A Journey to the Edge of Space (The Sword of Orion)

(36 comments)

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.

Comments

Alex Antonijevic 4 years, 1 month ago

"Which means that we have to do the actual history of Big Finish, which we largely skipped last time in favor of some"

This is like one of those cliffhangers that the following episode (or paragraph) completely ignores. Don't leave me in suspense!

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Alex Wilcock 4 years, 1 month ago

It’s intriguing… I loved Storm Warning and The Stones of Venice at the time, but was much less impressed by the two Audio Visuals remakes. Despite the conclusion of your previous piece almost putting me off the former with what came across as the marketing tag ‘Big Finish – Reassuringly Unimaginative’, it was Sword of Orion that didn’t do much more me, and despite the ’60s look, it’s immensely Earthshock, isn’t it (as were the 1987-version voices)? Perhaps because I’d got used to Doctor Who with ideas in the previous decade.

These days I’m much more understanding of it, and not just on its own merits (it is quite well done). I’d vaguely heard about the Audio Visuals when I was at school in the ’80s, but never actually heard them until a few months ago, after reading MIWK’s Justyce Served, which I recommend as a fascinating read (http://www.miwkpublishing.com/store/index.php?_a=product&product_id=7). I now get why the original 1987 version of Sword of Orion was so popular – not least that Jim Mortimore’s score is thrilling, just as much a mix of ’60s and ’80s as the story, complete with remix of Space Adventure – but I also feel sympathy for Nick Briggs, who one of the book’s interview snippets reveals was basically asked to write something full of clichés, and did, only to find everyone liked it (including himself)! So it’s a shame that the relatively negative 2001 reaction to definitely their closest remake seemed to have put them off remaking some of the more interesting scripts (albeit still with echoes of the AVs coming up as late as this very month). Good point about how the Cybermen are much less iconic on audio – perhaps part of why they’d already used the Daleks several times by this point – but that buildup does help, even if you know they’re coming.

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.
Well, I know you don’t mention the comics all that often, but still… Apart from Junkyard Demon II, Andrew Cartmel’s The Good Soldier, Gary Russell’s Dreadnought, over a year of Kroton the Cyberman with a soul in the Eighth Doctor comic strips, and Adrian Salmon’s The Cybermen strip aiming to do for them in the ’90s what The Daleks did in TV21.

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

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.

While I get this and find great truth in it, I will point out that when I listened to 'Legend of the Cybermen' (Which I'm curious about your take on, given your reaction to attempts to revisit the land of fiction. There's still something uncomfortably grave-robbey about it, but that portrayal of the place seems just miles more in line with the original sense of the place than any of the other attempts), I distinctly thought "What a cracking shame they put the Cybermen right there in the title," because it was a fantastic reveal to suddenly hear a Troughton-Era Ring Modulator Cyberman Voice say "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

No wonder I felt like I'd been transported back to the Eighties!

It didn't help to hear strains of the old Earthshock score, and those distinct Cyber-voices. More, though, while the BF team seemed to have an adequate handle on plot, and how to switch back and forth between those sorts of threads, I was rather disappointed in the lack of "lessons learned" from the Nineties. The characterization seemed weak, one-dimensional, more in the base-under-siege mentality of job and story function rather than properly motivated and conflicted individuals. Well, not entirely. The interactions between Charley and the Doctor were great.

And I rather missed a more thorough exploration of what it means to be conscious and sentient, whether android or human. There were some big ideas on the table, but they kind of get lost in the mix of the nuts and bolts of base-under-siege. And because there's so little in the way of character development, none of the deaths moved me, nor did the predicted reveal of the android, coming far too late in the story.

After a while I found myself looking at the clock and wondering how long it was all going to take. In general, but not always, the episodes that run over 30 minutes just seem flabby to me, lacking in tight direction or script editing. And because the characters aren't so well drawn, I often got confused as to what was actually going on.

But maybe this is just me getting old. As Phil says, it's competent in what it sets out to do, and some of the sequences were pretty gripping -- traveling by grav-pad, exploring a creepy spaceship, the actual siege. I was impressed at how well they could actually convey a visual sense of the environment. But really, these Cybermen are straight out of Attack, aren't they? Just going about their conversions, little more than generic logic-monsters. Perhaps because they no longer work as metaphors for Communism, what with the general failure of that political system, China notwithstanding.

