Doctor Who: Warzone/Conversion – Starring: Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, George Watkins, David Banks, Mark Hardy, Angela Bruce & Liz Sutherland-Lin. Written by Chris Chapman & Guy Adams & Directed by Scott Handcock – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
This main range release was always going to be a bit special – it’s Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor (along with Nyssa, Tegan and newish boy in the box, Marc (played by George Watkins) in a post-Earthshock re-match with the classic Eighties Cybermen, as played then and now by David Banks and Mark Hardy.
You’re in already, aren’t you?
This, of course, is Big Finish, which means it was also never going to be as straightforward as ‘Hoorah – rematch time!’ No, this double bill of two-parters is welded together, so it’s a four-parter in two distinct acts, and ultimately, it’s a hymn to the Cybermen, while also giving the Fifth Doctor a chance to release some rarely-seen rage and implacable desperation, which makes him sparkle with the danger of the Sixth or Twelfth incarnations. You’re not going to want to miss Peter Davison in blistering form, particularly in Conversion.
But first – Warzone. Warzone, from Chris Chapman, takes a hefty, well-thumbed but rarely bettered leaf out of Russell T Davies’ Cyber-playbook, putting us on a world where people are always after the next upgrade, the next techno-advantage to make their lives easier, better, more competitive than their neighbours’.
That’s of extra-special relevance in Warzone, because ‘Warzone’ is the ultimate ultra-marathon, where people compete to better themselves by running, jumping, and actively suffering pain as a way of pushing themselves to their limits. It’s ultra-running with extreme danger, but more cleverly than that, it’s a planet-wide compulsion, a social obligation as much as a competition, and Chris Chapman…ooh, he plays it clever. The rules of the game, the way in which people are kept motivating themselves, and the ultimate prize for those who ‘qualify,’ you might think you guess ahead of time, and you might be nearly right, but Chapman studs his revelations throughout the two episode run-time, and makes them rather more deeply ‘right’ and clever and interesting than you might initially give him credit for. Seriously, as each revelation hits you, you’ll nod, and smile, and go ‘Ohhh, that’s good,’ as you realise the levels of thought that have gone into making each element just right.
The bottom line of the story and what leads it screaming into the complications of Conversion, is that one of the Doctor’s companions is injured on the run, and is due for a full upgrade. While he does just about enough to make sure the Warzone compulsion is overcome, the immediate threat to his companion makes the Fifth Doctor rage and panic and escape hastily at the end of Warzone, determined to do whatever is necessary not to lose another friend to the Cyber-menace.
Conversion, by Guy Adams, does a thing that’s been ripe for the doing for decades, but has never been treated with the time and power it deserves till now. It takes us into the mental battle for individuality and self-control while the Cyber-conversion process goes on – human will versus Cyber-command protocols, as one’s thought processes are attacked, re-written, made to serve another intelligence. Powerful, powerful stuff. Add to that the Fifth Doctor’s rage and determination not to lose another friend to the Cybermen, delivered partly as a mark of his compassion for his friends but mostly, it has to be said, as a mark of his own rarely-displayed hubris, a kind of ‘They won’t do this to me again’ sentiment, and you’ve got something powerful and important – a Fifth Doctor reckoning with his own guilt over Adric’s death and the things he didn’t do to stop it. This is saved from being a pity party by the fact that the people he’s with when he reveals this side of himself don’t go easy on him, don’t sympathise so much as driving the dagger home. Yes, they agree – there was more you could have done and you didn’t do it.
Impressive, gritty stuff for a Fifth Doctor story, and a key conversation that elevates Conversion into one of those pivotal moments you need to have experienced to really understand the Fifth Doctor, especially perhaps as he goes on to eventually give up his life to save another friend in The Caves Of Androzani.
Top stuff then from Chris Chapman and Guy Adams, and some of the most powerful Fifth Doctoring Peter Davison’s been given the scripts to deliver in quite some time. What of the companions?
George Watkins extends his characterisation here, doubling down on all the reasons why Marc, the former slave of the Cicero household, deserves his place in the wider universe. He’s given an important arc over both stories in this release, and the universe, as seen by his bright, enthusiastic eyes, looks an altogether more amazing, Tiggerish place than it does for Tegan ‘Mouth On Legs’ Jovanka or Nyssa, the Good Girl of Traken. Watkins’ Marc brings a fresh new energy to the Tardis, to which it will be sad, eventually, to say goodbye. Nyssa and Tegan both have strong storylines in this release too – Nyssa more in Warzone, where she’s crucial in Doing The Techie Thing that saves at least some of the day, and Tegan more in Conversion, where her particular clarity of mind works powerfully in conjunction with Davison’s Doctor in angry, recriminatory, determined mode.
Banks and Hardy, the Cyber double-act, are still full of metallic gittish oomph here, though even more than in their return audio, Hour of the Cybermen, there’s a sense of the loosening of their constricted Cyber-speech patterns. They’re less staccato, more metallic-humanoid, but the additional result of that is that they feel somehow more like a throwback to the Sixties Cybermen, a mixture of the organic and the metallic, the individual and the programme. It’s a frankly unfettered joy for anyone who grew up on their Cyber-stomping to have them back, and they still deliver the shudders, albeit in that slightly more humanised way thirty years on.
And it would be unmannerly in the extreme not to mention the additional characters – in particular, there are a handful of fabulous scenes entirely stolen in Conversion by Herb and Creasey, played by The Awesome Angela Bruce (that’s her name now, it’s official, deal with it) and Liz Sutherland-Lim respectively. They’re a nod to the great secondary character-pairs of Robert Holmes, here to add complication, colour, fun and ultimately a twist to what could otherwise be a story told on one action plane, while dealing with intellectual and emotional plot-elements. Herb and Creasey give the action a whole lot more oomph, and some needed light and shade and laughter as everything gets increasingly bleak.
Ultimately, Warzone/Conversion nails its place in the Fifth Doctor’s timeline with a firm Cyber-hand, both by virtue of Chris Chapman’s clever, above-the-usual-Cyber-Schtick plotting, and Guy Adams’ tackling of both the fight against Cyber-indoctrination and the Fifth Doctor’s Time Lord guilt over Adric. It feels like a release you absolutely need to hear, and it shows the Fifth Doctor’s Inner Grown-Up bursting through into the universe as, for instance, it did rather more by his third season than it managed in his earlier days. This is a Fifth Doctor who’s mad as hell and who’s not going to take it any more, but who does what he feels he has to do to defeat the Cybermen, even to the extent of going right into their lion’s den, in a scene which, had it ever been committed to film, would rival if not unseat the Tomb of the Cybermen wake-up sequence for iconic status.
Get Warzone/Conversion immediately and reprogramme your brain with it. It’s tight, clever, emotionally powerful Doctor Who at pretty much its finest. Tony Fyler