Broadcast Date: 20 May 2006
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz for The Gallifrey Times
To celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary and the upcoming broadcast of Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver, I’ll be reviewing all of the post-2005 episodes featuring the Cybermen, staring with Rise of the Cybermen and ending with Closing Time – and along the way, finding out which episode’s the best of the bunch.
We left the Doctor, Rose, Pete and the parallel universe gang at the end of Rise of the Cybermen, cornered by a bunch of resurrected Cybermen, who had refused their surrender and had chosen ‘maximum deletion’ for the heroes instead. Part two, it’s The Age of Steel!
After the recap and the titles, the episode wastes no time resolving last episode’s cliffhanger – while it does make sense for the cliffhanger to be resolved as quickly as possible so the episode can get on with the continuing plot, the handy TARDIS crystal solution comes out of absolutely nowhere, making the resolution feel like a slightly rushed cop-out. There’s a reason why the phrase ‘deus ex machina’ was invented, after all.
After the curiously structured Rise of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel is a step into more traditional Who territory. It’s entertaining, but it sticks rigidly to the ‘part two’ template set by World War Three back in 2005, rarely venturing into new, uncharted territory. It’s exactly how you’d expect the episode to be after watching Rise of the Cybermen, and in a series that’s currently in its fiftieth year (bearing in mind this episode was broadcast almost seven years ago), the fresh, outside-the-box episodes like Silence in the Library tend to be the most memorable of two-parters.
That’s not to say that The Age of Steel is a bad episode – far from it. While it’s noticeably flawed and plays it safe for most of the running time, it’s one of the most entertaining episodes of an otherwise rather weak series (in this author’s humble opinion). The term ‘popcorn episode’ isn’t often applied to Doctor Who, but The Age of Steel is a quintessential popcorn episode. It’s not intellectual, complex fare, but it’s certainly good old-fashioned fun.
It helps that the set of characters at its core are as engaging as they are. Mickey takes centre stage in this episode, and Noel Clarke’s performance manages to be one of the highlights of the episode. Mickey’s often ignored by fans in favour of Rose (sound familiar?), but it’s good to see the character taking the credit he deserves, essentially saving the day at the end. Jake and Mrs Moore, while not the most developed and layered characters ever created, also manage to engage in their short screen time, with Mrs Moore’s double-act with the Doctor proving a surprise highlight.
John Lumic, one of the lowlights of Rise of the Cybermen, thankfully only has two scenes as a human before he’s carted off to become the Cyber Controller (and luckily, he’s a little less irritating as the Controller) – and the less we see of Roger Lloyd Pack’s camp, over-the-top performance, the better. And with Lumic off-stage for much of the episode, the Cybermen finally take centre stage.
Sadly, the Cybermen aren’t used quite as well as they could have been. There’s a few effective scenes which highlight the Cybermen’s lack of emotions (the best being the brief scene where a Cybermen reverts to its human emotions – it’s rather chilling to hear a Cybermen ask ‘where’s Gareth?’), but as a whole they’re just, if a little more lethal than your average monster, a generic Doctor Who monster for most of the run-time. It’s a pity, because Rise of the Cybermen managed to set the Cybermen up as a genuinely scary monster – and it doesn’t help that the epistode slightly over-uses the ‘waking Cyberman’ trick to the point of boredom.
The resolution to the plot, while clever, does leave a few questions – how did Mickey learn to fly a zeppelin? Why does Battersea explode? Isn’t it a bit much for the Doctor to essentially kill about a hundred Cybermen, who become pretty much humans anyway by episode’s end? And yes, the plot is wrapped up with the oldest of cliches: the slow-mo villain’s fall off a ladder into oblivion, complete with slow-motion ‘Noooooooo!’.
The episode also sees the departure of Mickey (for six whole episodes), something that’s handled excellently. Mickey’s feeling of being sidelined had been seeded in since the start of Rise, and it’s a nice little character arc that’s handled perfectly. It genuinely makes sense for Mickey to take up Ricky’s mantle and stay in the parallel world, Noel Clarke plays his departure perfectly. It’s far from the end of Mickey, but (aside from the excellent little coda in The End of Time: Part Two) it’s perhaps the character’s best moment.
In conclusion, The Age of Steel is a decent enough, if formulaic episode that can’t really stand up on its own two feet. It’s entertaining stuff and has great characters at its core, but it’s a little underwhelming after the great set-up of Rise.