Did we like it?
By some distance the best Doctor Who Christmas Special, this was largely because the conundrum of the Cybermen was solved.
What was good about it?
• Russell T Davies made the Cybermen worthy adversaries for the Doctor for about the first time since The Tenth Planet.
• The first problem he solved is that Cybermen always make an impressive entrance, whether in Earthshock, Tomb of the Cybermen or Army of Ghosts, they are brilliant at making an impact on the narrative. The lingering quandary has since been what to do with them afterwards, for instance in Doomsday they became cannon fodder for Daleks, and in Age of Steel they were defeated by possibly the least convincing defenders of the Earth since G-Force.
To remedy this, Davies split the Cybermen into three distinct strains, and centred the three main set pieces on each new entrance. At the start we met the Cybershades, hulking hunting dogs of the Cybermen, who offered a superb slapstick chase as the Doctor and Jackson Lake (David Morrissey) were dragged through a building. It began the episode with a bang, and also settled Jackson, or the Doctor as he then thought himself to be, as the Doctor’s sidekick. The Cybershades also made the Cyberman machine more manoeuvrable and fluid.
The actual Cybermen entrance was as impressive as usual as they stamped through the bleak graveyard and slaughtered the prominent men of the district.
And finally, the Cyberking towered over London bringing down hellfire on the cowering populace below.
• The second problem is that because the Cyberman have erased their emotions, witty, acerbic dialogue is almost impossible. Other than the odd drone of dry humour, the Cybermen conversations are as engaging as a print out.
To solve this, Davies adopted the sci-fi staple of giving them a human figurehead. Davros serves the same purpose for the dreary Daleks, while Star Trek introduced a Borg Queen once the novelty of the Borg cube ships had worn off.
• The Cybermen figurehead was Mercy Hartigan, brilliantly played with diabolic relish by Dervla Kirwan. She manifested all the typical villainess’s traits of vulnerability and cold-hearted menace in order to give the Doctor someone to verbally spar with.
• David Morrissey as the ‘next’ Doctor/ Jackson Lake. Morrissey instilled Jackson with all the rakish bravado of the Doctor, which he underscored with a distinctive bravery and pathos. As the Doctor slowly unravelled the mystery, Jackson pleaded with him not to dispel what little personality he had left after an accident with a data stamp had imprinted the Doctor’s personality on him.
• In the opening scene we also saw the Doctor’s arrogance reflected back on to him, giving him an insight into how that aspect can repel people as much as attract them (and it also cost Jon Pertwee’s Doctor his ‘life’).
• But there were once more hints of the Doctor’s desperation and loneliness. His first instinct was to believe that Jackson was the Doctor, frantically asking if he remembered him, and even speaking to him like a future incarnation. It was only once his sonic screwdriver was revealed to be just a normal screwdriver, the false alarm with the fob watch and when the Doctor discovered that Jackson only had one heart that the truth began to bite.
• Excellent incidental music.
What was bad about it?
• The Cybermen had images of all the Doctor’s incarnations – but how was this possible as this parallel dimension version of the Cybermen has only met David Tennant? Unless they downloaded it from the Dalek technology they had pilfered.
• During the rescue in the Cyber factory, all the children escape except Jackson’s son, who is rather improbably stranded on some scaffolding high above the factory floor. This overly contrived scenario reminded us of the Day Today parody of melodramatic shows such as 999, in which a helicopter “narrowly misses an old man up a stick”.
• How does the Doctor know that the Cyber King is a “dreadnaught” class, when this version Cybermen have not left Earth, and were annihilated in the other dimension before they could construct such grandiose weapons?
• And no matter how impressive the Cyber King actually was, we couldn’t help but find it reminiscent of the mechanical leviathan in Beastie Boys’ Intergalactic, or any number of man-in-a-suit monsters from the Japanese monster movies of the 1970s.