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

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting RISE OF THE CYBERMEN

From its opening moments, there’s no doubting that Rise of the Cybermen, written by Tom MacRae, is on many levels a re-imagining of the Cyber-origin story, stomping in the footprints of 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks.

In the pre-credits sequence alone, we have a single guiding intelligence behind the Cybermen, as opposed to the long-supposed gradual societal shift towards replacement bio-technology. John Lumic, played by Roger Lloyd-Pack, is a singular mind, in an extremely ill body, riding around in his own custom-built wheelchair, exactly as Davros, creator of the Daleks, is shown to do in Genesis.

He has his prototype Cyberman (cunningly blurred to avoid a premature monster-reveal), and he has a challenge from those of a more ethical nature on his scientific staff – allowing the Cyberman its first kill when Lumic refuses to bow to scientific and ethical pressures. It’s more or less a highly condensed re-make of the scene in the bunker where Davros is confronted by the scientific elite, and the dissenters from their Dalek destiny are butchered, not allowed to stand in the way of what he deems as progress.

It's all pretty gleeful from a fan’s point of view, and in 2006, it couldn’t come fast enough. Since Dalek by Rob Shearman had given the first series its mid-season bump – and the Daleks had turned up en masse at the end of the series for a great confrontation – fans had clamoured for the Cybermen to be reborn in the modern age of Doctor Who. So even before the opening titles rolled, fans were bouncing in their seats.

There was talk that in some senses, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel would be riffs on the Big Finish story Spare Parts (and credit to that story is duly given in the titles), but in many ways, the TV version was instantly more exciting. Not only were these clearly new metallic cybermen, rather than the cloth-faced variety from Spare Parts (and from The Tenth Planet), but Lumic closes out the pre-credits sequence by directing that he be sailed to Great Britain, leaving us in no doubt that these are not Mondasian Cybermen. These are Cybermen… built on Earth?

If you weren’t dancing in your seat in 2006 when that happened, you may have been a Cyberman yourself – and agreeably, it still sends a thrill down the spine in 2023, even if the Cybermen in the nearly two decades since their return have suffered by not perhaps being very often used to their fullest potential.

Once the titles roll, there’s a very quick sketch of where we are – Rose and the Doctor, being shamelessly smug about their adventures, and Mickey left holding a button simply because they forgot to tell him he could stop. Then, for no known reason, the Tardis malfunctions badly, all but dying. They should be in the void, in no place, lost forever – except as it turns out, they’re on a parallel Earth, in a London with a skyfull of airships.

So while it’s not exactly Mondas, it does do the same job as Mondas, representing a possible Earth, a twin earth to our own.

When the Doctor finds a way to recharge the Tardis that will take around 24 hours, both Rose and Mickey decide to go and explore their own alternative lives. On this Earth, Rose’s traditionally useless dad, Pete, made a success of his health drinks, and he and Jackie live in opulent luxury (though as yet not achieving the ultimate status symbol – a Zeppelin of their own) – but are still a bickering, unhappy couple, importantly without a daughter, but instead with a pampered lapdog who goes by the same name as the Rose we know.

Mickey meanwhile, has a gran (who has died in our reality). He goes to see her, only to be called Ricky, and is almost immediately bundled away in a van by a pair of unlikely freedom fighters, Jake and Mrs Moore, who also call him Ricky. Holy doppelgangers, Batman?

The rise of the Cybermen in this episode is a story of what is essentially corporate warfare to pursue a single individual’s vision. The Cybermen could be, when all is said and done, a force for good. They could be the expression of “the singularity” – the point at which humanity and computers fuse to make us functionally immortal (currently on track for 2030, according to some relatively well-respected futurologists).

But in Rise of the Cybermen, they’re a creation without ethics, tinged explicitly with what they’ve always been about implicitly – old people’s fear of ageing, decay, and death. Under Lumic’s twisted vision, the Cybermen are more than what they could otherwise be – the ultimate upgrade. They’re a new form of life, for the very simple reason that they’re fitted with emotional inhibitors, to stop them from being just… well, essentially Iron Man (a film, incidentally, which didn’t come out until 2008).

