Big Finish: Doctor Who - THE ISOS NETWORK Review

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In Classic Who, the Cybermen were fantastically successful hiding-in-shadows, stomping-about-and-looking-scary monsters. For all Nicholas Briggs says about the Troughton Cyber-voices being the best, they didn’t develop personalities until at least Revenge of the Cybermen, and they went whole moon-booted leaps forward when David Banks stepped into the silver suit in Earthshock. But whereas Attack of the Cybermen dabbled with the body horror of them in a way that hadn’t really been apparent since The Tenth Planet, and was duly chastised for it, New Who has added a whole new dimension to the body horror of the Cybermen, by showing that the giant metal man stomping in perfect unison with all the other giant metal men could be your neighbour, your brother, your sister, or your lover. That, after all, is what the Cyberisation process is, and what it does – it strips away individuality and replaces it with a blank-eyed metal stare. While The Isos Network is very much a Troughton story, it’s as well to remember this sense of the Cybermen being previously-people as you go through its episodes – it’ll increase the empathy you have with the people of Isos 2.

Of all the Troughton Cyber-stories, the one that is far best remembered and most imitated is of course The Invasion, albeit only really one or two scenes of The Invasion. The Invasion gave the Cybermen their Dalek Invasion of Earth moment, conquering the familiar landmarks of our world (or at least those that could be reached within a BBC schedule and on a BBC budget). Jon Pertwee’s mantra of alien evils being scarier when they came and invaded your home was seldom more accurately given life than in the shots of the Cybermen (the then-new, chunky-headed, moderately zip-up and lace-up Cybermen) marching around the streets of London, emerging out of sewers, and in particular, walking down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. But there’s rarely a sense, when you watch it, that these metal-bodied monsters used to be people, used to somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister. Somebody’s lover.

The Isos Network will change how you watch those scenes forever.

I can stop now if you just want to pop along and buy it. If you need more, let’s see what else there is to tell you.

You already know that Frazer Hines does a scarily, almost ridiculously good Patrick Troughton impersonation, so with Wendy Padbury on board, it really does feel like a Tardis of three. There are giant gastropods in this story, but Mestor and his mob are thankfully nowhere to be seen – this is giant slugs very much more as they would have been done in the sixties. There’s at least the whiff of a Neil Gaiman unfilmed scene here, as different generations of Cybermen interact, and while that’s perfectly fine in audio, it does lose some of the impact you might expect it to have, simply by virtue of being in an audio play – part of the joy about seeing different incarnations of villains like the Daleks and Cybermen together is the visual of it, because of course, they are very visual creations, and arguably that’s more true in the Cybermen’s case even than in the Daleks’ because they’ve had more comprehensive makeovers in the show’s history. Nevertheless, if you have the imagination for it (and frankly, which of us doesn’t?), the effect is pretty trippy and delicious. There’s also a dabble here with that same body horror from Attack of the Cybermen – Cybermen who failed, conversions that went awry and left the victims to live as some appalling amalgam of feeling and robotics.

There’s probably one moment of clunky dialogue that really stands out as something that could have benefited from once more through the editing process, involving lines like “We are from Isos.” “A planet, called Isos?” “Yes, we are all Isons. From Isos,” but beyond that, there’s a real sense of period throughout the story that almost makes you want to ‘listen in black and white,’ and certainly ensures this feels like what it is: an Early Adventure, rather than just a Doctor Who story that happens to be set in the Second Doctor era.

In terms of storytelling, Wendy Padbury on the extras says it best. This is – in the nicest way possible – a simple story, of the kind they might actually have filmed in the sixties. It’s very rigorously set into a specific place in the show’s chronology (much like the recent Main Range release Waters of Amsterdam), starting immediately after the end of The Invasion, and referring back to the events of that story explicitly. There’s lots of hiding in the dark, some derring-do, a bunch of straight-down-the-line astronauts trying to find out what happened to their colony, Isos 2 (and this lot too you can imagine in black and white, the expedition led by Commander Seru played, with period straight lines and the almost trademark combination of grumpiness and courage displayed by commanders all over the universe of Who, by Rachel Bavidge). There’s not an enormous amount for her two underlings, Enab and Alam to do, but what action there is for them is ably delivered by Richard James and Kieran Hodgson respectively, Hodgson doing double duty in this story, and his other role as Hillsee is much more crucial and much more filled out – acting as a kind of Toberman figure from Tomb of the Cybermen, only rather more interesting by virtue of linking all the elements of the story together – the colonists, the giant slugs, the Cybermen and the astronauts, and also delivering the solution to the Cybermen’s plan in this story. As to what that plan is, without spoiling it for you, it’s the kind of thing that could have been written to get children on the playgrounds of Britain running round and round in circles till they got dizzy; simple in itself, but with that added dimension of being replicable by children without, for instance, having them re-enact Cyber-killings. Nicholas Briggs, on triple duty here as writer, director and all the Cybermen, delivers a tale that is straightforward in its underpinnings, with lots of running about and hiding, at least one solid Cyber-battle, a bit of a Tomby waiting-for-full-power feel, plenty of body horror, a bonkers plot involving trains and a great second half to The Invasion.

Now, if you set the two side by side, you’re still going to massively prefer The Invasion, because The Isos Network is actually more similar to earlier, perhaps less demanding or developed Cyber-stories and the thrill of those Cybermen marching down the steps of St Pauls can’t be matched by a threat to the alien world of Isos 2. But as ‘what happened next’ after The Invasion, The Isos Network makes solid sense, delivering plenty of thrills and some classic cliff-hangers. It’s a love letter to sixties Cyber-stories that eschews the brain-bending complexity of some recent Big Finish Cyber-adventures in favour of an authentic feel, plenty of creepiness, giant slugs and a new way of looking at those St Pauls scenes that will stay with you for a long while afterwards. And there’s practically no bad about a release that does all of that.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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