Big Finish brings us the first in its new Doctor Who ‘Audio Novels’ range, designed to bring audiobooks to life with just one narrator and a minimal use of music and sound effects. This package assures us that it’s still part of the long and proud Doctor Who lineage, and not only because the title conforms to the tried-and-tested X of the Y format. The interstitial music, sound effects and atmosphere are all carefully calibrated to recall the vintage series. But, with this Cyberman-focused story, will loyal listeners of Big Finish’s audio plays be converted?
Scourge of the Cybermen opens with the unmistakable Third Doctor theme music, then drops us right into a classic scenario: the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith visiting a human base under the sea, on an alien world far in the future. All seems normal, with the humans dealing with typical human problems – until people begin to go missing, others are poisoned by radiation, and a creeping threat follows them to the bottom of the ocean.
Writer Simon Guerrier’s prose conjures impressive environments and an exciting sense of scale – it’s a thrill when he describes an open space inside the sea base as being twice the size of Trafalgar Square. It might seem as if Guerrier is attempting to exceed the capability of Doctor Who on TV, but there are plenty of small details that seem intended as affectionate nods to that world. The employees of the base all wear dungarees and identical shirts, we learn – a nod to the pinched BBC budgets of the 1970s? Meanwhile there are hornet-like helper robots, spectrographs, mini-submarines and alpha particles for vintage sci-fi fans to enjoy: plus plenty of Venusian aikido, described in loving detail.
There’s a real sense of a wider world beyond what we see, or hear. Guerrier notes that a character enters Corridor 3XA, for example, a minor detail that makes the world feel grounded in a concrete, tangible reality. That’s before we get to the wide ensemble of characters, in which even Denzel the coffee man has a role to play. The format offers a little more scope to observe these details than a Big Finish play, in which dialogue tells 90% of the story.
Jon Culshaw’s effusive narration lends a gravity to the story, and meanwhile his character impersonations are terrific: he commits fully to embodying Jon Pertwee’s unforgettable voice, only occasionally verging on caricature. For the remaining characters, he modulates his voice subtly: as Sarah Jane, he even modifies his vowel sounds to better embody the character. Needless to say, Culshaw ‘gets’ Doctor Who entirely, so his performance here is a highlight.
While the story begins at a leisurely pace, things get very dark, very quickly. Scourge of the Cybermen might be one of the most horror-inflected stories to have come out of the Big Finish studios in a long time. More to the point, there’s a sustained atmosphere of creeping dread long before the Cybermen appear, and their appearances are often presaged by long chapters of tense anticipation. It’s delicious. Once the carnage begins, of course, there’s body horror, mutilated corpses and painful radiation deaths: a Halloween release might have been just as appropriate. In James Cameron terms, what begins as The Abyss quickly turns into The Terminator.
“The machine man unsteadily stalked towards her. It was tall, powerful, exuding menace.”
As the bodies pile up, and the Doctor and Sarah search desperately for solutions, it emerges that evacuation is not an option – and the claustrophobic atmosphere intensifies. Images of a society wearing protective gear as a bulwark against calamity resonate, for obvious reasons, but the climactic scenes of a rapidly flooding seabase portend an equally plausible future. It’s during this stretch of the story when Sarah takes centre stage, and Guerrier conveys her grit and capability in interesting ways: offering a fine showcase for one of the most tenacious Doctor Who characters.
I have to make a disclosure here, which I should have probably mentioned before – I don’t much like audio books. I’m a huge fan of audio plays, like the majority of the Big Finish output, which effortlessly bring listeners into a world of drama. But audio books, to me, don’t compare to the printed page. Being able to easily reread a favourite passage, skip back a few paragraphs to check I didn’t miss a detail, and read at my own pace are all things that physical books offer. If Scourge were a paperback, I’d pick it up in an instant – but the stylish, immersive embellishments here offer a great deal of value, and there’s a synergy between content and format here which shows this is no mere experiment. Fans can expect the next entry in the Audio Novels series, Matthew Waterhouse’s Watchers, in January 2022.
With a hefty runtime of seven and a half hours, plus extras, Scourge of the Cybermen takes the time to offer a rich and unique perspective on a world we’re otherwise very familiar with. Like many Doctor Who narratives, it can be taken as a parable about how we’re liable to sacrifice our own humanity in trying to protect it. But Simon Guerrier’s action-focused writing never lingers for too long in introspection: much like the Doctor himself, Scourge keeps things moving: always focused on what might be lurking around the next corner, in the dark.
Scourge of the Cybermen is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here.
David Richardson, producer of the Audio Novels range, introduces a half-hour segment of interviews with the creative personnel behind the product. He notes that the range was something he’d been “thinking of for years”, as an alternative to Big Finish’s established ranges of audio plays and two-handers. The plan, he says, is to not only focus on more recent TV Doctors but go right back to the beginning.
Jon Culshaw, our narrator, says that he found the story “absolutely compelling”, and full of unexpected storytelling turns. As he reminds us, he’s been narrating Target books for a while, and enjoys the nuance which those long form stories impart to well-loved Doctor Who stories. Ever the fan, he rightly points out that Jon Pertwee never faced the Cybermen in the classic series, and that Scourge corrects that.
Writer Simon Guerrier has nothing but nice things to say about Culshaw, and says that it was a “compelling experience” to hear his narration. On writing the story, Guerrier points out that this story is 60,000 words – easily dwarfing, for example, the average New Series Adventure or Target book. It allows for an added richness, and “space to get into things.” Touchingly, he notes that he rewrote the story to reflect the costume which cover artist Claudia Gironi painted for the Third Doctor.
Steve Foxon, provider of the sound design, chimes in on his love of the Cybermen – and his authentically 1970s musical stings appear at the end of the release as a jarring, unnerving electronic mood piece.
In the depths of the ocean on an alien world, there’s a city run by scientists. The Doctor is only too eager to help them find new ways to counter pollution and produce entirely clean energy – research that he says will benefit the whole galaxy. But others have recognised the value of the sea base, and their interest is not so benign…
Left to her own devices, Sarah Jane Smith conducts her own investigation. The lights on the base keep flickering, which back home on Earth was the first sign that her bathroom was leaking. Out here in the depths of the alien sea, it’s the first indication of a looming disaster.
Patiently, implacably, the Cybermen are determined to conquer the base and its resources. That includes all the men, women and children who live there.
As the Doctor once again battles his old enemies, Sarah rallies the trapped and terrified people. Then, to her horror, she realises that the Cybermen have used cold logic to predict exactly what the humans will do in order to survive…
Cover Art by Claudia Gironi
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Steve Foxon
Narrated by Jon Culshaw
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor Roland Moore
Sound Design by Steve Foxon
Written by Simon Guerrier