Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Return of the Cybermen
This month sees Big Finish adapt two 'lost stories' from Doctor Who - scripts and ideas developed for Tom Baker's run but never produced. First up is Return of the Cyberman, based on a story and script submitted in 1974 by writer Gerry Davis, that was substantially rewritten into Revenge of the Cybermen by script editor Robert Holmes.
Serving as an alternative to the Doctor Who season twelve closer, Return of the Cybermen stars Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Liz Sladen's daughter Sadie Miller plays Sarah Jane Smith, while Christopher Naylor plays Harry Sullivan. It has been adapted by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs. Return of the Cyberman is available at the Big Finish site here before going on general release on the 30th April 2021. Here's the synopsis...
The Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan return to Space Station Nerva in search of the TARDIS. Instead, they find peril, disease and... Cybermen!
These cybernetic monsters have devised a plan to eliminate the greatest threat to their existence. And if the Doctor and his human compatriots do not play their part in this scheme, they are to be destroyed.
Once again, I'll be joined by the world's biggest Doctor Who fan and regular co-contributor to my Big Finish reviews at The Digital Fix, my 15 year old son Ben.
Revenge of the Cyberman is an interesting story. It features the TARDIS dream team of the Fourth Doctor, Harry and Sarah, comes off the back of one of the show's greatest stories, Genesis of the Daleks and is Tom Baker's only story to focus on the Cybermen. But it is also something of a disappointment, failing to do the Cybermen justice and ended the strong twelfth season on something on a damp squib.
Originally, Terror of the Zygons would have served as the season closer, which would have been a stronger end to the year - and Harry's short-lived tenure as a companion. This Cybermen story went through a number of changes, with Gerry Davis' script heavily reworked by script editor Robert Holmes into the story we got on TV. The original script is what forms this release, in what Big Finish are billing as a lost story - though writer John Dorney's revision makes it more an alternate take on the season twelve ender.
Return of the Cybermen is the stronger of the two stories, focusing less on the Voga and more on the build-up to the Cybermen's presence on station Nerva. It drags less and has far more suspense in the first half, with the focus on Sarah contracting the virus infecting humanity as she did in Revenge and the Doctor working to find a cure while also uncovering the threat that is literally hiding in the walls of the station. It's a shame that Sadie Miller, in her first Big Finish performance as Sarah, doesn't get a meaty role here, but much of Return is about reframing and heightening the pace of the story rather than changing it completely from the adventure that aired on TV.
Sadie Miller of course, is the daughter of Elizabeth Sladen, who takes on the role of one of Doctor Who's most beloved companions following her mother's incredibly sad passing in 2011. As with Christopher Naylor, who takes on the role of Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter died just aged 42 in 1986), there is a bittersweet quality to the release, that sees two great characters back alongside the Fourth Doctor, albeit with slightly different performances. It's easy to see why, perhaps, Big Finish, brought them in for an alternative take on a classic story first, before expanding their journeys in future releases. As for the performances, Naylor is just superb as Harry - the voice, vocalisms and performance are soo good, you would be forgiven for believing it was somehow Marter in the story. Miller brings the energy and vocalisms of Sarah, even if the sound isn't quite right. But it doesn't really matter. Miller gives us a gift in more Sarah, and you can't not be anything than happy with that.
Coupled of with Tom Baker - who as always, is a delight to listen to here in 2021 as he was on screen in 1978 - and it is the return of my all time favourite TARDIS team. While there is little room for other adventures (Robot through to Terror of the Zygons runs without any gap), I am sure Big Finish will find a way to give us more stories with the three of them on the TARDIS together - who's to say Harry didn't jump onboard for a couple of further trips in space and time during the rest of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah's run?
There is a great energy and pace to Return of the Cybermen; that build up to the reveal of the Cyber Leader offers plenty of tension, the Voga-set third part offers the high stakes of the TV story with a lot more narrowed focus so the story doesn't drag (Amanda Shodeko giving a passionate performance as heroic Voga leader Coetzee), before bringing everything back for a big, bold finale. Shodeko also lends her talents to the role of earnest Nerva scientist Anitra, while Nickolas Grace gives us a more introspective Kellman than we saw in Revenge.
The script is different, the cliff-hangers changed and the pacing improved, but Return of the Cybermen is still close to its televised twin, meaning that the story isn't much stronger than what viewers will already have watched before. If you're expecting something leagues above Revenge, you will be disappointed. But Return does offer an intriguing 'what if?' narrative. The chance to hear the Fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry again is a treat, making this essential listening, even if it isn't the strongest Fourth Doctor release to have passed through Big Finish's doors...
