As we continue our Cyberman themed series of articles, Matthew Kresal goes back to the genesis of the Cybermen and revisits the 2002 Big Finish adventure Spare Parts.
In the annals of Doctor Who, there are few things fans like more than debating the origins of the Cybermen, the half-human/half-machine race from Earth's long lost twin planet, Mondas. So it seems only natural that Big Finish, especially during the show's wilderness years, would eventually take a Doctor and companion to Mondas at the point of the Cybermen's birth. With Spare Parts, written by Marc Platt and released in July 2002, they not only did that but also created both an instant classic and the inspiration for a two-part story (Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel) for the New Series. What is it about this story that has given it this status?
Part of it is certainly the characters and the performances of those portraying them. Peter Davison gives what is perhaps his single best performance as the Fifth Doctor. The Doctor's journey through the story is an interesting one as he goes from being almost an innocent abroad who is reluctant to take part in events, as can be heard towards the end of part one and during the early minutes of part two. But as it goes on, and the Doctor becomes more and more involved, he become a man who is trying to change history for the better, if not always succeeding. This is especially true of the plot twist that comes late in the story that ultimately rocks the ongoing battle between the Doctor and the Cybermen to its very core in a moment that Davison plays nothing short of pitch perfect. What comes in between gives Davison the chance to show off his full range in the role. He doesn’t make that journey alone though.
Spurring him on is companion Nyssa, played to perfection by Sarah Sutton. It's her friendship with the Hartley family, who she initially stumbles across before being brought into their home, which makes her force the Doctor to take that journey. Never has the character had a better scene than that in part two where she and the Doctor have a confrontation about what they should or shouldn’t do about the situation they’ve landed in. It also helps that Nyssa’s relationship with the Hartley family is well written and comes across as being very believable, this sells that scene, and Nyssa’s potential action, even more.
It’s in the supporting cast though that we are given a glimpse at the population of pre-Cybermen Mondas with the aforementioned Hartley family giving the listener a doorway into this world. As played by Paul Copley (as the Dad), Kathryn Guck (as Yvonne), and Jim Hartley (as Frank) there is a strong and utterly believable family dynamic between the widower father trying to hold things together, the optimistic but sickly daughter and the younger brother who, due to his sister being favorite, has a tendency to lash out and be impatient with those around him. This is a family that on the whole is trying to remain hopeful in a world fast running out of hope and who ultimately become ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
There’s more to Mondas than that family though. On the other side of the spectrum is Darren Nesbit as the spare (body) parts dealer Thomas Dodd, the shady but cowardly businessman thriving on the pain and suffering of those around him. In a more official capacity are Doctorman Allan (Sally Knyvette) and Sisterman Constance (Pamela Binns), two of those who are converting “recruits” into Cybermen for work on the surface. It is through these characters that we can glimpse the misery, desperation and at times downright selfishness that will ultimately be responsible for the emotionless hell that will soon be unleashed.
And then there's the Cybermen, voiced all round by Nicholas Briggs. By returning to the roots of these creatures, we see them in an early stage of development and thus possessing the sing-song voices from their debut in “The Tenth Planet” way back in 1966. While many have been critical of those early voices (and I am one of them), here they not only work but also have the ability to send chills down the spine with a mix of being seemingly innocent in tone and yet delivering words whose meaning have horrific consequences. There’s also the so-called Central Committee who runs the city and whose voices, being more akin to those heard in later 1960s Cybermen stories than those of the cloth faced Cybermen in this story, hint at the Cyber-Controllers and Cyber-Planners of the future. Combined with the people of Mondas that we do hear, the result is a glimpse into the Cybermen’s past, present and future all in one place.
For all those performances, the backbone of this story’s continued popularity may well be in the script by Marc Platt. This isn't just another Doctor Who adventure by any means. It's a compelling blend of science fiction and drama in a story that asks one of the most basic questions of human nature: how far would we go to survive? For at its heart, Spare Parts is a story that is as old as history: a civilization on the verge of collapse desperate to survive by any means possible. History teaches us that many ancient civilizations, in times of great crisis, would often have their high priests or priestesses make human sacrifices to appease their gods and ensure their continued survival. What is happening on Mondas isn’t really that much different as characters like Sisterman Constance go around picking out the “recruits” that Doctorman Allan will use saws and laser scalpels to augment their bodies before removing emotions and inserting cold logic in an attempt to ensure the continued survival of this particular civilization. As Doctorman Allan puts it part two, “We live in a pit, Constance. The dark times are getting darker.”
Indeed, the horror of what is happening is perhaps played up by the setting. Mondas as presented in Spare Parts seems to echo 1950s Britain with a fascination with television, with a mix of that “keep calm and carry on” wartime attitude present as well from Yvonne’s job as an effective Land Girl, to the newsreel like sequence that opens the story, and Frank’s push to “join up” before the “call-up papers” arrive. There’s even a form of Christmas that, when it’s explained, makes sense in the context. The result has only one word to describe it: chilling.
Yet for all the darkness and chilling moments, there is something that is perhaps overlooked as a result. Spare Parts is a story about hope, if at times misguided hope. The Doctor’s actions both in ringing a church bell to alert people to a graveyard being dug up for body parts in part one, to his ultimate actions and final scene in part four shows a hope that perhaps the people of Mondas can change their seemingly inevitable fate. This too is shared by Nyssa in her determination to get the Doctor involved. In their own ways, the antagonists of the story are also working out of hope. Doctorman Allan firmly believes that the Cybermen represent the best hope for Mondas and spends much of the story working towards that end until, in true Frankenstein fashion, realizes that her own creations have the power to destroy her. Even the Cybermen and their Central Committee is acting out of what it believes to be the right thing to do when it makes the ultimate decision to convert the entire population wholesale in hopes of having a future for them. For all the darkness and chills, hope is a theme that runs throughout, which perhaps proves the truth to the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Spare Parts has more than earned its place as a Doctor Who classic. Part of that is down to the strong performances given by the entire cast. It is also down to Marc Platt's script which asks the question of how far we must go to survive and what must we sacrifice to do so, and gives us a horrifying answer. It has often been said that science fiction has a unique ability to entertain its audience while also making it think. More than a decade on, there are few examples that prove that point as well as Spare Parts.
Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.