Shadow of the Daleks pushes the boundaries of what Dalek stories can be, with unsettling and effective results
Innovation and experimentation are very much the touchstones of Big Finish’s latest release as we enter the dying days of the Doctor Who monthly range. Firstly, Shadow of the Daleks continues the recent playing with structure we saw with Time Apart and Thin Time/Madquake. This time we’re getting four one-part stories across two months, strongly connected by a common plot strand. But more than that, this first quartet of tales actively try and push the boundaries of what a Doctor Who story can be, and specifically what a Dalek story can be.
As it happens, that umbrella title of Shadow of the Daleks proves to be well chosen. The Daleks here don’t push their way through the narratives with the usual sturm and drang. Instead, they’re a sinister presence at the edges of events, or under the surface of them. Often they fit into events in surreal and disturbing ways that leave the Doctor disquieted by a formless dread. No running breathless down corridors away from them here, nor pushing them out of warehouse windows.
Opener Aimed at the Body disquiets with its tale of inexplicable terror in the Outback
This sense of reality shifting like sand under the Doctor’s feet in inexplicable ways is strongest in the opening episode. Aimed at the Body feels like a particularly vivid fever dream about David Lynch’s Dalek Book. Or, if you prefer, Terry Nation’s Mulholland Drive.
A lost group of English people drift on, lost in the Australian Outback; the topography around them changing and rearranging itself in dreamlike ways. Visitations and strange events occur which continue that nightmare sense of a flow of subconscious terrors. A strange metal statue of a cycloptic idol appears and disappears in the road. Night falls in the blink of an eye. A lake shrinks, the opposite bank being pulled towards them as if on a string. People vanish and reappear as desiccated corpses. Other vanish completely, their previous words drifting on the wind over and over like a moment caught in time. And even identity becomes mutable, as people lose their grip on who they were before.
James Kettle’s debut Doctor Who script successfully creates the required cosmic horror sense that everything does make sense, if only we mere mortals were able to understand the rules. An impressive accomplishment when a character like the Doctor has to be dropped into your storyline. After all, they’re designed, almost by definition, to provide rational explanations for everything. But the Doctor’s own confusion and mounting fear only adds the to the tension and atmosphere. As does Peter Davison’s clear relishing of the material. The result is a kind of ‘Police Box at Hanging Rock’ tale. One which lingers uncomfortably at the frayed edges of your mind…
Surely, Lightspeed can’t be serious?
Or at least it would, if we didn’t immediately power on to Jonathan Morris’ Lightspeed. This second installment pulls off its own tricky accomplishment simply by managing to sit so neatly next to Aimed at the Body while being so utterly different. It’s not so much a shift of tone, as a handbrake turn. It wears it’s Airplane! influence on its sleeve, with even the Doctor seemingly aware of the parallel. At one point he barely stops himself making a “Don’t call me Shirley” joke.
Though comparisons to Airplane! sequel Airplane II: The Sequel might be more apt. After all, we find trapped ourselves aboard an out of control passenger spaceship, completely with homicidal computer. And, of course the usual cliches of a passenger with a secret, hijacks, a plucky stewardess. There’s even the random clergyman required of every disaster movie. Probably nothing sums up Lightspeed so much as the sequence of successive characters entering the cockpit for a rat-a-tat discussion in which they manage to hit about a dozen different synonyms for ‘priest’ without hesitation or repetition.
Despite the clear Zucker Brothers influence, Lightspeed still succeeds in fitting neatly within the overall arc
It’s probably the story here that feels most like a pre-existing concept lightly retrofitted to slide into Shadow of the Daleks’ track listing. But it still feels connected due to Davison’s sense of his own place in the wider arc. His disorientation and concern spills over from the previous events. And also due to the shared sense of unreality – leading the Doctor himself to ponder if he’s trapped in some sort of simulation or distortion.
The Bookshop at the End of the World impresses as a character driven story where character and identity themselves are uncertain
After a half hour’s relief, the general sense of existential doom is back in full effect. In The Bookshop at the End of the World by Simon Guerrier, the Doctor blunders into the eponymous used bookshop come pub. In doing so he disrupts the peace of four characters waiting for the storm raging outside to pass. The Time Lord’s sense of his own identity is beginning to erode at this stage, nobody seems quite sure just how long they’ve been in the bookshop, and the storm becomes steadily interchangeable with ‘the War’ in people’s minds. But which war? The First World War? Or another one entirely?
