Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The NuWho episode or the Classic Doctor Who DVD release?
There's a poser for dopey Professor Kerensky – maybe he should have devoted his time to organising a Doctor Who DVD schedule instead of building his infernal cellular accelerator contraption. At least, he wouldn't have ended up ageing to a skeleton.
Cast your minds back to 2006, when it was announced that Inferno and The Invasion would be out on brand spanking new shiny disc. Coincidence? Well, consider that the two-part Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel (or Rise Of Steel as I like to call it) included the much-heralded return of the tinpot meanies, a reference to International Electromatics, a crazed entrepreneur with delusions of grandeur, and a doomy parallel universe. Which meant that the two DVDs would be popular choices for new generations of fans who had lapped up the first two-parter for David Tennant's Doctor.
Along with School Reunion, this story feels like a more traditional slice of Doctor Who. It's more of a straightforward action adventure story than the experimental Girl In The Fireplace. One thing that does strike me about this season is that there is a well-intentioned attempt to include a wide range of styles and genres. So far we've had campy body swap hi-jinks, Gothic horror, emotional kisses to the past, and sci-fi/historical hybrids. What Rise Of Steel does is to take a bag of Doctor Who staples, shake them up a bit, and put a 21st century spin on them.
Oddly, it's one of the stories that I've seen the most out of the season – I say, oddly, since it's not perfect by any means. In fact, the story's inherent weaknesses drag it down considerably. But I suppose that for a bit of zippy escapism, it can't be beaten. Add in another great opportunity for social commentary and a bit of fun with the parallel universe concept, and the end result is actually not half bad.
The parallel universe idea allows for some neat tricks – in particular, the treatment of some of the regular characters. Take Jackie and Pete – in the parallel world, Pete is still alive, and furthermore, he's a success, a kind of more upmarket Del from Only Fools And Horses. He's managed to turn his Vitex drink into a runaway success, despite it tasting like average fizzy pop. As a result, he's able to afford a swanky pad and all the mod cons that money can buy.
Which is excellent news for Jackie – even if their marriage has evidently got less fizz than one of Pete's Vitex drinks. The normal Jackie is a bit of a whiny snob at the best of times, but in the parallel universe, she's a monster. Material goods, wealth and status are the watchwords of the day for Jackie – she's too busy bleating about the wrong welcome sign for her birthday (which incidentally, isn't the same as Cuba Gooding Jr's, fact fans), the fact that she's only got some manky garage flowers from Pete and a request for a Zeppelin present.
Quite why anyone would want a Zeppelin as a gift is anyone's guess – they're a bit tricky to drive, they're far more cumbersome than your average 4x4, and they're probably hell to park. But that's probably the whole point – the rich toffs are throwing away money on inconsequential tat like Zeppelins – a nice dig at the shallow lives of people who are too busy obsessing about material goods.
Indeed, this is a world where hollow materialism reigns supreme – not just in the lives of Jackie and Pete, but in the fact that human beings are slaves to technological bling. There's that fantastic sequence where the Doctor and Rose are startled to see a bunch of everyday schmucks stop in the middle of the street for their daily downloads (thanks to Bluetooth-style earpieces) – it's a clever bit of satire that examines a mundane culture that depends on mobile phones and the internet. The motionless public are spoon-fed a load of inconsequential tosh like weather reports, Lottery numbers and jokes – as The Doctor says: “You lot, you're obsessed – you'd do anything for the latest upgrade”. It all cleverly equates with the Cybermen's lack of emotion and feeling. I sometimes think that technology has led to a society that's somehow lost its ability to feel – some people think it's OK to bully, insult and hurt others through the use of the internet whether it's on forums, Twitter or on comment boards, just because it's not face to face.
I don't know – most days, I'd be happy with an abacus and a bit of straw to chew on.
Back to Rise of Steel – and a good example of this soulless cruelty is seen when Parallel World Jackie startlingly turns on Rose. What starts out as a harmless bit of banter becomes Rose's worst nightmare after she has commented about Pete and how he's worth a second shot. Parallel Jackie then snaps furiously at Rose (“Who the hell do you think you are? You're staff!”) in the worst way possible. This is a pampered snob, who uses people as sheep-like servants. All the compassion of the normal Jackie has been replaced by her worst excesses in a society that puts material goods and a slavish dependency on technology ahead of decent humanity.
