Doctor Who – ‘Alien Heart / Dalek Soul’ reviewed

❉ This pair of stories are good showcases for  a team that deserved more screen-time on TV.

There was always something oddly appealing about the two-part stories from Peter Davison’s television run on Doctor Who. Admittedly, they weren’t great stories, and at least one wasn’t even an especially good story. What they were, though, were nice changes of pace, pleasant diversions from the heavier narratives that variously preceded or followed them.

They were also great showcases for their star. Davison is often underrated as a Doctor – and an actor – especially in the US. Even in an undeniably strong story like The Caves of Androzani, it’s easy to overlook his contribution, because virtually everything else in the story is great as well. In contrast, a lesser story like The King’s Demons, which doesn’t have a lot going for it beyond a credible period setting, makes it apparent just how much quiet conviction he brings to the role of the Doctor.

This month’s release from Big Finish’s main Doctor Who range follows in this tradition in two ways. Not only is it a pair of two-part stories, Alien Heart (by Stephen Cole) and Dalek Soul (by Guy Adams), but both are also good showcases for Davison. Paired with Sarah Sutton as Nyssa – a team that deserved more screen-time on TV – he’s in fine form. Because the TARDIS was fairly full for most of his original run as the Doctor, Davison never really had the opportunity to click with a single companion onscreen the way Jon Pertwee’s Doctor did with Jo Grant or McCoy’s incarnation did with Ace. As with many things about his tenure, the Big Finish stories have redressed that balance with this Doctor and Nyssa.

The conventional wisdom holds that having a companion who’s intellectually comparable to the Doctor is a bad idea. Whether or not this is accurate overall, the tandem of Davison’s Doctor with Nyssa certainly works well here. Both stories in this release have very small casts, but each depicts a much larger scale of events than you’d expect for their relatively short lengths. While the high stakes are one respect in which the stories here are a departure from their TV antecedents, they’re well-suited to the earnestness that comes naturally to Davison’s Doctor and Nyssa.

This is especially true in Alien Heart, where his indignation at the effects of a horrific weapon is palpable. Even when he realizes his initial suspicions were mistaken, his drive to solve the mystery is undiminished. Though Nyssa is separated from the Doctor early on, she too has a battle to fight, as she struggles to keep someone from committing an act of mass destruction. Therein lies the beauty of this story. The events may have universe-shaking implications, but the drama never loses focus on the actions of individuals.

The same is true – albeit in a very different way – of Dalek Soul. When used properly, the Daleks have an ability to push even familiar characters to extremes, and this story is no exception. A cloud of desperation hangs over the events, and neither the Doctor or Nyssa act quite as we expect them to. There is, of course, a very good reason for this within the narrative, one that likewise hangs over the resolution like a cloud making the listener ponder the nature of the victory.

The timing of this release is particularly striking, coming on the heels of three releases reuniting Davison with his original trio of companions. Where stories like The Contingency Club consciously sought to recreate the feel of a certain era of televised Doctor Who, Alien Heart and Dalek Soul evoke an era that never really was (but should have been). It’s heartening that Big Finish’s work can encompass both approaches so effectively. The audio stories haven’t been as transformative to perceptions of Peter Davison’s incarnation of the Doctor as they have to his 1980s successors, but there’s no doubt that he’s been able to show greater depth overall than his time on TV allowed.


❉ Doctor Who – ‘Alien Heart/Dalek Soul’ is released by Big Finish Productions in April 2017.

 

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