Doctor Who: The Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel

“Nothing stays bright but mornings.”

Elizabeth Bowen

Today I’m continuing my occasional series of Justifiying the Ways of Russell T. Davies to Men with a Doctor Who two-parter, because there’s nothing really to be gained in separating them out. The Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel are, respectively, the fifth and sixth episodes of the Tennant Administration: as their titles suggest, they deal with the invention and attempted world domination of the Cybermen by Cybus Industries, a technology company with the ubiquity of Apple headed by a man with a terminal illness. And we all know how bad a combination that is.

The Doctor, Rose and Mickey arrive in a parallel version of London, where zeppelins hover above the Houses of Parliament and everyone gets their news downloaded straight to their brains. Rose discovers that the parallel version of her father is alive and rich, so we get a sort of repeat of Father’s Day, except with Cybermen instead of Reapers, and with the added excitement of having two Mickeys (Mickey and Ricky) running around town.

I’m being rather flippant, but I do think this serial does a similar job to School Reunion, although the plot has a much more significant role here. That is, Cybermen/Steel runs Character Development at the same time as Plot, and does a passable job at both; Mickey especially comes off well here.

That’s not what I want to talk about here, though. What I really want to talk about is wonder in Doctor Who, and how it relates to Davies’ and Moffat’s writing for the show.

This may be purely subjective, but for me Davies’ writing allows much more wonder into the Whoniverse than Moffat’s does. There’s something Ten says in Rise of the Cybermen about the disappearance of the Cybermen that’s almost Tolkienesque in its implications:

When the Time Lords kept their eye on everything, you could pop between realities, home in time for tea. Then they died and took it all with them. The walls of reality closed. The worlds were sealed. And everything became a bit less kind.

There is such a sense of loss here; but also a sense that the Time Lords are beyond any kind of human signification. The time of the Time Lords is a golden age, a lost Eden, that’s inaccessible to us. And that’s something that Moffat’s talk of saving Gallifrey, his casting of the Time Lords as just another alien race, stomps all over. The pattern repeats everywhere across Moffat-era Who: the once-fearsome Daleks painted in bright primary colours; the Cybermen given superhero-film jetpacks; the Stone Angels robbed of their claustrophobic horror, grown to the size of a skyscraper, obvious and unsubtle. Everything is humanised, in the worst way possible; there is no mystery, no sense of corners and shadows to the world that we cannot understand. The edge to Davies’ writing is missing: the horror of ten thousand humans walking into Cybus Industries’ blades, the darkness of a man who could burn an entire race, the mind that could control a planet through a game show. Despite his success with Blink, Moffat has no skill with shadow, no affinity with darkness. And perhaps this is simply an aesthetic preference, but I’d much rather have Davies’ thrown-together, slipshod approach, with its mystery and its subtle horror, than Moffat’s flashy, plotless, whimsical mess.

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