❉ Earning its status as a big event series for Doctor Who tie-ins, there’s a sense of focus to this series. The scripts are strong. The promise remains.
Dalek Universe 1 made big waves. Huge as any Doctor Who tie-in audio production can get. Excitement about the twists, reveals, and new characters dominated every Doctor Who discussion group this reviewer is in一and as a total screaming nerd, I’m in quite a few. It was a set that effortlessly combined nostalgia with exciting new things, and was genuinely, thoroughly well done to boot. And it ended on a cliffhanger.
And then we had to wait for six months.
Well, at long last, the six months are over, and we’ve doubled the amount of Dalek Universe episodes in the world and ready to fill your ears. So the question now isn’t just how good they are. It’s: do they live up to the hype?
The set opens with Roy Gill’s Cycle of Destruction, a quieter, more traditional story which, it must be said, doesn’t drive much hype, instead savoring quieter pleasures. In the aftermath of Anya (Jane Slavin)’s backstory being explored in the previous set’s The House of Kingdom, and the fairly baffling cliffhanger to the previous set, we get a story dwelling into android Mark Seven (Joe Sims)’s origins, asking the questions of what makes him tick. The plot revolves around a base populated by androids of the same make as him, designed to learn from the humans around them to develop realistic personalities and human skills, under siege by monsters lurking in the jungle, which feels a bit familiar, unfortunately. Set one’s opening episode, Buying Time, already did the whole jungle monster Terry Nation throwback thing. The Dalek Protocol already served as a treatise on Mark Seven’s humanity. Beyond that, even with a tragic backstory and a new conceptual hook, Mark Seven just isn’t as interesting as Anya is, and an episode about his family fails to be quite as rewarding. And yet.
I always relisten to a story before writing a review, and this is one of the stories that most grew in my esteem as a result. While given a lot of familiar ingredients and looking simple on the surface, Cycle of Destruction is an incredibly tight script, something that becomes clear when the third act twists start to drop, and is even moreso when one goes back to see how they’re all set up. The plot construction is a thing of beauty, where every concept builds on each other without ever feeling obvious or forced. It helps that the twists are layered; some are a bit more obvious, but that hides further reveals simmering below the surface. Beyond that, as I often expect from an author like Roy Gill, there’s a very literary focus on theming, the script having much to say on learning, on resistance, and, of course, cycles of growing up and rebelling against parents, only to fall back into the same patterns or into the same people. The story may be about androids, but at its heart it’s about very familiar human experiences, and that makes it utterly fascinating to dig into. I fear many may disregard it like I initially did, but there’s much to appreciate that deserves a further look.
John Dorney’s The Trojan Dalek, on the other hand, is all surface pleasures, all the time. As with the first Dalek Universe set, the biggest twists have all been saved for the middle episode, and much like The Wrong Woman, Dorney attacks it with endlessly witty dialogue and relentless energy. On a pure line to line, scene to scene level of enjoyment, The Trojan Dalek might just be the finest episode of Dalek Universe. David Tennant gets zinger after zinger, and delivers every joke with relish, but the real treat might just be Mark Seven, whose android obtuseness finally coheres as something genuinely warm and funny. The core concept of the story is also a delight: humans creating obviously fake robot Daleks to infiltrate and win. There’s something deeply joyful about David Tennant getting chased around by a rubbish fake Dalek while complaining about how rubbish it is.
It’s all very funny until it’s not, and that’s where The Trojan Dalek starts to feel a bit more hollow to me. It’s a ruthlessly efficient script all the way through, not a single line of dialogue or scene spared, but that efficiency means it skates over some necessary substance to make its biggest moments emotionally land. A core subplot about an injured past flame of Mark’s, Fliss, plays out over far too little time to feel like anything other than the blatant emotional manipulation it is, trying to skate over that hollowness through breezy charm and big shocks alone. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the major twists here, aiming to blow the audience away with shock, are all very consciously ones Dalek stories have done before. The true nature of the trojan Daleks will be far too familiar to any Doctor Who fan who’s been around the block a few times, though hardly a deal breaker. But it’s the climactic twist that really disappoints, feeling as though it exists for no reason other than being the sort of thing The Daleks’ Master Plan did. I’m trying to refrain from being too spoilery, but a shock beat just doesn’t land the same when it was already done 55ish years ago. Don’t get me wrong, The Trojan Dalek is a terribly well made story, full of wit and cleverness and executed to perfection. It’s the underpinnings that concern me, and my doubt about those choices will probably remain until Dalek Universe concludes and I can judge the wisdom of them in context.
