In order to lure noted fantasy author Neil Gaiman back to write another episode of DOCTOR WHO after his Hugo-winning story of last season, “The Doctor’s Wife,” show-runner Steven Moffat asked Gaiman if he would like to make the Cybermen scary again.
Neil did; and then he did. Make the Cybermen scary again, I mean. And he did it, rather simply and realistically, by following a “natural” trend in technology: getting faster, better and smaller. The Cybermen have gained the ability to adapt on the fly; they can move faster than the human eye can follow; and the once-fearsome Cybermats have been shrunken down to tiny Cybermites. And worse, the Cybermites can be thrown at you! And then they crawl all over you and attach themselves to your face. Yuck!
Last week, young Angie (Eve De Leon Allen) and Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson) blackmailed their nanny Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) into taking them along for a trip through time. This week the Doctor (Matt Smith) takes the kids to Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, the biggest amusement park there ever will be. But it’s a shabby disappointment to Angie. Suddenly, a man in a top hat appears and asks the new arrivals if they are Dave’s Discount Interstellar Removals — the man flees ahead of the arrival of a military unit led by the Captain (Tamzin Outhwaite). The Doctor pulls out a “golden ticket,” entitling the group to free ice cream at Hedgewick’s, and the psychic paper, which the captain says identifies the Doctor as the Imperial Consul. The Consul sends the soldiers away, and the man in the top hat reappears, introduces himself as Impresario Webley, and brings the visitors to his own Webley’s World of Wonders, a waxworks with famous faces, including the emperor. Webley challenges Artie to a game of chess — against a Cyberman! The Cyberman appears to be an entire shell, and the Doctor figures out that it is being controlled by a hidden man. The small man (Warwick Davis) introduces himself as Porridge. While the children enjoy an anti-grav ride, the Doctor notices some “funny insects” and insists they investigate. Later, while Webley is clearing the chessboard, the Cyberman suddenly grabs him and releases “funny insects” — actually Cybermites — that swarm over him and begin to “upgrade” him — meaning convert Webley into a Cyberman.
Elsewhere, Porridge explains Cybermen and the CyberWars to Clara. The Cybermen were practically invincible, so the humans developed a drastic technique to fight them: destroying entire worlds. He points out that the entire Tiberian Galaxy — with its billion trillion citizens — was detonated to wipe out the Cybermen at last. Angie has gone to the barracks and met the platoon, and Clara scolds her for wandering off. Suddenly, a Cyberman appears, and — moving at superspeed — kidnaps Angie. The Doctor vows to get her back. Realizing the soldiers are part of a “punishment platoon,” the Doctor uses his Consul powers to put Clara in charge. He orders her to find someplace safe to hole up — and to keep the platoon from blowing up the planet! Clara orders them to Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle, where she musters the defense: one anti-Cyberman gun and some handheld EMP units. Meanwhile, the Doctor captures a Cybermite and uses it to locate the local transmat. He arrives where the children and Webley are being held. Webley explains that the Cyberiad — the group consciousness of the Cybermen — used this planet to hide and repair damaged units during the CyberWars. They wanted children to use as Cyber Planners because of their infinite imagination — but now that the “upgraded” Cybermen can use non-human brains, the Doctor’s brain would be much better! Webley throws a bunch of Cybermites at the Doctor and he his quickly overwhelmed — but not fully converted. Part of his brain becomes the new Cyber Planner, but the rest remains under the Time Lord’s control. Enjoying its new power, the Cyber Planner renames itself Mr. Clever — and wonders why the Doctor is thinking about Clara so much.
Stalemated, the Doctor proposes he and the Cyber Planner play chess for control of the Doctor’s mind, and play begins. Meanwhile, the Cyber Planner musters his forces of constantly upgrading Cybermen against Clara at the castle. Clara takes the planet-destroyer remote control for safekeeping. The Doctor reminds the Cyber Planner that he knows about weaknesses in some of the old cybercode, like cleaning fluid and gold. Then he slaps the golden ticket on the cybermods on his face, temporarily scrambling its signals and allowing him to pack up the chessboard and kids and relocate to the Comical Castle. The Captain insists on using voice-activation to trigger the world-imploding bomb, but as she does so, a Cyberman shoots her down from outside the castle. Clara takes care of that interloper and returns to the castle, where the Doctor fills her on things. Oh, and the children are undergoing cyber-conversion. The Doctor orders himself tied up and then resumes the chess game. Clara orders the moat electrified. The Doctor Cyber Planner summons Clara and tricks her out of bomb remote and destroys it. Now, some 3 million Cybermen mass outside, confidant that the planet will not be imploded. The first one into the moat is electrified, but instantly upgrades and survives, and the rest of the army has no trouble with the moat. Meanwhile, Porridge hits Wembley with the handheld EMP and gets knocked aside for his trouble.
