Big Finish Productions
The Cannibalists

Written by Jonathan Morris Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2009

Starring Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith

Synopsis: From their high spire, looking out over silent streets and empty plazas, the Assemblers are waiting for the day when the humans arrive. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting... When the TARDIS brings the Doctor and Lucie to the Haven, it seems like Assemblers' long wait might be over. Living beings! Without batteries! Protocol be praised! Except - they're headed for the lower levels. They don't want to do that. That's where the Cannibalists live. And if the Cannibalists catch them - well, they won’t be living beings much longer...


I'm terrified and I love it! by Luke Hewitt 1/9/12

Over Christmas, I treated myself to the new Eighth Doctor adventures from Big Finish. I was listening to series 3 late at night. It was about eleven o'clock, and I'd just finished 3.05. However, I still found myself not quite ready to sleep so decided to stick on the first episode of The Cannibalists, before getting some shuteye and finishing the story next day.

The first scene begins. Two characters, obviously robots, are running from a threat, one of them nobly agreeing to stay behind to let the other escape. "Ah, here we go," I think. "Another Doctor Who monster robot. Pity, I was hoping for something historical. Still we'll see what it's like."

Then the monster robots appeared, a rather comical bunch of motorized yobs. My mind instantly christened them the chavinators! It wasn't exactly hard to predict what they were going to do, not with the episode's title, so I waited patiently through what I expect to be a quick and violent "look, here are the monsters, here's the evil death" type of scene so that we can get on with meeting the Doctor.

Then, however, things suddenly started to change. Those self-same chavinators began literally tearing parts off the victim, a process which both sounded extremely violent, and was (by his screaming) obviously as agonizing as if he were made of flesh and blood. "Well, at least it'll be over soon," I think, but that doesn't happen, since this is no quick, Paradise of Death-style instant audio monster murder; indeed, the scene is just a little longer than we are used to. We get more than enough time to hear the victim beg for death. What is almost worse here is the attitude of the Cannibalists themselves, which is neither just a cold Cyberman-like desire for spare parts, nor a Survival-style pleasure in the hunt, but something far worse, a very happy and almost gleeful satisfaction in their victim's helplessness and pain.

I found myself wishing the scene would end, actually wanting the victim to die, but this did not happen for some time, and the final ending of the robot's life is far nastier.

The cannibalists rip out his memory chips, leaving him with just a voice asking "Who am I? What is my function?" which slowly fades down into silence as the Cannibalists drain off the batteries and then shout about their victory.

As that familiar Doctor Who theme started, I actually paused the playback. My hands were shaking, my mouth dry and when I stood up to walk off some of the tension, my knees felt physically weak.

There have been a lot of deaths in Doctor Who, since horror is after all one of its subgenres. Plenty of monsters, from Vervoids to Krotons to Ice Warriors, ready to kill people in interesting ways. Nor have big finish shrunk from showing us these sorts of scenes; indeed in audio more can be got away with than on TV in the matter of brutalizing the body.

The first death of The Cannibalists, however, took everything I thought I expected about horror Who, and left it hanging.

The scene is too long, too violent, and death doesn't come as a peaceful end, but a pathetic destruction of mind and identity that is in its own way worse than the destruction of the victim's body.

None of these are new ideas. The cyber conversion scenes in something like Real Time or Sword of Orion after all involve just the same pain and traumatic destruction of a person. But The Cannibalists is just that bit longer, that bit more violent, and indeed that bit more realistically human, despite the subjects being robots. Also what has to be considered is the attitude of the Cannibalists themselves.

These are not cold machines bent only on spare parts like the Cybermen, these are deliberate and cruel creatures who enjoy the act of destruction as much as getting the parts, and will laugh and joke around even as they torture. Neither, however, are the Cannibalists creepy Hannibal-Lecter-style psychos who have so much sheer charisma you almost see them as another species. Gritty and realistically down to earth, I could almost imagine a gang of drunks on a Saturday night shoving broken bottles into someone's face then cheerfully saying "stitch that, old son!" This realism, this idea that the Cannibalists were robotic versions of people we pass every day in the street was almost more frightening, even as they tortured and killed, something that is only emphasized by the Doctor later describing them as resembling a biker gang.

If you haven't heard this scene for yourself, there's probably no way I can say how utterly horrific it is; indeed, when the CD finished and I needed to enter the second one, I actually rushed to get it out of the drive before that first scene replayed.

