...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, May 15, 2006

Day 1957: Doctor Who: RISE OF THE CYBERMEN


This week Doctor Who was back to being frightening. Which is a GOOD thing, because I get MORE CUDDLES and not soggy from Daddy sobbing into my back!

Here is what he thought of it then:

This was Doctor Who of the 'Old School', but the 'old school' that was "The Caves of Androzani" not "Timelash"!

For a change, this week I read the opinions on the Outpost Gallifrey forums before writing my own review but, in spite of one or two nice observations from the keen eyed – see Pete Tyler's hair loss – opinion there does not seem to have been very inspired: dividing into the love it/hate it camps without much by way of critical analysis unfortunately.

A lot of the critics felt that it was slow; I felt that there was a terrific sense of gathering pace to it, an increasing tempo that marked the approaching march of the Cybermen and keeping time with the repeated glimpses of their new metal forms until the symbolic crash of their entrance.

Most weeks the complaint is that the story is too rushed, taking no time to develop the latest world in which the Doctor finds himself. This story took that time, and it was well used. It was about time that Mickey had more to his backstory than "boyfriend of Rose", and I put my hands up – like the Doctor it hadn't occurred to me to ask before.

And it was a useful way to illustrate some of the shortcomings of this alternative England: not just zeppelins, but curfew and soldiers on the street and homeless starving in the industrial wastelands as though Thatcherism never ended.

I like too that although the audience obviously know that they are in for a Cyberman story, for most of the episode David Tennant plays the Doctor as thinking that he's in an "alternative universe" story, leading to a terrific sense of the Doctor's horror at the climax that he's made all the wrong assumptions about this world.

It is true that the scene with the President meeting Lumic for the first time is not completely necessary from a plot point of view, but it does the Chekhov's gun set up for the "Cybus sales pitch" which the Doctor discovers later on Pete's laptop and hence discovers the real monsters of this piece. And it does establish the President, world weary and with a sad wisdom, played by the ever wonderful Don Warrington. Of course, there's more to this President than his superficial "good" character suggests: after all, his government presides over those curfews and homeless that we saw earlier. (Unless he's an honorary President, and there is a Prime Minister too – though that is not the inference I draw from him forbidding Lumic's experiment on the government's behalf.)

I'm clearly out-of-step with the pack because I also really enjoyed Roger Lloyd-Pack's meaty turn as villainous loon John Lumic head of Cybus Industries. "Skin of metal," he says with such perverse relish, "and a body that will never age…" he's clearly in love with his creations and not just in a platonic way(!) Also, it's clear that he brings Lumic a sense of humour – there's a great moment when he's speaking to the President: "I suppose a remark about crashing the party would be appropriate" and then he laughs but it seems more that he's laughing at his own remark rather than because of it: laughing at the preposterousness of being the stereotypical villain even as he relishes the role.

Two particularly noteworthy moments of direction: the deeply traumatic Cyber-conversion not quite muffled by the upbeat tones of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"; and, though the commentary says it was just a stroke of fortune from the weather, the scenes in the dark and mist with apparently limitless (though in fact ten very well directed) Cybermen looming out of the night on all sides were exceptionally fine.

I'll just pause to give due credit to the Cyber-choreographer. Just as last week with the clockwork robots, the body language of Doctor Who monsters is a crucial, and often overlooked, element in selling their "reality". As Doctor Who Confidential made clear, the current production team are well aware of this and have been willing to go that extra mile to make use that these Cybermen look and more importantly march as though they mean it.

To touch briefly on the deadly question of continuity: the story is generally pitched as an "origin of the Cybermen" story and you can read it as Lumic inventing them. There is enough wiggle room for the dedicated fanboy to infer that Lumic acquired the remains of the Cybermen from Pat Troughton adventure "The Invasion" (by buying up International Electromatics, the Cybermen's front company in that story, seen again here) and has spent the intervening decades reverse engineering the technology. It would be nice to have a causal line to that effect in next weeks "The Age of Steel" but I expect that the producers will leave it ambiguous.

Weaknesses: well, the obvious one to me is that if you weld some homeless people's brains into Cyber-bodies but have to put in an "override" so that they obey your commands… wouldn't it just be easier to build some robots?

I liked the visual style of the ear-pods (and loved the ear-pods not "eye"-pods gag) but I think I would have liked it more if there had been people with different stages of upgrade: those with just the ear-pods; some with ear-pods and "handles" for an always-on connection; some with maybe a metal wrap-around covering the ears and the back of the head (plus handles) with extra memory capacity; and so on, to indicate that there is upgrading going on by choice and to show progression towards the horrific conclusion. What we get instead is a rather big jump from ear-pod to full body and I'm not certain that people would wear it (if you'll forgive the pun).

