Sunday, April 20, 2014

Spare Parts

Back in the days before Doctor Who's return to TV in 2005, figuring out how to introduce someone to the show was an interesting challenge. You generally, would try to think of one of the all time great stories, that wasn't too long, and didn't require a lot of previous knowledge of the show. I would guess most of us didn't put "An Unearthly Child" high in the list of candidates, given its age and well... it isn't that great. Generally we picked a Tom Baker story like "Pyramids of Mars", "City of Death", or "The Deadly Assassin". Or maybe we went for the action packed "Caves of Androzani". Either way, showing some new initiate often involved putting in a DVD, and expecting them to sit through 4 (or more) episodes of Doctor Who. Often the poor victim of our enthusiasm had mentally checked out by the mid-point of the first episode. Now, with the new show mostly contained in faster paced 45 minute stories, there is one fairly obvious episode to pick to try to hook a new viewer into becoming a fan. (Hint: it rhymes with "sink".)

So, how do you introduce someone to the Big Finish range of Doctor Who? Well, for starters, I don't recommend introducing someone who isn't already a fan of Doctor Who. Seriously, as much as I adore Big Finish and consider it to generally represent the pinnacle of Doctor Who storytelling, I can't imagine selling Doctor Who in audio format first. (I am sure it's worked for some people, but I would guess they are a small exception.) This requires someone who is already a fan of the classic show, which generally is almost a requirement for Big Finish given the number of story lines, villains, and references littered throughout the range to the original series. (After all it is by fans, for fans.) So, you pick some of the iconic and best stories. So, in our reviews so far my list would look something like "The Marian Conspiracy", "The Holy Terror", "The Chimes of Midnight", and most definitely "Spare Parts".

This story is to Cybermen what "Genesis of the Daleks" was to Daleks - essentially, an origin story for people already familiar with the "monster". This is a masterpiece by Marc Platt who prior to Big Finish was pretty much only known by me for writing the entertaining mess that was "Ghost Light" in the final McCoy TV season. To say that I like this more would be a great understatement. This is a dark, depressing story (as you might expect) and remains one of my all time favorite Doctor Who adventures.

As you might guess, this takes place on Mondas, the original home planet for the Cybermen. When the 5th Doctor and Nyssa arrives, the Doctor figures out pretty quickly where (and when) they are. Realizing that he can't really risk trying to change what happens here in this pivotal time in the planet's history he attempts to persuade Nyssa that they should leave right away. Somehow, Nyssa, convinces him to hang around a bit, which may be the biggest flaw in the story. Quickly they get separated, and they get caught up in the catastrophic events.

As any devoted Doctor Who fan might expect the voices of these "not quite Cybermen" are done in the style of their debut story "The Tenth Planet". When I finally first saw the story for myself I found the voices both ridiculous and disturbing all at once. My opinion hasn't altered much from this audio, although the disturbing factor is higher here. Of course Nick Briggs does a sensational job doing the voice work.

The best decision Platt made in this story was NOT to try to create another Davros for the Cybermen. Doctorman Allan, the ostensible "creator" of the Cybermen is not some deranged lunatic. She's a desperate, flawed woman. She's brilliant but also drinks too much. She's full of despair at where they are in their dire situation and has serious doubts about their solution, but knows the alternative is extinction.

Probably the best moment in the story comes from Nyssa meeting the downtrodden Hartley family. After befriending Yvonne and her dad, and meeting the less pleasant brother Frank, she quickly realizes the dire straits the family (and the planet) lives in. When Yvonne is selected for the "work crews" and then ultimately returns, it's one of the most gut wrenching scenes in the history of Doctor Who. The performance for Yvonne and the Hartley family is just tremendous and it is simply heart breaking.

The other terrifying aspect of the story is the dreaded Committee that is truly running the show on Mondas. Their internal dialogs are quite creepy (and hard to understand at times as well). One particularly long internal dialog that results in them uttering the dreaded "We must survive" line over and over again fills the listener with dread.

Quite simply, this is a tremendous story, which I don't really want to get into much more for fear of giving too much away. If you haven't heard "Spare Parts" yet, you simply must buy it now. If you have heard it, it's probably long since time you listened to it again. The Doctor and Nyssa are put through the emotional (and physical) ringer. The Doctor ends up playing a pivotal role in the story (both in ways you would expect and not expect) and when he and Nyssa leave thinking they may actually have made a difference, you'll hang around for the last couple of minutes and find out just how wrong they were.


The Maltese Penguin

Technically, this CD shouldn't be included in my reviews. I try to stick with the monthly releases only (when I can bother to remember this blog exists), but given this single CD title was given the number 33 and 1/2, I include it in the section of the CD case that contains the monthlies. This title was given away free with Doctor Who Magazine back in July of 2002. Back in the 2003-2004 time frame when I was gobbling up Big Finish for the first time, I was very excited to hear this one. It features Colin Baker's Doctor (already at this point becoming a favorite for me), Frobisher, and was written by Rob Shearman. The last time we were served up this combination, we got the completely awesome "Holy Terror", so needless to say, I has high expectations.

Well, let's cut to the chase - this isn't nearly as good. If you don't believe me, just ask Rob Shearman, who calls this the worst thing he wrote for Big Finish. Ouch! (I disagree by the way. He's written worse. Ouch, again!) Shearman thinks it's a funnier script on paper than for an audio play. I think it's more amusing than funny, but I think he's a bit too harsh in his criticism of this. This story is a cute satire on the old film noir, hard boiled detective stories. Frobisher is the star of the story, and the Doctor only shows up at a few points in the story (while still managing to save the day). However, that doesn't mean you don't hear a lot of Colin Baker - quite the contrary!

Robert Jezek returns to play Frobisher, but for the most part, he serves as Frobisher narrating the story in the aforementioned film noir style. In a funny twist, the shape changing Frobisher actually spends most of the story in the form of ... the Doctor. So, we trade Jezek's unconvincing New York accent for Colin Baker's (hopefully intentionally) even less convincing New York accent! Actually, Colin is a lot of fun as Frobisher.

Most of the humor comes from laughing at the cliches of the genre and the story's silly over the top characters. Most of my enjoyment of this story comes from the moments the Doctor shows up in the story to see if Frobisher is ready to return traveling in the TARDIS. (Frobisher, is busy proving he can survive without the Doctor in his day job as a private detective.) It's really quite sweet for the Doctor to keep showing up and warmly greeting Frobisher. It's clear the Doctor is lonely and misses his friend. This is such a sweet development for the 6th Doctor and would be unbelievable to imagine the TV version of this Doctor doing this.

So, while there are a few chuckles, it's not really a hilarious story. Thankfully, this isn't dragged out across two CDs or my opinion would probably be much lower. Really, this is a harmless bit of silly fun. It's actually a nice change of pace between the epic finale of "Neverland" and before the incredible, but doom laden "Spare Parts".

Rating: OK