Plague of the Cybermen (AudioGo)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 13 June 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Plague of the Cybermen
Released by AudioGo
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Justin Richards
Read by David Warner, with Nicholas Briggs
Released: April 2013
This review is based on the CD release from AudioGo and contains some spoilers.

Hot on the heels of his appearance in series 7B’s Cold War, here David Warner reads and performs Justin Richards’ recent 11th Doctor adventure. Warner has had many Doctor Who incarnations, of course, playing the Doctor himself in Big Finish’s Unbound range and currently facing off against Tom Baker’s Doctor as the villainous Cuthbert. In Plague of the Cybermen, Warner sells melodramatic moments particularly well and paces his delivery for maximum effect without ever sounding too actorly. He can be counted on to lend a certain dramatic heft to proceedings, offering a safe pair of hands for this sort of thing. 

The story is set between The Snowmen and The Bells of Saint John, and as a result Justin Richards introduces a one-off companion for the Doctor, Olga the local schoolteacher. I did wonder whether a female voice might have helped characterize and embody Olga more effectively. She is already a fairly insubstantial character, though, and it’s a state of affairs that's left unchanged by this reading. Difficulties with the material are a matter of source content rather than Warner’s rendition.

Plague of the Cybermen concerns an invented nineteenth-century village, Klimtenburg, where mysterious deaths have been caused by “Plague Warriors”, and where strange new metallic trinkets have become a kind of local currency. The Doctor is very soon on the case, and Richards’ traditional Who story opts for an almost steampunk rendering of Cybertechnology. Perhaps implausibly, the Cybermen have been able to embed their techniques into clockwork machineries and devices built by locals, leading to a resolutely Cyber-retro feel that’s at odds with the TV upgrade of Nightmare in Silver. These Cybermen deliberately belong to another era, and are very differently hybridized. There is a nod towards Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with one important character – Lord Ernhardt’s son – being named Victor. And Frankensteinian body horror is never far from the storytelling agenda, as Richards teases us with a game of ‘spot the Cyber agent’.

The real strength of this AudioGO production lies in how David Warner and Nick Briggs (playing assorted electronic voices) are able to capture and convey the story’s emotional heart. For it is the Ernhardt family who eventually lie at the centre of events, with Lord and Lady Ernhardt as well as the ailing Victor all encountering Cybertechnology in a series of ways. In a sense, Plague of the Cybermen tackles head-on, and in a fashion that may even be too daring for the TV series, what happens when themes of “family entertainment” and matters of Cyber-conversion are mercilessly fused. It is a subject matter that’s been tackled fleetingly in the parent show (whether via Jackie Tyler’s alt-universe fate or Nightmare in Silver’s threat to its child characters), but here it becomes the thematic core of events.

If Olga seems rather under-developed, then there are other identity problems, all of which fall beyond David Warner’s vocal reparations. “Classic” Who contented itself with telling adventure romps marked by atmosphere and suspense, whereas it’s starting to feel as if the current era of the programme is marked by what could be dubbed a “tyranny of the reveal”: major plot twists have to be served up, no matter what. As a result, several characters find themselves undergoing revelatory shifts in self-identity – and the tactic is no more convincing here than it was in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. This time round, one character is exposed as something other than human, whilst another is ultimately half the person we assume them to be. But these “reveals” hinge on generic science fiction logic, and don’t quite hit home as a result, even with Warner doing his very best to sway the listener. Plague of the Cybermen might have flowed better as a story without feeling the need to incorporate “X was Y all along”-type “shock” moments. And its many reveals – what’s the collective noun for these? A “startle”? A “game-changer” of reveals? – all too clearly expose the narrative machinery of Richards' creation.

Although this is a lengthy listen (it’s spread across 6 discs, each running between 43 minutes to an hour or so), Warner’s performance constantly keeps the energy levels up. And when Nick Briggs joins the fray then his vocal contributions remain as vital as ever. But it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that this is essentially a run-of-the-mill affair. For an original novel published in the 50th anniversary year, and skillfully converted into audio by AudioGO, this somehow seems to lack ambition. Perhaps brand managers didn’t want the TV series to be overshadowed, but whatever the planning that went into this, Plague of the Cybermen still feels a bit like an anniversary year non-special. That’s not to say it’s bad: quite to the contrary, it is a solid Who story enacted with relish by David Warner, who will no doubt further endear himself to discerning Doctor Who fans with this work. But Plague presses so many familiar buttons that it comes across as a Cyber-mashup of tropes, body horror moments, Doctor-ish foibles, romantic subplots, and techno-creepiness. Stitched together from standard-issue sources before finally sparking into dramatic life, this production of Plague is ably carried by Messers Warner and Briggs.




