23 May 2015

BF: Last of the Cybermen

Continuing the 'Locum Doctors' trilogy that kicked off in last month's The Defectors, Last of the Cybermen sees Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor relocated into a Season 6 adventure. Main Range script editor Alan Barnes takes up the writing reins for the first time in a couple of years, and produces actually one of my favourite adventures of his. Be warned: this review contains spoilers.

What I especially love about this story is how much thought has been put into it, and I don't mean that at all condescendingly. Having left Jamie and Zoe in the TARDIS, the Second Doctor has gone off to explore the planet they've arrived on. Returning from his excursion in something of a hurry, he's replaced with his sixth incarnation who promptly falls down a steep incline. The fact that the arrival of the Sixth Doctor is the entire impetus for this story - and thus events a decade prior - is a great plot point and adds a little more validity for me, rather than just 'Wouldn't it be cool to put our Doctors in old adventures?' Admittedly, it is quite an enjoyable concept alone, but Barnes giving a bit more structure to the setup is much appreciated.

Barnes has also clearly thought about the world he wants Last of the Cybermen to come from. For years I've been trying to come up with a decent story to detail the seeing catastrophic Human/Cybermen wars between The Invasion and Revenge, without success. The writer here avoids traps I kept falling into of it being an almost generic war, only being a Human/Cyberman conflict to plug a gap, by setting it after the event - mostly. This is only the first point of inspiration I detected from Tomb of the Cybermen, others including the quarry setting, the tomb and much of the fourth episode.

But I didn't just mean in-universe influences. Barnes writes all aspects of this story - the Sixth Doctor obviously excepted - as if it really were a sixties setup the wrong Time Lord was blundered into. The characters are deliberate analogues of certain roles, and I think this works in the story's favour. Captain Frank and Lanky are great characters, the latter especially when we're finding out who we is. The revelation that he's not actually the half-converted Cyberman we think he is made me roll my eyes. Even though this was a deliberate deception, it struck me as a bit rubbish on the level of that guy from Journey to the Centre of the Earth finding out he wasn't an android after all or Guy Crayford realising he did actually have two eyes. I was hoping from this point that it would turn out that the Cybermen somehow had control of him. Although the reasoning behind the disguise was given, I still wasn't convinced by this and given little is done with the truth, I would've just gone with the cover story. It's an attempt to tie into the last quarter of the story, which takes place on Telos at the end of the war, but if Lanky had been converted in front of the Doctor, I think it would have had more of an emotional pact on him. And even though he wasn't a Cyberman, it doesn't explain why Zoe has to lift a rock off in the first part. Just how weak is he?

The human villain of the piece is Zennox, who does for Last of the Cybermen what Kaftan did for Tomb. She's played with excellent detachment by Lucy Liemann and evokes the classic sixties female antagonist perfectly. It's a relatively limited supporting cast here: the only character I've not yet mentioned is logician Findel. His relationship with Zoe is enjoyable, but much of it does stall the action a little. And I don't know if the writer was just trying to fit in with established continuity (again!) or if he genuinely believed it but the choice of NOR gates for the tombs instead of the ORs in Tomb is a bit puzzling. It's widely accepted that NAND gates are the most efficient and useful since they can be used anyway. If I remember rightly, MOSFET transistors were already in use throughout the 1950s and 1960s so this would've been known at the time. It's a really subtle point but stuck out to me. All in all though, it's an accomplished ensemble and make for a refreshing change from the usual array of guest characters in the main range. 

The production of the piece is something of a mixed bag. The direction is pretty serviceable but little more. Given that the Big Finish website would have you believe this was the work of Barnaby Edwards, I was a bit disappointed as he's usually a much more creative and interesting master of ceremonies than this story delivers. Listening to the extended extras, I discovered it was in fact Ken Bentley - probably the company's most over-stretched director/writer - at the helm. Although he's put together a great cast, I'm sorry to say there were relatively few directorial flourishes. Nigel Fairs was on the music and sound design duties here and I think it's fair to say he performs better in the former category. Listening to the isolated score at the end of the first disc really highlights what a great score he brings to the story. His sound design just baffled me a bit though, frankly. He uses the odd technique of often panning characters almost entirely to the left or right, which gets quite annoying quite quickly if you're listening through headphones. And like Andy Hardwick in Mistfall, he tries to convey wide, open spaces or people being far away using echoes... Eh? It just doesn't work that well for me, and as with the earlier story, it sounds like a lot of the effects are plucked straight from a stock soundboard or library. That gives the overall impression that this is a dramatic reading rather than a full drama that we just don't have the pictures for. It undermines some bits, but there are some bits that are as impressive as others are lacking.

It's widely accepted that there are basically two types of main range Doctor Who stories. There are those that are basically TV stories without pictures, and there are those that use the format to do something innovative. In Last of the Cybermen, it feels like Alan Barnes has tried to get the best of both, and to be fair to him, he almost succeeds. The Telos segment of the action is unnecessary and poses too many questions (for example, if the Cybermen have time travel, why don't they go back to the start of the war to eradicate the humans?). There's enough anachronisms in this story already and it brought what was quite a promising opening down in my estimations. The Sixth Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are all written well though (the first especially) and are given a fair amount to do. Colin Baker enjoys the opportunity to get basic to his Season 22 personality and Frazer Hines effortlessly sounds twenty again. The sparring between the two male leads feels a touch contrived but I can live with it. The stream of continuity references was another element I could've done without, being of almost Gary Russell-proportions. There's references to pretty much every Second Doctor story in every medium from The Invasion onwards; Zoe and Findel have a chat that basically says Zoe's from the Brotherhood of Logicians, and there's so many more. They just bored me a bit and pulled the story to a grinding halt. For placement in Season 6 - if it was really necessary - Jamie could've just easily pulled Zoe to one side and gone, "Oh, don't you remember what the Doctor said to that Ms Kelly the other day?" or whatever. 

I still think it would have made more sense to tell this trilogy in chronological order from the Doctor's perspective. At least then he would remember having been transposed before and could look for more clues. As it is, absolutely everyone forgets the experience, the most unsatisfying narrative device - the reset button. This does pose one important question for me though. Given that all of this happens because it's the Sixth Doctor that shows up here, if everything's put back in the box, does any of it happen after all? This has a lot going for it and is pretty enjoyable for the vast majority. Alan Barnes has been involved in a lot of the significant main range stories - the Eighth Doctor and Charley's introduction, the fortieth anniversary special, Hex's and Charley's first exits - so it feels right he should return for the two-hundredth celebration trilogy. He gets to add to the mythology of the Cybermen with the introduction of the Super-Controller, and generally serves the steel giants quite well (the weird voices aside - Lanky (Cyber and not) included). Captain Frank is a fun, old school character of the like we've not heard for years. Overall, this is a success but lots of little points hold it back from being as great as it seems to think it is at times. 

I'm really looking forward to seeing how all this time meddling is explained in Eddie Robson's The Secret History next month - the first historical since September and May 2013 before that if we exclude the twentieth century. Is it the Sirens returned? We shall see...

In a Nutshell: The Evil of the Daleks meets The Tomb of the Cybermen meets Attack of the Cybermen. Therefore, mostly good but falls down in places.

... just.

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