Review by Jacob Licklider
When The Lost Stories was revived in 2019, listeners thought it could only be for a one-off run of two extra stories. Nobody really expected Big Finish Productions to announce the range to continue with more frequency than the occasional production, but only a few months later the announcement came that March 2021 would see the release of two stories featuring the Fourth Doctor, and last month a third release was announced from Russell T. Davies featuring the Sixth Doctor and Mel. The Sixth Doctor and Mel story may still be a long while off yet, but bringing Tom Baker back to The Lost Stories range is an excellent choice as he had only one release in the range: a box set featuring two stories, a six part story from Robert Banks Stewart and a four part adventure from Phillip Hinchcliffe. It is March 2021, nearly a year since the initial announcement, and Big Finish have made good on that release date. Return of the Cybermen and The Doomsday Contract have been released and the range is truly revived in a new form recovering previously abandoning Doctor Who scripts for a new audience to enjoy in a whole new way.
Return of the Cybermen is an interesting premise for The Lost Stories as it, like Robert Banks Stewart’s The Foe From the Future, was the initial draft of a story that did make it to television. When Gerry Davis first submitted the story that would become Revenge of the Cybermen, there were a number of changes made so that while the general idea: Cybermen invading a space station on a mission to destroy a nearby celestial body which is made of gold, however, in rewrites and the eventual edit from script editor Robert Holmes. Several of the characters and their motivations also made it fairly unaltered in the final story, but Revenge of the Cybermen has become one of those stories which is infamous for its weird history. It’s the first Doctor Who story available on home video and is often panned by viewers for a slow pace and being the odd duck being surrounded by giants like The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, and Terror of the Zygons. And if I am being honest, adapting its original script for an audio drama is something that sounds like a bad idea: Robert Holmes is regarded as one of the best Doctor Who writers and the best script editor for the program and even if he couldn’t save Revenge of the Cybermen this may be an exercise in futility. Interestingly based on John Dorney’s adaptation of Gerry Davis’ script, which as far as I can tell Dorney is mostly accurate to, Revenge of the Cybermen is one of the rare missteps in Robert Holmes’ career for the show.
The first episode of Return of the Cybermen is perhaps the closest to Revenge of the Cybermen in terms of structure and dialogue. This production plays the story as if it is right off Genesis of the Daleks (an excised scene pulls some Time War explanation so anyone worried about the canon just use that): the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and Harry Sullivan find themselves back on Nerva Beacon which is under quarantine in the asteroid belt as a mysterious plague has been spreading throughout the ship. The TARDIS team eventually find a crew and attempt to find a cure until disaster strikes: a Cybermat attacks Sarah Jane poisoning her, and here’s where things diverge. Instead of the incredibly slow pace until the Cybermen invade Nerva at the end of Part Two, the cliffhanger to Part One is a reveal that at least one Cyberman is already there. This means that the story can actually move on to its primary conflict of the Cybermen on a mission to destroy their weakness. The motivation is not one of revenge: these Cybermen are on a suicide mission and are perfectly alright with dying, nor are they implied to be the last of the Cybermen in any way. They are cold, calculating, and waiting for their proper moment to strike throughout the story making them a much more effective menace and villain. Nicholas Briggs’ performance as all the Cybermen is also a distinct mix between the voices from Revenge of the Cybermen and the earlier The Invasion voices. This means that there is less camp in the performances (no sassy Cyber Leader here) and there is this uniformity to the Cybermen emphasising their emotionless nature.
The supporting cast is also an interesting note as they are all taking roles of characters who already are established in the Doctor Who universe, albeit featuring in only one story. Nickolas Grace plays Kellman with more menace and a slimier nature than Jeremy Wilkins’ wonderful performance. Kellman here is actually a villain and not a surprise hero throughout, not really getting a good redemption by the end of the story. Instead of working with the Vogans, he is enslaving a group of religious minors and had at one point abducted (and possibly killed) one of them. This replaces the Vogan stuff from Revenge of the Cybermen and Davis is clearly using this as a way to parallel the Cybermen, which Dorney translates incredibly well in the 21st century. Nicholas Asbury as Stevenson is also a high point, making Stevenson feel less like a trained BBC actor and someone who is desperate and at the end of their rope. Amanda Shodeko is also an interesting addition as outside of Sarah Jane, Revenge of the Cybermen is one of those stories where there are no other female characters, and her character Anitra is actually from Davis’ original draft which makes an interesting decision to cut a character like that in the rewrites. She’s perfectly spunky and could have the companion material had this not been a story which is intrenched in an iconic TARDIS team.
