I somewhat adamantly refused to cover the Big Finish line on this blog before this post, simply because I felt like I should start with a “proper” Big Finish audio from their most distinguished line. The Hartnell book has a Companion Chronicles entry in it, and the Troughton, Pertwee, and Baker books will also have Big Finish bonus entries (The Prison in Space, Find and Replace, and Destination: Nerva, most likely). But in terms of the blog, this is where Big Finish enters. So I suppose we should do the ticky box business of explaining what I’m on about before we get to the fun stuff.
Big Finish are the crowning achievement of the professional fan industry – a bunch of people so good at fan-made Doctor Who audios and audio adaptations of some of the Virgin books that they managed to secure a license in 1999 to do original Doctor Who audios. This is important in several regards. First, it led to a considerably muddier sense of what current Doctor Who was in the half-decade before the return of the series. During the Virgin era there was one official continuation of Doctor Who – the New Adventures. You could love them or hate them, but they were the quasi-official Doctor Who. Their replacement with the BBC Books line was controversial enough in its own right, but the fact that the BBC Books line took a turn into the massively controversial a year after Big Finish started and that six months later Big Finish began its own line of 8th Doctor stories meant that for the bulk of the McGann years there were two barely compatible versions of “new Doctor Who” being made.
Second, like the Virgin books Big Finish has had visible impact on the new series. Two stories – Rob Shearman’s Jubilee and this one – were consciously adapted into television stories. Big Finish staff have worked on the program (more about this in a moment), and, perhaps most impressively, Big Finish have managed to retain the rights to produce audios to this day. (Part of this latter point is a genuinely touching bit of public service. Big Finish in effect provides a retirement home for former Doctor Who actors. Its creative merits aside – and there are, in fact, many creative merits – the fact that it gives a modest paycheck to a large number of people who have contributed substantially to Doctor Who, and that it does this by giving them creative work instead of putting them on exhibit in convention halls, is a genuinely good thing.) The Big Finish line is genuinely important to the story of Doctor Who – you simply can’t cover the beginnings of the new series without also stopping off and talking about things like Jubilee and, well, Spare Parts.
Right. Intro material sorted, into the good stuff. The first and most striking thing, when listening to Spare Parts, is how maddeningly possible it is. Marc Platt wrote for Doctor Who just seven years after the period we’re talking about. The media technology needed to make this story’s basic concept – a true return of the original Tenth Planet-style Cybermen – sensible and coherent is just a few years off. The style of writing here is firmly in the tradition laid out by Kinda. It’s not quite true that this story could have actually been made in 1982, but it’s so very, very close to true as to actively hurt.
Because Spare Parts is a tour de force. It is a triumphantly good story that illustrates brutally what the move to a more continuity-aware vision of Doctor Who should have been. It uses the history of Doctor Who to tell a story that is only possible with a large amount of mythos feeding into them instead of one that treats the history of the show as intrinsically worth repeating. It’s character-based, it has dramatic moments that put the supposed drama of Earthshock to shame, and it’s very possibly the best Doctor Who story the blog has looked at so far.
It’s impossible not to constantly compare Spare Parts to Earthshock, so let’s just embrace it. First, let’s notch one last complaint I had about Earthshock but left out of that entry because it was already getting long and I knew I had this one coming. The Cybermen in Earthshock suck. They are nothing but puissant robots who strut around and gloat. Nothing of the original horror in their concept is retained. They are the blandest and most interchangeable of monsters imaginable, treated in such a way as to fundamentally undermine the basic logic of bringing them back.
I bring this up because Spare Parts is the return of the Cybermen. The real Cybermen. The ones who killed the Doctor in 1966. The most striking aspect of this is the mind-wrenchingly bold decision to actually reproduce the Cybermen voices from The Tenth Planet. This, in turn, brings us to Nicholas Briggs, who is one of the most talented voice actors in the world today. Briggs makes fairly regular appearances across the Big Finish line doing various monster voices, and is good enough at it that he got brought on as the voice of several monsters in the new series.
What is extraordinary about Briggs’s monster voices is that he is capable of taking the design of a monster voice and then making it do things well in excess of the distinctive scariness it was actually made for. His Daleks are extraordinary in this regard – one of the most astonishing moments in Doctor Who comes in Rob Shearman’s Dalek when the Dalek screams in pain. The moment works not just because that’s not something a Dalek is supposed to do conceptually, but because of the frisson of hearing the iconic Dalek voice doing something it was never made to do while still retaining all of its iconic power. And that latter element is all Nicholas Briggs.
Here he manages to take the sing-song voices of the original Cybermen and weaponize them. They were always compelling in part because they were a perverse parody of human speech, but Briggs spends the audio constantly finding new ways to push them. They remain ridiculous, but they rapidly become a genuinely scary sort of ridiculousness that leaves you laughing nervously at them.
This frees the Cybermen up to be what they were always supposed to be – twisted parodies of humanity instead of iconic monsters. Throughout The Tenth Planet the basic horror of the Cybermen is “what the HELL is that thing” – a threat that is lost in every subsequent appearance of them when they simply become “Oh cool, Cybermen.” But here it’s back, with the Cybermen being made horrifying and shocking simply by going back to their original, rejected form.
