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Since I have to wait an extra day for Amazon Prime to upload new TV eps, I liveblogged Spare Parts on Saturday.

Spare Parts CD cover

It's easier to embed images on Tumblr, but it's got a terrible filing system, plus it's not as suited to fandom discussion as DW. So I'm gonna tidy/archive my liveblog here. Because Spare Parts is a great story, and I love it. Much more fun reading commentary about why something's interesting, right?

If you don't own it (it's $3 on the BF website,), here’s Spare Parts Streaming on Spotify. You’ll need to register an email/password, but when I registered, they didn’t even make me click a verification email before I could start listening.

Ready? Ready! Here we go.

Live Blog of Doctor Who: SPARE PARTS
Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa)

Then and now:

Warning: I'm an unabashed fan of these two, thanks to their great audio stories. Spare Parts is one where they shine.

It was written by Marc Platt, who penned the script for classic Who Ghost Light (Seventh Doctor & Ace), the controversial out-of-print novel Lungbarrow, and many excellent audios from Auld Mortality (Unbound / AU in which the Doctor and Susan remain on Gallifrey) to Butcher of Brisbane.

He’s not afraid to trailblaze and expand the Doctor Who universe with bold, dramatic stories. He’s created significant new chunks of canon (some of it controversial) for Gallifrey and the Cybermen, Weng-Chiang and the Rani, Eldrad and the Mara.

So, no surprise that Big Finish gave him the daunting job of writing, essentially, the Cybermen equivalent of Genesis of the Daleks. His Spare Parts was the thirty-fourth Main Range audio Big Finish recorded, way back in 2002. It's been voted one of the two best Who audios by fans, and was released in April on limited-edition collector's vinyl. With sweet new cover art:

I'm going to link to Spotify tracks as I go along, adding the old track titles because they add something to the story.

Part 1: "Surfacing"

Funny to hear the old 1970s theme, a sure sign it's vintage Big Finish from before they got the rights to all the Doctors' themes.

Speaking of vintage, the cold open sounds incredibly retro, from static and tinny pops to the patriotic bombast of a government official making a historic “phonecall” with a “crewman,” a deliberate echo of President Nixon's phone call to the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Classic Who is of course delightfully retro by now. So is the original idea of Mondas, Earth’s lost twin, a common trope in early SF. Star Trek did “twin Earths” as well. Nowadays, having another planet like Earth right down to the inverted geography and culture seems ridiculously implausible, but it’s also wonderfully spooky, a bizarre Twilight Zone AU version of us. ["You will become like us," the ominous Cyber-motto going back to their introduction in The Tenth Planet.]

So this cold open immediately establishes this weird 1960s culture where instead of it being the first moon landing, it’s the first ever voyage to the surface of the planet. Which is a cool and creepy concept.

And then the screaming starts.

This cold open is one of the few bits of Spare Parts I don't entirely follow: was it a live broadcast? In which case, wouldn’t the citizens of Mondas know something went horribly wrong? (Maybe they did).

Then the scene cuts to the Doctor and Nyssa (finally). Nyssa’s reading out an old movie poster which sounds more like a 1950s SF matinee. Perhaps the opening is a clip from that movie, a “tawdry” (as the Doctor says) fictional version of what really happened when the Committee sent somebody to the surface of Mondas. It's safe to tell the people if it's framed as a horror movie? Hm.

The Doctor's got a bad feeling he knows where they are, so he goes all flippant-human, whistling in the dark to try and keep Nyssa innocent of the danger. Oh, Five, you're not fooling anyone. "Can we go now?"

The great thing about this Doctor-companion team is they’re both nonhumans, both from advanced civilizations, so they take alien planets in stride: both of them find humans a bit primitive, and Nyssa finds them perplexing. But she knows enough about Earth to realize the Doctor's lying, and they're not really in London. Unlike Adric and Tegan, Nyssa challenges his BS with diplomatic tact and gentle teasing, so he never gets squeaky-angry with her.

Well, almost never.

“And I used to be such a good liar” he mutters as they part ways. Not with that face, Doc!

