Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Dalek Contract written and directed by Nick Briggs

What’s it about: ‘These creatures have ravaged half the cosmos. They're experts at this kind of thing. Nothing can stand in their way.' The Doctor and Romana find themselves in the Proxima System, where enigmatic Conglomerate CEO Cuthbert has been conducting his infamous 'experiment'. An experiment which might accidentally rip the universe apart. Meanwhile, living conditions on Proxima Major have become harsh and hostile. Climate change has turned the landscape into a freezing wasteland and an alien power has condemned much of the population to life inside internment camps. For those still clinging to their freedom, the struggle for survival is now beyond desperate and outsiders such as the Doctor and Romana are only seen as a threat. What is Cuthbert really up to in the Proxima System, and just how does he expect the dreaded Daleks to fit into his plan?

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor has always enjoyed taking a healthy disrespect for powerful people which Romana interprets as him enjoying taking appalling risks, especially when it comes to bypassing the Randomiser and risking detection by the Black Guardian. Perhaps their old nemesis has been tracking them all along, ever since they left Atrios/Zeos/the Shadow Planet or perhaps it was the Doctor’s inattentive behaviour that allowed him to catch their scent and eventually set up his trap in Mawdryn Undead. I’m more inclined to believe the latter, the Doctor really was irresponsible (in the most brilliant, unexpected of ways) during this period of his life. What is uncharacteristic of the time is for the Doctor to follow up dangling threads from a previous adventure. He was always ready to move onto the next adventure so the events of their previous encounter with Cuthbert in the Proxima system must have concerned him enough to warrant this further exploration. His TARDIS is practically custom built these days. When facing a man with a gun the Doctor finds it easier to just smile and wave and act as if everything is normal. He’s spent more time that he cares to remember defeating the Daleks, something of a thorn in their side. When a damaged Dalek cannot shoot straight the Doctor amusingly asks if he is trying to miss him deliberately. The Doctor offers hope to those who have lost hope in the face of the Daleks, a man who has beaten them time and again. Even when things seem impossible the Doctor isn’t willing to give up hope. Brilliantly, the Doctor is accused of acts of terrorism against the Daleks.

Posh Girl: It seems that Romana is far more on the ball than the Doctor, after their near collision with a missile during The Armageddon Factor she repaired and improved the TARDIS defences. Naturally she is appalled to learn that the Doctor has cancelled out what he terms ‘tampering’ with his TARDIS, despite her superior knowledge of veteran and vintage time capsules. During one tense moment Romana panics because she thinks she is going to forced to kneel in snow and be shot dead on some grubby little planet in the middle of nowhere. Hardly an noble end for a Time Lady of her stature. She’s still offering out psychological evaluations at precisely the wrong time, you would have thought she would have dropped the habit during the course of their adventures. Under Dalek truth detection Romana admits that she and the Doctor don’t really get on and she expects to be flung back to Gallifrey at the earliest opportunity. Even in the face of Dalek firepower, Romana doesn’t lose her ability to sound like she is condescending to talk to people.

Standout Performance: It’s not often you get to re-experience the chemistry between a returning bad guy and their lackey but that is exactly what we enjoy here with both Cuthbert (the ever entertaining David Warner) and Mr Dorrick (Toby Hadoke). They enjoy a sparky, nervous chemistry that springs from the fact that Dorrick is petrified of his boss and every time he has bring him news he sounds as though he is going to be flogged for the effort. You need a strong actor to be able to hold his own against the Daleks (in villainous terms only Kevin Stoney and Roger Delgado have managed to upstage them) and David Warner can join this select bunch, treating the creatures as little more than muscle for hire.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Daleks are not concerned with popularity!’

Great Ideas: If Cuthbert’s experiments are powerful enough to rip a hole in the fabric of space/time then he is more than worth a follow up visit to see just methods he was using and to stop him doing anything so hazardous again. Because they have been used ad nauseum in the series (and in the audio series), you have to try and do something a bit different with the Daleks to justify their inclusion (just having them there because they sell well is not a good enough excuse) and scenes of them melting their way through an avalanche certainly qualify. It’s the sort of ambitious set piece that I would love to see realised on screen. Also for the chance to hear K.9 blasting at Daleks is worth the admission price alone. Daleks for hire? Now that has never been attempted before for the very good reason that the idea is chilling. What could Cuthbert possibly offer them? Only a meglomaniacal fool (of Mavic Chen proportions) could possibly think they would have anything that the Daleks desire enough to turn them into thugs for hire (or a pacification force as Cuthbert describes them). Proxima Major has found itself wrenched out of its natural orbit thanks to Cuthbert’s unnatural experiments. The cliffhanging surprise is that the Daleks don’t kill, but arrest. Dalek plans are usually so gargantuan and diabolical that they are bound to vulnerable in some way. When he needed a discreet and efficient security force, Cuthbert’s agents made enquiries throughout the galaxy and the Daleks offered their services…but what are they really up to?

