Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 034. Spare Parts by Marc Platt (July 2002)

You know those stories that are powerful because you know exactly where they’re headed? This is one of them. Like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or Romeo and Juliet or indeed, closer to home, Genesis of the Daleks, it’s pretty clear to everyone what kind of story this is going to be when you sit down to it: this is the origin story of the Cybermen. That’s its function, its task. The interesting thing about this is that the easily-summarised nature of it is actually quite simple to cock up. How many times have we complained that a story’s been told just “because” some people felt a sequel or a prequel was necessary? It can be empty, content-less, and a pure exercise in “one of the more unoriginal ideas we just haven’t done yet but we should probably do at some point”.
Which makes it so great that Spare Parts succeeds in using the fact that we know its endpoint immeasurably to its advantage (witness the foreboding percussion & strings when we first hear “Mondas”: both Platt and the composer rely on us knowing what’s coming) – just as Antony and Cleopatra ensures the lovers are hurtling towards a fixed point in their geography and in the history of their lives, a fixed point we know all too well from all the cultural paratext, so Spare Parts must surely end only one way, and this lends the entire affair a pall of inevitability. In many stories we have a kind of hook, if not quite an active presence at least an active stake in the whole thing – it could go this way! It could go that way! The Doctor might lose here – oh, OK, he’s won! Etc. But Spare Parts is heading in one direction, and one direction only. The Cybermen will rise. We can do nothing, but sit and listen, and let events slide towards the denouement we all knew was going to occur but could do nothing to stop. We can never participate in any Doctor Who audio drama, naturally – we’re always powerless as an audience – but here even more so.

This grim determinism colours even the cheery opening, with its 1950s-sounding space programme proudly announced over the radio (complete with naff tunes and “Steady on, Crewman! Better wipe that lipstick off your visor before the missus sees!”). The dying, desperate capitalism – right from the get-go with the eerily abandoned cinema replete with fanciful adventure movie titles – is one of the most Doctor Whoish arenas in which a story can possibly land: all “lights out”, night patrols and curfews. Sister Constant is the epitome of early-NHS public-sector prim-and-properness at first, but of course she’d call in the patrols the moment she’s out of the door (“There’s not much courtesy behind her curtains, as my dad used to say” is the most perfect 50sism one can imagine). Even one of the story’s most horrifying moments – the turning up the TV as Ginsberg is caught outside after curfew, banging desperately on the door – is not only one of Doctor Who’s most brilliant bits of domestic horror (“Who’s that?”/“It’s not carol singers!”), but it’s so spot-on for that dusty world pre-Doctor Who, all street bunting and national pride and emphasis on family and community. Platt gives Mondas a lot of lovely little touches, such as the gossiping about the Crailfords, Tom Reynolds, the Chang twins, etc. in the Hartley’s home – it’s highly plausible that this is a street of people who know each other; Dodd’s early dialogue, full of colour; the continual exclamations of “’strooth!”; the Dad as “mat-catcher”: as with Loups-Garoux, a lot of work has gone into making this a believable and well-thought-out world, possibly the best the show has ever had. I also like the way society refers to people with the suffix “-man”: Doctorman, Sisterman, Sciencemen, and of course Cyberman is a natural evolution of the phraseology. The voices over the intercom are similarly impossible to separate from their plummy BBC English context, part of the tradition in which Doctor Who is born, such that this story after a fashion takes place simultaneously in a long-distant-past science-fiction setting and in 1950s England, not to mention it also needs to resurrect the spirit of the early-80s. That Platt does so pretty effortlessly is astounding.

And thus the Daleks come into being on a world that is the sci-fi equivalent of Macbeth’s “blasted heath”; the Cybermen come into being on a world that is simply our own, not long ago. This shows the distinction between them; it’s worth comparing this story to Genesis of the Daleks in many ways. Where the latter presents the Daleks as completely and utterly opposed to everything the Doctor stands for, creatures one cannot begin to comprehend, Spare Parts goes out of its way to ensure we understand the Cybermen, and that they’re textually associated on the same side of the divide as the Doctor where the Daleks never are. Logically speaking, they’re never at fault: Cybermen as saviours. The horrible, awful truth of the Cybermen is that they aren’t conquerors or vindictive warmongers. They’re not even truly evil.

They are in every sense what we’re all capable of being, what even sweet little Yvonne Hartley is capable of being (now I know where the name Yvonne Hartman comes from, incidentally). Crucially, they’re what our hero is capable of being. The Doctor has to take logical decisions about who does or does not survive – look at Mummy on the Orient Express, or the genocide in the Time War, or even the end of the Excelis Trilogy. And Platt makes this as clear as he can when the Cybermen even model themselves on the Doctor’s brilliant mind.

Of course, it’s all well-realised, too. The cybernetic sing-song voices (thanks again to Mr Briggs!) are pitch-perfect in the way they resemble The Tenth Planet: eerie prototypes, difficult to follow, but that’s part of the point of course. Early attempts to convert men into machines would be clunky and clumsy and jagged, and more sinister for that. They’re no super-sleek robots beautifully designed. I also like that Platt remembers to give the early Cybermen names like Zheng and so on, and we even get a brief nod to their “cloth faces” (Thank God that the naff gold idea doesn’t work here, either!).

