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Doctor Who 2.5 and 2.6 Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel

AIR-DATE: 13/05/06
Written by
Tom MacRae

Graeme Harper

David Tennant, Billie Piper, Noel Clarke, Camille Coduri, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Shaun Dingwall, Andrew Hayden-Smith, Helen Griffin, Don Warrington.

Rating: 4_5/5

The One Where...
The Cybermen are created on a parallel Earth.

The Cybermen.
Remember the Doctor Who you used to keep in your head? You know the one – it lived in those wonderful old Target novelisations, the ones you borrowed from the library so many times you felt that you spiritually owned them. You’d devour Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth by Terrance Dicks and it would erupt in your imagination as an epic on a par with Where Eagles Dare or A Bridge Too Far, a shonk-free zone uncompromised by the realities of television production. It was grand, cinematic, dazzling. When you finally saw the original version on VHS the shortfall of reality was crushing.

Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel take that impossible vision of Doctor Who and make it real. It’s Doctor Who as WWII high adventure, delivered with a feature film sheen. Russell T Davies promised that these episodes would have a distinct French Resistance vibe and yes, that proves a large part of their appeal – you’re running with the heroes on night-dark streets, slipping down alleyways to evade the enemy, fighting a rearguard action in the shadows and the corners, over parkland and concrete. There’s something intoxicating and thrilling about that, like the dreams of Doctor Who you had as a kid (and, like me, may still have…)

Returning to the show after 20 years, Graeme Harper directs with a sense of scope and ambition. The first of the old school helmers to work on the new series, Harper won fan plaudits for his vigorous but stylish approach in the stories The Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks. He was a one-man adrenaline surge for ‘80s Who, and it’s gratifying to see that he’s lost none of his touch in the 21st Century. There’s a touch of Euston Films here – lots of raincoated cockney hard nuts and transit vans – and such muscularity gives this tough, frequently terrifying story an effective edge.

Harper also creates some fabulous moments of spectacle and surprise. It’s a story dotted with eye candy – those wonderful zeppelin-crowded skies of alt Earth (full marks to t’Mill) or Battersea Power Station glowing with hellish menace after dark – and his setpiece juxtaposition of the slicing ‘n’ dicing machines of the Cybus Corporation with the sound of anodyne ‘80s popsters Tight Fit tips Doctor Who into new and genuinely unsettling territory. It’s hard to believe that moments quite so bleak are being served up in the family slot on Saturday night. We’re breeding a hardy new generation of kids here.

Above all, it’s Harper who reclaims the Cybermen. By the late ‘80s they had lost their iconic power, reduced to stooges in saggy, spray-painted jumpsuits, booming like old time radio actors. Harper hands their menace back to them, finding low angles to emphasise their towering invincibility. All those limp early publicity photos did little justice to the new design – onscreen, properly lit, remorselessly marching to the sound of a chilling mechanical stomp, these skull-faced steel bogeymen might even displace the Daleks as kids’ number one Big Bads.

If I have a quibble, it’s with John Lumic, creator of these alternative Cybermen. It’s a character clearly in debt to fantasy TV’s great tradition of frustrated, wheelchair-bound geniuses hungering for power beyond their feeble bodies (see Davros but also, more significantly, Michael Gough’s turn as Dr Armstrong in the classic Avengers tale The Cybernauts). Given such a familiar archetype, it’s a shame that guest star Roger Lloyd-Pack plays the role as almost a pastiche of the Who mega-villain. You can see what they’re going for – Lumic has clearly already lost his humanity even before he’s unveiled as Cyber-Controller – and it’s a performance that may well have worked in 1967, but in the subtler Doctor Who of 2006 it feels jarringly two-dimensional.

Still, there’s so much to love here – a twinkly David Tennant saying the deeply Doctorish line “I would call you a genius but I’m in the room”, Noel Clarke bowing out on top and, oh yes, the simple joy of Billie Piper in a maid’s outfit, the kind of thing that reminds you that human emotional response is a great and sacred thing. May it never be deleted.

Nick Setchfield