Scourge of the Cybermen is the first of a new range of “audio novels” – in other words, enhanced audiobooks, as distinct from audio dramas – from Big Finish. Written by Simon Guerrier, it uses the format to tell a “Target books” style story; over more than seven hours, the tale mirrors the structure of a Pertwee-era six-parter.
The tale begins on a futuristic undersea base, with the Third Doctor and Sarah already assisting its scientific crew. While he is gainfully employed, Sarah is at a loose end and starts to pursue her own investigation; seeking to discover while the lights keep flickering, her journalistic nous leads her into trouble when she discovers a dying man on the lower levels.
Guerrier takes time to explore the whole operation, its support staff and structures – from the submerged city-like base, inhabited by families and all, to their ocean cleansing mission. Sarah befriends both the base director’s teenage daughter Hope, and a coffee bar vendor. We loved the departmentally colour-coded dungarees which Sarah adopts, while the Doctor naturally remains in his more familiar garb.
As the Doctor begins to ask more difficult questions, becoming less than popular with the security and medical teams, he is forced to bend the truth a little. This provides for a great sequence involving a mini submarine; just the sort of thing you can imagine Jon Pertwee relishing, even if impossible on a 1970s’ BBC budget!
When a Cyberman finally lumbers into view, it is in a pitiful state and apparently posing little threat. With no prior knowledge of them, Sarah’s instant reaction is one of compassion rather than revulsion for the creature.
A 70s’ view of the future
Despite being set in the future, viewed from the Pertwee era, the story has plenty of present-day resonance. With a radiation threat on the base, quarantine restrictions are enforced and those affected go into isolation. Further to this, people choose to begin wearing masks and protective equipment, despite the negligible effect they might have. Sarah observes the change in mood, both to the radioactive threat and the Cybermen. The crew’s demands to understand the methodology employed to assess the risk were a nice touch too – apparently that’s the problem with a base full of scientists! Later, the escalation of the Cyber threat leads to civil unrest and an ominous exploration of the survival instinct.
Acknowledging Big Finish’s other adventures which also address the lack of an onscreen Pertwee-era Cyber story, there’s a pleasing mention of The Third Doctor Adventures tale The Tyrants of Logic, as well as another reference to that offscreen adventure on Planet 14.
Simon Guerrier writes beautifully descriptive prose and the story builds tension across its run, with plenty of twists and turns. Despite its placing, Scourge of the Cybermen has the feel of the more mature Doctor Who from Pertwee’s debut season, notwithstanding its off-planet setting. The tale is vividly brought to life by narrator Jon Culshaw – with his remarkable vocal dexterity and clear understanding of the show, he is the perfect choice to tell this tale. Of course, Culshaw has narrated a number of Target books now, as well as voicing Terror of the Master, the audiobook component of Masterful, which could be viewed as a proof of concept for this range (although apparently plans have been afoot for some time).
As well as another beautiful cover from Claudia Gironi, it would be remiss not to mention the excellent sound design and music by Steve Foxon. He evokes the claustrophobic nature of the undersea base and its varied environments, as well as providing a menacing, insistent score for the Cybermen. Isolated music tracks are also provided at the end of the Extras interviews.
Scourge of the Cybermen provides a terrific debut adventure for this new range. We look forward to Fourth Doctor story Watchers, featuring Adric and the Daleks (and written by Matthew Waterhouse), in January 2022.