‘Doctor Who – Spare Parts’ revisited

❉ One of the best Doctor Who stories of all time gets a retro re-release.

Spare Parts is a bundle of incongruities. Despite an overwhelming streak of menace, there are no true villains to be found. Though firmly immersed in the backstory of ‘classic Doctor Who‘, it inspired one of the more significant reinventions of the program’s 21st century revival. And while depicting the origins of the Cybermen is seemingly one of the most obvious roads Big Finish could have traveled in their Doctor Who range, it’s made with a level of skill and insight – with Marc Platt’s excellent script as its focal point – that transcends any checklist-driven exercise in retroactive continuity.

Now Big Finish has added one more item to that list, giving this dramatic exploration of humanity being overwhelmed by technological advances a decidedly retro re-release. Spare Parts, which for the past few years has only been available as a digital download, is now available as a limited edition vinyl version. Thanks to a quirk of that throwback medium, the cliché about re-issues making you see a piece of work in a whole new light actually rings true here.

Since the 30-minute running times of the original episodes pushes the limits of what a vinyl album accommodates on each side, the story has been re-edited into six parts of roughly 20 minutes each. The impact of this very practical and understandable change might not register for someone coming to the story fresh. However, it will be quite noticeable to listeners already familiar with the original release, because it affects one of Doctor Who’s most fundamental elements – the cliffhanger. In the same way that the dynamics within a multi-part story can feel off when viewed in an omnibus version without episode breaks, having cliffhangers fall at points where they clearly weren’t intended gives the action in this presentation of Spare Parts an inconsistent ebb and flow.

Consequently, while the vinyl version is an attractive keepsake and the new retrospective documentary is very interesting, the original release remains the definitive listening experience. It also definitively belongs on any list of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. The success of the 2005 revival somewhat obscures the fact that when Spare Parts was released 15 years ago, there wasn’t an overwhelming sense that Doctor Who had a real future.

‘Spare Parts’ original CD cover design by Clayton Hickman (Image: BBC/Big Finish)

That’s not a knock on the Big Finish dramas, the BBC novels or any other “wilderness years” narrative strands, which all yielded some excellent stories. Nevertheless, even the ones featuring the 8th Doctor often represented a dialogue with the program’s past rather than a new direction. This is neatly illustrated by the two stories that bookended Spare Parts in Big Finish’s release calendar. Despite chronicling further adventures of Paul McGann’s Doctor, Neverland was too enmeshed in the established lore of the Time Lords for the underlying drama to resonate fully, while …ish was simply another nice installment in the ongoing project to reclaim the reputation of Colin Baker’s Doctor. For all their merits neither story seemed especially forward-looking at the time, let alone in retrospect. (Some will point to Neverland as introducing the companion-fancying-the-Doctor trope, but that’s arguably just foregrounding an element that already existed as subtext.)

Being the prequel to a landmark story from decades earlier, Spare Parts obviously has its fair share of throwbacks, down to the pitch-perfect recreation of the Cybermen voices from The Tenth Planet. In this instance, though, the ongoing conversation with the Doctor Who canon was contributing to the development of a new dialect, one that wasn’t afraid of pushing the characters’ emotional limits. Like the New Adventures novels (to which Platt also contributed), events might have planetary – or even universal – implications, but there’s no doubt that the stakes are personal. Even when the dialogue takes a philosophical turn, as in this scene between the Doctor and Nyssa, they’re clearly more than just abstract musings.

Doctor: I think I’d rather lose all my other lives then become a Cyberman.

Nyssa: The people I met were actually very kind.

Doctor: Yes, yes, I’m sure. But you must see…the infinity of time and space is all laid out like a huge game of consequences. Sometimes you play, sometimes you sit on the sideline, sometimes you run on afterwards with a stretcher.

Nyssa: Yes, we’ve had this discussion before…a pity that didn’t occur to you when it came to sacrificing Adric.

Doctor: Ah… Yes… Adric. So much that never gets said. Bound to boil over sooner or later.

The pairing of Peter Davison as the Doctor with Sarah Sutton as Nyssa here was key to fostering a sense of something new in the storytelling. Unlike Colin Baker’s Doctor with Nicola Bryant as Peri or other well-established TARDIS teams, the relative lack of screen-time for Davison and Sutton on their own limited preconceptions about the duo’s dynamic. This gave the actors and production team alike freedom to create an era that never was but really should have been. Other Big Finish releases, such as last month’s Alien Heart/Dalek Soul, have continued on this path, but the heart of it can be found in Spare Parts.

The balance of the intimate and the epic is doubtless one reason why the story caught Russell T. Davies’ attention when he wanted to bring back the Cybermen on the TV series. And while Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel goes off in radically different directions – especially the introduction of a Davros-like figure, which Marc Platt had consciously avoided – it shows more fidelity to its audio antecedent than it’s generally given credit for. Even with the significant shifts made during the scripting stage, an aspect discussed in the vinyl release’s retrospective piece, some key story beats of Spare Parts still found their way into its notional TV adaptation. From the TARDIS power problems that force the travelers to stay on a world that’s simultaneously similar to and unlike the Earth they know to the way Lumic’s transformation into the Cyberleader echoes Sisterman Constant’s forcible upgrade, the genetic testing shows at least some familial relationship.

If nothing else, however different the end result was, the processing of Spare Parts into a TV episode is a potent reminder of the role Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories played in keeping the program alive prior to 2005. More to the point, it demonstrates the role Big Finish played in its evolution. With Doctor Who still an ongoing concern on television and Big Finish now incorporating elements from the revived series, the cross pollination between the Big Finish line and the television mothership is quite different than it was 15 years ago. It’s been undeniable fun to hear River Song play off of Paul McGann’s Doctor in the Doom Coalition series, but there’s an equally undeniable nostalgia for a decade ago when the faithful were rewarded for their years in the wilderness by seeing some of their icons recast onscreen. Then again, the current TV series features the return of the Mondas Cybermen. The agony and ecstasy of being a Doctor Who fan are often one and the same.

❉ Released April 22 2017, ‘Spare Parts (Limited Vinyl Edition)’ is exclusive to the Big Finish website.

❉ Originally released July 2002, ‘Doctor Who – Spare Parts’ is available to download from the Big Finish website. 

For more on the real-life origins of the Cybermen, click here to read our article on Kit Pedler, creator the Cybermen, written by Pedler’s biographer Michael Seely.

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