The Cyber Planner is beating the Doctor, who claims that the Time Lords invented chess, and boasts that he will win in three moves. The Cyber Planner shuts down the army so he can redirect all their processing power to figuring out the Doctor’s three moves. But the robots can’t because they aren’t chess moves! He takes Porridge’s EMP, powers it up with the sonic, and zaps Mr. Clever off his face. Clara returns to find the Doctor in charge of his own mind again. They agree to implode the planet to stop the Cyberhorde, but cannot activate the bomb. Then the newly-revived Angie points out that Porridge is actually the emperor — he looks just like his wax statue and face on the coins. Porridge admits it and activates the bomb. Automatically, he and everyone else are transmatted to the imperial starship, and watch from a safe distance as the planet implodes explodes. Porridge proposes to Clara, but she doesn’t want to be queen of the universe, and instead joins the Doctor for the return trip to Earth. As the Emperor’s ship heads for home, a piece of Cybertech begins to blink.
And so ends another story from Gaiman. This one is not in the same pantheon as “The Doctor’s Wife,” but it was highly enjoyable. The pace was quick and the dialogue crackled. Gaiman’s imagination was on display here, merging the Cybermen with “bullet time” and aspects of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATIONS’ Borg to recreate the classic DW monsters for the next 50 years. “Stand by, system upgrading” could become a new playground shout among kids.
This is, on its face, a simple, short, linear and enjoyable enough story, but also rather workmanlike and perfunctory. I think its greatest strength is that it gave both Matt and Jenna-Louise a lot of meaty material to act. Matt got to be more physical than he has in a while, and I love the way he threw his entire body into the switches between Doctor and Cyber Planner — except when he didn’t, as during the chess game when he merely turned his head or used his voice. Matt has an astonishing range as an actor, and this role is perfect for him, giving him a chance to showcase everything he can do, from pratfalls to voice modulation.
Jenna-Louise’s pseudo-snarky, snippy delivery worked perfectly when she was in charge of the platoon, giving her a kind of flinty exterior that fit with her barking orders. She used the same voice on the Captain that she used with Artie and Angie. And how detached and calculating was Clara when she declined to send anyone to rescue the captured Missy? Clara knew she was a goner.
The fact that the Doctor left her in charge of keeping everyone alive while he tried to outthink the Cyberiad was a very telling detail; this early in their relationship, and he’s trusting her to keep the planet from getting blown up real good. But then again, does he actually trust her? I think it’s situational; he trusts her when he absolutely, positively has to do so. In other words, when he’s distracted.
Davis’ best moment came when Emperor Porridge talked about bot feeling as bad for the trillions of people who died in the Tiberian Galaxy as he feels for the person who had to press the button and kill those trillions of people. Again, as in Hide, we see a kindred soul who has experienced pain approximating what the Doctor has suffered. As far as he knew, the Emperor was committing genocide to end a terrible war. And, just like the Doctor, it turned out to all be for naught, because the metal monstrosities survived.
Speaking of survival, there is some confusion as to precisely which Cybermen these are: the originals from Mondas, or the Cybus creations from Pete’s World. There is no doubt that the Cybermen with the “C” on their chests must be the Cybus models. And the rest, lacking the C, must be from Mondas. I can understand some cross-pollination if the two species encountered one another in space, but I hold firm to my belief that the vast majority of the Cybermen are the Mondasians from “our” universe.
Originally, the Cybermen from Mondas were vulnerable to gold dust because it clogged their breathing apparatus. But the vulnerability was taken to such extremes over the years, that the Seventh Doctor’s companion Ace was able to destroy Cybermen by using a slingshot to shoot gold coins at them! Here a thin sheaf of gold in the form of a ticket can short out cybersystems with only surface contact. I think the Cyberiad should make some upgrades based on the Doctor’s actions. I don’t want the gold weakness to go away, but it shouldn’t be so easy to defeat a Cyberman.
And the Doctor needs to act on an observation by the Cyber Planner. The Doctor has been erasing himself from the universe’s databanks — but he’s been leaving a Doctor-sized hole in his wake, and that missing data can be used to reconstruct him. Provided an enemy is clever, like Mr. Clever, no doubt. I was beginning to wonder about how he was doing all this erasing, and now we see it’s possible to be too thorough.
- Despite repeated assurances that the bomb will implode the planet, at the end of the story it very clearly explodes! Had it imploded, none of that cybertech would have been floating around in space afterward.
- It appears the Doctor and Clara meet for adventures each Wednesday, rather than her traveling with him all the time.
- Porridge looks nothing at all like the waxworks dummy. Not even a little bit, so how does Angie recognize him? Well, it’s in the script.
- Was this the first time Matt uttered David Tennant’s catch phrase “Allons-y”?
- The original Cybermats were said to be modeled on silverfish, the new Cybermites look exactly like big silverfish — the paper-eating bane of comic book collections everywhere.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
- “Upgrade in progress.” — the Cybermen
- “Don’t shoot; I’m nice.” — the Doctor
- “Hail, to you, Doctor — savior of the Cybermen!” — CyberWembley
- “Somebody tie me up!” — the Doctor
- “Don’t want to use this me up, eh? Who knows what we get next.” — the Doctor
- “Do you think I’m pretty?” “No, you’re too short and bossy and your nose is all funny.” — Clara and the Doctor
- “[Clara is] impossible. A mystery wrapped in an enigma, squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight…” — the Doctor