Speaking of the TARDIS team, this is the first Big Finish audio drama to actually feature the Season 12 TARDIS team with Tom Baker as the Doctor and Sadie Miller taking up her mother’s role as Sarah Jane Smith. Christopher Naylor takes the role of Harry Sullivan to new levels in an impression which is on the level of Jon Culshaw as Anthony Ainley and the Brigadier. Harry is written right as the old-fashioned character he is, the chauvinism not being excused, but treated as the joke it is as Harry clearly means well and is protective of Sarah and his upcoming solo run in the Fourth Doctor Adventures is now near the top of my to-buy list. Miller is also a perfect choice to step into her mother’s footsteps as Sarah Jane Smith, as Big Finish Productions continue to understand how to properly recast roles. Sadly, as per Davis’ original script Sarah Jane is sidelined for much of the middle of the story which is a disappointment as Miller was a delight in the first episode, though the announcement of Miller’s participation in The Third Doctor Adventures and the behind the scenes hinting that Season 12 audios may just be coming at some point, this makes those stories also instant preorders. Tom Baker is almost overshadowed in his own story, but he is clearly having far too much fun revisiting better times with actors he clearly has a fondness for and a script he is clearly enjoying. Nicholas Briggs also almost single handedly takes care of the postproduction, directing, sound designing, and composing the music for the release. While his direction is always nice, it’s his musical tribute to both Carey Blyton’s infamous score and the work of Dudley Simpson that takes the cake for this release.
Overall, Return of the Cybermen is better than it has any right to be, retelling a Doctor Who story that is often seen as a clunker and doing it excellently. Some listeners may be taken out of the story, especially when they make comparisons to Revenge of the Cybermen, but my advice would be to treat it like two similar premises and possibly an alternate take and you should enjoy yourself immensely. 8/10.
The Doomsday Contract on the other hand has a history which is actually far more conventional for The Lost Stories range. Creator of QI and producer of Blackadder and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy John Lloyd submitted in October 1978 an outline for The Doomsday Contract to script editor Douglas Adams for Season 17. Adams kept the outline and exchanged notes back and forth with Lloyd about where the story could go, with several possibilities. A set of scripts were eventually written, however, due to certain stereotypes the production from Big Finish Productions forgoes using most of those scripts, instead adapting the original storyline with comic writer Nev Fountain at the helm due to his status as Big Finish Productions’ comedic writer. Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, and John Leeson reunite to bring The Doomsday Contract to life as the second Fourth Doctor installment in the sixth series of The Lost Stories. This entire season has been like it’s Saturday night teatime in 1978 all over again, and to represent the Graham Williams era we have Doctor Who done as a Douglas Adams farce where each episode explores different ideas and the one premise unifying everything comes together right at the end.
The entire premise is that the Doctor becomes the defendant in a trial where a corporation wishes to bulldoze the Earth to build a hyperspace bypass, yes Lloyd did work on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Douglas Adams does have a hand in this story. The Doctor has to prove that there is some sort of intelligent life on the Earth and of course Tom Baker obfuscates the question making things even more difficult. Romana and K9 try to investigate the Children of Pyxis who are attempting to assassinate the Doctor before he can actually give his testimony. There is also a society living in secret and the Children of Pyxis are not all that they seem with great danger, and several contracts being made with a friend of the Doctor saving him, though this friend is one of those friends who the audience has never actually seen before. Smilax is a really fun character played by Paul Panting as an over the top Douglas Adams character as is to be expected in one of these things. The real breakout star is actually Julian Wadham as the Judge presiding over the trial with this upper class performance that really feels like something out of The Avengers. There’s this amazing repartee between Wadham and Baker which is excellent. Lalla Ward is also brilliant here as she plays Romana in that almost fed up way with the entirety of the story having Romana at her wits end as she has to fix the Doctor’s mistakes. Once again Nicholas Briggs’ direction perfectly captures the era and Howard Carter’s score really emulates the scores of The City of Death, Nightmare of Eden, and The Horns of Nimon. Briggs also has a small part where he is excellent showing his comedy chops.
Overall, The Doomsday Contract while not nearly as interesting of a history as Return of the Cybermen is actually superior in a number of ways. It’s a Douglas Adams style romp from an accomplished writer adapted by a brilliant writer. 9/10.
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