by Marc Platt
Audio Drama by Big Finish Productions
reviewed by Echo Fain
We all want immortality, says Thomas Dodd; he's cynical but not wrong.
It's Doctor Who at its science fiction best, the disparity of technology capable of cybernetic augmentation set in a 1950s Londonesque city locked down with rationing and curfews and cyber-Police on cyber-horses. Spare Parts is, to a newbie, a good place to start with Big Finish's Doctor Who audio drama line. The Cyberman voices are a throw-back to the television serial "The Tenth Planet" and that is continuity at a grand, scary level.
Intending to take Nyssa to the picture show in London, the Doctor has accidentally brought her to the wrong place. Not an unusual occurrence, but this time it could have larger repercussions than those usually faced by the time traveler and his companions. They have arrived in an underground city on Mondas, the lost twin of Earth, where the Cybermen were first created. They're just in time to witness the last gasps of humanity on a planet where the surface is lethal and its people are being used up as a form of cannon fodder.
Once he suspects the truth of where they are, the Doctor is sure he doesn't want to be involved. Getting involved means changing the course of Cyberman history. To do so does not mean preventing their creation, but any alteration could result in a far worse trajectory than the one which both the Time Lord and his companion have been witness to. There are consequences to interfering with known events.
As the Doctor explains at a later point in the story, arguing with Nyssa about why they should stay disinterested: 'Sometimes you play. Sometimes you sit on the sideline. Sometimes you run afterwards with a stretcher.'
Unable to turn away immediately, they separate to explore on the cusp of the city's curfew and are caught up in the gears of Mondas' last days as a human world. The population is doomed with disease, slow starvation, and the threat of a nebula which hangs ready to devour the frozen planet.
There is a black market for flesh body parts and the Police have been secretly ordered to dig up the cemetery, to provide the city with nutrients. Few of the processed Cybermen are surviving more than a week as their bodies reject the cybernetic augmentation. The propulsion system used to give the planet some means of directed travel is located on the frozen surface, needing crewmen for repairs and operation. Workers who go to the surface don't survive very long; even when protected by heavy gear, their minds cannot endure the terrible blackness which is their open sky.
Once again, the Doctor gets involved in saving the Cybermen, this time very much against his will. His physiology is mapped as the template for a new and improved cyborg, one that can survive the rigors of the surface.
Mondas was perhaps doomed from its start. The people have lived in underground cities for a very long time, the planet's surface a mystery. Life on the surface is now memorialized in the ceremonies and trimmings of a holiday which seems to be similar to Earth-based Christmas but with symbolism that accents the differences between Earth and Mondas. For the Mondasian, the decorated fir tree is a reminder of an unremembered time when they lived on the surface, where the trees grew; the fairy lights are stars and the star at the top of the tree stands in for a long-lost sun, the star Sol.
They have reached an untenable position in their society. The people are dying out, fighting mortality with life-saving augmentations such as replacement hearts. Drifting in space, away from the light and heat of a star, the surface of Mondas is physically lethal and psychologically devastating.
In this story, there is no central enemy to fight. These are organic beings with emotions and frailties. This is a war for survival in the hands of those who no longer have human feelings. With the Cybermen, the desire to survive subsumes personality and all other flesh needs into programmed responses. In the push for the survival of Mondasian humanity, they kill what it means to be human.
Spare Parts is full of easily understood characters both rich and colorful who turn the story into historical science fiction, ghastly and heart-wrenching by turns. The average citizens are like frightened rats, scurrying to be safely indoors by tea, when the curfew starts. They are so like Earth humans that the listener cannot stay detached. The city might look like 1950s London, but it has social tones of an earlier era, with wartime rationing, curfews, and call-ups for recruits who are waved off with cheers and pride to their new job on the surface work crews. Many suspect what is really happening to those who go off for processing, but it is easier to pretend ignorance and accept the dictates of a secret government.
The Hartley family, who represent the average citizens of Mondas, clings to life on short rations and little hope, turning the telly up when a neighbor begs for help as she is collected by the Police. They sound like they're from the north of England, as dirt-common as Yorkshire. They decorate for the holiday, worry over a sluggish pet cyber-bird, fret over what to have for tea, and live in an interconnected unit which relies heavily on each beating heart---even when one of those hearts is an augmentation complete with turning paddles.
Dad Hartley is a mat-catcher who has, at some point in the past, lost his wife. He apparently sold her body to a black marketeer; this doesn't make him a bad man, only one desperate to take care of his children. He's a brilliant, world-weary character who has become fatalistic in the face of encroaching doom.
Yvonne Hartley's a sweet and innocent teenage girl who works in the hydroponic factories, where the food is grown. She has breathing problems and a young man whom she fancies; she's as normal as any woman of her age can be and it's easy to admire her pluck and generosity of spirit, which makes her fate particularly touching. The one character who does not anticipate or deserve such a frightening end is the one character with whom you walk the queue for processing. Stripped of clothes and confused among other recruits, Yvonne only comes to the realization of what processing truly means as the knives and laser saws begin to flash.
Frank Hartley wants to be recruited for service but is also ignorant of what it means. He thinks there's honor and a steady pay packet to be made by joining the surface work crews. Frank's frustratingly jealous of his sister, Yvonne, for being given her call-up papers, and it's the listener who knows what Frank does not yet understand. This is no honorable service but a death sentence given for no other reason than Yvonne's suffering from consumption.
