Doctor Who - We are the DaleksBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 20 October 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
We are the Daleks (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, 2015
Stars: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor),
Bonnie Langford (Melanie Bush), Angus Wright (Alek Zenos),
Mary Conlon (Celia Dunthorpe), Robbie Stevens (Sir Niles Bunbury/Frank Lewis), Kirsty Besterman (Serena Paget), Ashley Zhangazha (Brinsley Heaton), Lizzie Roper (Shari), Dominic Thornburn (Afrid), Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
“Daleks invest and return!”

The recent two-part opener to Doctor Who’s ninth series was a trip down memory lane – for both the Twelfth Doctor and his fans. Aside from overtly drawing on Dalek mythology, represented by the portrayal of Daleks of many shades, colours and variations from across the TV program’s history, and the restoration of the Dalek home world of Skaro, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar also homaged other parts of the pop culture zeitgeist (eg Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

While it’s a quite different tale from the modern TV series opener, Big Finish’s recent Doctor Who audio adventure We are the Daleks, featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor and Bonnie Langford’s Melanie Bush, is also a nostalgia piece. However, it draws more subtly on Dalek mythology than its TV counterpart, as well as homaging other pop culture elements (eg The IT Crowd, Star Trek, Galaxy Quest, Ender’s Game, Beadle’s About, 1980s console video games) and some real life events, eg the 1987 international stock market crash, the Bradford riots and militant unionism, and the entrenchment of Thatcherite conservatism in Britain. According to BF’s Doctor Who range script editor Alan Barnes, just as the 1988 TV adventure Remembrance of the Daleks was a nostalgia piece that homaged the early 1960s and Dalekmania, Jonathan Morris’ script also seeks to objectively revisit and reassess the 1980s with not-so rose-tinted glasses.

Is it a success? On the whole, Morris skilfully crafts an entertaining, action-packed, rapid but well paced and thought-provoking plot from the above melting pot of ideas. In fact, so much happens in just the first episode (of what is a four-part, two-hour serial) that you’re quite surprised when you realise that you’ve only been listening to the tale for 30 minutes. There is no attempt at mystery and the dull Terry Nation-style go-slow approach to reintroducing the Daleks here. From the moment the TARDIS materialises in central London in the pre-titles teaser to episode one and the Doctor and Mel realise the capital’s skyline is now dominated by a skyscraper resembling a Dalek, the listener is thrust headlong into a new Dalek scheme to invade the Earth via the free market and a life-like console game called Warfleet. Along the way, we’re introduced to a remarkable array of supporting characters: Alek Zenos (Angus Wright), the head of the Dalek-controlled Zenos Corporation, Zenos IT administrator (and computer game enthusiast) Brinsley Heaton (Ashley Zhangazha), journalist Serena Paget (Kirsty Besterman) and two MPs in the stuffy, anti-Common Market Sir Niles Bunbury (Robbie Stevens) and the Thatcheresque, pro-free market and ultra-conservative Celia Dunthorpe (Mary Conlon).

The pace of the serial comes down a notch in the subsequent instalments once Morris has rapidly brought us up to speed.  He is free to focus on the Dalek machinations of Warfleet, which tie in with the Daleks’ efforts to wipe out anti-Dalek league forces, led by their perennial enemies the Thals, in a meteoroid cluster neighbouring Skaro, and of wooing Great Britain into a new economic partnership that will introduce Earth to the intergalactic free market and promise humanity a “new golden age of prosperity”. The latter is an ingenious, albeit uncharacteristic approach by the Daleks but their other methods of subversion throughout the plot – which homage classic Dalek serials such as Power of the Daleks, Evil of the Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks, as well as modern serials Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways and Victory of the Daleks – are entirely consistent with their modus operandi. Just as it was ludicrous in Power or Victory to see Daleks crying “I am your servant/soldier” and serving cups of tea, so it’s amusing and menacing in equal measure to hear Daleks serving and offering prawn cocktails and bon-a-bons when Mel attends a gala launch at the Zenos Corporation. It is intriguing to know why they are being so covert and devious, qualities you don’t necessarily attribute to Daleks but which the metal meanies have demonstrated throughout the program’s history.

Indeed, Morris cleverly juxtaposes just how close humanity is to the Daleks, both through the covert use of Warfleet and the Dalek-like Zenos Tower, as well as highlighting humanity’s general propensity for self-interest, greed, deceit, partisanship, parochialism, intolerance and warmongering – qualities that are strongly defended in certain quarters of the political spectrum as democratic, patriotic and integral to “our way of life”. This is a theme which Terry Nation first mooted in his early Dalek serials (particularly The Daleks and Genesis of the Daleks) but Morris presents them in a way that is fresh, modern and down to earth. The Doctor expresses his disgust when Dunthorpe expresses these sentiments: “Good grief! Who needs Daleks when you have politicians?” And even the stuffy Bunbury is mortified by Dunthorpe’s behaviour when he realises the full extent of the Daleks’ plan to subvert the British population:  “Good god, Celia! You can’t do this! You’re turning them into fascists!” The further this serial progresses, the more pertinent its title becomes.

