Cyberman I

Posted in Audio by - March 21, 2018
Cyberman I

Released September – December 2005

Following the runaway success of the Dalek Empire series, it was only logical and perhaps inevitable that Big Finish and Nicholas Briggs would next turn their attention to the Cybermen, using 2001’s Eighth Doctor adventure ‘Sword of Orion’ as backstory for a brutal time when mankind is entrenched in a long and costly war with its android creations’ desire for freedom in the Orion system while simultaneously drawing parallels to real-world conflicts to hit home all the more effectively.

‘Scorpius’ opens the first series of Cyberman with Earth’s war efforts faltering and support waning as casualties amass and motives become ever more shrouded in this conflict that Earth itself initiated. Sarah Mowat stars as Redoubtable commander Admiral Karen Brett, a strong-willed but open-minded individual who quickly sees her position advance right to the Presidency of the Earth Empire itself. Avoiding any sense of grandiose pomposity that could easily be instilled into a character in these circumstances, Mowat imbues an incredible sense of shrewd intelligence and determination into her performance that keeps Brett grounded in the reality of this universe while she remains always looking for any advantage that can finally bring this war to an end, whether that mean torturing an individual for knowledge or simply listening to another’s ideas and planning for the potential ramifications.

The titular organization Scorpius is behind this quick ascent to power as those in line for promotion before Brett mysteriously disappear or die, and though the Cybermen’s involvement is secondary for the first half of the story, their base instinct for survival fuels the very core of this narrative from beginning to end. Their quest for dominion is clear, but this is very much a setup piece of exposition with more details and consequences assuredly to manifest, and their brazen march to assassinate the President is effectively realised and sets the scene masterfully for what is sure to come. With some on the human side trying to succeed but failing, others becoming enmeshed in their own personal quandaries on top of the bigger conflict, and the mysterious Paul Hunt seemingly in league with the Cybermen and manipulating Brett, Briggs has already created a layered introduction that bodes well for the further development of this conflict, and the tense and foreboding atmosphere created through sterling sound design generates an enthralling and ominous experience from the outset.

History has a bad habit of repeating itself, and though humanity looks all the worse for forgetting the Cybermen after programming their androids with that knowledge, the cyclical nature of time brazenly rears its head in ‘Fear.’ As Samantha Thorn, the only android spy not to be detected by the humans, once more infiltrates humanity with intentions of spreading news about the secret plans the human side seemingly has to turn its members into Cybermen no matter the personal costs in order to more efficiently take the fight to the androids, the focus quickly shifts to the Commander in Chief of Earth’s military forces, Liam Barnaby. This is a naturally authoritative and resolute man, but Mark McDonnell does exceedingly well to portray the fear and paranoia of a powerful figure who finds himself increasingly isolated as the Orion War situation gets worse by the moment. His furtive investigation into the machinations behind the scenes of Karen Brett’s populist presidency eventually leads him to Thorn’s side, and the expected but complex relationship that ensues as both confront their prejudices is effective in showcasing an uneasy burgeoning alliance between the humans and androids against a common foe as the Cybermen make their presence ever more public.

Despite the efficiency of fleshing out and upending the norms of this lengthy war, it does seem odd that Paul Hunt has been allowed to become political adviser to the President despite absolutely no public knowledge about him other than a mysterious involvement in Scorpius before disappearing after it was shut down. Even with Scorpius’s involvement with the Cybermen, it’s not adequately explained how one figure can so successfully infiltrate the government and isolate the President and her policies from the remainder of the trusted advisers who have careers founded upon dedication and success while the entire empire watches. Still, Barnaby Edwards plays the role effectively with a sinister edge that adds another degree of menace within the human ranks and sows further seeds of discord, and the tense paranoia that continues to escalate throughout leads to a tremendous cliffhanger to welcome in the second half of this set.

