I can’t let the month of Halloween go by without taking a close look at a Cybermen story, so I’m going to take a rare foray into a Big Finish audio play. I’m not intending to make a habit of this because, although I listen to almost the full range that Big Finish put out, I tend not to give them sufficient attention to be able to form a strong enough opinion for a review. That’s not meant as an insult to Big Finish: their dramas are the perfect accompaniment to work or household chores, or a car journey, because audio by its very nature doesn’t tend to invite just sitting down, concentrating on what you are listening to, and doing nothing else. Spare Parts is different. It transcends everything else Big Finish have ever done and grabs your attention whether you are trying to give it or not. In fact, it transcends most television stories.
So the reason I wanted to write about at least one Cybermen story for Halloween is that they are, in my opinion, the scariest monster Doctor Who has ever come up with. But they are only scary when they are done well, and that’s actually extraordinarily rare. There are virtually no Cybermen stories where they are really frightening for almost a forty-year stretch between The Invasion and World Enough and Time, and that’s because they work best when the horror of the conversion process from humanoids is the focus of the story, and of course you can’t keep doing that all the time. And even if you tried then the law of diminishing returns would come into play.
Spare Parts goes back to basics, back to the original ideas of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, and it tells a compelling tale. The story of the Cybermen’s early development is told from the point of view of one insignificant family. They are just an ordinary group of people, and this is the masterstroke of the play. They could so easily have been portrayed as cold logicians, perhaps in the mould of the human survivors in The Ark in Space, but this would have removed it from reality, and not shown what could happen to us. In the modern world this hits home, and makes us stop of think about the repercussions of our own rapid scientific development.
The Cybermen have been known to be excessively violent, such as in Attack of the Cybermen and Real Time, with their respective hand and head crushing antics. Spare Parts is more subtle, but uses that subtlety to be much more horrific and frightening, culminating in the moment when Yvonne returns home, surgically reconstructed and almost unrecognisable to her father. The horrors the Hartley family have to go through are portrayed with realism, and are absolutely terrifying.
Spare Parts is perfectly in keeping with established continuity, with the original Cybermen voices. These were often criticised, but were actually very creepy as they were recognisable as human but wrong, and they work wonderfully here. Nicholas Briggs is simply the most talented monster voice actor to ever work on Doctor Who, and it’s not hard to see why he got the television gig on the back of his Big Finish work.
The standard is faultless throughout, and Peter Davison is the perfect choice of Doctor for this type of story, with his gentle vulnerability. Fifteen years on this is still the finest audio drama that Big Finish has ever produced. I can’t see it ever being surpassed. RP