Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Cyberman 2.4: Extinction by James Swallow (December 2009)

"Everything you are is inferior to the perfection of the machine."

Extinction brings the four episodes of Cyberman II, and the eight episodes of Cyberman as a whole, to a close (at the time of writing, just over eight years later, there is still no sign of Cyberman III, and one suspects that it will never materialise). In suitable Doctor Who tradition, it does so in a manner that both satisfies and frustrates. The android nuclear weapon plot - a doomsday scenario awaiting Earth, a planet-sized sword of Damocles - never really comes alive unfortunately. It just isn't afforded much time or indeed a particular character attached to it; if we spent some time with another android who was in charge of this weapon system, seeing their internal conflict, it would come to life a lot more -- though I do understand it's hard to cram everything in. There's too many loud action sequences, too, that just don't feel as well put together as they might have done if Briggs had been at the helm. For all that I've loved Ellis and McNichol's score throughout this series, the high-octane arena set-piece is not accompanied by their best work: the insistent electric guitar riffs and percussion over the explosions and screaming just get a bit too repetitive and OTT, not to mention somewhat confusing an already confused scene.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Cyberman 2.3: Machines by James Swallow (December 2009)

There seems to me more thematic meat and coherence to Cyberman II than there was in Cyberman I, particularly in the way each of these releases looks at a different phenomenon within a world that makes the Cybermen possible: first James Swallow explored Outsiders, from Paul Hunt (a Cybrid, neither human nor Cyberman) to Liam and Sam drifting through space, then next he turned his attention to Terror: fear both justified and irrational, both rooted in reality and the result of scaremongering. Here, the focus is entirely on Machines, both in the technological revolution of pistons and metal sense but also the broader sociopolitical aspect: Cybermen, androids, humans, societies, governments as wheels and cogs within apparatus. Built to last or left to rust.

Machines like Chessman: while it's good to see the reintroduction of the Cybrid element from Kingdom of Silver and Keepsake, the problem with the protracted "I wonder who the traitor on this ship could be" segment is there's never really any doubt that it's going to be Chessman (the name screams 'double agent', doesn't it?), diluting the tension rather than enhancing it as we wait for Liam to catch up. And after all the while wondering when Corvus might turn up, it's a bit disappointing that he fits into the broader story in no more interesting a manner than simply "he's one of Chessman's past aliases", but ah well.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Cyberman 2.2: Terror by James Swallow (December 2009)

The second instalment of Cyberman II is yet more taut, pacey, and unnerving than the first, revolving around terror of various kinds - the fear humans feel at the merest whisper of android spies, the fear that leads them to put their trust in silver overlords, the fear of the Cybermen which these same overlords tell them is illogical, the terrorist methods the Cybermen use to frame androids (as in 'War on Terror'). In fiction as in life, some terror is completely justified, such as fear of the Cybermen themselves: Cybermen that pose as "First Responders" and firefighters, another creepy and inspired idea; Cybermen that, like machines, "won't stop"; the impassive and emotionless Paul Hunt, "the face of [Cyber] control ... maintain[ing his] composure." But the extent to which some of these terrors rely on falsehood, rumour, and the spread of disinformation is apparent throughout the story - from government propaganda ("that is a pack of lies!"/"It's the news. Your point?") to the undermining of individual relationships ("is that what Sam is? A carefully constructed lie?"). Lies put together, constructed, as carefully as machines. Intricacies within intricacies that keep the world running smoothly and the cogs still ticking. "I feel unreal, disconnected. It's as if I stepped through some magic mirror and now I'm in a different place, all terrorists and bombs and horrible secrets," says Hazel Trahn, the story's most overtly naturalistic character, on being confronted with this realisation about how the world works. But she is more real now for knowing the lies were just lies, and that behind the fabricated terror there lies a real one: "the truth is, I've been living in this other world all along. Just skating over the surface, not really seeing the darkness. No: not wanting to see it." And there's the crux of it: ordinary people turning a blind eye to the terror as we all so often do.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Cyberman 2.1: Outsiders by James Swallow (December 2009)

