Once again, I flew into this blind, so to speak—I was listening to it on a coach journey and thus had no notion of the casting, writing, directing, or music credits. I was pleasantly surprised upon finding out it was a Briggs effort through-and-through—he has a chequered record, at best, but this was really one of his stronger plays, in my humble opinion. It was a fairly traditionally-styled Doctor Who; nevertheless, the sound design and music really created a sense of dread and menace that might have been dispelled onscreen (at least if this was an ‘80s Cyberman story). Great care was taken to give a real sense of scale to the star destroyer, with its vast, cold corridors. The music was unusual and never overbearing. You can chalk all this up to Alistair Lock.
This picked up right where Storm Warning left off, so very literally that I had forgotten the Vortisaur Charley and the Doctor were babysitting was named Ramsay. After this bit of confusion, however, I was fairly quickly absorbed into the plot. The story preceded Firefly, but I couldn’t help being reminded of that seminal series in some ways while listening to this: the emptiness of space; smugglers and space-scrap traders on the edge of civilization; the “den of inequity” Charley and the Doctor encounter on Garazone Central; even in the character of Captain Neva Jensen, who like Captain Mal Reynolds, isn’t all that she seems.
It won’t be a surprise to anyone (except the characters, of course) that the Cybermen are in this story; heck, there are even Cybermats! J I know it’s not cool to hold this opinion, but I prefer the “Excellent!” shiny, sometimes paunchy Cybermen of the 1980s to those of our present-day, and so for me it was enjoyable to hear the clanking menaces . . . actually be menaces. Some Doctor Who villains are more suited to audio than others, and I can say with conviction that I believe Cybermen might just be at their peak scariness on audio. Why? Well, we all know what a Cyberman looks like, and if we’ve forgotten what they are, they have to be explained to Charley, who is still within a 1930 vocabulary. Even when being ambushed by Raston Warrior Robots, much of what a Cyberman does can best be expressed on audio, where their voices are almost more frightening than their death-eyed gaze. So, with that in mind, and with the good pacing and natural plot progression of Sword of Orion, along with a touch of “Destiny of the Daleks” and a truly snazzy title, I think it’s possible Sword of Orion is one of the best Cybermen stories ever made.
It is, as I said before, rather traditional in format. The scrap-dealing humans all sound like they’re from the same East End dive as Garron in “The Ribos Operation” (their robot counterparts will come later in The Cannibalists). Except Neva, of course (I was surprised her twist came so far into the story; normally I’m very slow at figuring these things out). Nevertheless, I was pleased with the casting and writing, which introduced a fair number of female voices into the mix, and which managed to (mostly) make the characters interesting and individual. It is not, however, a story where “everybody lives.” The Cybermen are free from glaring emotion and big logical leaps—a welcome reversal from “Revenge of the Cybermen” which I saw for the first time recently.
Paul McGann has his typical, beautifully-voiced, distinctive finesse, and Charley has some witty asides and frequent amusing moments. She reacts very differently to the Cybermats than Victoria did, to her credit. There’s a wonderful moment where she gets to ride an anti-grav hovercraft with the Doctor which speaks to the same joie de vivre of Grace and the Doctor’s motorcycle ride in the TV Movie, or Rose’s first trip in the TARDIS. I like Charley, and she seems to be settling into her role well.