“What can possibly be more important than saving people?”/“We must survive.” It’s irrefutable, and THAT’S why it’s scary. If faced with a choice this difficult, of course the survival instinct is likely to win out. One of the key dramatic beats comes in Part 4 – in which the Cyber-Committee examines an impossible situation (the propulsion engine or repairing the roof) and reaches a very chillingly logical conclusion: everyone must be processed. The Cybermen are born out of such terrible desperation. Like every predatory animal, we pick out the stragglers, the weak and the sick even amongst our own. It’s why the title is so wonderfully apt; not only additions and extra cosmetics applied as cybernetic surgery and grafted onto the human body, but also the fact that in a society so desperate, every being is treated as an interchangeable item of value, a “spare part” if you like, to be developed, improved and tinkered with for the “good” of the species, if we can call it that.

And such a story paralyses the Doctor, after a fashion. Certainly, he’s galvanised, and he runs around stealing speeders and pouring wine into a nutrient feed. But he ultimately doesn’t change very much, because of the inevitability the whole thing is soaked in. Davison is at his oldest here, his most world-weary, a Doctor who knows what’s coming as much as we do. “…and I used to be such a good liar” is a perfect line he delivers with such mournfulness. His scenes with Nyssa early on are great, as we see his determination to flee Mondas and let the people choose their own fate while she refuses to let them endure suffering. He’s perhaps a less idealistic Fifth Doctor than we’re used to seeing (the mildly snarky “Yes, very laudable! But you can’t do it on your own, you’re not an army! You can’t turn the whole of history around on a sixpence!” is almost but impressively not quite out of character). Again, Adric’s death rears its head, quickly (and justifiably) becoming one of the major emotional beats of Fifth Doctor audio dramas: “So much that never gets said.”

To conclude then, I am reminded of one of the show’s best lines, “What if we had ideas that could think for themselves? What if one day our dreams no longer needed us?” Some things get away from us. Some things spiral too far to be ever rescued and pulled back from the brink. Some things even the Doctor cannot beat. Some days, not everybody lives.

Even those that do are denied the consolation that their father and brother still know them.

