Aired 20 May 2006
After the serviceable but ultimately pedestrian reintroduction of the iconic Cybermen race to modern audiences in ‘Rise of the Cybermen,’ the story concludes with ‘The Age of Steel.’ Relieved of the need for exposition, this second story actually works a bit more effectively, helped immensely by the towering talents of director Graeme Harper.
Harper is the first director to work on both the classic and modern series of Doctor Who after directing such classics as ‘The Caves of Androzani’ and ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ when the programme was unfortunately in its period of declination. Yet while the scripts of those two stories were also superb, Harper truly shows his merit here as he elevates an otherwise average story to something altogether more special. There’s no supreme underlying wit or ultimate consequence to the scenes here to make the story anything more than is written, and so it is up to Harper to make it something more.
The redesign of the Cybermen still remains their best feature in this story, but they seem altogether even more imposing thanks to the lower camera shots and the synchronicity in which groups of them move. Despite this level of threat, though, they almost attain a level of sympathy at the end as they grab their heads and scream in their death throes, quite an accomplishment considering how brutal and emotionless they are throughout the tale. ‘The Age of Steel’ in general presents Doctor Who as more of a blockbuster than many episodes, and the stunning visuals and slight degree of sympathy for the villains helps to sell this presentation.
There are some gaps in the logic of the plot, especially in regards to why there are groups of Cybermen in hibernation during an invasion, but the action progresses quickly enough that these never linger too much to cause any major distraction. Lumic is again the central antagonist of the piece as he orders the conversion of more people to Cybermen, and though the idea of capitalism and business reaching such unprecedented heights that one man could effectively rule and change the world so substantially is another nice comment on current society, the character is still written as rather one-dimensional. He again seems to be channelling Davros, and the Cyber wheelchair he gains after his own conversion does nothing to detract from that sense. Unfortunately, for someone who just wants to hold onto life, it’s never adequately explained why he would spearhead such a massive undertaking in creating the Cyberman race and then leading an invasion. Clearly he’s unhinged, but some further insight into the character would have done volumes for him. He claims to be altruistic as he wants to help better lives, but the copyrights on the conversion process and then forcefully upgrading the public by force do not support these claims, even coming from a madman.
‘The Age of Steel’ briefly raises the prospect of Cybermen being the next logical evolutionary step for humanity, but nothing more is done with that idea. Instead, they are used just as another invasion force and, as mentioned previously, it’s a shame that the horror of their backstory from the classic series as people chose to convert themselves out of a necessity for survival has been lost. It’s that singular little difference, as well as seeing a sort of halfway state in between true Cybermen and true humans in the 1960s Cybermen stories, that made the originals so much more horrific than even those in the later years of the classic series. Without that knowledge that humans could choose to do that to themselves- rather than having it forced upon them as here- they just lose some of their intrinsic scariness and relegate them to the levels of generic brute monsters. There is another brief moment where the validity of the Cybermen’s right to exist is discussed even as just a means of survival, and that temporarily opens up a potentially intriguing storyline, but Lumic’s insistence that he needs to force conversion mitigates that talk’s merits instantly.
Beyond the Cybermen, though, ‘The Age of Steel’ effectively wraps up Mickey’s story. These two episodes are the first ones in which Noel Clarke really gets to come into his element as Mickey- and to a lesser extent Ricky- and he seizes the opportunity with gusto. As Ricky falls while attempting to escape from the Cybermen, Mickey takes the opportunity to return to a life with his grandmother in the parallel world, in a sense choosing to make up for a mistake he made before with someone who truly gives him love and a purpose. It’s a shame that this isn’t the Mickey on display from the beginning, but the fully developed character on display here is a joy to behold. Although he seems to think that he never fully belonged on the TARDIS, remarking that it’s the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS leaving with little regret, there’s surely some untapped potential that will remain unexplored now.
Even disregarding the convenient and technobable-laden conclusion, ‘The Age of Steel’ still manages to capitalize on the ideas presented in ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ and, thanks to clever direction, elevate them to something more than the script dictates. This is by no means a classic episode, but it certainly is entertaining enough and- in a good way- feels like a product of Hollywood. It’s unfortunate that, despite a brief mention, the discussion of why an identically named and designed concept would arise on two different planets in two different universes doesn’t occur, but the overall menace of these Cybermen is undeniable and will make for another strong recurring foe without Lumic, assuming that they find their way through to the original universe at some point. It seems inevitable given that Jackie has also met her demise in this alternate world, creating the potential for Rose’s desires to have her family reform to come to fruition.