The true horror of this audio play comes from within their home, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever written for a Cyberman story. If your loved one was turned into a Cyberman, would you want to see them again? Would you want to know? What if they turned up at your door only half-processed and schizophrenic with the mental torment of an incomplete conversion, incapable of remembering their humanity but childlike in their need for you?
Other secondary characters who flesh out this tale include Thomas Dodd, a wide-boy who runs a body parts shop, trading in misery and spare transplant materials. He's an opportunist, but he isn't alone; Mondas has only one underground city left and its population has shrunk to a few thousand. Dodd won't be the only one capable of seeing the truth and working to make a profit while a profit is possible.
The city is run by a Central Committee, twelve of Mondas' finest minds hooked into a computer. They are aided, primarily, by those who still possess the physical bodies necessary to carry out the gruesome task of conversion.
Doctorman Allan is an alcoholic scientist who is responsible for the creation of the Cybermen race, but she is no John Lumic or Davros; she is human and hates herself for what she's done to her people. She has stripped the humanity from living Mondasians and her conscience is pricked by this; she spends much of the story drinking and it is, in fact, her wine which offers the Doctor a chance at stopping this metal march to doom. Allan is every bit the cynic that Thomas Dodd, the black marketeer, is. But while Dodd is working to supply body parts to the little man for a profit, Doctorman Allan has a grander goal of saving the world.
She is assisted by Sisterman Constant, a selector. The selectors move among the remaining population, choosing the sick and damaged for processing. She takes pride in her position and is aware of its implications. Sisterman Constant believes she is doing good and is sanctimonious about her duty. Her blindness to the inevitable outcome is painful; she can only see the present need and not how this situation must eventually play out. In this way, she can be likened to the kapos of WWII concentration camps, a judas goat.
Commander Zheng, a processed Cyberman in charge of the surface work crews, answers directly to the Central Committee; without emotion or human thought, he acts as he is ordered to and begins the job of processing the full population with an intent of shutting down the city; there is no more choice, because the roof of the underground cavern is opened, letting in the frozen atmosphere from above. He is the instrument by which Mondas' destiny is fulfilled and his last line is just as chilling as the Central Committee/Cyberplanner's repeated cries of 'We must survive'. Zheng, despite being an emotionless Cyberman, lingers in the mind as strongly as any of the unprocessed human characters and reveals to the listener that, in the end, the Doctor's involvement has changed little.
Even if the sight of this legendary Doctor Who alien doesn't frighten you, the idea behind their existence should. The mesh of a human desire for survival with the cold logic of the machine should be enough to scare any living soul. A species of cyborgs whose most basic ambition comes from within its human origins: the drive for survival, at any cost, even the loss of humanity. How far are we from a similar fate? A breast implant today, a hip replacement tomorrow, a new nose in a few years, cyberthetic limbs for the wounded soldier returning from war, cyberthetic eyes which contain a camera and a connection to the visual center of the brain...what's next? A neural augmentation for wifi?
The push for physical, emotional, and social perfection can be a killer.
This audio drama has been influential in the Doctor Who television show, beginning with the parallel world episodes "Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Age of Steel", which see the Doctor witnessing the birth of Cybermen on Earth in another universe. But, this is not where the influence ends. In the episodes "Army of Ghosts" and "Doomsday", the director of Torchwood One at Canary Wharf, is named Yvonne Hartman (close enough!) and she retains some of her humanity after conversion, enough so for us to draw a correlation to Spare Parts' Yvonne Hartley's uncompleted processing and the human behaviors which both Yvonnes show from under the Cyberman mask.
Many fans comment on how difficult it is to understand the Central Committee's voice, claiming it to be garbled and distorted. It is true that this particular voice is hard to follow at times, but given that the character is, story-wise, meant to be a composite of twelve brains joined together through a computer, the Central Committee's voice(s) is just about what a listener should expect.
Spare Parts is a masterpiece of storytelling, a captivating dystopic history for one of the Doctor's greatest foes.
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Marc Platt is a British writer well known for his contributions to Doctor Who. He has written twenty-one Doctor Who audio plays for Big Finish Audio. He wrote the 7th Doctor television serial "Ghost Light" and five Doctor Who novels, including the much-acclaimed Lungbarrow. Spare Parts was the inspiration for the 2006 Doctor Who episodes "Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Age of Steel".
Directed by: Gary Russell
Sound Design: Alistair Lock
Music: Alistair Lock
Cover Art: Clayton Hickman
Number of Discs: 2
Duration: Disc 1 (59:08) Disc 2 (73:50)
Recorded: 26 & 27 March 2002
Recorded At: The Moat Studios
Chronology: This story takes place between the 5th Doctor's television adventures Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity.
The Doctor --Peter Davison
Nyssa --Sarah Sutton
Doctorman Allan --Sally Knyvette
Sisterman Constant --Pamela Binns
Thomas Dodd --Derren Nesbitt
Mister Hartley --Paul Copley
Yvonne Hartley --Kathryn Guck
Frank Hartley --Jim Hartley
Mrs. Ginsberg --Ann Jenkins
Gary Russell --Philpott/Nurse
Alistair Lock --Minister/TV Commentator
Nicholas Briggs --Zheng/Cyber Voices/Radio Announcer/Citizen/Nurse
(Paul Copley also appeared as Clem McDonald in Children of Earth)