2 out of 2 found this review helpful.
I'm afraid I'll have to discuss spoilers quite a bit here. If you want this play to deliver big, juicy revelations, you have been warned; stop reading if you dont' want to be saved...
I like The Mind Robber. I don't think I'd put it in my top five television stories (if I made such a list, but I don't believe in them), but it's eminently rewatchable, fun, full of a sense of wonderment and not at all obsessed with its own idea: namely, a fictional TV serial about fiction, whose guest stars can, for five weeks, admit that they're in a story, where literally anything can happen, especially if it's already been in a book. I appreciate how straight they all play it..I mean, oh yes, it's funny, but it's naturally funny, and not once do you think the people involved are nudging you and telling you to point and laugh.
But this is a pretty self-referential, inward-looking time we live in. SO many people can access so many stories all over the world. Millions of movies have been made. All the great adventure plots seem to be used up. Now we have adventure movies about being in an adventure movie, slasher movies whose cast of characters are actors playing in a slasher movie, blockbusters that essentially tell us that the world is one big video game. Your modern horror movie isn't cool with the kids unless its characters know all the clich?s, spout wisecracks about the foolishness of their situation, and then get axed anyway, in the most gratuitous and bloodyminded fashion. Parodies are everywhere and reboots of things we cherished as children are done so that the things that we thought made the originals great in the first place can be broken down and made fun of, because, oh, yeah, that might have been a gripping yarn when you were ten, but isn't it great, as an adult, to point out how you can see the boom mike; how fake the monsters look; how rampant the plot holes?
No, I say, with desperate frustration. No, honestly, it really is terrible. It's not that I find these old cracking stories (from Doctor Who and many, many other sources) to be hallowed, untouchable institutions. It's not that I think we shouldnt' have a sense of humour about our favourite things sometimes. It's basically this simple...I don't think we ought to be smug and self-satisfied about it all, because really, what better have we to offer but post-modern digs and jabs, if we're going to descend to that level, and worst of all, do it professionally, and not just over a few drinks with our buddies (yeah, admit it, we've all probably done it with Horns of Nimon, A Nightmare on Elm Street or similar "awe-inspiring" elements of our childhoods).
There's a certain danger in being a "superfan", one who's seen, let's say, every episode of Doctor Who (because we are, after all, mostly talking about Doctor Who here, but this could equally apply to any comic book franchise, long-running television series, or huge multi-part novel epic), read most of the novels, listened to the audios, subscribed to the magazines. We tend to spend a huge amount of time analysing things that nobody else would analyse, thinking about "what if" scenarios that would never enter anyone else's heads, internally (and vocally) debating the merits of this or that writer/director, looking for ways we could have done the stories better. I have a theory that some people come out the bottom of this period of intense scrutiny feeling a little self-conscious, a little embarrassed about how much they've devoted to dissecting a cliquy series of fictional exploits. This probably happens most to people of a certain age, who have passed the initial stage of desperately wanting to be accepted by their peers and having to do things in secret so that the other kids won't know the extent of their obsessions, , gone into their teen and early adult years of proud isolationism and a certain practised sharpness, and into the "working adult" phase of attempting to be settled, and a sort of re-surfacing/re-tooling of that childhood desire, "oh god, I really wish I was cool"", which is, as an older, socially established person, , supposed to be represented, among other things, by a discarding of childhood things or, at best, keeping them out of a sense of nostalgia and pleasant complacency. I remember first stumbling across Blakes' 7 fandom on the Internet. I was pretty excited because I didn't know many Blakes' 7 fans at all, and I thought it'd be cool to see how other people talked about this amazing show. Well, I did find plenty of theorising, fanwanking and other stuff, but what shocked me the most was how disparaging some of these apparent fans were of episodes that I had seen once or twice in my childhood and remembered as being great. Luckily, this prompted me to get the videos from my one friend who was into the show as well and I realised that my memory wasn't faulty and that, in fact, yes, these episodes really were good, gripping television. What I realised was simply this: These people who wrote acidic commentaries on the Internet were fans..they had immersed themselves in the show, its lore, its fan theories, its production foibles, to such an extent that suddenly part of the fun disappeared and a large helping of the wonderment and joy with it.
Now, I've no doubt, really, that Mike maddox loves Doctor Who (you wondered when I'd get round to Legend of the Cybermen, didnt' you?) I've no doubt, in fact, that Legend of the Cybermen is at least in part his expression of love for Doctor Who, and that he, and other fans, perhaps, would call *me* the cynical one for lambasting his story. The truth is though that this seems like the self-agrandising, self-congratulatory sort of love, the revelling and wallowing in one's own knowledge of all the tropes and traditions, coupled with some idea that, as a grown man, these things have been perfectly understood and overcome. It's the sort of stuff that someone might make you feel bad for dismissing because they'd say, "look man, you're just saying that because you're not in on the joke; you don't realise that the writer knows how bad it is and he's inviting you to laugh along with him".