Other thoughts:
What a coup getting Paul Copley in to play the Dad. His voice is very distinctive and amiably warm. Kathryn Guck is great as Yvonne, too.
The score is in every respect pitch-perfect for 1982. It really, really sounds like it could have been made a month or two after Earthshock. Bravo to Mr Russell Stone, you sent shivers down my spine on more than one occasion.
“Doctor, eh? Public or private?”/“That’s between me and my clients.”
“Got any family?”/“Lost them, too. Very careless.”
The body horror is pretty prevalent right from the off (“Clothes, teeth, eyes, very nice, very healthy…all your own are they?”/“Just something I go about in.”) – and Hartley’s obvious reticence to confess that his arm is hurting. Digging up the graveyard is very Burke & Hare. The cybernetic policeman with his augmented horse is merely the first great image.
“He says he’s a Doctorman.”/“And he says he’s a paragon of virtue, but I wouldn’t believe either of us.”
“If the trucks are going in empty, what are they bringing out? It won’t be tea and cakes, that’s for certain.”
“At our Autumn Festival, when the leaves were turning amber, we’d hang all the trees in the garden with paper lanterns, and all the fruits, all purple and red, were carried in on silver paniers, and the people would sing at the gates. And then we’d have the battle – the people and consuls pelting each other with fruit. That was the best bit: it was so undignified!” – Quite similar to Turlough reminiscing about Trion in Loups-Garoux, but still beautifully done. Nyssa is really getting a proper revitalisation thanks to Big Finish, and we should all be grateful for it; she’s perfectly paired with the Hartley family, too, given the trauma she has gone through vis a vis losing her own family. Her plotline works very well here.
“I want to see the sky and not go mad.”
One of the great early moments is when the Doctor lets the clock-tower bells ring out over the city, as a “wake-up call” for the people of Mondas to change things for themselves – recalling Donne’s “Ask not for whom the bell tolls… it tolls for thee.” The society is a community; all are one. Oh so Dunkirk spirit. The bell is meant to rouse each and every individual, yet individuality will shortly be blotted out.
“The cold logic that snuffs out the spark in people, they’re just so many tinned leftovers. I think I’d rather lose all my lives than become a Cyberman.”
“Earth’s twin planet, wandering out of its orbit…[its people] gradually replacing bodily organs with manufactured parts, all in a desperate bid to avoid extinction.” It was a great sci-fi idea back in 1966 and it’s still great now – such a shame it’s not been that well-delivered on in the meantime, but at least Platt really, really gets the implications of the Cybermen’s original creation.
“It’s jammed.”/“Hit it!” – yes, a frequent solution!
“We live in a pit, Constant. The dark times are getting darker.”
“Keep going. Bless you. Bless you all!” Dunkirk spirit (or Falklands spirit, if we want to make this more Platt-relevant) again, with all its rotten underbelly.
“We all want immortality, don’t we?”
“Sorry, Doctor. I just froze your assets.” That feels like an RTD line, somehow. Gallows humour.
“You – will – join us. We are the – future.” Yvonne’s fearful weeping and whimpering as she approaches the conveyor is a moment of proper horror.
The Doctor’s conversation with the horse is a great moment: “What’s the matter? Bridle too tight, all those implants biting into your head and your limbs? You have a hard life. The whips are cruel, the feed’s old and stale, the stable floor’s hard under hoof. But if we get that bridle off you can sleep properly and dream, dream like a real horse, wild galloping with the ground soft between the open sky and the sweet blowing grass.” Of course a socially-minded Cartmel-era writer would emphasise sympathy with all things, with every species suffering under “advancement” and “progress”.
“…they’re fully processed Cybermen.”/“Kettle’s boiling!” Again, the horrific is juxtaposed with the domestic.
Cybermen baffled as to their purpose: “What – is – my – task?”
“What did happen to your decadent rulers?”/“Chop-chop-chop.” The parallels with the October Revolution here, complete with a Committee that nobody ever sees and whose task is to protect itself at all costs, are much better than in more obviously dystopian stories like Excelis Decays. It’s no surprise that they turn on their creators, either.
“Fa-ther must see my uni-form”, and then again in the Hartley’s apartment, “Da-aaaaaad”: an iconic Cyberman moment, tragically absurd and desperate, a pair of single lines from which much of the emotional aspects of Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel were born. Of course Mondas’ young girl is the one we see turned into a Cyberman; it reinforces how much this is an “appalling waste”.
The temperature dropping throughout the story is a beautifully done and nuanced backdrop: as the planet becomes less inhabitable, so humanity hardens its hearts, turns out into the cold, drops the stragglers, and adapts.
Early Cybermen even have a wry sense of humour – after the Doctor tries to use gold: “Well, go on, choke and fall over?!” *awkward pause* “Is this a threat?”
Even amid a story so focussed on a particular world, we get a chance to hear a bit more about the bigger picture: the Cherrybowl Nebula, outer space’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.
“The rotten apple has no core.”
“Is this your committee? A primitive many-headed cybernetic Hydra? Pontificating like some monstrous tin-pot Solomon?”
“I’m the Doctor-man’s assistant. Every Doctor should have one.”
“Remember what it all means, eh? Our dear old scraggy old tree stands for the forests that once covered the surface of the world. The lights are the stars above the stone sky, and the baubles are the worlds we pass, winding our long journey through them, like the tinsel. And the star on top – that’s the old song we left behind, that one day we’ll get back to.” Cyber-Yvonne’s death scene is pretty heart-breaking stuff.
“I have tasks to perform.”/ “Your – tasks will be – clearer – after processing.”
“Thomas Dodd? I seem to be in hospital. Have you brought me some grapes?”
We learn a bit more about Time Lord anatomy – they have a small tertiary lobe in the brain that deals with motor functions, apparently.
The best cliff-hanger is the revelation that the Doctor is the “blueprint” for Cybermen to become more efficient, quite a new-series-esque revelation in that it forces the central plot logic to revolve around the Doctor. The only issue with it is it almost demands that the Doctor’s future interactions after this point see him in a distinctly darker mode, furious at the creatures in whose creation he (however indirectly) had a hand. Of course that’s not something we can blame Platt for, but it would be nice to maybe see this element addressed in a future Cyberman story.
“Only cold logic stifles the urge to scream in agony… How could you do that to your own people?”/“Because we’re dying! That’s why we’re screaming! We’ve been trapped down here so long we daren’t even step out onto our own planet’s surface! Just the thought of that vast empty sky is driving us insane.”
“No Cybermen…no life.” For once, it’s not grim because it’s propaganda. If only it were.
“I created you.”/“And I am superior to you. Be proud while you still have the capacity.” That’s so bloody good.
“How did it start? Just a few hip replacements and breast implants? Vanity’s a killer, isn’t it? And where will it end? Sleek, heartless scavengers cobbled up from space junk and other people’s bodies – but you’ll look ever so stylish!”
 “The Doctor was our last resort.”/“You make me sound like Southend-on-Sea.”
“There is no future. Only a city of walking dead.”/“The way of all flesh…”
“The Cybermen would have happened sooner or later. The nebula was just an excuse.” I’m really glad this line is here, because the only possible criticism I could have had of the plotline was the randomness of the events that bring about the Cybermen’s creation, but this makes it clear that it’s, as I’ve said earlier, an inevitability.
The Doctor being involved in the “grand scheme” but not the “dull drudgery”.
Ringing in the future from the Church of Former-Day Souls is a not-too-heavy-handed tribute to those who they lost.
“Doctorman Allen… We begin again.” Another proper shiver-down-the-spine moment.

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