Latest Big Finish listens #1

I’ve started my journey through Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas with the Fifth Doctor stories, which is where I am up to presently in my TV marathon, beginning with the “highlights” first as I dip my toes into Big Finish (I’ve already shared my thoughts on Spare Parts).

Iterations of I

Iterations of I features the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric. The story follows the TARDIS crew as they investigate disappearances on a lonely island in Ireland involving a strange cult dedicated to finding God in a number. It is a haunted house story with an imaginative sci-fi twist: sentient numbers, or creatures that exist in the realm of mathematics. The concept is positively inspired, one of those luminous ideas writers occasionally hit upon analogous to striking gold. The concept, and the story surrounding it, is masterfully executed, as claustrophobic tension and mystery is injected in generous doses into the story, keeping the listener positively gripped by the unfolding drama throughout. The concept, of creatures that reside in another realm of existence, and in particular the Doctor’s suggestion that, in killing people, they were only attempting to communicate, reminded me of the recent episode Flatline in Series 8, which was another excellent story with an inspired concept. Iterations of I is exactly the kind of intelligent, mature drama that I was expecting when I began to listen to Big Finish — drama that exercises the imagination as well as merely entertains — and I was not disappointed by any means. Rating: 10/10.

Psychodrome

Psychodrome is the other story from the Fifth Doctor box-set (the first being Iterations of I), set shortly after the events of Castrovalva, featuring the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric. The TARDIS team happen upon a very strange place: a seemingly enormous cave, in one corner a spaceship of human colonists, in another a castle and a royal court, in another a monastery populated by monks dedicated to scientific inquiry. Psychodrome is a very original story with an ingenious twist (which I shan’t spoil, except to say that it bears some resemblance conceptually to one of my favourite stories in Series 6). It is a much more personal and intimate story than it first seems, and not only because it is set at a time when the TARDIS crew were unfamiliar with each other and their new Doctor. There are a number of quiet little moments between the characters that allows us to empathise with them in a way that we often don’t get to on screen. The characters’ fledgling insecurities, fears and resentments about each other are explored in this story, and in fact form a major point in the story. While Psychodrome is generally a great story all-round, one thing it suffers from is too many characters and too many things happening at once: the listener (or at least this listener) tends to struggle keeping up with what’s going on and who’s talking, something that exacerbates the original problem in the overcrowded TARDIS of Davison’s era. Rating: 8/10.

Creatures of Beauty

Creatures of Beauty sees the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa become involved in a bitter political situation on the planet Veln, where, a couple of generations ago, a Koteem waste transport ship broke up in the atmosphere, releasing dyestrial toxins which would go on to destroy the environment and doom its people to a slow death. The story follows the Doctor and Nyssa as they are mistaken for agents of the hated Koteem and become embroiled in the politics of this dying planet. Creatures of Beauty is a brilliant self-contained story, one of those Doctor Who stories where the focus is not so much on the Doctor and his companions, but the place they come to and the people they become involved with. This is one of those Who stories where the Doctor plays a passive role and, seemingly, doesn’t change anything or intervene, although there is a great twist in relation to this at the end. This story does not unfold in the right order: it begins in the middle of the plot and jumps forwards and backwards throughout. This is a clever storytelling device, but it is slightly confusing here, especially when the story appears to end at the conclusion of Part 3 (prompting me to confusedly check if I’d been listening to the story in the wrong order). Nevertheless, a very gripping and memorable story. Rating: 9/10.

Circular Time

Circular Time is a compendium of five 25-minute stories involving the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. The first, Spring, sees the Doctor and Nyssa pay a visit to a rogue Time Lord who has set himself up as the leader of a civilisation of flightless birds. The second, Summer, sees them imprisoned by the Warden of the Royal Mint, Sir Isaac Newton, for possession of “counterfeit” coins (from Earth’s future). The third, Autumn, sees the pair settle down in an English village as the Doctor takes up with a village cricket team and Nyssa tries to write a novel, and becomes involved with a romantic interest in the process. The final story, Winter, follows an aged Nyssa, who, disturbed by dreams of the Doctor, uses a device to examine her dreams, only to find she has entered the strange dreams of the Doctor. Circular Time is a nice little collection of stories (I am tempted to say “cute”) that stray from the traditional Doctor Who formula: Spring and Summer are the only stories that bear any resemblance to conventional Doctor Who, while Autumn is a contemplative little tale, and Winter an intriguing insight into the Doctor’s mind. Each of the stories is strong in its own right, Autumn being the strongest, a story with no obvious plot or conflict, but which ends on a poignant, even philosophical note. It’s hard to rate Circular Time as a whole, so I’m going to give each of the stories a separate rating. Spring: 7/10. Summer: 8/10. Autumn: 9/10. Winter: 9/10.

