❉ David Tennant reminds us once again why he’s one of the most beloved Doctors of all.
“Between the announcement of the Season 17 Blu-ray set and Dalek Universe, this seems to be the year of Destiny of the Daleks fanservice, and as one of its five or so fans, I’m here for it… For better or worse, a rompy exercise in nostalgia is exactly what Dalek Universe decides to be.”
There’s something irresistible about a good story arc. Time and time again, people get up in shows dangling mysteries before them, even if, as often as not, the mysteries vanish within levels of endless convolution, get brushed off, or even end in a show getting axed well before resolution. And yet we keep coming back to them, because the tease is the excitement. It’s fun to be left in suspense about what a story’s gonna be.
What the story of Dalek Universe would be was still very much in question for me at the end of the previous set, but now, with the release of the third, the answers have arrived. Rest assured, every plot question left hanging gets a line to resolve it, we’re not looking at Manifest getting axed on a cliffhanger here. But what is the story ultimately about? Is it ultimately anything more than David Tennant doing Terry Nation nostalgia? Well, for better or worse, a rompy exercise in nostalgia is exactly what Dalek Universe decides to be. Credit due, though, it sure picks a surprising thing to be nostalgic for. After two sets keeping the Daleks off the table as much as possible, we finally get exactly what nobody expected: Three episodes straight about Movellans!
Yes, between the announcement of the Season 17 Blu-ray set and Dalek Universe, this seems to be the year of Destiny of the Daleks fanservice, and as one of its five or so fans, I’m here for it. The unforgettably strange disco robots come crashing into the story along with a similarly disco River Song in Lizzie Hopley’s First Son. The hook here is irresistible, and certainly made for an eye-catching cover: why is River Song masquerading as a Movellan?
Every detail in this plot is designed to revel in the bizarreness of the concept, complete with a plot revolving around a snotty savant robot kid designed, by Hopley’s own admission, to annoy adopted mother River and a very confused Doctor in funny ways. The Movellans are played exactly as ridiculously as they should, with lots of mention to their easily-removable power pack weakness and shiny pink guns. Add the immense comedic talents and chemistry of Alex Kingston and David Tennant, and it seems set to be a clear winner.
Unfortunately, the execution isn’t as fun as the idea. Comedy thrives on escalation, and First Son coasts on its first idea, played disappointingly straight. From an acting and sound design standpoint, First Son is as determinedly serious a space opera as everything else in Dalek Universe. Between that, the cyclical arguments about River’s identity, and the lack of much else going on in the plot, it feels like it should be more. Hopley clearly gets how to write a damn funny Tenth Doctor line, for a start, every word that comes out of his mouth is delightful here. But it never quite comes into focus, and never quite becomes more than fitfully funny.
Matt Fitton’s The Dalek Defense, the first of the final two episodes of the series, puts aside both River and comedy to focus on building to the endgame, as that irresistible sense of a plot arc comes to the forefront and a penultimate cliffhanger. It’s difficult to escape the sense that this is something of a slender lead-up, with most of the actual plot fireworks held off to the second part. But nonetheless, some sharp choices are made along the way. Anya is faced with the future of the Space Security Service in the post-Destiny of the Daleks era, which gives her a reasonable slice of action plot and some characters to connect to outside the Doctor. The Doctor, meanwhile, gets to rematch with Davros, going back over the same debates from Journey’s End with a pre-Time War creator of the Daleks and pondering the inevitability of fate.
Davros, good as it is to hear Tennant meet Molloy’s version of the baddie, doesn’t have much new to say to this Doctor. And it’s never quite clear what the unifying principle to this story is. The Dalek Defense is pure transitional runaround. Not without merit, not without strong choices, but never feeling like the build to an epic climax. But kudos to that twist, when it finally comes.
The final episode may be called The Triumph of Davros, but who exactly it’s really about is too much a spoiler to say. People who’ve been paying close attention will probably work it out ahead of time—I did, at least—but it’s an effective escalation that goes a long way to tying together what Dalek Universe is about, narratively. This final episode also benefits from pitting Davros against not only the Doctor but the mysterious first Movellan, a neat juxtaposition that, by exploring how the hell disco robots could be a serious threat to the Daleks, comes to a few solid insights about the shortcomings of the Daleks. Tennant and Slavin also get some strong material facing off against a surprise returning face, though said returning performer camps it up a bit too much on their end, going for an archly posh accent that distracts from the drama.
It helps that the final fifteen minutes or so of The Triumph of Davros are easily its strongest, as pieces of the nine-episode plot arc slot into place, inevitable double-crosses tumble into the light, and big sacrificial gestures explode across the scene. Some of it amounts to more than other bits, but there’s a thrill in the scale, brought together by a perfectly played monologue from David Tennant, reminding once again why he’s one of the most beloved Doctors of all.
Much of the pleasure here just comes from seeing loose ends fall together, from explaining how a plot point in Ressurection of the Daleks comes from Destiny of the Daleks to a gratuitous tie-in to The Day of the Doctor, but if you’re listening to a nine episode Terry Nation love letter that’s a sequel to the Fourth Doctor Adventures series 8, you’re probably the target audience for a bit of fanservice like that.
And ultimately, that’s what Dalek Universe becomes. Dalek Universe is straightforward Big Finish fanservice content with the Tenth Doctor thrown in for novelty. Dalek Universe 3 is a tidy resolution and a loving present for the hardcore fans. Maybe that’s all it ever needed to be, but I enjoyed the suspense more, those moments in which it could have gone anywhere.
DOCTOR WHO: DALEK UNIVERSE 3
Director: Nicholas Briggs
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Written by: Matt Fitton & Lizzie Hopley
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 240 minutes approx.
Released: October 2021, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – Dalek Universe 3’ is available exclusively from the Big Finish website. Price: £24.99 (Collectors Edition CD) or £19.99 (Digital download). Click here to order from bigfinish.com
❉ 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.