Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Rise of the Cybermen

By Eddie Robson on 15 May 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Considering it’s one of the most shopworn sci-fi clichés in circulation, ‘Doctor Who’ has done surprisingly few alternative universe stories (on TV, at least – there have been loads in the books and comics). This being the case, some might consider ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ to be a wasted opportunity, because it doesn’t really look at the mechanics behind alternative universes: there’s no explanation of what circumstances created the parallel Earth on which the Doctor, Rose and Mickey are stranded. We don’t know why technology has advanced along slightly different lines, or why the wealthy fly around in zeppelins –they just do.

However, to criticise the episode for this is wrong-headed, because its starting point is not the ‘What if…’ that drives most alternative universe stories, but a brief to resurrect the Cybermen. It’s inherent in the Cybermen’s appeal that they were once like us, but there was always something rather shonky about their origin story, related in the 1966 story ‘The Tenth Planet’. (Quick version: they were from Earth’s twin planet, Mondas, which evolved along similar lines to our world but drifted away from us and into deep space millennia ago – how did they cope with no sun? There’s something quite amusing about the fact that the writers of that story, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, created monsters who were slaves to logic given that they wrote with such scant regard for logic themselves.)

Doing a new origin story was a fine idea, and the alternative-universe ploy kills two birds with one stone: it provides a more sensible ‘twin Earth’ on which all this can take place, and avoids contradicting the previously-established origin story. Whatever you think of alternative universes – and there are those who are bored to tears by them – as a means of bringing back the Cybermen, it’s a masterstroke. This version is far more resonant than ‘The Tenth Planet’, because it takes place in a recognisable world – in fact, this is a strong argument for the alternative Earth not being that different from our own. The why is not the point, and would have involved a colossal info-dump.

And you wouldn’t want to interrupt the flow of ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, because it’s big, bold, blockbuster stuff: funny, exciting and about as slick as British sci-fi TV gets. Having it as a two-part story allows writer Tom MacRae time to set up a world where the Cybermen can emerge, then save introducing the creatures themselves until the end of the episode. In addition, much of this first episode is about building up Mickey: having not had that much to do last week, he suddenly gets his best material yet here, even if it’s slightly at the expense of the Doctor. (Speaking of whom, David Tennant started well but gets better all the time – he’s occasionally been guilty of overplaying a line, but doesn’t do it once here.)

It’s a fine demonstration of the varied diet provided by ‘Doctor Who’ that it can follow the strangeness of ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ with what is essentially an amped-up version of old-skool alien-invasion ‘Who’ (with the twist that the ‘aliens’ actually come from Earth itself). The fact that they are two of the best episodes the show has done since its return last year is proof that this variety is its key strength.

Line Break

By Eddie Robson

Comments are closed.