Big Finish: Doctor Who The Lost Stories - RETURN OF THE CYBERMEN Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who The Lost Stories - RETURN OF THE CYBERMEN Review

Tony’s hiding in a cupboard.
There’s no disguising the fact that Return of the Cybermen, originally proposed by Cybermen co-creator Gerry Davis during Tom Baker’s first season, and now adapted for audio by John Dorney, has been impatiently awaited by Fourth Doctor fans everywhere.

Not only is it the script which Revenge of the Cybermen was originally destined to be – though it is, which is quite squeeworthy enough in its own right – it also sees the recasting of two entirely wonderful Fourth Doctor companions…in the script which Revenge of the Cybermen was originally intended to be.

So…no pressure or expectation there, then.

Let’s manage some of those expectations before we go much further. Return of the Cybermen is a Lost Story, and, because John Dorney has done his best to give listeners a relatively authentic sense of what could have been broadcast, you can sort of understand why Revenge eventually replaced it. While Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler gave us some of the most classic black and white Cyber-stories, Davis hadn’t written a Cyber-story at all during the Pertwee era, and some of the scares early in Return of the Cybermen are…a little familiar.

Oddly enough, they’ll be a little familiar to much newer Doctor Who fans too, because enough time has gone by that they were used in the likes of World Enough And Time. Back-referencing from several decades on though feels like an homage. Davis re-using or barely tweaking elements from Troughton stories feels a touch…shall we say…Terry Nation in its recycling.

Let the record show of course that Revenge of the Cybermen reached screens with plenty of recycled black and white Cyber-story elements intact – cybermats, plague infection, all that good happy vein-throbbing stuff. But in Return, the vibe is very much of a script that was half-developed, but even if you’d never seen Revenge, would need more complexity to make it really work.

There’s a degree of Cyber-hide-and-seek that takes up quite a while in this story, and when the CyberLeader arrives and the actual Cyber-plot is revealed, there’s really rather a damp squib effect. “That’s it?” is the reaction, rather than “Ahhh,” or “Excellent.”

Yes, the Cybermen will absolutely go down in science fiction history as the villains most famous for logic while having the most illogical, convoluted and nonsensical plots and plans. This one is still pretty convoluted, but for even less reason than was given in Revenge.

The underpinnings of the Revenge script are here, certainly – space station Nerva, a nearby asteroid, something about the Cybermen wanting to get rid of gold. Nerva still has its Cybermat-delivered plague, and many of the characters are the same. But the action on the asteroid, what it is, who it’s peopled by, the local politics of it all – that’s all entirely different and rather more redolent of an earlier draft, as you’d expect.

It’s also not until you hear a version without them in it that you really realise how much you miss some of the great Tom Baker moments that are studded throughout Revenge of the Cybermen. The whole “pathetic bunch of tin soldiers” speech. The relatively new Doctor threatening Kellman with infection by Cybemat. Obviously, the declaration to the universe that Harry Sullivan is an imbecile. And even the smaller moments, like the Fourth Doctor’s ideas only coming a bit at a time, all enrich Revenge of the Cybermen, and you miss the verve of them here.

The events on the asteroid-that-isn’t-Voga struggle to achieve a consequence anywhere near the bitter, desperate politicking of the televised version, and as a standalone, as well as by comparison with the Revenge we know and mostly love, events there feel forgettable. And while events more or less come back around to the Revenge plot by the end of the story, some crucial differences leave them feeling a touch Earthshocky in the “Wait, where’s the logic in that?” department.

That leaves the final reel feeling a little more jaunty than “desperate battle for everybody’s lives,” meaning less impact (ahem) that you’d like in a Cyber-story.

The thing about this is that it sounds churlish to say it all. It’s written right there in big letters on the cover. This is a Lost Story. It never made it to screen, so judging it as if it did, or, which is worse, against something that did, is a touch idiotic. Especially when the lines are so traceably close between this script and the transmitted version with which we have over 45 years of experience.

If you didn’t start out this way, it’s time for an attitude adjustment on Return of the Cybermen. It’s not the Revenge we know, it’s a tantalizing peek at a Revenge from another dimension, another history that could have been. In a sense, thinking of it that way that will not only help you come to terms with the Doctor’s accommodation with the Cybermen here, but also to embrace all the other new elements.

The other new elements like, for instance, those two recast companions. So how do the newcomers do?

Good news.

Christopher Naylor as the new Harry Sullivan is pretty breath-perfect. His Harry is instantly believable, and if you don’t happen to know what Christopher Naylor looks like before you listen, you’ll easily be able to see Ian Marter's facial expressions matching his performance.

