Daleks. Whether you love them, hate them, or are just plain indifferent about them, few would fail to acknowledge the huge impact and sheer importance they have played in the legacy of Doctor Who. As one of the key ingredients of it’s initial, as well as it’s enduring, popularity. As one of the primary visual cornerstones of it’s iconography. And as a vital chapter in the lore of the show, and the journey of it’s lead character. They are an enemy that have helped shape the very nature and personality of The Doctor himself. And here they are, the first of The Doctor’s famous rogues gallery to be given the Big Finish Doctor Who audio treatment. So, how do they fare? Please join me to find out.
“Why can’t we ever land on nice planets?”
Episode 1: The Seventh Doctor and Ace arrive at the library of Kar-Charrat, a hidden repository that claims to house all of the knowledge of the universe. Meanwhile, in the dense forrest outside, a salvage team has arrived with plans to steal the ancient alien ziggurat, the origins of which are shrouded in mystery.
Right off the bat, this story has quite a lot to live up to. Not the least of which being that the Seventh Doctor’s previous encounter with Terry Nation’s erstwhile bank balance boosters was in a certain Remembrance of the Daleks, a story widely considered to be the first real and legitimate triumph of the McCoy era. After a decidedly rough start, to put it very kindly, the Daleks marked the beginning of a sea-change in terms of both quality and content for McCoy’s incarnation of The Doctor. It wouldn’t be a perfect journey by any means, but they now had a direction and a handle on who the Seventh Doctor was, and how he would, and should, behave, and the show was all the better for it in the two seasons that followed. So, after a somewhat shaky start for McCoy’s Doctor on audio, can the Daleks do the same for him again here?
In a word. No. In a lot more words, it was probably too much to hope for, and for a great many reasons. The most notable, and succinct, one being that the previous McCoy audio stories were nowhere near as bad as the vast majority of his first TV season, and this story is nowhere near as good as Remembrance of the Daleks. That’s not to damn this story too harshly, nor to dismiss it out of hand. The fact is that this is just a rather paint by numbers, traditional Dalek tale, with little new to add to the old familiar flavour. Now that may in fact be a smart move in the long run, giving the folks at Big Finish the opportunity to get to grips with the Daleks in the safety of a rather standard Dalek story, but in practice, from this listeners point of view, it can’t help but be a little disappointing as well.
As to the first episode itself, it does a fair enough job of putting all of the main pieces in place, moves at a decent pace, and it is an enjoyable enough listen, even if The Doctor’s reason for visiting the library on Kar-Charrat feels a bit forced and obvious. There are the kernels of some interesting ideas here though, some of which will prove to be more successful than others.
“Humans are impatient. Daleks have no such weakness.”
Episode 2: The Doctor is greatly concerned upon discovering that the Daleks have not only become aware of the library’s existence, but also know of it’s location. Elsewhere, Ace has a decidedly more immediate problem of her own.
Which brings us into the second episode, where the Daleks really start to take hold of the story, after, again, a rather familiar ‘big entrance’ moment towards the end of the first episode. And the first thing that strikes me is that the Daleks don’t sound quite right. They still sound like Daleks, but the delivery seems just a little too fast, the vocal effects just a little too soft. And at times it makes me wonder if this is what a Dalek on speed would sound like.
Of course it is important to point out two things here. One, this is Dalek-meister Nicholas Briggs’ first official Dalek work, and so it is actually impressive that they sound as good as they do for a first effort. And we all know how good he’d get at being Mr Dalek in the years to come. And two, as I’m still quite new to Big Finish Doctor Who audio, I’m actually far more used to hearing a much later, more finessed version of Briggs’ Daleks, as done for the modern era of the TV show, so that may be throwing me a little bit too. Here he is trying to replicate the McCoy era Daleks, and while it does seem, to me, to be just a little bit off the mark, at the end of the day that’s just being ultra picky, and there’s still no doubting that these are Daleks we are listening to. Daleks with a substance abuse problem, maybe, but Daleks nonetheless.
One thing I will take Briggs to task for, just a little bit, is the voice of his Emperor Dalek, which just kind of grated on me more and more with each appearance. The Emperor Dalek here just seems more petulant than imposing, which is not exactly what one might expect from the supposed all-powerful leader of the Daleks. Mind you, I should also mention that I have never actually listened to the audio for the mostly lost Troughton story The Evil of the Daleks, where the Emperor Dalek made his debut, so it might be absolutely spot on for all I know. The only thing that I do know is that here, for me, it wasn’t particularly effective, and I would have preferred something that sounded a little more powerful and imposing, even outright scary.