They’re not just humans in armoured suits. By the time they become Cybermen, they’re humans that have gone through severe physical trauma, and so absolutely need to be deprived of their emotions and their pain receptors.

Just as the tragedy of Davros in Genesis of the Daleks was that he engineered his “children” to recognise neither pity nor any superiors to themselves, not even himself, so the tragedy of the Cybermen and John Lumic in Rise of the Cybermen is that he’s an old man in a hurry, prepared to kill to make his dream a reality, and sufficiently devoid of emotions himself to not care that he steals them away from others with impunity.

Where Davros’ life is saved by technology he has already invented, in Lumic’s case, while he delivers a speech almost identical to that of Davros in Genesis about how his inventions have benefited the whole world, he needs the technology he’s invented to save his own life in the future, and is racked by frustration at those who let “ethics” get in the way of saving his life.

It's an unfortunate leap, because until then, the mirroring of the alternate universe and our own is spectacularly effective. As the Doctor says, “you lot, you’ll do anything for the latest upgrade,” and the earpods which feature heavily in the episode look and sound very much like a credible tech trend that could be just around the corner – content streamed straight to the brain, rather than to cumbersome handheld devices? If they came with apples on, we’d line up around the block to get our hands on them.

And MacRae delivers a positively joyous extension from that technology to the Cyber-handles that have always been a feature of the creature – and shows us in an economical couple of scenes why letting anyone have direct entry to our brains is a less than stellar idea, however trendy it may be.

In terms of the dystopian elements of the story, it’s desperately easy to identify more with Rise of the Cybermen even than we could in 2006 – while the idea of homeless people being rounded up for “experiments” which turn them into Cybermen was perfectly valid back then, the desperate hunger that would drive people into positively holocaust-reminiscent vans for hot food, only to lead to their essential extermination, is much more widespread in a world in which food banks are a growth industry.

And in a world of groups like Extinction Rebellion, we can believe perhaps a little more in companies so ethically dangerous as to generate a whole resistance movement dedicated to stopping their expansion.

There are some hugely loving callbacks peppered throughout the story too, perhaps the best of which is that the trucks used for primitive Cyber-conversion belong to International Electromatics – in “our” universe, the company run by Tobias Vaughn, which led to the invasion through the sewers of London in The Invasion. In this alternate universe, IE is a front company owned by none other than Lumic’s Cybus Industries.

The Cybermen, over the course of Doctor Who history, have been responsible for some fairly intense body horror. It’s fundamental to who and what they are. But with the possible exception of the ultra-gruesome Attack of the Cybermen, the process of conversion has rarely if ever been shown to better effect than it is in Rise of the Cybermen. In particular, we see knives, cutters, syringes and blades, and importantly, we hear the screaming of people being converted against their will.

And in possibly the best scene of Graeme Harper direction in the episode – at least up there with the final Cyber-reveal – we see and hear the human squeamishness that attends the conversion process, even in those who are enforcing it. Like a concentration camp guard who can’t stand the screams of his victims, Colin Spaull as Mr Crane feeds his initially unwilling recruits into a conversion factory in Battersea Power Station, and then turns on the happy musical stylings of Tight Fit. The Lion Sleeps Tonight blasts out, only partially covering the screams as we pull out from fully automated conversion chambers to dank corridors of metal, to the outside of one of London’s most recognizable landmarks. One long scream is heard escaping as the scene ends. That’s pure television gold and still delivers the shivers nearly two decades on.

The story escalates so that both the Doctor and Rose, Mickey and his new friends, “The Preachers” – along with Noel Clarke doing double-duty as Ricky, the snarly, grim alternate universe version of our Mickey – and the President of Great Britain are all heading to Jackie Tyler’s “39th” birthday party. Importantly, the Preachers (who are the only people knowingly to go without the earpod technology) are only going because they get a tip-off from “Gemini” – an insider at Cybus Industries, who has heard that the vans used to collect the homeless people for experimentation have left Battersea and that they too are heading for the Tylers’ palatial home.

