|Copyright BBC 2013|
The Cybermen have always been, to me at least, better as a concept than reality. And their best and most chilling iteration so far has been, sad to say, not in Doctor Who - but, rather the Borg (don't scream). Their back story, continuity and modus operandi is a complete mess (are they the result of transplant tech gone mad, mere "upgrades" to the human form, with a totally robotic body? Both, it seems). So here's Neil Gaiman with yet another twist in the Cybertale - but does it work?
Yes and no, but mostly no. Most of the tweaks are laughable - and that is a shame as the last thing you want is to make the Cybermen funny. Chortle as you watch them run faster than Billy Whizz on crack! (But they only do this once, and spend the rest of the time stomping about as per, so what's the point? Raston Warrior Robots also spring to mind.) Titter as a Cyberman unhands itself and goes all Hand of Fear! Gasp with utter disbelief as a Cyberman TAKES ITS HEAD OFF, props it on a wall and uses it as bait as it creeps up on someone! This, if you think about it for half a second, is utterly pointless. Wouldn't the victim hear the Cyberman's clompy boots? And Cybermen are (meant to be) so powerful that they would not need to engage in such playground tactics. They'd just stomp up to you and rip your head off. Now that would have been cool. I'm not saying Doctor Who should indulge in gratuitous violence, but if the remit was to make the Cybermen scary again, they should have been shown doing something REALLY nasty, not fart-arsing around with bits of their bodies. The bleeding hands of Lytton spring immediately to mind.
It's not all bad, though - their new look is great, as are their deep voices. Sinister. And their ability to upgrade in the face of any new threat is cool, though it does make one immediately think of the Borg. As does the Cyber hive mind, or whatever its called, make one think of the Borg Collective. Also, the shots of millions of Cybermen on the march are very impressive. Best of all are the Cybermites, a genuinely great idea which makes logical sense and seems to fit well with Cyber mythology.
As for the story - er, what story? "ONOZ! It's the Cybermen! They've upgraded! Now there's three million of them! BOOM! Phew!" What was the point of bringing them back if only to get rid of them again?
Of course, there's more to it than that, and that is where the central flaw of the story lies. The Doctor and Mr Clever. This could have been his Locutus of Borg moment, but instead we just get a hyper-camp performance from Matt Smith which never, not once, feels like the Doctor is in any danger. Matt Smith is a great actor, and a great Doctor, but I think he missed a trick here, taking his performance the wrong way. Imagine what Tom Baker would have done with this. Or Christopher Eccleston. They'd have us terrified that the Doctor was going to lose. Idle speculation, certainly, but I think Smith's performance ruined what could have been a tense and frightening story.
Clara is weird here, taking command of a rag-tag bunch of troops and not even batting an eyelid. She gets a lovely scene with Warwick Davis' character at the end. In fact, Davis gives the best performance and is the most interesting, layered character in the story. The others? Jason Watkins is totally wasted, Tamzin Outwhaite and her crew of misfits are totally forgettable, and the kids - whilst not completely nauseating - represent a missed opportunity. One of them should have been converted or killed - imagine the powerful scenes between the Doctor and Clara after - but no, once again this story decides to play it safe.
The setting – an abandoned amusement park in space – is typical Gaiman but never convinces as a real location, and SCREAMS – SCREAMS!!! – McCoy era Doctor Who. Within which there was another silly story about Cybermen with Silver in the title, and if I’m being honest, I have to say I prefer that to this.
Nick Walters is the author of several Doctor Who novels including The Fall of Yquatine and Dry Pilgrimage.