Every citizen will receive a free upgrade.
Except, you know, not really. Despite the title, there’s actually very little of the Cybermen here; they’re largely limited to hints and references, and clever camera shots to obscure how they look. It’s an effective device, which makes their eventual reveal at the party all the more effective, but it does leave me with similarly limited commentary to offer! The design is rather great, I think.
What did strike me was how… 2006 it was. I mean, obviously any piece of television was going to be of its time, but it’s particularly apparent here. During the writing process, Russell T Davies rejected the idea of “body shop” modification places, because he felt like the original organ transplant paranoia concept that had been the original inspiration for the Cybermen was outdated. Fair enough; we’ve come a long way from the 1960s, and organ transplants are a lot more commonplace than they once were.
But they didn’t exactly do a very good job of making their new concept particularly timeless. Or rather, they almost did, but it’s been done in such a 2006 way that it can’t help but feel demonstrably dated. You’ve got your Bluetooth headphones, and John Lumic, and that’s fine… but there’s a very clear sense that, if this were made even a few years later, it’d be based around Apple and Steve Jobs. The whole thing ends up feeling weirdly basic, when it’s clear they’re trying to aim for a sense of cutting edge technology.
I did like the idea that this was all being attributed to the oppressive onslaught of capitalism, though. The machine (driven by business, in a world that’s already stratified with a very literal “upper” class) is eating the homeless, chewing them up and spitting them out as the perfect worker, reformed to suit the purposes of the rich man, with little consideration for their wellbeing. It’s an interesting concept, and I’m looking forward to seeing it explored in more depth next week.
Another interesting concept put forward in this episode is that of the parallel world – usually a staple of science fiction, but one oddly eschewed by Doctor Who. There’s only really Inferno from the classic series, and these Cybermen episodes from series 2. Likely there are plenty of extended universe stories, of course, but it’s still a little odd that we’ve never seen them particularly often.
What I find particularly clever about the depiction of this parallel world was the manner in which the reveal was layered – not entirely dissimilar from the Cybermen, I suppose. Rather than throwing us into a world which was immediately and evidently strange (like on The Flash, for example, where Earth-2 has a clear 1940s aesthetic, and a slight yellow tinge to the camera) this is one where we’re gradually introduced to the differences.
It starts simple, with Mickey insisting that this is in fact our London – but oh wait, hang on, those are zeppelins. (Those are such a strange and idiosyncratic little inclusion. Never really understood it, but they certainly do a good job of immediately stating how this world is.) It’s then furthered, of course, with the reveal of Pete Tyler, the lack of Rose, the President of Great Britain, and so on and so forth. Interestingly, at one stage this world was supposed to have been a result of Queen Victoria being killed by the werewolf in Tooth and Claw; you can see, perhaps, how that idea influenced the very capitalist, post-industrial origin for the Cybermen.
My favourite details, though, are the far subtler ones – those that hint at the underlying class divide that seems to lie at the heart of this society. I’ve already mentioned the capitalist themes with the first cyber conversion, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One interesting thing that stood out to me was the mention of a curfew, and the soldier who speaks about the rich people in the zeppelins. That was fascinating; it’s such a small detail, but it speaks volumes about the sort of world this is. It’s eminently forgettable – I had no idea it was coming. But that also meant it was a real surprise, and it actually made me appreciate Russell T Davies’ worldbuilding efforts a lot more.
Jackie Tyler, though, is where the parallel world aspect is most evident, and indeed the best of a parallel world character that we see. Ostensibly, there’s a lot about this Jackie that’s the same as the one we’ve come to know and love; she’s brash and loud and she loves a party, and there’s just a hint of the materialistic in her. That’s not so far off from the Jackie we know. But then she’s so utterly vile to Rose, completely dismissing her as just “the help”, that it becomes painfully evident that this Jackie is very far from the one we know. It really sells the parallel world aspect, though, because the differences are so firmly juxtaposed against the similarities, in a very effective manner.
Most notable about this episode, though, is neither the Cybermen nor the parallel world.
I’ve always liked Mickey, as a character; he’s very much the everyman, representing the average guy, brought into this fantastical world. We’ve seen him develop a lot over the past two seasons, and I think Noel Clarke deserves a lot of props for this; he gets a little criticism at times for leaning into slapstick a little much during the first series, but I’m always impressed by his portrayal of the character.
We’ve seen him moving from the normal guy on the estate – a little scared, maybe a little rubbish – to becoming a fully-fledged companion in his own right. (Mostly). He’s saved the world more than once, playing an important role in the resolutions of various different episodes.
Rise of the Cybermen, then, gives us the next instalment of Mickey’s character development; right from the beginning, he’s beginning to realise that he maybe doesn’t fit in here entirely. It makes sense, after all – part of the theme of this series so far has been about how close knit the Doctor and Rose are becoming. What place does Mickey have, then, if all he’s ever going to be treated as on the TARDIS is the awkward, slightly forgettable, third wheel?
It’s particularly interesting to get the backstory on Mickey in this episode – even though we’ve got to know him quite well over the past few years, we’ve never really seen the details about his own family sketched out quite like this. He’s always very firmly been one of Rose’s supporting characters, but now in this episode he’s starting to… not get a life of his own, as such, but develop independently of Rose, I suppose.
This gives us one of the best emotional moments of the entire episode, and one that really makes the whole parallel universe aspect worth it – when Mickey meets his grandmother. It’s interesting, really, that this resonates so much more so than when Rose meets her father (the wonderful Shaun Dingwall) even considering the fact that we saw him last year during Father’s Day. There’s just some extremely poignant about that brief shot of the torn carpet, and Noel Clarke brilliantly sells the moment.
Ultimately, then, Rise of the Cybermen is a pretty decent episode. I think, after I’d watched it, I wasn’t actually all that fussed – it was the middle of the road, firmly “for kids” monster runaround two parter. Not something to expect a lot from, really. But I think as I’ve been writing this review, I’ve been able to highlight some of the stronger aspects of the episode – to myself, primarily – and I’ve come away with a much greater appreciation of the episode. So that’s nice! Never let it be said that these reviews are for nothing.