The performances throughout this play – from the regulars down – are first rate. Sylvester McCoy plays a Seventh Doctor who is gradually making the transition from comical figure to the wily manipulator that he was from Remembrance of the Daleks onwards. Therefore, while McCoy’s portrayal of the Doctor is not as over the top as it was in his first three televised serials (this tale is in all probability set between Delta and the Bannermen and Dragonfire), it is still a lighter, good-humored interpretation, marked by the Seventh Doctor’s early penchant for hackneyed lines (eg “I get by ... with a little help from my friends!” or “Ashes to ashes, rust to rust!”). As depicted on the cover sleeve, the Doctor even dresses in what he thinks is the outfit of a “youngish, upwardly mobile professional” (typically, the Time Lord’s fashion sense is wrong again!).  However, McCoy loses none of the Seventh Doctor’s steel or authority in dialogue with the Daleks or the Daleks’ humanoid allies.

After a break of several years since she last reprised the role for Big Finish, Bonnie Langford returns as once maligned companion Melanie Bush. Big Finish’s Doctor Who plays over the last 16 years have not only restored much respect to the later 1980s Doctors such as McCoy and Colin Baker but they have revitalised companions from the same era such as Nicola Bryant’s Peri Brown, Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa and Mark Strickson’s Turlough. Langford’s Mel is no exception here. Gone is the piercing, hyperactive, over-effusive, irritating, helpless (and some might argue useless) damsel that trailed McCoy’s Doctor in the TV program’s much detested 24th season (although none of that can be laid at the feet of Ms Langford who suffered from poor character development and awful scripting and disliked her character as much as the fans did). In the “damsel’s” place is a confident, independent, likeable and measured young woman whose professional IT knowledge and skills are for once utilised (after being barely referenced in the TV series) and ultimately play a major role in the climax. What remains consistent in Langford’s portrayal from the TV series are Mel’s selflessness and courage (especially when she is embroiled in the Warfleet game). There is no doubt Langford enjoys the opportunity to flesh out a very two-dimensional character that she had once thought she’d left far behind in the ‘80s (in the CD extras, she describes Doctor Who as the “gift that just keeps on giving”). Just as We are the Daleks reassesses the “heady” days of the late ‘80s, so it also gives the most sceptical Whovian the opportunity to reappraise Langford’s true talent as a reinvigorated Mel.

The supporting cast is outstanding. Angus Wright effortlessly brings a vocal authority to Alek Zenos that in the first episode in particular evokes memories of the late Maurice Colbourne’s Lytton in his dealings with the Daleks (Resurrection of the Daleks). Wright, of course, was brilliant as Magnus Greel in the Fifth Doctor tale The Butcher of Brisbane, in which he was able to make a quite insane, ruthless character simultaneously flawed and sympathetic. Similarly, he makes the dubious Zenos three-dimensional, empathetic and not as black and white as he seems.

Mary Conlon is also excellent as Celia Dunthorpe; thanks to Conlon’s initial delivery, you imagine Dunthorpe to be a harmless, old-fashioned and dotty MP, not unlike Harriet Jones when she was first introduced in Doctor Who. Of course, what you get instead is a pushy, rational, motivated and coldblooded individual (“Ambition is not a dirty word!”) with quite dangerous values and ideas who is aiming squarely for the premiership (even though she is unaligned to any political party) and would probably eat Harriet Jones for breakfast! The Daleks, despite being “ethically challenged”, prove to be a perfect stepping stone for Dunthorpe’s aspirations – and as her fate remains unresolved (there is a brief allusion to Asylum of the Daleks), it would be a waste if Big Finish doesn’t revive the character for a rematch with the Doctor at a later date.

Both Wright and Conlon eclipse the other performers in the versatile Robbie Stevens (who in addition to voicing the crusty Bunbury plays union shop steward Frank in episode one), Ashley Zhangazha, Serena Paget, and Lizzie Roper and Dominic Thornburn (who play Thal resistance fighters). But it is Dalek voice artiste Nicholas Briggs who continues to steal the show. You would think by now that Briggs must be weary of the Daleks (or at least prepared to share the voice modulator duties on the BF audios so he can save his throat for his TV performances!) but if so, it doesn’t show. Briggs continues to play all of the Daleks with passion and purpose (as Sylvester McCoy remarks, there are at least six different Daleks in him!), saving his best performance for the booming, guttural tones of the Dalek Emperor, which (in a nod to Evil of the Daleks and The Parting of the Ways) sounds exactly like the behemoth you would imagine it to be.

Of course, much of the success of Briggs’ performance is also down to Big Finish’s sound production values which are overseen in this tale by Wilfredo Acosta. Acosta is also responsible for the incidental music, successfully capturing the flavour of McCoy era Doctor Who episodes in his electronic score, which riffs off the likes of the then controversial TV composer Keff McCulloch.

We are the Daleks is one of the most enjoyable, innovative takes on the Daleks for some time (both on TV and audio), as well as being an entertaining and thought-provoking Doctor Who adventure in its own right. The serial not only satirically implies that the Daleks may have had an influence in the economic and cultural upheavals that plagued Britain and the world economy in the 1980s but it also highlights that even after nearly three decades many of the same problems that existed then are equally as prevalent in the 21st century. The themes of We are the Daleks are as topical as ever.