Sunday, 13 April 2014

Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel written by Tom MacRae and directed by Graeme Harper

This story in the nutshell: It’s the genesis of the Cybermen…only in an alternative universe...

Mockney Dude: Either it's the writing (which pushes the Doctor to the sidelines for long stretches of the action) or David Tennant was having something off an off day but there was something distinctly awkward about the tenth Doctor in this story. He always has erred on the wild side but he seems to express every emotion in the extreme here; whether it is mistreating Mickey in the early TARDIS scenes, reacting badly to his two companions heading off on their own, facing up to the Cybermen or smugly running rings around the Cyber Controller. There doesn't seem to be a place for subtlety. Why shouldn't his companions decide that they are adults and do exactly what they want? The Doctor doesn’t even think for one second that there might be something in an alternative universe that Mickey might want to re-discover whilst he is obsessing over Rose. I liked his assertion that when the Time Lords died everything became a bit less kind and the thought of giving ten years of his life in a breath to give life to the TARDIS again is rather lovely. On the other hand he is really slow on the uptake as to what the menace of the week is, especially given his history with the Cybermen. I didn’t enjoy his squeaky voiced confrontation with the Cyber Controller in the last episode – it felt like Davison in Four to Doomsday, inexperience in the role. One moment I did like was his reaction Cyber conditioning breaking down and one of the converted humans looks in a mirror and shrieks mechanically at what they see staring back. It's one of the times when his mantra of 'I'm so sorry' really hits home.

Chavvy Chick: Ouch. After her dribbling and tears in The Christmas Invasion, her gushing in new Earth and her jealousy in School Reunion Rose has been on a downward spiral of obnoxiousness and she finally seals the deal in this two parter by proving just how unbelievably selfish she can be. It’s such a shame how her character wound up because there were moments in the first season where she was on course for being one of the most enjoyable of companions. How irritatingly smug does she look in the first scene, taking the piss out of Mickey’s naiveté? As soon as they land its all me me me about her dad with no thought for Mickey until they have split up. I'm pleased she isn't my girlfriend. She sulks away, sticking out her bottom lip as she moans about not being part of Pete and Jackie’s life in this universe. Jealousy rears its ugly head again when the Doctor seeks information from a fellow worker called Lucy. Such was my disdain for the character as portrayed here that I was in fits of laughter when she was introduced to her namesake and looked mightily pissed off (even the Doctor cracks up). I loved the scene where she was chewed out by Jackie – all this sugary sweetness was poisoning my stomach and it was long past time somebody gave Rose a reality check. Did she really think that she could walk into Pete and Jackie's lives and become the daughter that they never had? At the end of the story both Pete and Mickey can't wait to get as far away from Rose as possible and who can blame them wanting to get away from the clutches of somebody who is quite this self centred? Rose blubs about losing Mickey (Amy was exactly the same in season five, not realising what she had until it was gone) but all I was thinking was serves you right. When is Donna coming along?

Cheeky Chap: By far the most likeable and engaging of regulars at this stage. What a shame it is his last story for a while. Whilst he is treated like he is foolish, Mickey is at least smart enough to realise that they have landed on a parallel Earth. His suggestion that the Doctor will only ever run after one of them and it will never be him is really devastating because you know he’s right. It's nice to learn more of his backstory and Noel Clarke aces the scene where he visits his Gran, apologising for not fixing the carpet that ultimately killed her in his universe (plus she is a great character in her own right: ‘Stop hitting me!’). I do, however, have to question what is going on with Clarke’s performance as Ricky – I understand he had to be suitably different from Mickey but did he have to play the role with quite this much testosterone (I can't help but laugh every time he talks through clenched teeth). Watching yourself dying must be a truly harrowing experience and Harper captures the moment in silence. He refuses to stay out of trouble and be the tin dog any more, it is about time that Mickey finally stood up for himself and refused to play the idiot any longer. Harper's penchant for action aside, it is his heroics that make this story worth watching, Mickey goes on a real journey of discovery in the parallel universe and discovers he has nothing to go back to in his. The Doctor and Rose have each other and it is abundantly clear nobody else is welcome. He has a mission now, he has something he can pour his heart and soul into.

The Good Stuff: I love the gas masks falling down from the console, that's a cute touch. Bitchy and spoilt Jackie is just a few steps removed from our Jackie and goes to show how a little pampering can tip you over the edge. Don Warrington is always good value for money and it’s a shame that the President gets killed so quickly after he is introduced as I am certain he could have brought a certain gravity that the second episode lacked. The scene where everybody freezes in the street worked a charm at freaking me out - it is a perfect representation of what the Cybermen offer, life at the press of a button. Given the troubled script, it is left to Graeme Harper to salvage something from this story and he fills it with many memorable, distracting set pieces. Chief amongst them is the glorious pan through the industrial nightmare of smoky pipes and the Cybermen convert more victims, The Lion Sleeps Tonight attempting to drown out the guttural screams. Harper never had the chance to bring the Cybermen to life in the classic series but he gets to indulge himself here and in his safe hands they make a storming return to the series. What an entrance they make at the party, advancing on the mansion and smashing through the windows. For a few moments this is the best Cybermen story. I really enjoyed Lumic’s assertion that the tramps he took to convert were ‘homeless and wretched and useless’ because they are sure commanding some respect now. The Cybermen look awesome marching through the grounds glistening in the moonlight, their revised art deco design resplendent in this setting. It might be all empty action but it's dynamic action all the same. Colin Spaul is a favourite of Harper's and it's such a shame that we didn’t see more of this beautifully cynical character. There’s a wonderfully chilling sequence where the Cybermen advance and murder Ricky and stare coldly through the metal fence in silence at Mickey. The way the silence cuts in meant that I could hear myself catch a breath. The cooling tunnel scenes are extraordinarily well lit and directed, the Cybermen are far scarier when they are frozen and silent, the audience waiting for them to jerk to life and attack. There is one moment that really drove home the horror of the Cybermen, when the emotional inhibitor was turned off and one stared at it's reflection in a mirror screaming in horror.

