“Rise of the Cybermen” marks the return of the titular foes that occupy the #2 spot (after the Daleks) on the Doctor’s list of most oft-encountered enemies. This two-parter is a more than worthy effort, and part of its success is its setting on a parallel Earth—the steely beastie boys get a clean slate over which to rampage, while their previously established history remains intact. Due to their origins, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Cybermen: Humans from the edge of our solar system who gradually replace their body parts with synthetics as a means of survival. This new story takes the concept to even darker levels by mixing it up with our over-reliance on technology and willingness to, without thinking, grab the latest cool gizmo and incorporate it into our daily lives, no matter what the eventual cost. This is a hard-hitting idea and frankly scares the piss out of me (not only in this story, but in real life, too).
The post-credits TARDIS scenario, wherein the time vortex completely disappears and the machine plunges into nothingness, is a doozy, and visually reminiscent of a certain sepia-toned farmhouse plummeting toward a certain whacked-out reality. The tip-off that they’re not in Kansas anymore? Giant, hovering zeppelins filling London’s skyline. Once the Doctor (David Tennant) realizes it’ll take 24 hours for the TARDIS to reenergize and Rose (Billie Piper) realizes her parents are both alive and together in this universe and Mickey (Noel Clarke) realizes that his grandmother might not be dead in this place, you just know things are gonna go south.
Five episodes into the season and Rose finally gets a storyline to call her own—but it’s primed to revolve around her deceased father, Pete (Shaun Dingwall)...didn’t we do that last season? We did and she did, but Rose hadn’t accrued the smarts she now possesses. The Doctor warns against pursuing a meeting, but eventually gives in only because Pete (a successful millionaire in this reality) appears tied to Cybus Industries, a global corporation whose primary merchandise are EarPods, which download information (news, lottery numbers, “the daily joke”) directly into the brain. They’re as commonplace in this world as shoes are in ours.
Meanwhile, Mickey finds dear old Gran, who is indeed alive and insists on calling him Ricky. Their emotional reunion is short-lived when Mickey—mistaken for Ricky—is scooped up by a small band of rebels called the Preachers (rebellious enough to diss the EarPod fad). He bumbles along as Ricky until they make it to HQ where he’s confronted by his macho Doppelganger. But the Preachers—Ricky, Jake (Andrew Hayden-Smith) and Mrs. Moore (Helen Griffin)—are less interested in offing benign goofballs and more concerned with discovering the secrets of Cybus, so, after a thorough grilling and biological exam, they allow Mickey to tag along.
A third storyline involves the head of Cybus Industries—the disabled, dying and clearly insane John Lumic (Roger Lloyd Pack). His ubiquitous EarPods are only the first stage of an insidious plan, as Lumic’s second-in-command, Mr. Crane (Colin Spaull), is busy rounding up the homeless with offers of food and shelter, only to haul them off for “upgrading.” Upgrading into what? (You only get one guess, Who believers.) And finally the President of Great Britain (Don Warrington) staunchly rejects Lumic’s ultimate upgrade proposal—a rejection Lumic doesn’t much care for. All three storylines nicely dovetail at the Tyler mansion, where a bitchy parallel Jackie (Camille Coduri) throws a fancy 40th, ahem, “39th” birthday party for herself.
Rose: “They’re people?”
The Doctor: “They were. ’Til they had all their humanity taken away. That’s a living brain jammed inside a cybernetic body, with a heart of steel. All emotions removed.”
Rose: “Why no emotion?”
The Doctor: “Because it hurts.”
“Rise of the Cybermen” is something of a mish-mash of numerous classic Who stories—bits and pieces are culled from Cyber tales of days gone by, most notably 1968’s “The Invasion”. However, it pulls even more liberally from both Tom Baker’s “Genesis of the Daleks”—the megalomaniacal Lumic’s motivations, actions, and rise to power are eerily similar to that of Davros, the Daleks’ creator, and Jon Pertwee’s “Inferno”, which partially took place in an alternate universe where the Doctor’s friends weren’t quite as he knew them in his world. It also owes a huge debt to the excellent Big Finish audio production “Spare Parts”; that story’s writer Marc Platt is even given a nod in “Rise’s” closing credits. Hardcore fans may feel the entire affair reeks of the “been there, done that’s”, though I’ll argue against that line of thinking next week.
In the past, the Cybermen look varied from story to story, and so it stands to reason that they receive yet another visual overhaul (unlike the Daleks). Showrunner Russell T Davies’ prime dictate for this new breed was to erase the word “silver” as a means of description. He instead wisely chose to stress the harder terms “metal” and “steel.” The resulting concoction is a splendid bit o’ retro: A dose of Metropolis’ Hel, a pinch of the Iron Giant, and a smidgen of C-3PO all mixed together with classic Cyber-iconography = Brand new, bold, badass Cyberbullies. (Admittedly, though, the sound editing is at least half the menace of this incarnation.) It’s a brave stylistic choice in this era of Cylons and Borg; only Doctor Who could get away with machines sporting such a look.
The episode is mostly set-up and character development—the Cybermen don’t even appear in full focus until its final minutes—though it’s good to see Rose getting back on track. After two adventures where she played Invisible Girl to the Doctor’s Mr. Fantastic, she seems to initially play a subtle game of hard-to-get. If she’s not the most important person in his life, maybe he isn’t that important in hers either? A golden opportunity presents itself in the forms of Pete and Jackie Tyler. The Doctor senses her distance and perhaps feels some emotional damage control is in order. The Mickey-centric storyline was long overdue, and it’s great to see his relationship with Rose plateau. She’s with the Doctor and he accepts it. Mickey Smith releases himself and can at last be his own (tin?) dog.
The zeppelin imagery is breathtaking and, on the flip side, the conversion center—revealed to be inside Battersea Power Station—is chilling. Kudos to the use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in that scene, but wouldn’t Pink Floyd’s “Sheep” have been about twenty times more appropriate? (I’ll pretend it was considered, but rights issues prevented it from happening.) If there’s a major downfall here, it’s in Roger Lloyd Pack’s hammy performance as Lumic—he never comes across as at all threatening and, really, the make-up team dropped the ball by failing to give him a moustache to twirl. And of course, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that Rose was a dog.
NEXT WEEK: Cybermen - loads of ’em - in “The Age of Steel”.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Inferno”, starring Jon Pertwee, Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue. For more writing about the series, see “Dr. Who” in the sidebar at right.