Which brings us to the other performances. And they’re all pretty good, really. McCoy and Aldred once again ably prove just how well they work together, and though there are precious few real standout moments for either of their characters to latch on to in the script, they both give consistently fine performances throughout, particularly McCoy. And happily, there are none of the performance variations here that occurred in their previous outing, The Fearmonger, either. Guest stars Louise Faulkner and Daniel Gabriel both provide nice support, even if they aren’t given a terribly lot to do in the greater scheme of things. While I was slightly less enthused by Bruce Montague’s chief librarian Elgin, however that may be more down to the actual character rather than the actor in question. Much like Mike Tucker’s story itself, the cast all do a solid enough job, without ever truly managing to surprise.
“This planet is now under Dalek control.”
Episode 3: The Daleks have taken the library, but what do they truly seek to gain? And what is the truth behind the so-called Phantoms of Kar-Charrat?
In the third episode things actually start to pick up quite a bit, and parts of the story genuinely do become decidedly more interesting. Problem is, as mentioned previously, many of those potentially interesting ideas don’t always work so well in practice, particularly in an audio based story format, or at least in the way they have been presented here. And so for every interesting idea or plot point, there seems to be another one that just seems either overly convoluted, or that, in practice, comes across as a little bit silly.
And honestly, I know that this is just the opening salvo in what would ultimately lead into the Dalek Empire saga, but by the end of the story I’m still not entirely sure why the Daleks even bothered with this particular master plan, much less laid in wait so long to implement it. You’d think that in a thousand plus years of waiting they might have come up with a better plan than “let’s try to build an ultra smart Dalek again“, because let’s face facts, that one never really works out for them.
Also, with exactly how things unfold here, you would think that the Daleks would have seen the end results of the whole Dalek Sec and Dalek Caan saga coming a mile off. But like I said, it seems that Daleks never learn. Though some writers certainly seem to pay a bit more attention, eh Mr Russell T. Davies?
The script, though mostly solid, also throws out a few dodgy Ace-isms, the likes of which felt dated even back in the eighties. Honestly, I kind of hoped that this would be one area the Big Finish Doctor Who audio stories would move away from a bit. At least she doesn’t frequently scream “Ace!” here, which was always a facepalm moment for me whenever it happened in the show. I mean, we get it. Your (nick)name is Ace. You have a jacket that says Ace on it, on both the front and the back. And the name Dorothy isn’t exactly catchy. But you don’t need to make your nickname your constant catchphrase too. Really. You don’t. You really, really don’t. Ever. And that goes for you too, writers of Ace.
On the flip-side, I actually really liked the concept of the Phantoms of Kar-Charrat, and the entire storyline that weaved about them. Sentient creatures that live in a seemingly normal, non-threatening, and everyday common place, and who use the bodies of the dead to communicate, it is one of the things that really does work exceptionally well here. And the key setting of a library that ostensibly contains all the collected knowledge of the universe is a rather good one to have The Doctor visit as well. Both things I think a certain Mr Steven Moffat might well agree with.
And as we move into the final episode, I must take a moment to compliment the sound design. I may have the odd nitpick with exactly how the Daleks sound, but even so, the sound work achieved in this story is second to none, and impressively sets a mood and tone that does a lot to dress up any shortfalls the story itself may have. The whole thing genuinely feels like a Dalek story, and the exceptional sound work is a major part of the reason for that.
“We live in the rain.”
Episode 4: As the Daleks attempt to instigate their plan, the true horror behind the library of Kar-Charrat is unveiled. And The Doctor is not pleased.
I don’t think it’s a major spoiler to say that the Dalek plan doesn’t exactly work out. The Doctor gets a nice moment of moral outrage. Which is nice. And momentary. So momentary in fact that he seems to largely forget about it almost immediately. The drawn out gag of Elgin’s silent assistant Prink reaches it’s long overdue, and blatantly unsurprising, conclusion. The imprisoned are freed, and everyone is free to go off on their merry way, as the spectre of the Dalek threat remains. And that’s about it really.
Once again, it may seem like I am being rather harsh or overly dismissive here, but the truth is this is just a pretty bog standard Dalek story. It doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, but nor does it do much that is particularly special or memorable either. We’ve seen, and heard, it all before. And really, that, more than anything else, is it’s biggest sin. And without the distracting polish of any breakout characters or standout performances to spur it on, just how routine a story it truly is becomes even more abundantly clear. It’s not by any means bad, it was still nice to hear the Daleks on audio, and I still had a reasonably good time listening, I just don’t know if I’ll remember any of it in the morning. In my defence though, I am a goldfish.
It seems that my Big Finish Doctor Who audio journey with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor remains a decidedly rocky one. And I’ll have to get through quite a few more audio stories before his Seventh Doctor returns for another chance. But when he does arrive next time it seems that he’s bringing Mel along with him. God help me.
Next up: Peter Davison returns in Red Dawn