Image Credit: Big Finish (Fair Use)
Image Description: The cover of Scourge of the Cybermen
By Will Shaw
In the annals of science fiction publishing, there are few subgenres as contested as the Doctor Who novel. With origins stretching back to 1964, barely a year after the show itself started, for much of the twentieth century these were largely straight novelisations of television stories. At the start of the 90s, however, with the TV show cancelled and a generation of talented fans champing at the bit to create, original prose narratives became the main vehicle for the series. These new adventures, published by Virgin Books and later BBC Books, defined much of what we now think of as standard Doctor Who. Contributors including Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, and Russell T Davies would go on to successfully revive the TV show in 2005, and other writers like Kate Orman, Ben Aaronovitch, Lawrence Miles, and Paul Magrs pushed the series in bold and fantastical new directions.
But with the television revival came a sea change in the Doctor Who novels. The increased scrutiny from an image-conscious BBC meant they were no longer a place for wild experimentation, nor a place where a sharp up-and-comer could publish their first book. Instead they became a space for rote reinforcement of ‘The Brand’, largely dominated by those 90s and early 2000s authors who hadn’t managed to break out more widely. While the post-2005 BBC Books has produced some interesting work by writers like Naomi Alderman, Juno Dawson, and David Solomons, the name of the game has mostly been stagnation. (At least in the original novels; the original short stories and revived novelisation series have been much livelier). These days, it seems even BBC Books isn’t into it; in 2020 it quietly abandoned its line of original novels featuring the Thirteenth Doctor, pivoting instead to the maze of impenetrable fanwank that was Time Lord Victorious.
Into this climate of apathy steps Big Finish Productions, with its new line, The Audio Novels. Big Finish, while equally dominated by 90s mediocrities as the book series, has a fairly good track record with its prose offerings. The Companion Chronicles and Short Trips lines have reliably provided compelling and well-produced Doctor Who stories, and have been marginally better at introducing fresh talent. Their formats lend themselves to unique and experimental takes on Doctor Who, sidestepping some of the awkwardness of Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays. Plus, they’ve been lucky enough to attract some of the best writing talent in the Doctor Who spin-off world, including Ian Atkins, Una McCormack, and the author of this newest offering, Simon Guerrier.
Guerrier is an interesting choice for this first audio novel. One of the last authors under the wire before Doctor Who books became a completely closed shop, he has a flexible and inventive style which has served him particularly well in the Companion Chronicles range. For Scourge of the Cybermen, that style is turned to a rather difficult question: how to launch a new series of Doctor Who novels from the fundamentally conservative position of modern spin-off media? The result is a solid and entertaining thriller, but one that feels just a bit too timid to launch this new format.
We open in medias res, with the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane helping out a deep sea base in the far future, a whole city of scientists working to mitigate the effects of pollution. Being a base in a classic-flavoured Doctor Who story, it’s not long before it finds itself under siege. The death of a crew member is put down a strange new radiation sickness, and the base’s internal politics exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile the Cybermen, rusted and dilapidated from years underwater, are stealing power from the base, waiting for their moment to strike.
OK, so it’s not the most original premise in Doctor Who history, but a story like this should be judged by what its premise allows it build. In this case, an example of the old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts science fiction that the TV show did in the 70s. The opening scene is a conversation between the Doctor and a group of scientists, and Sarah Jane sets the story in motion by noticing a problem with the lights. That technically-minded, problem-solving spirit animates the rest of the story, which features numerous bits of exciting futuristic technology and plenty of cleverness involving computer screens and data processing.
But for all its old-fashioned vibes, this feels like a story informed by the present moment. Once the radiation sickness becomes public knowledge, the citizens begin wearing protective hoods, and a paranoid atmosphere pervades the base. After living through the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns, Sarah Jane’s feeling that “it was exhausting, being alert and yet nothing actually happening” hits all the harder. Her later indignance at a lack of protective suits (“Stealing protective gear in the middle of a crisis!”) distinctly echoes the issue of PPE availability at the height of the pandemic, and the government’s failure to provide adequate protection for healthcare workers.
This dread-filled atmosphere is aided by a crisp and adroit production. Steve Foxon’s score is spare but impactful where it counts, with some wonderfully crunchy, metallic sounds underscoring the Cybermen in action. Nicholas Briggs’s Cybermen voices are solid as ever, and his inhuman cries as the rusted monsters struggle to speak are particularly unsettling. But it is Jon Culshaw’s narration which truly impresses. Best known as an impressionist with the Dead Ringers troupe, Culshaw proves a strong dramatic narrator, able to sell the tension and claustrophobia of the novel’s corridor-creeping sequences even without help from the soundscape. All of this adds up to an effective showcase for Guerrier’s novel, which like much of classic Doctor Who is stronger at creating a chilly ambience than outright scares.
The strongest moments revolve around the base’s processing room. Depicted on Claudia Gironi’s striking cover, one of the lower levels is given over to “a vast field of sunflowers” steeped in oily water. These sunflowers process oxygen for the rest of the base, a striking hybrid of natural beauty and a grungy, industrial setting. This chamber proves to be the Cybermen’s base of operations, and there is some effective horror in the initial sequences of metal soldiers emerging from the depths. But the novel’s best scene comes later on, as the radiation sickness scares some members of the base into queuing up for cyber-conversion. There is a gorgeous bit of black comedy as Sarah Jane shows up to dissuade the new recruits, many of them less than keen on cyber-conversion, but more worried about losing their place in the queue. A very British apocalypse.
But for all these strengths, there are moments when the novel falters. Much noise is made in the early sections about ordinary civilian life on the base. There’s even a nicely cruel scene where cafe owner Denzil reflects on the lives of his customers, only for the narrator to intone: “He… felt sure they had a future. He was wrong. They didn’t. And neither did he.” Yet after a brief follow-up scene, this thread is simply dropped. We don’t find out if Denzil died in the Cybermen’s attack or was even converted himself. There’s a somewhat over-egged twist about the base’s security chief being part of an undercover unit of “Cyber Hunters,” and though the novel gives us a couple of flashback scenes we never really get a sense of who they are, or of what “The Code” they all pledge themselves to actually is.
The pacing also leaves something to be desired. It takes a solid hour and a half for the Doctor and Sarah Jane to actually meet a Cyberman, and the novel as a whole is oddly structured. Instead of chapters, the book is divided up into six “parts” of between 60 and 90 minutes. Not only is this unwieldy, with individual parts being too long to comfortably fit into one sitting, it results in some cliffhangers feeling arbitrary, as the narrative has to artificially stop every 10,000 words or so.
Scourge of the Cybermen is not a novel of bold new directions, but of well-executed traditionalism. As such, there is a lot to enjoy here, but it feels like a questionable choice to begin a whole new line of Doctor Who stories. The novel’s imperfections could be forgiven if it were willing to push the format a bit more; pieces of flawed genius are how the show progresses. But as it is, they just drag a decent story down to average, rather than keeping a great story from being transcendent. For all that it has going for it, Scourge of the Cybermen is a curiously tepid launch: a first instalment that gives the listener little reason to stick around for the next one.