The script offers many hints, but Guerrier leaves us to make up our own minds about its questions. Who, for instance, is Elroy, the customer who talks a fine line in ‘exterminating’ the enemy? And why does the amnesiac Doctor takes an instinctive dislike to him at an almost cellular level?
It’s a release full of allusions and influences unexpected in Doctor Who, The Bookshop at the End of the World might well be The Time War as staged at the Abbey Theatre by Samuel Beckett. Or it may not be. Or both at once. But whatever, else, it’s undoubtedly another strong atmosphere piece that perturbs and impresses in equal measure.
Interlude is the most traditional Doctor Who story in the set, but is still driven by an interesting concept
Dan Starkey’s Interlude is given the difficult task of ending this first volume. Ironically, it’s weakness is being the best Doctor Who story of the four. Or, more accurately, in delivering what you’d expect from a good Doctor Who story amidst a collection determined to subvert them. The concept itself fits neatly with Shadow of the Daleks. History is unravelling as mysterious new figure ‘the Duke’ burns all the rival city states of medieval Italy to the ground. As one character dryly notes, all roads no longer have a Rome to go to. More than that, the Doctor can’t shake the nagging feeling that every time he turns around there are fewer people in the streets. That there are even fewer streets.
Where Interlude differs from the likes of Body or Bookshop, however, is that our hero ultimately does get a handle on what’s going on. He even gets to deliver a satisfyingly complete explanation of the plot at the end. (A moment Davison pleasingly delivers as the Doctor being inwardly thrilled at being faced with a problem he can explain for the first time in ages). But don’t let that distract you from a story full of such interesting ideas, and also fun ones like the Doctor being recruited for a strolling troupe of players after being mistaken for a clown.
As the shadow of the Dalek threat falls across the universe, reality becomes a colder, more broken place
Of course, Shadow of the Daleks is more than just a portmaneau of short stories of quiet dread. The linking element is as surprising and innovative as anything else. Up until now, the Time War has been paradoxically something that’s both raged through all of time and space, and also something that only broke out during the Eighth Doctor’s time. And that’s been okay, because if you can’t be paradoxical when you’re a Time War, when can you? But Shadow of the Daleks offers a vision of what the distant War looked like to the Doctor’s earlier selves. And the impression is akin to a school of fish being sent tumbling, caught by the shockwaves of detonations occurring on a surface they can barely perceive.
Many previous stories dealing with it have had to depict it in more straightforward fashion in order to render it as an intelligible story. Ones in which the Doctor foils the Daleks’ latest evil plan by the end. But by plunging us into a universe being shredded, with even the Doctor as near helpless bystander, it creates a stranger, transfixing, and ultimately terrifying take.
The Doctor’s pilgrimage into the heart of the Dalek darkness continues later this month
So where does Shadow of the Daleks go from here? And what can we expect from this month’s second volume? We’re left here with little clue, just the Doctor setting off again on his almost Dante’s Inferno style path deeper into the Hell of the Time War. Can he find a way out from under the shadow of the Daleks? Perhaps he’ll find firmer ground under his feet and manage a more conventional victory in battle against Daleks he can actually face eye to eyestalk. But one thing is sure – Doctor Who has rarely been so unpredictable or so exciting.
Doctor Who: Shadow of the Daleks 1
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?
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
Dervla Kirwan (Mrs Calderwood / Yost McCormack / DI Wright / Anna-Maria)
Glen McCready (Orson / Elroy Dale / Captain)
Anjli Mohindra (Flora / Kathy Dafoe / Madeleine Williams / Bianca)
Jamie Parker (Douglas / Monsignor Plummer / Frank Reichenbach / Virgilio)
Writers Jonathan Morris / Simon Guerrier / Dan Starkey / James Kettle
Remote Sound Engineering Wilfredo Acosta / Gerry O’Riordan
Cover Artist Simon Holub
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery / Nicholas Briggs
Music Wilfredo Acosta
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor John Dorney
Sound Design Wilfredo Acosta
Duration 154 minutes