In the majority of respects, James Swallow's relaunch of Cyberman for another four-episode series looks like it will improve upon the first. It does this by sharply focussing on two quite disparate aspects of the series, which in one sense are polar opposites but which ably complement one another and bring each other into sharp relief. One of these is the space-opera stuff (the scenes with Barnaby and Samantha on board the Antares as it drifts through space following the Telos conflict): all creaking, rusting hulks, running out of air, and the bleak sub-zero temperatures of deep space. The other, and I would argue the significantly more successful, is the domestic sphere of the everyday 9-to-5 back on Earth, something which Scorpius briefly toyed with showing (those chimes of Big Ben at the start) but soon gave up on in the shift towards intergalactic war. Swallow makes the wise decision to keep things as grounded as possible; key to this everyday normality are Jo Castleton's Hazel Trahn, a working class cab driver caught up in the cataclysmic events going on around her, and her sister Becca (how casually great is the choice of featuring a blind character as a regular? Such an obvious thing to do on audio yet so rarely done). The relationship between the sisters is affecting, particularly Becca's relative surety and Hazel's relative anxiety ("she lives in darkness every day but she's the brightest person I know... sometimes I envy her. The world out there is so dark, and she can't see it. She doesn't see what I do when I close my eyes"). Castleton, in particular, is terribly good as Hazel, making an immediate impression and standing out as a great addition to the Cyberman cast.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Main Range 112. Kingdom of Silver/Keepsake by James Swallow (September 2008)

112a. Kingdom of Silver

Set against the same space-opera backdrop of the 26th century Orion War as Sword of Orion, Kingdom of Silver and its companion piece Keepsake also serve as the launching point for the second series of Cyberman stories which came along a year and a bit later. The story therefore has quite a bit of heavy lifting to do - it must fit in with what Nicholas Briggs has already established whilst also introducing whatever James Swallow wants to introduce over the four releases that make up Cyberman II. It's unsurprising, then, that the best things about it are those most unconcerned with tying into larger story arcs: the first episode, depicting the steam-age planet of Tasak on the brink of an industrial revolution, is great, but things go downhill after that. The promise of Cybermen as the panacea for this society's ill is a thrilling prospect, and Swallow is wise to keep the Cybermen in the background for the story's first running time, as it's definitely one way to make them creepier. Soon, however, we enter the rather more predictable territory of Troughton-era callbacks, hibernating in tombs and all (why do they have so many bloody tombs?!), and so Kingdom of Silver ends up feeling frustratingly like many other Cybermen stories. It's decent, but it doesn't do enough interesting things with them, which is a pity when we know BF are capable of producing utter magic with them in stories like Spare Parts and Human Resources.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Main Range 111. The Doomwood Curse by Jacqueline Rayner (August 2008)

It would be unfair to dismiss The Doomwood Curse as "a Six/Evelyn historical romp by Jacqueline Rayner that happens to have Charley instead of Evelyn in it", however much it might look like that from the outside. "Would it work?" I wondered. One of the major draws of stories like The Marian Conspiracy and Doctor Who and the Pirates is the marvellous Maggie Stables as Evelyn Smythe; taking a history professor back in time to see history in action for herself is a self-evidently great idea that one can hardly imagine being bettered. But what Jacqueline Rayner does with this story to distinguish it from that particular sub-genre of "Evelyn Smythe exploring history" stories is very smart indeed: she centres it on fiction instead. Sure, Doctor Who and the Pirates already looked at the fictionalising of history -- but that had What Actually Happened as its starting point and segued into fiction. Here, the story starts from Charley's love of reading, adventurous escapism, and the thrill of Gothic romances about highwaymen like Dick Turpin - predominantly William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood, published in 1834 but set in 1737 (this story takes place in 1738). Right from the start this is a story about fiction vs. fact. The whole story springs out of an overdue library book; the Doctor and Charley argue about the truth of Dick Turpin's legacy; the literal-minded, fact-obsessed Grel confuse the opening of A Tale of Two Cities with a factual report (how can it be both the best and worst of times?!).

