[Review written for Gallifrey One: Spring 2006]
“You will become like us.”
I hope not - and I’m afraid with spiteful journalistic tact, I misuse the quotation to reference to the show, not it’s metal menace. Yes, I hope the rest of Series 2 is spared a quality “upgrade” to that of “Rise Of The Cybermen”. This for me, was indeed the first clunker of the new series.
Melodramatic attempts at scorn aside, what can objectively be said about “Rise Of The Cybermen”?
To start with, it’s the new series’ first two parter and there is no doubt this story requires an extended format. “Rise Of The Cybermen” mixes two fairly heavy plot lines - the creation of the Cybermen and the affect of the TARDIS crew’s mirror components on the story’s “alternate” Earth. To combine these two story elements does indeed require two episodes, but at this midway juncture, one has to question if the second element - the central mirror counterparts - actually adds anything worthwhile.
It’s been nearly forty years since Star Trek brought the mirror universe concept to mainstream TV science fiction and to embark on such a tale in contemporary television requires some new twists. “Rise Of The Cybermen” unfortunately is plagued with the vague dissimilarities that four decades of mirror universes have brought and for an adult viewer, it felt tired.
Central to the entire plot is Rose’s mirror parents. From stepping out of the TARDIS, the crew are almost immediately confronted with a poster of Rose’s dad. As an unfolding element to the tale, this simply feels like a crass and contrived piece of storytelling and I found my suspension of disbelief immediately shattered. Furthermore, Rose’s desire to see her parents reeks of “Father’s Day” and while this maybe in character with Rose, it feels like a retread of the excellent Series 1 episode. Not only that, but her insistence to see them against the Doctor’s advice is irritating, as is the Doctor’s inability to stand up to her again. After such an intensely Rose orientated first series, this Tyler family focus feels out of place in Series 2. The whole Tyler angle of this episode feels intrusive and uncalled for. Maybe part two will change that, but on the strength of episode one, it just seems a waste of the audience’s time.
It seems a pity that between the superb “The Girl In The Fireplace”, the dynamic shift in the core TARDIS group seems to have been lost. Maybe it will be picked up in one of the new novels, but as the following episode of the series, it’s a little disappointing to see the crew back in the same slots as if nothing happened.
After Tennant’s two very strong episodes, “Rise Of The Cybermen” sees him kicked into the background again, and as with “New Earth” and “Tooth and Claw”, this Doctor feels very ineffectual when the spotlight is removed. Give Tennant a Doctor focused episode and he shines, bring other elements forward and the Doctor seems to get a little lost in the story - which is a pity, this episode does little to warm the audience to the second lead, Rose Tyler.
So that leaves us with Mickey Smith, and after a questionable start to Series One, Mickey continues to be a welcome addition to the TARDIS crew in Series Two. As the unappreciated third member of the team, the audience are drawn to Mickey. From the start of this episode, the audience’s sympathy - intentionally or not - falls with Mickey Smith.
One doesn’t just warm to Mickey through the character dynamics. A great deal of Mickey’s strength comes through the actor. Noel Clarke’s performance as Mickey and his the mirror counterpart, Ricky, is superb. He plays both roles distinctly and consistently throughout. Certainly Mickey is a credit to this story, a definite reversal to my initial impression of Clarke’s acting in “Rose”; I stand humbly corrected.
Certainly one of the strongest elements of the episode is the excellent cast. Roger Lloyd-Pack is fantastic as the disabled Cyber creator, Lumic (and what is it with wheel chaired genocidal monster creators in Doctor Who?), Don Warrington is great as the President and Colin Spaull’s Mr Crane is very “Old Who”. While I do dismiss the Tyler family as superfluous to my expectations, it’s great to see Shaun Dingwall getting a chance to reprise his excellent portrayal of Pete Tyler and Camille Coduri is as solid as ever in her performance as Jackie.
Continuing the positive note, while a little generically Robo-Cop-y, the Cybermen are well handled. They are tall and imposing as one expects from this metal foe and their movements are suitably choreographed. Their debut opens with a lovely low angle shot of the Cyberman coming through the window. It looks fantastic.
A great deal of this episode rests on whether you like freaky alternate dimensions. If you enjoyed “Inferno”, you’ll probably enjoy this. For me, this mirror universe seemed a little main character-centric. When two thirds of the TARDIS crew have mirror families or themselves playing pivotal roles within the parallel universe’s political antagonisms, the whole planet just contracts. Suddenly, the adage “it’s a small world” seems a little too apt....