With the Scorpius strategy now in full operation, ‘Conversion’ shifts the focus to the seeming inevitability of human progression toward Cybermen ideals whether forced or not as individuals try to stay that advance and escape that fate. With a plot contrivance leaving Barnaby not fully converted, he finds himself slowly succumbing to emotionless paradigms with only Samantha Thorn to pull him back to the brink. Of course, the realisation of the emotion-fueled means by which she is able to do this will sit better with some than others, but it also sets up the intriguing question of whether the android is any more justified than the Cybermen to try to steer an individual’s thoughts and actions. With both sides offering what they believe to be the best course of action as Karen Brett’s presidency brings the Cybermen into the public initially as enhanced volunteers looking to repay their debt to society, there’s a great parallel between the non-humans that contrasts well with the subtly divergent path of the humans themselves.

While seeing how Karen Brett went from idealistic President to hapless pawn of the Cybermen is useful in fleshing out the conflict at the very heart of this saga that affords Hunt some great scenes, the Cybermen’s actual plan is unfortunately much less successfully conveyed. With a Master Hibernation Vault on Telos with millions of hibernating Cybermen within reach, it’s never adequately explained why they don’t find a way to that planet first instead of covertly infiltrating Earth’s government and shifting power in the Orion War. There is, of course, time for this decision to be fleshed out in the future, but as written here it seems like a dangerous misstep for a race that by its very nature is a calculating and logical one that would not regularly pass up such a tactical advantage when its numbers are currently so small. Given how tightly-paced the first two instalments were, ‘Conversion’ takes a bit of an ambling course to get across its point that the immigration centres are hubs of Cyber conversion and that the androids are trying to avoid this shift in the wartime dynamic, resulting in a perfectly enjoyable placeholder instalment that is ultimately one that can be glossed over without missing anything too substantive.

With Earth’s government under Cyber control and an alliance between humans and androids the only hope for civilisation, ‘Telos’ uses the claustrophobic and tense setting of an asteroid field impervious to tracers and scanners almost exclusively to wrap up this first series of Cyberman. With Telos destroyed by an asteroid and the Cybermen also joining in on the hunt on for their Master Hibernation Vault, the action is much more focused here and swiftly develops the uneasy partnership between Barnaby and the android leader, Prime Reordin, elevating their drama above spurned and rival lovers to individuals with the greater good for both of their species at heart. The character of Prime Reordin has been fairly flat to this point, but Toby Longworth does well with the expanded and more contemplative and decisive actions taken here to help make this android amore dynamic and meaningful character. There’s also quite a deep philosophical debate at the heart of ‘Telos’ wherein Barnaby and Sam wonder if either of their species is really worth it, but the series so far hasn’t successfully delivered on the premise of both races setting aside their mutual hatred given that the androids so clearly mistrust everything Barnaby does and that the only meaningful relationship bridging this philosophical divide is based solely on physical attraction.

Of course, this promised resolution only draws into focus even more the fact that the Cybermen’s plan is still ludicrously complicated given that they could have bypassed the entire Orion War aspect to simply search for the Vault unrivaled. In fact, given how enhanced and powerful the Cybermen are, it’s only the fact that they send so few individuals to Telos in the first place that keeps them from emerging as outright victorious. Cybermen by their very nature are upgraded version of humans, but the upgrades here come at the cost of taking away any sense of physical fallibility for the foes, and the extreme individuality of Karen Brett that remains following her conversion takes away from the intrinsic fear that inherently follows the menace of the Cybermen and the inevitable convergence to unidentifiable copies with no hint of who is the basis for the Cybermean at hand. Because this is a more action-oriented episode than earlier ones, it must also be noted that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to follow what is occurring within the Vault amidst the frequent running and shooting, but the end result is one that does manage to wrap up the pressing storyline while leaving plenty of opportunity for the second series to continue on and develop further.

The first series of Cyberman does not manage to hit the heights of the Dalek Empire series instalments that preceded and inspired it, but it must be commended for doing something new and more in-depth with one of Doctor Who’s most enduring and iconic foes. Though where exactly this series takes place within the Cyberman timeline is difficult to understand given continuity references before and after the destruction of Telos, it is an engaging and atmospheric if ultimately superficial look featuring some leaps of logic at this three-pronged war effort that opens up plenty of dramatic potential going forward as the Cyber threat refuses to die.

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