Friday, 23 April 2021

WHO REVIEW ROUND-UP: Return of the Cybermen

This is the first in, I think, the sixth run of Lost Stories, which began over ten years ago and petered out a few years later when it looked like Big Finish had completely mined the resource of undeveloped Doctor Who stories. Then, the range made an unexpecter return with a pair of stories two years ago, and it looks like there are plenty more scripts to be unearthed from the depths of the Beeb's filing cabinets.

Return of the Cybermen is the original version of what would become Revenge of the Cybermen (Jedi return, but Cybermen can wreak revenge, apparently), which closed out season twelve in 1975. This is the script written by Gerry Davis, co-creator of the original Cybermen, adapted for the new format by John Dorney. Refreshingly, it's presented as what it is: an alternative final story for that season, with no attempt to fit it into existing continuity. There was, apparently, a plan to do this, with a timey-wimey twist at the end, but it was ultimately decided not to go with this, which is a relief. The earlier Lost Stories recreation of "Season 27" misguidedly rewrote original storylines to try to fit in with where Big Finish had already taken the characters, rather than giving us the original ideas as an alternative continuation. I prefer this: a look sideways at what might have been.

The big draw here is having the Fourth Doctor reunited with Sarah Jane and Harry for a new adventure, something which seemed very unlikely to ever happen. Ian Marter, of course, sadly died in 1986, aged only 42, while we've just had the tenth anniversary of Lis Sladen's death. While Sladen reprised the role of Sarah Jane Smith for Big Finish in her own series, before doing the same for the BBC, by the time Tom Baker finally decided to join BF she was too ill to continue and died soon after. Yet we now have a new season twelve TARDIS team, with Sladen's daughter Sadie Miller taking on her role, and BF stalwart Christopher Naylor playing Harry Sullivan. 

It's really rather a beautiful recreation of this classic team. While it was never going to truly recreate the combination of Baker, Sladen and Marter, it comes remarkably close. Miller sounds similar to her mother, of course, but occasionally, just occasionally, she sounds exactly like her, and it's spooky. Naylor, on the other hand, does a fine impression of Marter that never sounds like a send-up. Both are fine audio actors and do their forebears proud. Tom Baker, of course, is on fine form as always as the Doctor. He never seems quite as enthused with these straighter sci-fi stories as with the sillier ones, but he never fails to give a spellbinding performance. 

Not that Return of the Cybermen isn't silly. It's marginally more sensible than the version that reached the screen, but not by much. It still relies on the conceit that the Cybermen, having developed a terrible weakness to gold, would elect to go straight for an asteroid covered in the stuff, and that's just the start of their illogical actions. Still, this version, which has no Vogans on their planet of gold, is a bit more reasonable, although the asteroid we get, populated by what sounds to be a lost colony of South Africans, isn't exactly the most enticing setting for the climactic sequences.

Events on the Nerva Beacon are rather more gripping, with some excellent performances by the guest cast. I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Asbury's gruff interpretation of the station commander, a real no-nonsense spacedog. The music and audio effects provide a very 1960s feel to events. There are a lot of recycled elements from Davis's earlier scripts, too, such as the Doctor's reliance on his 500-year-diary (straight from The Tomb of the Cybermen) and the Cybermen's extreme vulnerability to radiation (The Tenth Planet). It would have been derivative in1975, but they would have gotten away with it then, while an audio presented to fans who've watched and heard this stuff over and over it seems repetitive. Still, at least there's consistency, even if it does hammer home just how many weakness the Cybermen have. 

I don't think Return of the Cybermen will top many best-of lists for BF this year, but it's a pretty solid, enjoyable adventure made special by the performances of the lead cast. In any case, it's a better, more coherent story than the one that replaced it, an let's be honest, even that old nonsense is a lot of fun.

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