Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE AGE OF STEEL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE AGE OF STEEL

One of the hallmarks that Russell T Davies brought to New Who in 2005 was a sense of the epic. Certainly when it came to the Daleks, he and Robert Shearman delivered a reinvention that allowed the pepperpots of death to be taken seriously again, beyond their sometimes plywood look and their jokeworthy limitations in Classic Who. Dalek brought them back and tackled those deficiencies head on, so that by the time of the series finale, they were terrifying again, and only a fairly large deus ex machina solution could stop them from triumphing completely.

For the re-invention of the Cybermen in 2006, Davies gave over two full-length mid-season episodes to writer Tom MacRae, to establish an alternative origin story for them in a parallel dimension, while leaving our own dimension’s Cybermen untouched in their established timeline. Sure, that was arguably a cop-out, but unless you were going to literally re-make Spare Parts from Big Finish on the TV screen (which Stephen Moffat came closer to actually doing some years later), there was little by way of an alternative.

And besides, it had been a long, lonnnng time since the cloth facemasks of The Tenth Planet, and something inherent in the Cybermen of the early 21st century demanded stompy menace. They had to be heavy, metal cybermen that could loom effectively.

The two-part re-invention of the Cybermen kicked off with the unambiguous The Rise of the Cybermen, and told a story very much akin to 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, only set on something close to our own world. It took businessman and genius inventor John Lumic (Roger Lloyd-Pack) from the creation of the Cybermen to having his creations murder the President of Great Britain so his plans can go unopposed.

It also made explicit what the Cybermen have always been about – the human fear of ageing, disease, and ultimately death – and gave us a scathing satire on upgrade culture, and how we as a species have become conditioned by commerce to slavishly want the next new shiny thing, even if it costs us some part of our souls.

While all that made a joyous return for the Cybermen (like the Daleks, redesigned in a chunky, believably metallic way), it was very clearly only Act 1 of the story. Once the Cybermen have announced their presence to the world with a slaughter of the rich and powerful, we were always going to need a second half to the drama – how did the Cybermen almost take over the world?

The Age of Steel very much aims to give us the answer to that question – it brings the Cybermen front and centre, kills off several characters we’ve come to like, to show the renewed menace of the Cybermen (last seen on-screen being killed by a catapult full of gold coins…), delivers us a CyberController for a new age, and in a sense gives us a new way for Cybermen to be Cybermen.

If The Rise of the Cybermen was a sci-fi espionage story, a great and powerful threat emerging from beneath the surface of entertainment and medical capitalism, The Age of Steel was an epic science fantasy opera, the Empire Strikes Back to the first episode’s A New Hope. For CyberControl – ensconced as it is in Battersea Power Station – think Death Star. Our rebel alliance includes the Doctor and Rose, Mickey Smith and his alt-universe hardcore version Ricky, Jake and Mrs Moore of the Preachers, and Pete Tyler from the alternative universe.

Now, this wouldn’t be a Cyberman story without a handful of seriously illogical moments from the kings of logic and their creator – it’s almost mandatory for any grand Cyber-plan to be full of logic holes. And The Age of Steel more or less destroys the point of much of what’s come before it in The Rise of The Cybermen. Why have a Cyber-army go marching into Jackie Tyler’s birthday party on a deletion-spree when, as revealed in The Age of Steel, it’s entirely possible just to activate the earpods of everyone who wears them and have them march silently into the conversion factories?

Absolutely – drama. And we love the drama, of course. But for the logicians of the galaxy, a reliably naff, illogical touch, very much in keeping with The Wheel In Space, Revenge of the Cybermen, and Earthshock for its batty bonkersness.

For that matter, the same is true of there being already-processed Cybermen in cold storage – a nice hat-tip to Tomb of the Cybermen and Attack of the Cybermen, but also, if you have Cybermen on ice, just how long have they been ready (since we see the first really “complete” one at the start of The Rise of the Cybermen, reliably less than 24 hour ago), and why not just use them as your initial army, rather than have your minions kidnap a bunch of homeless people and convert them on the fly?

Annnnnd while we’re at it (final whinge, we promise), Lumic reveals in The Age of Steel that he has factories set up on several continents – so why not activate all the earpods, simultaneously. Instant Cyberworld, no? *Shrugs* We’ll put it down to a lack of suspicious Zeppelins with big-as-god antennae dishes on them, shall we? Yes, let’s do that.

