Arriving in the middle of Series 2, in roughly the same position as last season’s “Dalek“, “Rise Of The Cybermen / The Age Of Steel” proves to be a fantastic two-parter and it’s actually tied with “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit” as my favorite story from Series 2. When Russell T. Davies revived Doctor Who, he was very patient about the task on hand and willing to play the long game. Doctor Who had built up a sizable amount of lore over four decades, and instead of dropping all that information and all those characters on people at once, confusing and alienating newcomers, Russell decided to dripfeed it. Not only is the Doctor’s backstory teased out over several years, but we’re also introduced to the franchise’s major antagonists one season at a time. Russell gave the Daleks an update in Series 1 and that proved to be a massive success, so Series 2 moves on to the next villains in the cycle of Classic Who monsters: the Cybermen.
Penned by Tom McRae, “The Age Of Steel” is just as effective at showcasing how deadly the Cybermen can be as “Dalek” was with the Daleks, if not more so. The first half of this two-parter takes its time establishing and exploring the concept of an alternate universe adventure, but as soon as the Cybermen arrive and make their first movie, the second half proves to be one of the most action-filled episodes in the revival, as the Doctor and friends race to stop their invasion of London. In addition to reintroducing the Cybermen, “The Age Of Steel” also serves as the climax of several plot threads and character arcs that the series has been running for a season and a half, like Mickey’s restlessness from “Boom Town“, or Rose’s father issues from “Father’s Day“. With Mickey’s departure at the end of this adventure, “The Age Of Steel” marks a turning point in Series 2. It almost feels a midseason finale, dividing the first and second halves of Series 2, except Doctor Who doesn’t actually have those (at least, not until the Matt Smith era).
“Rise Of The Cybermen” picks up a thread that “Tooth And Claw” initiated: the idea that the Tenth Doctor and Rose bring out each other’s most obnoxious traits when they’re left to their own devices long enough. Part of the reason why they get along as well as they do is because they share some of the same personality flaws; they can both get so wrapped up in their own thoughts that they completely run roughshod over other people’s feelings, without even intending to; like how Ten handles things with Martha with zero tact or sensitivity in Series 3. This unfortunate aspect of their personalities is arguably at its most prominent in Series 2, when they’re at their most self-involved.
Even if makes them all uncomfortable to admit it, by “Rise Of The Cybermen”, it’s very apparent that Mickey is the third wheel in the TARDIS. Ten and Rose frequently forget that he’s even there with them; Ten states more than once that he’s only really concerned about Rose and that he can’t be expected to keep track of Mickey as well; and he later admits to Rose that he doesn’t know jack about Mickey and he’s never bothered to learn anything either in the year and a half that they’ve known each other. Yowza.
In Ten’s defense, he does have his hands full in this two-parter. “Rise Of The Cybermen” is the first NuWho story to explore the concept of an unknown, alternate universe, and the idea of a visiting one is portrayed as being quite a bit more dangerous than it usually is in a sci-fi show, since getting back to the main universe is far from easy. As captain of the TARDIS, the Doctor is personally responsible for everyone onboard, and now they’ve all found themselves stranded in a strange, potentially dangerous world where there’s no quick or easy way back, and the Doctor’s vast knowledge of science and history can’t help him for a change because a different universe means a different set of rules, so he’s quite frustrated about that.
The Doctor mostly wants to keeps everyone safe and together until the TARDIS has time to recharge, but of course, things are never that simple. Trouble is brewing in alternate universe London, which is the reason why our heroes were drawn there in the first place. When the Cybermen invade, there is one silver lining: the Doctor finally finds himself in a situation where his knowledge is useful again, since the Cybermen of the prime universe are old foes of his, so the Doctor does what he does best and takes charge of a nasty situation. Ten quickly becomes the leader of a scared but resourceful band of survivors, acting as a much needed voice of reason and pooling his knowledge of Cybermen technology with intel from the native Londoners to form a rebellion plan and take the fight to Lumic.
