Whether or not the Cybermen really needed this upgrade is open to question – the Cybermen haven’t been served so badly by the new series. It is, nevertheless, a sign of how rapidly modern Doctor Who wears out its spare parts that, seven years after the new model Cybermen made their first appearance, the time was considered right for a bit of literal rebooting.
Entrusted with the job of renovation, fan favourite Neil Gaiman has the graveyard sensibility to do justice to these particular walking dead; but what’s striking about his approach is how little he draws on this, choosing to channel instead a curious whimsy.
The tone is set from the minute the TARDIS lands. Shambolic showman Webley (Being Human’s Jason Watkins) dresses like the love child of Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter, and acts like the White Rabbit, being late for a very important date with Dave’s Discount Interstellar Removals. The appearance of a golden ticket – apparently a wink to Wonka; actually a Chekhov’s gun – only completes the homage.
Like Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman is interested in chess – very interested in chess – and, in the sight of the reanimated Cyberman forcing its fool’s mate, the episode scores its first real hit. Inspired by the Eighteenth Century court sensation that, coincidentally or not, also influenced Moffat’s ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, the Cyberman-that’s-really-a-fake-that’s-really-alive is, precisely because of its brokenness, a more effectively creepy proposition than the many upgraded models which follow later.
Hordes of CGI silver soldiers have their place, but to present the Cybermen as super-advanced circuitry in disco bodies is to diminish them, however good the graphics. Proper old-school shocks come from body horror, and there’s a brief, uncanny taste of it here, as the Cyberman weeps tears of swarming Cybermites.
Gaiman’s invention of these Cybermites – creatures which feel more authentically like Cybermats than Cybermats – shows just what a child of ‘60s Doctor Who he is. If you ever doubted that you were in the hands of a fan, it’s not the allusions to ‘The Moonbase’ or ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ that convince you, it’s the moment where Soldier Number Three reports that the weather controller is malfunctioning, causing storms, heatwaves and snow.
In such winks to the programme’s past, it’s surprising that the Grand Master of subversive fantasy is willing to be quite so cosy, and it’s certainly true that, for some viewers, this is a nightmare in name only. So it’s as well – or not, depending on your point of view – that there’s a teenager on hand to undercut all the fancifulness with a bit of eye-rolling disdain.
As child companions go, Angie and Artie aren’t too disastrous – then again, our expectations were low – but there’s an indulgent sentimentality to Angie’s characterisation at least: a willingness to see the geeky enthusiasms and genius leaps of logic beneath all the huffing and sulking. One can only imagine director Stephen Woolfenden urging her to teenage it up – ‘Could you say the line again with a rising sarcastic inflection? There’s a love!’ – but frankly, we’d have liked her more if she’d been an absolute monster.
And so we come to the real monsters of the piece, who are, respectively, the upgraded Cybermen and the Doctor as Cyber Planner. Matt Smith will undoubtedly garner plenty of plaudits for his schizoid performance, and they will be deserved, although the sudden volte-faces and physical ticks are not so extraordinary for a Doctor whose body looks always out of kilter with his brain.
When the Doctor screams ‘Good news, boys and girls! They’re heeeere!’, it is a proper ‘Here’s Johnny!’ moment, but, for the rest of the time, his performance, for all its cold arrogance, is perhaps too well-judged for the timeslot: too finely calibrated not to induce real chills.
As for the new-look Cybermen, the comparisons with Rob Shearman’s ‘Dalek’ don’t end with the premise of a monster in a museum. These Cybermen have learned a few tricks from previous defeats, and have a new line in head-swivelling and upgrading that reveals a new [ahem] steely determination.
Their catchphrase has gone too: these Cybermen don’t say the word ‘Delete’ once. In fact, they don’t speak at all, except for the occasional cry of ‘Upgrade in progress!’ It is a visually stunning slow-motion sequence that sees time and bullets freeze as they launch their attack on the operations centre. Über-cool, but a risk, too, in presenting the Cybermen as a series of new and improved gimmicks and tricks.
Cybermen may be the ultimate soulless robots in the Whoniverse, but in Cyber stories, what’s most crucial to success is the human element, and here, there is really only one supporting character who is the golden ticket. The soldiers of Hedgewick’s World, although admirably cast as a band of misfits, are mostly a faceless bunch, and even Clara – brilliant, brave Clara – is quicker with a one-liner and a raised eyebrow than she is with the proper devastated reactions of one who has witnessed her charges become Borgified.
It’s a grace note missing from the episode: the feeling that these events could have real consequences – that the kinds of transformations which the characters undergo are not so easily dismissed with a ready quip and blind faith in the Doctor.
Only Warwick Davis as the Emperor Porridge seems to express the rueful and phlegmatic knowledge that life isn’t a game of chess. Those who are used to Davis’s sarky self-parody in Life’s Too Short will find a much more muted and sympathetic performance here – so much so that, when Porridge gets to make his proposal in the Temple of Peace Imperial State Room, it’s hard not to cheer him on.
After an episode which has delivered much in the way of thrills, it’s a genuinely charming end, and one which proves that, even when Doctor Who is a little underwhelming, ultimately, resistance is useless.
Aired at 7pm on Saturday 11 May on BBC One.
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