Doctor Who episode 729: Rise of the Cybermen (13/5/2006)
‘We are Human point two. Every citizen will receive a free upgrade. You will become like us.’ This has aged well. At the time, knowing it was inspired by Marc Platt’s Big Finish play Spare Parts, there was a vague expectation we’d get something apocalyptic and haunting. But, like Dalek, this is more a reimagining than an adaptation, and it has to be suitable to broadcast in an early evening slot on a Saturday. As it stands, the horrific moments (especially Mr Crane listening to The Lion Sleeps Tonight as the homeless are butchered for Cyber-parts – surely a conscious echo of the Dalek Emperor’s appropriation of future Earth’s homeless in The Parting of the Ways) are very horrible indeed, but are understandably kept offscreen. No-one wanted a repeat of Attack of the Cybermen.
The choice of parallel world setting is wise. It was inevitable they’d do mirror universes at some point, and it hammers home a point that had to be made through geography in The Tenth Planet: Mondas and Earth are the same; we are the Cybermen. The bonus is that they can get Shaun Dingwall back, make Jackie into the monster “our” version never really is, and lay the groundwork for the series finale, providing Rose with a ready-made, better family structure than she has back in Earth point one. It’s just a pity, given how many Torchwood references there are in this, that it’s never revealed that this is an alternate reality where Queen Victoria succumbed to the werewolf at the Torchwood Estate – presumably paving the way for a republic united to overthrow the Empire of the Wolf.
Many of the details are really good – zeppelins replace aircraft, which implies a whole different outcome to 1930s’ history. Pete and Jackie are recognisable, but Pete’s become a success and Jackie’s nagging is given a nastier edge because she has the power to vent her frustration on ‘staff’. The Yorkshire terrier Rose is very funny. Even Ricky seems like a plausible alternative to Mickey – this is the tough guy Mickey play acted in Rose, but with no Rose Tyler to undercut the machismo with mockery.
Focusing on Ricky/Mickey also adds to the slightly off-kilter flavour of the episode. Previously he’s been Rose’s dorky boyfriend and latterly the tin dog. Here, in typical sci-fi series fashion, his backstory is info-dumped in his final appearance. His encounter with his gran is Noel Clarke’s best performance in the show, and it’s about Mickey’s life, not about how Mickey exists in relation to Rose. Even before he’s consciously decided to stay on Pete’s World, he’s rejected the Doctor and Rose, realising he’s only ever going to be a ‘spare part’ (nice) in the TARDIS.
The downside of making this Mickey’s story is that the Doctor and Rose seem even more unbearable than ever, joking about and being so into each other that they’ve forgotten Mickey’s even there (or, and I promise it’s the last time I’ll mention it, that last week the Doctor dumped Rose for the first sexy French lady he met). Rose running off to see Pete makes sense, but feels like she’s learned nothing from Father’s Day and is repeating her habit of ignoring the Doctor’s advice about daddy. The Doctor laughing at furbaby Rose also makes sense, but makes him look a bit of an uncaring idiot (I picture Eccleston playing the same moment with wet-eyed compassion).
The other thing that doesn’t really work is Lumic. Roger Lloyd Pack’s performance doesn’t exactly help, but making Lumic a dying man in a wheelchair engineering the rise of his cyborg creations just means he’s a second-best Davros for the second-best monsters, even if the script is pitching for “what if Steve Jobs decided to upgrade himself?”. Even at the time, I thought there was probably something more interesting to be done (Spare Parts has the desperate Mondasians turning to cybernetics to escape extinction; here, you could have had everyone just aiming to upgrade themselves to ever better bits of technology), but I suppose that there’s already a lot of plot to establish and the necessary sacrifice was making the rise of the Cybermen down to a dying megalomaniac’s insane desire to impose his own immortality on everyone else.
But this is directed beautifully (the climactic attack on the Tyler mansion is particularly good, with some great reveals of the Cardiffied Cybermen), and setting much of it at night and in run-down industrial wastelands (including, at the time, Battersea Power Station) gives it a really different feel from last series’ London tourist landmarks. Reservations about the villain aside, this is very good.
Gemini downloads the backstory of Lumic and Cybus to the Preachers (which seem to include Mickey). Some glimpses of the Cybermen, slightly mucked up by also including a Cybus Industries radio advert so it ends up being neither one thing nor the other.
Next Time: The Age of Steel