In that sense, I think Davies had the right idea of going back to the beginning and making them about the fear of death, and automation, but explicitly linking them with capitalism, the much more effective and scary force of the Industrial Age.

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

There is a certain beauty in the fact that the Cybermen evolved from being an Obvious Stand-In For The Coldly Rational Evil of Communism to being an Obvious Stand-In for the Coldly Rational Evil of Capitalism (And I only just now realized how thematically apropriate it is that they come from a world with a zepplins to generate a mildly steampunk aesthetic, with all its victorian overtones), but I think that RTD's reboot of the Cybermen does fall short in one respect. The Cybermen traditionally have had a tension between horror and tragedy -- that conversion into a cyberman was horiffic, but at the same time, all the cybermen ever wanted was to *survive*, and becoming Cybermen was the only way they could do that. That aspect is largely absent with the Pete's World Cybermen, and it's a big loss to my mind.

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Robert Lloyd 4 years, 1 month ago

"Then, finally, in the 1980s we got Eric Saward’s Cybermen, who stomped around a lot and had David Banks in charge of them."

At least on TV, we seem to have the same thing now, only without David Banks.

Yeah, the Cybermen have typically been "second choice Daleks" from an adventure-storytelling perspective, but when the focus has been put on what they actually are in-Universe, they often come off much better. Witness one of the best Cyber-stories ever, "Spare Parts"... which was, of course, made by Big Finish!

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Robert Lloyd 4 years, 1 month ago

"There is a certain beauty in the fact that the Cybermen evolved from being an Obvious Stand-In For The Coldly Rational Evil of Communism to being an Obvious Stand-In for the Coldly Rational Evil of Capitalism ..."

I had an idea a while back which had them becoming exactly that. One of these days, I may still write it...

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theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

With any luck Gaiman's "The Last Cyberman" this spring will give us some real deep and meaningful Cybermen that are more than big stompy Borg with worse voices.

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

What the new series Cybermen missed -- but must have been present in the early stages, because of all that stuff about 'Body Shops' -- is that the key to the concept of the Cybermen (or at least, the key to a concept of the Cybermen, as there have been so many, but this is my preferred one) is that becoming a Cyberman should be tempting.

They were born, after all, out of the era of transplants and prosthetics, with the idea of, for example, an artificial heart (though the reality was some way in the future), floating very near the surface of public consciousness. These are good things, and the Cybermen are the flipside of that.

And shot through all the Cybermen stories we find character who envy the Cybermen, whether for their lack of emotion, their physical strength, their racial purity, or whatever.

The new series Cybermen shouldn't have been homeless people kidnapped off the street and forced into conversion chambers screaming. They should have been middle-class and up affluent professionals getting the latest gadgets (the 'earPods' idea taken further) and demanding the final stages of conversion, only for the audience later to realise that they have given up their very humanity in the pursuit of the body beautiful (all the while the Cybermen themselves talk about how they have never been happier, how much more vivid the world is with their new senses, and how once people give up their silly resistance and allow themselves to be upgraded how much more wonderful everything will be).

Basically, the dehumanisation inherent in hedonism. That's the way to go with modern Cybermen.

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

@Ross: I dunno, I think Davies got some of that tragedy in with his Cybermen. Well, to the extent that cheating death through something more horrific is a tragedy -- if anything I found it more ironic than tragic, at least when it came to Lumic's unequivocal desire to survive coupled with his resistance to what that would actually entail.

Instead, Davies finds the tragedy in other places. When the Doctor and Mrs Moore find the bride-to-be who's already been converted, followed immediately by Mrs Moore's death, and Jackie's desire to have her father restored to her, even as a ghost.

Mostly though, just making the Cybermen the "ghosts" of the finale points in the direction of that Cyber-ideal of immortality, and helps to establish that the Other Side of "Pete's World" can function as a metaphor for death and afterlife, something we really haven't seen from a Cyber-story since The Tenth Planet. But he doesn't stop there, he actually applies Who principles to the Cybermen themselves, smashing together their various meanings into a single whole, and even adding "for Queen and Country" to boot!

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

@SK: I like the cut of your jib! Davies kind of played with the fringe of those ideas with Cassandra and the Extreme Makeover satire, and even with the Adipose, but not in such a direct and compelling way as what you've suggested.

Another way the Cybermen would work metaphorically is along the lines of "forced conversion" in a religious sense, that they are cult who promise life after death.

