Review – Big Finish Doctor Who #17: “Sword of Orion”

This is the next in line of my Big Finish Productions Doctor Who retro-reviews.

#17 – “Sword of Orion”

From Big Finish’s site:

One of our very best-selling releases. Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor along with his brand new companion Charley, in action with the Cybermen for the first time.

The human race is locked in deadly combat with the ‘Android Hordes’ in the Orion System. Light years from the front line, the Doctor and Charley arrive to sample the dubious delights of a galactic backwater, little suspecting that the consequences of the Orion War might reach them there. But High Command’s lust for victory knows no bounds.

Trapped aboard a mysterious derelict star destroyer, the Doctor and Charley find themselves facing summary execution. But this is only the beginning of their troubles. The real danger has yet to awaken.

Until, somewhere in the dark recesses of the Garazone System, the Cybermen receive the signal for reactivation…

Written By: Nicholas Briggs

Directed By: Nicholas Briggs


Paul McGann (The Doctor); India Fisher (Charley Pollard); Bruce Montague (Grash); Michelle Livingstone (Deeva Jansen); Helen Goldwyn (Chev); Ian Marr (Ike); Hylton Collins (Vol); Toby Longworth (Kelsey); Barnaby Edwards (Digly); Mark Gatiss (Thinnes); Nicholas Briggs (Cyberleader/Cybermen); Alistair Lock (Cybermen)

***minor spoilers ahead***

Straight from the early fan productions of Audio Visuals, it was a natural – and inevitable – choice to call up one of the most classically told stories about one of the classic menaces to the major leagues.  After all, if your fan productions had gotten you notice and license to officially play with the characters and situations you so love, wouldn’t you show off a little?  So it is that Nicholas Briggs is doing just that.  Would that every Doctor Who creator who did such a thing pulled it off even half as well as Mr. Briggs.  Having heard the original version for myself once upon a time, it’s quite a treat to see how the story evolves and yet stays consistent.  But as the story goes, if you’ve not heard it before, it’s all new to you.  For those of you who know the original series, or even for those of you who know only the “new and improved” Cybus-men from the revival series, this is a story that draws on the most overused classic elements from the original series.  For those new fans looking for an introduction to the Cybermen of old, this is a good one to hear for just that reason.  Much like Big Finish did with Daleks, this story sets up a baseline from which to build later encounters.  I’m not going to say that Big Finish utilized the Cybermen in those later encounters even a tenth as effectively overall as they did for the Daleks, but the end result is a solid foundation for the stuff of nightmare, and there are a couple of noteworthy cringes to be had later in the lineup.  “Spare Parts,” anyone?  Don’t know that one?  I’ll explain later…

For those well-versed in the Cybermen, as a reintroduction, “Sword of Orion” serves to establish some new ground into the mythos.  Before the Last Great Time War was even a twinkle in the eye of a writer, there was the Orion War.  In a nutshell, the idea is very Matrix-like (except that Doctor Who got there first, go figure) where human-built androids became fed up being second-class citizens by the 26th century and tried to set up their own governmental heirarchy and diplomatic overtures to humanity.  Naturally, humanity rejected the idea, and the war began.  The androids hit us back.  Hard.  The Sword of Orion mentioned in the name is the secret plot of the androids to utilize the other great human-created menace against their creators: the Cybermen.  How would they accomplish this?  I’ll let you hear the answer to that one yourself.  Suffice to say, it’s rather ingenious, and there are ramifications in later stories to be had.

The build-up in the story rather slow and well-done in the classic style, but this is actually a bit of a detriment – also in classic Doctor Who style.  You see, both the original series and the audios suffer from the exact same problem anytime a Dalek or a Cyberman is used.  Either they’re mentioned in the title and/or they’re on the cover art.  There’s no secret, and thus no point in a falsely-orchestrated “big reveal” at a cliffhanger point in the adventure.  Does it work for the story?  Certainly, but for any kind of effectiveness of that story, it would have to be heard blindly, with no indication of the Big Bad’s identity.  I’ve seen that happen precisely once in the history of Doctor Who that I can recall, in the two-part story “Army of Ghosts / Doomsday,” wherein the Cybusmen and the Daleks went head-to-eye stalk for the first time, with no indication (apart from the many spoilers released on the internet) that either race would even be there.  That’s how you ambush an audience and make the cliffhanger actually mean something.  With “Sword of Orion” and other similarly-paced original series stories, you spend all your time looking at your watch because you know the Big Bad (and hence the part where the story gets good) doesn’t happen until the end of the segment.  You can only build suspense once by waiting until the end to show us the shark / monster / super weapon.  In all sequels, we need it up front, and it needs to be even better than before.  That’s hard to do, I grant you, but how can you justify building suspense to a big reveal when we all already know what the reveal is?

And that brings us to the derelict star destroyer (*cough* Star Wars *cough*) where the Cybermen are found.  This is another thing that’s consistently bothered me in the original series, which I’m hoping will be corrected someday by a writer far more skilled than Moffat (looking at you, Neil Gaiman – please save us!).  The Cybermen are revealed right from the on-set to be under-numbered / in hibernation / low on power / embarrassingly low on any other kind of resource that might make them something of a threat.  As a rule, I pretty much despise zombies, and even the Borg bored me until the Borg Queen made things a little more interesting, and Cybermen fall right into this category.  They have such potential, and it’s terminally wasted at nearly every turn. This is not a critique on this episode so much as it is on the entirety of the franchise for its complete mishandling of its number two threat.  This story, as I say, is a great starting point, a good foundation for what fans have come to expect.  It’s about as classic as you can get when dealing with everything we’ve ever come to know and enjoy about the Cybermen, and it’s well worth the listen just for that.  From here, it needs to get bigger.  We need more Cybermen and a plot that’s something considerably more impressive than cyber-converting everyone else.  If Big Finish can add so much to the one-trick pony that is the Dalek, they can certainly do this for Cybermen, right?  Tune in and find out!