Big Finish has been having great success producing popular (and critically acclaimed) Doctor Who full cast audio dramas, but is always on the look out to expand its line beyond simply Doctor Who. And part of that has been to try spin-offs from Doctor Who that could benefit from the association, while nonetheless allowing them to create a new property — ranging from Jago & Litefoot, to Graceless, to Vienna.
With Dalek Empire — mostly written and directed by Nicholas Briggs — they took the recurring alien villains from Doctor Who and feature them in sagas in which the Doctor doesn’t appear — allowing them to create new heroes and, arguably, a darker, grittier air (since there’s no Time Lord in a magic box to sweep in and save the day). Think of it in the way there have been whole franchises created around the creatures from Alien, or The Predator movies — same villains, different heroes. (Funnily, I think there was talk of a Dalek-focused TV series in the 1960s!) And you don’t really need to be familiar with Doctor Who to listen to these (since the Daleks could be any alien invaders). There are occasional cryptic references but not important to understanding the plot here (though Big Finish preceded this series with a few official Doctor Who plays under the umbrella title Dalek Empire).
The potential downside for someone like me is that, for all the Daleks are Doctor Who’s most identifiable villains — they are really, really annoying. I mean, they are one-dimensional and their shrill voices are grating and the prospect of a whole (audio) series featuring them just seemed uninspiring. So I gave this a pass for a long time. But it turns out that at times it’s shockingly good!
Series I and Series II (2001-2003)
The first two series (four episodes per series and ranging from about 55 to 70 min each episode) form one eight episode arc, albeit with a shift in focus. The first series, instead of being simply plucky heroes getting into big fights with Daleks — which could be bland and just noisy in audio — actually goes for a more intriguing theme, about living under the occupation of the fascist Daleks. Two of the main heroes being Susan “Suz” Mendes (Sarah Mowat) and Kalendorf (Gareth Thomas) who manage to convince the Daleks they will get better use out of their captured populations by treating them humanely, rather than exclaiming “exterminate” at the drop of a hat. So Suz is working to save human lives, dubbed the “Angel of Mercy” in the occupied human colonies — but is equally viewed as a human traitor, the public face advocating collaboration with the Daleks. A moral quandary that eats away at her and Kalendorf both — even though they are secretly working with the resistance in a long term plan to overthrow the Daleks. As I say, it’s a smarter, more political/character based story than you might expect (and putting me in mind of the early 1980s U.S. TV mini-series, “V”, also about covert resistance under an occupation rather than simply shoot outs). Additional characters include a government agent, Alby (Mark McDonnell), more actively fighting Daleks on the outside of the occupied planets — but in love with Suz and trying to reunite with her. Although building to a climax after four episodes — it ends on a cliff hanger taking us into series two.
Here it’s more what I first expected — a lot of interstellar fighting with Daleks, except with an added twist that the humans have found an unlikely — and uncertain — ally. It’s certainly grandiose and “big-budget” — but it’s also quite compelling, with a heavy helping of secret agendas, double crosses, and moral quandaries, with maybe more focus on Kalendorf. That is season one could be seen as about Suz and Kalendorf (as well as Alby and others) while series two is more about Kalendorf and Suz (and Alby and others). There are some initially confusing, but ultimately effective, narrative tricks in the second series as each episode begins further in the story than you left it, as if you missed something — only to then have flashbacks fill in the gaps, And with the whole thing being framed by people millennia in the future reflecting back on the events. Although it ends setting things up for the third series set in this distant future, nonetheless the first two series form a complete and quite gripping epic. And one helped by good performances and interesting characters (and a nice, nonchalant use of U.K. dialects, with various characters English, Scottish, Welsh).
And with a special mention of Gareth Thomas, and a clever bit of typecasting — as Thomas is known to SF fans as the rebel hero Blake in TV’s Blake 7 (which Big Finish later added to its audio-only catalogue). So there is an added resonance to him playing another erudite sci-fi rebel — as if it’s Blake battling Daleks! He’s also just very good (based on this and other things I‘ve heard, Thomas seems fully comfortable with audio acting) — as is the cast in general.
For someone sceptical about the project, I must say the Series I/Series II arc is quite an impressive, intelligent, exciting and memorable sci-fi epic — all the moreso as it’s completely original to audio, as opposed to being adapted from some novel or something. To be honest, if it had been higher profile, written as a novel, or filmed as a movie or TV mini-series — I suspect it might be considered an SF classic!
Series III (2004)
Series II was framed by characters in a distant future learning about those long past events. Series III begins in that future — a future so far removed from the Dalek wars that the Daleks don’t even exist as a rumour! So when there are vague and unconfirmed reports about a possible incursion by mysterious “Daleks” it is treated more as a curiosity than a galactic threat.