I'll tell you exactly when I realised that this story had well and truly plunged off the cliff, though I certainly was grumbling some beforehand. It's when Zoe comments that so far they've gone through "the pseudo-historical, and the base under siege story". It didn't stop there. Zoe has a bunch of novels on her shelves with titles like: Doctor Who and the Dominators, Doctor Who and the Krotons, and some acknowledged-to-be-scripted-but-never-filmed story from the Troughton era whose name I can't recall. There's some question over whether the Doctor is "really real" or "just another fictional character", and Zoe says something like, "don't worry, Doctor, you're far too eccentric, far too unpredictable, to be captured well in print". The knowing wink in Wendy Padberry's voice as she delivers these lines is really too much to bear. Elsewhere, Jamie "unknowwingly" repeats lines he earlier used in The Mind Robber, and then asks the Doctor why, if they're really in a white void, they can hear their footfalls. At another point the Cybermen are rambling about narrative continuity and talking about what sound like "alignment points" used to direct magic, as though they were involved in a D&D session. This stuff, remember, is supposed to be funny, cute; give the fans a warm glow in their hearts.
And yeah, maybe a large part of my problem with this story is that it's all so damn fluffy, so sweet and saccharine. There is every element you'd expect from the Land of Fiction from the past, and every element you'd sort of expect to be in the land of fiction that wasn't before, like, oh, I don't know, pirates, because, yeah, pirates are cool! There are supposed to be hard-hitting revelations in here, but they're weak, because things haven't really seemed right from the very beginning of this trilogy, and because the storytelling here just isn't very good at all, something which you should take particular care with when you're writing a story that's, well, about stories themselves! And here, everything just falls down. I liked Conundrum because it was aware of the same clich?s, adventure and science fiction tropes and cardboard characters that Legend of the Cybermen uses, but it was subtle enough about it that its pokes actually did bring a few smiles, and didn't have any hateful elements that stacked against it right from the start (well, it did have "New Ace", but for the record I only really hated her in the stupid wankfest NO Future). We knew what the Master of the Land wanted to do and it made sense that most of the characters there didn't have any free will because that would have killed the plot. IN Legend of the Cybermen, the new Master has given them all free will. That's nice; they can become "real" people now, right? Then, why all the stupidity in the last story? Why hold Jamie at ransome and vow to kill him unless the Doctor helps out, while refusing to tell him what to do and dropping him off in the void rather than somewhere else in the Land just so they can encounter the White Robots? Sounds like bad story logic to me. Weren't they already in the Land anyway?
And again, as with the last two stories, stuff just happens, "because". The Cybermen convert Oliver Twist! Why? So it can go wrong and he can utter eerie, distorted lines from the book. We're told that the Cybermen have started converting magical creatures. Oh no!!! What do they do with this? Nothing....there's no discussion of the ramifications for the creatures themselves, nor how the Cybermen really react to having magic in their midst and working in their favour (well, apart from the cute RPG stuff), no sense of struggle to adapt to this new situation. The focus of the question of whether these people being fictional really matters or not (I.E., are they real individuals?) or not seems to shift depending on the needs of the story. One moment Dracula (yeah, the vampire Dracula this time, complete with a shaky faux-Transylvanian accent) and Alice chastise the Doctor for being too literal-minded in his interpretations of characters and their motives, the next the Doctor's telling Jamie that these people are their friends, and the next he's saying "will the real so-and-so stand up?" But you see, none of these people seem real. They're all, including the TARDIS crew, defined by one word character traits, and you don't even have to imagine the brainstorming of these traits because in large part we get it delivered to us in the play itself, once Jamie gets his memory back. Zoe does this too, because, you know, she's been in the Land a long time and has adjusted to its principles....yeah, sure, that's the reason. Honestly, is this a celebration of the Troughton years or a condemnation?
There are two Zoes wandering around, and for some reason it seems to matter which of them is real, even though Legend of the Cybermen is practically a goblin sitting on our shoulder as we listen jabbing us every now and then and saying "pssst...you know this is just a story, right? Right?" One Zoe is supposed to be older, the other placed in the Land a month after her initial adventures in the TARDIS (or something). Initially I had no trouble telling them apart, but later on it becomes impossible. I suspect this was done purposefully to show the merging of the two characters. But then, Jamie goes all weird at the end and starts insulting one of the Zoes for no reason I can think of. There's another of those cringe-inducing, awful and unsubtle moments that stands out here, and unfortunately it involves Zoe, a character I rather liked in television and in her few print appearances. The older Zoe informs everyone of her clever plan to bring the Doctor back to the land, and the younger one goes all starry-eyed, laughing and cooing over what a genius "she" is. Gods...Zoe was just never this annoying before, and I don't think even Terance Dicks would have put those awful lines in her mouth. Yeah, we know Zoe's proud of her abilities and is maybe a littel full of herself, but there are other ways for her character to show this aside from screaming it at us in the most pointed, grating way imaginable. This would be too unsubtle even for children, and really, I doubt many children are listening to these plays, because they involve a Doctor and companion who haven't been on the television or in the consciousness of non-fans for as much as forty years!
