Shadow of the Daleks concludes with four new tales which successfully maintain the eerie quality of the first set, while providing a satisfying resolution to the mystery
The second half of one of the most experimental releases in Big Finish’s monthly range has arrived. Shadow of the Daleks 2 comprises four new one part stories, each taking Peter Davison’s Doctor further into darkness. And each step along the way he comes closer to decoding a desperate mystery. Why the same four faces been appearing again and again everywhere he goes? And why is reality collapsing into a stranger, more disturbing version of itself? Last time his pursuit of the truth brought him to a selection of mind twisting scenarios. From a nightmarishly surreal version of the Outback, to a passenger liner on a collision course with a black hole. And on to a bookshop that provided fleeting refuge from the storm of the Time War raging outside its windows. While medieval Italy folded in on itself until the whole world really is just one stage.
Volume 2, meanwhile, faces the difficult task of maintaining Shadow of the Daleks’ distinctive unknowable eeriness and providing some answers. Big Finish legend John Dorney has overseen these releases, and it’s hard to imagine anyone managing it better than this. Though, inevitably, the answers when they come are less beguiling than the mystery. Up until that point, however, it maintains Volume 1’s claustrophobic sense of foreboding brilliantly. Moreover, it succeeds in taking the format established in the first set and twisting it into ever stranger shapes.
Echo Chamber pits the Fifth Doctor’s unfailing politeness against a very different type of hate
Echo Chamber is the first (or fifth, depending on how you’re counting) story. It throws the Doctor into a situation that is very 2020. Perplexed, he finds himself in the recording booth of a talk radio host with millions of listeners across the sector. He’s supposed to stoke the population’s anger and outrage. But instead he just succeeds in stoking the chagrin of his producer. Because this mildest of doctors tries to promote an atmosphere of just being terribly reasonable to each other instead. The episode effectively skewers the phenomenons of hate clicks, and fake news. And Echo Chamber’s strongest conclusion is that, for the manufacturers of outrage, it doesn’t matter what that rage’s target is. Whether aimed at something real or imagined, or even inwardly, the grievance and anger aren’t a means to an end. They are the end.
The Doctor’s stay in the studio also represents an escalation. The temporal collapse now seems to be trying to make him part of its own pattern. Initially, as with so many Doctor Who stories before, at the start of Shadow of the Daleks he was the outsider. The disruptor who shook things up by his very presence. But Echo Chamber literally sits him down and tries to make him play the role set down for him.
In Towards Zero the Doctor has to avoid becoming part of the story itself. Especially as it’s a murder mystery determined to cast him as the victim
Towards Zero takes things yet further, and into even more alarming territory. This time the Doctor arrives in an elegant English mix of tea, scones and murder straight from Agatha Christie. But this time the same familiar faces haven’t just adopted new characters. This time. Moreover, they identify the Doctor as the fifth of their number. The family’s eldest son. And scheduled murder victim… Once again, it’s the persona played by Anjli Mohindra (who’s shaping up to be the best Doctor Who companion we never had) which is most able to accept that the world spun around her is a lie. It makes her instrumental in the Doctor’s detective work. But also the centre of the most bittersweet ending in this set.
Castle Hydra prevents anyone getting too comfortable with Shadow of the Daleks’ format with a cunning subversion of it
As we head inexorably toward the Doctor’s final destination, penultimate story Castle Hydra continues to subvert the format. This episode echoes the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip Blood and Ice, in which Clara finally met one of her own splinters. Castle Hydra begs similar questions of how any of us would react to discovering versions of themselves are impossibly repeating. Though hopefully not, as with Professor Callis and her team, imprisoning in their dungeon as many of them as they can find. Or by performing experiments on them, for that matter.
The cast playing multiple versions of themselves within the same drama does occasionally make the action hard to follow. This is also the Shadow of the Daleks story that keys most directly so far into the overall concept. It isn’t hard to guess from the start that the masked guards are duplicates of their own prisoners. And once that’s unveiled, there’s not a lot else to the story. It feels like there isn’t quite enough her to sustain even its half hour length, despite its compelling hook.
