The Companion Chronicles have always been a little disappointing to me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand their purpose. There are good stories still to be told for the Doctors no longer with us, and a good companion centric story can be fun, but it’s fair to say the early entires weren’t always that entertaining. The narration aspect brings the whole thing closer to audio-book feel than a play, and that hasn’t always been used to great effect. Except, of course, for the Third Doctor. This might be a personal bias, Pertwee’s run is quite easily my favourite chapter of the original series. I think the calibre of actors helps though. Caroline John and Katy Manning are still excellent performers, and with the Third Doctor’s tenure confined to one place and time, I think it’s easier to take the listener back to UNIT without having to work too hard.
They also occasionally excel at filling those little gaps we miss, plug holes fans have long wondered about. The Blue Tooth hits three of these, addressing why Liz Shaw left UNIT so abruptly, correcting the absence of Cybermen from Pertwee’s run, and finally detailing the origin of that absurd floppy white hat Shaw wore that time. It’s probably my favourite of the early Companion Chronicles, and after re-listening for this review, it’s not hard to see why.
It begins when Liz Shaw goes to visit an old University friend who doesn’t show. She decides to visit her at her home and tease her for forgetting, but it seems like nobody is home. Until she sees someone twitching at the bedroom curtain. She uses the spare key to sneak in and discovers a gruesome sight. The place is a mess, there’s some melted electrical junk in the fireplace, and the cat has suffered a gruesome death. Distraught, she calls the Doctor only to find he’s on his way already. Other scientists in the area have been vanishing under unusual circumstances.
Once the Doctor arrives, he identifies the charred remains of a television in the melted gloop, and comes to the conclusion that something was eating it. Liz and the Doctor join with UNIT to investigate the scenes of the other disappearances. The only connection that can find between them is that each person received a letter from the University Dentist. While the Brigadier and the Doctor investigate a coincidentally timed suicide, Liz goes to check out the dentist. While there, she passes out and wakes up to find the dentist has given her a filling. In a daze she stumbles out and drifts off again until she becomes aware The Doctor is bringing her round.
The Doctor informs Liz that the body from the suicide was being controlled by some sort of living blue metal that still seems to be alive even though the body is dead. As the continue to investigate, the find more traces of the metal being spread by little silver robots. The Doctor identifies them as Cybermats. From there, the story becomes something of a body horror story, as the Cybermats manage to infect a UNIT soldier, who attempts to pass the infection on. Liz also discovers the filling in her tooth is made of the same blue metal, and is potentially working to transform her into the same creature.
While the Doctor works on an antidote, the tooth starts to do its work on Liz and calls her back to her friend’s home. There she finds the wreckage of a crashed Cyberman ship, buried since the events of The Invasion, and the source of the cybermats. When the Doctor finally arrives to rescue her, he discovers the leader of the Cybermen isn’t quite what he seems. A human scientist who discovered the wreckage and was taken over by it. He tries to reason with it but fails and has to use the antidote against them to save Liz.
When it’s all over, Liz is clearly unsettled, while the Doctor is disturbed to find the Brigadier has turned his antidote into a new weapon.
This is such a great story for so many reasons, but the biggest is probably what makes it the most authentic for this era. This is a horror story. Not just a Brain of Morbius type gag horror, but Shop Window Dummies coming to life, dolls animating in the back seat, empty astronauts returning to earth wrong horror. This is the story of a dentist who gives you fillings that eat you out from the inside, metal maggots that crawl into your skin and run around corrupting you. It’s done in a family friendly way, but this takes the concept of Cyber-Conversion and turns it into The Fly. It feels like a UNIT story through and through, with real people facing a threat from unusual types of life that they just aren’t prepared for. It’s so strong, and it’s Liz’s story too. This is a companion that often gets the short end of the stick, and here she’s really strong.
The Doctor isn’t that captivating in it, of course, but it’s difficult to do that sometimes with the format. He appears, he invents the antidote, and gets to be typically disappointed when humanity lets him down, but here he takes a back seat to just how hideous the Cybermen are.
And speaking of the Cybermen. A common criticism of the Cybermen, particularly these days, is that all they really do is threaten and march. Sure, they’ve had their schemes, but they’re essentially an army enemy. Here they find a whole new angle on them that explores them almost as a disease, a race of malicious sci-fi zombies. And it’s effective. I can’t think of a story that has ever made conversion feel so viscerally frightening. So much so that the story never feels the need to go beyond that. We see very few old school, full form Cybermen here, and even then it isn’t as we expect.
Liz Shaw is probably an underrated companion. I can’t say she’s one of my favourites, but this story finds another Liz in there, a Liz who has a life beyond science. That captured my interest, and the Cybermen seal the deal. This is a really solid story, that never feels like it wouldn’t fit in its era. It might never have got past the BBC censors, but it’s UNIT Who through and through.