Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Cyberman 1.1: Scorpius by Nicholas Briggs (September 2005)

Let not the machine who is beast or who thinks he is man come near me; let it not claim kinship or equality; let it not enslave or corrupt me; otherwise, kill me.” -Brett’s supplication to the crowd, inspired by the words of Louis MacNeice’s Prayer Before Birth, itself written during the Second World War

Giving Sword of Orion the obligatory re-listen in the run-up to the Cyberman audio series, hardly something I’d been looking forward to, helped me re-appraise the story somewhat. It’s still padded as hell, with about 70% of the story being interminably plodding, and the characters are still mostly quite bland and interchangeable, but the political canvas - the backdrop of the Orion War and the kind of lengths humans are prepared to make to win their battles against the androids they created - is quite, quite fascinating. Fortunately, it is exactly this backdrop which provides the central thrust of Scorpius, and which points to a neat way of bringing the Cybermen into proceedings. If the Daleks, as a monster concept, have always been pretty absolute (I’m not saying there haven’t been changes in their function, and as a race they’ve certainly seen some development, but their core MO has usually stayed pretty much the same), the Cybermen are much more in flux. They’ve been interpreted in all sorts of ways since 1966. They aren’t an invasive military force in Sword of Orion; no taking Vega VI by storm at their hands, and let’s be honest, they never work that well as a great big space army anyway, as they just end up functioning as “Not Quite As Special As The Daleks”. As I see it, they should be the last resort of desperate humanity, cybernetics as wartime bargain. And that’s what the Cybermen have always been at their best, in audios like the excellent Spare Parts: the darker mirrors of ourselves that we turn to when we must, the dangling fruit, the tempting choice to be made when we start to wander why anyone could ever want to be human anyway – not when it hurts so much, not when there’s an attractively dangerous upgrade on the cards. After all, Brett describes her first sight of a Cyberman as “something…forbidden.”


A key part of keeping the Cybermen down-to-earth and plausible is the story’s relatively near-future setting, much closer to the present-day than the futuristic sleekness of much of Dalek Empire. We open in London, to the familiar chimes of Big Ben, a noise that regularly sent me to sleep in my childhood. A decent portion of this story takes place on the Isle of Wight, where I’ve spent a few very pleasant summers (although by 2504 it’s a penal colony, which I find rather amusing). Some reviewers have even compared the Orion War and its growing unpopularity to the Iraq War of more recent years. And however much we end up in the Orion system, the space opera war is still kept at arm’s length. Put more succinctly: this is our world. The Cybermen have always had a much greater proximity to us than the Daleks. They don’t drop out of the sky; they merely emerge from around the corner. And they’re slower to emerge, too; skulking creatures, weakening and undermining foundations rather than demolishing them from overhead, much more akin to the Daleks of Dalek Empire III than the first two series (in this regard, the brief hologrammatic flicker of one of them earlier on serves as the way in which the Cybermen are ghosting the human narrative).

And, as in Sword of Orion, they’re paired alongside androids that resemble Blade Runner’s replicants in that they are in almost every respect completely identical to humans, thus initiating what I hope will become a well-interwoven nexus of themes about identity. Fortunately, on the basis of Scorpius alone, it’s already better handled than in Sword of Orion. Take a look at Brett’s words about the androids: “We’re fighting to preserve what we are. We’re better than the androids. We made a mistake, creating them. We must put that right. If they win, we’ll lose what we are. That cannot happen. I’ll never let that happen.” It’s starting to sound rather like how Cybermen might regard themselves as superior upgrades of human beings. If identity shifts and loss thereof are pertinent themes in a series about the Daleks, they’re sure as hell integral to a series about the Cybermen.

Stylistically, one thing about Scorpius immediately stands out as different to Invasion of the Daleks, its counterpart in the Dalek Empire range, and that is the way in which it deploys narration. There we saw Nick Briggs using a Brechtian defamiliarization device, to give us a certain temporal and chronological remove from the drama, approaching it from the future as though it were in some way mythologised. Here, though, the narration is exclusively present-tense. It’s as though we’re being granted brief, whispery glimpses into the flowing, unfiltered thoughts of Samantha, Brett, Hunt, Barnaby – little bursts of stream-of-consciousness amid the drama (usually known as free indirect discourse in prose, when we hop from one character’s mind to another in this fashion). It affords us an arguably more interesting insight into the complex backdrop than simple retrospective recounting, lending proceedings immediacy and a sense of switching perspectives.

