Released February 2001
Paul McGann’s second Big Finish outing brings his Eighth Doctor and new companion Charley face to face with the Cybermen, themselves making their audio debut. Following the successful transition of the Daleks and Ice Warriors to the audio medium, expectations were high even before release; however, whereas the Cybermen on television frequently lurked in the shadows until a surprise revelation partway through a story (in the many stories that did not have ‘Cybermen’ in the title, at least), heavy promotion of their return as well as the cover artwork make this type of reveal impossible in ‘Sword of Orion.’
Overall, ‘Sword of Orion’ borrows several storytelling ideas from previous Cybermen adventures, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The usual slow reveal is still in place and, ironically, knowing that the Cybermen are going to inevitably make an appearance without knowing exactly when adds to the tension and atmosphere rather than detracting from them or making it seem like the story is providing filler or treading water. This actually ends up being one of the story’s greatest strengths.
The structure of the story is quite routine by Doctor Who standards and begins as something dangerous is out to kill aboard the vast and dilapidated star destroyer Vanguard. Even knowing what that something is, the atmosphere is superb and the sound effects and action quite against the Cybermen norm. From that point on, the story gradually introduces greater levels of threats. This starts out innocuously enough as the Doctor and Charley find a gold-plated Cyberman head in a bazaar, allowing the Doctor to catch Charley up on the Cyber Wars and setting the scene for future events. However, the threats start increasing in severity as an unstable Cybermen runs through the Vanguard, as the Cybermen start waking in greater numbers, and as the Cybermen then start attacking the Vanguard while the living occupants try desperately to stop them.
The Cybermen, of course, want to assimilate the other beings, but the approach of an ion storm effectively intensifies their haste to do so while also intensifying the Doctor’s and the humans’ desire to live and to stop them. A literal race against time ensues, pitting the strongest elements of the Cybermen and the Doctor against each other, the cold and calculating intellect of the former and the creativity and cunning of the latter. What ‘Sword of Orion’ does perhaps more effectively than any televised serial, though, is to give a sense of just how horrific the Cybermen and the conversion process are. Putrid and decaying corpses caught somewhere in between human and converted litter the destroyer, adding to the already claustrophobic and perilous atmosphere.
With as much focus as there is on the creation of a realistic and apprehensive atmosphere for the intense action sequences to occur in, it does come at the detriment of developing the secondary characters. In the grand scheme of things this doesn’t necessarily detract from the story; rather, the characters just go through the motions- most not entirely sympathetic ones- and then fall into the realm of forgettable soon afterwards. It is entirely possible that this is the intent of the script in order to make their deaths less meaningful but, either way, nobody really develops into anything more than what is there at face value from the start.
However, the leads cannot be faulted and both Paul McGann and India Fisher give stirring performances. Not needing to wade through lengthy expository monologues as in ‘Storm Warning,’ McGann is free to exude his natural charisma and humour while also showing flashes of moroseness and resolve as needed. There are still exposition scenes to be sure, but they occur much more naturally as the Doctor explains new findings to Charley who is intensely eager to learn. Charley also continues to show her strength of character when faced with adversity and, although it’s a little off-putting as her aristocratic upbringing shines through when confronted with the working class, she is quickly proving that she’ll continue to be able to match the Doctor stride for stride in terms of determination and integrity.
‘Sword of Orion’ is a classic Cybermen tale in every sense of the word, evoking the Troughton era almost every step of the way and proving that the base under siege format is still incredibly viable. Even though the supporting cast isn’t nearly as developed as it could be and the pace is sometimes quite purposefully slow, the palpable tension and paranoia in the claustrophobic atmosphere along with the strong performances of the leads and the intensity of the action sequences truly help elevate a rather straightforward plot to something quite memorable.