Episode One (2/8/2002)
‘Cybermen have fascinated me and my family for years.’ The second BBCi serial is, technically at least, a step up from Death Comes to Time, with increased animation and more detailed Lee Sullivan artwork which captures good likenesses of most of the characters (Colin Baker looks a bit of a bruiser). It also introduces the sixth Doctor’s blue costume, which has given Character Options the chance to do two further action figures, so that’s all good.
This first episode is largely set up, including a slightly discouraging open that suggests the whole story is going to be wiped from history. Much of it is exposition, explaining he history of the Cybermen and the backdrop of the 33rd Century. Oddly, less time is spent introducing new companion Evelyn Smythe – although presumably most people who watched this would at least have been aware of her presence in Big Finish’s tie-in audios.
The tweaked Cyberman design looks good, and the opening hook (a desperate message from a survey team) is strong. A bit too much of the run time involves Colin Baker chatting about a wall to Lee and Herring while Maggie Stables natters to Yee Jee Tso, but it can’t be all action all of the time.
Episode Two (9/8/2002)
‘So, the Doctor’s willing to sacrifice us just to make a point.’ It’s probably a limitation of the format, but given they’re being pursued by Cybermen there doesn’t seem to be much urgency in the Doctor and friends’ attempts to escape. Instead, they stand about making polite chat – because you can’t spell conversation without conversion.
Nothing in this is hugely surprising: the expedition’s administrator, Isherwood, is willing to cut a deal with the Cybermen for his own benefit; the Cybermen want the TARDIS and access to time travel. The new Cyberman design continues to be impressive: this includes some grisly illustrations of mechanisms snaking into bruised flesh. The best moment is the cliffhanger reveal that the CyberController plans for the Doctor to be his successor.
Episode Three (16/8/2002)
‘We can wander around pretty much as we want chatting freely.’ I like the acknowledgement that these Cybermen, the last gasp of a dead order, aren’t exactly up to scratch. They can’t fit the TARDIS through the doors of the temple, for a start. There’s some drama as the Doctor mocks them until they threaten to rip off his arm, and then when he hints to Isherwood that Yee Jee Tso’s character might not be all he seems.
But in general, this doesn’t have the sense of urgency the title implies. We’re told at one point that there are only 35 minutes until a temporal wave strikes, but no one seems to be in a rush to do anything about it, as if the limited animation has seeped into the script too. It doesn’t help that the cast isn’t as strong as Death Comes to Time’s. Still, at least the cliffhanger – Evelyn threatened with Cyberisation – is another good one.
Episode Four (23/8/2002)
‘I’m bloody terrified.’ The best episode yet, as both Colin Baker and Maggie Stables get to perform some meatier material than in the first half. The Doctor mounts a rousing defence of friendship, while Evelyn courageously confronts the CyberController and appeals directly to the human being it used to be, evidently needling it in the process.
On the downside, despite a couple of mentions of time ticking, there’s still no real urgency to any of this as evidenced by the Doctor and Evelyn taking time out to soliloquise. Given Evelyn is in the Cybermen’s clutches you’d expect the Doctor might be desperately trying to save her. Instead, he seems practically laid back. Again, it’s the cliffhanger that provides some impetus – with Yee Jee Tso revealed as an advanced Cyberman apparently created by whatever the Doctor is about to do.
Episode Five (30/8/2002)
‘Convert her now!’ This reminds me of Mindwarp, with a lengthy, nasty and sadistic sequence of Richard Herring having his skull crushed like a watermelon, and Evelyn subjected to horrific brain surgery in a similar manner as Peri, while the Doctor potters about at his own pace rather than racing to save his companion. That said, it’s another great cliffhanger in a story that excels at them.
Elsewhere, this is the exposition-heavy episode, with Yee Jee Tso’s Goddard revealing he’s a rebel Cyberman from a timeline where the Cybermen conquered Gallifrey, became CyberLords, defeated the Daleks and Sontarans and unleashed a Cyber virus on Earth in 1927. Now, Goddard plans to use a reverse-engineered virus to take out the Cybermen – creating a time paradox, as the Doctor helpfully points out. Meanwhile, the CyberController reveals his own history, and the reason why he’s done such a shoddy upgrade job on his Cybermen. With events converging in the Cyber base, finally there’s a sense of momentum going into the finale.
Episode Six (6/9/2002)
‘No, it can’t be, Evelyn!’ So Dr Smythe is a CyberWoman now, and heading back to 1927 to create the horrifying future (the Cyber conversion chamber is probably the most horrid thing in the entire show) they’ve just escaped. Again, it’s a good cliffhanger, but it was probably a mistake to end the story with one that’s never been followed up. As such, Real Time seems oddly adrift: like Death Comes to Time it seems to embrace its own irrelevance to the wider canon, existing in a little ‘unbound’ bubble like many of the BBCi plays. The only thing that’s had any wider impact is the blue costume.
After complaining of a lack of urgency for five episodes, the final episode is too busy, with almost all the characters quickly killed off, and reversals in scheme and fortune happening moment to moment (for instance, the CyberController halts then restarts the conversions of Evelyn and Isherwood). I think this would have worked better if this hadn’t all been packed into the last 10 minutes.
Overall, this is the weakest of the BBCi stories. It’s not an outright disaster, but it never quite clicks into place, and the decision to try to make it the start of a series that never materialised rather than something satisfactory and complete in itself is a flaw. While Baker and Stables are a good pair, they don’t spend nearly enough time together, and anyone unfamiliar with Big Finish is unlikely to be able to fill in the gaps listening to this. It doesn’t work as a good introduction to them. And it’s curious why BBCi would want to use Evelyn rather than inventing their own companion, or even their own Doctor. Lessons seem to have been learned.
Next episode: Shada