Four minutes in, the Doctor and companion are separated. As always happens in Big Finish. Sigh. (An Achilles’ heel of audios: can’t have too many characters in a scene at once, so the TARDIS team splits up to cover more story and interact with more locals. Which makes sense, but I miss Doctor/Companion interactions as they explore together.) 

The fact that the Doctor's telling Nyssa not to get involved— when he always gets involved— is a bad, bad sign.

Track 1.2 - “Building a better one

Time to meet our Mondasian family that's gonna stand in as the representatives of their planet for this story: sickly Yvonne Hartley and her folksy dad Mr. Hartley. I’m a silly American who can’t tell which particular working-class accent they’ve got: my brain says “Glasgow,” but knowing how bad my ear is, they’re probably not even Scottish. Anyway, they’re appealling characters.

Mat-catcher, instead of rat-catcher: if you know classic Who well you’ll recognize the sound of Cybermats, but I didn’t— I came to Who during the Pertwee years— so I was discovering this world one horrible bit at a time along with Nyssa.

Yay, Big Finish. Nyssa gets to do more in the first ten minutes of this story than she did for whole serials on TV.

She jumps in to save Yvonne’s dad from being squashed. The Doctor usually chooses companions who are compulsive do-gooders as much as he is, but Nyssa has an especially acute case of it. Gets her into trouble in the audios, which emphasize it more (basically taking her behavior at the end of Terminus as her default approach to anyone's suffering).

First scare.

She’s got basic medical training, realizes Mr. Hartley’s heart’s stopped, and starts to break the news to Yvonne as gently as she can. EXCEPT IT HASN’T. Huh?

Every scene in Part I is telegraphing that something is off, something horrible is happening here, from poor Yvonne with a consumptive cough (tuberculosis; diseases like this were more common in the 50s and 60s before we had the vaccines we do today), to the curfew bells and Mr. Hartley's fear of the police and authorities.

The Hartleys railroad Nyssa into coming with them for her own safety. Oh great. This is Doctor Who. That means NO SAFETY WHATSOEVER.

Track 1.3: “Business as Usual”

Oh, innocent Five, trying so hard to be a casual space tourist while his inner Cloister Bell is ringing off the hook. He's still not sure it's Mondas. He can't leave without knowing— same thing that got them into trouble in Primeval.

He meets the disreputable shop owner Thomas Dodd, black market purveyor of organ transplants and "spare parts," so now we know what the story's name refers to.  Dodd is played by Derren Nesbitt, and he’s a classic shifty rogue. Great character actor. (IMdB says he played Tegana all the way back in Marco Polo, first Doctor serial.)

Five goes into his usual blithering idiot mode while pumping for info. ("I have often been called an idiot.") He's still acting optimistic, sort of. It’s always hard to tell when he’s in denial even to himself, vs trying to maintain a chipper outlook because he can't afford to panic.

There’s some funny little Fifth Doctor asides in this scene, played so feather-light and yet, like everything else in this audio, they're chilling subtext.

E.g. Dodd starts grilling him about his identity papers, ration book (now we’re back in 1950s London again, post WWII when things were pretty grim)…

“Got any family?”
“Lost them, too, very careless of me…” Oh, DOCTOR. (By this time the novel of Cold Fusion was out, just to make matters worse.)

And when Dodd is sounding him out as a possible organ donor, voluntary or otherwise, the Doctor quips modestly of his current body, “just something I go about in.” Which of course goes right over Dodd’s head.

Real world problems tackled in SF parable: black market organ harvesting/resale for those denied medical care.

“Tell me, Mr. Dodd. Tell me about the city.” The Doctor finally drops his idiot act, and you can hear his voice harden. He's still pretending (?) not to notice Dodd's designs on his body, or at least his organs. Ah, yes, Doctor, you pick the nicest places to visit!

Back at the Hartley's flat, Nyssa meets Yvonne’s grumpy brother Frank and the disagreeable “Sisterman Constant” who’s nominally a social worker (or charity worker from the nuns), but in fact she's spying on citizens for the police. Frank whines at Sisterman Constance, hoping to get a “callup”. Some sort of glamorous army job, maybe? He's been swallowing propaganda on the telly.

