Cult TV DVD mini-packs of previously released material has been around for some time; witness the Star Trek Borg, Q and Time Travel collections, or the Buffy discs spotlighting a handful of specific character-based episodes for Willow, Xander, Spike, and so on. This is an unusual step for the Doctor Who range however, and if a success I’d suggest will probably lead to a Dalek version, and perhaps Slitheen and Ood discs as well. But shouldn’t The Next Doctor be here for completeness?
Forerunners to the Borg and the Cylons, the Cybermen drew on techno-zombie and vampire horror as much as the more obvious robotic, spare-part-surgery gone mad. They’re the ‘second best’ Doctor Who monster, after the Daleks – who also comprise vestiges of once-humanoid flesh wrapped in steel. Of their ten full, classic Who appearances however, I have to say only Tomb Of The Cybermen and The Invasion pass muster as genuinely great stories, perhaps Earthshock on points for the quality of direction. They’re hard to get right.
In 2005, Dalek managed to resurrect the Daleks as a terrifying, near-unstoppable threat, taking a Big Finish audio adventure from 2003 as its basic source. It’s more a re-imagining than a straight resurrection for the Cybermen, eighteen years on from their last appearance, and it is less successful. They make a good first impression with Brian Hitch’s updated design taking most of the riffs from the mid-Sixties model. Hitch cribs more than a little of his own take on Iron Man, more noticeable now the film is out.
The problems are manifest; their voices are frequently barely intelligible, which gives them more of a need for a human mouthpiece than ever before (and they’re not well served); the clunk with every footstep soon becomes ridiculous (and would later be sent up); and, well… they’re not Cybermen at all, really. They’re Cybusmen – not from Mondas but from a parallel Earth, courtesy of the Cybus Corporation; and these ones aren’t vastly augmented humans given robot armour and computer brains; they’re almost the opposite, near-complete robots with human brains plopped inside the skull, surely missing the point somewhat. And they debut in a story which is the first real disappointment for new Doctor Who.
With the TARDIS drawn off course, dragged into a parallel universe and then seemingly burnt out, the Doctor, Rose and Mickey find a curiously familiar, but ever so slightly different world. The by rights, dead-for-twenty-years Pete Tyler is winking at people from animated posters everywhere. Rose has already met her dad in Father’s Day, but meets him again – a ‘what if he’d lived’ version. He’s successful and rich, and connected to all the bigwigs – including the President, and John Lumic. His wife’s birthday party becomes the set-piece moment for a revolution; Lumic, denied funding for his bonkers plan to turn people into robots, is going to go ahead and do it anyway, removing anything that gets in his way.
The two-parter is Tom MaCrae’s first and only contribution so far and it’s a clear dip on the quality of Series One and Series Two as a whole. It’s perhaps fair to say that much worse was to come for Doctor Who, and as much has been made of confused rewrites over later disasters, the blame does not necessarily rest entirely with him. Davies was quick to admit responsibility for the garishly melodramatic pre-credit sequence. “Skin of metal… and a body that will never age or die. I envy it… And how will you do that, from BEYOND the GRAVE?”
The script then muddles along, reasonably well-paced. There’s ‘character’ stuff between Rose and her alternative family, fleshing out Mickey just in time to get rid of him with a well-done cameo from Mona Hammond as his Nan and his hard-nosed alter ego, Ricky as the leader of ‘The Preachers’. There are hints at how this world is different, but the world-building is shallow – they have Zeppelins, and Cybusmen… and the loved ones of regulars aren’t dead here. Almost every dramatic high-point is conquered with the unlikely use of technology: too much sonic screwdriver, too much nonsensical discharging of bizarre TARDIS power crystals, electro-magnetic bombs, and fiddling about with mobile phones. Whether this is ‘efficient’ or ‘lazy’ is a matter of personal opinion.
