The Tenth Planet, we were introduced to a horrific mirror version of humanity, people who had replaced more and more of their bodies with spare parts until they were machines. They were human but not human. Their look and voice enhanced this terrifying vision. They were also intelligent, logical machines who convinced some people to volunteer to become cyberized.
They never appeared in Doctor Who again. Later, there were creatures who called themselves the Cybermen and said they came from Mondas, but they weren't the Cybermen. They were just evil robots. Cool evil robots, threatening evil robots, fun evil robots, but evil robots. Never again in the classic series were they the object of such psychological and physical horror as their forebears.
Which isn't to say I don't like the later Cybermen. I enjoy every Cyber story to some extent except "Revenge", (yes, even Silver Nemesis, at least up to a point) and certainly get some whimsical joy out of them. But after The Tenth Planet, I was always waiting for a story that really got what made them so original and eerie, and never really found it.
Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel aren't quite the episodes I was waiting for, but they're really, really close, and in a few moments, they do capture excactly what I always wanted out of them. Oh, they still work on the more common level: they're incredibly dangerous, virtually unstoppable robots. But in exploring an alternate version of their origin from another universe, it finds some of that inhuman humanity. We watch humans being led away and forced to take the "upgrades." We see the horrific saws and tools used to splice the metal into the humans. There's one especially unnerving scene in the second episode where the Doctor opens up a Cyberman and finds shredded flesh inside.
|Also, the tools they use to cut people up? Excellent.|
And the Doctor's actual defeat of the Cybermen powerfully digs to the heart of their mix of human and machine. It's far and away the most satisfying defeat of the Cybers in the history of the show.
As for their redesign... well, they definitely look slick and big-budget. Very shiny, very big, very threatening... but totally robotic. There's no hint of humanity in the design, which sucks out a little bit of the meaning. They're also really, really loud when they walk, which makes the various scenes when they walk up and surprise the heroes kinda hard to buy. But on the whole, this is a superb outing for the Cybermen.
And the rest of the episode, you ask? Well, the production team did one masterstroke: hiring Graeme Harper to direct. Back in the old show, Harper directed The Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks; the former is almost universally considered one of the finest stories ever produced in the show, and the latter is a masterpiece of atmosphere, intensity, and pacing, regardless of whatever flaws the script may possess. Harper made two of the best-looking, most atmospheric, and most gripping stories in the old show, directing with the kind of energy far ahead of its time.
He's lost none of his touch. Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel is a superbly made action yarn with overtones of horror, intense, thrilling, and compelling.
As for the story itself, just keep in mind that while not everything is great, it's all done really, really well. We start Rise of the Cybermen with the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey accidentally traveling into an alternate universe because... I guess because RTD has this belief that every Doctor Who story has to be about planet Earth, and he's gotta bring back the Cybermen with a big introduction, leaving us with an alternate origin story. Which is fine, except that this alternate universe isn't really all that interesting. The one other time Doctor Who did the alternate universe thing, we got Inferno, which turned all the companionish characters into the villains (including the Brigadier with an eyepatch), and then went absolutely insane near the end because on an alternate earth, you can do anything you want. Here, we get... um, blimps. An alternate universe with blimps everywhere. Otherwise, nothing too interesting. The UK has a president instead of the prime minister. That sort of thing.
Mickey splits from the other two and after meandering a bit, finds that he has a double on this world named Ricky (of course), who is a tough-guy revolutionary.
Rose, meanwhile, decides she has to look up her father, which means that we get to go through the whole Rose's father thing again. Eventually, in Age of Steel, it does play out in an unexpected way, but for most of Rise, it just feels like an inferior rehash of Father's Day. Shaun Dingwall is terrific again, and we do get the great bit where the Doctor and Rose sneak into his place dressed as servants. We see an alternate Jackie who is... well, she's got all the negative, obnoxious characteristics of regular Jackie, but without the redeeming qualities.
Other than that stuff, this is just earth. Nothing too imaginative, nothing insanely intense like Inferno. So, outside of the Cyber stuff itself, the first episode, which is mostly about exploring alternate earth, is really well-made filler. In what I'm guessing is a nod to some of the old Cyber-stories, they don't actually show up in full until 45 minutes in, which does a good job of building their eventual appearance up but leaves us mostly just waiting for the story to get started.
There are some really strong performances in there, though. Villain John Lumic is mostly just ranty on paper, but Roger Lloyd Pack digs his teeth way, way into the scenery and plays him with relish.
His not-entirely-onboard lieutenant, Mr. Crane, is played by Colin Spaul with intelligence and charm, making him a highly enjoyable villainous sidekick.
Best of all is Helen Griffin as Mrs. Moore, who plays the revolutionaries' hacker, and makes her incredibly human and likable with only a few minutes of screentime. And also awesome.
Anyway, the first half isn't boring; it doesn't do much inherently interesting, but it's done so well by Harper and his cast that it gets the work done. And the second half is very cool: dark, shadowy, action-packed fun. I could probably nitpick all day with minor issues, but the second half really delivers the goods. The Cybermen go around being threatening, the Doctor gets big speeches, stuff blows up, and so forth. Even the uninspiring Pete & Jackie subplot from the first episode ultimately plays out in a series of unexpected and compelling ways. The payoff for Mr. Crane is incredibly satisfying. And the climax is terrific.
Which is to say, there's a lot wrong with Rise and Age. But the things it gets right are so good that, personally, I don't care. It's a fun ride thanks largely to excellent direction by the master of directing Doctor Who. And it's one of the best Cybermen stories ever, maybe the best.
But somewhere out there, there's still that definitive Cyber-story, one that nails the creepy horror, the awesome action, and the crazed logic throughout, and delivers a truly classic episode.
Till then, though, this'll do.
* * * ½
- "DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!" Seriously? That's the Cyber-catchphrase? Lame.
- So, since this is Mickey's last regular appearance, I guess now's as good a time as any to discuss him overall. I have to say, it's rare to see a character turn around so much. In Rose, he's incredibly annoying. But the more he was developed, the more likable he became. And to be honest, by the end of Age of Steel, I wished he would have stayed on. With him around, it wouldn't matter that Rose never held the Doctor back when he needed it, because Mickey would have filled that spot very nicely. The three of them as a team would have been great. Anyway, bravo to Noel Clarke for making the most of his
- I have mixed feelings about the Doctor's solution to the cliffhanger. On the one hand, it comes out of nowhere. There's no reason a subtle line couldn't have been put in the first episode to seed his solution. On the otherhand, HOLY CRAP THAT WAS AWESOME!