Wednesday, May 24, 2006

REVIEW: Doctor Who - Age Of Steel

[Review written for Gallifrey One: Spring 2006]

Part two of the New Series’ mirror universe Cybermen saga . Will the contrived inclusion of Mickey and Rose’s parallel bloodlings continue to hamper the otherwise strong return of the metal monsters? Can Rose get any more irritating? Will Robocop sue? All will be revealed in this week’s exciting episode!

“Age Of Steel” is far superior to it’s opening episode, “Rise Of The Cybermen”. “Rise Of The Cybermen” was a rather mixed bag being a stylistic attempt to recapture the classic Doctor Who ambience. The result was a story that fans seemed to utterly love or totally hate. It seems more likely that “Age Of Steel” will be less divisive to Doctor Who fandom yet retaining the retro dramatic elements of it’s previous instalment.

The cliff-hanger resolution to “Rise Of The Cybermen” had the Doctor and posse surrounded by some rather delete frenzied Cyber troops. The outcome is indeed unforeseen - very much a “blink and you’ll miss it” solution. I wasn’t over keen on this scene. The Doctor’s shock offensive is satisfying, but it does wipe out the surrounding Cybermen a little too quickly. It just seems a little early in the Cybermen debut to see them dispersed out in one brisk action. It would have been nice to see them remain an invincible threat a little longer. The scene just diminishes their presence before the episode has chance to start.

Nevertheless, the script for “Age Of Steel” is far better to the rather plot burdened forerunner. The dialogue in Ricky's van is fast and furious offering elements of humour, plot and drama. It certainly picks the story up and moves it into a new gear as the Doctor starts to take the offensive. I’m glad they took the time to explain Ricky's “London’s most wanted man” stigma - and with a nice slice of humour to boot. Again, Noel Clarke is truly on form in this story.

From here on in there is a lot of monsters chasing heroes and it all works fairly well. The uniform motion of these hoards of Cybermen is effectively staged and is indeed a fun, nostalgic trek down memory lane to all the “run from the slow moving monsters” of the old series.

We also get a glutton of death that is very Doctor Who. The death of Ricky isn’t that surprising, but the scene does give the audience pause to wonder if it was actually Mickey who died. After Adric’s demise in “Earthshock” there seemed to be a possibility Mickey’s fate would be similarly sealed in this tale.

However, while the story certainly moves forward in terms of pace, tension and drama, it does seem to lose a little coherency in the plot. When writing a retro story, there is a fine line between capturing the spirit of the old concept and slipping into it’s nostalgic failings. It’s the difference between being retro friendly and, well, retro naff. Pulling the TARDIS through a random and never explained rip in time is very series retro. Running around London under the threat of the Cybermen is again, very series retro. Sneaking into the enemy stronghold by pretending to be an emotionless drone seems ill fitting in these more technologically aware times. You would think Cybermen would have some sort of motion sensors that would be a little more adept at catching two people sneaking into line, or at least, using dummy Earpods, but like classic dummy monsters, they seem blissfully unaware of these none too sneaky trespassers. It makes for dramatic tension, but as a plot movement, it’s rather uninspiring and the Cybermen become a little less threatening. These aren’t plot holes I’m complaining about - there is no limit to the possibilities why anything happens in fiction - but in the context of this story, some plot directions feel like tired formula.

I’m certainly a little confused as to why the Jackie Cyberman would take Peter and Rose to the leader. Peter does have a connection to Lumic - fair enough - but why Rose? Maybe as the viewer you can conjure a good reason, but on screen it just comes across as ill thought out.

However, such plot creaks are fairly well camouflaged by the injection of the emotional drama that was slightly amiss in “Rise Of The Cybermen”. The Jackie Cyberman itself was a surprise. I must confess to being fooled by last week’s ending - I thought Jackie was the secret spy Gemini and her escape into the cellar was not the planned move I anticipated, but a desperate gambit. Having her pop back into the story half way through as a Cyberman is truly chilling.

Another minor gripe is how quickly Lumic and Crane are despatched - particularly Crane who had a lot of potential. Nevertheless their final scene - fairly early on in the story - is a good bit of character resolution. Indeed Lumic does return, but he lacks that megalomaniac presence in cyberform.

