“THE AGE OF STEEL” – Series 2, Episode 7, Story 172b – Written by Tom MacRae (Plot Nod to Marc Platt); Directed by Graeme Harper – The Tenth Doctor, Rose, and Mickey continue their battle against the Cybermen in the parallel world that has Rose’s dad Pete a huge success, Mickey’s alternate Ricky a semi-super-soldier, and the Doctor’s alternate non-existent. They attack Cybus Industries on three fronts: the Doctor and an old lady from below, Rose and Pete from the ground, and Mickey and a white dude from above. It’s mostly running around, trying to defeat the bad guy and dealing with limp emotional conflicts. John Lumic wants to create an AGE OF STEEL but we all know that’s not going to happen. Because This Is The Doctor Who Age of Feelings.
AGE OF STEEL is another one of those confounding episodes that manages to be both rather enjoyable and rather daft at the same time.
If you couldn’t already guess that Mickey was on his way out of this show when he started to be useful a few episodes back, then your biggest clue comes with the death of Ricky, his Pete’s World Doppleganger. If you couldn’t already guess that Rose was going to tell Not Her Dad that he was her Other World Dad, then your biggest clue comes by their being paired together in a completely illogical operation – of all parts of the three-pronged attack, the ground-level assault is the most dangerous, so of course the Doctor sends the two most inexperienced people into the factory that’s producing Cybermen while he takes to the tunnels below and Mickey heads for Lumic’s zeppelin above.
Until the big escape at the end, when Pete manages to use the sonic screwdriver to cut a rope ladder (helllooooooo, stupid!), it’s all rather enjoyable. The Doctor and Mrs. Moore head into the tunnels, where unmoving Cybermen stand still in cold storage, waiting to be activated. The closed quarters provides a subtly spooky mood and Tennant is at his very best here, chatting with Mrs. Moore about why she’s chosen this life outside the norm as a freedom fighter. Tennant is so good at bringing emotional content to the fore that it’s often a shame when the writing falsely ratchets up the emotional content with unnecessary fireworks. Eccleston’s Doctor kept everything so tightly wound up inside of him that the firework displays (such as in DALEK and THE PARTING OF THE WAYS) worked as a release.
Tennant, however, doesn’t need those big scenes because his Doctor is much more emotionally stable. His chat with Mrs. Moore works on a variety of levels – it keeps her calm by giving her mind something to chew on other than the row of Cybermen standing next to them, it gives him information about the world, it bonds them together as she tells him her real name (which is your official red blinking light that she’s soon to die), and it keeps us amused. It’s scenes like this that make me like Tennant’s Doctor (both who he is as a character and how Tennant plays him) and is so much more effective at making the show enjoyable than half of the things he does with Rose.
It also brings up an interesting subplot, which is his comfort level with women. Most of the Doctors have been less than suave with the ladies. At times it’s like he doesn’t even acknowledge them as “women” because they’re just “companions.” There’s been exceptions – the Fourth Doctor’s romance with Romana II probably being the most striking example – but mostly there’s no romantic heat/chemistry between the Doctor and his companions.
The RTD and Steven Moffat eras have put the romantic possibilities deeper into play, if mostly from the companions’ points-of-view towards the Doctor. Rose, Martha, Captain Jack, and Amy have all been romantically-inclined towards the Doctor but the Doctor largely rebuffs them. There’s obviously chemistry between Nine/Ten and Rose, but the Doctor still conducts himself largely platonically, and it’s hard to treat the Doctor/Rose relationship as a two-sided love affair when you see how completely blinded he gets with Madame de Pompadour back in THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE, which completely made it seem like Rose was his bestest gal pal and Reinette was a WOMAN. (Not to mention the raised possibility that SOMETHING HAPPENED in Reinette’s bed.)
What’s different about Tennant’s take on the Doctor is that, for all he may play the unknowing accomplice in his flirtations with Rose, he has a completely comfortable way in how he deals with other women. And I don’t mean that other Doctor’s have been dysfunctional around women, I mean that Tennant’s Doctor seems to know how to casually charm them. It’s evident here with his conversation with Mrs. Moore, where he’s almost reduced to witty banter and his unseen flirtations with the serving girl that produces information and results in Rose’s jealousy. (This happened last episode, in RISE OF THE CYBERMEN.) Maybe he is unaware of his charm and there’s certainly nothing Cary-Grant-predatory about it, but it’s there.
Rose and Pete run into the Cyberman that used to be Jackie and, I mean, of course they did. Of course. Did you expect that plot to end anywhere else? While this should be the emotional centerpiece of the episode, it falls totally flat. It’s almost like the show got bored with this plot when it realized the Mickey subplot was far more interesting.
I’ve long thought the Star Wars movies played that way. In A New Hope, it’s clearly Luke’s movie, but then right around the time the Millennium Falcon swoops in to save Luke’s ass, it’s like the film series went, “Oh, this is Han’s story. How did we miss that?”
Mickey’s subplot sees him becoming more active and assertive; what’s disappointing is that it still doesn’t see Mickey come to any personal individualization, but has him climbing into Ricky’s role, taking the dead doppleganger’s place in this parallel world by staying behind to save this planet. Noel Clarke and the writers have done a bang up job this year in making Mickey a real character and it’s a shame to see him depart.
His departure comes in one of those trumped up, ridiculous emotion builders I talked about last episode. Mickey’s going to stay behind even though the Doctor tells him that they can never come back to visit, that Mickey will be sealed behind some invisible wall in time and space.
Blah blah blah.
It’s total bunk and if you’ve read one comic book you know it’s total bunk. I hate these kinds of arbitrary rules that crop up just because they’re convenient to the writers. They’re conveniently created and undone depending on what the script needs in a given week. Thhhppptttt.
As for the villains, Lumic-turned-Cyber Controller is totally lame, but the Cybermen are worthy adversaries. Not great as individual foes but as a collective they’re a tangible threat. And honestly, the Cybermen just look freaking amazing.
AGE OF STEEL ultimately feels like a letdown, however. With a head villain that isn’t fearsome or impressive and doesn’t have anything particularly new or interesting to bring to the table, the threat never seems as epic as it clearly wants to be. The endings all ring thin – Pete just runs away when Rose brings up the daddy thing, and Mickey’s departure gets a hug from Rose (although you know she’s glad to have the Doctor back to herself, even if she didn’t want her ex-boyfriend to get left behind an invisible plot wall) and a reflectively proud and chummy “Mickey the Idiot” from the Doctor, like’s he’s Gandalf and Frodo just volunteered to bring the One Ring to Mt. Doom, even if last episode he was admitting to Rose he knew nothing of Mickey’s life beyond their personal interaction. This Doctor is definitely not a guy’s guy.
And yet … AGE OF STEEL is undoubtedly enjoyable on the surface. I sit and watched it and didn’t complain too much as it was happening. It certainly didn’t have me hooked like THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE, but it didn’t have me rolling my eyes as much as WORLD WAR THREE.
That counts for something. Not everything, certainly, but something.