Sunday, 4 February 2018


Paid leave. That’s what brains should take.
Two weeks’ vacation, every year.
Two weeks’ blissful thinkinglessness.
Not a ponder, not a hope, not a fear.

“The risks could be serious,” the brainiacs warn,
Manacled by minds of their own,
“Thoughtswarms aren’t any sort of disease;
They belong in your head. It’s home.”

But just to power down for a moment or two,
Put relentless buzzing on pause –
Wouldn’t it help, having the air
To fight on in headspace wars?

4 February 2018

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Main Range 110. The Boy That Time Forgot by Paul Magrs (July 2008)

with thanks to Louis McEvoy

There's a bit of a trend for taking what one could charitably refer to as "less popular companions" and going some way to redeeming them - Bonnie Langford's Melanie Bush probably being exhibit A in that regard. What happens in The Boy That Time Forgot is part of a slightly separate trend, for another instance of which one must turn to the IDW comic Prisoners of Time - in which an elderly Adam Mitchell takes a needlessly complex twelve-part revenge on the Doctor for abandoning him (plus terrifically silly use of Frobisher, but that's another story). Both stories are not so much about redeeming "less popular companions" as they are about, in the words of a friend of mine, "making wimpy, cheesy sidekicks in sci fi come back vengeful and angry" (his other example was Dick Grayson in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again). The metafictionality, therefore, is strong with this one: just as the characters may have been unceremoniously dumped or sidelined by the narrative (Adam kicked out by the Doctor, Grayson fired by Batman yonks ago), so too are they often profoundly unpopular within fandom, and it is as though such stories - as well as seeing these sidekicks distort the "way the narrative is supposed to go" to suit their own ends - also see them getting revenge on audiences as much as on protagonists, audiences who may have loathed them. "You thought I was a bit wet? Bit of a lame duck? Well, take this, and damn straight it ought to offend your sensibilities." And all that with a single line plundered from The Caves of Androzani: "Adric?"

Monday, 29 January 2018

Main Range 109. The Death Collectors/Spider's Shadow by Stewart Sheargold and Nicholas Briggs (June 2008)

109a. The Death Collectors

"All but Death can be Adjusted." 
- Emily Dickinson

Returning to write for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor for the first time since Red, Stewart Sheargold offers up another story boasting similarly rich world-building, similarly sophisticated thematic concerns, and a similarly moody, nihilistic atmosphere. There's a bleak, volcanic world ravaged by Antikon's Decay, one of the most deadly plagues ever known. There's an ancient, almost mythical race called the Dar Traders who collect and tend to the dead. And there's an ever-rising death count. Unlike Red, however, this story takes place towards the very end of the Seventh Doctor's life; as in other stories from this period such as MasterValhalla and Project: Lazarus, he is in a distinctly sombre and even lonely frame of mind. The recurrent use of Puccini's Madame Butterfly is more than just a fun nod to Grace: 1999 ("I will not die to the sound of elevator music!"), it's also a key leitmotif in foreshadowing his own death (as is "me, on an autopsy table?") - not even Time Lords get to choose the hour of their passing, and this incarnation is already raging against the dying of the light. But his number is nearly up.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Main Range 108. Assassin in the Limelight by Robert Ross (May 2008)

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln has been supplanted by the assassination of his eventual successor John F. Kennedy as one of the most infamous in history, but for almost a hundred years it would have been right up at the top of the list. It's no surprise, then, that at some point Doctor Who should do a story that goes back to Ford's Theatre, Washington D.C., on that fateful Good Friday evening in April 1865. Because the truth of the matter is not that Abraham Lincoln was a Vampire Hunter, as fantasy author Seth Grahame-Smith would have you believe, nor that he looked like Daniel Day-Lewis, as Steven Spielberg would have you believe. No, the truth of the matter is that an intergalactic time meddler called Robert Knox (Leslie Phillips) kills John Wilkes Booth before he could assassinate Lincoln, meaning the Doctor and Evelyn were faced with a race against time in which they must try and bring about Lincoln's assassination (shock horror!) and keep history going along its correct path. Obviously.