The cliffhanger was a staple component of classic Doctor Who, and many a fan has bemoaned the new series’ self-contained storylines eroding this old standby. Two-parters seek to bring that thrill back to the forefront a few times each season, and “Rise of the Cybermen” ended on a wonderfully tense hanging from the cliff: Our heroes surrounded by Cybermen, and the Doctor shouting, “We surrender!!!”—only to be greeted by a chorus of “Deletes!!!” from the steely automatons.
“The Age of Steel” picks up right where we left off, and the Doctor whips out the precious TARDIS power cell and miraculously obliterates the oncoming force. Something of a letdown, eh? I thought it was anyway, but then I remembered the countless weak cliffhanger resolutions from the original series, which gave some perspective. With Doctor Who, the cliffhanger must be properly executed; the strength of its resolution should be secondary. (Perhaps this applies to cliffhangers in general?)
The Cyber Controller: “I will bring peace to the world. Everlasting peace—and unity and uniformity.”
The Doctor: “And imagination. What about that? The one thing that led you here - imagination. You’re killing it dead.”
The band of freedom fighters, now all together, get to know one another—and nobody is quite who they say they are. The biggest revelation is that Pete Tyler, using the codename “Gemini”, has been broadcasting Cybus secrets to an unknown recipient; turns out the Preachers were on the other end. Later, Ricky is killed by a Cyberman right in front of Mickey; when he reports this news to the group, Jake (Andrew Hayden-Smith) nearly has a breakdown. The original scripts featured Jake and Ricky as lovers, but the plot point was excised—although remnants of it remain in the finished version. (Personally I prefer the vagueness that remains.)
The group eventually splits into pairs to infiltrate Cybus and take down Lumic. The Doctor & Mrs. Moore provide intrigue, Rose & Pete offer gravity, and Mickey & Jake supply some action. Pete and Rose’s realization of Jackie’s fate is heavy, but pales next to the journey the Doctor and Mrs. Moore (Helen Griffin) take. Mrs. Moore is a remarkably written and played character and as a result her death feels hard, cold and wrong. There’s much loss in this story, but surely none resonate this powerfully.
The reawakening of the Cybermen’s emotions and the realization of what they’ve become drives the human brains encased inside mad. Never before has the core notion of the Cybermen’s loss of humanity been so deftly exploited. Who cannot sympathize with the horrors these people have been forced to endure?
The Cybermen’s first appearance was in William Hartnell’s final story, 1966’s “The Tenth Planet”, and they plagued Patrick Troughton’s Doctor for another four adventures throughout the late ’60s. They were all but absent from Who’s ’70s heyday—save for one very weak Tom Baker outing, “Revenge of the Cybermen”—so it’s little wonder they never achieved the same cult following as the pepper pot-shaped elder statesmen, the Daleks. Reinvented in the ’80s, they returned on four more occasions to infuriate the Time Lord.
The great divide between the Cybermen of the ’60s and those of the ’80s can be traced back to Baker’s “Revenge” tale, for it was in that story that A) their weakness towards gold was concocted and B) they began exhibiting “behavior”—both traits carried over to the ’80s-era Cybermen. “A” was a goofy plot device wisely abandoned for the new series. “B”, however, warrants further examination.
The ’80s Cybermen were unquestionably a helluva lot more fun to watch than those of the ’60s or even, I dare say, the Cybermen of “The Age of Steel”. Why? Because they got pissy. Boastful sometimes. Rude. Vindictive. Such traits make for compelling televillainy, but completely fly in the face of the Cybermen concept: Beings who’ve divorced themselves from emotion entirely. The Sheik threw me for a loop in the “Rise” talkback when he said “the villains are uninteresting metal men”, as the only argument I have against that is “But that’s kind of the point of the Cybermen”. If they were interesting, it would invalidate the whole concept. The horror is in their blankness, never mind that it may not make for stimulating TV. (Ron Moore and company must have foreseen similar problems and came up with No. 6, Sharon and the rest of the new Cylon brood as a solution in the Galactica redux.)
Mickey: “You’re just making this up as you go along!”
The Doctor: “Yeeep…but I do it brilliantly.”
Emotion is a great place for this to finish. Faithful readers have hopefully picked up on the fact that I’m a big ol’ sap. The emotional aspects of the new series are amongst my favorites. As a teen watching the classic series, I’d wait for weeks just to catch a three-line scene of a companion’s exit. Or a brief moment of the Doctor’s exploding rage over an enemy’s foul plans. These little tidbits meant the world and carried me through the series. These days this stuff is integral to the show, and the relationships are what the ongoing storyline is crafted around. What does it mean for a human being to travel in time and space? To deal with a 900-year old alien from day to day? What are the eventual effects of living such a life—on not just Rose or Mickey, but on the Doctor himself?
“The Age of Steel” concludes with juxtapositions of this drama. When Pete begrudgingly realizes who he is to Rose, he’s shaken and withdrawn. It’s not something he can deal with, and he leaves her with barely a goodbye. Mickey decides to stay in this universe and the words he and Rose exchange are from the heart and their history. It’s not about “I love you”—from both sides it’s “We’ve been through a lot babe. We were always there for each other and now we won’t be, but we’re gonna do alright”. It’s a sound exit for Mickey Smith. The phrase “We barely knew ’ya” is easy to bandy about, but here it’s proper. We did barely know Mickey, but that’s because he didn’t know himself or the greatness of which he was capable. In this universe, Mickey can be the new Mrs. Moore and do brilliant, heroic things. Finally, the TARDIS arrives in the real Jackie’s flat, and having seen the gruesome end of the alternate Jackie, Rose greets her mother in a manner that she hasn’t since beginning her travels—with genuine affection and appreciation of her very existence.
Read this commentary from Russell T Davies. It’s a gutsy, in-your-face reaction to old-school fans pissed off at his Doctor Who’s oft-labelled “soap opera” elements—a criticism he confidently rejects.
NEXT WEEK: Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, Rose loses face, and a new invention called “television” in “The Idiot’s Lantern”.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson.
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.