The Bad Stuff: Just adding some zeppelins to the skyline doesn’t make this an especially imaginative alternative universe. The TARDIS dying is treated as a throwaway scene when it should have been a devastating moment; the story is far too busy focussing on daft old Rose and her domestic problems to focus on the potentially exciting stuff. I know Davies was keen to push the domestic angle but let's not forget that this is still Doctor Who and not a daytime soap opera. A gay Mickey, a Welsh blond rinse and a CBBC presenter – that’s the resistance? Despite efforts to stick him in a wheelchair Lumic is no substitute for Davros. Roger Lloyd-Pack can't be held entirely responsible because he is simply bringing to life the overwritten part although there is something remarkably mechanical (hoho) about his performance. It might have been more chilling had he been entirely without emotion, stating every line like one of the automatons that he has become obsessed with. With no compelling villain to lead this story, it flounders terribly when it could have been chilling. Imagine how much more exciting this story would be in our universe? Why Russell T. Davies was reluctant to to re-tell the origins of the Cybermen on the Earth we know and love is beyond me and opens the can of worms of having to constantly bring the re-designed Cybermen from one universe to another (actually he finds a very clever way to achieve that in Army of Ghosts but it does cause problems for subsequent stories featuring the same design). Why they had to make this an origin story baffles me too. It could just be a story of a man who took the designs from the 1985 attack of Mondas and used them to his own ends. 'Delete delete delete...' is such an obvious attempt to give the Cybemen a Dalek-like slogan but it really doesn't work. It's not exactly the sort of word that chills you to the bone, is it? What exactly does the Doctor do on the phone that makes the Cybermen disintegrate? David Tennant talks so fast that the rushed explanation makes absolutely no sense. He may have well have just said 'I've just done something clever' and shove the phone into it's socket. London’s most wanted for parking tickets…what the hell? Why are the regular characters always gay in these alternative universe stories? Why bother to cut the ‘boyfriend’ line at the end of the episode when it is clear from Jake’s response that he and Ricky were lovers? For once the gay reference isn't superfluous. Mrs Moore is on her way to being a half decent character until she involves herself in the camp melodramatics before her death. The story spirals out of control at the climax with the exposure of the Cyber Controller, a hilariously awful nasty with big glowy eyes, an exposed brain and a squeaky voice. The Doctor sending Mickey coded messages should be really fun but it just feels contrived. The Cyber Controller goes ‘NOOOOOO!’ when he falls to his death, not only falling into villainous cliché but also a highly emotional response to the situation. The Zeppelin set piece is a brainless ending to a brainless episode and the sight of the Cyber Controller climbing a rope ladder might be the nadir for the second class bad guys. Was the last scene genuinely filmed by Westminster because it looks remarkably like a CSO backdrop? Murray Gold smothers Mickey’s departure scene in syrup. I’m usually a big fan of his music but this is too much sugar, even for me.

The Shallow Bit: Mickey gets tied to a chair in his boxers whilst his gay alter ego salivates over him. Is this an RTD wet dream?

Result: So much lost potential. You've got an accomplished writer and director and the return of an old monster looking snazzier than ever but somewhere along the way the execution of all three doesn’t quite gel. The first episode builds up the reveal of the Cybermen with some aplomb but at the same time concerns itself with some truly excruciating soap operatics surrounding the Tyler clan whilst given the Doctor virtually nothing to do. The second episode has some terrific action sequences and visuals courtesy of a director who is pouring everything he has into the execution but he is working to a truly brainless script that threatens to foil him at every turn, especially at the climax. The whole story is weighed down by irritating flaws (Rose's selfishness, Roger Lloyd-Pack's overwritten character, the early death of the President who is the most interesting character, the retarded ending that sees the Cyber Controller climbing a rope ladder) but you can see glimpses of something much superior (Jackie's venomous outpouring to her 'daughter', the street full of frozen zombies, the terrifying Cyber conversion devices). This would work far better as a 60 minute action adventure tale in our universe, cutting out all of the alternative universe nonsense (including all the material that continues to deteriorate Rose's character) and focussing on the psychology and body horror of being converted. These things are tantalizingly touched upon briefly but as with all Cybermen tales never exploited to the full. The Cybermen return time and again because they are popular but every production team that has utilized them seems afraid to expose the true horror of the creatures in fear of upsetting their teatime audience. I’d give the first episode a 5 and the second episode a 7 so this two parter scores a disappointing: 6/10


Anonymous said...

Rose's jealousy and smugness reminds me of the worst of Charley Pollard, duh! I loved Rose in season 1, but her bitchness with Sarah Jane made me dislike the character :(

What you comment about Mickey reminds me of how were the situation with Amy and Rory: I disliked Amy and loved Rory... sigh, why can't the Doctor just take one male likeable companion and leave behind the bitchy girls...

David Pirtle said...

Underwhelming Cybermen stories are kind of a tradition in Doctor Who. I never would have guessed that the most engaging part of a two-episode story featuring a parallel Earth and the return of the Cybermen woule be an exploration of Mickey as a person apart from Rose and the Doctor. I think 6 is just about right...rounding up anway.