While on the subject of Zoe, Wendy Padberry unfortunately sounds like a sixty year old trying to imitate an exciteable little girl when she plays younger Zoe, which is exactly what hse is doing. You get the feeling, too, that she's definitely reading her lines, which you could argue is natural for a story involving people getting themselves caught up in stories, but which just conveys to me that perhaps Wendy hasn't been acting much lately. Gosh, I hate saying bad things about her, and I've been traumatised ever since seeing her character get raped and then daggered in Blood on Satan's Claw! "Oh no, what have you done to poor Zoe!"
There's a short, harrowing bit where the Doctor examines the possibility that perhaps he's been in the Land ever since his first adventure; that he never truly left. It's a moment that is pretty heavy for such a maudlin tale, but in the end comes to nothing, or does it? I mean, the story is so hell-bent on making sure we silly fans know it's "just a story", and it seems that by the end the Cybermen, supposedly a force from "Outside", have been willed out of existence, just like, jeez, fictional creations! Talking of that ending, I really have no idea... a bunch of stuff happens, the Cyber Planner goes nuts and has a nervous breakdown, and suddenly Alice becomes the new Master of the land. What? How? Damned if I know. Hey, if a fictional creature can become Master just like that, why didn't the first Master just install Gulliver way back when and get out of dodge as fast as possible? How come Zoe's mental blocks are reinstated as soon as she leaves the Land, even though they were removed before she even got there? She's narrating the last minutes of the play...narrating, if you can believe this, something she doesn't even remember, which I guess doesn't matter because (say it with me) "it's just a story!" It's supposed to be a tender, tear-jerking scene because we all know that having Jamie and Zoe's memories erased was one of the douchiest and most maddening moves the Time Lords made in the television series, but it just comes off like some sentimental slop. I think it's mostly in the execution; I might have expected a scene like this, only better direction could have made it come out poignant. At this point though it seems even douchier of the writer to take her memories again after putting her through all that. Hell, the Doctor got his back; why keep these mental blocks around just because the Time Lords put them there? Doesn't Zoe deserve better? It's like one of those deliberately set-up endings designed to make teenage girls cry (sorry about the stereotyping, honest) that you find in overwrought novels sometimes, and the worst thing is that I think with Legend of the Cybermen that is actually the point! Gah, I think this story has made my brain leak through my ears.
You know, I can tell that Legend has its heart in the right place after all, because I feel bad about how much I've slagged it here, and I wouldn't do if it was genuinely as smug and arseholeish as it sometimes appears. Yes, it probably was a labour of love, but it occurs to me now that setting up the story as the finale to a big trilogy of reunited companions and so on was a bad idea. There's a segment where Zoe recounts her time since the Wheel in Space, and it made me realise that certain elements of the story could have made a great Companion Chronicle about Zoe Hariet. I mean, the adventure of how she came from the Wheel, got abducted by Cybermen, sabotaged their ship and ended up back in the Land (another truly improbable element, but never mind; I feel that the writer's laughing at me for even pointing these out now because, this is, after all, just a *story*, and a Doctor Who story at that, and we know how full of plot contrivances those normally are) would have made a far, far more engaging and exciting tale than what we actually got. The story could even have ended on a wistful note as Zoe tries desperately to do whatever possible to get the Doctor back because she realises she needs him so badly. It would have been haunting and effective bit of storytelling all right, even if we know that Zoe could probably handle being completely isolated better than most companions could, because she just seems like that kind of girl. But no...we had to have our cataclysmic closure, our Cybermermaids and Dracula and the pirate ship and all the other things that all combine to tell us that this is "big, epic stuff here, man!" It reminds me of all those pointless Star Trek episodes on the holodeck that would happen every time picard got a hard on for Shakespeare or dime detective novels, only this one purports to have a huge budget and a dizzying cast from legend and fantasy.
This whole trilogy feels like a vast, wasted opportunity. Jamie was great on television but he and Colin Baker just don't seem to have much chemistry together despite the Doctor's obvious tenderness toward him. And, how can they, really? Jamie doesn't remember a thing about the past, and then when he finally does during this story he can't believe how many monsters are out there and is mostly upset that the Doctor, supposedly a friend through thick and thin, never came back for him or even dropped in to see how he was doing. It's maybe the one sensible thing in the play, describing Jamie's understandable emotion and less than overjoyed reaction to getting his memories back, but it still doesn't feel that great.
This story also made me think, more than any other play, of Zagreus! That's a really bad thing as that was possibly representative of the low point in Big Finish's ouevre. They didn't go as overboard with the self-referential crap here, but at times I definitely got the Zagreus feeling, and in some ways this story might have been even worse. It's funny when you can use the Land of Fiction for an excuse for bad storytelling, but not *that* funny, and certainly not the very principle on which to base your tale. I feel a great affinity for Big Finish and what they are doing. I'm very critical of some of their stories and I feel they play it safe a little too much sometimes, trying to appeal to certain pre-established fan demographics rather than trailblazing in a way that the television series couldn't, but audio is a great medium for Doctor Who and the team's professionalism and classy productions deserve all kinds of praise. Every series has runs of good and bad stories and I'm not going to jump ship because sometimes there seems to be more bad than good, but I would ask Big Finish to carefully consider their audience, don't talk down to us and remember that we're well aware that we're fans of a fictional universe and probably get out enough that we don't need to be reminded of it.