Needless to say, after that, sleep was out of the question, neither could I leave the situation of The Cannibalists hanging. I had to see how the Doctor, our hero, the one who (as Tennant says in The Girl in the Fireplace) gives the monsters nightmares, would deal with some truly monstrous monsters. And the answer?

He doesn't! When he first encounters them, the first thing he does is run for it, even the mighty sonic screwdriver being of little to no use against the sheer brutality of the Cannibalists. Of course, being as this is the eighth Doctor, whose catch phrase from Storm Warning "Trust me! I have no idea what I'm doing" seems almost a permanent attitude, we will expect him to be at a loss right up until he finds a way to save the day at the last second, winging it all the way.

With the Cannibalists though, this doesn't happen. Even when the Doctor comparatively early in the story seems to gain a deus ex machina that will remove the threat once and for all, the monsters quickly turn this to their own advantage, I find it significant that, like Planet of the Spiders, this is a story where the Doctor doesn't exactly defeat the monsters hands down and save the day.

To contrast with the brutal Cannibalists, Jonathan Morris gives us the Assemblers, three cheerful, old-professor-type robots very ably played by Nigel Lambert (one of my favourite audio actors of all time). The Assemblers are as different from the Cannibalists as you can imagine. Robots that create rather than destroy, that are flustered, slightly pompous and quite likeable. My first thought was "Oh no, what happens when these doddery old bots meet the Cannibalists?" and, sure enough, we're treated to some truly brutal scenes including yet another very horrific death which is even repeated twice as it's the opening of episode 2.

Another master stroke about the Assemblers is their belief that the almighty "protocol" will save the day. In other hands, this could've been treated as yet another "religion is wrong, science is right" and thus rather dull debate. However, even though from the outset you know that their belief is based on misunderstanding, the Doctor - and us with him - treat it with respect. Thus, when the Assemblers give their lives in the name of Protocol, it's not a pointless last stand, but something far more noble, especially since, as with the other deaths in the story, you hear this in full detail.

What is also interesting about the deaths is that, since all the characters are robots, there is zero blood at all, not even the audio sound effects that stories like Nekromanteia have given us. According to current censorship and social theory, a person can be struck ill, poisoned, tortured with some device like electroshock or the famous sci-fi agony beam to the point of sobbing incoherence and insanity, just as long as there is no blood. Even any amount of beatings are fine so long as the red stuff is avoided.

For myself, a torture scene with energy pulses is just as traumatic as one with any amount of gore, simply because what is the truly upsetting thing is the pain that a person is experiencing, not the amount of gore that pain causes. The Cannibalists, as I have indicated, has truly inhuman pain and suffering as part of its story, but no blood whatsoever, yet I'd challenge anyone to hear the death scenes and not find themselves severely shaken.

Of course, this isn't to say such deaths shouldn't happen. An art form is an art form after all. Only by making the principal actors robots rather than humans, Jonathan Morris gets us to subtly question one of our basic ideas about violence.

The final point of the story's plot, the repeating cycle of violence that has gone on for 400 years in a space station thanks to a computer error, is, while not new, executed extremely well simply because of the Cannibalists themselves.

In J G Ballard's High Rise, the novel that inspired Paradise Towers, the violence is also extreme and senseless. Thus the breakdown of order in a pleasant suburban setting is far more poignant. Paradise Towers arguably failed at this, since the breakdown of order and violence seemed almost an afterthought in that story. But where Paradise Towers failed, The Cannibalists succeeds utterly! What's more, it does so only with three actual deaths throughout the whole story, but by making these deaths as horrific as they are, all other elements are cast into a darker, more sinister light, and the threat of the Cannibalists grows far more than if they were just the usual Who monster crunching its way through a troop of faceless unit guards.

Of course, the story isn't perfect. Lucy Miller I find one of the least convincing audio companions: a Rose Tyler rip-off with a Yorkshire accent, and here she does little more than swear at the robots from time to time and provide a little rather painful comic relief. The same goes for the robot poetry; while I don't mind the idea of a robot growing self-aware enough to start being artistic, I'd rather the art were treated seriously, especially as, - as the ending implies - it is something of a next step and a ray of hope.

All in all though, The Cannibalists is one of the most impressive pieces of Who horror I've heard in audio, and one of the best adventures for the eighth Doctor. No monster is quite as compelling, or disturbing and, while the plot isn't original, the sharpness with which the points are drawn makes it come home far more than it might have if the writing and audio production had been carried out less skilfully.

I was very disappointed to see that the only review for The Cannibalists thus far was a short paragraph of complaints, hence why I wanted to set the record straight on what is, for me a truly fantastic, disturbing and utterly compelling monster story.