❉ This story knows it’s about nostalgia, and it makes for a fine match with a Doctor who longs for what he’s lost…
Big Finish productions are no strangers to nostalgia. The basic draw is, look, we’ve got your favourite old Doctor Who (and other series) actors or characters back for brand new stories! Their fans love them for the new stories they bring to those old elements, but it’s the old elements that bring people in most of the time, and they know it. In short, there’s nobody more likely to do a nine part love-letter to classic Dalek epics starring David Tennant, and no fandom more excited to lap it up. Lap it up they have, fandom buzz has been going wild for Dalek Universe 1 already. Dalek Universe knows it’s a story about nostalgia, and it makes for a fine match with a Doctor who longs for what he’s lost, earning every bit of buzz it’s got.
But before we get to the Tennant-y goodness, there’s a prologue to reckon with. Released shortly before and billed as a prologue to the series, Nicholas Briggs’ The Dalek Protocol pairs the Fourth Doctor and Leela with Dalek Universe leads Anya Kingdom and Mark Seven in a pseudo-sequel to 1974 serial Death to the Daleks, returning to its setting of Exxilon. There’s a lot of continuity already here, not just coming from that serial, but also Big Finish’s previous sequel, The Exxilons, as well as Anya’s previous audio season companion to the Fourth Doctor, in disguise as policewoman Ann Kelso — still in the future for the Doctor, but in the past for Anya — and Mark’s previous outings in Terry Nation Dalek lore, including the unfilmed pilot for a Dalek spin-off adapted as part of Big Finish’s The Lost Stories: The Second Doctor box set. That’s a lot of information to cover before even getting to the story!
And unfortunately, that seems to be the general vibe of The Dalek Protocol: Fans are only discussing it to ask each other, “Do I need to hear this before Dalek Universe?” And the answer is, quite frankly, no, they don’t. It’s not bad, but it’s a bit uneventful and padded, and adds little to, at the very least, the first Dalek Universe box set.
The highlights come in what it does with Mark and Anya, making room for some character beats that Dalek Universe hasn’t had space for. I found the focus on android Mark Seven’s humanity by far the best material he’s had so far from Big Finish, and his struggles are, to resist spoilers, the heart of the plot here. Furthermore, there’s some amazing moments between Anya and Leela where Anya admits she travels with this Doctor in his future and breaks his trust, forcing Leela to also reckon with her own impending departure. The Daleks themselves are also quite good, as should probably be expected from a script by their voice actor — they need the same space plague cure the humans do (somehow, despite massively different biology!), and that means their conflict with humanity comes on different enough terms to feel fresh.
In short, there’s some cool choices in The Dalek Protocol that elevate it despite its many weak aspects, but it’s just not enough to really feel like taking a side-step for two hours and a few extra dollars before getting to the main event. Even if you want to get caught up with all the preceding continuity before diving in, I’d say the The Syndicate Master Plan arc is much more important pre-listening, introducing Anya Kingdom and her strained relationship with the Doctor. If you’re going to get just one two hour Fourth Doctor audio as a prologue to Dalek Universe, go for The Perfect Prisoners, that series’ finale, over Dalek Protocol.
But enough about prologues. What everyone wants to talk about is (the conspicuously Dalek-free) Dalek Universe 1, and it’s a corker. The premise is simple: someone’s taken the Tenth Doctor out of his timeline, and plunked him into a pre-Time War, ‘60s Doctor Who-y universe, full of all the familiar touches: the Space Security Service, Daleks, Mechonoids, and even the planet Mira from The Daleks’ Master Plan. It’s transparently nostalgic fanservice, but as said earlier, it works for this Doctor, because it’s not just being reunited with a universe he lost to a war… it’s a temptation to play too much with it, and change his own past. And that would be wrong… wouldn’t it?
Episode 1, Buying Time, shows it’s not only the Tenth Doctor wrestling with the mistakes of his past, and wondering whether he can change them. Enter Anya Kingdom, Space Security Service agent, formerly hidden behind the false personality graft of one Fourth Doctor companion, Ann Kelso. Faced with a new future Doctor, she longs to be forgiven for what he sees as killing Ann. Together with Mark Seven, who unfortunately feels a bit extraneous, and dumped into danger, they’re given space to work through those feelings, fighting to survive, get back to Earth, and get the Doctor back to his own timeline. And, of course, if that’s not enough, the sinister George Sheldrake (a delicious Mark Gatiss) is messing around with time travel technology no human should have access to… but maybe a Time Lord could.
