Sunday, 24 May 2015

Last of the Cybermen written by Alan Barnes and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: It's been ten years since the final assault on Telos, the last act of the Great Cyber War. Thanks to the Glittergun, humanity prevailed – and the half-machine Cybermen were utterly obliterated. Out on the furthest fringes of the galaxy, however, they left their mark – in the form of a giant Cyber-head, hundreds of feet high. A monument? A memorial? A tomb? The Doctor, the Cybermen's most indefatigable adversary, sets out to investigate... but he fails to return to his TARDIS. Leaving the Ship, his two companions – brave Highlander Jamie MacCrimmon, and super-intelligent Zoe Heriot – find a stranger in the Doctor's place. A stranger in a coat of many colours, who insists that he's the Doctor – transposed in time and space with one of his former selves... But why here? Why now? Has the universe really seen the last of the Cybermen..?

Softer Six: Or not so softer six as the case may be. I have been reading a fascinating thread on Gallifrey Base recently about whether the mellowed sixth Doctor is really a reflection of the incarnation that appeared in the eighties or simply wish fulfilment on the part of Big Finish and Colin Baker. The assertion is that after 200 releases that the sixth Doctor on audio is an entirely different character because he is so far removed from his televised persona. I think there is a grain of truth in this argument but it is taking the character in such a positive direction, one where he is far more admired and respected than before that it doesn't really matter. And besides in parts of Trial of a Time Lord there were massive indications of how the Doctor would develop later in his life, a much more charming, genial, thoughtful man (the Ravalox and Hyperion III segments in particular). However, Last of the Cybermen re-acquaints us with a blast from the past. The no-nonsense, fist flying, man of action that murdered his way through season 22. It's such abrasive characterisation that like walking into a sandstorm, you might get slits and cuts if you get too close to him. Baker seems to relish the opportunity to play it tough again for a time and in particular he clashes spectacularly with Frazer Hines' Jamie in parts of this play, the two characters threatening to come to blows during the more fraught moments because that is their go-to response to being helpless and frightened. He takes an instant dislike to Xennox but then he has been at this game some time and can spot the bad guy (or gal) from a distance. There is no pretence to the contrary, he picks her out of the crowd and is rude to her from the off. Troughton (who this story technically should have belonged to) would have been more subtle but I've always enjoyed Baker's bull in a china shop approach. States that he is not the prancing pixie that he used to be. Whilst it might be a nonsensical over egging of the continuity pudding, the Doctor discusses the Time Lords of this periods with a genuine sense of dread. He lays out his crimes to Jamie; stealing the TARDIS and interfering with the affairs of other planets. I love his sledgehammer tactics, when the Doctor can't think of any other way of stopping the beacon he tries to turn the TARDIS into a battering ram and literally punch his way out of this situation.

Who's the Yahoos: Headstrong, masculine and brave, I would say that Jamie was captured the most authentically by Barnes (helped along by Frazer Hines' uncanny ability to sound as though he is 40 years younger than he is). He's far more suspicious than Zoe about the motley fellow in the clown costume. He's much savvier than you might think, mocking a fight with the Doctor in order to attempt to disarm Xennox. He thought when he finally dropped this life with the Doctor he would end back in the Highlands with a pretty lass. It's Jamie who dreams up the solution that they could escape the amnesiac spell that the Time Lords will place upon them and he figures a way out for himself and Zoe. But ultimately their feelings for the Doctor force them to stay and face the future together. It is rather a touching statement of how much they love each other that his two companions are willing to lose their memories of their adventures with him rather than force him to face his people alone.

Whizzkid: Rather sweetly the Doctor refers to her as 'my Zoe.' Cybermen stories are ideal for Zoe because they operate on the same kind of cold logic that she does. Saying that I did find her characterisation a little off at times, Barnes shoving her into the adolescent victim role a little too often. It's when he treats her like a stubborn little madam that she sounded most bona fide. Whilst reeling off a ton of numbers to a decimal point might not seem like the best use of the character, it does highlight her intelligence and Zoe is instrumental in the Doctor and Jamie's progress through the citadel. Her aptitude also becomes an important plot point too so it isn't just killing time on Barnes' part. There was a chance here to involve Zoe in a romance story, finding a kindred spirit in Findel but as soon as his treachery is clear she is hooked up to the Cyberplanner and he is killed leaving this potentially characterful thread moot. Her brain is described as being half computerised already, which is why she could handle the consciousness of a Cyberplanner.

