Sword of Orion by Nicholas Briggs

It doesn’t surprise me one little bit that, after a couple of years doing these reviews, Sword of Orion remains unaddressed. There is something about it which simply defies explanation. The best I can do is offer this snippet from Wiki -

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is generally known to the public by DuPont's brand name Teflon. PTFE has the lowest coefficient of friction of any known solid material. It is used as a non-stick coating for pans and other cookware.

And simply change some of the words.

Humansvsandroidswithcybermen (HAWC) is generally known to the public by Big Finish's brand name Sword of Orion. HAWC has the lowest coefficient of friction of any known Doctor Who story. It is used as a non-stick adventure for bedtime and car journeys.

You see, after many years and almost as many attempts I’ve still no real idea what happens in Sword of Orion. It isn’t boring per se – I just don’t know what it is about. I know there is a salvage ship, I know it finds a vessel floating in space, I know there are Cybermen on board that vessel and that those Cybermen try to capture and convert the salvage crew. But there has to be more to it than that. Oh, and some utterly banal stuff about humans fighting a war against androids who stood up for a few rights and got exiled for their trouble. But all that happens off camera so it doesn’t really count.

The characters are basically the same ones Briggs would go on to use in Embrace the Darkness – an infinitely better story – the bossy female who doesn’t have the respect of her crew, the earthly blokes who have generic northern accents and who don’t seem entirely trustworthy and… well that’s about it. It is worse here because we don’t care about any of them – let the Cybermen drill away say I – they’re all bastards anyway. At least we care about the characters in Embrace the Darkness. At least we feel for their suffering. Annoying they may be but they’re basically sympathetic figures. Sword of Orion is basically about the Cybermen wanting to inflict unspeakable horrors on these people and nothing more. There is no threat to Earth or the solar system or a peaceful colony – just these crooks and liars.

And what of the Cybermen, here making their return after umpteen years in the wilderness? Well, Briggs has opted to go back to the 60s model for this story rather than the canon-fodder of the 80s. He has tried to recreate the base-under-siege tension of The Wheel in Space or The Moonbase. Needless to say he fails. For one thing the two stories mentioned are hardly considered classics (except in so far as everything old is now "Classic"). To try and ape mediocrity without ever giving the impression you are trying to improve on it isn’t a recipe for success. Secondly, the Daleks are generally presented as tacticians who use their brain power as much as their firepower. They lay a trap or prepare a scheme and everything runs according to plan until the Doctor outwits them at the final step. The Cybermen tend to need an outside intelligence – the Cyber Planner or the Cyber Controller (or Tobias Vaughn) – to do their thinking for them. This bunch just wander out into the vacuum of space and hope they can clobber their way in. There is no plan, no superior intelligence, no reason to fear them other than they are big and strong. Neither of which works terribly well on audio.

Sword of Orion has no real flaws – the crew aren’t likable but their being human is supposed to be enough for us to want them to survive – but it has no strengths either. It exists but nothing more. Try and love it and you will fail. Try and hate it and you will fail. Try and listen to it and you will succeed. Try and remember the important bits and you will surely fail. You might as well keep it for bed time because losing half an hour here or there will make absolutely no difference what so ever.

And to think they’ve created a spin-off from it.