Doctor Who: Spare Parts Revisited
Big Finish's classic Fifth Doctor and Cybermen tale turns twelve this year.
When it comes to Doctor Who, few monsters are quite as iconic as the Cybermen, the half-human/half-machine race originally hailing from Earth's long lost twin planet Mondas.
Despite their origin being known, what led to their creation had long been a mystery. That was until Spare Parts came along. Written by Marc Platt and first released by Big Finish Productions in the summer of 2002, this audio drama featuring Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor became something of an instant classic upon release and later served as the inspiration for the two-part TV story Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel for David Tennant's Tenth Doctor in 2006.
What is it about this story that has given such a high status among fans of the series?
Part of it is certainly the characters and the cast's performances. Peter Davison gives what might very well be his single best performance as the Fifth Doctor that sees him going from a proverbial innocent abroad who is reluctant to take part in events but who becomes more and more involved, as he tries to change history for the better.
Spurring him on is companion Nyssa, played to perfection by Sarah Sutton, whose friendship with the Hartley family makes her force the Doctor to take that journey. Never before had the pair had a better scene than that in part two where the two have a confrontation about what they should or shouldn’t do about the situation they’ve landed in. Spare Parts was to become a defining story for one of classic Who's most underrated TARDIS crews.
Yet for the strength of the TARDIS team, the emotional heart of the story may well lie in the supporting cast who brings to life pre-Cybermen Mondas. We see this frozen little world and its underground population largely through the eyes of the aforementioned Hartley family as played by Paul Copley (as the Dad), Kathryn Guck (as Yvonne), and Jim Hartley (as Frank).
The three have a strong and believable family dynamic between the widower father trying to hold things together, the optimistic but sickly daughter and the younger brother who, due to his sister being favorite, has a tendency to lash out and be impatient. This is a family that on the whole is trying to remain hopeful in a world fast running out of hope and who ultimately find themselves being ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
There’s more to Mondas than that just one family, though. On the other side of the spectrum is Darren Nesbit (who appeared in the now lost First Doctor TV story Marco Polo) as the shady but cowardly spare body parts dealer Thomas Dodd, a man who seems to be thriving on the pain and suffering of others.
In a more official capacity are Doctorman Allan (Sally Knyvette who is best known for her role in the iconic 1970s BBC sci-fi series Blake's 7) and Sisterman Constance (Pamela Binns), who are converting “recruits” drawn from the underground city into the first Cybermen. It is through these characters especially that we can glimpse the misery, desperation and at times downright selfishness that will ultimately be responsible for the emotionless hell that will soon be unleashed.
And then there's the Cybermen, voiced across the board by Nicholas Briggs (who now voices them in Doctor Who's revived TV incarnation to boot). Spare Parts takes the Cybermen back to their roots, allowing the Doctor and listener alike to encounter them in their early days with the cloth faces and sing-song voices used in their debut TV appearance five decades ago now.
Yet Briggs' delivery and Platt's script takes what might be laughable on screen and turns it into something with horrific meanings and consequences.
There is also the Central Committee who runs the city and whose voices, being more akin to those heard in later 1960s Cybermen stories than those of the cloth-faced Cybermen in this story, hint at the Cyber-Controllers and Cyber-Planners that appeared in those stories. The overall combination allows fans a glimpse into the Cybermen’s past, present and future all in the space of right around two hours of audio drama.
All of which comes from one place: Marc Platt's script. Platt, of course, wrote for Doctor Who in the latter days of its original TV run and had already penned a couple of novels before coming to Big Finish. Yet, nothing Platt had written before was quite on the same level of this story with its compelling blend of science fiction and drama in a story that asks one of the most basic questions of human nature: how far would we go to survive?
In many ways, Platt's script tells a story that is as old as history and one that Doctor Who touched upon in its 'pure historical' days under the First Doctor in The Aztecs: a story a civilization on the verge of collapse desperate to survive by any means possible.
That 1964 historical story saw a proud and ancient civilization in something of a time of crisis and allowing human sacrifices to appease their gods and ensure their continued survival.
What is happening on Mondas isn’t really far removed from that as Sisterman Constance go around picking out the “recruits” that Doctorman Allan will use saws and laser scalpels to augment their bodies before removing emotions and inserting cold logic in an attempt to ensure the continued survival of this particular civilization. As Doctorman Allan puts it to Constance at one point rather pointedly:
“We live in a pit, Constance. The dark times are getting darker.”
Further more, the horror of what is happening is perhaps played up by Platt's choice of how to depict the pre-Cybermen Mondas. Platt's Mondas very much feels like much of 1940s and 1950s Britain with television, a “keep calm and carry on” wartime attitude that Thomas Hartley puts forward, Yvonne’s job as effectively a Land Girl,the newsreel like sequence that opens the story, and Frank’s push to “join up” before the “call-up papers” arrive.
There’s even a form of Christmas that, when it’s explained, makes sense in the context. There's even little references that further enforce this as well including references to the rise of the Central Committee and a neat play on the phone call made by President Nixon to the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969. Platt's script then follows in a tradition of British sci-fi that dates back in many ways to the likes of H.G. Wells in grounding the extraordinary in the mundane and doing so to great effect.
Yet for all the darkness, there is something that is perhaps overlooked in that this is really a story about hope, if at times a very and deeply misguided sense of hope.
The Doctor’s actions throughout the story reveal his hope that perhaps the people of Mondas can change their seemingly inevitable fate, a hope that Nyssa too shares when she becomes determined to get the Doctor further and further involved.
Even the varying antagonists of the story are also acting out of hope for the future from Doctorman Allan's firmly held belief that the Cybermen represent the best hope to help accomplish a major goal only to discover that, Frankenstein-fashion, her own creations have plans of their own that include her very destruction.
Even the Central Committee, with its decisions that might ultimately doom Mondas, is trying to do the right thing as it sees it. Platt and his script reminds us of the truth in the old expression about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
As a result of all of these elements, Spare Parts has more than earned its place as a Doctor Who classic. It has often been said that science fiction as a genre often has a unique ability to entertain its audience while also making them think. A dozen years on from its original release, there are few examples that prove that point as well as Spare Parts.
Doctor Who: Spare Parts is currently available for $2.99 on download through the Big Finish Productions website. There is also a limited edition Vinyl version of the story available.
About the Creator
Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first novel Our Man on the Hill was published by Sea Lion Press in 2021.
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.