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The latest issue of Doctor Who: The Complete History covers School Reunion, The Girl In The Fireplace, Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel and this year is also fifty years since the Cybermen's first appearance so today I thought I'd review the Rise of the Cybermen two parter. One of the interesting things about the Cybermen is how drastically their design evolves over their appearances in the show. Their Tenth Planet appearance, for example, is completely different to their look in The Moonbase:
Their 'Cybus' redesign is arguably the most radical change for the Cybermen:
Because of this, many Whovians are not fans of the Cybus look - in my view, however, they are forgetting how it has always been a staple of Cyberman history for the look to fluctuate between designs.
Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel has a good reason for the Cybus design too. The story takes place in a Parallel Earth, where Rose's (Billie Piper) Dad Pete Tyler (Shaun Dingwall) is still alive and is a successful businessman running a health drink business called Vitex - a subsidiary of Cybus Industries. The TARDIS falls through the time vortex and crashes in the Void, rendering the machine lifeless as it is outside the universe where it can claim energy from the rift. Mickey (Noel Clarke) leaves the TARDIS and finds they are in a parallel version of London. Meanwhile, the Doctor manages to find a small part of the TARDIS that is still alive and gifts it some of his own life energy. Elsewhere, Cybus Industries leader John Lumic (Roger Lloyd-Pack) is working on an experiment to upgrade human beings into Cybermen...
First, I'm going to come out and say it: I like the Cybus Cybermen. I think the design by Peter McKinstry works extremely well for 21st century Doctor Who. It's cool, it's modern and it works within the context of the two parter. These Cybermen aren't our universe Cybermen, they are parallel universe Cybermen where they were invented by John Lumic. They look like somebody's invention too. Some Whovians tend to forget that the reason for the cloth face in The Tenth Planet is because the production values at the time were poor. They couldn't afford a design like the Cybus one - and if you put a cloth-faced Cyberman in front of the cameras today it would look ridiculous. Can you imagine a kid taking this seriously:
John Lumic is possibly one of the new series' best human villains too. He is absolutely despicable; an arrogant, cold and heartless businessman who ironically is not too brilliant to a Cyberman himself. He's pretty much the polar opposite of Pete Tyler and the exact kind of cruel man you could imagine inventing something like the Cyberman. John Lumic is played expertly by Only Fools And Horses actor Roger Lloyd-Pack and I cannot imagine anyone else in the role. When he becomes the Cyber Controller it is such a satisfying pay-off to his character.
It's not all about returning to the classic era with the Cybermen however. The story is also hugely inventive with the way it represents a parallel London. There's zeppelins in the sky, the UK has a President and everybody wears ear pods (before ear pods came a thing - this is a parallel 2006). In many ways it reminds me of Back to the Future Part 2's optimistic take on 2015, although in this case we have a parallel version of what the present at that time could have looked like had we gone down another path. Then again: maybe that's what 2015 really is in Back to the Future Part 2? Maybe we are actually seeing a parallel 2015 Hill Valley? Nevertheless this is probably among Doctor Who's most inventive settings. The optimistic outlook on what a parallel world would look like is a lot more interesting than a dystopian one and it's fun to see Pete Tyler's previously mentioned get-rich-quick schemes actually come to fruition.
Talking about fun, this is a Doctor Who episode with a great sense of humour. Writer Tom MacRae injects some great lines throughout, such as how the Doctor's line 'We fell out of the vortex, through the Void into nothingness. We're at some sort of no-place, a silent realm, a lost dimension...' is immediately followed by Mickey looking outside and replying 'Otherwise known as London'. Then there's the brilliant moment Rose discovers that in this parallel universe she is a dog, played with great humour by both Billie Piper and David Tennant (who are great throughout this two parter - David Tennant demonstrates EXACTLY why he is the best Doctor).
The second episode of the two parter, Age of Steel, even manages to do something better with the Cybermen than was done in the classic series. There's a great sequence that really highlights the horrors of Cyber-conversion, as you see how the Cybermen in this world are created:
It is a very dark sequence with blades and pincers swirling around in the conversion chamber. This is a scene that wouldn't look out of place in a horror movie: a true hide behind the sofa element, even if they likely wouldn't have got away with it in the classic series without Mary Whitehouse complaining.
Speaking of the classic series, this two parter features a brilliant companion exit that feels like one you would get in a classic series serial. Noel Clarke's Mickey Smith decides to stay behind at the end of Age of Steel in order to help fight the resistance against the Cybermen, an exit which bares many similarities to Susan Foreman's exit in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It's a companion exit that highlights his growth as a character: no longer is Mickey the 'idiot' from Series 1, now he's a full-grown hero. He's the underdog who against all those who doubted him has become a figure of bravery and nobility. Like the Doctor, neither cruel or cowardly. Mickey is perhaps the new series male companion with the most character development of them all. Over the course of series one and two you see him go on a real journey and Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel feels like a natural conclusion of that.
Overall, Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel is unfairly criticised for the redesign of the Cybermen but within the context of modern audiences and the story's plot it makes so much sense. The Cybus design is extremely effective and has a very modern, very cool look you wouldn't have got with a more faithful take on the Cybermen. This is a two parter that conveys the horrors of Cyber-conversion better than any Cyberman story that came before it; with John Lumic you've also got a villain who as with Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion is no more than a Cyberman himself, through the way he conducts his behaviour - unlike Vaughn, he even becomes one himself: a high-ranked Cyberman, no less, as the Cyber Controller. There's a wonderful sense of imagination and humour in this story's representation of a parallel 2006 London; seeing Rose as a dog is one of the highlights of the new series of Doctor Who. Mickey Smith's exit is also perfect for his character, demonstrating how he has gone on a more impactful character journey than any new series male companion that has followed after. No longer the 'idiot', Mickey is now a hero and the brilliant conclusion to his character is one of many reasons I would recommend this story.
Mickey would later return in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday and The Stolen Earth/Journey's End but unlike Rose Tyler his return appearances do not detract from his original exit from the show.