The Tenth Doctor receives a lot of great, humanizing scenes in “The Age Of Steel”: since he fully understands the atrocities the Cybermen were born from, against their will, he has the most compassion and sympathy for these tragic, doomed monsters, even while everyone else is mostly terrified of them, and he takes no pleasure out of what must be done to stop them. Ten also has a few pleasant chats with Mrs. Moore while they’re paired up on a mission, showing that while the Doctor is always the first one to butt heads with violent, trigger-happy idiots, he gets on just fine with rational, level-headed people, and he’s gutted when the Cybermen needlessly murder her. Lastly, the Doctor is the one who challenges Lumic to a philosophical debate during the climax, illustrating why his glorious new regime is not only an unethical one, but ultimately unsustainable in the long run – further defining Ten’s personality (all while cluing Mickey in to his secret plot). David Tennant got off to a slow start as the Doctor at the start of Series 2, but by this point, he owns the role.
After lying dormant for a good many episodes, Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) unresolved issues about her dead father rear up again during her unexpected trip to an alternate universe. Logically, she knows she should try as hard as she can to avoid a repeat of “Father’s Day”, but the part of her that’s wanted her dad in her life since she was a little girl can’t resist meddling a little before she leaves. Like in the prime universe, Rose’s parents are shown to have a dysfunctional, failing marriage (which says quite a bit about Pete and Jackie), and Rose rather creepily tries to play marriage counselor as a complete stranger to them only to get burned, several times. Like in “Father’s Day”, it’s suggested that blood tends to recognize blood across time and space: in times of crisis, Rose turns to Pete for support, and Pete tends to instinctively trust Rose, even though he doesn’t even have a daughter in this universe.
“The Age Of Steel” showcases many of Rose’s best qualities from Series 1, like her courage and rebellious streak, that we haven’t had a chance to see as often in Series 2. Rose is perfectly willing to go against the Doctor’s wishes and trust her own gut when it comes to the things that really matter, which I’m quite happy about, since Rose and the Doctor’s relationship is at it’s best when they don’t see eye to eye on everything. Rose is still willing to risk her life for a good cause, like stopping Lumic’s factory of Cybermen, and is fiercely loyal when it comes to her loved ones’ safety (at one point she insists on going into the belly of the beast with Pete to try to find Jackie). At the end of the day, despite Rose and Pete’s best efforts, Jackie dies. Rose is understandably rejected by a very disturbed Pete, once he discovers who she really is. And shortly after that, she loses Mickey as well – who is not only her ex-boyfriend but also her oldest friend – when he decides to stay behind in the alternate universe. So poor Rose ends this two-parter in grief-stricken tears, from being emotionally gutted so many times in one night.
Shaun Dingwall returns in this two-parter as Pete Tyler, Rose’s father. In this universe, Pete managed to become a wealthy and successful businessman from his creations and he never had a daughter, so he shares a healthy amount of differences and similarities with prime universe Pete. At his core, Pete seems to be a somewhat shady and dishonest con artist, finding success through fraudulent means, but a decent and loyal family man at heart nonetheless who’s also willing to stand up to John Lumic for being an insane, amoral tyrant. Pete’s previous role in “Father’s Day” was to be an unassuming, unlikely hero, but here he’s more involved in the main plot, and we get a chance to see action movie Pete when he and the others try to rescue Jackie, his estranged ex-wife, from the Cybermen (who’s quite a bit more vain, snobbish and annoying in this universe, since becoming a mother never forced Jackie to mature).
As this story presses on, Pete becomes increasingly curious about Rose, who’s quite clingy with him and Jackie; he doesn’t understand her and eventually he’s quite disturbed by her when he learns who she really is, which is entirely fair. The biggest difference between prime universe Pete and alternate universe Pete is that the latter instinctively rejects Rose; he really doesn’t feel like leaving his universe to be Rose’s new father, especially when this new blood revelation is sprung on him on the same night his wife got murdered. Throughout this entire story, you’re kind of waiting for the series to pull the trigger and kill Pete a second time, because you really wouldn’t put it past Doctor Who to put us through that kind of pain again, but surprisingly he survives to the end credits, and it’s Jackie who gets the axe, leaving Rose’s parents single in two universes and ready for some pretty dodgy and questionable season finale shipping down the line.