Barnaby Edwards is reliably great and mysterious as Paul Hunt, a top-secret military consultant and the character who gets the eponymous top-secret project rolling (which is something of a replacement for the failed “Sword of Orion” scheme, and a neat nod to the Greek mythology that connects the two). There’s something eerie about Hunt, a touch supernatural. A single word, “Scorpius”, conjures him into action like an incantation. He appears to Brett as a flickering apparition, informing her that she is likely to ascend above and beyond Commander-in-Chief to become President of Earth herself – a noticeable resemblance to the witches’ prophecies of ambition at the start of Macbeth (“…even President?”, Brett dares to wonder to herself, just as Macbeth imagines becoming King in Duncan’s stead).

Sarah Mowat from Dalek Empire returns, this time playing Admiral Karen Brett. I had some initial concerns as to the wisdom of casting exactly the same actor to play the lead in what is, let’s face it, not the most dissimilar audio range to Dalek Empire in many respects, but actually Mowat equips herself well. In part this is because Brett is sufficiently different to Susan Mendes, even if the two share the loss of their family and a penchant for being placed in impossible decisions and becoming the focal point for the series’ key question of “just how far will you go to win?” Brett is an impressive, battle-hardened military leader, someone who is already much more enmeshed in the world of war than Suz and thus has no scruples about torturing a traitor for information. Mark McDonnell’s Captain Liam Barnaby is distinctly more subdued and less gruff than his previous performance as Alby Brook, although the American sequences between President Levinson and his aide Glaust are generally less successful, as British attempts to write/act Americans often are.

Scorpius concentrates mostly on world-building, as the introductory part of a new range should, and so there’s a preponderance of exposition-heavy scenes to set the principal plot strands going. There’s a slight sense of treading water, then, and not much tension really gets built around whether Brett will turn to Project Scorpius or not (I was fairly sure throughout that she would), but the political context and the characters are engaging enough to carry the whole thing. Briggs does briefly permit himself to indulge in a little action, most obviously the thrilling moment in which Cybermen troopers crash-land in the grounds of the White House, assassinate the President, tell Brett she is to become the new President, and leave. I do feel the aftermath of this is slightly too easily dealt with, but the scene in question is undeniably gripping stuff; more in future, please.

In many ways the question one feels upon finishing listening to Scorpius is: coming after Dalek Empire, why *doesn’t* this sound derivative and second-hand? It does, after all, contain many of the same elements, right down to a central female character forced into a desperate Faustian pact with an immensely powerful alien force. And yet somehow it’s not stale. I think it’s that the Human-Android Orion War is such a potent and well-drawn political backdrop, aided by the fact that we know about it from Sword of Orion, that gives this setup a subtle yet broad canvas that Briggs struggled to paint quite as naturalistically in Dalek Empire’s first series, however enjoyable that was. Scorpius does a fine job at putting all its key players into position, letting Brett “think the unthinkable”, and leaving its listeners eager to find out what will happen next.

Other things:
The theme isn’t as catchy as Dalek Empire, is it? I notice it borrows a motif or two from the iconic Tomb of the Cybermen score though.
The direction is taut, unfussy, and the Cybermen’s voices thrillingly like those of the late 60s; that familiar electronic buzz is great, although I’m a bit uncertain about the clunkiness with which they move about.
“He calls me Sam. His name is Paul. He’s my…man. I think I have feelings for him. It…feels that way.” Great, enigmatic opening, and Paul leaving after a one-word signal (“Scorpius”) in the middle of the night feels like a classic urban thriller drawing its audience in.
“Entering Orion is treading in a snake pit. I keep surviving it, but I keep imagining what it’s like to die.”
“They’re not human. We made them. So now we get to decide when they die.”
“Like a human, but…more.”
“The androids don’t fight to win. They fight to destroy our will to win.”

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