4 years, 6 months ago
It’s February, 2001. Limp Biskit are at number one with “Rollin.” A week later it’s Atomic Kitten’s “Whole Again,” which manages the of-late unheard of feat of actually staying at number one for more than one week. In fact, it rides out the rest of the month. Whetus, Dr. Dre, Usher, Jennifer Lopez, U2, Mya, Papa Roach, Dido, and the Backstreet Boys also chart. In news, over four hundred people die in El Salvador following an earthquake. Ten people die in a high speed train crash near Selby, North Yorkshire. And a massive outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease spreads over the UK, causing quarantines and a culling of cattle so massive in scope that the British Army was required to assist.
While in audio CDs we have The Sword of Orion. As we’ve already discussed, the Big Finish line has an overt focus on being “classic” Doctor Who. But with The Sword of Orion that gets downright literal: this feels like it was written in 1988. Mainly, as it happens, because it was. But the history of that, as well as the fact that it didn’t stick out like a sore thumb in 2001, is worth looking at in more detail. Which means that we have to do the actual history of Big Finish, which we largely skipped last time in favor of some remarks on style.
The first thing to understand are the origins of Big Finish as a company. A fair amount of their personnel had originally worked on the Audio Visuals line in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Audio Visuals line were fan-made Doctor Who audios that starred Nicholas Briggs as an alternate version of the Doctor, and featured several names that are of obvious future relevance to Doctor Who: Garry Russell, Jim Mortimore, and Andy Lane all worked for them, as did Bill Baggs, who directed The Airzone Solution and whose company put out several other almost-but-not-quite Doctor Whos, including audios featuring K-9 and Lalla Ward as “The Mistress,” and ones featuring “The Professor and Ace,” and, later, a run of Faction Paradox audios by Lawrence Miles.
So eventually a chunk of the Audio Visuals folks formed a proper company and got the rights to do a run of Bernice Summerfield audios, which they did a good enough job with to persuade the BBC to give them the rights to do some actual Doctor Who audios. Initially only Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy signed up. Tom Baker declined because, well, that’s the sort of thing Tom Baker does. And Paul McGann didn’t so much decline as not even have the offer forwarded to him because his agent at the time was Janet Fielding, who was in a period where she vocally disliked Doctor Who and didn’t think doing the audios was the right career move for him. Then McGann changed agents and ended up doing the Big Finish audios after all, and now you’re more or less caught up.
Unsurprisingly, when Big Finish started up they turned to the Audio Visuals line and remade a few of their greatest hits. Two of these remakes ended up in the first four Paul McGann audios, and the first of them is The Sword of Orion, which is a remake of a 1988 story from the third season of Audio Visuals. Given that it’s a thirteen year old fan production with a barely altered script, in many ways the most surprising thing about The Sword of Orion is that it doesn’t suck. It’s not a staggering classic by any measure, but it comes off as a competent piece of Doctor Who.
Much of this comes from the inherent tension involved in the Audio Visuals. They were being made at the same time that Doctor Who was, and inevitably this meant that they were competing with the televised Doctor Who. Not in a direct way - the Audio Visuals were careful to stay under the radar and work as polite fan productions that tried to avoid getting sued. But Gary Russell, in interviews, has been open about the ambitions involved, boasting that the Audio Visuals “Dalek stories knocked spots off Saward’s,” taking swipes at the BBC’s attempts at Doctor Who audio, and generally making no secret of the fact that he thought the Audio Visuals were better than the official Doctor Who of the same time.
And there’s nothing that illustrates this better than the handling of the Cybermen. The Cybermen are in a strange way the most interesting of Doctor Who monsters simply because their real definition is “the second choice Daleks,” and thus don’t actually have a single coherent concept. There were, over the course of the classic series, essentially three versions of the Cybermen. The first appeared in The Tenth Planet and then never again, and were the twisted and dark mirrors of humanity. The second were the Troughton-era Cybermen, who made a return in Revenge of the Cybermen. They were primarily metaphors for Communism, and were skulking, sneaky monsters who infiltrated and subverted. Then, finally, in the 1980s we got Eric Saward’s Cybermen, who stomped around a lot and had David Banks in charge of them.
The Sword of Orion is interesting, then, because it came out in 1988, amidst the Sawardian Cybermen (though after Saward himself), but features the Cybermen of the Troughton era. There’s a straightforward fight being picked here. It is perhaps a silly one, as the truth is that the Cybermen aren’t hugely inspiring in either iteration. But it’s a clear shot across the bow. The plot is carefully assembled out of the best bits of Troughton Cybermen stories. Tomb of the Cybermen is the most obvious source, but as with any decent nostalgia the focus is on the tone of the original rather than the specific content. As ever, this is blended with other standard tropes of Doctor Who - most notably a bunch of Robert Holmes-style grumbling working class con men. The result is something that isn’t quite like the Cybermen of yore that nevertheless owes a tremendous debt to it.
