|The sofa is, in fact, of reasonable comfort.|
It’s May 13th, 2006. Yep. Gnarls Barkley. Whole story. Beatfreakz, with a cover of “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shayne Ward, Pet Shop Boys, and Snow Patrol also chart. In news, a bus driver in Dublin snaps and begins driving his bus through the streets in a rampage that kills one and injures thirteen more, including five police officers. Arsenal F.C. play their final game at Highbury, Apple Computer wins a trademark suit against Apple Corps, and Ruth Kelley, Minister for local Government and Opus Dei member, declines to elaborate on whether she considers homosexuality a sin. Sony unveils the PS3, the NSA is reported as operating a massive phone surveillance operation, the President talks about how he wants to close Guantanamo Bay and pursue immigration reform… wait, am I still in historical news? Liverpool win something. (Yep. Still in historical news.) Oh! And Lordi win Eurovision!
This latter event is actually worth discussing. One of the primary themes of this blog has been the peculiarities of the relationship between the mainstream and the marginal in British culture. The Eurovision Song Contest illustrates a peculiar special feature of this, albeit on a scale larger than just the UK. Eurovision is aggressively mainstream. Yet somehow its embrace of the aggressive mainstream ends up being the weirdest thing imaginable. Or, at least, usually. Eurovision is infamously a bunch of terribly trashy and over the top performances bookended by a couple smaller ones in which a terribly earnest singer sings a terribly earnest song. And usually one of those wins. Usually.
But in 2006, somewhat improbably, a Finnish hard rock band that does all of their performances in elaborate monster makeup won with “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” their lead singer wearing a gloriously ill-advised cheap plastic hat with the Finnish flag on it. It was one of the most charmingly offbeat moments of mass popularity ever achieved – something that visibly comes from miles outside of anything that would conventionally be called the mainstream, and yet winning a massive pan-European popular vote competition. The television of acceptance, as Richard put it back in the Big Brother post.
As we’ve noted, Doctor Who has itself become the television of acceptance, with the previously marginal backwater of anorak cult television becoming, very abruptly, the most popular thing on television – so abruptly, in fact, that it hadn’t even finished being anorak cult television by the time it had reinvented itself again. Its somewhat checkered past was almost instantly rehabilitated as the idiosyncratic history of a beloved cultural icon. And so a structure that everybody recognized implicitly was imposed on the series – so much so that it didn’t need to be announced as such. The Cybermen would return in Series Two, the Master in Series Three. Everyone knew in their bones this was how it played out, and the return of the Cybermen was announced in Doctor Who Magazine #357, the same issue that ran the previews for the last three episodes of Series One to no surprise whatsoever. The Cybermen were simply what was next out of Doctor Who lore. And so May of 2006 served up, on two consecutive Saturdays, the rise of a pair of monsters into the popular culture – the Cybermen on the 13th, and Lordi on the 20th. Unfortunately, here the narrative goes a bit off the rails, because, as everybody knows, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel sucks.
Let us consider, for the moment, the possibility that Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel is not actually all that bad. This is in a basic sense true. Mediocre episodes of Doctor Who are a thing. The Android Invasion did not herald the cancellation of Doctor Who; it just kind of sucked. As with every other naff episode of the new series, there’s no real way to connect its badness with an overall narrative of decline. Naff episodes are just a thing that happens, not a story unto themselves. In which case we can for the most part set aside its quality as an issue outright. Even if we did not wish to do so, the fact of the matter is that there is some stuff of real quality here. The Cyberconversion process going on to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is a gleeful perversity – what the farting aliens of Series One tried to do and missed on. Noel Clarke gets a tremendous number of good bits. Helen Griffin plays the “Lynda with a y” sacrificial lamb character that Davies relies on for almost all of his stories in an unusual way that comes surprisingly close to making the entire parallel universe concept work.