All four episodes are directed by Graeme Harper, who delivered two terrifically popular stories in the mid-Eighties (Caves Of Androzani and Revelation Of The Daleks). Over twenty years later, fans have been spoilt by Lynn, Ahearne and Hawes. In some respects he keeps up – the first couplet a well-lit and framed, and keeping the Cybermen blurred or otherwise off screen for as long as possible is a great nod to their early days, when they would traditionally barely appear for the first half of the story.
The performances aren’t always successful however. Chief amongst the offenders is Roger Lloyd Pack. John Lumic is very much the love-child of Davros and Trigger. It’s not a completely thoughtless performance – a rasping voice, flat and dead like Cybermen, makes sense – but it’s done so badly, and leads to the worst performance in the show to that point and the most disappointing villain until John Simm’s spectacularly ill-judged Master a year later.
As for the rest of the cast, it’s a mixed bag. Andrew Hayden Smith tries hard but doesn’t quite cut it as anything other than a pretty-boy TV presenter; Colin Spaull is better and Don Warrington is classy but underused as the President. The regulars and semi-regulars do their best with some frequently out-of-character moments. Mickey/Ricky’s dialogue doesn’t really play to Noel Clarke’s strengths. Piper is fine, but Rose as a character continues the drastic Series Two decline to this point (largely corrected after this story), reducing the genuinely great companion of Series One to little more than a petulant and jealous dumb blonde. Alt-Jackie has a couple of good moments – her dog is laugh-out-loud funny. Shaun Dingwall gives a strong, funny and believable reprise of Pete Tyler (Father’s Day) as an older man.
Not great, I’m sorry (I’m so sorry) to say, is David Tennant. Give him his due, history will attest that he is a truly magnificent actor in anything he tries his hand at, and before this point, he hadn’t put a foot wrong as the Doctor but in Rise Of The Cybermen… squeeful dinner jacket get-up and pretty face notwithstanding, fan-girls… The Tenth Doctor is off. Badly. There. He’s irritating, smug, inconsistent, and comes out with ‘hot dogs… (being) the Cybermen of food’ (What kind of rubbish Doctor line is that? Really? One you write at four am, half cut on plonk with a deadline five hours into the future?) Tennant would return to form later on, but many of the less than endearing habits and faults of the Tenth Doctor seem to establish themselves here.
Rise Of The Cybermen is not a complete write-off. Crane cues In The Jungle by Tight Fit to cover up the butchery of Cyberconversion over shots of Battersea Power Station at night, and that’s stomach-churningly good. The Cybusmen look impressive and are well shot. It’s certainly pacy and entertaining for the youngsters. And while overall nothing special, it’s still very, very traditional Doctor Who, and went down well with fandom and the masses.
Tennant does look the business in his tux. Piper looks foxy as a French maid. But there are little more than pleasures of the guilty kind to be gained; this is shallow, unsatisfying stuff with too many cop outs, frequent terrible dialogue and a duff baddie – a low light of Tennant’s first season in comparison to what had, could, and would later be achieved by the show at that point.
Army Of Ghosts and Doomsday, the two-part finale for Series Two, is altogether better. Humanity is gripped by the regular appearances of ethereal forms, which they take to be friendly ghosts. Two months down the line from first appearance, they’re accepted and exploited by the media from every angle. But they’re not ghosts at all; they’re Cybusmen from the parallel Earth. Five million of them. But they’re not the only threat from the Doctor’s past… what does the large gold sphere contain? And what will be the terrible cost to the Doctor?
Who am I kidding? It’s three years later and we know. It’s Daleks. And Rose gets trapped in a parallel world. Doomsday succeeds on many levels; most of the best members of the guest cast from Rise, plus a much better array of talent. You can’t fault Tennant and Piper in this one, it’s Camille Coduri/Jackie Tyler’s finest hour with lots of great jokes at her expense, and there’s able support from Tracy-Ann Cyberman (sorry, Oberman) as a New Labour-style businesswoman with friendly top notes and a base note you wouldn’t cross) and Raji James as the frequently specs-polishing Dr. Singh. And there’s Freema Agyeman, not exactly setting the world on fire with her performance, but being quite pretty in her small but significant role of Adeola. I can’t say ‘Hey, that girl should be the next companion!’ crossed my mind at the time, but she’s inoffensive – unlike the surprise cameo at the end, which was more of a ‘Please, for the love of God, don’t let her be the next companion!’