The most interesting thing about this particular Lost Story is that it isn't strictly lost. Rather than a script never having seen the light of day, here we are presented with the original version of Revenge of the Cybermen. The TV version was admittedly never the strongest story and was a slightly lacklustre end to a great and iconic season of Doctor Who. So naturally, this tale might have put some fans off. But luckily we have not just a more interesting take on Revenge, with cliffhangers shuffled around and weaker narratives replaced among other things. A notable factor of this story is how changed core elements are, with the roles of Kellman and Voga significantly reduced, the latter not even being named nor a planet any more. For me, those were the two weakest links of Revenge, so their diminished parts in Return only strengthen the core narrative in my eyes.
Setting most of the story on Nerva rather than split across two locations also works to the story's strengths. The brief time spent on the asteroid serves the story a lot better than it did before and having more of a focus on the Cybermen and the Cybermats is also key to the success of the narrative, allowing for more screen (Ear?) time as the titular villains, rather than drop them in place for the Vogan drama we saw on screen. The main cast being coerced into helping the Cybermen certainly engages the listener to a higher degree, making them feel a more capable threat than we saw before.
The virus subplot is used to greater effect here and although it does sadly put Sarah out of action for the entire second episode and half of the third, it still manages to feel like a larger threat here. While the Cyber plan is a bit weird, it leads to compelling drama for the Doctor to solve and sustains drama and tension throughout the four episode runtime, which is a plus.
A word must be said for our TARDIS team. What can be said about Tom Baker that hasn't been praised before, in his excellent performance still as witty and engaging as ever. Obviously Ian Marter and Elisabeth Sladen are sadly no longer with us, so to recast two characters as iconic as they are is a risk, but it's worked before. While the Sarah Jane impression isn't spot on, that isn't a negative due to the respect shown towards Sladen's legacy by getting her daughter to continue her adventures, much like Big Finish did for Liz Shaw. Meanwhile, the Harry Sullivan impression is so good you would be forgiven for thinking Marter was actually alive and well and sat in a cupboard recording the story. Christopher Naylor nails the tone, voice and verbal mannerisms of Harry right out the gate, so it's wonderful to see him taking part in a large chunk of the action. We may have lost the iconic HARRY SULLIVAN IS AN IMBECILE line, but honestly the context can't be applied to this performance.
It makes you wonder why this script was so drastically rewritten and why this version was never kept, as it's by far a superior version of what was a bit of a dull story. Almost everything has been improved, though a moment of sadness must be noted for the loss of the truly iconic 'Doctor Who and the Massage of Doom scene' we saw on TV. Sticking in line with what the story was originally going for (which makes sense when you think about it because Revenge was actually following the guidelines of Return), the quality of the finished product should be lauded and praised as one of the finest adaptations and lost stories ever put to ear.
Nicholas Briggs also provides the music for Return of the Cybermen, which perfectly encapsulates the heavy use of synth, percussion, brass and electronica that was a staple of 70's Doctor Who. It's not a piece that can necessarily be listened to in isolation - the clinky beats and booming drums are a little OTT for gentle listening - but it absolutely suits the music that would have been used back in a 1974 episode of the show. It could easily be a score direct from composer Carrie Blyton herself.
In the behind the scenes interviews, writer John Dorney compares the stricture of Revenge with Gerry Davis' script for Return of the Cybermen. There's some lovely humour as Tom Baker jokes with a Cyberman, while cunningly delving into the rejigging of a sometimes less well-received script. Sadie Miller talks being a stand in for her mother Elizabeth Sladen and her nervousness about approaching the role of Sarah Jane Smith. Tom Baker offers a very bittersweet reflection on Sadie bearing the same characteristics as his mother and sharing a similar bond together. Christopher Naylor shares his own love of Doctor Who and working with his childhood hero. There's a fond reflection in Harry's heroism and humanity. Dorney and Briggs are both deeply moved by Sadie's performance, with Briggs sharing his own professional history with Elizabeth Sladen. Miller talks the kindness of fans and the wider Doctor Who world and the outpouring of love for Elizabeth on her death.
There are keen insights from every member of the cast; Amanda Shodeko talks her approach to playing Anitra the scientist and Coetzee of the Voga, finding her passion and strength in playing the leader. Nicholas Asbury plays Stevenson a little harder and rougher than his TV counterpart. Nickolas Grace chats about Kellman's place on Space Station Nerva and his duplicitous role.
We wrap up with Briggs chatting about the sound design and music for Return of the Cybermen and his connection with Tom Baker's first season. It is clearly a passion project, with the use of samples of real instruments and synthesiser sound that Dudley Simpson would have used and developed by Blyton for Revenge at Peter Hinchliffe's request. Ending with a wonderfully geeky exploration of synthesiser models, it's clear, once again, that this is a labour of love for all involved.