Big Finish Review: Shadow of the Daleks 1

Big Finish Review: Shadow of the Daleks 1

Here comes a Doctor Who audio adventure which makes a virtue of radio drama’s casting conventions: drafting four actors to play different characters across a series of adventures, who turn out to be linked in a most enigmatic way. Shadow of the Daleks 1 sets out the start of a fascinating mystery, in which the Doctor (Peter Davison) keeps encountering familiar faces, while the Time War - an epochal event on his horizon - lies just outside of his field of vision. As just the first half of a larger narrative, it’s almost impossible to judge these stories on their own merits: but I’ll bravely try.

Shadow of the Daleks 1 has been written by James Kettle, Jonathan Morris, Simon Guerrier and Dan Starkey, and directed by Ken Bentley. It’s available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release from the 30th November 2020. Here's the synopsis…

Something is very wrong. The Fifth Doctor is lost in the Time War, heading for an encounter with his oldest and deadliest enemies... the Daleks!

Aimed at the Body by James Kettle

An encounter with a notorious cricketing legend should be right up the Doctor’s street. But the unexpected appearance of an old enemy is about to send the Doctor on a quest.

Lightspeed by Jonathan Morris

The trail has led the Doctor to a spaceship in the far future - where he finds himself trapped in the middle of a terrifying revenge plot.

The Bookshop at the End of the World by Simon Guerrier

It’s very easy to forget yourself and get lost in a bookshop. But in some bookshops more than most...

Interlude by Dan Starkey

The play’s the thing! Or is it? The Doctor is roped into a theatrical spectacular - but who is he really performing to?

The Review...

Aimed at the Body

The Doctor arrives in the Australian outback, looking for a cricket match, but is informed that he’s just slightly off course - by a few hundred miles. The bad news comes to him from Mrs Calderwood (Dervla Kirwan), her daughter Flora (Anjli Mohindra) and her fiance Douglas (Jamie Parker) - who are dealing with trouble of their own. They’re stranded and without water, after their guide has gone missing. The Doctor takes it upon himself to investigate when phantom machines phase in and out of existence, and his new companions begin to speak in the voices of his mortal enemy - the Daleks.

In setting up the tone of the wider adventure, writer James Kettle does well to establish a slippery and unreliable mood. His indelible characters, particularly the loathsome Douglas, are a joy to spend the time with.

The choice of location is inspired: the outback has been alluded to in other Doctor Who media, but the setting is beautifully evoked here. In referencing the Dreamtime, the period when Aboriginal Australians believe the world was sung into existence, writer James Kettle cleverly primes us for a story in which reality isn’t as concrete as it might seem. Picnic at Hanging Rock, the classic Australian story of a tear in reality’s fabric, seems to be a sideways influence.

As the Doctor’s new friends begin to disappear one by one, he’s forced to concede defeat: an early omen that this mystery won’t be solved in a hurry. Aimed at the Body is an excellent start to this volume.

Lightspeed

We begin Lightspeed, Jonathan Morris’ contribution, with the sound of an airport lounge - but in space! On the wonderfully named Dogstar Express, flight attendants urge passengers to take their seats, and offer stress-blocking patches, for a very mundane interstellar journey.

The Doctor hasn’t forgotten the appearance of the Daleks back in Australia, and immediately sets about finding them - but is baffled to find that his companions from back in Australia are here under new guises. Flora is now Kathy, visiting her sister on another planet, and Mrs Calderwood is Yost McCormack.

The Doctor barely has time to breathe before he’s trying to stop a malevolent virus from taking over the ship’s computer, Orson, which has propelled them beyond lightspeed - and into the path of an asteroid field. Disaster movies are the chief inspiration here, and it wouldn’t be one without an obvious but affectionate Airplane! reference. Trying desperately to stop the ship’s reactor, or cut off the fuel, things just get worse and worse for the Doctor - but there’s a clever solution.

The sound design of Wilfredo Acosta, who also provides the musical accompaniment across the stories, exceeds the usual high standards of Big Finish. Headphones are advised.

Alternate Artwork.

