Written by Alan Barnes
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, 2015
Stars: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), Zoe Herriot (Wendy Padbury), Nicholas Briggs (The Cybermen/ Lanky), Lucy Liemann (Curatrix Zennox), Nicholas Farrell (Captain Frank), Kieran Hodgson (Findel)
“Jamie, I’m warning you – I am not the prancing pixie I used to be!”
The Sixth Doctor
Last of the Cybermen is the second instalment of the “locum Doctors” trilogy, which transplants some of the Doctor’s later regenerations into the respective eras of his first three incarnations. The trilogy, which forms part of Big Finish’s celebration of reaching 200 Doctor Who main range serials, is intended by BF showrunner Alan Barnes to showcase how later Doctors would work with their counterparts’ companions (eg the Seventh Doctor in the recent Defectors with Third Doctor sidekick Jo Grant) and how their approach to problem solving also differs markedly from the corresponding incarnations they have replaced.
This middle chapter, which is also written by Barnes, sees the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) deposited into his second incarnation’s time stream – alongside Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) and Zoe Herriot (Wendy Padbury) in an “exciting adventure” with the Cybermen. The Cybermen were, of course, villainous mainstays of the Patrick Troughton era, so there is already a strong sense of homage in this serial. Further, if you’re a long-time listener of Big Finish’s Doctor Who output, you’ll know this Doctor/companion/villain combo isn’t so unique – some 60 releases back, the Sixth Doctor, Jamie and Zoe also teamed up to frustrate the silver giants in the similarly named Legend of the Cybermen. You could be forgiven for asking, therefore, if Last of the Cybermen really offers the listener the new or refreshing take that the “locum Doctors” trilogy promises.
It is a credit to the main actors and also to Barnes’ writing that the story still comes across as engaging and intriguing, despite the earlier instalment in BF’s Doctor Who run. Like last year’s Sixth Doctor release Masters of Earth (which heavily paid tribute to the 1960s Dalek TV serials), Last of the Cybermen is also an unashamed love letter to the Troughton era Cybermen serials. It features plenty of concepts that were originally referenced in the classic Doctor Who TV series (some of which have been revived in the modern day series): Cyber planners, Cyber controllers, Cybermats, the Cyber world of Telos, the infamous Brotherhood of Logicians, logic gates and puzzles, and the Parapsychology Unit at Girdle House where Zoe herself trained. The serial also fleshes out the Cyber War which all but wiped out the Cyber Race (first alluded to in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen).
On top of that, Barnes also subtly makes citations to other Troughton serials (eg Zoe’s unabashed “I’m a genius!” mimics the Second Doctor’s legendary words in The Seeds of Death) whilst also portending the events of the era’s finale The War Games. Nevertheless, the barrage of continuity references is not intrusive – rather than detracting from the story, they reinforce the spirit of the era in which it is ostensibly set. The conviction of the performers and the stakes of the drama – escalated when the Sixth Doctor realises that he has been manoeuvred (in contrast to the wisdom of his earlier self) into triggering the whole serial’s sequence of events – keep the listener absorbed in the plot, not overwhelmed by pointless minutiae.
Colin Baker excels as the Sixth Doctor, maintaining much of the warmth and good humour that his character has developed over the last 16 years of Big Finish – but never losing his intensity in confrontations with the Cybermen or the serial’s other antagonists. Baker’s rapport with Hines (with whom he worked on 1985’s The Two Doctors) and Padbury (who at one time was his agent) is also indicative in his performance; when the Sixth Doctor expresses delight at his impromptu reunion with Jamie and Zoe, one can also detect Baker’s fondness for Hines and Padbury in his delivery. It vindicates BF’s decision to go with this trio for the story.
After Baker, Padbury gets the lion’s share of the adventure, as Zoe proves to be a vital tool for the Cybermen’s machinations (a theme continued from Legend of the Cybermen). Padbury is fantastic as the youthful, scientifically brilliant Zoe, her voice showing none of the years – over 45! - that have elapsed since her departure from Doctor Who. Further, while there were times in the original TV series when Zoe could be the archetypal screamer, the character in this tale shows no such foibles. She is hyper-intelligent, practical and courageous. Padbury is also convincing when she portrays Zoe under Cyber influence.
Hines, by comparison, is a bit shortchanged as Jamie. The Highlander in parts of this serial sometimes comes across as more obtuse than he is. There is an underlying rivalry to Jamie’s relationship with the “new” Doctor that was not evident in their initial meeting in The Two Doctors (which, if you subscribe to the much vaunted “Season 6B” theory, occurs after this tale). He is more suspicious and less receptive than Zoe to the newcomer’s explanation that he and his second incarnation have been “translocated” in time and space. As a result, there are some amusing exchanges between the Highlander and the Time Lord, the best of which is the “Madeleine” joke. Hines, nevertheless, puts in a solid performance, despite his character lacking in consistency.