The biggest trick, and it’s a key one, is that it’s clear that Nicholas Briggs has thought about the Cybermen in the larger context of science fiction. The Sword of Orion doesn’t just nick from bits of Doctor Who, it grabs shamelessly from Alien and other science fiction around at the time it was written. The human/android conflict that it builds its plot around may be a science fiction cliche, but nobody has actually paired the Cybermen up with the “robots that can think are people too” idea before this. Typical of Big Finish, the interest here isn’t in the philosophical debate as such but in the shape of the story and the way in which the Cybermen can be used to spice up the sci-fi standard. And it works decently, coming out as a well-oiled Cybermen story that’s, as a Cybermen story at least, genuinely better than anything else of the 1980s.
But what’s more puzzling is that it still worked in 2001. And not only did it still work, it still worked in basically the same way. The Sword of Orion’s cover consciously displays the Cybermen in their Invasion/Revenge of the Cybermen forms instead of in their Earthshock redesign, actively stressing the retro nature of these Cybermen. This is still, thirteen years later, a story about returning the Cybermen to an older model.
Admittedly, part of why this idea still has legs is that the Cybermen have been almost wholly neglected in those thirteen years. I may be missing something or other, but I’m fairly sure that there’s only three appearances by the Cybermen in the Wilderness years prior to this: Iceberg, Killing Ground, and Illegal Alien. That’s not nothing, but it’s striking that the Cybermen, ostensibly one of the classic Doctor Who villains and ones that both Virgin and the BBC had the rights to, have been through fewer reinventions during the Wilderness Years than Gallifrey or the Doctor’s origins.
At the heart of this is the fact that the Wilderness Years have been, as we’ve discussed before, startlingly obsessed with the question of the nature of Doctor Who. That’s not to say that there haven’t been revamps of monsters, but if one stops to think about it, there’s been surprisingly less of it than one might expect, especially given how often writers have embraced self-consciously radical and controversial reinventions of Doctor Who. But within the Wilderness Years there really haven’t been any huge reinventions of monsters. I think there was a big thing of Ice Warrior history in one of the Virgin books I didn’t cover, but that’s about it. Not even the C-List monsters got anything. For all the influence of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore over the time period, that seemingly obvious idea got skipped.
Which means that a nostalgia-laced revamp of the Cybermen was potent in 2001 in a way that is a bit surprising. The idea of a story that’s thinking through the Cybermen not so much as “what are they a metaphor for” but rather in terms of “what’s the basic shape of a Cybermen story” is novel. This isn’t some high concept reboot, but it feels like more of a reboot than most revivals of old monsters that we’ve seen in the last decade of Doctor Who simply because it does go back to brass tacks regarding the storytelling of the Cybermen.
Like Storm Warning, The Sword of Orion has relatively basic problems in that storytelling. The most glaring is that it retains so much of the Audio Visuals version’s narrative structure that it gets in the way. The Audio Visuals version consisted of two forty-five minute episodes, with the cliffhanger being the revelation of the Cybermen, who, significantly, aren’t mentioned or depicted anywhere in the packaging of the original story. (In this regard they do nick from the Saward era, since this is blatantly the same publicity used for Earthshock) Retaining this structure means that the first and third episode cliffhangers are relatively weak - secondary characters get menaced by things, and in both cases the resolution is essentially “the secondary character bites it.” Meanwhile, the Cybermen don’t make a proper appearance until the end of episode two, at the halfway mark.
The problem is that The Sword of Orion, having marketing concerns that the Audio Visuals didn’t, put the Cybermen on the cover. Which means that we’ve got the stupid cliffhanger of Planet of the Daleks Episode One, only stretched out over two episodes and several decades after people should have known better. And beyond that, the monster reveal as a concept is fundamentally visual. Shouting “Cybermen!” doesn’t have anything like the impact that a shot of Cybermen does. And unlike the Daleks, where you can get a rough equivalence of their image by having the familiar voice shouting about extermination, the Cybermen need either an explicit confirmation of their identity or the visual of those jug handles to work. Doctor Who has always been a fairly intensely visual show, and a large part of what constitutes “traditional” Doctor Who is visual grammar. And, perhaps somewhat puzzlingly, even after fifteen years of doing audio Doctor Who the Big Finish crew hasn’t quite figured out the implications of that for how they tell their stories.
But as with Storm Warning, Big Finish is, through the simple business of doing decent quality Doctor Who that’s not quite like anything we’ve seen before, revealing how limited the past decade of Doctor Who has been. We’ve talked a lot about the big ideas that Virgin introduced, and the intense characterization, and how that’s an influence on the new series. We’ve talked a lot about the grand ambition of the Eighth Doctor Adventures line. And that’s all true. But it’s not just that the Big Finish line has refocused on the workmanlike task of actually making decent Doctor Who on a regular basis. It’s that the reversion to a model of finding space within the realm of “traditional Doctor Who stuff” is in its own right as radical and substantive a change as the high concept madness of past eras. Once again, Big Finish are demonstrating just how little the past decade of Doctor Who has focused on the business of storytelling. It’s not that there hasn’t been some damn good storytelling in there. But it is perhaps telling that Paul Cornell somehow found himself better known for wild ideas about the Doctor’s psyche than he did for being able to put together a successful story. And it’s the latter, in the end, that was his real asset. Big Finish, at least, understands this.
Which isn’t to say they were without their own radical streak.
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