‘The one adventure I can never have.’ At no previous point in the series could the first encounter of the Daleks and the Cybermen be treated as the B-plot to Jackie and Pete being brought back together while the Doctor and Rose are torn apart. The point is, only a double-global apocalypse is enough to separate them. You could argue there’s a lot more to explore in the similarities between the two monsters, both augmenting themselves to survive but one convinced it’s a gift to be shared with all, and the other a means to segregate them from the lesser species, which deserve only extermination. But that misses the point.
The second series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was built around two two-part stories. In the mid-season Surprise/Innocence, Buffy consummates her relationship with Angel the good vampire – which makes him lose his soul and become evil. The season finale, Becoming, has him regain his soul but too late, and Buffy confesses her love before she’s forced to send him to hell to prevent an apocalypse. The following five seasons of the show (and the spin-off, Angel) pretty much exists in the shadow of these events. There are better Buffy episodes, but none more impactful.
That’s essentially the model RTD emulates with Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. After the crescendo of action in Army of Ghosts, this is a crescendo of emotion. Jackie reunited with Pete; the Doctor nobly sending Rose away with her reforged family (just like he did in The Parting of the Ways); Rose again rejecting the Doctor choosing for her, returning, only to fall; the final goodbye in Bad Wolf Bay. If at least one of these moments doesn’t make your lip wobble then you are a Cyberman.
It pays off the series-long themes of the Doctor and Rose in love, and their joint hubris leading to this nemesis. Tennant does his best performance, completely selling the Doctor’s momentary defeat as Jackie is led away by the Cybermen and Rose is at the mercy of the Daleks; his revived spirits as he perceives the solution; the moment it finally clicks for him as Rose tells him, ‘I made my choice a long time ago’, and the devastation of the climax. There’s a pre-Doomsday 10th Doctor, all swagger and hugs, and a post-Doomsday 10th Doctor: the last of the Time Lords, always sad even when he’s smiling. Piper is great as well, especially the mad little laugh she does in Dalek Sec’s eyestalk as she describes the way she exterminated the Dalek God.
Around this, all the other elements work: Jackie, facing the same fate as her parallel counterpart in the Cyberman conversion factory; the mystery of the Genesis Ark; Murray Gold’s best music; Graeme Harper’s unobtrusively effective direction (the parallel Earth Torchwood is shot from the opposite angle, building up to that wonderful shot of the Doctor and Rose listening through a wall for each other); the Daleks and Cybermen bitchily sniping at each other. There’s a neat theme of technology being hijacked for nefarious purposes: the Cybermen hijack the Daleks’ void travel; the Daleks hijack the Time Lords’ prison TARDIS; Torchwood hijacks whatever they can get their hands on.
Like Becoming to Buffy, the rest of RTD’s (and arguably the rest of) Doctor Who exists in the shadow of Doomsday: the Doctor’s aching loss; Rose’s determination to break down the walls of reality to get back to him; Catherine Tate appearing whenever the audience needs to feel better. This is not the best episode of Doctor Who, or the most inventive or the quintessential, but it is the most impactful.
The Daleks interrupt an emergency broadcast warning people to stay indoors as the presenter declares, ‘this is doomsday!’ Suitably apocalyptic. It’s a shame they didn’t continue doing these.
Dr Who will return in The Runaway Bride
Next Time: Everything Changes