is a must-watch... but I can't help feeling that for such a decent concept, there was something sorely lacking in the effort invested.