Friday, 27 May 2016

Bonus Releases V. Return of the Daleks by Nicholas Briggs (December 2006)

December 2006’s “bonus release” sees the first instance of a Doctor crossing over into spin-off media, as he steps directly into the world of Dalek Empire, of Susan Mendes and Kalendorf*; it gives us a world-weary Seventh Doctor near the very end of his life, long after Ace and Hex have left him; it provides the audio debut of the Ogrons and a sequel to 1973’s Planet of the Daleks, addressing what happened to the frozen Dalek army left on Spiridon at the end of that story; and it marks an interesting position in the Russell-to-Briggs handover, as the last gasp of an Briggs-written/scored audio before he takes on various other responsibilities within the company: quite a lot of note for a mere 61 minutes. So much, in fact, that I’m not convinced it entirely works (the framing device stuff and huge time-span, Briggs’ favourite Dalek Empire staples, go a bit far here, and both feel a bit rushed), but there was at least a decent amount to hold my interest. It’s inevitably a fun bridge between two worlds, neither quite a Dalek Empire story nor a Doctor Who story.

On the Dalek Empire side of the equation, this story takes place during the Dalek occupation of Zaleria/Spiridon, between Episodes 2 and 3 of the first series, way back when Suz was the Angel of Mercy and a reluctant Dalek collaborator. Sarah Mowat and Gareth Thomas return to their old roles with ease (though ‘ease’ would not describe the difficult relationship between their characters at this point) and the Doctor’s presence doesn’t detract from their own achievements and concerns, although I found it a little hard to get back into the details of where they were at on their journey and from which vantage point/framing device Suz was narrating and so perhaps I would have preferred to listen to this in its proper in-universe position. Some of Ainsworth’s direction is a bit confusing, and doesn’t always make the play clear to follow. Still, everything is as well-acted as ever; Suz gets to do a few more of her famous broadcasts very successfully, while Kalendorf and McCoy are particularly good opposite one another. And coupling the fate of the Spiridons with the bargains with the devil Suz and Kalendorf have had to make is quite a neat move.

Back when discussing Invasion of the Daleks, the very first instalment of Dalek Empire, I praised it for creating a “whole fictional landscape in which Daleks are ubiquitous, in which they rule the roost, in which essentially the entire narrative revolves around them, with no hero to distract us”, and called the series “in one sense, the ultimate instance of Dalek fetishism – Daleks freed from the bothersome shackles of Doctor Who itself, divorced of the context in which they were originally created. The child has rejected the parent, as it were. In 2001, Daleks are now worth stories in themselves”. Back when discussing The Exterminators and The Healers, two instalments of Dalek Empire III, I commented that the Doctor’s absence “haunts” the narrative and that the Daleks are in some sense creatures “defined by his absence… the Not-Doctors”. Surely such views would take something of a battering in light of a story in which the Doctor literally joins the narrative of Dalek Empire? Certainly, it is a weird and transgressive moment when a Dalek stating that “nothing must be allowed to interfere with our plan!” fades into the sound of the TARDIS materialising – which we simply do not expect to hear by this point, as though such interference is against all the narrative rules.

And yet, to do so is still to have something of a destabilising effect on the character. He appears alone, stripped of the familiar Doctor Who trapping of one or two trusty friends. The story opens with him recovering from light-wave sickness, unsure of himself and checking his face in a mirror as though in the middle of an identity crisis, as though he expects his seventh life to be over. As if to confirm that this is not quite the status quo (and as if to complement Suz & Kal’s necessary cooperation with the Daleks), the Doctor spends swathes of this story – in fact, several years – as a Dalek prisoner, which isn’t the sort of thing that usually happens to him. McCoy’s performance is very, very good, allowing his more subdued side to come to the fore (though still with tender, humane moments like saying “I trust you” in response to the age-old “why should I trust you?” question), and yet he doesn’t function here like he would in a traditional Doctor Who story – he turns up around the edges, advises, comments, and gives warnings, before fading away again into the night, leaving Suz, Kalendorf et al to fend for themselves. What plays here is a small part in a much larger canvas, the broader epic that is Dalek Empire. It is as though he can turn up in this, one of their darkest hours, to secure their survival and place in history, but not later in Dalek Empire when things get even worse: for the Seventh Doctor is that warmest yet most terrible of things – the kind of god who can only come to your aid… sometimes.

Other things:
*RIP actor Gareth Thomas, who sadly passed away between my first listening to Dalek Empire and my return to his marvellous character and performance here.
No, I don’t think it’s the best title in the world either. After Invasion and Return, we now only need Attack of the Daleks to complete the B-movie-sounding set.
The score is excellent – I’d forgotten how good Briggs can be – that ominous piano at the start is beautiful, and complements McCoy’s moody delivery very well, really selling the idea of the lonely god bereft of his companions. “All gone. Of course… time passes…history moves on…”
Is it me or do Christine Brennan and Sarah Mowat sound rather similar?
I like the spaced-out beat of Bar Zaleria.
“I thought I wasn’t meant to interfere, but that can’t be right.”
“I’m working for the Daleks now and I really must get started.”
“That should do it!” says the Doctor… the first words he says in The TV Movie. Interesting. I like the idea that the time that passes in this story is part of what makes him look so much older by the time he regenerates in San Francisco in 1999, and that this and perhaps Master are two of his last adventures before he is summoned to Skaro for the Master’s trial. The only problem is that this whole ‘several years pass’ segment is a bit of an afterthought in a play that’s only an hour long; but on the plus side, McCoy does some dramatic vocal work in these last five minutes or so, gleeful and vicious and desperate in equal measure.
“I defeated you again, Daleks. Catch me if you can!”

Next: Paul Cornell’s eagerly-awaited return to Big Finish to kick off the year in which he adapts Human Nature for TV. Everyone’s favourite Anglicanism/Doctor Who crossover artist is back for 091 Circular Time, co-written with Mike Maddox.

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