Saturday, 1 October 2016

Big Finish Reviews+ The Reaping by Tony J Fyler


The Reaping

Tony’s sharpening his scythe.

The Reaping is the Sixth Doctor’s entry in to a loose trilogy of Big Finish stories charged with doing something unusual with a companion, and something remarkable with the Cybermen.
When you consider that it was released shortly after the Tenth Doctor’s first series aired, along with its re-vamp of the Cybermen for a whole new generation, there’s so much that’s revolutionary and archetypal about the Cybermen in The Reaping it will fairly blow your hair back when you listen to it.

Here we find Cybermen using controlled human slaves not by any cumbersome headsets as in Classic Who, but by the simple application of earpieces, as was seen in The Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel just that year. Here we find Cybermen remembering who they were as humans, as seen in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. But, perhaps most significantly, here we see Cybermen who can (at least in theory) convert via one simple needle, rather than all the bulky equipment of Attack of the Cybermen – it’s barely a Cyber-step to imagine the needle being full of Cybermites or even Cyber-Pollen. And here too, we find the Cybermen having moved on (again, at least in theory) from converting living humans into weaponising the dead. We have Cybermen from ‘the future’ arriving in 1984, putting a community under siege in their own homes, so as to be more effectively upgraded, (the ‘reaping’ of the title). It’s all very New Who, and some of it’s definitely prophetic of what was to come in the Cyber-future.

In a very unusual move for Big Finish, since Nick Briggs reportedly dislikes them, this story also gives us a rare appearance by proper eighties Cybermen. Perhaps reflecting the dislike, there’s less on-the-nail clarity about the voices of these Cybermen than that of some other variants to appear in Big Finish audios, but arguably that’s because the eighties Cybermen, and Cyber Leaders particularly, were the first in many years to have a distinctive vocal performance through the talents of David Banks, and so it’s harder to precisely recapture them than it is to bring to life any previous version of the metal monsters from Mondas.
In terms of Cyber-evolution though, despite all these prophetic advancements to Cyber-kind made by writer Joseph Lidster, as a Cyberman story, Dan Abnett’s The Harvest probably just steals the pennant.

But in terms of companion drama, Lidster runs away with it, The Reaping and his own The Gathering beating each other to a pulp to see which can make us cry harder. While The Gathering might steal it in a photo finish because, as the only Tegan Big Finish story Janet Fielding planned to ever do at the time, it gives the mouthy Australian some razor-sharp things to say to the Fifth Doctor, and an appalling, everyday destiny to confront, refusing any alien techno-shenanigans to help her evade it, The Reaping is no slouch in the punch-packing department.

Imagine you had a daughter and she walked off one day. And you never saw her again – no note, no postcard, nothing. That’s the fate of Janine Foster, Peri’s mother. She accuses Howard of killing her daughter, goes into mourning, and helps her friends to get over their loss, growing into a kind of surrogate family unit around the gap that is Peri. Then, years in her relative future but only four months later as far as Janine’s concerned, Peri turns up out of the blue to attend the funeral of her best friend’s father. Questions and recriminations follow, flying in both directions, as both women feel the rawness of grief for their family friend, Anthony Chambers.

Sadly, it turns out for Chambers (Stuart Milligan) that he’s less dead than he should be, and soon the confused Cyberman is stomping around, terrifying his children, Nate (an ex-flame of Peri’s) and Kathy (her best friend), while the Doctor is befriending the homeless man who’s been charged with his murder, and almost poisoned by the Cyber-controlled cops of Baltimore. In terms of the Cyber-story, again, there are prophetic elements here – it bears more than a little resemblance to the underlying plot that would go on to become Victory of the Daleks, a last desperate throw of the dice involving the Doctor and his Tardis to re-invigorate a dying race of universal supervillains. But the real punch of The Reaping is in Peri, her friends and family – it gives us the chance to see Peri in her natural, pre-Doctor environment, her friend, the boy she liked, the family and the family friends that made the life of Perpugilliam Brown what it was when she first met the Doctor. Nicola Bryant revels in the chance to play Peri in these surroundings, but of course she’s a very different Peri to the one that fitted into this world. She leads a patrol against the Cybermen, bringing the Doctor up to speed while he attempts to do the same to her – a sign of their equality of instinct now in the universe. It’s a beautifully understated, natural performance from Bryant, and it makes The Reaping punch above its weight. Claudia Christian as Janine too is well pitched, confrontational through habit, self-protecting through grief, she mellows as the story goes on and the truth of what’s happened to her little girl is brought home to her.

As a Cyber-story, The Reaping has plenty of solid scary elements – Cybermen from the grave, a potentially time-twisting Cyber-plot, the like of which is still fresh today (witness some version of the same idea being used by Cavan Scott and George Mann in 2016 as the backbone of their comic-book event, Supremacy of the Cybermen), and the idea of instant conversion in your coffin are all big additions to the idea-pool of what Cybermen can and should be able to do.

But really, it’s the human drama of The Reaping – the return of Peri to face the consequences of her flit into time and space with the Doctor – that really punches hardest. We rarely get to see such a thing (or at least we rarely did before the soapification of New Who), so there’s something thrilling about hearing a Classic companion going home to face her mother. But of course where there are Cybermen, there will be a body-count, and while it sneaks up on us, the body-count of The Reaping is actually very high: by the very end of it, Peri has nowhere to go home to, no-one left to understand her back home, and her only real refuge in the universe is with the man in the multi-coloured coat. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, at the end of the story, shows a very much softer side to Peri than he habitually did on-screen, and we gain an appreciation of quite how and why they work together, quite why she stays with him, and quite why they need each other.

The Reaping is a great story, with plenty of Cyber-creepiness, but even more companion action and drama. Pick it up today and marvel at its emotional scope, and the future destiny it mapped out for the Cybermen.

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