“The Age Of Steel” is a day of reckoning for Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), who has grown a lot since we first met him in “Rose“. At the start of Series 1, Mickey seemed content with having a humdrum, unremarkable life because of his relationship with Rose, but he’s long since accepted that that bond is over for good, so he’s been drifting for a while now, trying to find his drive or his purpose. He hasn’t had much luck finding it in the TARDIS, where he’s still the awkward third wheel to the Doctor and Rose who’s frequently ignored, mocked or forgotten about, until he finally and quite rightly decides to blow them off and wander off on his own. Mickey’s always been written as being a bit of a sci-fi nerd, so he’s very curious about the possibilities of a parallel universe, taking the opportunity to track down the living counterpart to his dead grandmother.
In his departure story, he’s finally given a detailed backstory, and it’s a pretty sad one: his grandmother died when he was just a preteen and he’s always blamed himself for not managing to prevent it. Mickey, at his most honest, has a very self-deprecating personality with low self-esteem. He’s internalized a lot of feelings of uselessness over the years, which have only grown worse since he’s met the Doctor and has constantly felt like he’s second best to him. Ever since “Boom Town”, Mickey has longed to prove himself, and he finally gets the opportunity when he meets his alternate universe self, a bad boy named Rickey (the pay-off for a very long running gag) and his associates. The scruffy and intense Rickey is a mystery-solving conspiracy theorist, who lives in a harsher and more dangerous world than Mickey that’s caused him to become hard, vigilant and tough out of necessity. Amusingly enough, Rickey is still a bit of a poser though, since it turns out he’s London’s most wanted for parking tickets.
Rickey and his gang are the only ones looking into Cybus industries’ crimes against humanity, so Mickey gets dragged along into helping them fight the good fight. Rickey and his second-in-command, Jake, are apparently gay lovers, as the biggest difference between prime universe Mickey and his doppelganger, which is confirmed in a deleted scene. When Rickey is killed by the Cybermen, Jake is absolutely gutted and he lashes out at Mickey, the stranger with a familiar face, as a result; treating him with bitter resentment for quite some time. Mickey has already been emotionally beaten down in this story, and now he was brand new thing on his plate to deal with. But instead of letting Jake’s disdain discourage him, he chooses to let it spur him on and try even harder to do his part.
Over the course of a year and a half, we’ve seen Mickey become more courageous and selfless, and that growth comes to a head in “The Age Of Steel”. After watching his alternate self be killed in front of him, totally helpless to save him, Mickey steps up fully and uses everything he’s learned in Series 1 and 2 to get the job done. Mickey’s hacking skills come in handy again when he takes down Cybus industries from the inside; he demonstrates the positive influence the Doctor has had on him by following his example and keeping Jake on the straight and narrow; and he later risks his life to give Ten, Rose and Pete enough time to escape from Lumic. Like with Pete, you halfway expect the show to kill Mickey off as part of his hero’s journey, since his oncoming death seems to be really heavily signposted, but thankfully it never happens. Instead, Mickey gains Jake’s respect, and he decides to stay in Pete’s world so he can fight the Cybermen and look after his aging grandmother, embarking on his own at the end to see more of the world. Mickey has a long, hard journey in Series 1 and 2, but the show gives him a pretty powerful and dignified send-off that makes it all worth it in the end.
The primary villain of this two-parter, John Lumic, is a very hammy, bombastic, larger than life character. He’s an evil maniacal genius and a mad scientist straight out of a James Bond movie, and Roger Lloyd really seems to get into the role. Lumic is an aging businessman, lacking scruples and principles, who’s currently dying from a terminal illness, so he’s spent years trying to devise a way to cheat death. He’s created a race of cyborgs that he likes to envision as the future of the human race, the next step in evolution: partly as a way to save himself, and partly as his own personal vanity project, since the man is quite insane and delusional about his own self-importance.
