Thursday, 1 October 2015

Cyberman 1.2: Fear by Nicholas Briggs (October 2005)

Opening with another of Briggs’ familiar six-month jump-cuts, Fear is more conscious of its status as space opera than Scorpius, plunging us straight in to a cracking Cyber assault on the Beta-4 tracking station. Despite that, it never really strays too far from the character focus that was established in the first part of the story. One of the set-piece scenes takes place on an ocean-route as Barnaby’s car is nearly plunged over the cliff into the sea; the music builds as McDonnell’s desperation becomes ever more apparent over the roars of the engines and the implacably calm tones of his in-car computer trying to fulfil his requests. It’s a neat little way of portraying the place technology has taken in this society and the degree to which people are dependent on it: the calm, soothing digitalised voices that reassure us “there is nothing to fear.” This, the audio’s key phrase, fits in perfectly with the story’s depiction of a world of propaganda and mass media glorifications of wartime; better still, in the Cybermen’s hands, this becomes a terrifyingly literal description of humanity’s endpoint (or telos). There will be no more fear, no more weeping. A sterilised Eden rid of all imperfections. There is nothing to fear.

After Karen Brett’s time in the foreground, Fear picks up another of Scorpius’ supporting characters and focuses on him: Brett’s number two, Captain Liam Barnaby. McDonnell plays Barnaby’s disappointment in the way his old friend has changed well, gazing sadly at vast holographic displays of the President of Earth dominating the skyline, and he gets some good scenes opposite Edwards’ Paul Hunt, who is fast becoming one of the many guilty pleasures about this audio range: oleaginous and Machiavellian, outwardly courteous with a side dish of snark. The way Hunt exerts an influence over the President is very unnerving. Sadly, however, on other occasions McDonnell is less convincing in the role, although it isn’t his fault per se; it’s a good performance of an oddly written character. The script makes Barnaby look inept and incompetent throughout (the Commander-in-Chief of the Army doesn’t notice he’s being followed by two security agents – twice? Clatters about when he’s trying to have a secret meeting by the docks?), although I suppose that could be down to android Samantha’s superior reflexes and senses.

But it’s also here where Briggs bungles the balance between the bigger scale and the character drama. While the renewed focus on Hunt and Barnaby is appreciated, the way that Brett is sidelined in this release means it’s hard to get a grip on how Hunt has inveigled his way into the upper echelons of planetary government quite so successfully – six months really isn’t a long time, and too many of these developments happen too quickly. Quite apart from the fact that the “turned-against-an-old-friend” trope is a bit hokey, it just is in no way plausible that nobody else but Barnaby has any suspicions about the Scorpius project and about Hunt’s motives, and then even more implausible that the one person who everyone seems to ignore is the Commander-in-Chief of the Army! That said, it’s so obviously odd that I imagine it will get dealt with; Brett certainly sounds as though she’s under Cyber-control, and Cybermen are known for their hypnotism and all that, so it’s entirely plausible there’s some seeds being sown for a future revelation to which I’m not yet privy. And whether or not it’s completely plausible, it’s well-acted and tense.

Samantha Thorne’s greater role in proceedings is a touch unexpected after the cliff-hanger to Scorpius, although her prominent billing and, crucially, the insight into her thought processes last week meant I never really thought she was going to be only a cameo character. Unbeknownst to us then, Samantha is an android, thus making her the familiar character on, and audience way-in to, the opposing side of the Orion War. Hannah Smith and Toby Longworth make the perfectly sensible decision to play their android roles as naturalistically as possible; they are meant to be almost identical to humans, after all. And in another instance of Briggs playing against type, the first whiffs of a romance in this series centre on an android couple, or, if you stretch the definition, an android posing as a human lover. Both Samantha and Prime Riordan are sympathetic characters who want the war to be at an end, want the humans to recognise that the differences between the two sides are not all that great, and yet Hannah Smith can turn on a dime and layer her tones with a subtle threatening quality when talking to Barnaby, the same kind she deployed as the Mentor. These elements work to muddy the waters and blur the lines between humans and androids – just as one would expect (“A Cyberman is a human being that’s nothing like an android. And the trouble is that normally a human being is everything like an android”).

In this respect, pairing Samantha and Barnaby is a self-evident move, as both species are forced to confront the other: a great odd couple pairing in a lone jet boat. Human beings are just as capable as shrouding their intentions in cold emotionless logic if they have to, of putting up a shield to ensure their own survival (see Samantha’s astute comment, “You’ve shut down on me, haven’t you, Liam? Shut down on me, just like a machine”). So far, the arc of the story in terms of two different reflections of humanity seems fairly clear: the humans and androids would be better off in harmony, and it is the worst instincts of the humans that lead to an alliance with the Cybermen. It doesn’t look like too much of a leap that the two sides will eventually have to join forces against the silver giants.

The live recording and in-the-moment character asides lend Fear a certain tautly wound paranoia appropriate for wartime propaganda and deception, and the practically ubiquitous claustrophobia – Briggs’ evident love of creaking, clanking, dripping corridors at its most unadulterated – works a treat, ably accompanying a story that’s all about hidden secrets and webs of lies. This is a techno-thriller more than it is a war story; the Cybermen, “the future of the human race”, remain in the background again as a skulking menace in the night. When they do emerge, in the final moments, it’s been worth the wait. I initially had some reservations about the way the audio handled the vast influxes of desperate refugees – commented on by journalists, and not actually shown – and felt it was avoiding selling the scale and horror of what is happening to real people under the President and her adviser’s new project. But I was proved wrong by these powerful closing scenes, in which it becomes clear refugees in the Isle of Wight are being processed into brand new Cyber-soldiers. It’s here that Fear reaches its fever-pitch and really sticks the landing: the darker mirrors of human beings are doing this to themselves, turning on what they used to be. Because, having reached their own metallic enlightenment, they know better. They know what our endpoint needs to be if we are to function as a species. In their utopia, Fourierism meets Frankenstein by way of Big Brother. Say it loud enough to silence the screams, all together now: there is nothing to fear.

Other things:
“Are they so afraid of us?”/“Perhaps they’re afraid of ourselves. We’re their creations, a reflection of what they think they are. Why else would they fear us?”
“To err is human,” Hunt reminds the Cyber-Planner after an error of his leads to Barnaby’s continued survival.
“[Your human cerebral characteristics] are needed to anticipate the illogicality of the human mind.”/“It’s nice to feel essential.”
Interesting to note the optimism of just how multicultural and unified Earth seems to be at this point (although it’s a pretty white multiculturalism – Welsh receptionists turning up in Oceanic City/Australia, for example).
Do we need the humans-have-forgotten-the-Cybermen stuff? I know I’m doing myself no favours listening to this straight after Dalek Empire, but it *does*come across as exactly the same trick twice.
When she does turn up for a few scenes, it’s a great subdued performance from Sarah Mowat.
“You really do hate us, don’t you? I’ve never seen it this close up, this personal.”
“They lose something, Liam. They lose their soul. The spark that makes them really alive. They lose the ability to feel. Their emotions just dry up and die.”
“Its eyes. Blank. How can this thing have been a human being?”
“We androids have a lot of faith in human nature. You gave it to us in the first place.”
“There is nothing to fear…but that’s all there is. Fear.”

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