Standout Performance: Lucy Liemann dos everything that the role of the central villain asks for her and manages to imbue Xennox with an icy coolness that you would expect from a Logician. However I did get the impression that on the odd occasion that she felt as though the material was a bit beneath her and a sense of embarrassment when she had to make grand, melodramatic exclamations. Wendy Padbury felt a bit off in the same way that Katy Manning did in the last story, not quite capturing the same voice (understandably so) she had in the sixties. If you can't do it, then why try? I guess I am used to listening to the older Zoe of the companion chronicles, which is where Padbury has given her best performances. I still think her best performance ever in Doctor Who was as Mrs Baines in Davros.

Great Ideas: A 500 foot high complex in the shape of Cyberman head sitting atop a mountain, now that's the sort of visual that would get any fan boy weak at the knees. The Cybermen were utterly defeated ten years ago. I love the way Barnes disposes with the idea that there might be a hibernating Cyber-army inside the citadel, wiping out any possibility that this might be remake of Tomb of the Cybermen. The mystery purpose of the citadel is what excited me the most in the first two episodes, especially once they started exploring. The Cyber War is something worth expanding upon because it is something that is mentioned (a bit like the Time War until we actually got to see it) in a few stories without ever going into much detail. Given that they are the back up ultimate badasses of the universe (after the Daleks, of course) it does seem something of an peculiarity that we never visited a time period during the this era of great conflict between humanity and the Cybermen. Is there a haul of Cyber-equipment and weapons buried at the head of the citadel? Is that what Xennox is after? A Cyberplanner dormant in the heart of the head, waiting for an intelligent mind to sink its technological claws into and activate the citadel. Xennox is one of the Brotherhood of Logicians that dogged the Doctor's footsteps in Tomb of the Cybermen. The story of the last of the Cybermen is a myth that is embedded in history - a fleet of 10,000 ships hiding away and ready to strike. The head atop the mountain is a beacon, to guide the last of the Cybermen. That's a genuinely exciting, whacky notion. An enormous Cyber-head on a storm lashed planet sending out flashes of lightning to attract thousands of Cyber ships. I can imagine Barnes started this story with a potent visual like that and worked around it. A lightning strike put the beacon out of action and for ten years the 10,000 strong fleet has been at sea in a far off nebulae but with Zoe hooked up to the system finally the fleet can come home and launch their last devastating attack on humanity. And that's another pulse racing idea. If the two Doctors had not been translocated then none of these events would have taken place. For once, the second Doctor was happy to leave well alone as soon as he realised there was a dormant Cyberplanner awaiting activation. It is only because the sixth Doctor took his place that these events took place. Zoe, trapped in a web of technological tendrils, suspended in the air as the Cyber-intelligence settles inside her head. Another mad comic strip image but a strong one.

Audio Landscape: Nigel Fairs on the other hand is a name I am starting to dread as a sound designer. Like Mistfall, there was something really off with the sound design of this adventure with some very odd choices made to represent certain moments of action, a horrid, echoey effect favoured that gave me a headache during dialogue scenes (listen to when the 6th Doctor, Jamie and Zoe first meet - it sounds like they are in a tunnel, not on a storm lashed planet) and some odd perspective effects used that distracted me from the story. Far be it from me to say that Fairs isn't an accomplished sound designer but I can only say what I like and I don't like this. There was a jarring feeling to the whole production that threatened to turn me off. The worst aspect of a poor production was the Cybermen voices, which like Revelation of the Daleks for the Daleks were far too human and lacking the electronic menace of the best of Troughton stories. I know I can often be found having a moan about the inaudible electronic wobulation that Big Finish attaches to its monsters (see The Defectors) but this time it was the reverse effect. Besides you have some awesome Cyberman voices to choose from in the Troughton era and if it aint broke, don't fix it.

