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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Rise of the Cybermen”/“The Age of Steel”

(intro to my Who blogging, please read before commenting / previous: Episode 4: “Girl in the Fireplace”)

It’s probably not in the least bit surprising that the genre of the Information Revolution — science fiction — is the one that does satire on the tentacly power of the corporation so well. Because as an entity, the corporation as we know it in the last few decades, since computers and instantaneous communications have made possible global organizations outside the influence of any municipality or nation, really is like an alien monster or — in the vernacular of SF’s counterpart, fantasy — a many-headed hydra. The global megacorp is a creature with its tendrils into a million different places, some of which you’d never even guess.
And so we have Cybus Industries (which sports one of the BBC’s many clever fake sites spun off from Doctor Who), and its madman CEO, John Lumic. Oh, no one calls him mad: rich people are eccentric, and as long as people keep buying all the crap Cybus is selling, everyone’s happy. But how insidiously sneaky is that? People seem perfectly content with their Cybus earbuds and their Daily Download of lottery numbers and jokes (the distracted mindlessness of everyone stopping short in the middle of the street for the download is eerily similar to — and deliberately so, I’m sure — how cell phone talkers remain blithely and rudely in their own little world walking down our streets). Until, of course, the day when Cybus finally has all its chess pieces in place for the checkmate, and then it’s too late to wonder whether it was the brightest move on the part of humanity to hand so much power over everything to one company, never mind one person. Cuz then you’re busy being chewed up by the machine… in this case, literally. Even the Doctor misses how deeply sinister Lumic is — even after the cybershit hits the fan, he’s still saying things like Lumic is “still just a businessman.” But that’s the seat of power, in more than one universe.

So friendly, that Cybus logo. So familiar. It bothered me for a while, how naggingly pleasant it seemed, till it struck me: it resembles that nice, irresistibly pushable graphic that has come to mean “power button, press me, pretty please” in recent years. The psychology of selling is all-important: that’s how you get consumers to want stuff so that you never have to force it on them. “A logo on the front,” the Doctor notes of the friendly C on the metal cyber bodies: “Lumic’s turned it into a brand.” But brand has another meaning, too: that of a stamp of ownership. You don’t have to know you’re a slave to be one, as Lumic’s employees discover… and not just Mrs. Moore, who was an “ordinary, nine-to-five” paper-pusher until she learned something that made her a threat. Even Lumic’s highest-ranking toadies — the tech guy who said he’d go to Geneva to reveal Lumic’s breaking of bio conventions, and the guy who rounded up the homeless dudes for experimentation — are disposable as soon as they assert themselves in any way contrary to Cybus’s corporate goals.

It’s all funny — “a cradle of copyrighted chemicals” that save the disembodied brain — and satiric — Cybers are “human point 2”? free upgrade! — but I keep thinking about that Cybus factory, from which the screams of those being “upgraded” cannot be drowned out by the strains of cheery pop music. Could there be a most disturbing metaphor for our corporate age, the grinding up of human beings in the production of stuff?

Damn, these are two pretty grim episodes. The darker side of the Doctor underlies everything he does here. He bitches to Rose (and Mickey, but mostly Rose) about how they can’t get involved, can’t meet people they “know” in this alternate universe, can’t do anything but sit tight till the TARDIS charges itself up again… until suddenly it’s he who wants to do something other than sit tight. Following the rules is a rule only for other people, not him. He’s ready to jump into the “plan” of interrupting the emotional inhibitors of the newly made Cybermen, even after seeing how godawful horrific it is for those disembodied brains — “Why am I cold?… Where’s Gareth?” oh my god that’s gut-wrenching. Even something as simple as his propensity for acting superior and the last word on whatever terrible situation they find themselves in gets a tweak: “We fell out of the vortex through the void into nothingness. We’re in some sort of noplace, the silent realm, the lost dimension.” The Doctor, so dramatic — so melodramatic, even — and so wrong. Hee. Even the Doctor deserves a bit of a smackdown once in a while.

I’ll admit, though, that I love how he can’t help but let his glee at Rose’s chagrin at Rose-the-dog bust out. We so rarely see the Doctor so spontaneously high-spirited…

Random thoughts on “Rise of the Cybermen”/“The Age of Steel”:

• Oh, the Doctor in a tux and sneakers. *sigh*

• “I’ve seen it in comics, people hopping from one alternative world to another…” Mickey gets it almost instantly, where they are. And good for the show for acknowledging that the Doctor’s companions come from a world where pop culture has broached some of the concepts of things they encounter in the “real world.” You couldn’t ignore that and make it work.

• I’m not sure we ever leaned the origins of the Cybermen in the old series, though the Doctor says here that they got their start on another planet — not Earth — in “our” universe. But hey, there’s one way to do a reboot: shift into a parallel reality. Try it, it’s fun!

• “What the hell was that thing?” the Doctor exclaims in response top the electro thingie Mrs. Moore uses to zap the Cyberman. Is hell the strongest swear word the Doctor has ever used? I’m thinking that maybe it is.

• “I dunno, I can’t worry about everything!” The Doctor’s snipe to Mickey is a real slice of Peter Davison’s Doctor No. Five crankiness in Ten. That’s suddenly even more obvious to me about seeing “Time Crash.”

• Boy, who’da thunk Mickey would be so, um, nice almost naked?

• “You can only chase after one of us — it’s never gonna be me, is it?” Is Mickey maybe a little bit jealous here? Not of the Doctor but of Rose, that she’s the center of the Doctor’s attention, place Mickey will never be in? Is Mickey maybe a little bit in love with the Doctor too? (Platonically, I mean: just platonically.) Is it possible to know the Doctor and not fall at least a little bit in love with him?

• “He will be rewarded by force,” the Jackie Cyberman says of Pete. Makes me think of my last corporate job, at a subsidiary of a subsidiary of one of the biggest companies on the planet, when I was forcibly “promoted” to a job I didn’t want as a gift for a job well done.

• The Cybermen are strikingly designed, though, aren’t they? Kinda Metropolisy 1930s Art Deco, with that little tear in the corner of each eye. Very beautiful and postironic.

• “You made money by selling a health food drink to a sick world,” the president of Great Britain accuses Pete. Vitex! It’s what idiots crave!

• Torchwood! A constant across universes: At the party, Pete hails someone we don’t see, asking for news of what’s up at Torchwood…

• Great quotes:

The hotdog is “the Cyberman of food, but it’s tasty.”–the Doctor

“The human race… for such an intelligent lot, you aren’t half susceptible. Give anyone a chance to take control and you submit. Sometimes I think you like it… easy life…”–the Doctor

“You’re just making this up as you go along!”–Mickey
“Yup. But I do it brilliantly.”– the Doctor

(next: Episode 7: “The Idiot’s Lantern”)

MPAA: not rated

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