[CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR TO THE DEATH...]
What’s it about: Roll up! Roll up! To the great Viennese Exposition, where showman Stahlbaum will show you his most wonderful creation, the Silver Turk – a mechanical marvel that will not only play for you the fortepiano, the spinet and the flute, it will play you at the gaming table too! But when the Doctor brings his new travelling companion Mary Shelley to nineteenth-century Vienna, he soon identifies the incredible Turk as one of his deadliest enemies – a part-machine Cyberman. And that’s not even the worst of the horrors at large in the city…
Breathless Romantic: The last time we heard from Paul McGann he had lost three of his friends to a Dalek invasion and was heading off into the ether in an almost suicidal state. Nick Briggs has said that the repercussions of the end To The Death will be dealt with at some point but this is clearly a long time before that because he leaps out of this adventure offering the exotic to Mary like a joyous magician pulling away a cloak on the secrets of the universe. This is set during the time he was still travelling with Gemma and Samson (who were revealed in Terror Firma) which is even before he met Charley Pollard. He tries to convince Mary that she cannot always believe what she reads in the papers but the reality is he has well and truly fudged up the date. He never carries money which usually lands him a bit of a spot. He cannot believe it when people are asking for their money back in the face of a Cyberman, he tells them to be thankful for their lives. Like the third Doctor in The Curse of Peladon who had made his mind up about The Ice Warriors they second he clapped eyes on them, he refuses to hear any kind words about the Cyberman and insists that their lives are imperilled. The story takes the unusual angle of making the Doctor the monster for refusing to sympathise with what is clearly a damaged, tortured human. After Mary has been kidnapped he muses on how she came to travel with him, she was willing and he really enjoys her company but she doesn’t write the books that make her famous who knows what sort of temporal tangle that will cause. It comes to a stage where Mary demands that the Doctor show Gram some pity and call him by his name but he still shows but contempt for them no matter how crippled they are. In a moment of barking generosity Drossel offers the Doctor an animated wooden doll version of Mary as his companion, one that never answers back. He states that his puppet double is a joke with rubbish hair (I bet Paul McGann loved saying that line!) and no romantic charm. The Doctor is certain that Mary is going to leave him even though he thought it was going to be such fun so imagine his delight when she reminds him that he promised her the stars and a gentleman always keeps his promises.
Horror Struck Authoress: Mary Shelley is not the first person you might think of as a travelling companion for the Doctor (although she is exactly the sort of person you might imagine the Byronesque eighth Doctor gadding about with!) but lets thank Big Finish for spotting what a glorious pairing they would make with Julie Cox in the role. She steps from the TARDIS with giddy excitement trying to guess what fabulous festival the Doctor might have brought her to. Mary wonders what the Doctor can mean by travelling when they do even get to see the scenery as they do so. Learning that she is half a century in the future Mary does lose it a bit but then she has just managed to get a handle on moving instantaneously across the world and now she is being assaulted with the knowledge that they are 50 years hence. Mary doesn’t know what science fiction is. Since she is paying she declares that they do require a guide despite the Doctor’s objections. In the face of one of the Mondas originals Mary thinks that it looks so melancholy. One never knows when the muse of inspiration will descend and so Mary keeps a knife handy to sharpen her pencils. She has only known the Doctor a day but by the calendar they met years ago…and she feels as though the latter has more truth about it. But she is sure that he is a good man. The amount of pathos in the scenes between Mary and Gram is extraordinary – who would have ever thought that a conversation between a human and a Cybermen could be so sensitively played. The relationship between them reminded me of Evelyn’s with the Dalek in Jubilee, in both cases the monster is damaged, tortured and seeking solace but unpredictable and vicious too. Mary comes face to face with an automaton of herself, full of poise and grace that will take her place in the real stage whiles she rots in a cage. Her kindness to Gram is what allowed him to rejuvenate and she finds they thought of the worst things in the universe being a result of the best intentions a chilling one. Percy Shelley isn’t as bad as she paints him and sometimes he is even quite agreeable. When she questions this horrific existence the Doctor ask her if she wants to be the old woman saying ‘do you remember when I nearly travelled to the stars?’ She cannot cope with the way her life has been turned upside and falls into the hands of Gram who manipulates her emotions into helping him find the Doctor.
