Aired 13 May 2006
After the more experimental- though wildly successful- ‘The Girl in the Fireplace,’ Doctor Who returns with a more traditional tale in ‘Rise of the Cybermen,’ looking to introduce the Cybermen to the modern audience as successfully as the aptly titled ‘Dalek’ did for the Daleks last year.
This series of Doctor Who has shown that it’s unafraid to offer different types of stories, this run already showcasing episodes steeped more in comedy, in horror, in homage, and in emotion. ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ shifts gears again, offering more generalized action, taking a many familiar aspects from classic stories and giving them a modern spin. The end result is not a perfect story, and undoubtedly the origin story of these new Cybermen will not sit well with purists, but as the first entry in a two-parter it aptly sets the scene and accomplishes its task.
This is the first story in this run- ‘The Christmas Invasion’ notwithstanding- to bring back Rose’s mother, Jackie, and the alternate universe concept in play allows for some new insights and surprises with the regular characters. In this parallel universe, Jackie’s husband Pete is still alive, a huge success thanks to his Vitex drink. Pete proves to be just as down to Earth and amiable as he appeared back in ‘Father’s Day,’ not letting his success get to his head too much; however, the success brings out some of the worst characteristics in Jackie who is now only concerned only about material goods and status. The scene in which she snaps at Rose, masquerading as a member of her staff, is brutal to behold, all sense of compassion and friendliness replaced by years of being pampered and living within society’s elite.
Unfortunately, that materialistic view seems to be the norm for this world, every person a slave to a wearable electronic device that, in a shockingly effective scene, is able to physically freeze everyone as it gets its daily update. This not only allows for a bit of social commentary but also shows a sort of midway point between humanity and Cybermen as the people are force-fed updates and even canned humour.
While the Doctor and Rose are both quite effective as always in discovering the underlying menace- even if they do continue to seem a bit more arrogant and distanced from other characters than usual- this is very much a story about Mickey finding himself, a story thread that should continue into ‘Age of Steel.’ Here he finds that his deceased grandmother is still alive, and the guilt Noel Clarke is able to portray since he blames himself for her death by not fixing the carpet she tripped over is superb. Clarke also proves adept at playing two versions of his character, the softer Mickey of old and the confident and brash Ricky of this new universe who is most wanted for his accumulation of parking tickets.
For the Cybermen theselves, though, it was probably a necessity that their origin story be reworked since the prospect of a twin planet along with the major continuity issues addressed towards the end of the classic run would be a lot for any new fan to swallow. Like ‘Dalek,’ ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ draws inspiration from some of the material produced in between the televised series, and even though it’s unfortunate that these Cybermen are not borne out of a necessity to survive as in the classic series, the story told still works quite well and resonates with the increasing use of technology in society and in medicine today. The necessity of a catchphrase seems dubious, an attempt to bring them more in line with the Daleks again, but the redesign of the Cybermen suit is chilling, massive, and fantastic. The scene with them crashing the party is plenty indicative of just how powerful they are.
In fact, the biggest issue with the story is also its biggest strength, and that’s the setting of the parallel universe. Russell T Davies has proven adept at setting stories in modern-day London and showing the ramifications events have on its people, and though the similarity to the modern world is stretched in stories such as ‘Aliens of London,’ this approach works quite well. By setting the story in the parallel world, it allows the show free reign to do as it will while still trying to make the situation applicable to the modern world, and it just feels like a bit of a cheat since Cyber conversion is not something that could easily be overlooked in any future story on the real Earth.
There are several differences between the worlds, some more overt than others. The Presidency of the UK and the apparent police state of the country are the more obvious and important ones, but these aspects are glossed over to deal with the Cybermen and their creator, John Lumic played by Roger Lloyd Pack. Ultimately, though it just doesn’t make sense that the London on display here would match so closely with the real one given the social state and the incredible level of technology on display other than to try to get a Cyberman origin story into the modern setting. While the story of a dying industrialist who wants to hold onto life should be an easy motivation to support, the script unfortunately degrades Lumic to little more than a cardboard cutout. Pack is suitably villainous in the role, and there is still room for improvement in ‘The Age of Steel’ regarding characterization, but ultimately it seems as though he is yet another attempt at putting the Cybermen in line with the Daleks as Lumic holds several similarities with Davros.
All in all, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ is a mixed bag. The Cybermen introduced here are certainly more physically menacing than they’ve ever been on the programme before, but their new origin story just doesn’t resonate quite as much as in the classic series when people slowly changed themselves into Cybermen in order to survive. While the parallel universe setting allows for some fascinating alternate characterization of lead characters, bringing out the best in Mickey and the worst in Jackie, it unfortunately tries too hard to downplay its staggering differences in order to bring it into line with the real modern London. It’s an effective introductory story, but ‘The Age of Steel’ has a lot of work to do to make it even more so.