Sunday, 1 August 2010

Spare Parts written by Marc Platt and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? On a dark frozen planet where no planet should be, in a doomed city with a sky of stone, the last denizens of Earth's long-lost twin will pay any price to survive, even if the laser scalpels cost them their love and hate and humanity. And in the mat-infested streets, round tea-time, the Doctor and Nyssa unearth a black market in second-hand body parts and run the gauntlet of augmented police and their augmented horses. And just between the tramstop and the picturehouse, their worst suspicions are confirmed: the Cybermen have only just begun, and the Doctor will be, just as he always has been, their saviour...

English Gentleman: Peter Davison can really come alive in these audios in a way that he rarely did on television. My attitude towards the fifth Doctor has mellowed somewhat from the days when I used to call him the least effective and worst performed – it simply isn’t the case but he was a Doctor where you had to look for the subtleties rather than having his strengths thrown in your face. However thanks to a string of under whelming stories that very often pushed him to the background I don’t think we ever really saw Davison feel entirely comfortable in the role until his last season (Frontios, Ressurection and Androzani see him demanding the attention for a change). He has been treated to some far superior writing in the Big Finish audios and Davison has run with the material and in stories like Spare Parts and Eye of the Scorpion we finally have a fifth Doctor who fires the imagination with possibilities. He displays a rare anger in this story that really keeps you gripped and the twist ending to episode three gives him a shock that changes his perception of the Cybermen in a truly chilling way.

He admits that he used to be a very good liar. He won’t admit if he is a public or private Doctor, that’s between him and his patients. The Doctor knew exactly where he was coming this time and is surprised to find the Cybermen aren’t as advanced as he thought. Bringing Nyssa to the birthplace of the Cybermen after the events of Earthshock was not possibly his smartest move but I’m sure he had his reasons. Without directly interfering himself he plans to show the inhabitants of Mondas that the converted Cybermen are digging up the graveyards and stealing body parts for their obscene experiments. In a rare moment of repulsion he admits he would rather lose the rest of his lives than become a Cyberman. When Nyssa turns on him during their argument about interfering with the genesis of the Cybermen her reminder that he failed to make the right decision and rescue Adric visibly wounds him. ‘It had to boil over some time’ he admits. It’s as though he was expecting the accusation at some point and he agrees that they never took the right amount of time to mourn him. He is near hysterical when he discovers Nyssa has brought a Cybermat into the TARDIS. When he comes face to face with the committee he is repulsed by what he sees. For once he wishes that he had never left the TARDIS. What’s interesting is how little he objects to Nyssa heading off to give food to her friends and investigate on her own – the Doctor clearly has a great deal of respect for her abilities. When the Cybermen reveal that they are going to use his superior body template to convert the rest of the Mondasian population he is positively sickened by the thought. He refuses to be part of their future. Davison’s savage anger in these scenes is extraordinary. After defeating the committee he tells Nyssa he thinks history is old enough to look after itself but quietly hopes that the already converted Cybermen could be used as a force for good.

Alien Orphan: Lets not beat around the bush, this is the best Nyssa story written. Sarah Sutton has never been given material this good before and she is exceptional, conveying an anger and pathos that her character usually struggles to keep internal. During the course of this story she gets to be brave and terrified, intelligent and resourceful and best of all, independent and capable of heading off without the Doctor to save people she has grown to like.

