Doctor Who episode 730: The Age of Steel (20/5/2006)
‘Rose, I’m coming to get you!’ Mickey saves the day through dogged determination, computer skills and refusing to live down to the Doctor and Rose’s expectations. In a curious way, he’s grown more than Rose, from useless comedy sidekick to heartsick tin dog to action hero. No wonder he chooses to stay behind in a universe that shows some appreciation for him, where he’s able to make a difference as his own man, not the Doctor’s assistant. It’s pretty much the only time in the new series a companion makes that choice to grow beyond the Doctor (usually there’s some terrible reason why they can never see him again), and it works so effectively that RTD pretty much repeats the trick with Martha (let’s skip over that very unfortunate coincidence).
Apart from giving Mickey a decent send-off, this lays the groundwork for Rose’s exit too, leaving her a plausible new family on parallel Earth. In a curious way, her story pretty much ends here: the rest of the season is just vamping until she and Jackie can be reunited with Pete (clearly a goodie as he’s Gemini), and you can easily imagine a scenario where Piper only wanted to do half of Series Two and they contrived to get Camille Coduri in the TARDIS and across to Pete’s World in this. Killing off parallel Jackie is a necessary part of this, although it’s a natural part of the story. The moment Pete and Rose realise they can’t even tell which of the Cybermen was Jackie is one of the episode’s most effective, and less mawkish than the ‘Sally Phelan’ CyberBride.
The rest of the episode has some fantastic images (the Doctor and Mrs Moore negotiating a tunnel full of frozen Cybermen; the zeppelin parked above Battersea Power Station; the Darth Vader style shot of a CyberMask descending as a citizen is butchered for parts), but isn’t a great pay off to Rise of the Cybermen because, as in Tomb, the Cybermen, having risen, have nothing else to do. The earpod-controlled humans march willingly to their dooms, and so short of looming menacingly towards the camera and standing about their factory, they have no real plan. Their one positive action is forcing Lumic to become the CyberController. As he wobbles out of a cupboard on his docking station throne, you sort of wish they hadn’t bothered. I guess the Cybermen have often worked better as a horror idea than an effective monster, and these Cybus-branded ones work well enough stomping about and deleting people. There’s just nothing more to them.
This is a pity, because the script is striving to make this their Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor even has a moment when he ponders whether he has the right to wipe them out: ‘I think it would kill them. Could we do that?’ It doesn’t last, although Tennant manages to sell the Doctor’s discomfort with his genocide as he grimaces in a mirror and profusely apologises as thousands of human brains explode messily around him. There’s no time for introspection, though, as the episode takes an eleventh-hour swerve into Aliens territory as the CyberController detaches itself from its throne like the Queen shedding her egg sac to pursue the Doctor, Rose and Pete to the airship. It might not work on wood, but fortunately the sonic screwdriver does work on rope (!) and so the day is saved and everyone defers their happily ever after for the season finale.
Ultimately, the Cybermen usually aren’t as good as the Daleks, and this is not as good as Dalek. That established the Daleks as the great enemy of the Time Lords, something to be feared. This sets up the Cybermen as pitiful creatures, destroyed not by a time god, but by a bloke with a mobile phone and an IT certificate. Like most Cybermen stories it flounders on the irreconcilable issue that these are meant to be the show’s other big headline monsters, but they work best when they’re at their lowest ebb. The new series is at its best when it recognises this – like in The Next Doctor, where their grim determination to survive at any cost makes them childsnatchers, or Closing Time where they’re humorously useless, or when they’re the Master’s victims. The horror of the idea is usually lost when it tries to make them a credible, terrible threat, not a pathetic bunch of ex humans clinging hopelessly to a parody of life.
An instruction from Lumic to commence mass conversions. Erm… That’s it.
Next Time: The Idiot’s Lantern