Doctor Who complete reviews: Rise of the Cybermen
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
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.
So 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 – which is no bad thing. 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. And 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 pop. So naturally, 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 rather shallow lives of people who are too busy obsessing about material goods.
And 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 the mundanity of a culture that seems to depend on mobile phones and the internet. Just look at the way in which 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 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. Or take the monstrous concept of Happy Slapping – there's cases of hapless victims being filmed on camera by vile thugs – all for a laugh apparently.
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. And that slavish dependency 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”.
"Rise Of Steel is very much Mickey's story, thanks to a script that gives him much to do, and also down to Noel Clarke's excellent performance"
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 in this case, 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.
And 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 very much Mickey's story, thanks to a script that gives him much 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 great 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 (he comes back to the real world for good at the climax of Journey's End) – but at least Noel Clarke gets a good chunk of the action – it's his best performance, needless to say.
"The Cybermen are seemingly unstoppable metal giants, blank-faced weapons of destruction – and great behind-the-sofa material for kids"
The parallel Cybermen though – well, they've had mixed comments. 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 early '80s 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 rather a harrowing sequence, again 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 distorted Cyberman screams also add to the rather 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.
"Again, David Tennant does his level best to fight against the limitations of his Doctor's character."
So it's annoying that there's a few lead weights that drag the story down. John Lumic himself poses the simple question: Why? Roger Lloyd Pack's a great actor, but for some reason, he opts for growly Abanazar ham – he kind of sounds like a bulldog that's slowly learning to speak English for the first time. Which doesn't help when the lines you're given are stock B-Movie baddie clichés. Even in the introductory scene, we get the 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 Jim'll Fix It chair and spouting mundane threats.
The acting is actually quite mixed this time around. Helen Griffin is pretty good as Mrs Moore (who resembles Annie Lennox auditioning for the part of Caris in Meglos). Don Warrington is excellent as the President, although he doesn't get nearly enough screen time as he ought to. Colin Spaull – fresh from his turn as the Totally Tropical Lilt – steals the show as the amusing but deadly Mr Crane. Other performances aren't quite up to scratch though – Roger Lloyd Pack, I've mentioned, but at least he's better than Andrew Hayden-Smith, playing Jake. Jake's useless, a kind of surly boy band foetus, who looks like he'd be better suited to swaying to and fro on a chair to the strains of a faceless ballad. In fact, Jakey Boy is supposed to be a hard nut tough case, but this never really comes through in Hayden Smith's rather wooden performance.
And again, David Tennant does 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. So we get the rather OTT “We surrender!” cliffhanger (which is quickly defused by a Get Out Of Jail Free gizmo anyway) or the ridiculously manic confrontation with Cyber Lumic (“Ordinary, stupid, BWWILLIANT people!!”) in which he kind of looks like Marti Pellow channelling Magnus Pyke.
On the subject of the dead TARDIS, it's also 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.
"Murray Gold's music swamps the action – to the point where I can hardly hear what characters are actually saying"
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 again, one long suite of pompous choirs and melodramatic orchestras, and it just 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!
So Rise Of Steel isn't the most original of stories – it's saddled with a few too many hammy lines and cardboard cut-out characters – but the parallel universe 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...”
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