She leaps into action in episode one and saves Mr Hartley, crowbarring him free of the rubble he is trapped under. I love it when she turns on Sisterman Constance, clearly an arrogant and controlling force in the Hartley household and tells her that she doesn’t answer to strangers, especially not public servant busybodies! Nyssa tells Yvonne a little of her heritage on Traken, at the autumn festival when the leaves turn amber they would hang paper lanterns on all the trees in the garden and carry all the fruits in. The people would sing at the gates and the then the battle would commence with consuls and people pelting each other with fruits – so undignified but Nyssa loved it. Shaking off her role as the companion she tells the Doctor wont get involved she will do it by herself. She wants to give the people hope and stop the Cybermen from coming into existence. Despite the awful consequences to the web of time I am certain Nyssa is working from the opinion that nothing good can come from their relentless conversion of the universe. When Nyssa thinks the Doctor has been turned into a Cybermen it is as though her entire world has been turned upside down. No home planet, no father and now no Doctor. She accuses Doctorman Allen of murder by creating the Cybermen and she smacks her down when Allen tries to stop the Doctor killing the committee. Go girl!

Great Ideas: This is a Marc Platt script; of course it is full of great ideas. What is amazing about this story is how Platt packages together everything we already know about the Cybermen (apart from the Doctor template) and releases each surprise as a dramatic twist in the story. And it works. As each twists is revealed we realise with crushing inevitability we are leading towards the events of The Tenth Planet. And in true Platt style there is a macabre beauty to the writing that really helps the images come alive.

An isolated grey planet that looks like Earth drifting through space. Nyssa meets one of the inhabitants who has no pulse but is still alive. Artificial organs are all the rage. There are plenty of clues before we are told this is set on Mondas. Only a few thousand people are living on Mondas, they are on the verge of extinction. The police patrolling the streets are machine-converted men, recognisably human with augmented body parts and half living, half mechanical horses. Isn’t great how the ultra cute Cybermats were initially conceived as toys for children before being put to use for a more sinister purpose. They are digging up the graveyards for body parts, grinding the bones up to create nutrients and stealing organs from the dead. The Doctor tells Nyssa that if she changes history the timeline she creates will probably be even worse. There is a delicious image of Cybermats covering the outside of the TARDIS attempting to burrow their way in. The moral implications of Yvonne’s conversion is intriguing, the story presents the horror of her returning home to her family as a partially converted ghoulish Cyberman but had she not been turned she would have died within 2 months. What is better, to live as a Cyberman or die as a human? As the power went down during processing we are presented with a number of Cybermen with no logic circuits begging for orders because they do not understand their purpose. The palace on Mondas is said to have fallen into ‘baroque decay’. The Doctor discovers racks of cyber suits ready for processing on an industrial scale. Gold leaf does not affect these Cybermen so it must be a weakness of their latter day design. Mondas is wandering into the path of the Cherry Bowl nebulae, a crucible of unstable, primal energy known to rip planets apart if you get too close and the turbulence has already punctured the bio dome of the city. Sisterman Constance is marched off for processing because she has a simple broken shoulder. The Committee is revealed to be a grotesque number of swollen heads wired into the system with disregarded bodies withering away like rotten fruit. We finally understand why the Cybermen were conceived, to build a propulsion system on the surface of Mondas but conditions are so severe only workers with fully augmented bodies could survive up there. Doctorman Allen wants to use the Doctor’s physiology as a template for the Cybermen…imagine that, every Cyberman we have met in the series has been modelled on the Doctor! Xheng attempts to convince the Committee to repair the roof of the city or the people will die but their response is to turn them all into Cybermen. Allen thought she was saving her people but realises she has created an army of animated corpses. After the destruction of the Committee Allen thinks she can make the already processed humans less mechanical, more human. This new future for Mondas is averted by Xheng who survived and is ready to begin processing the remaining humans.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Cybermen’s future is infamous across the galaxy, Earth’s twin planet wandering out of its orbit, its dwindling population already a millennia ahead of Earth technologically, gradually replacing bodily organs with manufactured parts all in a final desperate bid to avoid extinction!’
‘We MUST survive…’
‘We live in a pit. The dark times are getting darker.’
‘I will not be your template for your monstrous parodies of human kind!’
‘Be proud whilst you still have the capacity.’
‘There is no future! Only a city of walking dead!’
‘How did it start? Just a few hip replacements and breast implants? Vanity’s a killer, isn’t it? And where will it end? Sleek, heartless scavengers cobbled up from space junk and other peoples bodies! But you’ll look ever so stylish!’
‘We are the future…’