That reliance on technology is well represented by the sight of huge crowds of people walking like zombies towards their doom. Or as the Doctor puts it: “Human race – for such an intelligent lot, you ain't half susceptible. Give anyone a chance to take control and you submit”.
The parallel universe also allows for a neat spin on Pete's death in the real world. This time around, he lives to fight another day, but it's Jackie who meets her maker after being turned into a Cyberman. The audience doesn't know it yet, but it's setting things up for the season finale in which two worlds collide with the nuclear family that Rose has always wished for.
Then there's Mickey, who finds that maybe there's more for him in the parallel universe than he first thought. In fact, Rise Of Steel is Mickey's story, thanks to a script that gives him plenty to do, and also down to Noel Clarke's excellent performance (both as Mickey and Ricky). The scene in which he finds that his late gran is still alive and kicking is a lovely set piece, a great two-hander from both Clarke and Mona Hammond as Rita-Anne. After being portrayed as the Idiot, we finally see Mickey as a bit of a tragic figure – forever being told he's second best (seen in the way in which the Doctor rushes to help Rose). This seems to stem from the fact that he's suffering from massive guilt from his gran's death after he failed to fix the carpet on her stairs (“I shoulda done it way back,” he says. “I guess I'm just kinda useless”). It's a smart turnaround from previous stories that portrayed him as a one-dimensional loser – at last, we get snatches of Mickey's back story, and this helps to form a well-rounded, three-dimensional character.
Who's the polar opposite of over-confident Ricky. Clarke has great fun with Mickey's alter-ego, chewing up the scenery with gusto. But even though it looks like Ricky's more of a hard case, in fact, there's still some of that uselessness present – he's the most wanted in London for parking tickets! There's also the memorable scene in which Mickey sees his own 'death' – when Ricky is fatally zapped by a Cyberman during a fruitless escape attempt. It's telling that Mickey ultimately helps to save the day, and during the story, he learns a lot about himself, and how he fits in better in this world rather than the regular one. It's a shame that all this will be undone, when his parallel world stay will prove to be no more than a slightly extended break, but at least Noel Clarke gets a good chunk of the action – it's his best performance, needless to say.
The new Cybermen have had a mixed press. On the one hand, I agree that their “Delete!” catchphrase is a bit silly. There's also that weird sequence in which a Cyberman miraculously zooms up behind Mrs Moore to zap her – what did it do: tiptoe? But for all that, I think they're designed very well. They've been suitably dusted down and upgraded for the 21st century, and better still, they're very well shot by Graeme Harper, who makes a well-deserved comeback. Harper chooses to shoot the Cybermen from down low, a trick that oddly hadn't been used that much before. This gives them that all-important extra power and strength. They're seemingly unstoppable metal giants, blank-faced weapons of destruction – and great behind-the-sofa material for kids.
The Cybermen are also more terrifying because we get to see the brutal process of their genesis. This had been seen before to a point in stories like The Tomb Of The Cybermen and Attack Of The Cybermen in which characters such as Toberman and Lytton were converted into the metal meanies. Rise Of Steel takes this concept further and turns it into a vicious slice 'n' dice. Morris and the other zombified tramps are slowly led into a machine that cuts them to shreds. It's probably the most effective scene of the story, not just because of the horror, but because of the black humour. Villainous number two to Lumic, Mr Crane elects to cover up the screams of the hapless tramps by requesting a quick snatch of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' by Tight Fit. I love this kind of morbid humour, and the sight of Crane jigging about to the terrible '80s squealing only emphasises the horrific concept.
Although I'm not sure that I'd want to check out Crane's iPod, which probably consists of every horrible 1982 dirge under the sun. What next? 'Seven Tears' by The Goombay Dance Band? 'I've Never Been To Me' by Charlene? 'A Little Peace' by Nicole?
