Six box sets in, and with Autons, Silurians and Sea Devils, The Silence, Daleks and Sontarans already faced, it was inevitable that Kate Stewart’s UNIT team would tackle the Cybermen at some point. Of course, they did so onscreen in Dark Water/Death In Heaven, but these stories are set earlier.
Picking up on the story thread of The Auctioneers, a shadowy organisation trading in alien technology from the previous UNIT Encounters box set, Cyber Reality brings us a fresh take on the Cyber race, taking their cues from current technological obsessions, including VR gaming and mobile apps.
The four-part set is a remarkably intimate affair, with writing and script editing duties split between Matt Fitton and Guy Adams, and a minimal cast outside of UNIT’s five regulars; Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), Colonel Shindi (Ramon Tikaram, Captain Josh Carter (James Joyce) and Lieutenant Sam Bishop (Warren Brown).
Matt Fitton’s opener discovers the fate of UNIT’s missing trouble shooter Sam Bishop and leads us into a face-off with The Auctioneers. While Sam is trapped on a container ship with a spoilt rich girl (Kerry Fox), Kate and Osgood are tricked into a virtual reality race against time to stop a bomb.
Given the Auctioneers’ magpie nature, there are a pleasing sprinkle of references to other stories, such as The Idiot’s Lantern and School Reunion. We also loved Howard Carter’s brilliantly disorientating sound design as Sam gets to grips with where he is.
Guy Adams takes over writing duties as the UNIT team explore the technology they have taken custody of, decamping to a remote location which pleases Osgood no end as it is the location of a classic Pertwee story.
Exploring its potential, Osgood, Shindi and Carter embark on an unusual trip to an alien environment, while Kate remains in the real world to monitor them. As clues are seeded for the wider story’s development, we explore a ravaged world and build up the anticipation for the Cyber reveal.
The action ramps up significantly with the emergence of the Cybermen and Guy Adams puts Kate Stewart through her paces. With members of her team under the influence of the enemy, she is forced to meet the threat pretty much single-handed while the enemy anticipates her every move. With its remote location, the story feels rather Die Hard in all the right ways!
Born from the experience of their previous encounters, UNIT have a range of weapons to employ and we loved the references to gold and radiation guns, as well as an emotional inducer powered by an alien parasite– possibly a nod to The Mind Of Evil?
These Cybermen, hailing from another reality, come equipped with some nasty new tricks including spider-like mobile conversion units. Nicholas Briggs, back on Cyber vocal duties, creates something with much more depth than the recent onscreen version; this iteration has a hint of the pitch-shifting Mondasian about them and some Earthshock like oomph. There is an interesting explanation of his choices in the extras too.
Master Of Worlds
Given his prominence on the cover, it comes as no surprise that Derek Jacobi reprises his Masterly role here, seemingly fresh from his Time War endeavours and with no desire to become embroiled. This is another terrific performance, in which he is manipulative and reliably self-interested – while somehow being allied with the good guys.
Matt Fitton’s script brings the story full circle, providing a satisfying conclusion and we adored the final, predictive line he gives the Master.
The UNIT series boasts a strong cast of regulars and the decision to focus on them here pays dividends. Seduced by the information flow, Ingrid Oliver is particularly impressive as Osgood gone to the bad and she shares some great scenes with the slightly pompous Cyber-Controller – showing us how dangerous her intellect can be when harnessed against humanity.
While he has come and gone in previous volumes, it was great to have Warren Brown’s Sam feature all the way through and his interactions with the Master were fascinating, digging into the character’s personal history. For her part, Kate Stewart remained resolute throughout and we loved the scenes between her and the Master, as he continually needled her about her father.
Given their repeated use over the years, it must be tough to come up with new things to do with the Cybermen. The Fitton and Adams solution, bringing them in from an alternate dimensional, is a master stroke – not only does it allow them a fresh angle, but it also plays with our preconceptions and allows them to pick and choose elements of Cyber history. Relentless and as deadly as ever, in the end this iteration are remarkably faithful to the originals.
UNIT: Cyber Reality is a Doctor Who spin off at the top of its game, with a strong core of fascinating characters, smart direction from Ken Bentley and backed with superb music and sound design from Howard Carter. We look forward to seeing where this range goes next!
In the meantime, Cyber fans can look forward to a return of the 1980s versions, as Cyber Leader David Banks returns in July’s Colin Baker tale Hour Of The Cybermen.