Audio Landscape: As an event story you would expect all of the stops t be pulled out for this one and they are. It’s an extremely vivid production that drags you in very early on and doesn’t let go until the last episode. You have heavy breathing within spacesuits, Cybermats squeaking electronically, a foreboding lights out siren, those fabulous discordant sing-song Cybermen voices, the clip-clop of the horses and the growl of the cars that indicates the coming of the Cyber-police and the bells ringing – both around you and in from a distance. The Committee voice is just gorgeous, sounding like the original Battlestar Cylons, it sends chills down your spine simply because it is so inhuman. The Doctor and Nyssa’s argument is heard from the point of view of a Cybermat who then tears off to set off several alarms in the TARDIS is it commits its sabotage. The Cybermen whip at a screaming crowd. The dying screams of a Cyber-patient are ghoulishly shrill. Yvonne being converted is felt in everyway as her screams for help are cut away by an approaching hum of machinery and a hungry electric saw. The City in its death throes is quite potent, grumbling ice pouring through the roof, the people screaming and the Cybermen’s voices cutting through it all convincing the people to come and shelter with them (when in fact they will be converted). The icy wind as the snow descends on Mondas is chilling, as is the catastrophic ice flow hitting the church.

Musical Cues: I don’t think this is one of Russell Stone’s greatest score if I am perfectly honest. Whilst he does capitalise on the mechanical theme of the story by using lots of electronic stings, it does occasionally feel a little comic, which does not match the story’s tone.

Standout Performance: Has got to be Sally Knyvette, Blakes’ 7’s Jenna, as the uncaring and drunkard Doctorman Allen. About as far from Davros as you can get, she is a scientist who was genuinely working to save her people from extinction but as she realises what she has created and how much control they have over society she simply drinks herself into a stupor and surrenders to the inevitability of it all. I love her moral ambiguity, she laughs when she thinks the Doctor has been converted and winds Nyssa up about knowing full well that it isn’t him and she tries to stop from preventing the genesis of the Cybermen. And yet at the end she does want to try and reverse the damage she has done. I get the impression she will go whichever way the wind is blowing and Knyvette plays up her callousness and ego beautifully. It’s an unsympathetic character and Knyvette never shies away from that.

Result: Spare Parts is often cited as the ultimate Big Finish experience and whilst it is a very good production there is something lacking that prevents it from being one of my all time favourites.
Don’t get me wrong this is a superb script which utilises the horror of the Cybermen better than most of the other stories they have appeared in and provides a clever and dramatic lead in to The Tenth Planet. Both Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are very well served by this story, turning their performances up a notch and providing a standout moment in episode two where they argue over the right to wipe out the Cybermen. There is a feeling of foreboding throughout the story but there is something a little too clinical about it all, not enough emotional beats for me to really care about what is happening to these people. It doesn’t help that both Dodd and Frank are utterly unsympathetic characters that I couldn’t give a fig whether they lived or died. What this story needed was the hellish vision of Armageddon of Inferno but it never quite reaches that level of discomfort. However, it is still a strong piece of drama and is one of the strongest Cybermen stories: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @


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David Pirtle said...

I agree that this story is a bit cold. Perhaps that's what they were going for, given the subject matter. It's still a better origin story for the Cybermen than anything that had come before.

I find the 5th Doctor's position on intervention a bit wishy-washy (as usual). He won't intervene to change Mondasian history, but he will intervene in an attempt to get the Mondasians to change their own history, which amounts to the same thing, just far less effective. I also found it a bit odd to hear him talk about the conversions as some sort of vanity project gone wild, when the planet is literally dying around him, illustrating the opposite.

Nyssa gets strong material, but I wouldn't say this is her best story. Honestly I liked both of them more in Primeval.

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