Thursday, 31 March 2016

Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel

 Chapter The 21st, is set in a world that's not quite as good as our own.

The Doctor and Rose at the height of their smug couple phase, with Mickey tagging along as gooseberry, end up in a parallel universe where they discover alternate versions of family members, and also a terminally ill billionaire, struggling to survive, who has invented parallel versions of the Cybermen. Like all dying men struggling to stay alive, he wants to enslave humanity also. Why wouldn't he? Anyway, these Cybermen turn out to be even more rubbish than the ones in our universe, and can be killed by a mobile phone signal or something (and it's not even a gold mobile phone). Mickey graduates to full hero, and stays behind to look after his Nan / fight the remaining Cybermen / sightsee in Paris. Even though things feel a little unconcluded, the Doctor and Rose leave this world behind never ever to see it or anyone from it ever again, because it's completely impossible. Never again. Definitely over. Absolutely finished with. Honest.

Along with the Better Half and middle child (a boy of 6), I was horribly ill with cold during the week of viewing this; we all snuggled up on the sofa and watched this on DVD to cheer ourselves up. Didn't really work in my case.

First-time round:
In a fair example of 'difficult second album' syndrome, Doctor Who in 2006 did not quite maintain the levels of audience excitement seen in 2005. The return to screens in March of that first year was hard to top, but by Christmas and David Tennant's first story, the fervour had managed to increase: the show even made the front cover of the Christmas Radio Times. And at the end of The Christmas Invasion, there were the first clips from Tennant's first full series including its Cyber story: gosh, he's wearing a dinner jacket, and there are Cybermen and explosions, and - ooh - Billie Piper is dressed as a French maid for some reason.

Inevitably, once Tennant got past tantalising glimpses and into the weekly episodic grind, it could never be so special. Coinciding with this, at least to yours truly, was a small but noticeable dip in quality, and the 2006 stories are collectively my least favourite year of 21st century Who. Or maybe I was just distracted by more important matters - my better half was heavily pregnant at this point with our first child. I don't remember any specifics of seeing these two episodes for the first time, but I must have started completing the Panini Sticker book for Doctor Who at this time, as it came free (plus six stickers) with the Radio Times issue that advertised the Rise of the Cybermen episode. Yes, I was preparing to become a father simultaneously with collecting stickers aimed at young children. Like the show, it was a period of transition for me; hopefully, like the show, I improved slightly.

I'll preface this with the fact that my son, though subdued by illness, enjoyed the story, and my Better Half kept telling me I was being overly harsh on it; but, alas, ten years has done nothing to improve this disappointing mess in my eyes.

From the first scene where Roger Lloyd-Pack outrageously overacts the killing of a unwitting minion, one wonders what unkindnesses the intervening years have delivered to Graeme Harper; the fantastic director of 1980s Who can no longer seem to get a decent performance out of anyone. But the fault clearly lies in the screenplay. Reportedly, there were many script problems with this two-parter; no-one could really ever work out what it should be. The story seems to have gone through many major changes in direction, echoes of which remain in what was finally made, and no character in it ends up with a satisfactory motivation for their actions.

Lumic, Lloyd-Pack's character, is a case in point: he is dying, and wants to survive. He's frightened to experiment on himself, so he gets his goons to round up the homeless and experiments on them. So far, a bit whacko, but not beyond the limits of genre. He perfects his cyber process and then seeks the right authority to proceed to use it; you'd think he'd crossed the line of caring about legality when doing vivisection on unwilling humans, but he still seems very keen to get the governance right. Okay. Permission is denied, so he enslaves all of London's population with hypnotic signals, marches them into a power station, extracts their brains and sticks each into a steel suit. Overreaction, much? Imagine what he'd do if he failed to get planning permission for his underground lair in a hollowed out volcano? To give the writer the benefit of the doubt, in the process of redrafting it's probable that a change was made from desperate amoral bad guy to full-on cartoon supervillian, but the end product retains a sticky-taped patch-up of both.

