Doctor Who - Masters of EarthBookmark and Share

Saturday, 17 January 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

193. Masters Of Earth (Credit: Big Finish)

Written by Mark Wright & Cavan Scott
Directed by Nick Briggs
Big Finish Productions, 2014
Reviewed by Damian Christie

“But it doesn’t happen that way ... The Daleks don’t get wiped out – not yet anyway! I was there when their schemes unravelled, when the people of Earth walked free ...”

The Doctor, Masters of Earth

Much like the previous release of The Widow’s Assassin – which carried a lot of baggage from the TV series about the eventual fate of Peri Brown – Masters of Earth is heavily influenced by a vintage Doctor Who serial that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary – The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

The 1964 serial marked a seminal moment in the series’ then short history – it not only resurrected a menace that had captured the imagination of a generation of young children only a year earlier but it was also the first time Doctor Who brought an alien threat close to home. The sight of the Daleks in the deserted streets of London and trundling around famous landmarks like Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament undoubtedly left a haunting mark on the collective memory – and would create a template for later production teams to bring more alien threats to modern day locations. Many people over the years when they fondly talk about The Dalek Invasion of Earth have unconsciously channelled Jon Pertwee’s later remark that it is far more frightening to confront a Yeti on the loo in Tooting Bec than on a far flung planet.

However, barring the many iconic moments that the serial evoked in the viewers of the time and long-term fans of the TV series, The Dalek Invasion of Earth isn’t an especially great story. In fact, by modern day standards, the serial suffers from sluggish storytelling and padding (it could have been told in four episodes, not six), extremely clunky production values (not least the Daleks themselves, their pet Slyther and some of the unconvincing miniatures!) and some cringe-worthy acting from the wooden Robomen. Yet, in spite of all these shortcomings, the serial has had an enduring legacy. In addition to inspiring the second colour Peter Cushing film in 1966, The Dalek Invasion of Earth over the years has been revisited in plenty of Doctor Who spin-off fiction, some average, some awful and some jaw-droppingly extraordinary, notably  Nick Briggs’ two-part Lucie Miller/To the Death in 2011 for Big Finish. But I’ll come back to that one later ...

Masters of Earth therefore can’t really stake any claim to being a wholly original spin-off/prequel to The Dalek Invasion of Earth. But then again, the production doesn’t strive to be original – it’s plainly an unashamed love letter not only to the original 1964 serial but indeed to a majority of the 1960s Dalek tales (even the title is inspired by the famous boast a Dalek made in the TV serial). Much effort is made within the production to emphasise that the Daleks of Masters are the same models featured in the original serial (both evident on the sleeve artwork and Peri’s own description of the metal meanies in dialogue when she notices the satellite dish arrays mounted to their backs). The extermination soundbite also mimics their 1960s guns, not the more familiar sound effect of the modern TV series. Throw in the Slyther (the 1960s equivalent of the Silurians’ Myrka!), Varga plants (from The Dalek Masterplan) and elite squads of Robomen, plus a cross-country scenario that channels Terry Nation’s later apocalyptic drama Survivors, and you have the perfect makings of a staple Dalek serial that Nation could easily have cooked up in five minutes (Nation was notorious for rehashing a lot of his scripts in the 1960s and ‘70s).

For the most part, Mark Wright and Cavan Scott’s script is a rather dull Dalek story told with some atmosphere, in a similar vein to the source material that inspired it. It’s an odd mesh of 1960s Doctor Who capped off with a 1980s flavour that is embodied by Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and Nicola Bryant’s Peri Brown. The serial is for the most part sluggish and very much a run-around story until the episode three cliffhanger. Only in the final episode does the dramatic tension go up several Dalek rels – listeners are presented with an innovative, exciting variation on an old theme that takes cues not just from the original 1964 serial but from modern Who’s Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel two-parter and even James Cameron’s original Terminator film. The Daleks even perish in a fashion that is more 1980s Who than 1960s – the death toll would make ‘80s script editor Eric Saward proud!

The problem is this surprise plotline almost feels tacked on – like an afterthought (although there are hints about some characters and their motives throughout the broader serial, it is not evident on a first listening). It also leaves more questions than answers for the listener (to elaborate in this review would unfortunately mean lots of spoilers!). Wright and Scott have a brilliant idea but don’t afford themselves enough time to wrap up the serial satisfactorily and convincingly.