Semi-regular Nicholas Briggs continues to provide the voices of the Cybermen. However, despite being in hiding for a good proportion of the story, the titular villains’ presence is still keenly felt throughout, thanks no less to a citadel they leave behind that resembles a giant Cyber helmet and boasts their technology and numerous traps for unwary explorers. While the Cyber voices are reminiscent of Earthshock and the later ‘80s Cybermen serials, as opposed to the tones Briggs has delivered for the modern TV series, he at least this time has resisted the temptation to experiment too much (as he has been guilty of doing in past Cyber audio serials).
However, even with the Cybermen being underused in the plot, Briggs’ voice can still be heard as one of the incidental characters – as Lanky, seemingly an over the top Cyberman with a Lancastrian accent! In fact, Briggs is unrecognisable as Lanky pre-conversion – the strong northern accent Briggs puts on is a testament to his acting, as this listener was easily duped into thinking it was a completely different actor.
Lanky is the other half of a duo comprising ace Cyber War veteran Captain Frank (Nicholas Farrell). The prospect of a spacefaring pilot, flanked by his loyal Cyber partner, has great potential (at least on paper). In his writer’s notes, Barnes acknowledges that he based Frank on Dan Dare but sadly, he is the complete antithesis of Dare (at least to me) – sounding too much like a hackneyed 19th century, crusty, stiff upper-lipped British officer and gentlemen to be credible. Perhaps Frank’s character is also meant to be a deliberate contrast on Barnes’ part to Tomb of the Cybermen’s Captain Hopper – but to my mind, the portrayal just doesn’t work and grates with the other incidental characters and the dialogue. This is not to say Farrell himself is utterly terrible but he should have been encouraged to deliver a more straightforward performance.
With the Cybermen relegated to the sidelines, Lucy Liemann (Moving Wallpaper, The Bourne Ultimatum) gets the chance to shine as the serial’s villain, the excellent Curatrix Zennox. In contrast to Frank’s caricatured interpretation, Liemann exhibits a calculating, composed presence throughout the story (though without being a femme fatale). Zennox is essentially the intellectual match of Zoe and almost the Doctor himself. While her motives for allying with the Cybermen are dubious (to say the least), Zennox at least doesn’t succumb to the megalomania of other Cyber allies from the same era, notably Eric Klieg (Tomb of the Cybermen) and Tobias Vaughan (The Invasion).
Much like the aforementioned Masters of Earth, part four of Last of the Cybermen takes us into completely different territory than the first three episodes – and there are a couple of twists to the storyline in the final instalment which seem a little too contrived on Barnes’ part. Nevertheless, the story is satisfactorily wound up before the Doctor and his companions are returned to their rightful times and places.
The serial features some good cliffhangers in the first three episodes. However, there is an unusual disconnect between episodes three and four. Episode three ends with the Doctor, Jamie and Frank surrounded by approaching Cybermen – yet when part four begins, it cuts straight to the Doctor and Zoe on a Cyber ship bound for Telos, with no immediate explanation about what happened to Jamie and Frank and indeed to Zoe herself. While explanations are supplied over the course of the final episode, a simple reprise from the previous episode would have been in order. Indeed, whether intended or otherwise, the cut from the Cyber threat to the Doctor and Zoe suddenly imprisoned on a Cyber vessel, is unintentionally reminiscent of Steven Moffat’s Red Nose farce Curse of the Fatal Death – just without any of the humour and plenty of confusion for the listener!
As usual, Big Finish’s production values are second to none, although I feel Nigel Fairs’ soundtrack (as excellent as it is) and some of his supporting sound effects are not necessarily evocative of the Troughton era. For example, some of the TARDIS sound effects (eg the interior doors opening) are reminiscent of those used in the 1980s TV serials rather than the Troughton era, which is rather odd considering the preceding Defectors utilised the TARDIS sound effects used in the Pertwee era quite faithfully and the next story The Secret History (at least based on a listening of part one) reprises some of the ship’s sound effects from the Hartnell era.
Last of the Cybermen is not a wholly original or inventive tale, being as it is a testimonial to the Troughton era, but it is an entertaining one nonetheless – and a good middle chapter to the “locum Doctors” trilogy. It is still unclear who or what is behind the Doctor’s “translocations” throughout his time stream – and the story deliberately leaves this mystery unanswered. It is now up to the Doctor’s fifth incarnation (Peter Davison) to uncover the mystery in the concluding story of the trilogy The Secret History.