Which is to say that there is a clever story hidden, Terminus-style, underneath this. There are actually only two mistakes going on here. The first is the abysmal performance of Roger Lloyd Pack, who provides the new series with its first unabashed embrace of the Joseph Furst/Graham Crowden school of acting. This creates a massive problem at the heart of the story, which is that the entire point of the Cybermen is that they’re us and come out of our human frailties, and thus that John Lumic is supposed to be a desperate man clinging to life like so many of us do in the face of a long and withering illness. And instead we get hammy Davros with a side of Henry Woolf. He’s barely watchable (although to be fair Colin Spaul is downright lovely as his henchman), and it absolutely hammers the story’s emotional beats because he’s supposed to be the central metaphor.
Which gets us to the other mistake, which was to reuse the Cybermen in The Moonbase. Because let’s face it, they’ve been a disaster. Their only function is to roll on when you need a Return Of The Monster plot, and at this point Doctor Who has enough of those that it doesn’t even need them. They’re the best of the rubbish monsters. Because something has to come in second to the Daleks. Yes, Davies ultimately leans into this and subverts it brilliantly at the end of the season, but right here, right now, as an exercise in bringing back another icon from the classic series, this is a disaster. These things are idiotic. Which is, actually, pretty much the history of the Cybermen right there. The Daleks may suck most of the time, but at least when they’re brilliant they’re brilliant because of the Daleks. You know, everyone in the 1960s did some good work on the Daleks. Even The Chase was improved by them. But the Cybermen? Pick your favorite good Cybermen story, and I guarantee you it wasn’t good because of the Cybermen. Earthshock is only memorable because of Adric, Tomb of the Cybermen was good because the Cybermen were so vapid that they could just be retconned into mummies suddenly, and The Invasion is good because of Kevin Stoney. And I don’t even think all of those were good.
There are exactly three televised stories that are improved by the Cybermen themselves, and only one of them comes before this point in the series: the original number. The Tenth Planet.
Some time ago, when I was in the early stages of this blog and got the sort of traffic over a month it gets in two days now I may have… been getting bored with it. Just a bit, you see. Look, there were a lot of reconstructions, and they were already slow-paced stories, and look, it’s just not very good for a while in there. Late Hartnell was not the story’s finest hour when you have the pictures. So, you know, small blog, bit bored, and I decided, hey, let’s amp up the occult theories in the blog, just for fun. Because it worked to spice up The Nintendo Project, so why not the new blog. And so I slapped together this great theory of The Tenth Planet as a psychedelic encounter with the ego-destroying energy of the Cybermen, who were perverse mirrors of humanity, and, look, it fed very nicely into the rise of psychedelia and the series’ regeneration with Patrick Troughton. And I used the word “qlippothic.” And it has been a bit of a thing.
The Cybermen were an absolutely lovely piece of design in a wretched story. And they weren’t so much lovely as utterly bizarre. I was just rewriting the entry on Galaxy Four, and one of the things I talked about was how Derek Martinus, the director of both that and The Tenth Planet, salvaged a weak script by going for the visually striking and strange. Give him a good script and he hits it out of the park, but if you give him a lousy script he fills it with iconic weirdness. And the Cybermen were salvaged from the emotionless robots with a weirdly mystical outlook into these oddly and viscerally perverse monsters. Yes, they looked awful, but the series was allowed to, and there’s a spark of cleverness to the design that just hits perfectly.
But the decision to bring them back four stories later in The Moonbase was idiotic. Because there they were just scary robots, blatantly there as the second choice Daleks because Terry Nation was taking his ball and going home. And so the precedent was set that you had to bring these things back repeatedly, and nobody ever got them to work right again, but the series is stuck with the buggers. And here Davies tries his hand at them, and he joins the ranks of Eric Saward, Robert Holmes, David Whitaker, and everyone else who just never got the Cybermen to work.
The funny thing is, he actually comes closer to The Tenth Planet than anything since. You can see MacRae and Davies working to try to get back to the original concept in a sort of Swamp Thing/Marvelman way. So, OK, nobody’s going to buy a twin planet anymore, so let’s scrap all that and go with a parallel universe. Do a full reboot of the Cybermen. What works from them? The St. Paul’s stuff in The Invasion. Earthshock. How they’re shot in The Wheel in Space and Tomb of the Cybermen. The emotions theme from Earthshock was always going to appeal to Davies. Take that, put it together in a parallel universe, update the science from artificial organs to something modern and you’re done. Teatime body horror for tots.