In the usual RTD era fashion, this story indulges in a bit of social commentary about how humanity is a bit too reliant on technology, incorporating relatively new inventions (like their phones) into every aspect of their day-to-day lives as a crutch or a pastime, leaving themselves vulnerable to Lumic’s corruption and manipulation. John bides his time and is willing to play the long game: he preys on the poor and homeless citizens of London, targeting the underprivileged members of Pete’s world that presumably won’t be missed, so he can use them as guinea pigs in his experiments. Lumic not only wants to preserve his own life, he also wants to reshape the world in his image, and disturbingly enough, he’s actually capable of doing it: especially when he assassinates a world leader, leaving a power vacuum that he intends to fill. Naturally, he’s quite the hypocrite. He converts many of London’s citizens into metal men against their will to live out his fantasies, but he tries to put off his own conversion for as long as he can until he’s on death door, when he’s deliciously betrayed by his creations. Nevertheless, Lumic comes to embrace his new metal life and see it as a blessing, as king of the Cybermen.
“Rise Of The Cybermen” serves as an origin story for NuWho’s first iteration of the Cybermen, some returning monsters from the classic series. Throughout the first half of this two-parter, the Cybermen are filmed from clipped angles and out-of-focus shots by Grahame Harper, obscuring their new redesigns and building up suspense for their unveiling during the cliffhanger. The Cybermen are an emotionless race of cyborgs, a Frankenstein fusion of flesh and technology, intended to preserve the human race from sickness, injury and aging, at the cost of almost everything that made them human in the first place: favoring the cold, hard logic of the brain over all their flesh organs.
As story arc villains, the Cybermen make for interesting ideological foils to the Daleks. Both of these races wholeheartedly believe that they’re walking perfection, the pinnacle of life, and they are entirely impossible to reason with. Except, while the Daleks utterly despise every other form of life out there and spend all their time trying to think of ways to carry out mass racial cleansing so they’re the only species left in the universe, the Cybermen swing hard to the opposite extreme. The Cybermen want to make everyone alive like them, they want the world to join them in the glorious utopia they’re creating, and they certainly don’t care about finding willing volunteers. The Cybermen will forcibly convert people so they can make their numbers grow, but they will also ruthlessly kill any non-compatible dissenters, any troublemakers who would threaten their way of life. The Cybermen are a different kind of evil from the Daleks, and in some ways they’re even more unsettling. The Daleks will usually only kill you, while the Cybermen will subject you to a never-ending hell. If the Daleks are space Nazis, the Cybermen are metallic zombies.
Despite being a great concept for a monster, the Cybermen haven’t been as well served by the Doctor Who franchise as the Daleks have when it comes to receiving great stories. The Cybermen have a habit of being written as bland, faceless, stomping robots that are easily beaten by a last-second deus ex machina. There are only a couple of stories in both Classic Who and NuWho where the Cybermen actually feel like a credible, formidable threat, and “The Age Of Steel” is one of them. Since “The Age Of Steel” is set in an alternate universe where anything goes, we get to see an implacable army of them march through the streets, converting people by the hundreds and doing some real damage to London, without Russell having to hit a reset button to preserve the status quo, not to mention the jump scares where seemingly dormant Cybermen leap out at our heroes to try to kill them.
More than that though, “The Age Of Steel” never forgets about the underlying tragic elements of the Cybermen: that they used to be normal people once, proud people with fulfilling lives who had their humanity stolen from them. This two-parter vividly portrays the body horror of the conversion process: at one point, a whole line of brainwashed people are sliced and diced while “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is played to drown out their screams. Cybermen have to cut out their emotions after the conversion, because otherwise the pain of what they’ve lost would drive them insane. The Doctor is given a chance to pick apart the Cybermen’s vision for the future during the climax, and he plainly lays out why it’s not only unethical but unsustainable. People’s flaws and imperfections are what make us human, what allow us to grow and imagine: without them, humanity would quickly stagnate and remain the same until it gathered dust. Not to mention, human life would lose it’s individual value entirely, and be judged wholly by the Cybermen collective.
