Doctor Who – Dalek Universe #1 (Big Finish Review)

The start of an epic, multi-part series like Dalek Universe from Big Finish is always exciting. The scale and ambition of sagas such as Doom Coalition or The Syndicate Master Plan takes storytelling possibilities to another level, and seeing the Doctor and companions face up to an ever-expanding threat makes for thrilling listening.

With this release being headlined by David Tennant, hitherto only occasionally heard on audio (he’s certainly one in-demand actor!), Dalek Universe should be mandatory on everyone’s wishlist. Throw in Daleks, Davros and River Song – well, that just makes it unmissable. 2021 will give us more David Tennant than ever before at Big Finish, and it all starts with volume one of Dalek Universe.

 

 

Check out our release of the Dalek Universe prequel story The Dalek Protocol here.

Note: major spoilers follow!

Buying Time

Although Tennant has (inexplicably) just turned 50, he’s not lost any of his passion for or in the role of the Doctor, filling every scene in Buying Time with the same boyish enthusiasm that electrified televisions screens over a decade ago. Although his voice has grown slightly gravellier, if anything this adds extra gravitas to his performance.

Buying Time starts quietly and unassumingly, as the Doctor encounters Space Security Service agents Anya Kingdom, a past companion from his fourth incarnation, and Mark Seven, a top android agent, aboard a damaged spaceship. The Doctor hasn’t a clue as to how he arrived or who brought him (although one thing’s for sure – he’s without his TARDIS) and Anya is plagued by visions of death, destruction and of the Doctor himself, although he has no memory of such events.

Close encounters with a race of invisible creatures called Visians follow the Doctor’s realisation that he’s on the planet Mira – which, as a quick visit to a Doctor Who wiki will inform anyone unfamiliar with The Daleks’ Master Plan, is a planet he’s travelled to before in his first incarnation. The action then shifts to future Earth as the trio investigates the mysterious Sheldrake Industries, which is a case of the Doctor Who evil corporation trope if ever there was one (“Commercial time travel… that’s a terrible idea!”), and its owner, George Sheldrake, played with malevolence by Mark Gatiss.

Treated a standalone adventure, Buying Time isn’t hugely groundbreaking; what it does, and does well, is lay down the character framework for the overall saga (notably Doctor, Anya and Mark) and introduce several initial mysteries – who brought the Doctor to Mira, what is George Sheldrake’s endgame for his time tunnel technology, and how will that shock cliffhanger be resolved? It’s that ending, the midway point of this set’s opening two-parter, that shifts things considerably and takes the story in a very unexpected direction. Of course, there are more twists in store in the following episode…

The Wrong Woman

The Wrong Woman is a story you’ll want to pay close attention to and then, likely as not, hit repeat so you can catch what you missed the first time around. It’s also a story that appears to go in one direction for the first half before a revelatory twist halfway through changes your understanding of everything up until that point.

There’s no real way to discuss what happens without giving away the twist at the end of Buying Time: the Tenth Doctor has seemingly died and regenerated into a woman. Gemma Whelan of Game of Thrones and Upstart Crow fame steps into the role of this alt-Eleventh Doctor (named the Newcomer in the credits) and what a riot she is: clearly a whole lot of fun for both Whelan in the performing and writer John Dorney in the writing.

Although there’s clearly something up with the whole situation, the Newcomer embraces her new form like any new Doctor would and launches headlong into stopping the midnight launch of Sheldrake’s time tunnels, an event which threatens all of time. The eventual revelation that Whelan’s character is indeed not the Doctor (no real surprises there) but an incarnation of a different well-known Time Lord renegade (which I won’t spoil) changes the course of the story a second time but also clarifies a lot of things for listeners, who might be forgiven for not completely keeping track of proceedings. And regardless of the Whelan Doctor’s imposter status, I’ll go out on a limb and say she would be a decent candidate to play the Doctor in actuality.

Once the Sheldrake launch inevitably goes awry and time breaks down, Dorney’s script follows in the footsteps of The Wedding of River Song in presenting the mania of all of time happening at once, with dinosaurs wreaking havoc on the streets and creatures evolving or devolving in an instant. The writing also dips into emotion with the Tenth Doctor’s trauma both post-Time War and post-Rose emerging, which provides a pleasing counterbalance to the high-concept science-fiction shenanigans.

The ending wraps up much of the mystery of these first two episodes, with Sheldrake’s business activities being stopped for good, the Doctor (the real one this time) sending an earlier Anya the messages she received in Buying Time, and broken time being stitched back together. The appearance of a lone Dalek at the end that alludes to even greater calamity to come, and the Doctor is trapped for good without his TARDIS.

The House of Kingdom

In the third and final story, a newly stranded Doctor plans on tracking down a scientist who can help him regain time travel technology – a plan which is all well and good until space pirates attack. What ensues is a story that might seem like more conventional Doctor Who fare than the opening two-parter, but also boasts some strong character work.