In a way, Series III is more like what I might have expected from the series — at least, it seems like a more traditional Dr. Who type take on a Dalek story only, y’know, without Dr. Who. Yet it too emerges as a surprisingly exceptional effort — here spread over 6 episodes (although some of the episodes begin with a deliberately choppy mash-up of overlapping scenes that might put off a listener — but they settle down quickly into more conventional tellings). In this case the Dalek’s are just an added factor in an emerging galactic schism as some outer colony worlds start to secede from a interplanetary alliance, the regional schism partly fuelled by the colonies being struck by a plague and quarantined by the central worlds. A plague the Daleks claim they can cure, so form an alliance with the rebel worlds. So there are themes of prejudice, regional bigotry, fascism and “following orders.”
The strength here is the unusually big cast of characters. So we get a rather broad canvassed view of the building conflict, essentially three or four different storylines that slowly tie together, the various characters becoming drawn into each other’s story — ranging from planetary park wardens on a world who are the first to discover the Dalek’s sinister side, to Galactic intelligence agents trying to figure out what’s going on, and more. It’s also got a uniformly fine cast, including David Tennant, Ishia Bennison, William Gaunt, Steve Elder, Laura Rees and others all bringing the roles to life, giving us people that involve us (and, as mentioned, it’s an unusually large cast for a BF audio drama — indeed, the overall production seems like BF spared few expenses).
A special mention must go to David Tennant, whose character doesn’t even come into play until an episode or two, but quickly emerges as one of the central heroes. Tennant had already worked with BF on a few projects, and would shortly be cast as Dr. Who on TV. But despite Tennant facing off against Dalek’s — you don’t find yourself thinking of his Dr. Who too much, his character here sufficiently different. And Tennant always seems comfortable with audio and radio plays — and is an effective and vocally charismatic performer.
As I say, it might seem less “atypical” compared to Series I/II, but it’s equally ambitious in its own way and quite a gripping, top drawer effort, keeping you guessing where and how it’ll all tie together, and with interesting characters to keep you emotionally involved. You don’t generally need familiarity with Series I/II (given it’s set thousands of years later) but it does tie into it and make references to it occasionally. Strangely, although it does build to a climax, it still feels as though it was meant to continue into the next series since the climax is more about the heroes finally exposing the Dalek threat rather than actually stopping it. But maybe since Dalek battle stories are a dime a dozen in Dr. Who, they figured this was the more interesting story to tell.
Because by the time series IV came along (many months later) it had no relation to Series III and, indeed, was throwback to the era of Series I…
Series IV (released 2007)
As mentioned, series IV is a throwback to the era of series I — an untold story from another part of the war. It took a long time to get made, and one might wonder if that was partly because creator Nicholas Briggs himself was running out of ideas. Because it’s probably the weakest of the three arcs and it’s certainly the most traditional, or at least most like what I expected the series to be from the beginning. A big, brash, testosterone-driven, grunts in space adventure. In this case the focus is on a Salus Kade, a single-minded, takes no guff space soldier, as well as General Landen, the superior officer who first recruited him.
There’s plenty of action and shooting and daring space missions (the plot two or three stories that segue into each other). But even here there’s a certain ambition in terms of the characterization. At first Kade seems a bit one-note, just the driven, single-focus, soldier’s-soldier, but eventually you realize the characterization is kind of at the heart of it, and particularly the uneasy relationship between Kade and Landen. The casting is definitely aimed at Whovians, with Kade played by Noel Clarke (Mickey from the modern Dr. Who TV series) and Maureen O’Brien as Landen (who played young Vicky years ago during the Hartnell years). Both are good — especially O’Brien (ironic given she admits in interviews she doesn’t like sci-fi) — and nothing like their more familiar Who roles. Indeed, there was some suggestion that Kade was specifically written for Clarke as a counterpoint to his comical Mickey persona — and that the serious, macho Kade is closer to his real personality!
It isn’t that series IV is bad just, as I say, more what you would expect from the Dalek concept — and part of the reason I was hesitant to try the series to begin with. Though the third episode tries an interesting trick of telling the scenes in reverse order (unless there was something wrong with my copy!) which created an interesting suspense, as we’re waiting to see, not what will happen, but what led up to what’s happening. But the characters aren’t as complex (and being mainly soldiers, of limited personality types) and with its smaller core cast, the plotting isn’t as twisty.
So as I say: Series IV is certainly okay, and might better appeal to those who like their military SF ala Starship Troopers. But the early arcs are the more intriguing, with bigger core casts, and more Byzantine plotting — from the compelling political/moral dilemmas of Series I/II to the twisty, multi-character espionage-like plot of Series III.
All in all, for someone like me who was dubious about the Dalek-focus nature of the series, I’ve got to admit they delivered some surprisingly rich and ambitious — and entertaining — epics.