Grumbles continue I’m afraid with Mickey and Jake’s attack on the Zeppelin. The single two guards seems tediously formula - again a throwback to old Who which simply creaks noisily here. At least the moment is juxtaposed by an beautifully claustrophobic scene with the Doctor and Mrs Moore wedged in tunnel of brick and Cybermen.

This is the problem with “Age of Steel”. When it’s good, it’s very good; mixing classic Who with contemporary drama, but when it hits an off note, it really resonates. Another painful blend of formula and the technology archaic is Mickey hacking into the Cyber computer. Yes he’s hacked into computer’s on his Earth, but using a keyboard to hack into a system owned by the most powerful man in Britain in minutes feels laboured, old hat and totally out of date. It’s a very poor piece of plot driving. On the upside, this wooden scene is countered by the traumatic revelation of how human the Cybermen actually are. This was a nice reworking of the Cybermyth and certainly a candidate to become a classic Who scene.

And the finale? Well again, a mixed bag. Cyber Controller is revealed in his grandeur, as is his ridiculously oversized and pipey chair. Quite why Cyber Controller requires a seat let alone a pipey one is a slightly beyond me, as is his eternal patience as the Doctor waxes philosophy and then cunningly rambles in blatant code to an eavesdropping Mickey. Tennant dominates the scene which is what keeps it engaging, but it does smack again of old school formula; the enemy stand around and let the hero waffle on until he gets a chance to counter strike.

From here on the pacing goes out of the window, with Cyberheads exploding and, well, everything exploding, the drama seems to get a little confused. I certainly felt no tension as Mickey wrestled valiantly with the Zeppelin controls in an attempt to keep it close to the roof. It just didn’t visualise for me and felt faintly superfluous to the plot. While admittedly it did highlight the change in Mickey’s character, fighting at the controls of a sluggish and undermanned Zeppelin didn’t seemed to offer any kick to the build up.

I wasn’t over keen on Cyberleader’s attempt to make it up the rope ladder either; it’s been played in films so many times and just didn’t inspire any tension.

The epilogue to the story is probably the strongest part. Again, some mixed messages in terms of narrative and character, but still some wonderfully touching moments too. The Doctor takes a bow from the spotlight and the minor characters get a chance to shine for the final time. Piper and Clarke do a truly beautiful farewell scene. While in general, Rose feels a little uninspired this season as she retreads old territory, Piper’s acting remains on top form. Shaun Dingwall’s Peter Tyler has a dignified exit which is both surprising in terms of plot and character resolution.

After this resolution, the final two scenes seem a little unnecessary. Neither are bad per se, but the episode feels it could have ended on a far more memorable note if we’d finished on the TARDIS farewell - arguably more fitting into the old school mode the story is trying to capture. Furthermore, Mickey and Jake’s last scene seems to contradict Mickey’s motivations to stay in his previous one; he says earlier he wants to stay for the sake of his mirror grandmother then in this scene he goes shooting off to life threatening adventures in Paris. Again, as with many of the gripes I present, they aren’t major problems, just niggles, but the niggles are frustrating when the general drive of the story is so good.

Overall, it’s a fun watch. Some over formulaic moments - as with part one - but while it does embrace retro naff, it does find the retro cool. “Age Of Steel” feel like old Who and that to me is a mixed blessing. I love classic Who, but I now want to see the show push it’s boundaries and prove to me it can move forward rather than reflect the past. “Rise Of The Cybermen” and “Age Of Steel” both look back at the show with not quite enough looking forward. There are touches of genius in there; red herrings, dramatic action, emotional dialogue and a dab of humour really do echo the new series, but the story feels as if it’s suffocating under the trappings of the past.

However, the audience appreciate figures show the public enjoyed part one, so I’m sure they’ll enjoy part two. As long as the majority are happy, I am happy to suffer an attack of the grumbles on these very odd occasions. After all, Doctor Who - by it’s nature - is a diverse beast and it’s bound to touch on styles that don’t sit well for all of us. Fan reaction seems to imply the Cyber Saga appeased many fans who were turned off by the emotion tempest of “The Girl In The Fireplace”, so even if I wasn’t over enthused by this tale, I’m glad many a fan and casual viewer were. Variety is the spice of life and while I was not as keen on this tale as I was the previous four excellent stories of Series Two, this is still a very watchable bit of science fiction.

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