Hot on the heels of Gemma Whelan’s turn as the Newcomer in Buying Time, another big name guest stars in The House of Kingdom: Kevin McNally as Anya’s grandfather Merrick Kingdom, a retired senior member of the Space Security Service living in a villa on Neptune and tended to by a Mechanoid butler. He shares a tetchy relationship with Anya, who blames him for her mother’s death. McNally has a fantastic presence in the role (and a voice that can even make reading the end credits sound epic), playing with ease the estranged but charming grandfather reaching out to his granddaughter in the hope they can reconcile – which of course means he’s destined not to make it to the end unscathed.

After a flurry of activity at the start of the episode, the plot quietens down for the second act as the Kingdom family drama takes precedence – allowing the Doctor and Anya to share a standout scene sharing memories of Anya’s aunt Sara, who of course was an associate of the First Doctor in The Daleks’ Master Plan – before building back up to the revelation that Merrick is enabling the weaponisation of the venom of Varga planets, native to the planet Skaro, in yet another callback to that serial. Mark also gets some moments of heroism and witty repartee, until a malign force takes him over at the very end (again).

The presence of the Mechanoids and Varga plants lays the groundwork for the Daleks to feature more prominently in Dalek Universe 2, scheduled for release in July. What could be in store with that release? Considering the Anya-heavy nature of The House of Kingdom, could we see the second volume include a Mark-centric story? The end of this set certainly indicates he’ll continue to play a central role. (The behind the scenes give a definitive answer on this point.) In any case, there will certainly be more Daleks and, given what (or rather who) cropped up in Dalek Universe #1, probably a lot more we aren’t expecting!

Doctor Who – Dalek Universe 1 was released in April 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 July 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Extras

Producer David Richardson sums up Dalek Universe as a “love letter to Terry Nation”, and indeed the entire creative team behind this release express great appreciation for the evocative world (the Terry Nation Universe, if you will) he created in the early years of Doctor Who. Richardson also teases further developments in the Anya-Doctor relationship in upcoming stories, after Anya’s alter-ego Ann Kelso was explored across eight hours of The Fourth Doctor Adventures in 2019.

It’s always enjoyable hearing John Dorney break down his creative process, and Andrew Smith discusses how he felt daunted yet thrilled by the prospect of combining elements of the classic series (the era of The Daleks’ Master Plan) with new (a Time War-traumatised Tenth Doctor).

I won’t run through everything that gets discussed in the behind-the-scenes interviews (if nothing else because we’d be here all day!) but suffice to say a lot of effort has gone into producing what is quite the event piece. All three stories in Dalek Universe #1 are strong in acting talent and performances, and that’s reflected in the enjoyment all are having as part of this special release.

Synopsis

Time has gone awry. The Doctor is lost, without his TARDIS. But he’s not alone. The Space Security Service agents Anya Kingdom and Mark Seven haven’t always been on his side in the past, but now they are here to help him.

And he’s going to need them – because the oldest foes of all are waiting to strike. Ready to take down their greatest enemy…

Buying Time by John Dorney

The far future. Anya Kingdom of the Space Security Service is on a mission investigating an SSS ship crashing on a distant jungle planet. Unknown to her superiors, she’s searching for something very specific… but what she finds is completely unexpected. Her old friend, the Doctor. With a completely different face and no idea what he’s doing there.

The Time Lord soon finds himself drawn into a conspiracy involving voracious predators, time travel and a malevolent businessman.

History itself is breaking down. If he makes a mistake, it could mean the end of everything…

The Wrong Woman by John Dorney

The team’s investigations have taken an unexpected turn – but the signs all still point to Sheldrake. With the clock ticking down to the launch of the time tunnels, the Doctor, Anya and Mark split up… but soon discover how hard it is to fight a foe who can always keep one step ahead of you.

But stopping him is only half the battle. The Doctor says that time can be rewritten – and Anya is searching for redemption. Can she put history back on track? Or is the Doctor’s future never going to be the same again?

The House of Kingdom by Andrew Smith

The Doctor and his friends are trying to locate a scientist to help them on their quest… but an attack on a space-station alters their plans.

Rescued by Anya’s grandfather, Merrick, and taken to Neptune, the Doctor and Mark discover her family history. A story of betrayal and loss. 

Will the Kingdoms be reconciled? Or are they destined to continue the mistakes of the past?

Cast

David Tennant (The Doctor)
Jane Slavin (Anya Kingdom)
Joe Sims (Mark Seven)
Juliet Aubrey (Esther Malkin)
Nicholas Briggs (The Mechanoids)
Maria Teresa Creasey (Dr Abigail Crane)
Mark Gatiss (George Sheldrake)
Chris Jarman (Pastor / Vesht)
Kevin McNally (Merrick Kingdom)
Gemma Whelan (The Newcomer)

Credits

Cover Art by Simon Holub
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Howard Carter
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor John Dorney & Matt Fitton
Sound Design Howard Carter
Written by John Dorney & Andrew Smith

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who – The Dalek Protocol
Doctor Who – The Tenth Doctor and River Song
The Diary of River Song Series 8

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