Audio Landscape: One thing I have noticed in the second season of 4DAs is how Big Finish have attempted to capture that feeling that the TARDIS can land anywhere and really capture the excitement in the versatile locations that the series can exploit. From the screaming birdsong and sunny glades of The Auntie Matter to the desert regions that drew the Laan in The Sands of Life to the foggy cobbled lanes of The Justice of Jalxar to the claustrophobic underwater depths of Phantoms of the Deep, we have been on a whirlwind tour of some memorable and fully realised locations. Whilst there have been plenty of Big Finish stories set amongst snowy wastes, The Dalek Contract utilizes the atmosphere of such an environment very quickly giving this story an stimulating you-are-there feel. Scanner screen, spaceship screaming past, the TARDIS proximity alarm, scanner, missiles approaching and exploding, wind swept planet, crunching through snow, an explosion that creates an avalanche, bullets bouncing off Dalek casings, a Dalek army all screaming at once, extermination blasts, a Dalek with a speech impediment, banging, Dalek doors, an engine choking to life.

Musical Cues: I really miss regular scores from Alistair Lock, who was one of the most prominent musicians when Big Finish first kick started the main range. He clearly understands the era of Doctor Who that this story is set in, opening with a dramatic Dudley Simpson-esque theme that sounds like a riff on the music from Genesis of the Daleks when the Daleks were on the move. I loved the jolly jingle when K.9 departed the TARDIS to save the Doctor and Romana from the Daleks, sounding for all the world like it has jumped from season sixteen.

Result: Big Finish have tapped into something far more engaging with their second season of 4DAs whilst not aspiring to the heights of true greatness that the main range can hit when at it’s best. Nick Briggs remains heavily involved (because, I suspect, Tom Baker feels more comfortable being involved that way) and his habitual, meat-and-potatoes approach to Doctor Who once again proves to be diverting enough but is still several notches down from his finest work (Creatures of Beauty, Dalek Empire). Mary Tamm’s Doctor Who experience in season sixteen was an atypical one; a series of linked adventures that indulging in science fantasy far more than science fiction that took Romana on an enchanting tour of some of the more imaginative locations in the universe on the hunt for the Key to Time. Without demeaning this year of audio adventures in any way, they have provided the character with a far more traditional season of adventures to compliment that. From historical comedy to space opera, from nostalgic fantasy to base under siege, it has encapsulated Doctor Who in it’s entirety and given Tamm’s interpretation of the character plenty more variety and scope. The Dalek Contract gives her (and K.9) the chance to butt heads with the Daleks and the unique idea at the heart of this tale is that this squadron are apparently hired assassins, under the thumb of Cuthbert (once again played with brio by David Warner). Neither cliffhanger feels especially memorable which is a shame because as scripted they are both great moments, especially the first one which subverts the usual Dalek shtick and sees them behaving in an unusual fashion, which is often when they are at their best. It’s non-stop action with some pleasant character moments for the Doctor and Romana (I feel that Briggs understands the characters without ever attempting to probe them too much) but very much the first half of a much larger story and you might feel a little short changed once you have reached the end of the disc purely because it abruptly stops just as the story hits a dramatic high. I’m not sure how to judge The Dalek Contract on it’s own merits because so much of it’s effect will depend upon the concluding half (we still don’t know why the Daleks have teamed up with Cuthbert or what his experiments entail) but needless to say this was diverting, time-honoured Who of the sort that I will never get tired of, even if it isn’t exactly firing at full throttle. What others will make of this undemanding effort is beyond me, but it does at least entertain for an hour and thanks to an authentic score really feels like it has come from the era: 6/10


Anonymous said...

Wow! An audio review at last! Very happy to read it! :)

BSC SSC said...

I also got this this week and enjoyed it very much. Do you know how I can contact Big Finish as I'm a subscriber but my copy of The Justice of Jalaxar has yet to arrive?

jbcatz said...

Email If you don't get a response after 24 hours, try