In Spare Parts, Big Finish dared to produce an origin story for the Cybermen on a par with Genesis of the Daleks. In my opinion, the pacing of Spare Parts makes it the superior drama. Which is quite a feat, since origin stories for inportant chunks of canon come with the baggage of expectation and an almost-certain foregone conclusion.
This audio cleverly exploits the fact that we know, once again, Five isn’t going to be able to save the day (or can he?) There is a sense of Orwellian, overhanging doom that even Big Finish has never equalled. Which is the biggest problem with this audio: at $3 for a download, it’s a can’t-miss for any DW fan, but how can I recommend such a grimdark story to first-time listeners?
“All your own, are they?”
“Just something I go about in.” — An organ bank merchant sizing up the Doctor
Yet it’s not all grim. What makes this story tick is the poignant suffering of the guest characters caught in dire circumstances. You want them to survive, even though their survival will probably lead to the rise of the Cybermen. Blake’s 7 actor Sally Knyvette is fantastic as Doctorman Allan, a morally ambiguous character trying to save her people, drinking to deaden her feelings but resisting the process she’s invented which would relieve her pain. Even the scoundrel Thomas Dodd is likable.
Both Sarah Sutton and Peter Davison have standout performances. Nyssa plays a crucial role in the narrative: her interactions with the Hartley family are our window into an entire society, and we feel engaged with their plight through her determination and compassion to help them. Nerves of steel, that girl. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s frustration is so palpable: he knows he can’t change history, and he’s pretending not to care, but he cares deeply, both for Nyssa whom he wants to protect and for the world he wants so desperately to save. It feels like a Greek tragedy the way he lets himself be drawn in despite his better judgment. His impassioned speeches in this are some of Peter’s best work.
The clash between Nyssa and the Doctor over his nonintervention is a fantastic discussion of an insoluable problem for the show, a sort of virtual theodicy: why do bad things happen that the Doctor should be able to avert? Their debate is rooted in personal experiences, their shared mourning and guilt over Adric’s death. The TV series should have addressed Adric’s death back in the day, but thank goodness it didn’t, so that we get this emotional conversation. (Later Five and Nyssa audios have revisited the issue, but never so powerfully.)
Russell T Davies commissioned scriptwriter Tom McRae to write an adaptation of Spare Parts in order to reintroduce Cybermen to modern audiences, but despite Tom McRae’s best efforts, the new sleek, robotic Cybermen don’t have the body horror of the gawky originals, and no parallel Earth with people living under an open sky could evoke the desperation of the Mondasians trapped inside a dying world like miners trapped by a cave-in.
Marc Platt was also brave enough to borrow early Who’s conceit that Mondas’ development is ludicrously parallel to Earth’s, right down to tea and churches and trams and holiday trees, although uniquely Mondasian elements like cyber-pets, the Committee and the odd habit of appending -man to every profession. The eerie parallels and dissonant elements add to the sense of a nightmare too close to home.
I’m not quite so keen on the idea that later Cybermen are built on the Doctor’s blueprint. It’s a poignant bit of angst, though— he’s indirectly responsible for the race that killed Adric. So is Nyssa. She won’t let the Doctor leave Mondas when he’s ready to go. Instead, they both wind up trying to intervene, and their efforts to save Mondas may indeed have contributed to the survival of the Cybermen.
There’s so many threads in this story, and I never grow tired of it.
One that jumped out at me this time is the fact that Nyssa has internalised the Doctor’s approach. In some ways, this will become her downfall in future stories, because she isn’t as durable as he is. (I’m thinking of Entropy Plague, but there are other examples, especially in the older!Nyssa audios).
Doctor: Nyssa, the people of Mondas must decide their future for themselves.
Nyssa: But they’re suffering terribly. They’re good people, and some of them are sick. I’ve promised to help!
Nyssa: I have to, Doctor. And if you won’t get involved, then I must stay behind and do it by myself.
Doctor: Nyssa, where are you going?
Nyssa: To get my things.
Doctor: NO! Nyssa, you’re being unreasonable.
Nyssa: Am I? I want to give those people some hope! I want to stop the Cybermen from coming into existence.
Doctor: Yes, very laudable, but you can’t do it on your own. You’re not an army. You can’t turn the whole of history around on a sixpence!
Nyssa: I’ve seen you do it!
Not long after their argument, the Doctor storms outside to get some fresh air (which leads to everything after) and runs into Mr. Hartley, who tells him that “She’ll make a good doctor, too.” It’s true, in the literal sense, and that is basically what happens to her, but the ambiguity of audio is probably deliberate.
At the end of Primeval, Nyssa refused to be left behind on a safe planet, telling the Doctor, “Come on. It sounds like we’ve got work to do.” Spare Parts follows directly after that adventure in their timeline, showing just how seriously she takes that “work.”