For much of the first episode, the Cybermen are obscured by lights or focus pulls, as if to mystify the viewer as to what they are. Given the episode is called “Rise of the Cybermen”, this seems rather redundant, much like it was for the Dalek episode in the previous season. Still, unlike the Daleks, the return of the Cybermen can only be an improvement over the generic foil-suited evil villains they became towards the end.
Effectively, this is a Cybermen “reboot”, with none of the continuity baggage attached. The Tardis finds itself in a parallel dimension, something that is now supposed to be “impossible” since the Time Lords all died, although to my recollection, it only happened once before, in Inferno. Regardless, it’s a Big Deal and it means the Cybermen story can start with a fresh new twist. We never saw the Mondas Cybermen actually change. The angle here is that the metal bodies are the ultimate upgrade, in a society obsessed with upgrading and having the latest gadgets (“earpods” is about as blunt a satire as you can get, but the point is made).
The creator of the Cybermen, at least in this universe, is John Lumic, played by the late Roger Lloyd Pack. The character is very similar to Davros, tragic, disabled, trying to fix his broken body with technology in a world that isn’t ready for his genius. The story is, of course, overblown and ridiculous, with thousands of people killed or turned into machines around the country due to almost total coverage of Cybus Industries’ mind-controlling earpods (that passed safety inspections to get onto the market… how, exactly?). As it’s all happening in parallel Earth, I can sort of forgive it. At least it has no lasting repercussions for our Earth (… or does it?).
It’s clear that this is a Russell T. Davies era Cybermen story because it focuses so much more on the personal dramas of Rose and Mickey. This is not the 1980s anymore. This was a clever way to bring Rose’s dad back into the series, although the coincidences surrounding his involvement are a little contrived, but compared to the general contrivance of the Doctor always landing somewhere just as something bad is happening, it’s no big deal.
Mickey’s character is also put to good use for a change, by commenting on how little they need him. He’s treated very poorly throughout this series – the Doctor is far too focused on Rose. Mickey finds his true calling (and his gran) and stays behind with the scooby gang resistance group – well, the last surviving member, anyway – in lieu of his doppelganger copping it in part 2. The goodbyes are genuine and sweet, before the tone changes to a weirdly jovial one as they ride off to Paris in a van.
The cliffhanger ending is classic Doctor Who stuff. Sensibly, there is no “next week” preview to ruin the tension, but unfortunately the resolution is pure magic macguffin territory and deeply unsatisfying for it. Still, for the most part, the Cybermen are threatening villains, evoking Nazi-esque conformity or extermination of those unworthy. These aren’t the tottering silver simpletons of the previous eras; they’re battle-ready armoured death machines, clanking with every synchronised march of their feet. It isn’t superior firepower that beats them, but allowing them to experience the emotional trauma of what they’ve become. Basically, the power of love wins. How very modern.
There was a kind of tragedy to the original Cybermen, that they’d willingly turned themselves into this, whittling away their emotions in pursuit of perfection. These versions don’t have that – they are tricked, controlled, forced to act against their human wishes, guided by a leader rather than a unified ideology. It doesn’t quite work so well, and gives them a weakness that the originals never had. Still, it’s strange to think how similar the two parallel Cyber-races are, given they popped into existence by totally different means and at different times with different technology, to the extent that the Doctor specifically “knows” them as Cybermen, rather than “generic robotic people”. Maybe that’s just how fate works or something.