“The Age Of Steel” is helmed by Grahame Harper, a returning director from the classic series who was often brought onboard to work on some of the more cinematic episodes from the RTD era, like “42” and “Utopia“. Using a good variety of wide angles and extreme close-ups, Grahame gives “The Age Of Steel” a very impressive sense of scope and scale during the Cybermen’s invasion of London, with some of my favorite choices being the overhead POV shots during the conversion scenes. The costume department is given an interesting challenge in this story: like the Daleks last season, the Cybermen are given a redesign for the revival, except the changes are quite a bit more radical. Compared to their classic series counterparts, the Cybermen have been slimmed down in places, while still being bulky, lumbering soldiers, and the organic elements of their designs have been scaled back, making them appear more uniform and inhuman: it’s a good look for them.
The set designers are also put to the task of creating the deep blue lair of the Cyberking for the story’s climax, which looks and feels exactly like an old school evil villain’s lair. With all the practical effects done for this two-parter, CGI is used sparingly in “Rise Of The Cybermen”, and when it does appear it’s rarely ever required to recreate a flesh and blood creature, so the visual effects hold up well throughout this two-parter. Murray Gold gets to compose a prominent leitmotif, the new theme for the Cybermen in NuWho, that’s sinister, foreboding, chaotic and persistent. There are dozens of variations of it, both subtle and bombastic, scattered throughout this two-parter, and beyond that, Murray would utilize it in most of the Cybermen’s appearances until Series 10. Interestingly, the second half of the Cybermen theme sounds very similar to the werewolf’s theme in “Tooth and Claw”, which is appropriate, since the Cybermen’s reintroduction winds up intersecting the Torchwood arc later this season.
“Rise Of The Cybermen / The Age Of Steel” is a rousing success of a two-parter, as a reintroduction to the Cybermen, a send-off for Mickey Smith (who’s been on his own journey for a season and a half), and a mid-season finale of sorts for Series 2. It’s too bad Tom McRae won’t be back to write another great story for Doctor Who until “The Girl Who Waited” in Series 6.
* “Skin of metal and a body that will never age or die. I envy it”.
* “I’m sorry, sir, but it’s my duty. I shall have to inform them” “And how will you do that from beyond the grave?” You see what I mean about Lumic being a 60’s villain?
* “We fell out of the vortex, through the void, into nothingness. We’re in some sort of no place. The silent realm. The lost dimension” “Otherwise known as London”.
* “‘Trust me on this’. Oh, I can trust you all right. Trust you to cock it up!” Whoa, Jackie, there are kids watching this show.
* “But I’ve seen it in comics. People go hopping from one alternative world to another. It’s easy” “Not in the real world. It used to be easy. When the Time Lords kept their eye on everything, you could hop between realities, home in time for tea. Then they died, and took it all with them. The walls of reality closed, the worlds were sealed. Everything became that bit less kind”.
* “Yeah, I’ve got things to see and all” “Like what?!” “Well, you don’t know anything about me, do you? It’s always about Rose. I’m just a spare part” Mickey dropping some straight facts.
* “Go on, then. There’s no choice, is there? You can only chase after one of us. It’s never going to be me, is it?” “Get back here in twenty-four hours!” “Yeah. If I haven’t found something better”.
* “Tell me. You’ve had a chance to observe John Lumic more than most. What’s your opinion?” “He’s very sharp, I’d say. Sharp as ever. Very clever man. Brilliant, in fact” “Then you don’t think he’s insane?” “That’s not the word I would’ve used, no” “…I see”.
* Don’t think I didn’t notice Jake admiring the view when Rickey strips Mickey down to interrogate him (Jake has some good taste, by the way. Rickey might be a bit of poser, but he’s still a pretty cool dude, and pretty hot).