They even go back and take the best bits from Spare Parts, which is why I had to use the word “televised” when I said that there were only three stories improved by the Cybermen. A Big Finish audio by Marc Platt, who gets a credit here, that did an origin of the Cybermen story with Nicholas Briggs using the original voice style from The Tenth Planet to chilling effect as a Cyberman screamed in pain. And sure enough, it’s Nicholas Briggs on the voice. Sure, they have to ditch the actual plot of Spare Parts since it’s really all about Adric there and, again, nobody wants to touch Mondas with a ten foot pole right now. But they’re pulling every single decent bit of Cybermen from the last forty years together and trying their hardest.
But it doesn’t work. None of the emotional scenes of the Cybermen crying or screaming come off right. They’re trying for the perversity of Dalek and missing. The entire story is summed up by the single shot of a Cyberman’s head exploding during the “we’ve turned off the emotional inhibitors and the shock of their pain is killing them all” montage that just drains all possible impact that concept could have had in one gratuitous shot of “let’s watch the robots get sploded.” The catchphrase of “delete” is imbecilic. The story is in the utterly awkward position of having to position cell phones and Bluetooth ear pieces as the pinnacle of technology the year before the iPhone is announced, and felt dated when it aired. The whole thing’s a hash because, look, the Cybermen just don’t actually work.
But that’s actually about it. The villains don’t work. Either of them. If you ignore that admittedly large problem, the story’s actually pretty good. Which is, for the record, the case for most of the next two seasons. Because this is something we have to admit. Starting from about here and continuing well into Series Four, Doctor Who tends to be a spurt of three or four phenomenal episodes in a season of not entirely successful ones. Most of the stories for the next while have one or two persistent flaws that muck them up. I am only sporadically interested in these flaws, however, and don’t intend to recap them for every story. There is, however, nothing between here and the end of the Davies era that is more than one or two tweaks away from brilliant.
So we get monsters from the series’ past inadequately launched into its present. We also, hidden beneath it, get some absolutely lovely character moments. As I’ve already suggested, this is Noel Clarke’s story, and he absolutely runs away with it. Rickey is a brilliant character, played as Mickey only with the sneer on his face he used back in Rose to play “yeah, I’m a black guy in your middle class neighborhood, now piss off before I beat you.” The joke, as ever, is that he’s crap at it, and that his rebellion mostly just racks up parking tickets. But Rickey’s inadequacy becomes the means by which Mickey can step in and assume his identity, carving a place for himself in this world that he’d lost within EastPowellStreet proper. Noel Clarke gets at all sides of this, including recognizing and ultimately coming to terms with the fact that he doesn’t fit into Doctor Who (which is, as he ultimately admits, about the Doctor and Rose Tyler) while still maintaining – both on his own terms and everybody else’s – a sense of dignity and self worth.
Rose, meanwhile, gets her heart broken in a new way as her father simultaneously survives and ascends to being a heroic, Doctor-like figure and ultimately rejects her, and rejects her knowing and understanding who she is. It’s an interesting new spin on Rose’s story, and one that quickly justifies her sticking around for a second season. In essence what we’ve done is moved EastPowellStreet forward dramatically by showing what it isn’t. The parallel universe concept is passé, but applying it to the soap opera world of the Tylers isn’t, and we move everybody’s characterization – including Pete and Jackie, who don’t appear in this episode (save for a very brief Jackie scene at the end) – forward.
And, of course, there’s the criterion we can’t quite judge. As noted, every season of Davies’s Doctor Who, along with the first two Moffat seasons, does the naff for kids monster two-parter. These stories are never popular among fans, but they keep getting made, which suggests at least some utility. And the fact of the matter is none of us have more than anecdotal evidence as to the frequency with which kids are out on the playground shouting “delete” at each other. It’s something we won’t know for decades, when we see which stories from the early 21st century are used when the Cybermen are reinvented in 2042.
Until then we have a story that almost every technique we’ve developed so far for talking about Doctor Who is inadequate for – one on which everything interesting that happens is a character note and where the series mythology is by miles the least interesting part of the episode. It’s a particularly weird vision of the series that decides that this is anything other than our problem.