A new review from Mike has been added below. If you haven’t read mine, take a look. If you have, scroll on down…
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
The view from across the pond:
This is the one you hear everyone talking about. This is the Cyber-story of Cyber-stories. This is Spare Parts. Everyone who is into Big Finish audios knows this one. Roger did a special edition in the Junkyard for this very story because its “so good”. But is it? How could I say anything but the best things about this story?
It is a cautionary tale and in science fiction, that’s never a bad thing. Unless it’s been done already. And it has, in 1966 and onwards. From the first meeting of the Cybermen, we are given a sneak peak into what we could evolve into but it’s a bit more prescient now. Davison even remarks that it might start with a breast implant here or another augmentation there, and before long, we’re looking at socks over our heads and no emotions. But that’s nothing new. Ok, he said something we know, but any augmentation is a hint towards this, but would we turn down a hip replacement? Lasik surgery? We’ve been telling that Cyber-story from the start but with the visuals to accompany it. I’m not saying it needs visuals, but don’t act like this is the pinnacle when there are far better stories. And if we’re going to applaud every cautionary tale just on principle of it being cautionary, that’s not fair. I mean, we can start with patriotism and devolve into ethnic cleansing and sooner or later we’re talking either Nazis or Daleks but that doesn’t make the story good. It just reminds us that every good side (patriotism) has a bad side when left unchecked (ethnic cleansing). But that’s not even my biggest issue with this story.
My biggest gripe with Spare Parts is laziness. And I will blame Greedfall. I would have felt the same even without this new PC game but the game just happened to be what I was playing the week I listened to Spare Parts. So what did it? Greedfall takes place in a pseudo-Earth, and you play as a colonial explorer coming to a pseudo-America where you interact with the natives, a cross between American Indian and Irishman, if their accents are anything to go by. At one point your character is speaking to a native and he says a word. (I’ll be damned if I remember the word; it eludes me!) Let’s say the word was “contract”. The native asked “what’s contract?” And I realized how lazy Spare Parts was. See, kettles and tea and pets and butchers and all those things… those are Earth terms, and very specific terms that would only be known to the English speaking world. Mondas shouldn’t have “tea”. As fantastic as Paul Copley is as “dad” in this story, I don’t want to hear him say to “put the kettle on”, because “parallel development” or not, I don’t expect the words to coincidentally be the same, or people in Spain wouldn’t say “poner la tetera al fuego!” Tetera is kettle. Weird, right? And that’s on the same planet. And you can say “oh, that’s the TARDIS telepathic circuits working overtime” but it’s a copout the minute you consider Cybermats. The only “mats” we have are the kind you step on outside the shower or the front door. If the TARDIS is really responsible, it might have been a CyberCat or CyberRat, but it wasn’t. It was Cybermat, right from the start. When the Nyssa gives away the Doctor’s prized tea, Frank is able to read it. He doesn’t say “oh I love shazbot, it’s my drink of choice” because he knows English and that was just lazy writing. Oh, and FRANK?? I mean, Nyssa is a lovely name and it is exotic. FRANK?! Real Mondasian sounding isn’t it? Thomas Dodd, Yvonne Hartley, Mrs. Ginsberg?!?!!??! That must be the Jewish section of the Mondasian world. The most impressive thing was adding “man” to the end of Sister and Doctor to give something different to a woman of religious order or a doctor. But too little too late. Way too little.
That says nothing of the Doctors insistence on getting involved in what will end up costing him his first life. Had he allowed Mondas to move on, on its own course, nothing would have come of the Cybermen as soon as they entered the Cherry Bowl nebula, but he changes the course of the planet and sends it back to Earth. So he’s forbidden from interfering but had he not interfered, he might still be William Hartnell. The Time Lords were ok with this?? And did the Doctor really think he was on Earth in the beginning? Did he really need Nyssa to tell him the cave wasn’t where we typically keep Trafalgar Square?
Ok, Doctorman Allan was a great character especially as she makes fun of Sisterman Constance, and the cast overall is magnificent so I won’t take away from that. I’m not criticizing the story, I’m criticizing lazy writing. I enjoyed the story once I got past the lazy writing. And I can’t knock the voices of the Cybermen. They are consistently fantastic and hearing them for a two hour car ride is considerably different than hearing Daleks. There’s something marvelously eerie about hearing those Cyber-voices that Daleks totally lack. One sends chills down my spine while the other makes me lower the volume over and over.
I’m not saying Spare Parts isn’t worth a listen. It is. But you have to be willing to turn off the thinking center of your brain for select parts. Marc Platt wrote what should have been a great story, but he put too little effort into a simple thing like words to have me put this at the top of the Big Finish list. And I know that will put me in a minority… ML
The Cybermen are indeed the scariest Dr. Who monster in the sense of the monsters that are close to home. We know that the Cybermen were originally humans like us from another Earth, first from Earth’s twin Mondas and then from a parallel-universe Earth. So quite naturally, given the sciences behind how the Cybermen came to be, they are the most haunting reminders of what WE may one day become if we fail to appreciate our intrinsic human values enough.
SF reminds us of this danger consistently with many dystopian cautionary-tales from 1984 to Blade Runner. Robert J. Sawyer made the point on how the machine aspects (same with the Daleks) are metaphorical for the overwhelmingly bad influences you adopt into your life that make you inhuman and evil. Because we know that people in the real world today don’t need to be Cybermen or Borg to be perceived, metaphorically or otherwise, as emotionless machines. And so any Dr. Who story, either on TV, via Big Finish or fan films as with Deconstruction, that’s smart enough to authentically familiarize the cold legacy of the Cybermen can earn my appreciation.
Thank you both, RP and ML, for your reviews on Spare Parts.
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