* “According to Lucy, that man over there-” “Who’s Lucy?” “She’s carrying the salmon pinwheels” “Oh, that’s Lucy, is it?” “Yeah. Lucy says, that is the President of Great Britain” “What, there’s a President, not a Prime Minister?” “Seems so” “Or maybe Lucy’s just a bit thick” Hot damn, Rose.
* Rose’s face when the tiny dog named after her shows up is absolutely priceless, and well deserved after that dig at Lucy.
* “What happens if I refuse?” “Then you are not compatible” “What happens then?” “You will be deleted” Poor Mr. President. It’s really not wise to underestimate a madman’s hostile takeover.
* “You are rogue elements!” “But we surrender” “You are incompatible!” “But this is a surrender!” ” You will be deleted!” “But we’re surrendering! Listen to me, we surrender!” “You are inferior. Man will be reborn as Cyberman, but you will perish under maximum deletion! Delete, Delete, Delete!”
* I love how quickly the cliffhanger is resolved in Part 2, considering how big of a deal it was made out to be previously. In the first twenty seconds of the episode, Ten realizes the Cybermen won’t be reasoned with, so he whips a TARDIS ex machina out of his coat pocket and murders all the Cybermen before screaming for the others that it’s time to haul ass.
* “Are you finished chatting?! I’ve never seen a slower getaway in my life!”
* “That’s the only reason I was working for Lumic, to get information. I thought I was broadcasting to the Security Services. What do I get? Scooby Doo and his gang. They’ve even got the van”.
* “But the Preachers know what they’re doing, Rickey said he’s London’s Most Wanted” “Yeah, that’s not exactly-” “Not exactly what?” “I’m London’s Most Wanted for parking tickets” “…Great” “Yeah, they were deliberate! I was fighting the system! Park anywhere, that’s me!” “Good policy. I do much the same. I’m the Doctor, by the way, if anyone’s interested”.
* “I knew you weren’t a traitor” That’s not actually true, Rose. He’s a traitor to Lumic, after all. In fact, when Lumic snaps and tries to kill them all during the climax, you’ll notice he heads straight for Pete first.
* So, why did the Scooby gang split up again? It looks like they gained nothing from it, and all it accomplished was getting Rickey killed.
* “I don’t get it. What is it with you? You are exactly like me” “I don’t know, I reckon you’re braver” “Oh yeah, ten times”.
* I love the way Rickey’s death scene is handled. Compared to the rest of the episode, there’s no score for a change, and it’s left unclear for a while which Mickey got killed. And when Mickey glares at the Cybermen, they glare back in at him in stony silence, seemingly daring Mickey to climb over the fence since they kill him next.
* “Help me!” “You are in pain. We can remove pain forever” “No, not yet! I’m not ready!” “We will give you immortality” “I’ve told you, I will upgrade only with my last breath!” “Then breathe no more“. Top ten anime betrayals.
* Also, it was probably unintentional, but that last line from the Cybermen was a great callback to “The Unquiet Dead“.
* “I have factories waiting on seven continents. If the ear pods have failed, then the Cybermen will take humanity by force. London has fallen, so shall the world“.
* “Oh, Lumic, you’re a clever man. I’d call you a genius, except I’m in the room” Modesty.
* “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!” Darth Vader wannabe.
* “Jackie Tyler, this is for her!” “Waaauugggghhhhh!!!” Rest in peace, Lumic, you campy bastard.
* “Thanks. We’ve had a laugh though, haven’t we? Seen it all, been there and back. Who would have thought, me and you off the old estate, flying through the stars” “All those years just sitting there, imagining what we’d do one day. We never saw this, did we?” Aww.
* “What the hell?” “That’s the Doctor in the TARDIS with Rose Tyler” The way it should be.
* “With all those Cyber factories out there, do you think there’ll be one in Paris?” “Yeah” “Then, let’s go and liberate Paris” “What, you and me, in a van?” “There’s nothing wrong with a van. I once saved the universe with a big yellow truck”.