Saturday, 3 October 2015

Cyberman 1.4: Telos by Nicholas Briggs (December 2005)

“Next to the Cybermen, androids and humans suddenly look pretty much the same. In a way, we’re all of us machines – designed for survival.” – Commander Liam Barnaby

Of the four hours that make up Cyberman Series 1, the hour called Telos is easily the most action-packed. It unfolds like Star Wars – zooming toward Telos, finding Telos has disintegrated, searching for the Vault, explosions, dogfights, space opera showdowns and standoffs between two ships. It takes place in, while not quite real time, certainly a much more limited time period than any of the previous three instalments – Telos unfolds in pretty much one setting over the space of half a day or so. This lends it both a tense and exciting pace and yet also hampers its richer thematic ambitions.

As one might expect by now, some of the best scenes are those featuring Barnaby Edwards as Paul Hunt; Edwards plays the sinister Cyber-ally with just the right hint of roguishness that makes him hard to properly detest, and the image of him being put in charge of Earth, with a Cyberman on every street corner, is a potent and irresistible one. Brett’s insistence on “CALM” while quelling the tiny sparks of fear that still reside deep within her work quite well too; struggling with her identity, calling back tiny memories of who she used to be, is not exactly a radical new take on the Cybermen (Yvonne in Spare Parts, for instance), but Mowat performs it well. And then there’s Cyber-Brett seeming to waver, in her final moments, from the “perfect future for mankind” which the Cybermen have planned; “CYBER…man,” actually works quite well, despite the strange leap in malfunctioning technology required to make it work; it certainly hits home the way the future hangs in the balance. There’s some terrific richness to elements of the story, too; it has the structure of a proper Aristotelian tragedy, what with the scenario, characters and time-span all relatively unified, and the latter fifteen minutes or so mostly consists of dying figures crawling around after each other desperate for revenge and survival. We get the way the Cybermen become distorted parallels of Faust, “…destroying their humanity to attain immortality”. We get the fact that the Cybermen view themselves as humanity’s literal endpoint, or telos, the future that we will become (thanks to Steve Mollmann for this excellent point), elevating our relationship with these creatures to one of the progression of history – Marxist historiography and pure functionalism made metal. Yes, there are pockets of the story which teeter on becoming a wonderful little discourse on humanity’s legacy, in the manner of Shelley’s Frankenstein (“The androids are our best attempt at creating a lifeform. We made them as much like us as we could – and then what? We ended up hating them for it. I can’t even remember the reasons why”); moments like Samantha carrying Barnaby away from the radiation-flooded vaults could be absolutely triumphant. There could be such a gripping nexus here about androids and Cybermen and humans and the manner in which they reflect each other and act as darker mirrors to one another, but it sadly just comes off as pedestrian.

The inner monologues are back, which means we get things like Barnaby musing on his own mortality and the fact that he will wither and die as the androids around him remain exactly the same. There are other such inner monologues throughout and admittedly they are nicely delivered by Mark McDonnell. And yet – I don’t know why, but Barnaby still isn’t quite working for me. The whole “pinning his emotional catharsis/anagnorisis moment [the revelation that humans and androids are the same & ought to be allies] around the fact that Samantha is attractive” thing reeks of poorly written pulp, and the scenes between them – initially so promising when they were sparking off each other, stealing boats near the Isle of Wight and all that kind of thing – are laboured and cliché-ridden now. Unfortunately, this has a knock-on effect in weakening his love-triangle stuff with Prime Riordan, so that never really goes anywhere interesting either, aside from proving that both humans and androids have feelings, which we knew anyway.

[By means of a mostly irrelevant digression: ever since I noted the ramifications of a ship called the Argosy in Red Dawn, not to mention the Medusa in Three’s a Crowd, I’ve been particularly interested in exploring the mythological names of ships. Here the Antares is paired with its escort, the Pentagon. Antares, of course, is not only a star in the night sky, but is in fact the brightest star in the Scorpius constellation, and is often called “the heart of the scorpion”; its name stems from the Ancient Greek “ant-Ares”, or in our terms, “equal to Mars” (the two celestial bodies share a similar crimson hue). There are a lot of cool readings one could do here: if the Scorpius project is a treacherous creature of war (Mars) that is essentially poisoning the human race by the spreading venom of Cyber-conversion, the Antares ship – captained, naturally, by androids – is the soft underbelly of that, or the heart, if you like. Barnaby and his human audience listening at home have to venture right in to the heart of the scorpion to end its poisonous grip on us; the androids (Antares) alongside the humans (represented by a man who was the Commander-in-Chief of Earth’s armies and, oh, an escort ship named after our metonymic way of referring to the entire US Department of Defence).]

Part of the problem with this series as it stands is that it adds nothing new to the Cybermen conversation. Dalek Empire did some properly radical new things with the Daleks – the Alternate Universe business, a Dalek in Kaymee’s dreams pretending it’s her father, Daleks as villainous Healers taking the Doctor’s place. But Cyberman (aside from the Orion War backdrop, which is obviously new but mostly ignored) is basically home to a collection of reheated 60s moments. This particular audio is like a remix of The Tomb of the Cybermen, of course, with its central spectacle being, sure enough, the bit where Cybermen start to wake up from their tombs and we get a mad rush around two different spaceships. I suppose it’s true that we haven’t seen spacewalking Cybermen before, but, generally speaking, this is a story that’s rather short on unique ideas and undersells the inherently fascinating areas of teleology it could have explored instead, favouring a fairly generic action-adventure approach. I’m actually much more hopeful about Cyberman 2, if only because James Swallow should bring a new authorial voice to the table.

Other things:
I kinda hope they don’t have the silly “CYBERMAN” voiceover in the theme for Series 2.
Spavin is kind of C3PO with a funnier voice.
A rare instance of a music cue I didn’t appreciate: the quick-fire brass blare near the opening. It recurred a few times but was particularly egregious after “The Cybermen must already be here!” as it sounded like a clunky dun-dun-DUN! bit of cheese.
This made me laugh: “You know, we never fought this war to wipe you out, to take lives. When a raging beast charges at you, you can either step out of its way or kill it. Run, and it catches up and kills you.”/“You were programmed for amateur philosophy too, then?”
Cyber-Brett’s startling, chilling soliloquy: “CALM. Everything is calm. But there is a memory. Nearly gone. A memory of fear. Panic. Chaos. In my mind. But it is only a memory.”
“We can’t stay stuck on the past!”/“I just hope we have a future!” Oh dear.
“There is no Karen Brett.”
Note how the Cybermen are compared to a specifically biblical plague – “a whole army of Cyberman is awake, picking their way down from the vaults like groggy, ungainly silver locusts”.
Poor plotting alert: Spavin was keeping anti-radiation drugs in his kit “for old times’ sake”, despite the fact that he was an android and therefore not susceptible to radiation? How wonderfully convenient for the human Barnaby afflicted by radiation poisoning.
Unlike most series of Dalek Empire, we don’t really end on a proper cliff-hanger, rather a sort of mini-teaser about what kind of developments may happen next in the 26th century.

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