Similarly, effort is constantly made to make the Cybermen a natural outcropping of Mondasian culture. The fact that Mr. Hartley has a chest-box despite still being human and the fact that the name “Cyberman” is not here a monster name but a variant of the Mondasian pattern of job descriptions (there are also Sistermen and Doctormen in the story). Mondas is similarly played as a twisted reflection of Earth – we continually see a celebration that sounds identical to Christmas only to find out late in the story that all of the symbols of Christmas serve double duty as symbols about the long, dark journey of Mondas through the night. All of this works to restore the Cybermen as our qlippothic doubles. (The establishment that it’s the formation of the moon that cast Mondas off into the darkness is, for those interested in the occult symbolism of the Cybermen, as great as their weakness to gold.)
There are two important things to note about this. The first is that it sets up one of Spare Parts’s more gleefully savage twists as it turns out that the Doctor is, in fact, the template for the design of the Cybermen. On the surface this sounds like a lame variant of the “the Doctor helped create the Time Lords” idea that is at once inevitable and depressing. But Platt (largely responsible for that twist as well) pitches it differently, making the Doctor’s role in the creation of the Cybermen a tragic and inadvertent accident borne of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the result creates a compelling circularity with The Tenth Planet. The Doctor doesn’t realize that the Cybermen are, in fact, his own dark mirror. Of course their energy destroys him. Hartnell’s regeneration becomes literally reframed as him being killed by the future of the franchise.
Second and more important is the relationship this has with continuity in general. This is something I’ve poked at for several entries, but here we can firmly set it up as a narrative principle in contrast with Earthshock. Undoubtedly both Spare Parts and Earthshock rely on references to past Doctor Who stories. But there’s a very, very big difference and the role of the Cybermen in them illustrates it. Earthshock is based on the premise that seeing the Cybermen again is inherently worthwhile. That is to say, the references to the past are an end in themselves. Spare Parts references the past, but goes further by having something to say about the past. It’s not just treating playing with old Doctor Who concepts as intrinsically entertaining, it’s treating it as a springboard for a look at the nature of the concepts and as a source of dramatic tension (by having the implicit possibility that stopping the Cybermen from existing would save Adric). The former is masturbatory and doomed. The latter, on the other hand, is a type of storytelling that is only possible when dealing with mythic characters with a lot of history. The fact that you can do a story like Spare Parts in Doctor Who is a reason why Doctor Who itself is valuable instead of the basic premise of an anthology time travel show with a new setting every story. Because you can’t do Spare Parts with Inspector Space-Time.
This sense of drama gets at the second reason why Spare Parts is miles better than Earthshock. Earthshock’s big dramatic moment – the death of Adric – is an ersatz simulacrum of drama. It acts like drama without actually risking being compelling. Compare it, then, to the scene in which Yvonne, partially processed as a Cyberman, returns home to show off her uniform to her family. Apart from being the best use of the Cybermen voices in the entire story (and I’m not actually sure if Cyber-Yvonne is voiced by the same actress who voices her regularly or by Briggs) it’s a moment that is just horrendously upsetting. I happened to be at that point in the audio when I took a ride with my girlfriend in the car, and she ended up hearing it. She’s a new series fan, so familiar with the Cybermen, but had heard none of the audio leading up to that point. But without any context whatsoever beyond about two sentences of “here’s what’s going on” or familiarity with the characters she was still floored and horrified by the sequence. It packs more dramatic punch with a character who has only appeared for two episodes – with a character you don’t even have to have met at all – than two seasons of buildup prior to the death of Adric possibly can.
The sense of character extends beyond this. Nyssa’s plotline fundamentally depends on her kindness and desire to help others, the Doctor repeatedly makes poor decisions because of his own internal conflicts over what he should or shouldn’t do to stop the Cybermen, and the secondary characters have motivations and personalities that inform what they do, most obviously within the Hartley family. And Platt is willing to push characters to genuine emotional extremes – Doctorman Allen angrily drinking herself to oblivion is a deliciously extreme emotional high that serves as an effective reminder that intensity in drama matters.
This also gets at the third thing that Spare Parts and Earthshock both do, one brilliantly and the other ineptly. Earthshock, largely by accident, involves itself visibly in the politics of its time by presenting an image of the military. I say largely by accident because the early Nathan-Turner era is fairly deliberately apolitical, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as apolitical fiction. When you represent real-world institutions, whether directly or allegorically, you make political comments. (This is a point driven home repeatedly by The Unfolding Text, to its credit – they absolutely eviscerate Terrance Dicks for trying to claim that the Peladon stories were apolitical.) And Earthshock does this without thinking about it, and as a result ends up lending moral support to principles that rapidly showed themselves to be genuinely horrific.
Spare Parts, on the other hand, is written by one of Andrew Cartmel’s merry band of anti-Thatcherite radicals and it shows. Platt is writing about a society in crisis and about the terrible things that people use crises to justify doing. He is writing about the ways in which government secrecy and keeping things from the people allows things to be done in the people’s names that would never be done if they could weigh in and see each incremental step. Spare Parts is not an overt political screed about the time it’s written in or the time it’s set in. But there’s a materialism to it – a commitment to the ideas of social realism that have animated Doctor Who at its best – that is direly lacking in Earthshock and that is why Earthshock is almost sociopathic in its approach to the world.
So what we have here is a story with something to say about our world that says it through genuine character and drama and that could only be told within the structure of Doctor Who. If this isn’t what Doctor Who is fundamentally for – the reason why we still have it fifty years later – I honestly don’t know what is. Spare Parts is straightforwardly an example of why the show exists.
Unfortunately, one of the stories – not the only story, but one of them – that goes on over the next four seasons of Doctor Who is the story of a series that tries desperately to get from where it is to what this audio is doing and finally makes it only to find out that it was too late to save itself. How fitting that that’s basically the plot of Spare Parts as well.