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

For purposes of head-canon, I ended up turning the dangling sentence into: "Which means that we have to do the actual history of Big Finish, which we largely skipped last time."

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

Well, I can't take much credit: it's just mashing together Spare Parts and the bits about the internet in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Of course, the inherent problem with that sort of story is that it's so easily to slippery-slope into going Luddite. I'd like to see some form of the idea where Cyber-conversion isn't necessarily bad at all - as long as it's a choice.

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

Well, the point of my suggestion is that there are choices which are superficially attractive but ultimately destructive. So for that to work it kind of has to be both a choice, and bad.

But temptingly bad: as mentioned, an important scene would be where some character is, say, suffering from a mortal disease which cyber-conversion would cure, and must decide whether to die or give up their humanity for an eternal quasi-life of enhanced strength, stamina, senses, etc. Their family, say, could be begging for them to allow the conversion procedure.

Choices are only interesting, dramatically, if they are hard choices: if the wrong choice is really, honestly attractive. Otherwise there is no drama.

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theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

I like this story, in the same way I like theater Nachos. They're not the pinnacle of anything but just enjoyable on it's own merits.

The main thing that bothers me is the thought that in 2503 we've created enough junk in the universe that we need scrap ships. I mean, space is big. BIG. Really flipping big. The idea that even in 500 years we could put out enough garbage that an entire industry (and a low rent industry) could grow up around it.

India Fisher and Paul McGann continue to develop their relationship, and McGann makes the role his own. I like that he doesn't look down on the men based on their profession.

Part of me is sad he never went back to look for Jansen. I think she might be an interesting companion. The android exploring what it means to be human might be a bit played, but add the Doctor (especially one so passionate) and I have no doubt that there is a lot of potential there.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, but in that case, for instance - is it the wrong choice? Certainly, artificial hearts and prosthetics weren't.

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

And Cybermen don't just have artificial hearts. The point is to take it to the extreme, because that's where the monsters are.

The sixties were the era of technology, and the Cybermen were the nightmare of technology. Today is the era of hedonism, and so modern Cybermen should be the nightmare of hedonism.

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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BZArcher 4 years, 1 month ago

It's less that space is big, and more that a lot of the areas we're going to want to use in space (LaGrange points, transorbital paths, etx) is going to get increasingly crowded - we're already having problems with one planetary orbit just 50 years into having a small (but growing) space industry.

I can completely see the "Junk ships" being used to clean debris, derelicts, and obsolete hardware out of established transit and orbital routes.

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theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

Which I did not even consider until now. Even so, the dialog in the Audio makes it sound like everywhere is getting crowded out with space Garbage.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 1 month ago

I've often thought that much as the Cybermen are just seen as the second-rate Daleks, they're potentially much more adaptable story-line wise than the Daleks. You only have to look at how they were used in Troughton's time, then the 80s, and now Davies' take on them. Not unlike the Alien franchise, you could actually drop them into almost any kind of story and make them work. @SK - your idea is just crying out for what appears to be a utopian society, but with Cybermen lurking in the background recruiting from the willing. The Dark Horse Alien comics had a storyline with misguided fanatics giving themselves to Alien facehuggers with religious fervour. Drop Cybermen into the same scenario and you've got @jane's "cult" idea.

Whereas you've only ever been able to get two good ideas out of the Daleks (until Russell discovered a 3rd in "Parting of the Ways" with the "blasphemy" joke).

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Commander Maxil 4 years, 1 month ago

I have always enjoyed Sword of Orion; it is a good, solid piece of Doctor Who (though I confess I did not know it was an old script when I first heard it). It’s well acted and moves at a fairly good pace, and McGann and Fisher are starting to hit their stride here, especially in the early scenes in the Garrazone spaceport . Best of all, the concepts introduced in this (the Orion War between humans and androids and the Cybermen getting drawn in) lead into one of my favourite ever Big Finish spin-offs, the superb Cyberman, probably the best ever exploration of the Cybermen and their motives, including a lot of the discussion about what it is to be sentient that is missing in this story. Honestly it’s better than any other Cybermen appearance I can think of (except of course for the superlative Spare Parts. Overall another solid entry, can’t wait for the next entry though, as that’s when things really start to get brilliant.

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J Mairs 4 years, 1 month ago

I've always thought that the Cybermen should move away from a single species - whether they're Mondasians or Alt-earthians into an idea - a technology teleology that each scientific race must eventually confront. Some survive, some fail, and the Cybermen are born.

