Doctor Who Audio Review: Spare Parts
Written by: Marc Platt
Directed by: Gary Russell
Featured Doctor: Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)
Featured Companion: Nyssa of Traken (Sarah Sutton)
Other Characters: Doctorman Allen (Sally Knyvette), Sisterman Constant (Pamela Binnis), Thomas Dodd (Derren Nesbitt), Dad (Paul Copley), Yvonne Hartley (Kathryn Guck), Frank Hartley (Jim Hartley)
So with this ongoing quarantine and my recent lack of interest in Comics, I’ve decided to revisit a few of the old favorites from my Big Finish library. Specifically, one of their most famous and all time classic stories, Spare Parts, which I could’ve sworn I’d already reviewed, but apparently not. So… Yeah, let’s get to the plot.
The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa land on Mondas pre- Everyone turning into a Cyberman and get involved in the happenings and events. We’re talking people freezing underground, we’re talking people getting converted in secret, we’re talking despair and depression. It’s a tough environment. Can The Doctor avert the creation and propagation of the Cybermen across the universe? And, more importantly, should he?
When I’ve reviewed DW Audios in the past, I’ve mostly talked about stories with original concepts and characters, rather than stories which made use of classic villains from the show, because most of Big Finish’s best work happens when they’re carving out their own identity rather than trying to imitate something nostalgic. Now, it’s not like Spare Parts is just a nostalgia trip relying on “Hey, I know that thing!”, far from it, but it does still require me to explain to you what the Cybermen are, just in case you don’t know.
The Cybermen first appeared in the very last 1st Doctor story, “The Tenth Planet”, about the lost tenth planet of the solar system, called Mondas. Its orbit was destabilized and as it moved further and further away from the sun, its people started to incorporate more and more machine parts to themselves in order to survive until, as Nyssa puts it in this story, “they finally replaced their own consciousness with the cold precision of machine logic” and became Cybermen AKA one of these guys:
The problem with a lot of Cybermen stories, particularly in modern Doctor Who, has to do with its treatment of the Cybermen. The Cybermen are scary because they are meant to be us. They are what happens when we sacrifice everything human about ourselves in the name of becoming more powerful and superior or even just in the name of survival. Unfortunately, most stories don’t really capitalize on this and, instead, turn the Cybermen into basically just robots who punch and shoot lasers. Spare Parts isn’t one of those stories.
It’s the origin of the Cybermen so you’re pretty much obligated to address the human cost, but this story really presses on the despair and sadness of the situation. As the planet froze over, people were forced to move underground and build their cities inside giant caves, never being able to see the sun, and even that’s not a fix all. They’re already replacing parts of their bodies with machines, and human organs are becoming more and more of a commodity. And, of course, there’s the all important thing when it comes to Cybermen: Conversion.
It’s one of those elements Doctor Who sort of tries to brush aside, because it’s really screwed up for what’s ostensibly a family show. You basically get all of your humanity sucked out of you, replaced by cold rationality and then stuck inside a metal suit. How do you play that up and make it as effective as possible? Well, you can’t convert The Doctor or Nyssa, cause we know that won’t take. So, you have to create yourself a character to convert.
I’m mentioning this specifically because it’s indicative of the feel for the whole story: You know where it’s going, but it’s done so well that you still get wrapped up in it. When you meet this character, you almost instantly go “Oh, they are headed for a conversion” but the trick is how far do they push it with this character. And let me tell you, it goes pretty damn far. It’s not super graphic or anything, but it’s just so… sad.
That’s really the mood for everything in Spare Parts. This world, these characters, these events. They’re all very sad, in a rather tragic manner. There was really no way for this to end, apart from where it’s going, a sense of inevitability to things. It’s one of those great premises that basically writes itself.
Now, despite all the wonderful praise I’ve given this story, there are a few sticking points. I said this story writes itself and that applies to a lot of moments that feel like I things you’ve always wanted to experience, but along the way there are a few things that make you scratch your head a bit.
There are a couple of public protests in this that never really go anywhere. I think they were meant to create the mood of revolution in the air, but it felt a bit more like “Oh, it’s 5 O’Clock already? Best start the protest now, so I can be home for the soaps.” Also, there’s The Doctor and Nyssa.
I believe I said in my previous audio review that I’m not the biggest 5th Doctor fan and this story doesn’t do much to change that. Considering it almost entirely relies on the world and atmosphere, The Doctor has to kind of move through everything. I feel like I would’ve liked it more with a different Doctor… but, then again, 5 is the most “white bread” Doctor which kind of automatically pushes the atmosphere and plot to the forefront. While Nyssa is a bit more involved, she also doesn’t have much to do with the proceedings beyond introducing us to a few of the players.
I almost kind of didn’t need to do a review on this story, because it’s one of, if not the most well known Big Finish plays ever. It’s a sad and dark tale about a society desperately clinging to its very last breath, screaming and kicking for survival. Most things about it feel like the most obvious “of course you’d have to do that!” moments for a story like this, and the ones that don’t tend to skirt by pretty well. It’s a really great story and you really should listen to it. Fortunately, if you have Spotify Premium, it’s available along with the first 50 monthly plays from Big Finish and a bunch of things from various ranges. If you’re curious to start with Big Finish, there are few greater stories to start with.