Sadie Miller of course has a harder task ahead of her. On the one hand, plenty of hardcore Sarah Jane fans have seen Sadie Miller being…well, Sadie Miller, as she’s been kind enough to engage with the fandom on a longer-term basis, sharing memories of her mum, Elisabeth Sladen. With the best will in the world to Ian Marter’s joyful performance, Sarah Jane is also the favourite companion of a lot more fans, so it takes just a little longer to shake off your knowledge of Sadie as Sadie, and find Sarah Jane. Certainly though, it doesn’t take very long before you find yourself hearing a Sarah-Jane. A perfectly plausible, natural Sarah Jane that could more than work in audio. And you nod, and you smile, because you so want Sadie to smash it.

And then, in some of the most unconscious-seeming moments, and on some of the most unlikely lines...there she is. Uncannily. Like listening to a sonic mirror, connecting you to long-ago. The real Sarah Jane. There’s a punch of renewed loss in those moments, but it lifts you in a heartbeat to a moment of 'Oh my God, it's you! It is you, isn't it?!' And the emotion in those moments is complicated. Remembering Elisabeth Sladen. Welcoming Sadie Miller. Uniting them in the fiction that is Sarah Jane Smith, a favourite friend in a dangerous universe, often afraid but brilliant and brave, with a hand your young self could hold through the dark. Whether Return of the Cybermen is a one-off, or whether there are more, for this moment in audio history, Sarah Jane is back – and it’s an unparallelled gift for every fan of the period.

So – they work out OK then…

They’re by no means alone. Perhaps peculiarly, while it would take a neutron bomb or chronic boredom to mute Tom Baker (and long may he be kept from either), he’s less the focus in Return of the Cybermen than he was in Revenge, where his energy, fresh in the job, spun the whole story around it. Here, the nature of the story demands that he be blown from pillar to post a bit more – including engaging in that very Troughton-esque game of Hunt The Cyberman.

But Kellman, the devious double-crossing scientist played on-screen by canary-haired ice-man actor Jeremy Wilkin, gets a new lease of equally toady but less obvious life here through the voice of perennial script-helper, Nickolas Grace.

Nicholas Asbury brings gruffness and gravitas to Nerva’s Commander Stevenson too, while arguably the greatest Nicholas of them all, Mr Briggs himself, gives a cameo at the beginning, and then gives semi-electronic life to the Cybermen all the way through.

Oddly enough, that’s one of the most different things about Return of the Cybermen – Nick Briggs plays the Cybermen not in any attempt to replicate the Revenge version, which were, let’s face it, interesting but odd, but as a kind of Invasion++ version – not quite the same as late Troughton-era Cybermen, but moved along a notch or two in their development. In all fairness, that’s reportedly what Davis had in mind for these redeveloped Cybermen, so in some respects, what we get here is a knitting together of the best of Davis’ intentions with the best efforts of the 21st century’s CyberController.

Oh, and while we’re heaping praise on Nick Briggs – you’re probably going to need to stand up at several points and clap. The sound design and music on this story is jooooyously resonant of the original Carey Blyton soundtrack, with just occasional twists of something more Dudley Simpsonish to really steep you in the Tom Baker era. This is the sort of soundtrack that makes it worth your while to listen beyond the Behind The Scenes stuff, purely to revel.

Is Return of the Cybermen the best Cyberman story ever?

No, it’s at least as barmy as most other “logic-driven” Cyber-plots, but with a few holes, driven over by a cast giving it plenty of gusto to pretend it makes sense. So…not unlike Revenge of the Cybermen, then. And Earthshock. And The Wheel In Space. And…well, insert the name of your favourite Classic-era Cyber-story here.

Is it a tantalizing glimpse into a Cyber-story we might have had though? Absolutely, and there’s value in that for its own sake.

Much, much more than that though, it’s a triumphant first outing for a new ‘Early Baker’ Tardis team that fills all the nostalgic fans with joy. More Harry and Sarah stories would be entirely welcome based on the chemistry and performances here – possibly opening up new areas for the ever-developing Fourth Doctor Adventures range.

Return of the Cybermen is a hard-punching, barmy story which takes a different tack on a well-known adventure, gives you gifts galore along the way, and delivers a soundtrack that makes you cheer.

Yes, money’s tight in the time of Covid, but you’re really going to need to do get this one.

Doctor Who: Return of the Cybermen is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 April 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Tony 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

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