Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Return of the Daleks written by Nicholas Briggs and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: No one could ever know. We had to erase the past. Change everything. Start again. But even though it's been centuries now… In our hearts, none of us feels truly… Safe. I think, even if our people were to survive until the end of time itself, we would still fear… The return of the Daleks.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor mentions Mel, Ace and Hex so this story is set quite near the end of his seventh life. He wistfully mentions that time passes and history moves on…and if the sickness has gone so it seems clear that after all his companions choose to leave him some catastrophe will befall him. The story very cleverly leads up to that first scene, explaining what has happened to him and how he wound up believing he might have regenerated. Considering this was released along with The Year of the Pig it is right on the cusp of the Russell/Briggs handover and it shows precisely the direction that the latter wants to take McCoy in. He’s travelling alone, quiet and melancholic, a man who has seen it all and is waiting for his next life to catch up with him. I love the way the Doctor slips into this situation unnoticed until he opens his mouth, making cryptic statements and being more of an observer than a participant for the most part. There is something genuinely sorrowful and almost Godlike about him and its amazing the gravitas he has when he doesn’t have companions around to screech at. I love the way that the Doctor is the only person powerful enough to walk from show to show – people enter Doctor Who (Jack, Sarah Jane) and its still about the Doctor but as soon as the Doctor steps into Torchwood, SJA or Dalek Empire it becomes all about him. The Doctor thought his role here was to make sure that nothing went wrong but he realises he has to interfere otherwise the Daleks will have a terrifying advantage in their war against humanity if they succeed in freeing their army. He wonders if this is his penance for not doing the job properly the first time. He knows that Karlendorf is vital to bringing down the Daleks and offers to work for them, to give them the power of invisibility, in order to ensure his survival and that is enough for Karl to brand the Doctor a traitor to humanity. To ensure the timeline stays on track the Doctor works for the Daleks for years. He’s at his most menacing when he reveals that he has been keeping them happy in order for Karl and Suze to bring down their Empire and gleefully watches them die around him. Brrr…I don’t want to get this guy mad. He genuinely thought he was going to regenerate at the end of this story, his body bombarded with radiation but its almost as if he knows he is supposed to survive until he reaches San Francisco in 1999.

Angel of Mercy: I love Suze’s steel when she confronts the Daleks, she knows that they need her and that she can push them and when she points those facts out they are impotent to simply get rid of her because she is right. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that when Rob Shearman was asked to bring back a single, simple Dalek in the New Series that he cited the psychology of the scenes between Suze and the Dalek Supreme from Dalek Empire as the level of intensity they should be aspiring to. She thinks she can mouth off to anybody and gives the Ogrons an earful, resisting their brute tactics and they simply break her arm to prevent her trying to escape. It’s a healthy reminder that whilst she is useful, she is also vulnerable.

Knight of Velyshaa: Gareth Thomas has a marvellous, gravelly voice for audio and he injected a great deal of charm and gravitas into the Dalek Empire series. No matter how melodramatic the storyline became Thomas was there to add subtleties and give the story its heart. Karl thinks Suze sounds almost proud when she admits that Solaria have a reputation of full co-operation – he is definitely there as her moral compass when she starts to sound too much like a Dalek. The Doctor sums up Karl in about 30 seconds reminding him that he was on a secret peace mission to make a defence pact with the Earth alliance when he got caught up in the Dalek invasion of the galaxy. The Doctor describes him as a force of nature and is clearly here to make a difference in his life, stating he has to make sure that he fulfils his potential.

Standout Performance: McCoy is at his most sinister here, appearing to turn rogue during the finale and practically salivating at the sound of Daleks dying.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘They’re beginning to suspect they’ve got it right and they’re about to unleash the most powerful Dalek army ever created.’
‘I’m working for the Daleks now and I really must get started…’
‘History is saved…’

Great Ideas: For anybody foolish enough not to have tried the Dalek Empire series (stop reading this and get to it!) this is a wonderful way to introduce them to the main players, main premise and tone of the series whilst still remaining firmly a Doctor Who story. The Daleks are back and spreading their hate amongst the universe but they are doing it in such a way that might make their tyranny seem more acceptable – by choosing a poster child for their subjugation in Susan Mendez. They head around the Dalek Empire and she makes rousing speeches to the slaves to keep them focussed and working and in return for their loyalty they receive more food and rest. The situation isn’t great but the Daleks get what they want and so the encouragement to kill to keep the workforce moving is removed. Susan has regular chats with the Dalek Supreme who tries to get inside her mind and enjoys mind fucking her. At her side is an ex Knight of Velyshaa (The Sirens of Time), Karlendorf, who tries to remind Suze that she is a Dalek puppet and is actually aiding their suppression of the universe and between them they are seeking planning to overthrow the Dalek Empire. I had a real childish thrill when the Daleks mentioned the Ogrons. Briggs has been quite keen to forge his own Dalek continuity whilst effortlessly slipping in the odd mention of their Doctor Who continuity but he usually sticks to elements from the Hartnell Dalekmania period. To have an element of Pertwee slapped into this story and something as bold as the Ogrons gave me a fanboy thrill. There is a massive Dalek army underneath Solaria that they are hoping to unearth – it is the planet Spiridon which has changed its name to Solaria in order to shield this terrifying army from the Daleks. With experiments they are hoping to unlock the key to becoming invisible. The Daleks are already winning this war and with an invisible thousand strong killing force their victory is assured.

Audio Landscape: Dalek alarm, a sauce descending, Ogrons marching, birdsong, an explosion in the distance wobbling crockery, the screams of the victims as the light wave projectors fire, a humming wind, the snap of Suze’s breaking arm, ice vaporising.

Musical Cues: Its such a shame that Nick Briggs doesn’t score his own directed works anymore because listening to the atmospheric music to Return of the Daleks reminded me of how good he was once he had found his groove. He tinkles on the piano to create a real mood and has these wonderful melodramatic stings that highlight moments of drama. There’s a wonderful moment during the climax where Briggs uses the Dalek Empire theme music to underscore the climactic events and you realise it isn’t just a dynamic theme tune but also a great piece of incidental music in its own right.

Standout Scene: I knew it! As soon as I caught wind of a Dalek army buried beneath a planet I had an inkling that it might be Spiridon from Planet of the Daleks. Briggs then mentions they are encased in ice and my suspicions grew but he still held back from revealing the truth. When he does it is a real punch the air moment and this seamless dovetailing of Doctor Who continuity and the Dalek Empire series makes for a very exciting conclusion. How wonderful to revisit this planet and for the Daleks to take advantage of a resource we thought long forgotten.

Result: Listening to Return of the Daleks should be all the excuse you need to go out and buy all four series of Dalek Empire. It’s not exact a story in its own right but another chapter of Briggs’ signature series but because the Doctor is present it feels definitively like a Doctor Who story. It’s an intoxicating brew of the two ranges featuring the best of both with Suze squaring up to the Daleks in dramatic fashion and Karlendorf learning that he is far too important to be allowed to sacrifice himself on the one hand and the seventh Doctor rarely characterised better as he has jettisoned his companions and is now a force of nature ducking into historical events and ensuring their continuity. There’s a brilliant moment when the location is revealed and a forgotten loose end is brought spectacularly into the new Dalek war and I love the ending that sees the Doctor sacrificing his freedom, matching the fatalistic tone that the Dalek Empire series often adopts. Whilst you can purchase this story now it was a massive thank you to the audience at the time that you could receive a freebie of this quality and it confidently spells out all the reasons that Dalek Empire has been such a hit: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

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