Musical Cues: Basic but masculine and quite catchy, Fairs' music is far more memorable than his sound design. I especially liked the stomping drama of Zoe's predicament at the end of episode two, which was given greater impact thanks to the music.

Isn't it Odd: There are a few gaping problems that have to be addressed if we are going to get to good stuff in Last of the Cybermen, problems that should almost be enough to topple the story and drag it down into the quagmire but thanks to Barnes' penchant for visual storytelling (he thinks like a comic book writer, big and bold and his set pieces follow suit) these issues are not insurmountable...
* The Locum Doctors format. It's a dud. It's rubbish. When I first heard it my initial response was that Big Finish were desperate. Desperate to appease the actors that weren't getting the opportunities that the companion chronicles gave them anymore. Desperate to squeeze more continuity into the main range. Desperate to have a quirky hook to lure listeners in rather than letting stories earn a pass on their own merit. All those things have turned out to be true. The way the later Doctors are being crow-barred into their predecessors adventures is so clunky and awkward I am starting to feel a little bit embarrassed for the writers. The opening of Last of the Cybermen feels like the work of an anxious man trying to make the transition of Doctors a natural occurrence (where has the Doctor gone...let's go and find him...well now who's this man who has appeared where the Doctor fell?) but it is such an unnatural plot device that it doesn't succeed on any level. We're two stories in to the Locum Doctors trilogy now and I am still none the wiser as to why this was supposed to be a good idea, where that particular strand of narrative is going or who it is supposed to appeal to. I'm a mad Doctor Who fan boy and I'm scratching my what would everybody else think? Beyond the joy of having Baker, Hines and Padbury together...I cannot think of a single reason why this episode of 'Doctor Swap' has taken place. Barnes' justification in the extras seems to be nothing more than because they haven't tried it before. Well they haven't tried an orgy where Vicki and Steven get their jollies off either so I'll look forward to that next month.
* Continuity. What was Barnes thinking? I don't mind a sprinkling of continuity to season a story and give it a little substance but the sheer amount of references to old stories is so vast I can only imagine that Barnes is the love child of a union between Gary Russell and David A. McIntee and is trying to appease his fathers. When the plot has to grind to a halt so that characters can regurgitate the chronological adventures that took place in season six just so Barnes can insert an appalling joke about Madeline Issigri sounding a little like Madelon Cluster you have to question where the script editor is and why he isn't ripping great hunks of this nonsense out of the script. Jamie has suddenly become a character in an Eric Saward script-edited story, spouting off references to the previous adventure as a matter of habit (it's almost as if all that hardware in The Space Pirates gave him such a hard on he's fallen in love with General Hermack and the Space Corps). Like the Locum Doctors format, it's self-conscious and abnormal. It feels like a writer trying to impress a little too hard and the result messy. I haven't even broached the subject of great waves of Cyberman continuity (although that is rather the point of the story so it's less humiliating) with glitter guns, all getting a mention. Taking inspiration from Gary Russell, Barnes is attempting to plug massive gaps that have been left in continuity (this time bridging the gap between and Revenge of the Cybermen), using ugly clumps of back references to fill in the holes. What's wrong with leaving some of these stories to our imaginations? To marry a story about the sixth Doctor taking the place of the second Doctor with a story that drags in so many elements of Cyberman history feels like over egging the pudding and the result has a strong whiff of fanwank that has gone putrid. Why not do something completely original? Other continuity that was used to plaster over cracks in the plotting; the Doctor re-arranging Jamie's face in The Mind Robber, a dagger from Salladin, the Doctor's stovepipe, the chest in the TARDIS, a Chameleon Tours brochure, a Quarks head, the 500 Year Diary, the glitter gun, alpha meson phosphor lamps, the Brotherhood of Logicians, Cyber planner, the absurd mention of Quadrigger Stoyn, re-hashing the events of The War Games before they have happened and opening an incongruous can of worms to try and undo by the final episode, Tibetan monks, the HADS, the robot receptionist from The Invasion, a bizarre trip to Telos to catch up with the Cyber fleet, Tython, Gemma and the other base personnel on the Wheel...I gave up at this point but trust me there was waves more fanwank gushing forth.
* For someone with Barnes' practice and expertise in audio drama, plenty of the dialogue in Last of the Cybermen was over-descriptive and explanatory. Some moments (Jamie explaining the Doctor sitting cross legged on the floor is like 'one of those Tibetan Monks') left me shaking my head. 'I'm sorry Mr Cyberman, I'm afraid we have to go now' is a line that would never have come out of Zoe's mouth.
* Lanky (from Lancashire, geddit?) the northern Cyberman as played by Nick Briggs. Just no.
* Bizarrely episode four skips ahead from where we left the action at the end of episode three and the Doctor fills in the gaps in one great gulp of exposition. It's a bizarre creative choice because the cliffhanger to episode three is probably the most exciting moment in the whole story and the where the story diverts to isn't half as engaging.