The Library of Alexandria (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 10 June 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

The Library of Alexandria
Big Finish Productions
Written by Simon Guerrier
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released April 2013
Search for the fourth-century Egyptian philosopher Hypatia on the internet, and among other images will be several of a woman painted in the third quarter of the second century AD. The painting is a face mask, placed over the mummified remains of a dead person, a traditional Egyptian custom reinterpreted for the Graeco-Roman style of the Roman Empire. It was also about two hundred years old when Hypatia was born. The internet generation rediscovered Hypatia as a woman of science and ancient precedent for today’s women mathematicians, engineers and physicists, but it needed an image to act as Hypatia’s standard. This portrait has caught on and is linked with Hypatia on many websites. Hypatia is the guest lead of Simon Guerrier’s Companion Chronicle The Library of Alexandria, and Ian Chesterton’s description of Hypatia (as written by Simon Guerrier) as having 'black wavy hair... cut very short' is reminiscent of that appropriated portrait.

The connection is relevant because The Library of Alexandria is in part about memes – ideas which reproduce themselves through and across cultures as genes do in biology, mutating as they try to adapt to new circumstances. In the manner of the early television stories set in the human past, the TARDIS travellers are visiting a specific event in Earth’s history, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. As Susan states early in the story, we don’t actually know when and how the Library was destroyed. There are reports that the Library was destroyed by Julius Caesar in 48BC, by the Roman Emperor Aurelian around 274AD, on the orders of Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, in 391AD, or by the Arab commander Amr in 642AD. Every incident was part of a major change in the government and culture of Egypt. Connections with the destruction of the Library weren’t necessarily made at the time of each incident. According to James Hannam at bede.org.uk, Hypatia, represented as the last proponent of the pre-Christian Greek intellectual tradition, has only been associated with the destruction of the Library since Carl Sagan linked her to its supposed destruction in 391 in his television series and book Cosmos (1980). Susan tells Barbara and Ian that memes are after their time, as they are, the word having been coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s; the adaptation of the tale of the destruction of the Library to include Hypatia is after their time too, and its inclusion at the heart of The Library of Alexandria suggests it’s a successful meme within a thirty-three year timescale.

The Library of Alexandria offers the devices of the first season historical stories interpreted within the legacy of the intervening five decades. The post-2005 series with its emphasis on interpersonal relationships is an influence, with Ian having to deny to his companions (especially Barbara) that he has been on a ‘date’ with Hypatia. Likewise Hypatia’s lecturing style and complaints about library departments not talking to one another are rooted in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries rather than the fourth and resemble the presentation of Shakespeare as a media celebrity in The Shakespeare Code. The compression of several allied institutions, such as the reading rooms of the Museion (place of the Muses) into the Library for narrative purposes is a useful shorthand and one with a long pedigree. The anachronistic elements help highlight the differences, though: the descriptions of the tagged books on handwritten scrolls, for example. Hypatia’s first quayside meeting with Ian and her desire to seize the cargo of a book-smuggling vessel humorously conveys the very real ruthlessness of the Library’s acquisitions policy. We even get a short lecture on papyrus manufacture and how many words could be accommodated on a single scroll, which would no doubt warm the heart of Sydney Newman were he still with us. Likewise Newman would probably have liked the direct relation of the Library to twentieth-century research centres and the 1960s space programmes.

Less likely to have won Newman’s admiration are Mim, the monsters of this piece. Like meme the word Mim is derived from mimeme, an imitated thing, and these spacefaring creatures are size-varying, form-changing symbols of the evolution of ideas. Their bodies read situations, can become human-shaped, aquatic or airborne, and unsurprisingly are described in terms drawn from the mythology of the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a credit to all concerned in writing, directing, performance and sound design that they can be easily visualised in all their many shapes. Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s compositions sound as if they could have been played by the historical instruments Ian finds in the Library’s collection and the music suite is a welcome extra.

Director Lisa Bowerman has recruited another former regular from the early years of Casualty, Susan Franklyn, as Hypatia. Franklyn turns in a confident, flirtatious performance which easily engages both listener and principal narrator. William Russell again shows he can reinhabit the voice and personality of Ian Chesterton, as authoritative over customs men in Roman Egypt as he was over pacifist Thals or petty Arab criminals. He also recovers a lot of the tics of Carole Ann Ford’s Susan, but the Doctor very much draws on the octogenarian Russell’s own experience, fitting as this is a first Doctor viewed through the lens of 2013 as much as that of 1964.

For all the musings on memes, it’s the written word which the characters treasure. Barbara risks her life to save manuscripts from fire and the final scene takes place around one of the most celebrated inscriptions in the history of the rediscovery of ancient Egypt by the modern west. As the final scene suggests, more of the Library survives than just its idea, fragments of its collections surviving in other places to this day; the knowledge held and disseminated from there underpins the 1960s life of Ian and Barbara, and the realities and fictions of Doctor Who.