One thing I thought this story caught was that, during conversion, one's perspective changes, and I've always thought this is something which should be explored further - like the idea that uploading one's consciousness into binary removes the ability to see the world in anything but 1 or 0

Plus I don't like the idea of the Cybermen being all sleek and modern and the whole idea of being able to continuously upgrade. Personally, I think it should be the opposite - Out of Date technology. After all, back in the 80s, a "megabyte modem" was someone's idea of futuristic technology, and home computers were loaded by cassette tape. Nowadays we have things like Apple - but that will become obsolete in a few years.

Imagine replacing every part of your mind with a machine - but instead of a sleek Ipad, you're loading it onto an Atari, and will have no way to recover what has been lost (not that you'd care, there is, after all, no need to upgrade!)

..and personally, I think the Heart is one of the pieces that *shouldn't* be replaced, just for the sadistic irony.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Am I the only one who thinks "misguided fanatics giving themselves to [X] with religious fervour" is an enormously overused plotline at this point? It's just a way to have generically evil people, with the excuse that, y'know, they're religious fanatics, they're crazy (and don't have any interiority beyond crazy).

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Archeology of the Future 4 years, 1 month ago

I've always thought that the Cybermen only really work when they have a cyber objective.

What the point of converting more people to cybermen? Tomb of the Cybermen really mucks them up, for me at least. The cybermen in The Tenth Planet feel they are offering a kindness through cyber conversion. The Tomb of the Cybermen, erm, Cybermen just want to get up out of bed and conquer. I've never quite grasped where the Cybermen would fit in to a universe teeming with life. What's the point of them? What do they actually want to do?

Subsequent cyber stories have turned the giving of the gift of conversion into a threat, as if the cybermen understand how terrifying to their victims cyber conversion is.

"Do as I say or I'll convert you into being like me, which I think is actually better"

It's incredible how much Mark Platt's attempts in Spare Parts to make the Cybermen work create such a grim and compelling story of a society under pressure making the decision to turn their population to something less than human in response to a threat. Though a series of made for the best decisions the Mondans remake themselves into something other than what they were. Not an evil plan but a series of small government decisions.

The cybermen don't fail, they're actually the success of Mondan survival. RTD shifted all of his more complicated thoughts into the Toclafane from Sound of Drums etc. He basically remakes the Spare Parts story left unused in Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel making the last humans the Mondans but ending up with a far less ordered result.

The cybermen don't really work as a foe because it's not really clear what they want short of hanging about and doing a bit of converting. They really don't work as a space army. The Rise of the Cybermen has The Doctor opine that they're like a cancer, implying they just exist to multiply with no particular purpose after lurking about for a bit undetected.

I suppose that the Cybermen are most effective as antagonists when they walk closest to the line asking 'what's so effing great about being human anyway?'

What if being a Cyberman really is the improvement they claim?

Or maybe the way to understand the Cybermen is that they've found enlightenment as Phil says but that once that is done there is either pointless toil for toil's sake or just giving up and doing nothing. Perhaps that's why the Cybermen are so keen on conversion - they are literally converting people to their understanding of the universe, an understanding which seems to be based around the idea of eventually just coming to rest.

Perhaps the Cyberleader is spinning a line in Tomb of The Cybermen? Perhaps they went to bed because having survived in their new improved metal bodies there really isn't anything much to do and they don't fancy trying to start an empire that they know is pointless because it isn't a survival response to any sort of threat, but just surviving because you can't die anymore.

I suppose that is ultimately the interesting thing if you take Spare Parts as cannon: You have in the Cybermen a society that survived a catastrophe but in the process of doing so remove dthe parts of themselves that could savour their survival. instead you have a civilization of survivors who can't grow beyond the conditions that allowed them to survive. They literally turned themselves to steel to survive their tribulation, but once their tribulation was finished and they ascended to the heavens it was beyond their power to become soft and relaxed again. The Cybermen are, then, people could can't escape the trauma of doing what it takes to survive. Insulated and armoured against death, they are then a race (and idea or template of a race?) that has left itself with no avenues for renewal, no path forward and no path back.

That's why they end up farting about in sewers and stuff. They do it because they haven;t got anything else to do.

