Big Finish Productions

Written by Nicholas Briggs

Starring Mark McDonnell and Sarah Mowat

Synopsis: The Cybermen are planning to convert a few criminals. Nothing much, really.


A Review by Joe Ford 3/7/08

The hype for this series was incredible. There was a thread on the Outpost Gallifrey forum the length of several epics discussing, probing, anticipating and awaiting this four-part series. Let's face it, Nicholas Briggs has never let us down before; his Doctor Who audio dramas have always had a certain extra something (Creatures of Beauty was excellently presented, Ish... was directed with a very intelligent touch) and his three Dalek series were all outstanding, full of drama, suspense and excellent characterisation. Expectations were pretty high for Cyberman...

Is it any wonder so many of you were let down. I have learnt a lesson about pre-judging something before it comes out. Given that this series was based on Briggs' own Sword of Orion, I was holding back judgement until I had heard the thing. Unfortunately, Orion was the one story Briggs wrote and directed that I loathed; it was far too full of macho posturing, people shouting and very little action. It also has some particularly irritating music that sounds repetitive and annoying.

Cyberman is not what you think it is going to be. If you were expecting an all-out Cyber War like the Dalek series, you are going to be bitterly disappointment. In some ways, I think Briggs decided to go in the completely different direction and rather than tell an epic, world-spanning war, he decided to tone the whole thing down and make it a very personal journey for his characters. There is still a huge background to this series - the Orion War, the Cyber-conversion of millions of humans; the reactivation of Cybermen on Telos - but essentially this series is about four or five people faced with tough choices in a dire situation.

Frankly, I think this is no bad thing and I think I was one of the few (who wasn't expecting much!) who actually found this series highly enjoyable. I can see why people would have issues with it, which I will go into later, but as a whole this is another well-thought-through and interesting (that is so often forgotten by Big Finish but you can always rely on Briggsy to offer up some thought-provoking material) spinoff from Doctor Who. There were some stolen ideas, some original ones and some downright odds choices made (in storytelling terms) but I listened to this series over two weeks in the gym at 6.30 every morning and found myself wanting to stay on the sodding cross-trainer for even longer so I could find out what happens next. So thanks Nick, I think I've lost a stone, thanks to you.

What's here are moments that are very dramatic. On the whole, this is a very quiet, intimate series, one where lack of words often plays a huge effect. The tone of the series is depressing; the characters are fighting an endless and futile war, and I think the characters enjoy a giggle perhaps twice throughout the four instalments. Early episodes of hopelessness soon shift gears as the Cybermen start to make huge changes in the Orion War. Despite the grimness of tone it transpires to be quite uplifting, especially in episode four (Telos), where the androids and the humans work together to settle their differences and defeat the Cybermen. It is fascinating to compare the three species; the humans who made the androids in their own image and then decided to wipe them out because they emulate us too well, the Cybermen who have decided they want to be nothing like us and want to wipe out any creature which expresses emotion, and the androids who desperately want to live and destroy the Cybermen who consider them irrelevant. Told you things got interesting.

Mark McDonnell's character, Liam, is absolutely crucial for the series to work, so it helps that he nails the character perfectly. His character goes through the most changes and it is fascinating to watch his character shift gears and allegiances. He is an intensely loyal man and his duty to his close friend Karen Brett is instantly apparent. The first episode is vital to show their relationship deteriorate as she becomes president of Earth and responsible for the people rather than the military. McDonnell's performance when he loses it and screams at Paul (Karen's brand-new advisor, who seems to be influencing her into ignoring the fact that they are losing the war) is terrifyingly good, with Liam finally losing his straw at being so utterly impotent in the scheme of things, despite his high-up position.

Realising he is being set up to fail (and after an attempt on his life) he turns to a stranger for aid, the mysterious Samantha. This where his journey gets really interesting, because he feels instantly attracted to Samantha and soon discovers she is an android, the very race that he loathes. Together, they start to investigate the bizarre happenings and soon discover the Scorpius project, the underwater cyber-conversion base. Partially converted Samantha has no choice but to appeal to Liam's basest sense by snogging him (and hugely effective it is too!) and thus seals their closeness. A conflicted Liam is given even more to think about when they are eventually rescued by an android taskforce and he discovers the leader of the androids and Samantha are in a relationship, setting up an awkward love triangle which is nowhere near as horrible as it sounds. It actually provokes an argument between Liam and Reorden, which for my money is the best scene in the entire play, Liam pointing out with some glee that a human and an android are having an argument about feelings rather than wanting to blow each others heads off. A truce (of sorts) has been made and they are both fighting for the same cause. It's a hell of a lot of development for one character in four hours of audio drama, and many of McDonnell and Hannah Smith's (Samantha) interactions are highlights; initially distrustful, then comfortable with each other, then fighting for each other. It's great drama whatever way you look at it.

