Doctor Who Review: ‘Spare Parts’ (Audio)

As the Cybermen’s origins are told in the season finale, we look back at the very popular and highly acclaimed origin story on audio, ‘Spare Parts’.

Ah, Spare Parts. Perhaps one of the definitive stories among Big Finish’s many audio releases. A story so good, even Russell T. Davies has sung its praises. For his introduction to the book Big Finish: The Inside Story, he described it and The Holy Terror as “some of the finest drama ever written for any genre, in any medium, anywhere.”

In fact, it loosely inspired the series 2 episodes Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel. I say “loosely”, because it was not only a different take on a Cyberman origin story, it even took place in a parallel universe!

Now we’ve seen Steven Moffat actually tackle this universe’s Cybermen’s origins in World Enough and Time. And a very good episode it was, too. However, does it conflict with the original Cyberman origin story, Spare Parts? I’ll go into more detail on that very soon, but for now, here’s a review looking at the highly regarded classic.

A Desperate World

If there’s one thing that has made Spare Parts such a success, it’s how brilliantly the story focuses on the people. Despite taking place on another world entirely, the society it presents is a highly relatable one. We see families trying hard to celebrate the holidays. People are struggling to hold onto their businesses in the wake of new technology. Young men are desperate for even the slightest chance of glory.

However, Mondas is also a very different world. The city we see is deep underground, as the surface is uninhabitable. Conditions are so bad, people are continually trading organs for mechanical replacements just to live longer. A “committee” rules with an iron fist. Not for the sake of power, but for one aim: so that Mondas and its people will survive. No matter what the cost.

This key element – of the Cybermen’s creation being purely a result of trying to survive – is what makes Spare Parts an arguably far superior story to Rise of the Cybermen. I liked that TV story, but that seemed more keen to present the dangers of modern technology. It also very quickly became a somewhat typical invasion story. It didn’t have circumstances continually escalating like Spare Parts did. Not a bad story, but not nearly as tragic.

‘Spare Parts’ is such a popular audio story, it’s one of very few to have received a limited vinyl release. (Credit: Big Finish)

Epic Tragedy

And Spare Parts is undoubtedly a tragedy. Nothing can save the people of Mondas from a fate worse than death. Even the Doctor and his companion know where the society is heading.

It’s actually a genius idea that the team used for this story was the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. You see, not long before, in the TV story Earthshock, someone they cared about died directly because of the Cybermen. So there’s a far more personal element with this Doctor than there arguably would be with any of the others when it comes to dealing with them. There’s a beautiful sense of irony that he finds himself at their very origins.

Equally impressive is how Marc Platt takes all these elements of Cyber-mythology, and combines it all into a completely believable dystopia. This story is very keen to stress that these are the earliest Cybermen by giving them their original voices, first heard in First Doctor story The Tenth Planet. It sets up an origin for a major force in the Sixties Cybermen stories. It even includes the Cybermats! (These were most often seen in the Second Doctor’s stories, and more recently in the Eleventh Doctor story Closing Time).

A True Classic

But as cool as these continuity elements are for the fans, continuity by itself does not make a great story. No, what made Marc Platt’s writing so brilliant was how he used these elements and seamlessly merged them with tragedy, horror and very human drama. One of my favourite and most horrifying scenes involves a Cyberman and a family. It will break your heart and deeply disturb you at the same time.

I’ll be honest, I had almost forgotten just how near perfect Spare Parts is. It’s not just a great audio story. It’s quite possibly the very best Cyberman story in any medium. Now, maybe World Enough and Time has written this out of canon completely. Then again, maybe not. (Like I said, I’ll expand my views on that very soon.) That doesn’t change the fact that this is an absolutely essential audio story to listen to, and possibly one of the very best Doctor Who stories in any medium.

Spare Parts can be bought and downloaded directly from Big Finish, or is one of many stories available to listen to for free on Spotify.

Have you listened to ‘Spare Parts’? Do you think it lives up to the hype? Has this review or even ‘World Enough and Time’ made you more curious about the story? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.