The characters are not the only thing that's inconsistent, the whole world of the story doesn't make coherent sense. It must have seemed a good idea not to spell out exactly what decided the parallel path that this alternate world took, but there are heavy hints that we are in some kind of unequal totalitarian state (talk of curfews, underground resistance groups, black market whiskey for the special few, etc.). But this presents two problems - first, it doesn't square with the more free market liberalism of downloads, upgrades and crowd scenes of everyone having the latest accessory; but second and more crucially: if this is happening to a lot of Nazis / Vichy French, why do I care when they get cybernised? Again, there's a conflict between different directions tearing this story apart.
Positives: Camille Coduri and Shaun Dingwall are solid amongst the regulars; the rest including Tennant are having something of an off day. Noel Clarke is half good - Mickey's great, Ricky, not so much. Some of the pointless continuity references (IE, Torchwood, "Above, Between, Below") are fun to spot. The downbeat ending with Pete Tyler rejecting the girl who's his alt-Daughter is a nice change, but everyone knows (knew even at the time) that it's not going to be left that way.

Both stories feature top tier Doctor Who baddies, and both - while purporting to be stand-alone - are clearly setting up stories that will be continue later down the line.

Deeper Thoughts:  
There's never been a good Cyberman story. Discuss. All that follows is in my humble opinion, but it’s an opinion that I’m not alone in holding within Doctor Who fandom: 50 years on from their first appearance, the Cybermen are still waiting for a TV story that’s worthy of them.

Where they’ve been in a good tale, it’s usually a man versus alien action story where they may as well be any old iron giants (think Earthshock or The Invasion). And when a story dwells on what they are, or what they mean, it usually only does this briefly, or at a superficial level, or it picks on one aspect of them (they’re emotionless, they want to convert people). Dark Water / Death in Heaven probably comes closest to exploiting the concept successfully, but even there the Cybs are the reanimated dead. But Cybermen are worse than zombies; they are people who have willingly converted themselves into machines, bit by bit, in order to survive, and in so doing have removed all their emotions. They are not walking dead, they are volunteer monsters, and their actions are cruel but always logical.

On paper that’s great, but no story has ever managed to bring that to life visually. A lot of the difficulty stems from their creation: they were developed as an idea in themselves – during a brainstorming period where the show’s scientific adviser Kit Pedlar and its Script Editor Gerry Davis were coming up with more plausible story concepts – rather than emerging organically from a particular story being written. This is why they almost seem shoehorned into their own debut, which doesn’t really foreground what they are, bar some brief backstory expositions. They are also a concept deserving a slow reveal, more prose than telly: you’d need a lot of screen time to cover their gradual relinquishing of humanity at the appropriate pace to do justice to the scary truth: they do it to themselves, they do, and that’s what really hurts

The vacuum created by the lack of a Genesis of The Cybermen on TV has led to many attempts in other media to tell that tale properly. I have never heard the Big Finish story Spare Parts, but it’s generally felt to be the best attempt, and formed something of the basis for Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel. As I understand it, though, over many, many redrafts and reimaginings, the 2006 TV story came to bear no real resemblance, despite the credit thanking Spare Parts’ author Marc Platt.

The major issue is that, whatever point they started from, every choice ultimately made by Tom MacRae and Russell T seems to be the wrong one: the conversion comes about not because of the necessities / caprices of a whole species, but the insanity of one man; the change isn’t gradual, it’s sudden; it’s forced not voluntary; emotions are removed not because of accident or because they are no longer felt to be needed, it’s just a side effect of the process. Essentially, one is left with something that’s a pale imitation of a Cyberman. But perhaps that’s all that a family show on a Saturday evening can handle. Done properly, perhaps the Cybermen are too chilling a body horror concept for Doctor Who.

In Summary:
Further evidence that the Cybermen are too frightening to do properly in Doctor Who. (There’s still hope, though: all we need is a spin-off from Doctor Who aimed at adults; just imagine what it could make of them - that story could not fail to be utterly amazingly superb.)

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