Filming has only just started on the second season of the new Doctor Who, but already the rumours are running fast and furious.
It has been confirmed that the Cybermen will make an appearance in a two-part story. After the Daleks, the Cybermen are arguably Doctor Who’s signature monster, having appeared alongside every Doctor in the original series, having provided numerous classic moments, and having participated in a rare death of a companion. Their convoluted origin storyline and their deadly allergic reaction to gold are things that most fans already know.
There has been some speculation out there, that the production team has not yet scotched that the two-part Cybermen story might be a loose remake of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure Spare Parts.
The story, reviewed here, starred Peter (“Fifth Doctor”) Davison and Sarah (“Nyssa”) Sutton and dramatized for us the origin of the race. In a recent poll conducted by the Doctor Who Information Network, it was rated as the best Doctor Who audio adventure of all time, and it placed high in the race for best Doctor Who story, period. This season’s Dalek, written by Rob Sherman, borrows elements from the audio play Jubilee, also by Rob Sherman. Given how much more highly rated Spare Parts was, given that its audience so far has been in the thousands rather than the millions, a lot of fans are hoping to see the audio play come to the television screen.
One problem: Spare Parts was written by Mark Platt. The two-part Cyberman story is being written by Tom MacRae (and directed by Graeme Harper! Woohoo!), and that is not a pseudonym for Mark Platt. However, borrowing elements from Spare Parts might be a good strategy. Not only are the expectations for a Cyberman story higher now that the Daleks were so successfully brought back, there are obstacles here to a successful tale that the Daleks didn’t have.
Doctor Who owns the Daleks. There is no monster who is as synonymous with its parent show in the rest of television science fiction. All Russell T. Davies had to do was ensure that the Daleks remained ruthless, frightening, and charmingly retro, and he’d bring the audience with him.
The Cybermen, however, though they are now nearly thirty years old, are about to re-enter a crowded field. Star Trek has thoroughly explored the mechanical monster through the Borg. More recently, Battlestar Galactica’s re-imagined Cylons are making waves. When Doctor Who reintroduces the Cybermen, people are going to be watching for overt and subtle similarities between the Cybermen, the Cylons and the Borg, and unless the new Cybermen really stand out, many will say that the Cybermen represent a pale copy of these other two monsters. To stand out means nurturing the differences between the Cybermen, and their Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica counterparts.
It’s worth noting that the rumours don’t actually specify remaking Spare Parts into a televised Doctor Who story. Rather, they just mention a “Big Finish Cyberman story”, which has one particular connotation that I dread.
Sword of Orion began life as one of the best Audio Visuals stories — one of a series of Doctor Who audio plays put together by fans, many of whom went on to found Big Finish, or even go onto the BBC. As the Audio Visuals morphed into the increasingly ambitious Bill Baggs Videos and finally Big Finish, attempts were made to adapt Sword of Orion as stories in the new company.
Sword of Orion riffs heavily on Alien and Aliens and uses the Cybermen to do it. The plot involves a group of interstellar scrap hunters finding far more than they bargained for when they encounter a derelict “star destroyer”. The Audio Visuals’ production was a mastery of production values, producing a clustrophobic thriller of considerable energy, making up for the fact that there actually wasn’t much to the story. The fact that the story was pretty pedestrian shows up in the subsequent Big Finish production, even though it stars Paul (“eighth Doctor”) McGann.
The Borg and the original Cybermen have already participated in typical monster thrashes, so the remake of Sword of Orion wouldn’t have all that much to set it apart. The Borg effectively exemplify a mechanical, highly-intelligent, soulless gestalt (group creature), existing only to consume the resources it needs to perpetuate itself, just like the alien of Alien. On the other hand, the Cylons have cornered the market on another venerable storyline, starting out as your typical machine slaves that rebelled against their human masters. Thankfully, Ron Moore appears interested in exploring the character of deadly machines aspiring to be human. So here we start to see a possible point of difference, that a remake of Spare Parts could exploit.
The big difference between the Borg, the Cylons and the Cybermen is that the former two represent machines aspiring to sentience, while the Cybermen represent humans who have lost their humanity.
The origin story of the Cybermen introduces several ludicrous scientific concepts: that there was a twin planet Earth that evolved in parallel to our own planet; that a civilization of humans rose that were sufficiently advanced to have expert cybernetic knowledge and yet we never encountered them in our history; that when the twin planet, named Mondas, broke orbit and went skittering into the outer reaches of space at intersellar speeds, the people were dumb enough and smart enough at the same time to replace every piece of flesh and bone on their bodies (including their brains) with metal and plastic parts in order to survive.
Despite these purely fantastical ideas, the metaphor remains: the Cybermen were human once, and the decision to sacrifice their humanity was one they made as a species. To set these creatures apart from the Borg and the Cylons, Doctor Who’s producers must never forget this.
Spare Parts plays off the drama inherit in this scenario. Just what would it take for a civilization to decide to sacrifice its humanity? Just how bad would things have to be for these people to remove themselves from the evolutionary ladder to such a degree? And, more than that, through ninety minutes of bone-chilling storytelling, Mark Platt succeeds not only in milking the tragedy of the Mondasians’ decision, but also making it coldly logical.
Neither Star Trek nor Battlestar Galactica have achieved anything close to that.
It’s no wonder fans of the Doctor Who television series want a piece of Spare Parts in technicolor.
Thinking about the whole scenario of a whole planet skittering out of the solar system, and remembering the plotline of Spare Parts, maybe the scenario isn’t as un-science-fiction as I thought.
Voyager has just entered interstellar space after leaving Earth’s orbit twenty-seven years ago. By the time the Doctor and Nyssa encounter Mondas in Spare Parts, the planet is dead, there are only a few thousand Mondasians left alive, and those that are alive are deep underground in shelters, living off of diminishing supplies, and praying off each other for body parts.
If the Doctor and Nyssa were encountering a situation that was twenty-seven years in the making, or longer (say fifty), then we’re only talking about the amount of energy required to accelerate a planet the size of Earth to a rate of speed achieved by Voyager.
“Only”! Yeah. Haha.
But it’s somewhat more feasible than I was originally envisioning, with the planet departing the solar system in a matter of months. And if the situation has been allowed to develop for decades, the survivors could well have been pushed against the wall for so long, that their decision to choose soullessness over extinction makes that much more sense. I like it.