Annnyhow, beyond the joyous nits that can always be picked in the logic of a Cyber-plan, The Age of Steel has a size and a grandeur that would, just a series earlier, have befitted a finale. Armies of marching Cybermen, befitting the likes of Earthshock and The Invasion, ensure the Cybermen feel like they’re properly back – and while the whole “Electric Hands” method of killing people feels a touch soft for them, it’s in keeping with their new Earthly origin, as well as their logical energy efficiency.

The cast of characters are mostly likeable, even if they’re from a slightly more cruel Earth than our own was in 2006 – round about now, they feel intensely identifiable. We’re let into enough of their lives to humanize them, even if in the cases of Ricky and Mrs Moore, it feels just a touch cynical to do that almost immediately before they get killed.

And the Cybermen themselves are also humanized for us, so we both have our Cyber-cake and eat it. While we’ve seen the homeless rounded up and processed, once the faceplate goes on, it has never especially been the case that we identify individual Cybermen with the people they used to be – that is after all more or less the point of the conversion process.

But here we see a soulless blank-eyed Cyberman acknowledge a memory of having been Jackie Tyler – an emotional gut-punch in itself, doubled when, just seconds later, she’s shuffled back into the pack and is the same as all the other Cybermen.

And, minutes after Mrs Moore immobilizes an advancing Cyberman, and the Doctor goes rummaging around in its chest unit, discovering its emotional inhibitor – a convenient piece of new tech that stops us thinking about lobotomization and the surgical cutting away of the emotional parts of the brain – the Cyberman wakes up and remembers itself as Sally Phelan, bride-to-be. A slightly obvious punch in the feels? Maybe, but it still works. In fact, arguably, it works better in our more acutely gender-conscious age. Despite the grimly unforgettable Cyberwoman that lies ahead in Torchwood’s future, this is a by-product of the Cybermen’s uniformity. It robs its converts of everything they used to be, including gender, because in Cyber-form, there is only one gender. There is only Cyberman.

The Age of Steel has other great things to recommend a re-watch, too. The coming to terms between Jake and Mickey – and our Tin Dog’s growing confidence to take on the world once it’s become clear that there’s a “gap” in the alternative universe where Ricky used to be – is particularly good to see. And the betrayal of Lumic by his head henchman, akin to Davros and Nyder in Genesis of the Daleks, is both dramatically perfect, and paves the way for the “ascension” of Lumic to his CyberController form.

There’s a great riff on The Five Doctors in terms of the three-team “above-between-below” attack method of the resistance here, too, which allows not only for the teams to split up and have their own arcs, but also allows them space to breathe, ask questions, grow, and have their own part in the liberation of the Earth from the Cyber-menace.

Is the ultimate confrontation between the Doctor and CyberLumic a touch chatty, inconsequential and script-convenient? Oh, absolutely, without doubt. And the head-exploding existential crisis of the Cybermen was to create a precedent almost as unfortunate as the whole “allergic to gold” thing had eventually done in the Classic series.

But if we think of the downfall of Lumic’s Cyber-empire as a cyclical tale, with the seeds of its own disaster contained within its creation, there’s a certain satisfaction to the whole thing – and the final and literal “fall” of Lumic, being “for Jackie Tyler” is particularly satisfying in its Hollywood monster movie scale.

When all the action is over, some of the best writing in The Age of Steel comes in the resolutions that some of the characters find. When Rose reveals her connection to Pete, he cannot deal with it in the moment. He shrugs her off and leaves – proof, if proof were needed, that this alternative Earth is a little harsher than our own. Or at least, that it has been. And when Mickey decides to stay, there are perfect words. His Nan is here, and he both has to be here for her, annnnd simultaneously has to go and liberate Paris from the Cyber-threat.

Rose, wanting to have her loving lapdog with her always, asks the ultimate question – “What if I need you?” – and it’s Mickey who has the strength to make her face the ultimate truth. “But you don’t,” he says, and this time of all times, she walks tearfully away from him – having previously, when she held the power in their relationship dynamic, both run gleefully, and walked purposefully to leave him behind. Now, because their separation is finally his decision, she weeps.

On a re-watch in 2023, there’s still so much about The Age of Steel that is epic, and punch-the-air right that it lets you easily forgive its niggling faults of logic and convenience. If you were going to bring the Cybermen back in 2006, this was among the best of ways you could possibly have done it – and it still rewards your watching it in 2023.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember. 

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