In their continuing mission to resurrect lost Doctor Who scripts Big Finish have turned their attention to a story that did actually make it to the screen. Well, at least in a way. Return of the Cybermen is the story that after some heavy revision would become Revenge of the Cybermen, the silver giants only appearance on screen in the seventies. What Big Finish have done here though is take the original Gerry Davis script (adapted here by the writing force of nature that is John Dorney) and given us an insight to what we could have had.
The cynical amongst us may ask, what is the point? We have the transmitted story after all. But one listen tells us that there are many reasons beneath the surface that we may not expect. There are stark differences between what we saw and what we hear here. Gone are the Vogans, replaced instead with asteroid miners, seemingly Galsec colonists, at least originally. Gone is the Cybermen’s rocket ship. Instead they are the enemy within, already aboard and lurking within the bones of Nerva. The all male cast has now disappeared too. We get actual female characters other than Sarah, something that remains one of the few failings of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era. We still keep Warner, Kellman, Lester and the commander Stevenson, but the crew have an additional member, Anitra. (Played by Amanda Shodeko).
I think there is a bigger part for Return of the Cybermen to play however, and that is to bring back Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan, the fourth Doctors first travelling companions. Of course both Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter have passed away, so Big Finish have taken the always risky option of recasting. This is something they have done several times before now with the likes of Tim Treloar, Jon Culshaw, the cast of an Adventure in Space and Time, Elliot Chapman and Daisy Ashford all bringing loved characters back to life. Recasting has always been controversial within the fandom. We see beyond the characters and attach our affections as much to the actors who bought them to life as the part they played, and none more so than Sarah Jane Smith and Elisabeth Sladen.
Here however Big Finish have struck on gold in asking Sadie Miller, Lis’ daughter to step into the part made famous by her mum. Now, I’m sure she will be the first to admit she is not an ‘impressionist’ and indeed at times she doesn’t sound exactly like the Sarah Jane we know so well. But what she does do is bring her mothers spirit to the part. There are moments where Lis shines through in Sadie’s performance, while she herself makes the part her own. I really feel that this is the start of a beautiful working relationship between her and the company that will allow for more Sarah Jane stories for years to come.
In the casting of Christopher Naylor as Harry Sullivan Big Finish have taken the option of a closer impression which balances with Sadie in the same way Ian and Lis did all those years ago. I’ve always liked Harry, one of the more overlooked companions, and hearing him bought back to life so expertly makes me a happy old Doctor Who fan.
It seems that the addition of Miller and Naylor to ‘team Tom’ seems to have invigorated Baker too. He sounds so young here, revitalised and energised. We cant escape the fact of Tom Bakers age, and you can’t always hide that, especially on audio, but he honestly sounds thirty years younger here.
These aren’t the only recreations on display here though. Nick Briggs as well as directing and performing also provides the sound design and music. The music is fascinating. He recaptures the sound of the original score from Carey Blyton but with his own spin on it, adding his own style into the mix. At times it reminds me of his earlier music for Big Finish Cybermen stories. I cant help but think of ‘The Sword of Orion’ and then find myself humming Blytons original and catchy Revenge theme. A very pleasant mix that puts me right in the Doctor Who sweet spot.
Now, confession time. I love Revenge of the Cybermen. Probably my second ever VHS tape back in the late eighties, its one I know back to front and upside down. It was my first glimpse of early Tom, not the burgundy, older, more serious Tom I started with in 1980. Plus it has a remarkable cast, especially on Voga. Return is sparser to Revenge, it feels more streamlined and stripped back. More confined within the claustrophobic beacon with only a brief excursion to the asteroid. I think I probably prefer Revenge, but that is thirty plus years of bias kicking in, but that never renders return pointless. It’s a fascinating peep behind the curtain of the shows production and the difference between the original concept and the final execution.
This really is a slice of audio Doctor Who gold. (Pun very much intended) Jeff Goddard