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

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Rise of the Cybermen

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Every citizen will receive a free upgrade.

We’ve reached the annual “bring back a classic monster episode”. There’s one during every series of the Davies era, and this episode is when we first see the Cybermen!

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.

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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.

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Most notable about this episode, though, is neither the Cybermen nor the parallel world.

It’s Mickey.

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.

7/10

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