Buying Time loosely forms a two-parter with the following episode, while also spending a lot of time just setting up the overall mood and arc for the series. It’s a lot of work for a premiere episode, and while it’s tremendously exciting, the joins do show. The plot forms two fairly disconnected halves that don’t flow well into each other, the introductory section on Mira and the plot setup on Earth for the following episode. Enough exciting elements are thrown in to keep things moving, from the invisible monster antics to a mysterious pastor, but it’s easily the messiest episode of a very strong set, especially when transitioning between plots midway through. Luckily, the exciting antics set the tone far more than the disjointed plot, and the whopper of a cliffhanger is more than enough to drown out any criticisms.
Better yet, episode 2, The Wrong Woman, takes that cliffhanger and runs, runs, runs. This is the episode that, if you’ve seen anything about Dalek Universe on social media, you’ll have seen the most discussion of, and it earns it. It’s difficult to discuss much about the plot without spoilers, but suffice to say it pays homage to one of the best parts of The Daleks’ Master Plan in a particularly spectacular and unexpected way, with a delightful guest turn by Gemma Whelan as “the Newcomer.” As with the previous episode, there’s a fairly large turning point in the middle of the story, but it flows a lot more naturally and continues to escalate in delightful ways. A lot of major questions for Dalek Universe are answered, but space for plenty more remains, chief among them in everyone’s mind already being “When the heck is Gemma Whelan coming back?”
She’s not the only one stealing the show, though. David Tennant takes a back seat for a bit to let her introduce herself with a bang, but it’s the scenes the two share that really sing. The Newcomer is a character who raises emotional questions about what the Tenth Doctor’s lost that rarely come up so directly, and John Dorney’s script and David Tennant’s performance both make the most of it. This is the Tenth Doctor at his truest, and as someone who got into the show as a kid as a result of his era, it made me very, very happy. People all over Twitter are recommending Dalek Universe just on the strength of The Wrong Woman. They’re right to. Don’t let me spoil it, just check it out and enjoy the twisty ride.
Nothing could ever quite live up to the pyrotechnics of the preceding episode, but the third and final instalment of the set, The House of Kingdom, makes a noble effort. Now that the Doctor’s emotional struggles have been thrust into the limelight, it’s Anya’s time to shine, reunited with an uncle she blames for a violent past, his army of Mechonoids, and some familiar Dalek-favourite botany experiments. The Mechonoids themselves, despite being a selling point on the cover, aren’t really much of the focus here, the story would be functionally the same without them. But the family drama is compelling, and I’m far more interested in that.
The House of Kingdom typifies the surprising restraint of Dalek Universe which it has used to its strength. Every element of the plot in all these stories is deeply mired in continuity and fanservice. Hell, even in this episode, time is taken to finally explain exactly how Anya is related to The Daleks’ Master Plan’s Sara Kingdom and Brett Vyon. But it’s used as worldbuilding scaffolding, making a familiar, coherent universe to paint. In this case, a very low-key, personal story. I’m not going to pretend it’s a hard-hitting intimate drama. It’s all very broad, “you killed my mother”, “you committed a spacey war crime” kind of stuff, you’re not going to get a startling meditation on grief. But there’s something startling in the choice to end a massive blockbuster set on a quiet story about family sins, just as there’s something startling in the choice to do a big series called Dalek Universe and only have the Daleks turn up for a couple seconds in one episode. It strikes a good balance, the pulp pleasures coming hard and fast without feeling like overstuffed fanservice. There’s just enough substance to the nostalgia to make the exercise feel meaningfully new.
Dalek Universe 1 is one for the fans, and only for the fans. It’s mired in continuity, both from classic Doctor Who (even I had to double check which serial Mira was from, and I’ve watched the reconstructions of Master Plan twice!) and recent Big Finish (I didn’t even mention the River Song episode that also works as a prequel to this!). It’s not accessible, it’s not interested in winning over new fans, but it doesn’t need to be. The number of us who are excited by having David Tennant fight Visians and Mechonoids are few. But we’re exactly the sort of people likely to be buying Big Finish, and they know it, and treat it with enough seriousness and restraint to not outstay its welcome. Dalek Universe is a niche joy, but a definite joy all the same. And if you’re a sucker for gratuitous Doctor Who fanservice done well, this is gonna put a massive, massive smile on your face.
DOCTOR WHO – THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE DALEK PROTOCOL
Director: Nicholas Briggs
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Written by: Nicholas Briggs
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery.
Duration: 136 minutes approx.
DOCTOR WHO: DALEK UNIVERSE 1
Director: Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney & Matt Fitton
Written by: John Dorney & Andrew Smith
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery.
Duration: 235 minutes approx.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – Dalek Universe 1’ is now available as a collector’s edition box set (on CD at £24.99) and as a digital download (at £19.99), available exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Fourth Doctor Adventures: The Dalek Protocol’ is now available as a collector’s edition box set (on CD at £14.99) and as a digital download (at £12.99), available exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.