The production itself makes up for some of the script’s shortcomings; Big Finish as usual excels itself in the sound design department. Nick Briggs – the Dalek Prime himself – not only lends his voice talents to the creatures for the umpteenth time but also directs the story and composes the music while sound designer Martin Montague does an exceptional job with natural, everyday sounds (eg seaside birdsong, wind, motorcycle engines, other motors) and manufactured fantasy noise (eg the whirring of a Dalek as it travels through a corridor, the traditional “heartbeat” of Dalek machinery, the rustling of the Varga plants and the elephantine roars of the Slyther). As a result, there is plenty of atmosphere at various points of the story, especially when the Doctor, Peri and the supporting cast are treading through what turns out to be a Varga plantation and later on a trawler on the North Sea when they are attacked Kraken-style by the Slyther (plural).

The cast is also impressive, given most of the characters are underdeveloped and quite two-dimensional (although this is deliberate for some characters in the first three episodes). Given the story is set in Scotland, the supporting cast are, of course, Scottish. However, while there has been a strong effort on the parts of the writers and the performers not to resort to stereotypes, inevitably some of the characterisation and dialogue does border on type, eg Brian McCardie’s portrayal of Alan Weir. Tracy Wiles, on the other hand, brings attitude and spirit to the story as Moira Brody, a hero of the human resistance whose exploits will inspire other rebels to eventually overthrow the Daleks. The character with the most promise that is the most horribly underused is Kyle Inskip, played by Hugh Ross. Given how outstanding Ross has been as civil servant Sir Toby Kinsella in the Doctor Who audio spin-off series Counter-Measures, it’s almost criminal how small his role is in the narrative. If the writers had been more imaginative, Inskip could have provided a great foil for Colin Baker’s Doctor.

Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are, of course, on-song as the Doctor and Peri. In their one and only Dalek story on television (Revelation of the Daleks, 1985), they were bit players in the overall narrative. In Masters of Earth, while the Doctor and Peri cannot interfere in what is essentially a fixed point in time, they are very much part of the action and more often than not at the forefront of events. To again emphasise what an almost traditional 1960s-style tale this is, the duo in many ways fulfil the roles of the First Doctor and his companions in many purely historical tales of the same period – arriving at points in time that they know they cannot alter but inevitably getting caught up in those events, no matter how hard they try to avoid them.

The portrayal of the Doctor and Peri in this tale – occurring shortly after Peri rejoins the Doctor in his travels – is much warmer and affectionate than it was on TV in 1985. Bryant delivers a confident, mature and courageous performance as Peri who isn’t afraid to stand up to the Doctor when she has to, but she still displays her vulnerable side. No sooner is the young woman coming to terms with her sense of self after five years in the thrall of an alien mind parasite than she finds her will again put to the test when she is stung by a Varga plant. Baker clearly also enjoys the opportunity to work with Bryant again, particularly in scenes when they spar over some of the Doctor’s more questionable actions. 

Baker’s Doctor maintains much of the warmth and good humour that the character has developed over the last 15 years of Big Finish but he is never lacking in moments when he has to express steel in his voice or disgust and horror at the Daleks’ and other antagonists’ actions. Perhaps a little too much, Baker also lets his enthusiasm for teasing the Daleks show through. “Oh dear, it’s all going a bit Dalek-shaped, isn’t it?” is definitely one of his funnier quips!

Masters of Earth is entertaining in parts and compelling in others but mostly for three quarters of the story it’s just plain dull. While a tale that honoured the golden anniversary of The Dalek Invasion of Earth may have seemed a good idea in script meetings at Big Finish, Masters of Earth is almost a dull retread of the original story. Even when the tale finally starts to get interesting, the listener’s enthusiasm is cut short simply because the narrative runs out of time. While Doctor Who fans are likely to persevere through it, it’s hard to imagine a casual listener would dedicate that much effort and would probably run out of patience before the critical turning point in episode three.

Indeed, for a more profound and action-packed spin-off to The Dalek Invasion of Earth, then fans should instead listen to the aforementioned two-part Lucie Miller/To the Death. That audio tale is a more dramatic take on the original 1964 serial and shows that the Doctor and his companions are not invulnerable and that there are real consequences to fighting the Daleks, something that Masters of Earth barely touches on. Masters is a footnote by comparison, a Dalek “greatest hits” album that doesn’t quite pay off for the listener.