The story showcases this Torchwood the series has been banging on about all the time – including Pete Tyler briefly asking ‘How’s Torchwood?’ in Rise Of The Cybermen. Torchwood as an institution had been proposed unambiguously by Queen Victoria in Tooth And Claw, and then the name was (increasingly unintentionally comically) referenced in the rest of the show in a reprise of ‘Bad Wolf’ codeword seeding. And Torchwood initially appears extremely impressive – vastly different to the grotty little waste of time it would become in the spin off, although you do have to wonder if it’s a creation of the skewed timeline of The Time War; a visit from the Doctor is big news, and yet if they’ve been around for over one hundred years, why didn’t they check out UNIT or the myriad of home-county based alien incursions in the Seventies where they could have bagged him?
Ghosts/Doomsday is certainly ‘event TV’ with the first ever Dalek/Cybermen face-off/hilarious bitching session (OK, they were both in The Five Doctors, but the troop of Cybermen never meet the lone Dalek in the maze). There’s very little plot, and the emotional fallout of the climax is meant to divert from the rather disappointing mechanics of the resolution. Couldn’t the Doctor just get Rose to the TARDIS? Why doesn’t the TARDIS get sucked through the Void Hoover?
But the production rises above this with good use of the regulars, and no less than three tear-jerking moments for the normally hard-as-nails, resolutely unweepy me (Jackie and Alt-Pete united; Rose’s departure – ie the whole of the last five minutes, and the first appearance of Catherine Tate at the end.) Murray Gold’s tendency for ‘bawl now, you dogs!’ music continues, but his score is considerably subtler and classier than much of his work.
Extras on this release form a few sound-bites from David Tennant on Cyber-history – brief, inessential, but nice enough. More interesting is a documentary on Cyber History, called ‘Best Cybermen Moments’ on the menu, and simply ‘Cybermen‘ on the lovely CGI titles. It’s fronted by journalist and historian and Big Finish writer Matthew Sweet and damn… does this complicate things, because it’s very good indeed.
Far from being new-series centric, it’s a near-full overview with lots of lovely, intelligently chosen clips from classic stories, and even a brief reading from a novelisation to kick things off. It lacks other talking heads, but where it scores most is in Sweet taking a thematic approach to discussing the Cybermen critically, rather than a story-by-story approach. Sweet is respectful and irreverent in equal measure, an entertaining host. Whether the plan was initially for a straight clipshow, which was then replaced with something more sophisticated, I don’t know, but it’s obviously been in the can since before January, for the exclusion of The Next Doctor material (hence ‘near-complete’). However, that matters little. I’m not saying it’s necessarily full of revelations for die-hards, but it’s as good as the better extras on the classic Who range, indeed superior to the watchable but shallow The Cyberman Story on March’s Attack Of The Cybermen DVD. Almost a shame they didn’t swap places, really.
Picture quality is standard; the show is shot on digibeta and then filmised, with slightly soft filters on daylight location scenes. The bitrate doesn’t appear significantly better or worse than alternative versions. The menu format is unique to this release against the Who-ranges proper, in the style of the Cybus Industries computer the Doctor taps into in Rise. Audio menu navigation, subtitles, episode and scene selections are easily accessible. The discs, unsurprisingly, don’t feature the commentaries or 5.1 tracks from the main Series Two boxed set.
So… in summary, three hours of Doctor Who you probably already own (half so-so, half very good), a forgettable extra on disc 1 and a very enjoyable half-hour piece on disc 2. Interesting but, bar Sweet’s sweet documentary, not essential. Probably a nice (chocolate) Easter Egg substitute for a youngster who might not already have the boxed sets, vanillas, or magazine DVDs, and if £10-£15 isn’t too much to pay for a half hour of new material, a nice enough buy for an older fan too.