One of the things nuWho has done repeatedly since its inception is to base many of its stronger episodes on material from spin-off and ancillary media – it’s no coincidence that Dalek, Human Nature/Family Of Blood and Blink (the three most highly-regarded stories from the new series, as far as I can tell, among fans generally) are based on, respectively, a Big Finish audio, a novel and a short story from an annual. The surprising thing, actually, is that they’ve not done this more – there are nearly twenty years worth of novels and audio adventures that could be mined for TV episodes, and even discounting all the ones that are more obsessed with the prehistory of Gallifrey and the origins of the rod of Rassilon and other such nonsense, one would think there was enough interesting story material floating around to give the TV show material for a couple of years at least.
What’s even more surprising, though, is when the TV series takes inspiration from the ancillary media and then proceeds to discard everything that makes the inspiration effective, as they did with the two-part Cybermen origin story in series two of nuWho, which claimed to take inspiration from Marc Platt’s Spare Parts.
In fact, other than merely having the idea of doing an ‘origin of the Cybermen’, the two stories have nothing in common. nuWho’s Cyber-origin (set in an alternate universe, so both that and Spare Parts can be ‘canonical’ if you’re the kind of person who cares about that, which I’m not) actually tries to do something reasonably intelligent, updating the fear of transplantation that was the basis of the original Cybermen ( who made their debut at the turning point between William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s eras as the Doctor, a point where the show had a rather small-c conservative attitude towards technology, reflecting in a way the back-to-nature ideas that were becoming more popular in the culture of the late 60s) and replacing it with a fear of consumer electronics that is more appropriate to the current culture.
However, this idea soon gets swamped in a banal story which is mostly a third-rate rehash of Genesis Of The Daleks, but with Roger Lloyd Pack as the wheelchair-bound megalomaniacal evil genius (Trigger from Only Fools And Horses just doesn’t have the same menace as Davros…).
Spare Parts, the alleged inspiration for that story, is infinitely better, and is right up in the first rank of Big Finish audios with Doctor Who And The Pirates, The Kingmaker and a handful of others. But while those stories are mostly lighter, often comedies, Spare Parts is unremittingly bleak and downbeat – it has the spirit of Genesis Of The Daleks rather than taking images from it and jamming them into an unrelated plot. It may even be (whisper it) better than that classic TV story, if only because its shorter length (it’s one of the shorter Big Finish stories, coming in at just a touch over two hours) makes for a tighter story.
Platt has worked out a relatively consistent portrait of a post-ecological-collapse world, one with a higher level of technology than our own, but with a society that’s something close to that of Britain in the 1950s – something that is much better fitted to the post-apocalypse genre than you might imagine. ’50’s Britain was the polar opposite of 50s America (at least as it’s portrayed in the media and in the popular imagination) a time and place of austerity, of coping with inevitable decline, of putting a brave face on the loss of Empire, of rationing and shortages, of a society trying desperately and over-harshly to reimpose order after the disaster that was the Second World War. As a template for the last surviving city on an otherwise dead planet, it works surprisingly well (though Platt overplays this a bit by explicitly stating in the story that Mondas is like the 1950s on more than one occasion). So we have a black market flourishing here too – but this black market is in organs for transplanting. We have police on horseback – but the ‘police’ are prototype Cybermen.
Spare Parts, unlike Genesis Of The Daleks or the televised Cybermen origin story, is a tragedy in the classical mould – as soon as the Doctor and Nyssa arrive, the end is absolutely pre-ordained, and every step they take to prevent it actually brings it closer, but they can’t not try to prevent the creation of the Cybermen, even though they know the effort is futile.
Unlike the Fourth Doctor’s dilemma in Genesis, the Doctor here is dealing with actual humans – ones whose entire civilisation will almost certainly die if they don’t become Cybermen. It’s also significant that it’s specifically the fifth Doctor and Nyssa who are in this position – having seen their companion Adric killed by the Cybermen (in Earthshock) they have a more personal incentive to stop the creation of the Cybermen. So the Doctor is genuinely torn between his compulsion to prevent damage to time, his need to help people, and his desire to prevent the horrors the Cybermen will cause, in a way we’ve rarely seen before or since. And the people of Mondas are mostly aware of precisely how horrible their situation is, and powerless to change it – their individual actions, well-intentioned in the main (or at worst motivated by human emotions like jealousy of a big sister, or desire for a quiet life, rather than grand universal-domination schemes), all lead to a result of unimaginable horror.
The choice to use the sing-song voice of the Cybermen’s earliest appearances is also inspired – it’s infinitely spookier than the gruff “Excellent!” voice of the 80s versions.
While the story has some of the usual Big Finish flaws (terrible ‘comedy’ regional accents – I can’t be the only Northerner who finds their treatment of us rather patronising and insulting at times – and a couple of duff lines like “I’m freezing your assets”), it succeeds in creating a bleak, kitchen-sink-Sophocles atmosphere that is quite unlike anything else I can think of. And some of the images (the young woman, drafted and partially converted into a Cyberman, not fully comprehending her situation and wanting her father to see her in her new ‘uniform’ in particular) are absolutely haunting.
It’s not exactly a laugh-riot, and it’s not much *fun* to listen to, but if you want a tightly-scripted, well-performed, powerful audio play, there’s very little out there with anything like the quality of Spare Parts.