Well, the Cybermen certainly don't get a little peace at the end of the story. And if they were human, they'd certainly be weeping more than seven tears, since the Doctor brings down Lumic's plan by giving the Cybermen their souls back. “They can see what you've done, Lumic!” bellows the Doctor. “And it's killing them!” It's a harrowing sequence, well filmed by Harper (with lots of queasy fast cuts and zoom-ins, not to mention that great shot of the distorted Cyberman reflection and the Doctor saying “I'm sorry” in the background). The anguished Cyberman screams also add to the brutal denouement – it's a horrible idea, and again, one that had never really been explored so fully before. Like Tooth And Claw, this Cyberman two-parter belies the opinion that the Davies-helmed stories were a bit too genteel.
Potentially a NuWho classic, it's annoying that there are a few lead weights that mean that this status is beyond Rise Of Steel's reach. John Lumic himself poses the simple question: Why? The great Roger Lloyd Pack will always make me laugh like a drain at his unforgettable portrayal of Trigger in OFAH, but for some reason, he opts to play Lumic like Abanazar with a sore throat. It doesn't help that Lumic gets the lion's share of stock B-Movie baddie clichés, starting right from the introductory scene's immortal clanger, “And how will you do that from BEYOND THE GRAVE??” From then on, it's a whirlwind tour of hackneyed lines, evil bwa-hah-ha-ing and furious scowling. Lumic cuts a rather sorry figure, trundling around on his futuristic mobile chair and spouting mundane threats.
The acting is a mixed bag. In the good pile are Helen Griffin as Mrs Moore, Don Warrington as the President (although he doesn't get nearly enough screen time as he ought to) and Colin Spaull – fresh from his turn as the Totally Tropical Lilt – who threatens to steal the show as the amoral but amusing Mr Crane. Other performances aren't quite up to scratch though – Andrew Hayden-Smith isn't too bad as Jake, but he's too boyband to convince as a hard nut tough case. Actually, the most laughable bit of acting comes from that random extra girl who discovers that she's about to be turned into a Cyberman. “Oh no!” she wails unconvincingly, as if she's just received a very high tax bill.
Meanwhile, David Tennant continues to do his level best to fight against the limitations of his Doctor's character. For every great scene that we get (such as his grim chinwag with Mickey in the apparently dead TARDIS about how the death of the Time Lords made everything that bit less kind), we get a sequence which demands that Tennant over-acts to the point of hysteria. There's his OTT “We surrender!” cliffhanger wailing (which is quickly defused by a Get Out Of Jail Free gizmo anyway) or his ridiculously manic mugging with Cyber Lumic (“Ordinary, stupid, BWWILLIANT people!!”). It's a pivotal confrontation that's spoiled by a hyperactive Tennant doing his best to channel Magnus Pyke.
On the subject of the dead TARDIS, it's a bit of a throwaway gimmick, since the Doctor amazingly finds a lone power-source that allows them to be on their way in no time at all. It might have been fun to trap the Doctor and co in a parallel world for a bit longer.
Another recurring problem (and one that makes me think I should eke out an alternative existence as a badly scratched record) is again, Murray Gold's non-stop racket. It's one long ear-assault of pompous choirs and melodramatic orchestras, and it completely swamps the action – to the point where I can hardly hear what characters are actually saying. Incidental music is known as incidental for a reason – it's meant to play second fiddle to the action, and carry it along: Not dominate the whole story like a spoilt kid looking for attention. Someone lock Murray in Room 101 with a copy of Destiny Of The Daleks, pronto!
While Rise Of Steel isn't the most original of stories, and is saddled with too many hammy lines and cardboard cut-out characters, the parallel universe scenario allows for some good ideas and relevant topical commentary to chew over. It's expertly directed by Graeme Harper, who proves that he hadn't lost the knack of producing high-octane, imaginative visuals.
Altogether, a solid action thriller with some interesting points to make about wealth and over-reliance on technology – but as Kerensky would bleat: “There are a few technical problems...”
* Catch up with more Cybermen escapades as I review these in my four Doctor Who ebook guides! Excellent!
JON PERTWEE ERA - £3.86
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1 - £3.07
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2 - £2.51
PETER DAVISON ERA - £2.98