Thoughts on: Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen this two-parter, and I’m happy to say that it’s a lot better than I remembered. I had a sketchy memory of this one as a rather camp and overblown Cyberman runaround featuring a deranged wheelchair-ridden Owen (from The Vicar of Dibley) in a parallel universe. To an extent, that’s what it was, but that’s not necessarily to say it’s bad. Admittedly, the story premise was a bit rubbish, but it was carried out capably and engagingly. It featured well-written supporting characters, and the device of Rose’s trying to connect with her parallel universe parents was very interesting and well-plotted, particularly the abrupt parting of ways between Rose and parallel-Pete at the end. I’m a bit unimpressed with the way the episode portrayed a world in thrall to a monolithic and malignant corporation which tyrannises over the populace of Great Britain (and, I assume, elsewhere), for similar reasons as my critique of the evil “consortium of banks” in The Long Game, but I’m willing to forgive it in deference to creative licence.

I have mixed feelings about how successful this story was in bringing back the Cybermen for the revived series. In the first place, although I prefer the original Mondas backstory of the Cybermen (as visited fantastically in Spare Parts), I suppose, if one is to show a genesis story of the Cybermen for a modern audience, recasting the Cybermen’s origins in a parallel universe makes more sense than showing or making allusions to the impenetrable Mondas story. Critically, recasting it like this gave the writers the ability to reintroduce the Cybermen, what they are and what they’re about, to a modern audience, rather than if they’d just shown a random Cyberman attack. I think they did this quite well overall, making it chillingly clear what the Cybermen were about: not just Daleks with legs, but real human beings who’ve transplanted themselves into cybernetic bodies and removed all their emotions, and who are driven by an unremitting compulsion to make all other forms of life, humans especially, like them, genuinely believing they are doing good.

Lumic: “What is your name?”
Doctor: “I’m the Doctor.”
Lumic: “A redundant title. Doctors need not exist. Cybermen never sicken.”
Doctor: “Yeah, but that’s it. That’s exactly the point! Oh, Lumic, you’re a clever man. I’d call you a genius, except I’m in the room. But everything you’ve invented, you did to fight your sickness. And that’s brilliant. That is so human. But once you get rid of sickness and mortality, then what’s there to strive for, eh? The Cybermen won’t advance. You’ll just stop. You’ll stay like this forever. A metal Earth with metal men and metal thoughts, lacking the one thing that makes this planet so alive. People. Ordinary, stupid, brilliant people.”
Lumic: “You are proud of your emotions.”
Doctor: “Oh, yes.”
Lumic: “Then tell me, Doctor. Have you known grief, and rage, and pain?”
Doctor: “Yes. Yes I have.”
Lumic: “And they hurt?”
Doctor: “Oh, yes.”
Lumic: “I could set you free. Would you not want that? A life without pain?”
Doctor: “You might as well kill me.”

This is something the classic series seemed to lose sight of. The Cybermen in the classic series gradually devolved from their original conception as humans cybernetically-improved to the point of obscenity whose primary impulse was to convert, to essentially little more than murderous metal men. This story substantially rehabilitated the Cybermen in this regard, returning to the essence of this villain. This was especially manifest in the way the Cybermen were defeated not by blasting them to smithereens or short-circuiting them or something, but by giving them back their emotions. The blood-curdling scream of the terrified Cyberman as it fell from the helicopter into the blaze below was a skin-crawling demonstration of this.

That said, there are aspects of these new Cybermen that I don’t like. For one, they seem to have been, to an extent, re-conceived as robots, evidenced by the ostentatious frog-stomping and the way the Cybermen are portrayed as lacking free will, as unthinking automatons. The Cybermen have free will, it’s just will mutilated and enslaved to unyielding logic. They’re not automaton-cum-soldiers who obey the commands of their superior without question, or slavishly follow their programming. In purely aesthetic terms, the Cybermen should invoke the feel of zombies more than robots, as the very creepy original Cybermen in The Tenth Planet did. It should never be forgotten that the Cybermen are humans, albeit mutilated humans, not walking computers. To an extent I think New Who needs to go back to the “primitive” Cybermen, on Mondas or having just left Mondas, in order to get back to the roots of what the Cybermen are about, as Big Finish did in Spare Parts. The Cybermen’s most recent underwhelming outing in Dark Water/Death in Heaven showed that the writers have run out of interesting things to do with the Cybermen—so why not get back to basics?

This story was also about giving Mickey a suitable farewell. Mickey, mercifully, was finally given a good role that did him justice. He was courageous, selfless and resourceful in this story, and it’s heartening to observe how far he’s come from the pathetic, cowering wretch he was in Rose. Noel Clarke delivered a good performance playing two characters, acting against himself, as Mickey and Ricky, and it’s good to see Clarke given a meaty script for him to gnaw into and display his abilities. That said, I thought Mickey’s departure was clunky and poorly executed. Despite the quality of Mickey’s part in this story, it was obviously written because the writers wanted to get rid of Mickey and thought he deserved a good send-off. Inventing a beloved dead grandmother and having Mickey remain behind to care for her sounded like it was made up on the spot. It’s also a bit incongruous in the way that the Doctor insisted that Rose could not stay behind to be with Rose and Pete because they weren’t her parents but raised no objections at all to Mickey’s staying behind to be with his not grandmother. In fact, he seemed to positively encourage Mickey to stay. Moreover, I found strange Mickey’s last words as the TARDIS dematerialised, “That’s the Doctor in the Tardis, with Rose Tyler.” He spoke those words with pride and a surprisingly lack of resentment towards them both considering how they’d turned his life upside down—the Doctor by callously taking the best thing in his life, Rose, away from him, and Rose by dropping him so heartlessly for the Doctor. I would have thought he’d be very resentful towards both of them, but, astonishingly, it appears not. Mickey as a character has always been poorly served by the writers (due to no fault on the part of Noel Clarke, who obviously did the best with what he was given), and I think this was a poorly-executed departure for him. For this reason, I’m somewhat relieved to see Mickey go at last (lifting a burden from the writers’ shoulders), but I regret that he wasn’t better treated while he was around.

Overall, not a half-decent episode, although questionable in some respects.

Rating: 8/10.

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