One thing that is unquestionably wise, though, is following up The Trojan Dalek with a quieter character piece, Rob Valentine’s excellent The Lost (not to be confused with the excellent finale to short-lived spinoff show Class). Crashing outside of the universe, Anya and the Doctor are left alone with many years of emotional baggage and a cosmic entity bent on using it for its own ends. The moral dilemmas and fairytale imagery The Lost throws up aren’t new for any genre fiction fans, but they provide a very welcome opportunity to force the two leads to talk, and what they have to say winds up being utterly fascinating. It’s a perfect case of using continuity to fuel emotional drama, as Anya faces what the Doctor’s legacy with her family has been, and the Doctor comes to terms with losing the woman he thought Anya was, former companion Ann Kelso, as that false personality was wiped away back in the Fourth Doctor Adventures audios. It’s also a fantastic showcase for the actors, with both Tennant and Slavin getting to play double duty as their ordinary characters and something more sinister.
It’s tempting to call The Lost the strongest episode of the set for those reasons, and I’ve certainly seen some fans doing that, or even the best of Dalek Universe. I don’t know whether or not I’d go that far yet, but it does prove without a doubt that the strongest element of this series is the pairing of Anya with the Tenth Doctor. It’s refreshing to see Tennant play not against a best friend but a reluctant ally, one he even resents, and it’s equally refreshing to see someone who doesn’t depend on his Doctor to share the magic of the universe, but would actually rather not be dragged across the timelines into his world, thank you very much. Joe Sims, Kevin McNally, and more provide strong performances here, but it’s Slavin holding her own against Tennant that really keeps you captivated, as the two characters tear into each other’s mistakes and flaws. The criticisms this story offers of the Doctor as someone who walks with death in his wake are old news, but the companion relationship they fuel aren’t, and I dearly hope this isn’t the last time Dalek Universe prioritizes the two emoting over whizz bang pyrotechnics. Because as good as The Lost is, it’s a story about the need for these two characters to actually talk to each other, a conversation we never hear as the story lurches into yet another, admittedly hilarious, cliffhanger.
So did Dalek Universe 2 live up? Perhaps inevitably, yes and no. Dalek Universe 2 keeps the mould of mining old ideas and twists from The Dalek’s Master Plan in new ways, resulting in some dramatic highs and three very tight scripts, but also a broader shape that’s both murky and overfamiliar. Some of that’s an inevitable consequence of a middle set. It can’t be the exciting start, it can’t show the whole picture yet, so it coasts along with a couple big twists we have no way of knowing the end result of yet. The details are sharp. The execution is strong. The restraint also remains startling 一 the Daleks are in all three episodes, sure, but only about a scene each! There’s a sense of focus to it all, it still feels like a series that has had a lot of care put in, earning its status as a big event series for Doctor Who tie-ins. But until the nature of that focus becomes clear, this middle instalment is hard to judge. The scripts are strong. The promise remains. But is where it’s going shallow nostalgia? Or is something deeper and more profound coming around the corner along with River Song?
One thing’s for sure: thank God this wait is going to be shorter. Dalek Universe is a unique kind of nostalgic treat for Doctor Who fans, and I can’t wait to see if it sticks the landing.
DOCTOR WHO: DALEK UNIVERSE 2
Director: Nicholas Briggs, Ken Bentley
Senior Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 240 minutes approx. (per volume)
Released: April, July, October 2021, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ ‘Doctor Who: Dalek Universe 2’ is out now as a collector’s edition CD at £24.99 or on download at £19.99, available exclusively from the Big Finish website.