This episode does feel far more akin to the old “Doctor Who”, and depending again on whether you like the attributes it shares with the classic series, will affect your overall opinion. "Rise Of The Cybermen” has the evil genius and his trusted, unique henchman; it has the TARDIS crew taking different paths from point A, yet having these routes artificially dovetail to take them both to point B. This along with the unfolding schemes of the defiant megalomanic and the obligatory death of some of the key supporting players, makes for a distinct Doctor Who flavour.
Yet, with Doctor Who breaking new grounds this series, “Rise Of The Cyberman” feels a little too generic. If “The Girl In The Fireplace” stretched the shows concept, “Rise Of The Cybermen” sits a little too comfortably in Doctor Who formula. Even the teaser itself is marred by the rather predictable and drawn out dispensing of Lumic’s assistant. We watch as the slow-witted cyber fodder goes through the motions of being dispatched by the hidden Frankenstein’s monster. Again, it’s a little formulaic despite the beautiful visuals and strong acting performances.
This is not to say the episode is truly awful in it’s narrative and plotlines. The actual concept of this mirror universe and it’s Cybermen evolution is interesting enough. While the workings of the plot seem a little uninspired, the actual idea is an engaging one. I’m certainly curious to see if my suspicious about this alternate Earth are played out next week and how this whole story will resolve.
On a scene by scene analysis, the episode is littered with some enjoyable segments. The Doctor and Mickey conversing about their dilemma in the dead TARDIS was an enjoyable scene and I hope their dynamic is played further next week. I also found the screams from the human “cyber-upgrading” being fused with the pop-tastic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” made a chilling and memorable horror motif.
Yet while I won’t go so far to say the story suffers from plot-holes, there does seem to be some curious omissions of detail. Mickey’s counterpart suggests he’s London’s public enemy number one, yet Mickey seems to have no problem talking to the military with no incident. Certainly not an error - one can assume that Ricky isn’t quite as important as he thinks, or maybe the military aren’t that well informed. Either way, fiction, as always, is malleable; we can make our own way through any story confusion without being spoon-fed by the narrative. Nevertheless, having one scene with Mickey openly chatting to the city’s law-enforcers and then five minutes later, having another scene telling us Mickey has the face of a wanted man, seems a little odd.
Quite why Mickey’s counterpart accepted Mickey enough to trust him on their mission is a little unclear as well.
I’m also not sure the destitute would be so stupid as to believe that the capitalistic world that ruined them would offer them free food - particularly when the food is secluded deep inside a nondescript truck. These people are poor and while they maybe desperate, I’m not entirely convinced such large groups would be this dumb. While it felt like a very old style Doctor Who set-up, it seemed a little transparent for contemporary TV.
So overall, a mixed bag which personally I got very little satisfaction from, making this the first Doctor Who story to disappoint me.
Nevertheless, I would like to end this commentary on a high note. Now the story events have been set in motion in episode one, maybe episode two will open up some unexpected resolutions. I certainly hope Lumic gets an encounter with the Doctor. I’m also hoping the next episode will introduce some emotional drama for this is what this new series does best and was distinctly missing from “Rise Of The Cybermen”; I didn’t feel empathy with any of the characters except Mickey and the Tyler family arc left me utterly cold. I’m hoping “The Age Of Steel” will make the building blocks of this story seem a little more relevant - or even poignant. After all, “Earthshock” offered one of the most touching moments in Doctor Who, so maybe the emotionless Cybermen will offer us another story with an equally heart-wrenching ending.
Regardless of how the whole story resolves, this episode is patchy at best; reworking too many familiar themes and offering little inspiration in terms of story or drama. No one likes to have to be negative about their favourite show and while this is certainly far better than many of the drossy Who stories of yore, in comparison to what we know the new series can produce, “Rise Of The Cybermen” doesn’t come close.
There are many elements here that will appeal to classic Who fans, but those looking for something - or anything - new will be disappointed. I suspect this story will be one Who fans either love.. or hate.
As a episode on it’s own, “Rise Of The Cyberman does quite the opposite: it falls. Maybe as the start of a larger tale, it will become a part of something more special.