For me, a large part of the Cybermen's tragedy is that they did this awful thing to themselves. Now, I like the way that the 2006 team have updated the spare-part surgery nightmare of the 1960s into the must-have latest upgrade fetish of the 2000's, so wouldn't it have been better to have had Mr Crane (Colin Spaul – is he only the second person to have appeared in Doctor Who both pre-1989 and post-2005?), rather than kidnapping the homeless, park his van in Piccadilly Circus and offer the very latest free upgrade to the first dozen oh-so-keen teens to take up this never to be repeated offer? Polish up that exchange between the President and Mr Lumic nicely:

THE PRESIDENT: "Who were these people?"

LUMIC: "Teenagers, Mr President. Wasteful, idle, vain. The least useful members of our society. Before I improved them. Think of the contribution they can make now!"

THE PRESIDENT: "I'm so sorry that this was done to you."

LUMIC: "Oh, don't be sorry, Mr President. That's the beauty of my work: they were all volunteers, they got exactly what they deserved." (Bwah ha ha ha haaaa etc.)

James Graham raises a good question about alternative universes and just why everyone we know is so important.

With my post-factor-justification hat on, I might suggest the following. The Doctor initially does not expect them to have arrived in an alternative universe, but instead thinks they will be marooned in the "silent realm" outside time and space. But in the Doctor Who universe there is a place outside of time and space where fiction and dreams come true.

Could it be that they have landed in this alternative universe guided there by the (subconscious?) desires of Rose and Mickey – she wants her mother and father alive and together and rich; he wants his Gran alive and himself to be respected and important. And behold, they get their wishes.

[Alex suggests: "and the Doctor wants a monster to fight!"]

Mickey raised the question of how the TARDIS managed to get there and the Doctor skated over an answer: "I dunno. By accident?" which suggests, or at least leaves open, the possibility that more may be made of this later – perhaps someone is trying to open holes in the universe.

Or it may all be a coincidence.

The end titles give a credit to Marc Platt, and clearly there is a nod towards his Cybermen origins story "Spare Parts": a Big Finish audio where the fifth Doctor and Nyssa arrive at the beginning of the tragedy on frozen Mondas as it drifts into the depths of space. Highly recommended.

However, I found that "Rise of the Cybermen" had rather more in common with Mike Tucker's BBC Past Doctor novel "Loving the Alien".

In an alternative England, frail genius George Limb discovers the remains of some Cybermen during the Second World War and uses the technology to improve British soldiers so that Britain wins the war without American intervention. Limb continues to lead the Empire as Prime Minister, an Orwellian Big Brother figure, while overseeing the Cyber-augmentation of the population.

Personally, I think that this is one of the worst of the BBC books range, not just because it is a ghastly train-wreck of colliding plots and timelines but also because of its treatment of the Doctor's companion Ace.

Essentially, after her TV story appearances, the character of Ace had continued in 32 of the Virgin New Adventures, eventually leaving in "Set Piece" to become an adventurer in her own right (although she returned for guest appearances in "Head Games", "Happy Endings" and "Lungbarrow"). When the BBC ended Virgin's licence in 1997, Tucker and co-author Robert Perry began a new series of adventures with Ace following on from the TV stories but contradicting minor continuity points from the New Adventures, such as changing her surname from "McShane" to the so-much-more-tedious "Gale".

This all culminates in "Loving the Alien" with the original Ace from the television episodes being killed, and an Ace from an alternative timeline joining the Doctor as his companion, obviously the "New Adventures" Ace. (You can take this as them generously allowing for both continuities or they were being petty and saying "ha ha, we were right and you New Adventures writers were just using a copy".) My main problem then and now was the reaction of the Doctor: it seems not to matter to him at all that a real person called Ace has died because he still has a companion called Ace, the copy from another universe.

I dredge all of this up because it struck me as clashing markedly with the Doctor's very strong insistence to Rose that the Pete from this universe was not her father.

Finally, thanks to overrunning of the episode and (hopefully) the wisdom of Steven Mophat from last year's "The Empty Child" finally sticking with the production team we didn't get a "Next time…" spoiler to ruin the cliff-hanger. (Mark of a good cliff-hanger, by the way: how much it gets you wondering "how will they get out of that?") Hoorah!

And so:

Next time: to be continued…


Simon said...

I missed it this week.

Millennium Dome said...

Mr Simon,

DOCTOR WHO is repeated on FRIDAY (19th) at 9.00 on BBC3.

Or it will be out on DVD in JULY probably.


Will said...

Attention Daddy Richard:
Colin Spaull is the sixth, rather than the second, actor from the new series to have been in the old one. Did you forget Lis Sladen and John Lesson for two?