Effect and Cause proves a worthy finale by resolving the key mystery while not deflating the surreal strangeness of what’s gone before
Dorney himself takes scripting duties on Effect and Cause. After all, he’s best placed to bind together the ideas of his fellow writers into a cohesive finale. He nevertheless wisely avoids trying to explain every detail. So there’s no attempt to account for why the tour guide ages to death in Aimed at the Body. Nor why the city states of Italy contract to a single room. As for why the Daleks open a talk radio station…
“Experimental Dalek Time Bomb (the other sort of time bomb) Go Boom! Wackiness Ensues,” is about as sophisticated an explanation, scientifically, as we get. But by sidestepping the trap of bogging itself down in such minutiae the finale can focus on the important things. Finally we get answers as to exactly how these four people have been cast across time and space and different versions of reality. As well as to why they seem haunted, sometimes even possessed, by the Daleks. And what the Daleks are even trying to accomplish with all this.
While not every mystery is answered, the revelation at the heart of Shadow of the Daleks proves shocking
Those answers succeed both by surprising and by raising the stakes further than Blogtor Who had ever expected. It’s always tempting to suspect, especially with audio releases, that the main appeal of involving Time War era Daleks is that they just look so cool when put on covers by talents like Simon Holub. But their place is more than earned here. For the Fifth Doctor isn’t simply caught at the edge of the Time War. Rather he’s been thrust directly into the Daleks’ victory. The notion of the Daleks having already won is a genuine shock, despite the knowledge it will be inevitably undone. As are the identities of the original templates for the personas played by Kirwan, McReady, Mohindra and Parker.
Like any sustained mystery, Shadow of the Daleks has invited speculation. Some listeners may had guessed we were witnessing another attempt to spread the Dalek Factor, or perhaps Daleks who didn’t know they were Daleks. But the true answer is both surprising and surprisingly heartbreaking. It will also make you despise Davros more than you already did.
Shadow of the Daleks can be added to that short list of format breaking stories that succeed in being both great Doctor Who, and barely recognizable as Doctor Who at all
In the final analysis, Shadow of the Daleks has been a triumph in almost every area. Whether in the experimental format, or the re-casting of the Daleks as shadowy bogeymen in the corner of the eye, rather than shouty killing machines, the two volumes are among the freshest and most innovative Big Finish releases in years. It’s particularly impressive given the circumstance that inspired it. Extras on recent releases have emphasized putting a brave face on the challenges presented by the pandemic. However, the John Dorney interview that closes the set is unusually detailed and pragmatic.
Actors having to be able to record from home has meant a smaller pool of actors for Big Finish to draw on. Big Finish have overcome that limitation of smaller casts repeating across multiple stories with great verve and determination. But Shadow of the Daleks making it the crux of the entire arc is nothing short of genius.
As the Big Finish team themselves note, it’s not a trick you can really pull off twice. But what a one-off it’s been. And Shadow of the Daleks can proudly take its place as one of those rare stories that manages to be among the best Doctor Who has to offer while scarcely seeming like Doctor Who at all.
Doctor Who: Shadow of the Daleks 2
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!
Echo Chamber by Jonathan Barnes
It’s the radio talk show where everyone’s free to call in with their opinions. Time to welcome its host – the Doctor!
Towards Zero by Roland Moore
The Doctor finds himself in an old country house where he has to solve a very unusual murder – his own!
Castle Hydra by Lizzie Hopley
Nearing the end of his journey, the Doctor enters a jail filled with familiar faces. But who are the prisoners and who are the wardens?
Effect and Cause by John Dorney
A crash in the vortex leads the Doctor to the source of all his troubles, and to the Daleks. The answers are here. If he can live long enough to find them.
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
Dervla Kirwan (Pellent Glommeration Representative / Agatha Fernbridge / Professor Callis / Kelleher)
Glen McCready (Advertising VO / Todd / Maran)
Anjli Mohindra (K’Marree-943 / Jennifer Huxley / Myorrah / Alice / Milal)
Jamie Parker (Brian / Jasper Fernbridge / Torrence / Sandar)
Script Editors Roland Moore / John Dorney
Writers Lizzie Hopley / John Dorney / Roland Moore / Jonathan Barnes
Remote Sound Engineer Gerry O’Riordan
Cover Artist Simon Holub
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery / Nicholas Briggs
Music Wilfredo Acosta
Producer David Richardson
Sound Designer Wilfredo Acosta