Monday, January 24, 2011

"The Age of Steel"

I don't know if it's any sort of compliment to "Rise of the Cybermen" to say that "The Age of Steel" is definitely the weaker of the two episodes. Pretty much all of it is a pointless run-around. I don't mean to generalise but Doctor Who has rarely ever done action well, and action has such a heavy focus in this episode that it can't help but feel rather inept and pointless.
For instance, the cliffhanger resolution is unimaginably weak. The Doctor whips out that piece of the TARDIS he has been carrying around for ages and with absolutely no explanation whatsoever it shoots golden time vortex type light out to kill not one but all of the Cybermen surrounding them. If this was the kind of absurd solution they needed then clearly they shouldn't have had this is as a cliffhanger. It's frustrating to see this increasing trend, especially in the wake of "The Parting of the Ways", that under the right circumstances Time Lord technology can do just about anything. How could this battery or whatever it is be used as a weapon anyway? It's completely ridiculous.
A lot more time is spent driving around in the van and running around in the streets while the Cybermen march with unspeakable noise up and down zapping people. Ricky gets killed and you don't care because you've still got Mickey and he's the guy we've spent a series and a half becoming invested in. Then they come to Battersea Power Station of all places, the Doctor makes an incredibly obscure reference to The Five Doctors of all things and they split up because that always works really well.
Because I forgot to mention it in the review of "Rise of the Cybermen" I'd like to point out how unimaginative it is that they have 'zeppelins' in this parallel universe. That is such a stock 'parallel universe' trope that I can't believe that Ricky didn't have blue hair or something just to reinforce the pointless differences. There's also the fact that a zeppelin is only a zeppelin if it's been manufactured by the German Zeppelin Company, otherwise it's just an airship, but I won't get into that...
It's depressing to see the Cybermen reduced to such drones. They have no character apart from the Cyber-Controller Lumic and their loss of identity is handled in a very iffy way. The upgraded Jackie seems to act as if she's not the same person, but she sort of is, but she sort of isn't and the message is very unclear. Not only does this 'modern age uniformity' thing become completely sidelined but the Cybermen themselves are made deeply boring as a result.
There's a lot of other stupidity as well. For instance, Mickey is 'pretty good with computers' apparently and as in all shows (and this is a problem in all shows) he can hack a computer system just by rapidly hitting buttons on a keyboard. Now I have absolutely no idea how people hack things on computers but I have to imagine it involves something more than just sitting there hitting keys and I don't think the results come up in big, easy-to-read boxes on the screen when you're in the middle of doing something illicit with a computer. There's also the fact that the Doctor transmits the signal which kills the Cybermen by jamming a phone into a socket and doing absolutely nothing else. He doesn't bring up a 'Cyberman system master control' and access the right command and put the code in or anything, he just jams a phone into a socket. How the hell is the socket even the right size and shape for Rose's phone, which is from a parallel universe? Why does the computer bank even have a socket for inserting whole phones? How does the code send? There's something about the image of the Doctor jamming a mobile phone into a socket which sums up the whole Tennant era - when the actual problem of the story needs to be solved, he just gets a mad look on his face and performs one ridiculously simple and convenient action to save the day. It's cheap cop-outs galore at both the start of the episode and the end and it diminishes any remaining message considerably by eliminating any sense of threat.
The issue here, though, is that of the value of emotions. For a start I'd like to point out that emotions rely on glands and chemicals in the body far moreso than the brain, and that if you took someone's living brain out of their body and put it in a robot suit it probably would have drastically reduced emotional capacity already, if any at all. Then there's the fact that an 'emotion inhibitor' chip doesn't make any sense... did he programme the Cybermen to feel emotions and then put in a chip so they couldn't, or something? Why didn't he just not give them the capacity for emotions in the first place? It's not very well explained. It's around this time as well that a Cyberman, in spite of their huge thunderous walking noises which have become extremely evident up to this point, manages to 'sneak up on' and kill Mrs. Moore. It's inconsistencies like this that make it impossible to suspend disbelief, much like when the Doctor removes the Cyberman's logo plate, points at the doohickey on the other side and points out, with a look on his face as if it means anything at all, the "Heart of steel," without any explanation of what that could mean and clearly just to look cool and pseudo-poetic.
I said in the "Rise of the Cybermen" review that the Cybermen used to have discussions with the Doctor about the value of emotions. Well Lumic does get around to that here, now that he's the Cyber-Controller (because Michael Caine wrecked his Davros chair). It's not explained why he needs to be plugged into this huge throne with cables and everything even though we see later he's perfectly capable of getting about normally now and in spite of the fact that it looks completely ridiculous but anyway the whole issue of the value of emotions culminates in a conversation which essentially involves Lumic asking "Doctor, do you think emotions are worthwhile even though there are bad ones?" and the Doctor says "Yep" and that's the end of discussion. Nothing about how we have to learn to live with how we feel, nothing about how we have to strive to improve our humanity rather than eradicate it, just The Doctor's Word Is Law. It's like how in "Dalek" they encourage the Dalek to kill itself rather than experience pain - RTD's Doctor never tries to encourage anyone to live with their suffering. His one argument is that emotionlessness stifles creativity and imagination, which according to "School Reunion" adults don't have anyway. It's a bit of meaning tacked onto a lot of pointless action, sort of like the incredibly abritrary 'rope ladder' sequence during the zeppelin escape, and it's rendered completely bunk by the fact that when the Doctor gives the Cybermen emotions, they all just die. He doesn't try to encourage them to live with themselves or anything, and the idea that the Cybermen would just spontaneously die upon regaining emotions makes no sense. Wouldn't there be at least some people who, upon regaining emotions, would like their super-strong powerful Cyber bodies? But that's the kind of nuance that Doctor Who doesn't have time for in this era and it basically encourages the exact same kind of uniformity. There's just the uniformity Lumic's way, or the uniformity of the Doctor's way. There is, of course, the rather chilling moment when the Cyberman regains emotions and worries about its impending wedding but this itself is at odds with the rest of their behaviour. How come the upgrade makes them change their memories? How can a brain in a robot suit feel cold? I wasn't aware that the ability to feel cold was an emotion. If they'd had a Cyberman complain about its new body, or even think it was cool, or something, it would have been a million times more effective and would have allowed a much better explanation. But no, the Doctor has to blow up the bad guys, and I think the point is effectively summed up when there's one Cyberman who is struggling with emotion so much that his head explodes, which is about as far from serious as you can get. It's purely meaningless spectacle in the end. For instance, when Cyber-Controller Lumic falls off the rope ladder, as he descends the Battersea Plant explodes in a huge gushing fireball for absolutely no reason. It's this kind of weak action-focused, big-explosion silliness that makes the episode seem completely pointless, and offers virtually nothing for the characterisation of the Doctor save that clearly he still thinks that his way is right and that he never has to change his mind about anything. As I stated in the previous review, by this point I definitely can't blame Mickey for leaving. He feels like a third wheel and I wouldn't want to put up with the Tenth Doctor, who is a needlessly indignant, self-righteous jerk. I still think it's a cop-out because RTD was terrified of anything getting in the way of his Doctor/Rose ship and Rose's character still makes absolutely no sense - does she love Mickey or the Doctor? It's completely inconsistent. It's a suitably heroic and satisfying departure for Mickey, but it's a shame to see him go because he's definitely the companion of choice by this stage, and it's a very unsatisfying return for the Cybermen. By halfway through this series has still not achieved anything particularly notable and the heavy focus on revitalising villains from the Classic Series whilst completely misusing them reinforces how paradoxical this era's priorities were - clinging to the past while trying to do something new and not quite managing either.

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