Spare Parts is advertised on the Big Finish website as being one of its most popular Doctor Who audio dramas, and it’s easy to see (or hear) why: not only is the story gripping and the production strong, but it addresses one of bigger unanswered mysteries of the television series: the origin of the Cybermen (easily the franchise’s second most popular monster, after the Daleks).
Of course, this was back in 2002, three years before the series was revived on TV and four years before Rise of the Cybermen introduced us to a whole new “race” of Cybermen, who came not from an alien planet but from a parallel earth. And it was a full 15 years before the concluding two-parter of Season 10, World Enough and Time & The Doctor Falls, explained that Cybermen developed on many worlds for many different reasons, as a result of “parallel evolution”. This conveniently allowed for all the expanded universe explanations of Cybermen’s genesis (not just in audios but also in comics, original novels, novelizations, and the like) to co-exist. So, phew.
Anyway, Spare Parts is good stuff. The Doctor (in his fifth incarnation, played by Peter Davison) and Nyssa (his companion, played by Sarah Sutton) arrive on a world whose surface has become uninhabitable, where everyone lives underground. They meet some colorful characters, including the likeable Hartley family. Their world is under the increasingly totalitarian control of the “Committee”–a cybernetic gestalt of several of the world’s leaders attempting to come up with answers for the dangers that plague them. Their coldly logical desire to endure has led them to create cybernetically-augmented work crews capable of surviving on the world’s surface, in order to work on a gigantic planetary propulsion system.
It actually sounds kind of ridiculous when I write it out like that but the story’s heavy atmosphere is rich and compelling. We know this is Mondas, the birthplace of the Cybermen, and we know that it is doomed. But the characters–especially the Hartley’s–are ordinary folk whom we can’t help but to like. Their relate-ability drives home the tragedy of story, and the destruction of their daughter Yvonne (which comes far earlier than one would expect) is especially heart-breaking.
Anchoring all this is a strong performance from Peter Davison, which is as good as he was on television (like, on the level of Caves of Androzani). The Doctor gets to play highly conflicted here, as he is both desperate to stop the Cybermen from coming into being, and also aware that history must take its course. Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa also has a strong role, with a lot of time given to her scientific prowess, something we normally just glimpsed on TV. The guest cast is also effective, and includes performances from Derren Nesbitt, who played the bad guy in Marco Polo, one of the earliest Doctor Who stories, and Sally Knyvette, who co-starred in the first two seasons of Blake’s 7 as Jenna. And amusingly, there’s an actor named Jim Hartley who is playing a character named Frank Hartley.
There are a couple of weaknesses to the story, but they are not too detrimental. Probably the biggest is just that sometimes it’s hard to understand what the various Cybermen and the Committee are all saying to one another. Nicholas Briggs, who voices lots of aliens and monsters for both the actual TV series and Big Finish (where he also serves as Executive Producer), does a good job recreating the oddly inflected voices of the original Cybermen, but it’s impossible to have lots of such dialogue against itself without forcing the listener occasionally to strain to catch the details of what’s being said.
Another weakness is the story’s ultimate failure to fully address the shift in the Doctor’s intentions. Although Davison is great, one never really understands why he suddenly goes from being determined not to interfere with local events to trying so hard to change them. It feels like something got lost in a rewrite somewhere.
Similarly, the tone of the story at its ending is a bit uneven. After being heavy and full of dread for most of its length, there is an unexpectedly upbeat conclusion where the planet appears to avoid its destiny. But then at the very end, a “twist” reveals that the conversion of the population into Cybermen is likely to continue as first supposed. It’s a bit jarring–almost like the story wanted to have the luxury of a happier ending without undoing its role in establishing Doctor Who history.
But in spite of all this the adventure is robustly engaging, and a good entry in the Big Finish line.