When Constant starts grilling Nyssa, she reaches down and pulls out a can of aristocratic/diplomatic whupass, sending Constant storming off in a huff. Making Nyssa into Yvonne's new best friend.

Mr Hartley refers to his "chest unit," jokes about playing it like an accordion— old classic Who joke. (Peter Capaldi draws Mondasian cybermen playing an accordion.)  But it’s no joke: Hartley brushed off Constant's offer to have his arm seen to, because he can't afford healthcare. Gee, that sounds familiar.

Not privvy to this whole discussion, Nyssa tries to leave to get back to the Doctor, but they tell her it’s not safe to be outside. OKAY YES WE GET IT THIS PLACE IS DANGEROUS. *ratchet up tension* Doctor, you can come back any time now. It's a sign of his respect for Nyssa that he trusts her to handle herself by now, but still, ack. 

Track 1.4 - “Civil/Domestic Disturbances”

Nyssa, such a disreputable and suspicious character that nuns are reporting her to the police. You've come a long way since your innocent days on Traken, kiddo. 

Above: Lee Sullivan illustration for Spare Parts in Doctor Who Magazine. A lot of the early BFs received DWM teasers like this, back when they were the only new Doctor Who dramas. There was a lot of overlap between people working on DWM and Big Finish (e.g. editor/executive producer Gary Russell).

Here's that iconic scene when the Fifth Doctor gets his first look at a very early prototypical Cyber policeman, who is more like a zombie with some implants than the sleek robots that Cybermen are today. Of course, Mondas would have something creepy instead of Bobbies. The cyber-implant horse is an original touch of horror. Since both it and its rider are sort of walking corpses animated by cyber implants, the effect is to look like Death. Except that horse ain't Binky.

This was the first time I’d ever heard that eerie singsong voice of the original Cybermen, courtesy of Nick Briggs. At first it sounds goofy. But as time goes on, it becomes more creepy than a monotone, because it sounds childish and almost cheerful while saying the most ominous things.

And the Doctor, bless him, is so busy making observations and exploring that he doesn’t realize how much danger he’s in until the Cyberman attacks him for not complying (police brutality, this is sadly NOT retro but modern).

Pete’s specialty is agony acting. Just warming up here; he’ll have more opportunities later.

A bit of choice Fifth Doctor sass.
"Stand up."
“I was standing up before you knocked me down. Thank you, officer.” (Five often uses “thank you” rather sarcastically when he’s irritated.)

And of course this is the Fifth Doctor, so he wriggles out of trouble by pulling random things from his pockets. The hands-on approach, none of this magic wand/sonic waving.

Back to the Hartleys, and they sound like any real squabbling family. Except Frank’s homework is “logic and cybernetics,” which I don't think is exactly Sixth Form. Nyssa offers to help him with his homework, not realizing that some gents get dreadfully hung up about women in STEM. Frank shoos her off angrily.

Thwarted from helping Frank, she gives Mr. Hartley’s artificial heart a free tuneup instead. The Doctor really needs tech-savvy alien companions more often (one good thing about Nardole).

Another hint of Nazi Germany (or Soviet Russia, or Orwell, or any other totalitarian dystopia): there's a neighbor crying for help outside, but rather than aid her as Nyssa is desperate to do, the Hartleys just turn up the television to block out the sound so they can’t have their conscience troubled when the police haul her away.


RECOMMENDED FANART: Mondas by Janjygiggens on DeviantArt

Track 1.5 - “Change and Decay”

The Hartleys haul out their holiday tree — again, implausible Earth parallels, but properly spooky Twilight Zone stuff. Like everything else on Mondas, it’s threadbare, worn out, and macabre.

“You’ll be glad to get back to your family for the holidays!”
Nyssa (gorgeous bit of voice acting from Sarah): “Yes. I’d really like that.”  Ouch.

Nyssa lost her father and her whole planet. That's a subtle motivation for her compassion, and it's woven through this story very nicely.

