Review: Doctor Who – Scourge of the Cybermen

Review by Michael Goleniewski

Under the seas of an alien world, the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith have landed in a gigantic sea-base city run entirely by scientists working to clean up the planet. From cleaning up pollution to creating clean energy, these beings are working for the good of the entire population and of course, the TARDIS team is more than happy to help. While the Doctor is busy in his duties and work, Sarah Jane Smith puts herself on the case of some potentially dangerous issues such as flickering lights that hint at something going precariously wrong and staff members going missing in the deeper parts of the facility. An ominous recording captured on the security cameras portends the arrival of a force stalking and waiting in the depths of the base to make its attack, one which the Doctor is intimately familiar with and rightfully horrified of. The Cybermen have arrived and are working to gain a foothold in this world and its resources by any means necessary and this time they may have outsmarted even the Doctor in their attempts to conquer…..
“Scourge of the Cybermen” is the first of a new line of Big Finish audio releases entitled “The Audio Novels” that are meant to serve as audiobook representations of new stories that are supposed to be “authentic in every way to the era” as stated by producer David Richardson on the range’s main page. It’s an odd beast of a release that has the vibe, energy, and intention of an extended Short Trip or someone reading one of the Target novelisations out loud to you though some aspects do work well in making it more interesting than a usual audiobook. Namely, the appropriate sound design, music, and effects by Steve Foxon do just enough to make it feel like an ‘enhanced’ audiobook experience while still including many standard elements of the format small breaks between hours akin to chapters of a book, audiobook, or other Big Finish dramas. In that regard, it certainly fulfils the goal that Richardson had in mind and the pitch of pitting the Third Doctor against a foe he never encountered on screen is also admirably worked to great effect.

Narrative-wise as one might expect would be the case for an eight-hour listening experience, the plot takes its time very slowly with the premise making the smallest of moments feel like huge set pieces in detail and circumstance. Some tense parts such as Sarah’s initial investigations on her own in the creepy empty hallways of the facility, a risky venture out in a submarine that leads to a traumatic first encounter, and a terrifying moment in stalking through a group of water-logged Cybermen are all great moments by themselves just to name a few. But they outstay their welcome just a little bit too often and it’s obvious that Simon Guerrier’s writing has stretched the plot extremely thin in many aspects in order to justify the longer length and format. At the same time, you get a great sense of what life is like on this settlement as multiple characters outside of the main TARDIS team are focused on, which makes it all the more gripping once the main monsters of the title begin to make their move. Details such as the glowing red of the portholes, the sense of menacing dread, and the look and vibe of the Cybermen themselves are unsettlingly grim with admirable usage of the titular monster that sees them in different environments than Whovians are used to while still keeping their roots as villains of logic and survival. Some of the subtle means they use are extremely effective in making their presence known and there are some moments where even the Doctor’s survival is questioned as they manage to get the better of him in more ways than one.

Of course, being an audio novel rather than an audio drama, all of this lacks a good chunk of the excitement that a full-cast adventure such as Marc Platt’s stellar TDA ‘Tyrants of Logic’ naturally employs. Thankfully, the audio boasts the amazing Jon Culshaw backed by Nicholas Briggs as the necessary vocals to back things up here. Culshaw’s voice continues to be wonderful to listen to with a passion and edge fitting of the best narrators and performers of the format and his Third Doctor is once again stellar in energy and character even though the narration around it means that it sort of blends into the background after a while. His imitation of Sarah Jane Smith as played by Elisabeth Sladen is a bit harder to visualise side, which is a problem considering a good chunk of the narrative is Sarah’s story from the get-go. She is the one who gets the plot in motion and gets most of the interesting side threads, particularly in seeing her reaction to the titular monsters and even getting a small potential connection with one of the side characters. Her sense of empathy plays a huge role in the story in multiple ways especially once the Doctor is affected by the course of the plot himself and the focus on her increases exponentially in the narrative as she takes charge while the Time Lord is working in quarantine from a devastating internal threat that takes up a good chunk of the plot.

“Scourge of the Cybermen” ends up being an admirable start to a new range of Big Finish stories that take a more audiobook-based approach to storytelling compared to most of the company’s standard output. It does take a little bit of adjusting to if you are more used to hearing company’s usual work. The elongated plotline stretched out over the extended length is not as interesting as the amazing title might imply. However, the production team, backed by Simon Guerrier’s writing and Jon Culshaw’s performance, largely accomplish the purpose that they have set out to do. The little accentuations and touches such as, true to the era effects and sounds, do wonders in making it far more than the usual audiobook listening experience one might be expecting. It’s not an overly stellar Who story at its core, but fans of more traditional audiobooks will most likely be very happy while fans used to the full-cast audios will definitely find their way with patience and steady time devoted to it. It is a commitment to get through but one that will reward you provided you give it the dedicated attention it requires and it’s a firm and solid place to start for more adventures to come in the new range.

— 8 / 10

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