Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Age of Steel

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We think of the humans. We think of their difference and their pain. They suffer in the skin. They must be upgraded.

The biggest thing about this episode – and the episode beforehand, really – is the question of the Cybermen. I am not actually wholly convinced that they work, as a concept.

Originally, they were borne from a fear of organ transplants and body modifications; we’re a long way past that now. So where do you go to modernise the concept, and make them relevant? Arguably you could invoke transhumanism, but that’s not exactly the most pressing concern for… well, for basically anyone. Which in turn makes you wonder just what, exactly, you’re meant to do about the Cybermen, because otherwise they’re just stomp-y robots.

In the previous episode, they were a post-industrial, capitalist force; taking the homeless and the vulnerable, transforming them into the perfect worker, exploiting them for labour. (It’s an idea that Russell T Davies will return to, to an extent, in The Next Doctor – but it’ll be a few years yet before I get to that.) There was also the idea that they were cutting edge technology, however… well, that doesn’t work, simply by virtue of writing the Cybermen in a pre-Apple world for a post-Apple audience. They were dated on transmission, let alone now.

Here, though, Davies and MacRae (because, you know, it was essentially a team effort) focus more on the tragedy angle, which I think is a far stronger manner from which to approach the Cybermen. It’s particularly effective here, with two key moments that stand out from the rest.

The first is the reveal of the upgraded Jackie Tyler, and the scene where we lose her in the crowd; it really demonstrates the loss of identity faced by the Cyber victims – but also, of course, the fact that it just doesn’t matter to them. Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwall sell it, of course, through their horrified response, but it’s also a rather cleverly directed scene; Graeme Harper has blocked it out in such a way that it’s actually very difficult to follow which Cyberman Jackie actually is. (Every time I watch this episode, I try to figure it out. It’s only now that I’m starting to realise that she walked offscreen and didn’t come back.)

Following this, you’ve got the scene with Sally, the converted Cyberman who’s emotional inhibitor is broken. It is, obviously, a very poignant scene, but it’s also a very clever one in terms of how it’s written. It starts with “he can’t see me”, which you initially assume to be because of her conversion to being a Cyberman; a simple fear and disgust at what she’d become, as the Doctor had suggested they’d feel a few moments beforehand. But then, in a rather deft piece of writing, it’s revealed that Sally isn’t worried about Gareth seeing her as a Cyberman, but seeing her in her wedding dress. It’s a really poignant moment, and it does a wonderful job of selling the tragedy of the Cybermen.

But then, because this is a story with a limited run time – even despite the fact it’s of two parts – there’s a need for a neat resolution, and a way for the Doctor to more or less destabilise the threat. So we end up with explosions and… that’s kind of it. I mean, it’s probably missing the point a little to ask for Doctor Who to examine the long term consequences of an episode, but it does sort of undercut what had been established about the Cybermen.

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Also picking up from where we left off last week is Mickey, and his development as a character. This is essentially the culmination of what was set up last week, and I think it pays off quite well.

Key in this is the death of Rickey; it’s Mickey’s primary motivator, because he’s seen this vision of what he could have been. Interestingly, and perhaps more importantly, Rickey is also the only one who really offers Mickey any genuine approval prior to his death. That, I think, is why it’s such a transformative moment for him – Rickey, mirror of all his potential to be something more, thinks he’s alright. And that means something to Mickey.

It isn’t, admittedly, actually very subtle in terms of how this is depicted, and I think more to the point, it’s not necessarily earned. The previous episodes showed Mickey integrating with the Doctor and Rose reasonably well; I think, if anything, Mickey proved himself to them a long time ago. As early as World War Three, the Doctor offered to let him travel with them, and during The Girl in the Fireplace he’d slotted into the team quite well.

The only way it works, really, is in terms of Noel Clarke’s performance. He really is that good, he’s able to sell it and make it feel naturalistic, even though it… well, even though it sort of isn’t. I think a key moment here is when he turns back to look at the Doctor and Rose, but they’ve already forgotten him; it quite clearly parallels a similar scene in the previous episode, but here and now it’s the final deciding moment when Mickey realises he has to stay behind.

Rose’s reaction to all this is quite interesting I think, because it’s quite selfish in some ways. Even though she’s been quite dismissive of him for some time, Rose still doesn’t want Mickey to actually go; particularly following the let-down she just received from the alternate Pete. It’s a really interesting facet of Rose’s character, and it’s always nice to see this explored, however briefly.

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There’s other weaknesses here, too – or, perhaps more accurately, other limitations.

You’ve got great quasi character arcs here for Jake, Mrs Moore, and even Mr Crane, but they’re all somewhat restricted by a lack of development; none of them really get the required level of focus to feel like they’re anything more than perfunctory. It also doesn’t help that Andrew Hayden-Smith is something of a patchy actor; the performance is quite rough, with varying levels of quality throughout. Don’t get me wrong, of course – I like the three characters, and I appreciate the fact that these moments were included at all. I just wonder if perhaps they could have been handled better? It’s difficult to say, of course, because even despite being a two parter, this is quite a busy pair of episodes.

The eventual confrontation between the Doctor and Cyber Controller Lumic is quite weak as well. It’s difficult, I suppose, to write a proper polemic against emotions, and it’s similarly difficult for the Doctor to respond, because you end up with dialogue about “well cooked meals” and whatnot. It’s great to see the Doctor championing the small moments of beauty, because that’s a philosophy which is integral to the heart of the program, but it is difficult to write dialogue about this which seems genuine, and still manages to find some level of truth. They do pursue something of a post Time War emotional narrative, I guess, but not much is made of it; I do wonder if perhaps that’d work better with the Ninth Doctor, because I think you could genuinely believe he might have at one point considered relinquishing all emotions to free himself of his guilt and grief.

Last week, after I’d watched Rise of the Cybermen, I was left feeling a little meh. It was all just a bit… average. Very middle of the road, turning the wheels, perfectly median Doctor Who. But as I was writing my review, I was able to pick out lots of interesting little attributes and distinctions which gave the episode a lot more nuance than I initially credited it for.

Here, though, I feel like almost the opposite happened. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but having reflected on it, there were definitely some pretty clear flaws, which stood out increasingly as I thought about it more.

Which is kind of a shame, I guess.

6/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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