Saturday, 3 October 2015

Cyberman 1.3: Conversion by Nicholas Briggs (November 2005)

Conversion pulls a fun but ultimately cheap feint on us by opening with a Cyber-conversion that we expect is likely to be Barnaby’s, only to reveal that it is in fact a flashback to the original Cyber-conversion of Paul Hunt. Unlike some such backstories (say, the lengthy going-over we get with Galanar’s), Hunt’s does to some extent feel like it was worth telling, as is the explanation for where Karen Brett went at the end of Scorpius. There’s no particular rationale as to why Briggs is telling the story in a non-linear order, though; unlike some such experiments with non-linear storytelling, it doesn’t really illuminate anything new or reinforce his themes in any particular way, and rather has the effect, like certain middle episodes of Dalek Empire III before it, of slowing things down when they should be gearing up. However, as scenes by themselves they are effective, showcasing both Hunt’s motives and Brett’s inner turmoil, grief over her parents and regret for her torture of the traitor Helliton.

The cliff-hanger resolution to Fear, on the other hand, is bitterly disappointing. I get that McDonnell and Smith are two wonderful actors and that it’d be a great shame to off them so soon, but it still reduces the Cyber-menace significantly if we find out they’ve only had some fluid injected into them and they’re basically fine. Worse still, Barnaby and Samantha, who should be the audio’s strongest odd-couple dynamic (throwing together the two different races from two opposing sides in a war is hardly radical storytelling, but the old’ns are the good’ns, and it still works), with one very significant exception: the truly execrable “wake him up by snogging his face off” idea. This whole sequence (actors making kissing noises, awkward rustling of clothing, “I’m an android, I was programmed for this sort of thing; I can detect pupil dilation, rises in body temperature…”) is laughably pulpy and feels like a groan-worthy 80s film. Also, I know it’s to break his conditioning and all that, but did it not occur to anyone making this that Samantha is kissing Barnaby right after she’s just vomited? Lovely.

The other major thing that’s bothering me about Conversion is: what are the Cybermen doing? They want to convert masses of humans to their cause, yes, so I can see why they’d exploit human desperation in a time of war in order to achieve this aim, but is the potential loss of thousands of their number in a war against androids the most efficient way of going about this? We learn that they want to reach their Master Hibernation Vault on Telos (which presumably we see in the first series finale), but I don’t understand why they can’t simply fly there incognito, awaken their own troops, and then take Sol 3 by storm? Have I missed something important, because this seems like a really, really ill-thought-through plan?

However, in quite a few respects, I feel these audios have handled the Cybermen better than most of the revived series’ episodes. They’re nothing like stand-in Daleks here, just as it should be; Briggs gets right under their metallic bodywork and exposes everything about them that makes them tick, perfectly exemplified in classic Cyberman lines like “you will not die. You will belong to us.” And then there’s this marvellous gem: “You will be our transitional creature, the vital link between humanity’s emotional chaos and the calm that is to come. Soon you will have no choice. There will be only calm.” It’s the parallel between chaos and calm within the human-Cyberman conflict that marks out the best instances of writing in Conversion, especially when Hunt tempts Brett with the option of blotting out all her traumatic memories by accepting the surgical removal of her emotions: “You won’t see [the] eyes [of your dying parents] any more, Karen. All you have to do is take it.” We know this choice, we’ve heard it before – the question at the heart of that infamous red pill/blue pill dichotomy that, in effect, dates back to Plato’s Cave (so, um, 380BC) but was made famous in The Matrix (1999 AD): is it better to medicate oneself against the horrors of existence and remain in a blissful illusion, or to open one’s eyes to the twisted agony of reality? This is easily the most interesting thing about this series, and indeed about the Cybermen as a concept, but it should have been much more front and centre than relegated to a few scenes.

Overall, though, Conversion is a bit of a let-down; a number of wearying, clunky moments, scenes and lines of dialogue mean it never really hits the ground running. Like the other Cybermen stories, it’s concerned with the question “what are we turning into?”, whether the answer to that is traitors or lovers from different sides in a war or emotionless silver ghosts: Briggs still has an appealing and gripping take on the Cybermen themselves, and on their thematic implications, but I wish it was anchored in a more tightly written story. There’s some effort to let the title have a few different meanings here – not just about literal Cyber-conversion (to varying degrees), but also the lynchpin of the story, the means by which, through getting to know Samantha and experiencing a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, Barnaby slowly becomes converted to their way of thinking about his own species (and in a notable parallel to Cyber-conversion, this is not *entirely* of his own volition, given that Samantha basically jumped him earlier in the story). In a story about three different key perspectives, there’s the possibility that this could lead to some great writing, but it feels like it’s a little bit late in the day to hit this concept on the head. All in all, no better than average.

Other things:
Great score, really enhancing the Cybermen as creatures of nightmares.
“Then they’re aliens?”/“Not really. They’re our brothers.”/“I don’t see the family resemblance.”
“We instinctively know that a Cyberman is something to do with us. The great civilisation we could have been, if we’d taken another path, a purer path.”
“In the eyes of a human being you see fear; anger; hatred; love. All of them creating a restless, inefficient mind. Confusion. No firm strength of purpose. And what does it all lead to, this genetically programmed mishmash of primal instinct? Of what use could it possibly be to a civilised, technically advanced species? It was designed to help us survive some barbaric Stone or Iron Age, and yet we brought it all with us. The screaming, the wailing, the tears, the gnashing of teeth.”
“I was blighted by fear. The Cybermen helped me overcome that. Fear is humanity’s greatest enemy, and the Cybermen can free us from it.”
The only line from the let’s-arouse-Barnaby misfire that did make me laugh was her response to him *still* being dazed and unfocussed: “Are you doing this on purpose?”
Hearing Cyber-voices buzz out “We are here to protect you; there is nothing to fear” over the sounds of Big Ben chiming and a child weeping is a properly great moment; like the audiobook version of Cybermen standing over family sitting rooms in Doomsday.
The hokey “we mustn’t destroy the humans, or we’ll be no better than them” scenes between the androids have been done better elsewhere.
Ian Brooker gets a very fun little cameo as the jovial android doctor Spavin. Although completely different in temperament, the striking inverse ratio between his general irrelevance to the plot and the amount of fun he is reminds me of one of the classic series’ most enjoyable minor characters, Griffin the Chef from Episode 3 of The Enemy of the World.
The introspective little thought-narration moments have been drastically reduced in frequency, which is rather a shame.
The unexpected Cyber-head bobbing up and down against the ship is a fairly clunky plot contrivance.

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