Standout Performance: Nick Briggs continues to surprise and his considerate turn as Gram is a revelation, a damaged Cybermen that is barely surviving.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Alarm her? This is Mary Shelley you’re talking to! Author of the darkest, spookiest stories you could ever read!’ ‘Am I?’
‘The Cyberman comes from another world, Mary. A lost world which was once like your Earth but the unhappy people there were facing extinction. In a desperate attempt to survive the people of that world, Mondas, began replacing their own body parts with machines. More and more until their humanity was lost forever.’
‘A monster, alone, disfigured, exploited and abused…’ – you can see precisely where Mary Shelley might have gotten her inspiration to make Frankenstein’s monster such a sympathetic character.
‘It is heavens rage, Bram, it will renew us!’
‘Go to Hell, Sir.’
‘Pinocchio’s in fancy dress! A travesty of real Cybermen!’
Great Ideas: The Silver Turk is an automaton on exhibition that all and sundry can visit and baulk at, he is unrivalled at any skill and Stahlbaum is using his talents deviously to make money. The concert of the Silver Turk tickling the ivories is interrupted by a theatrical Doctor who is appalled that nobody can see it is playing the piano without any feet to work the pedals! Marc Platt has caught upon a wonderful idea of the nemesis being something other than the Cyberman despite its presence. As a result the pathetic creature strapped to a chair is more of a victim than a menace. The Cyber Ship lost control and crashed and Gram lost his legs in the violent assault on the planet and now he walks on three hands, having used resources to make himself a third arm. He doesn’t understand why the surface is inhabited or why the population do not wear survival suits because he thinks he has crash-landed on Mondas. Dr Drossel sends Gram to collect eyes from mortuaries to make his automatons of people and says that they give the puppets souls. Since he created the automatons, Gram can control them. The Cybermen wanting to harness the rage that screams from the sky, lightning, is a delicious concept. Dr Drossel calls his theatre of wooden dolls Marionette World! The puppet Empress having her head snapped off by the Doctor is brilliantly nasty in the wake of Stahlbaum’s venerations. Even more disturbing is the puppet Doctor who stands in the darkness and states ‘I am waiting for my eyes…’ Drossel cut off Gram’s legs so he couldn’t escape, he never lost them in the crash and even he is a puppet, created in his own image.
Audio Landscape: The first handful of scenes of The Silver Turk featuring a lullaby and a man being murdered is one of the most atmospheric openings for an age. Baby gurgling, horse sighing, the screeching, growling Cyberman, clip-clop, clip-clop, the disgusting sounds of the Cyberman eating, the exhibit bell, a screaming wind, gunshot, ticking clock, striking a match, Gran smashing on the door when he discovers he is not alone on the planet, a ticking mechanical horse with blue eyes, the scuttling footsteps of the marionettes, wreckage falling, flames, thunder cracking the sky, lightning hitting the tower and coursing through the Cybermen, pouring a drink, the puppet wood consigned to popping, cracking flames.
Musical Cues: Could Mary Shelley’s adventures have kicked off with a more optimistic, delightful score? Beautiful piano music plays over the opening scenes with the count that is so well done I was in danger of losing track of the dialogue so I could listen to the music. More piano but this time of a darker nature as the Silver Turk attacks.
Standout Scene: There is an astonishing scene between Mary and Gram in a church that ranks up there with the best ever Big Finish scenes. She discovers the Cybermen come from a world without a God or as he says primitive belief in a religious deity has no logical foundation and she asks who will save their souls. He replies in that cold, logical tone ‘we save ourselves.’ Make sure you stick around after the closing theme for the gem of a final scene.
Result: Written by Marc Platt, directed by Barnaby Edwards with music and sound effects by Jamie Robertson and featuring the eighth Doctor, Mary Shelley and the Cybermen – does this story know what it has to live up to? The first episode was supremely enjoyable as an atmospheric waltz into history and the second features some moments of quiet terror to chill your blood that leads to an exciting, memorable cliffhanger. I really appreciate how scaled back the script is with the focus on the characters and the mood both of which are far superior to anything else we have seen so far this year. Its one of those stories that feels special without having to do anything too revolutionary – there is a terrific new companion for the eighth Doctor and the pairing has given the range a fresh sense of energy and the handling of the Cybermen is unusually sympathetic. And I really like the new theme tune too, its bold, dramatic and catchy. Beautifully made, superbly acted and with a real emotional core, The Silver Turk is my favourite main range release of the year and kicks of the Mary Shelley stories in fantastic style: 9/10