Doctor Who #731: Age of Steel

"Oh, Lumic, you're a clever man. I'd call you a genius, except I'm in the room. But everything you've invented, you did to fight your sickness. And that's brilliant. That is so human. But once you get rid of sickness and mortality, then what's there to strive for, eh? The Cybermen won't advance. You'll just stop. You'll stay like this forever. A metal Earth with metal men and metal thoughts, lacking the one thing that makes this planet so alive. People. Ordinary, stupid, brilliant people."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 20 2006.

IN THIS ONE... Lumic unleashes the Cybermen on alt-London and Mickey stays behind to fight

REVIEW: I think I'm doomed never to really like Earth-bound "alien showcase" two-parters, whether they feature the Slitheen, Cybermen, Daleks, Sontarans or Silurians. In this case, it's in large part because it's all a bit by-the-numbers. I mean, haven't we all seen the villain falling into a fireball thing many times by now? It's a staple of action films and adds nothing here. A Cyberman would be expected to survive that, wouldn't it? The plot to infiltrate the base from the front and the back is exactly what they did in The Daleks (tick another box on the similarity chart, though the explicit reference is to the Tomb of Rassilon in The Five Doctors), and even within the episode itself, there's entirely too much repetition, of both shots and dialog, as if we need it all spelled out for us several times. What is this? American TV? (Sorry American TV, but you know you're like that. You do.) While it's got some moody corridors and lots of eye candy, it also cheats its scares, for example making a Cyberman appear out of nowhere when it's been established they are incredibly noisy walkers. And there's the matter of solving problems with the dreaded deus ex machina. The Doctor uses the TARDIS Christmas light as a laser that pwns a Cyber brigade? That comes out of nowhere. The idea of making them lose their minds by reactivating their emotions and making them realize what they've become is good, but goes a step too far by making their heads literally explode. How it overplays easy to understand concepts like this is in stark opposition to its failure to really address its themes, whether that's conformity or the value of emotion or mortality, or I don't know. The theme as presented is big shiny robot men. This is a story in which the Doctor euthanizes a person and has only seconds to ponder the ethical dilemma of killing not Cybermen, but normal people stuck inside Cyber-suits. It feels wrong, but he's not allowed to even think about it, nor are we.

As with many RTD era stories, Age of Steel is quick to kill off its guest characters. At least the remedial Ricky goes out pretty quick so we can focus on the more interesting Mrs. Moore (who also gets it) and Jake, but we also lose Mr. Crane, so much more interesting than the one-note Lumic. We hardly have time to grieve for any of them, but the episode does achieve some watchable pathos with the death of Cyber-Sally, converted on the eve of her wedding, the scene most evocative of Marc Platt's Spare Parts, the credited inspiration for the story. I wonder what that scene would have been like had they done it with Rose, Pete and Cyber-Jackie instead of using that revelation for shock value. And there's Mickey's departure, of course, which works because of the performances. The Doctor's proud but sad smile (it was fun how the Doctor put his trust in Mickey by using the key word "idiot"), Rose's sobbing'n'selfishness (some would call this annoying, but it's what made her sympathetic in Series 1 and it's much better than her current bratty behavior), and Mickey's quivering voice. Everything he's experienced over the last series and a half has told him he's not needed in Rose's world, which is our world, but here, he's got a grandmother to take care of and a world to save. I do have to complain about some of the words RTD wants to have as memes across the series because they don't always work as dialog. Mickey's stuck saying "The Doctor in the TARDIS. With Rose Tyler", words that come back later in slightly altered form, but just an awkward and cheesy thing to say. So self-conscious. The goodbye with Pete is also worthy, though more low-key. She's desperate to tell her she's his alt-daughter, but no doubt because he's still hurting from the loss of his wife, he can't bear to think about the ramifications of this, the what-might-have-beens, or what Rose wants from him now.

VERSIONS: The DVD includes a deleted scene (line, really) in which Jake reveals Ricky Smith was his boyfriend, which lends more weight to his grief.

The TARDISode is basically Lumic's animated message to get converted, with a couple of shots from the episode thrown in.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - While it's got a couple of decent moments, the whole Cyberman story seems a waste of returning maverick director Graeme Harper's talents. His edgy camera work helps every scene, and yet the dialog is rarely sharp, the plot points rarely original, and the acting frequently camp. The return of Doctor Who's second greatest enemies should have been more than "okay".


Jeff R. said...

Okay, so. New Cybermen. There are a lot of things to like in the update. First off, the idea of there ever having actually been a Mondas in a Counter-Earth orbit, let alone one that evaded detection well into this century, is one of those things that's even too silly for science fiction these days, in the same category as the innumeracy in Miracle Day. It's a pity that we can't completely retcon that out of the canon somehow, but updating the origin to a parallel timeline is exactly the right thing to do with it. The update in the weakness of the things from literal gold to alchemical gold (the higher parts of human nature) is also a big improvement.

I may have mentioned that if, as is entirely possible, I decide to try and write a screenplay, I'd probably do it as a Doctor Who spec script, called Alchemy, being a celebrity historical with Issac Newton, the royal mint, a retro/alien tech device that actually does turn base metals into gold through nuclear reactions, and both varieties of Cybermen...

But the real reason that the New Cybermen are better than the old is because, out of all of the Who villains, they are actually us. Actually humans, transformed through misused transhumanist visions into monsters; real humans rather than Mondasan or Kaleds or some other species that happens to look exactly like humans (or who, like humans, happen to look exactly like Gallifreyans). And that is an interesting and necessary niche for an ongoing who villain.

Siskoid said...

You mount an excellent defense of the new Cybermen. But though they are more "us" than the Mondasians, the body horror element speaks to me more than any kind of anxiety towards mobile phones and texting (I don't own one) that seems to inform the Cybus model.


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