Does it feel perhaps a little forced everybody’s heading to the same location? Yes, just a little – it’s a case of getting as many players as possible together for the cliff-hanger of the episode, but everybody has at least some logically explained reason for going there.

The President (Don Warrington) is perhaps the least likely attendee, especially as he and Pete seem to be relatively new acquaintances, but he’s there for two scripting reasons – firstly, he has personally denied Lumic’s pitch to legally create Cybermen on British soil, and so is marked for death, and secondly, without him in charge, chaos will reign, allowing the rise of the Cybermen to proceed unhindered.

And once the Cybermen arrive at the Tylers’, there is an ungovernable shiver down the spine that still works, seventeen years on. Seeing only big metal feet, stomping hydraulically into battle (in another callback to The Invasion), there’s a thrill perhaps even bigger than the moment in Dalek where the Doctor and the Dalek first meet.

It’s driven along, parallel to the Doctor’s discovery of the Lumic project’s video, talking about the importance of the brain and its bonding to a metal exoskeleton, and you see the Tenth Doctor begin to realise, to be incredulous, to panic at the impossibility and the sudden certainty of it all.

And then they come.

Stomping surprisingly noisily over the grass, out of the darkness, marching shadows of steel. We no sooner get a look at the new Cyber-face than the Doctor names them, and they crash into the house, in another example of Graeme Harper brilliance.

As Lumic and the President exchange arguments about ethics, the Doctor gives Rose a crash course in what Cybermen are – handy for anyone brand spanking new to the show, but more distinctly useful in-universe for Rose. And then the President tries to do the brave thing and stand up to them – and gets “deleted” as “incompatible” for his trouble, the new Cybermen having conductive hands as a playground-safe way of despatching their victims, Russell T Davies wanting to have his dramatic cake without eating any real-world consequential bullying on playgrounds.

For a species supposedly dedicated only to logic and making more Cybermen, what follows is somewhat… traditionally batty Cyber-nonsense. Instead of saving the humans at the party for processing, the Cybermen go on a deletion frenzy, zapping anyone who comes within their grasp, rather than only those who refuse to be upgraded.

As the Doctor, Rose, Pete and the Preachers are surrounded, the Doctor tries the only logical alternative to an instant zappy death – he surrenders on behalf of them all. Explains that they’re good stock and that they volunteer for the upgrade program.

But, like several CyberLeaders in the Classic show, the chattiest Cyeberman at the party disdains what seems like logic to us. It refuses the surrender, claiming that the group will “perish under maximum deletion.”

Oh dear.

Everything was going so well until then. The idea of giving the Cybermen a shoutable catchphrase, the equivalent to the Daleks’ “Exterminate!” is fine as far as it goes. But to end a genuinely tense, thrill-filled episode of Doctor Who on the threat of “maximum deletion” and a repeated monotone of “Delete. Delete. Delete” feels more like something that itself should have been subject to maximum deletion from the script.

Rise of the Cybermen is superb in so many ways. 17 years on, it still delivers thrills, chills, and a harsh bark of dystopian recognition of a society grown hard, unkind, and relatively insular at the mercy of technology, with corporate pirates raiding everything as though it’s their birthright and the poor ghettoised and considered little but prey and cannon-fodder.

The new Cybermen are some of the chunkiest models that have ever been seen, and if the voices lack expression or individuality, that is of course entirely in-keeping with the Cyber-ethos, for all it lowers their impact.

The idea of “maximum deletion” is cringeworthy as a way to end such an otherwise high-class episode of Doctor Who, but on its own it does little to steal any of the power or the body horror from the rise of the Cybermen into New Who. And you’ll still get chills at the way the Cybermen are directed and shot for stompy impact.

17 years on, Rise of the Cybermen is still more or less a masterpiece, as well as a reinvention of the Cyber-origins. If its cliff-hanger is a damp squib, you nevertheless leave it hungry to find out what the hell happens next.

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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