Nice backstory tidbit: she describes a harvest festival on her home planet vaguely reminiscent of Saturnalia, in which Consuls and commoners swap roles for a day. Again, Big Finish takes the time classic Who often didn't to give companions more depth after their intro story.

And yet more worldbuilding– The Cybermats which were such a PITA in classic Who are revealed to be children’s toys! And yep, of course Nyssa has to fix it, not realizing how dangerous they are (or how horrible, if you’ve heard the Benny story suggesting they’re cyber-converted babies).

Okay that's too many nice moments. Time for the Doctor to get into horrible trouble.

Dodd’s still trailing the Doctor hoping to case him for spare parts, but then they find out what’s happening under cover of curfew. The Cybermen are bodysnatchers, robbing the graveyard of its bones (later there's a hint the Committee feeds on them). Even Dodd is shaken out of his cynicism for a moment of outrage— although like so many people complaining about the system, he doesn't want to have to  DO anything about it.

Track 1.6 - “Ask Not”

While Nyssa and Yvonne are playing with the 'mat, Frank whines to his Dad about wanting to join the work crews, get better pay, and be in on the action when they break through to the surface. ("I don't wanna go to Toshi station!") So apparently Frank didn't hear that broadcast that opened the audio with a surface crewman screaming. Also, he says he just wants to see the sky, something Allan will pick up on later. Odd they still remember sky, snow, forests on the surface when they have to have been down here for thousands of years.

Yvonne Hartley and her dad have been kind and hospitable to Nyssa, but Frank isn't so gracious: he blurts out angrily that they’ve been feeding her rations purchased by selling Mrs. Hartley’s body (to Dodd, we learn later).
Talk about guilting a guest and making them feel ashamed. Nyssa is horrified, and promises to bring them food to make up for it. Dad and daughter try to stop her, but “I’m putting you all in danger… I can look after myself.” Again, more proactive than she was on TV, where she was almost always the Doctor’s sidekick.

Just in time; she flees the house just as the police are knocking on the front door. Whoops! She takes the cybermat as a gift! Watch out, Nyssa, they bite. (Or is that leap for the neck like a giant maggot?)

The Hartleys are ightly tortured in their own home by the police. It's a scary, horrible world, the more so because it’s like real-world places where the government can haul off anybody.

By the old church, Dodd and the Doc are still spying on the bodysnatchers. Thee Doctor tries to persuade Dodd to DO SOMETHING to stop the Cybermen (since he needs the natives to change history, not him.) it’s too much for Dodd; he doesn’t want any trouble. He runs away, more interested in saving his skin than his city.

The Doctor’s giving the people of Mondas a wake-up call: he can't change their history, but they can. He sets the church bells ringing and then slips back to the TARDIS. They sound very odd; not really much like church bells, but okay. They do the trick: people converge on the church and turn into an angry mob when they see the graves being raided.

The Doctor and Nyssa manage to meet at the TARDIS, and this is the point where they should LEAVE, and the Doctor knows it.

Cue impassioned scene between Doctor and Nyssa, where they compare notes about their discoveries. Nyssa, smart cookie, figured out they were at the genesis of the Cybermen from Mr. Hartley's chest unit. She's angry, horrified, knowing this is the place where Adric's murderers were first created.

Now they have a very VERY rare argument. Nyssa wants to stay and help. The Doctor insists they can’t; too much of the history of the universe hinges on the creation of the Cybermen for them to interfere with it. He didn’t want to get involved. He still doesn't wanna. (He may also be reluctant to expose Nyssa to the danger that killed Adric.)  AND HE IS RIGHT; this is one time they should never have dropped in. Except it's already too late.

DOO WEE OOO. I love me classic Who cliffhangers.

And four-act structure. Act One: setting the stage before all hell breaks loose. Part I cliffhanger is the point of no return; the Doctor and Nyssa have inadvertently pushed Mondas into a tipping point, stirring up resistance which will lead to a brutal crackdown (and, ultimately, more cyber-conversions). Whoops.
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July 2017

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