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Scott 4 years, 1 month ago

Not by a long pole, Ununnilium, but over ten years after 9/11 and with religious extremism (apparently) still lurking under every bed, they ain't going anywhere. It's kind of like ruthless corrupt corporate executives; yeah, they're a bit overused, but when you apparently can't walk out your front door without tripping over half-a-dozen real-life examples before you've even reached the postbox, it's hard not to find them a convenient shorthand for fictional bad-guys.

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Josiah Rowe 4 years, 1 month ago

"Not even the C-List monsters got anything."

There's the notable exception of the Krotons in Alien Bodies.

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Archeology of the Future 4 years, 1 month ago

I suppose, thinking about it, that makes the Cybermen work as a metaphor for disruptive innovation - they're an innovation in living that breaks the mechanism of living for everyone else around them, perhaps like a kind of gated community which annexes parts of a city from public ownership, except the gate and the walls are embodied in your actual body itself.

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elvwood 4 years, 1 month ago

I also thought that Sword of Orion was good solid entertainment, nothing overtly clever but really fun. And from your description, perhaps I should try the Cyberman series - but I've just spent too much in Big Finish's current sale on a chunk of the eighth Doctor/Lucie stories that I'd only heard on radio, so it'll take a while for the finances to recover!

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, but the thing is, unlike corrupt executives, where the personalities and quirks of the people involved are unfortunately familiar, it's terribly easy to take religious fanaticism and make it The Other. No, no, it's not something that evolves out of otherwise-reasonable clinging to desperate slivers of hope in shitty circumstances. It's not an attempt to find something to care about in a world where the media tells you there's nothing worthwhile. They're just crazy.

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matthew 4 years, 1 month ago

"there really haven’t been any huge reinventions of monsters."

So it seems like no-one really brought up the Klade when the blog was discussing Father Time, then...

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theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

I think it's a plotline that CAN be done well and interestingly, but like anything else it takes a deft hand. I don't really see religious fanatics as played out...I just want to see them better written. I want to see less of the monks from "Tooth and Claw" and more like the various faiths we saw on B5.

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theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

Wasn't that more than a stealth reinvention rather than a big re imagining? I've never gotten the impression that the Klade were ever meant to do more then lurk around.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 1 month ago

The example I cited from the "Aliens" comic was not of religious fundamentalist terrorists, but of ordinary people brainwashed and deluded into following a cult. Kind of like the Moonies.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 1 month ago

Hmmm...what you're really saying is that beyond The Tenth Planet the Cybermen don't stand up to detailed analysis. One could argue that we can no longer truly understand their motivations since they are no longer human like us. Or that their motivation is now simply programming (like a virus is programmed to convert, multiply and conquer), and they have no concept of anything beyond that programming. Their reason for existence is simply to conquer and survive, nothing more.

On the other hand you could say that they are simply a reflection of the requirements of the plot they happen to be in. Which is why their motivations change with each story. Mysterious plague on space station? Use the Cyberman plot because they're, you know, ruthless and inhuman. Invasion of London? Cybermen again, creeping through sewers. Do this enough times with enough plots and the Cybermen's motives become canon. Why do they mindlessly convert people? Why do they electrocute by grabbing your shoulders? Why do they have this drive to survive? Ummm...because that's how they've been written, and that's now what we expect them to do.

Cybermen are what Cybermen are...because that's what they are. The Cybermen cliches have just been carried on through each successive era of Doctor Who until they just became walking cliches. I'm old enough to find anything beyond about 1975 as pretty unwatchable (it happens), and to me the Cybermen in the 80s were nothing more than successive iterations of how they were in their previous story, to the point of parody. They stomp, they say "Excellent!", they drop dead at the mere touch of gold, and they walk slowly towards UNIT so they can get shot down. Even the gold thing had a vaguely rational explanation when it was introduced in "Revenge", but by the time the 5th Doctor encounters them, mashing Adric's gold badge into their chests fells them.

Even RTD for all of his innovations still made the Cybermen little more than 21st Century updates of the same stereotype. They stomp (even on grass), they walk slowly (and somehow manage to catch up with you, even though you're running and they're not), and even though they don't say "Excellent!" I can hear them thinking it!

It doesn't really sell Cyberconversion does it? "You will live for ever, but you will never be able to walk faster than about 5 miles an hour, or climb up anything steeper than a set of domestic stairs, and running is completely out of the question. Oh, and no matter how technologically advanced you get, the Daleks will still pwn you."

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