I remembered this one as being an absolute stinker, and that may have affected my reaction to revisiting it, as I found it was nowhere near as bad as I feared. I mean, all the ingredients are right: Neil Gaiman, Cybermen and a solid cast that includes Tamzin Outhwaite, Jason Watkins and Warwick Davis, a man I’ve seen in the Shepherd’s Bush branch of M&S Simply Food on two separate occasions, eight years apart.
But then of course there’s also Angie & Artie, two characters so rubbish I had to double check what they were called before typing their names, even though I only finished watching the episode ten minutes ago. Neither of them are particularly well acted, but character-wise, Artie seems like a decent kid, even if he is crap at chess. Angie on the other hand can fuck right off, the precocious, ungrateful little shit. She puts herself in harm’s way because she’s rebelling against nothing in particular, and even when she’s helping to save the day by figuring out who Warwick Davis is, she’s incredibly smug about it.
And obviously the Cybermen are always a bit of a risk, post-1960s, as you never know what you’re going to get. These are a new breed, supposedly a mixture of the proper ones and the parallel universe ones, and seemingly with a little bit of the Raston Warrior Robot thrown in for good measure, judging by their speed. I quite like the design, with the usual caveats that they’re not supposed to all be identical, and that the sleekness doesn’t really help to reinforce the basic idea that they’re part organic. Nor does them being able to completely remove their heads, or send their hands for little walks – they are just generic robots, still.
Despite my misgivings I did enjoy the action sequences, but they were few and far between, with the story instead focussing on the Doctor’s internal battle with the Cyberplanner. Two sides of the Doctor’s personality battling each other is a great idea, but I really don’t like Matt Smith’s choices for the Cyber half. I was expecting it to be more… Cyber-y, but it’s somehow more emotional and unstable than the Doctor normally is. Plus, chess is boring, and it was really obvious that “our” Doctor was bluffing when he said he had a special secret move to win, which the Cyberplanner is really bloody thick for not figuring out.
(By the way, Red Dwarf did the whole two-versions-of-the-same-character-playing-chess-to-the-death thing way better in Queeg. And speaking of Red Dwarf, the military badge that the Doctor gives Clara in this episode later turned up on Rimmer’s brother Howard in Trojan, thanks to the presence on both series of costume designer Howard Burden.)
Anyway, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that I did in fact hate this episode after all, but I think what’s happened is that these issues were so big on first viewing – in the context of a half-series that was turning out to be thoroughly disappointing – that I’d forgotten all the good stuff. I really liked the army of nerds, and Warwick Davis was great in a much more serious role than he’s normally afforded. Clara was on decent form too, taking charge of the situation and consistently making correct decisions, with the impossible girl stuff largely given a week off ahead of the big climax.