“Spare Parts” and the Cybermen

“We are human.”

“We will survive.”

Two lines from the Doctor Who audio Spare Parts that together encapsulate so perfectly and chillingly what the Cybermen are supposed to be. Spare Parts, an origins story of the Cybermen featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, is a tragic tale of a small, dying human population on Earth’s twin planet, Mondas, who will go to almost any terrible measures in their desperation to survive. Spare Parts interprets the Cybermen’s origins on Mondas to be the story of the Mondasians, driven underground as their planet’s drift far away from the orbit of any sun made the surface of their planet uninhabitable, who, seemingly doomed to extinction, resort to “augmenting” their bodies with artificial, cybernetic parts to survive.

A masterpiece, Spare Parts is perhaps more compelling and genuinely frightening a Cybermen story than any shown on the television series, and certainly the most faithful to Kit Pedler’s vision for the Cybermen. It is worth saying that, in my estimation, the Cybermen have not been done exactly right on television since their first story, The Tenth Planet. After the 1960s, Cybermen stories rather lost the plot altogether, and New Who has never even come close. That’s because it’s so easy to forget what the Cybermen are supposed to be — something Spare Parts attempts to return to, and does so spectacularly.

The Cybermen are usually presented as evil killer robots, robot Daleks with legs. Certainly, it’s difficult to get any other impression from today’s stomping automatons in their Iron Man suits. There’s two things wrong with the I, Robot interpretation of the Cybermen: Cybermen are not robots, and they’re not evil. Cybermen are us, as Spare Parts sought to emphasise. “We are human,” as the Cyber Planner in Spare Parts chillingly put it. The Cybermen are supposed to be tragic. We are supposed to look at them and see ourselves in them, and see what we could become. The Cybermen are not the product of some mad scientist  who tried to create a race of perfect killers, as the Daleks are; they are what became of a human population who, in their desperation to survive, sacrificed so much of their humanity that they now blur the line between man and machine. The Cybermen are as much a warning and a “dark mirror” as they are a villain. The Cybermen are terrifying because they are essentially human, because they are still recognisable as us, and the emphasis on the humanity of the Cybermen in Spare Parts achieves this impression very successfully, such as in a particularly affecting scene in which a young girl who has endeared herself to us goes back to her horrified family after being partially processed into a Cyberman.

Furthermore, the Cybermen are not evil. They are not the Daleks. Their objective isn’t to take over the universe or eliminate inferior races. They have removed their human emotions and impulses, and are slaves to absolute logic. Their primary motivation is to survive. Although, since they make no distinction between themselves once they are cyber-processed, the Cybermen seek to perpetuate their kind by converting other human populations into Cybermen (and at the same time “freeing” those poor souls).

For these reasons, I think the Cybermen have the potential to be the scariest Who villain of all, certainly much scarier than the comparatively one-dimensional Daleks (who are nevertheless always good fun). But, portray the Cybermen as the pantomime villains they usually are, and, ironically, you disregard what makes them uniquely scary and, in fact, make them seem more corny than anything.

Apart from returning to the roots and original conception of the Cybermen very successfully, Spare Parts is an exceptionally well-composed audio story in its own right. There are a number of well-realised characters (which makes it all the more tragic when they are converted into Cybermen), and Nyssa is written very well. The mood is ominous from the very beginning, and the rising sense of crisis keeps the listener hooked all the way through, quickening into a dramatic crescendo at the end. From my personal perspective, the one thing I would have changed about the story would have been to have the population of Mondas voluntarily, and resignedly, convert themselves into fully-processed Cybermen in submission to the inescapable reality that doing so is a necessity for their survival — rather than be deceived, and then coerced, into doing so by the whim of the Central Committee/Cyber Planner. I think the former would have impressed more effectively the sense of utter desperation that birthed the Cybermen, bringing home the tragedy of the story. Nevertheless, Spare Parts is certainly a masterpiece of drama and science fiction, and undoubtedly deserves a place among the Doctor Who classics.