The Bookshop at the End of the World

Arriving at a wartime-era bookshop that happens to serve pints, including 19 types of cider, the Doctor takes a break and tries to find a solution. Peter Davison is excellent in these scenes - listening to his Doctor talk his way through a problem is always a treat.

The shop is run by Diane White, who bears a strong resemblance to Mrs Calderwood and Yost. Also present are Madeline, Frank and Elroy, all trying to drink and forget. While Simon Guerrier’s script is much less action-packed than prior chapters, the heat of battle is never far from his character’s minds.

As a storm rages outside, the electricity begins to spark inside too, and reality seems to impinge further and further on the very shaky facsimile inside the bookshop. It’s all getting very confusing as time plays havoc: we get closer here to figuring out just how the Time War is encroaching on the Doctor’s timeline than we have before.

“This war cannot be won”

As the tension increases, the patrons try harder to push the Doctor out, desperate not to confront the horror of the thing they’re escaping. The melancholy kinship of wartime classics like Casablanca gives way to paranoia and mistrust as Simon Guerrier’s script turns up the heat. The obstacles here are emotional rather than physical or intellectual, and inevitably they’re overcome by talking it through.

Interlude

“Out of one storm and into another”, as the Doctor puts it, as he lands in Florence at the time of the Renaissance - before his TARDIS is confiscated by the authorities. The Doctor namedrops Lorenzo de Medici, but quickly finds that’s a name from “the old times.” Something isn’t right.

He’s quickly drafted into a short-staffed theatrical troupe, played again by his previous companions in new guises. They’re due to perform at the victory celebrations for a local Duke, a shadowy figure who’s trounced any opposition for miles around. The Doctor sees an opportunity to solve the mystery, and recover his ship. But reality continues to play tricks on him and his new - yet old - allies.

Dan Starkey’s contribution is aptly titled - coming at the middle point of the Shadow of the Daleks two-parter, of course, Interlude is an opportunity to recap the themes of the story so far and set up what’s coming next. The conceit of a theatrical troupe picking and choosing their roles underscores the nature of the project itself - four people playing parts, but always retaining themselves, again and again. It’s a neat mirror to what Big Finish does best, using familiar elements to create bold new things.

Shadow of the Daleks Part 1 is a fascinating prelude to what one hopes will be an explosive, and revelatory, finale: bending time and space in new and unusual ways, these four mini-stories carry a collective weight that make this another stand-out effort from Big Finish.

The Extras...

The package features a bumper set of interviews, as the cast and most of the creatives behind the scenes weigh in on the story. John Dorney, Shadow of the Daleks's script editor, remarks that the best part of a feature-length adventure is getting to explore one idea in full detail. Nicholas Briggs, Big Finish executive producers and veteran Dalek, says that Shadow is not a full-on adventure for the titular villains: yet their presence is always felt thanks to great writing from the four scripters.

The writers of each segment get to elaborate on their individual inspirations, and the work of contributing to an overarching narrative. Jonathan Morris, writer of Lightspeed, reveals that he dreamed up the idea 10 years ago, but kept adding and revising until the opportunity came to re-submit to Big Finish. Simon Guerrier (The Bookshop at the End of the World), was sent the email chain of the other writers in Shadow of the Daleks, in which they brainstormed the concept. Dan Starkey talks about how disparate inspirations - a gothic atmosphere, Hamlet’s play within a play - contributed to his story, Interlude.

On the acting side, Anjli Mohindra reveals she relished the opportunity to play characters from different worlds, backgrounds and timelines. Glen McReady is equally complimentary: he talks of being confused by the setup, but also impressed by the overarching master plan (an apt turn of phrase) in play. The cast also discuss the post-COVID recording process, with Dervla Kirwan noting that there were both downsides and upsides to the new normal. Peter Davison, revealing his initial recording setup took the form of a duvet fortress, conjures an unforgettable mental image.

Finally, a music suite compiles the ravishing themes composed by Wilfredo Acosta, beginning with a Vangelis-esque synth note sure to excite Blade Runner fans. There’s also an exciting - if not too revealing! - trailer for Shadow of the Daleks 2, the concluding part of this adventure, due to arrive next month.

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