Doctor Who - Rise of the Cybermen
I'm really gutted I'm not giving this episode five stars. We at Noise To Signal haven't given an episode of series two five stars yet, which to me is a massive oversight simply because last week's The Girl In The Fireplace was one of the most wonderful pieces of television I've seen in a very long time.
Still, though, I can't give this five stars, because it wasn't quite perfect, even despite the completely spot-on title (surely the best episode title of the RTD era, full-stop). Maybe it's because I was looking forward to it so bloody much - I've even been listening to the brilliant Big Finish audio play Spare Parts, whose writer Marc Platt got a "Thanks" credit on Rise, in anticipation - but in a number of ways it didn't quite deliver the thrills I was expecting.
From the first time it was mentioned, I was intrigued by the idea of a "parallel universe" idea showing up in New Who, as it's just not something I associate with the series. In Red Dwarf? Sure. But when you've got a series that's so inherently structured around time travel, it seems quite out of place to start hopping dimensions as well. Still, it was nicely set up - with an at least vaguely convincing in-show-logic reason for it happening - and the opening scenes on the "other" Earth played out well. I don't really think, though, that it's been followed through particularly strongly so far - perhaps because the story of Rose and Mickey exploring a different Earth is, of course, jostling for space with the story of the genesis (let's call a spade a spade, here!) of the Cybermen. As such, there's no real room for explanation of the various divergences, such as why Pete Tyler is such a success on this Earth selling what is, essentially, Crap Pop.
Mickey continues to improve, which is of course a sure-fire sign that he won't be around much longer (well, that and the fact that we know that only the Doctor and Rose are travelling in the TARDIS when The Idiot's Lantern comes around). Opinions differ as to how he'll depart, but there seems to be a definite sense of rounding out his character to the extent that his staying in the alternate universe will feel like a genuine and natural progression. I like the idea of taking time out to establish things that we - like the Doctor - had never even thought to ask about him, and I also felt that in the early scenes he made for just as good a companion as Rose, with the way in which he understood the alternate-Earth concept and applied "our" sort of approach to it. Noel Clarke's performances this series have been a world away from series one, and this was still the case here - but he convinced rather less as the tough "Ricky".
Indeed, acting was a bit of a mixed bag this time out. Byker Grove Bloke (as he will forever be known) was a bit flat, while I was extremely disappointed to have been so unimpressed with Roger Lloyd Pack - but I really didn't think he nailed a suitable sense of menace, nor was there anything particularly compelling about Lumic as portrayed. Better, of course, was the ever-reliable Don Warrington, and I was also impressed by Colin Spaull, whose Mr Crane surely owed a debt to Spare Parts' Thomas Dodd.
Despite some assured direction from Graeme Harper, I really didn't think the pacing of the episode was up to much. Of course, it's best to judge the story as a whole when we've seen two parts - but therein lies the problem, really. Unlike Moffat's expertly-woven Empty Child, this didn't feel like part of a well-structured two-parter - it felt like a lopped-off half of one ninety-minute-long story. As such, rather than having a cohesive beginning, middle and end, the episode instead felt like a lengthy beginning and the warmup of the middle. I should expect, again, that this problem will matter less come The Age of Steel next week, but I'm not wholly keen on the apparent lack of consideration being given towards making the first part a well-constructed episode in its own right.
It almost goes without saying, though, that the episode improved immeasurably once the Cybermen got some proper screentime. You just know that part two is going to be much, much better simply for their extended presence - they were absolutely brilliant. The voices, though disappointingly not as good as Nick Briggs' earlier interpretation in Spare Parts, were chilling, and they really were as relentlessly cold and terrifying as all good Cybermen should be. I liked the bits of detail we got about the horrifying nature of the Cyberising process - particularly the excellently written and delivered line "Because it hurts" - but I'm a little less keen on how polished and robotic they are. They look wonderful, and you can imagine them as a later evolution of the species - but if what we're seeing is the early days of their existence, then I'd have preferred to have seen a much eerier, hodgepodge of bits and pieces, with more evidence of the original human inside. Indeed, while some I've spoken to have interpreted it slightly differently, I got the impression from the episode that what was happening was that the brains were simply being implanted into robotic bodies - and if that is the case, I'm not happy, because that's really not what the Cybermen should be. And I know I'm being quite influenced by Spare Parts here, but I really do think the lack of exploration of the idea of people "upgrading" - sometimes even willingly - to eventually become the Cybermen was something of a missed opportunity.
It's not as if there wasn't plenty to enjoy in the episode - there was, but the majority of it came as a result of the production and direction, rather than the script. It's a little disappointing, after all, that an episode entitled Rise of the Cybermen ended up treating its eponymous scenario almost as the "B-plot", with the bulk of the episode being an exploration of Rose and Mickey's possible alternate timelines; with many of the ideas - and indeed some of the dialogue - being cribbed straight from Paul Cornell's Father's Day. This should have been something truly brilliant - if not a startlingly good piece of television in every respect like the Moffat episodes, then certainly at least something epic and thrilling to rank alongside last year's Dalek appearances. Instead, the moments of genius were just that - moments, instead of something that infused the whole.
But let's at least give it until next week, and judge the story as a whole once we've had some proper action from the old boys themselves. Because on the evidence of the last five minutes of Rise, they're back in style, and we should be in for a cracker.