Unfortunately Sarah Mowat's character, Karen Brett, is not given half as much airtime to get to grips with her character, which is one trick that Briggs missed completely. Of all the characters in this series, hers goes through the most startling transformation, starting off as a determined (to the point of torturing an android for information) military officer to a tired president in just the first instalment. As soon as Paul Hunt and his Cyber colleagues start to corrupt her, she sort of vanishes from the story, there only to talk like a zombie and make speeches to the people. It would be fascinating to see her transformation from her point of view, to allow Mowat to delicately alter her performance from scene to scene, so we can see how their brainwashing is affecting her. It is not until episode four that we see any great conflict in her head, almost completely Cyberman at this point and screaming out, "There is no Karen Brett!" to the point where she almost believes it herself. When she turns truly nasty in the last fifteen minutes, proving how much of a hold the Cybermen have over her, fighting to her death to get the signal out to activate the Cybermen around the galaxy, it is frightening.

The narrative is extremely experimental, which is Briggs through and through. The story has an almost documentary feel about it (which I think was rather the point, detaching us from the action to focus on the people involved) with characters jumping from the action to talk directly to us. Whilst this anonymous interviewer is never named, it certainly allows for some evocative descriptions and dramatic moments (I adored Liam's description of the Cyber tombs). Elsewhere, you have the Cybercontroller reporting events to Paul Hunt (another excellent device which allows us to see the action from the enemies point of view), newscasts, speeches to the main population, monologues... it is all intriguingly handled and allows us to know what is going on without coming across as an audio story struggling to explain events unconvincingly.

I feel I should compliment the production values, which are as spectacular as I have come to expect from Big Finish. Sound effects are all-important in audio work and things are so convincing you never have any doubt about where you are in the story or what is happening. Things like spaceships landing, people being transported, guns being fired, alarms, intercoms, the Cybermen breaking from their tombs, explosions... this is a very authentic production. To my ever-lasting surprise, the music worked a treat and it is not that different from Sword of Orion, it really does highlight the harsh, metallic, exciting and yet forceful nature of the story. I especially liked the music in episode four, where it felt as though Briggsy was experimenting with his own work to complement the drama. I think people forget how hard it is write, direct and produce a four part audio story, but Briggs manages to keeps things at a top quality throughout.

The biggest surprise (and easily the biggest disappointment for other people) is how little the Cybermen feature. This is more the devious, planning Cybermen of The Invasion than the all-out mighty force of Earthshock and for me this is a huge plus, but I can imagine that those wanting to hear thousands of stomping Cybermen wiping out millions will be disappointed. I prefer it when the Cybermen are manipulative and insidious, and their plans to undermine humanity by offering to wipe out their enemies by converting a few hundred criminals is especially good. Just getting that foot in the door on Earth is all they need. The Cybermen are on hand to handle the action set pieces (but again there aren't that many of those) but the majority of their work is done through the silky-voiced Cyberplanner. I just loved it when he received Karen's report but could not find the logic in her statement, "Karen Brett does not exist!" and his final, rather pathetic hope that the signal will still be sent is a pitiful end to this emotionless piece of work.

Cyberman feels like a prologue to another series; the Cybermen have their armies in place and are just awaiting the activation signal. They failed once but I wouldn't put it past them to try again. I found this series surprising, not just because I enjoyed it, but because it hooked me in with its intriguing setup and sparkling characters and, despite its near fatalistic tone throughout, I still wanted more! The first episode was recorded live and is the least compelling of the four, whilst probably covering the most ground - because it is all pretty slow moving (for such fast developments) and is just laying the groundwork for the drama to follow. Come Telos, this is near unmissable, with some lavish action set pieces, some cracking performances and riveting drama.

It might not be what you expect, but if you approach this looking for good drama rather than good Cyberman drama, I think you might just be impressed.