❉ This two-part series has been an exciting shift in the way Big Finish tell stories, writes Sam Maleski.
“Shadow of the Daleks is a best of both worlds scenario, combining the fast, here’s a really cool idea that doesn’t overstay its welcome pace and structure of one-off anthologies and the scale, scope and ambition of longer epics.”
As Big Finish’s monthly range prepares for its forever sleep, it is also wildly experimenting. Of course, part of the reason for that the COVID pandemic, which forced writers to get a bit more creative and odd with their set-ups, but there’s also a real desire to push the envelope, buried right there: after all, 2020 has seen both the political fire of Scorched Earth and The Lovecraft Invasion, and now the structural strangeness of Shadow of the Daleks.
Quick catch-up for those who didn’t follow the first volume: those two releases form one miniseries of eight half-hour, high-concept episodes, which all star the same actors – something that is explicitly addressed, with the Doctor coming across the same faces across the cosmos. Which, as it turns out, is plainly a great format for Who adventures: while the classic monthly pace of one two-hours story with four parts yielded some undisputable classics, it’s not necessarily a format made to last forever. Anthology releases have been a very efficient response to that issue, but they tended to exist in a space separate from the emblematic aesthetics of the show, in a quieter, subtler mode – Shadow of the Daleks is a best of both worlds scenario, combining the fast, here’s a really cool idea that doesn’t overstay its welcome pace and structure of one-off anthologies and the scale, scope and ambition of longer epics.
Not that there aren’t some teething problems, especially in this second set, which has to wrap the overall plot: the balance between serial and episodic plots isn’t perfect, with essentially all the arc revelations kept for the final episode, making the whole feel a bit unbalanced, and the plot like it doesn’t have all that much in the way of progression, stagnating around the same Doctor recognising familiar faces beats played over and over. Nevertheless, the embrace of such alternate formats is an extremely positive and encouraging sign for Big Finish’s output, and augurs well for their shift to all-boxset releases.
The first episode here, The Echo Chamber, by Jonathan Barnes, boasts an inspired concept, and Peter Davison and Ken Bentley, on the two ends of microphone, really roll with it, with a really good and quirky Doctor performance enhanced by excellent direction (the final moments, especially, are absolutely delightful from a technical standpoint). It fares a bit less successfully on the politics front, though – showing how right-wing talk shows essentially monetize and weaponise anger is a good concept, and it’s integrated into the story through some pretty inspired ideas; but the story defaults to a much more general message about the evils of anger in public discourse, which, while not without virtue, doesn’t have the specificity and bite that the best of satire thrives on.
The different elements cohere a lot better in Roland Moore’s Towards Zero, in which the Doctor is tasked to solve his own murder. It’s a deeply funny and well-plotted affair, which starts off as a sharp pastiche of Agatha Christie (the title is borrowed from one of her novels), but then quickly proceeds to deconstruct it and playfully engage with detective mystery tropes. The jokes come fast, the script manages to cram an impressive amount of references (to Christie, and to Who in general) in a very short amount of time, and the guest cast turn out some of their best performances in the arc, relishing the opportunity to dig their teeth in the over-the-top gallery of Poirot archetypes. The ending even allows itself some genuinely well-earned emotion and pathos, in a way that is as surprising as it is welcome – a little gem.
Lizzie Hopley’s Castle Hydra, while it offers precious few revelations as to the overall plot, does kick things up a notch in terms of scale, centred around a really clever reversal of the previous stories’ premises. Almost too ambitious at time, maybe: this little slice of sciencey Gothic where the Doctor stumbles into a castle filled with mysterious experiments feels like it’s a bit constrained by its half-hour runtime. There’s a lot of inspired characters and concepts in there – the resolution, especially, is utterly beautiful, but they haven’t given a whole lot of time to breathe: when they are, especially in the scenes Anjli Mohindra’s character gets with Davison, the whole story really sings, anchored in some beautiful themes about femininity and self-determination. The story as a whole doesn’t always reach those highs: which is fine, it’s still a very fine piece of work overall.
The whole arc comes to a close with John Dorney’s Effect and Cause – and it’s a very satisfying finale, managing to find a legitimately compelling answer for the Daleks’ appearances throughout the set not just on a plot point, but on a thematic level. The shadow in the title is a bit more than just literal, and that’s about all that can be said without revealing too much. The ideas are clever, the pacing impeccable, and the characters do build towards some legitimately touching moments. However, there is a lingering impression that it could have reached higher highs than it does: the limited runtime doesn’t allow the drama to soar as high as it could otherwise, and the set ends on a bit of an odd note, almost refusing to build on the seven previous parts for maximum emotional impact. There’s a fine line between being clever and privileging cleverness over emotion: Effect and Cause is very much on the right side of it, but in some moments, it gets a tiny bit too close for comfort.
While there are niggles to be had, though, those should not detract from the fact that this release and its predecessor have been thoroughly entertaining and a really exciting shift in the way Big Finish is telling stories. The balance isn’t always pitch-perfect – but this desire to meld imaginative conceptual storytelling, deep emotion, and science-fiction epic is hard not to applaud: it’s exactly how Who ought to be.
DOCTOR WHO: SHADOW OF THE DALEKS 2 (#270)
Duration: 151 mins approx.
Director: Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney & Roland Moore
Written by: Jonathan Barnes, Roland Moore, Lizzie Hopley and John Dorney
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
❉ ‘Doctor Who: Shadow of the Daleks’ Part 2 is available exclusively from the Big Finish website until 31 December 2020. Price: £14.99 (CD), £12.99 (Digital download) from www.bigfinish.com
❉ Sam Maleski (they/he) writes about genre fiction and Doctor Who – including one Black Archive for Obverse Books and the Sheffield Steel essay collection series. They can be found tweeting at @LookingForTelos and blogging at @MediaDoWntime.