Standout Scene: Hundreds of Cybermats in the maintenance tunnels. lighting up the darkness and screaming in unison, advancing on the Doctor and Jamie is the sort of bold visual that this story excels in.

Result: Much like Heroes of Sontar and Castle of Fear, Alan Barnes has serious trouble trying to set his story up and the first episode is pretty much abysmal. It's like watching clunky, cumbersome plot gears bang into place trying to get all the characters inside the hulking great Cyber-head but once they are there things pick up considerably. Then we are in typical Troughton base under siege territory with some powerful visuals and ideas providing a backbone. There's a real atmosphere to the characters trying to figure out the mystery of the citadel and I really enjoyed how the story suddenly expanded to encompass an entire Cyber-fleet in it's latter half, from the intimate to the epic in a heartbeat. The very idea of the Last of the Cybermen making a surprise emergence and attacking is one that gets the heart racing. The story is told without a great deal of charm and humour (but then it does emphasise logic and warfare and it's hard to be laugh and minute under those circumstances) and the characterisation is pretty basic (I don't think I really believed in any of the guest characters beyond their most basic plot function - 'villain', 'victim', 'plot expositor') but those things aren't really relevant when it comes the big moments, of which Last of the Cybermen scores a fair few. I wont pretend that Colin Baker, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury don't make a great team together because they always feel as though they are made for each other (especially the sixth Doctor and Jamie who are chalking up an impressive number of stories together) but given they have been paired up together in a Cyberman story before it does invite a comparison and Legend of the Cybermen is the superior story in practically every way, certainly in terms of production values and creativity. Despite a wealth of problems that would make a novice writer/director team blush, I found this waltz through Troughton era SF melodrama enjoyable in spots. It's a bit of a disaster but one that is as enjoyable because of its faults as well as despite them: 5/10


Urlance Woolsbane said...

I must confess, I'm a bit puzzled by your aversion to the Locum Doctors format. It's a celebratory gimmick, surely no more desperate or pointless than a multi-Doctor story?
I imagine that, like a multi-Doctor story, it's the sort of thing that could go easily wrong, but objectively it seems harmless enough.

That said, I agree that the Sixth Doctor-Jamie and Zoe pairing is oddly redundant. I can see why Big Finish didn't want to pair the Seventh Doctor with that team, given his similarities to Troughton's Doctor, but I don't see why he couldn't have been swapped with Vicki and Steven.

Come to think of it, perhaps scrambling the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors amongst their respective eras would be a more interesting use of the format, given the drastic differences between them.

Chief Caretaker said...

Nice review Joe. Interestingly, you and me cover a lot of the same points, even using the same phrasing in places!

I'm relying on Eddie Robson to bring us something special next month!

PS: It was Ken Bentley directing, despite what the Big Finish website says. I think you can tell - I definitely knew it wasn't Barnaby Edwards!

Alastair Grant said...

Yeah im perfectly happy with the locum thing, but yes all this Saward is too much.