Doctor Who – Dalek Universe 2 (Big Finish Review)

You spend years waiting for a new Tenth Doctor audio, only to have three of them released in quick succession! Dalek Universe 2 follows hot on the heels of April’s Dalek Universe 1 and June’s Out of Time 2, but that’s not it for this year – there’s also the final volume of this three-part saga to round things off in October. What a year 2021 is shaping up to be.

Beginning the saga with this second instalment would be ill-advised – with so many major developments in each episode, you’d risk spoiling several major plot points – so be sure to head back and listen from the start. Alternatively, for a crash course of all things Dalek Universe so far, read my take of volume one and the prologue story The Dalek Protocol before delving in further.

Before we get stuck into individual episodes though, I really ought to spend a moment in recognition of the superb cover art for each of the three stories, and indeed for all of Dalek Universe. Simon Holub has brought his A game; the artwork for each story is full of colour and excitement, befitting the vast, science fiction extravaganza that is Dalek Universe.

 

Cycle of Destruction

It will be fun to hear what a listen-though of the entire Dalek Universe saga will be like, once all three volumes have been released, not least because Cycle of Destruction picks up straight after the end of The House of Kingdom, and we’re immediately immersed once more in the trials and tribulations of the Tenth Doctor and Space Security Service agents Anya Kingdom and Mark Seven.

Beyond the mystery of Mark’s abrupt turn at the end of The House of Kingdom, Cycle of Destruction begins in conventional fashion: the trio arrive in a foreign jungle environment, evade a threatening bear-like monster, and chance upon a mysterious facility populated by robots with numerical surnames (‘Jason Four’, ‘Mariah Six’)… the reason why they’ve found themselves at the facility start to become clear.

The first volume featured an epic two-parter followed by an Anya-heavy character piece, where we met her father Merrick and explored the pair’s rocky relationship; this time round, it’s Mark’s turn for a metaphorical look inside the android’s casing. It turns out that Mark’s actions at the end of volume one were simply the result of his being “recalled” home to the research facility staffed by fellow numerically named robots. Chief among them is Mariah Six, played by Nina Toussaint-White – better known to Doctor Who audiences as Amy and Rory’s childhood friend Mels – who, although ostensibly the episode’s ‘antagonist’, is revealed to have more complex motivations that tie in closely with Mark’s story.

At this stage, links to the broader plot appear to still be minimal, as they were in the first volume: the focus is still very much on our three leads and Anya and Mark’s backstories; the Daleks appear only in flashback here to Mark’s ‘youth’. Cycle of Destruction primarily functions to shine a light on the android, providing glimpses into his background and a well-deserved moment of self-affirmation at the climax.

The Trojan Dalek

“You don’t stop the Daleks by becoming them. My people learned that to their cost. At least for them it was just a metaphor!”

With The Trojan Dalek, we reach the midway point of the Dalek Universe saga. At this point, the Doctor and his companions are still on the trail of the temporal scientist Arborecc – the one who can supposedly help the Doctor return to his own place and time – and subsequently arrive on another space station, one where SSS military figure Major McLinn holds sway.

This is another John Dorney outing, which means more clever dialogue, strong character work and another twist halfway through. McLinn, played by Blake Ritson, is revealed to be manufacturing imitation Daleks, welding together spare parts and popping humans inside the cobbled-together cases as a means of infiltrating real Daleks bases – the SSS are in the business of fighting a war against the Daleks, after all. Balancing out the horrific ramifications of such an experiment are the Doctor’s playful jibes at the discount nature of McLinn’s creations, including a deliciously meta reference to their being “the Blue Peter version” as opposed to the real thing.

Like Cycle of Destruction, The Trojan Dalek starts off slowly before gaining momentum and building to a rather tragic ending. A word of advice – don’t go expecting a wild Dalek ride from the outset; the first half of this saga features the Daleks only minimally. Instead, the series has been more concerned with developing the story world, spending time with the main characters, prising open aspects of their backstory and laying down a series of plot developments that lead to what will presumably be a high-stakes final instalment.

That doesn’t mean the production values aren’t top-notch, though – far from it. The Trojan Dalek packs some great sound design and several powerful performances: Tennant, as ever, is full of buoyant energy; Sims and Slavin share a fun bickering-teenager relationship; and Ritson’s dulcet tones bring a charming suavity to the mad scientist archetype.

There’s another big moment at the climax here as Mark Seven meets his end after being shot by one of McLinn’s imitation Daleks. This being Doctor Who, anything can happen, but if the character is indeed gone for good – and the omission of Sims’ name from the cast list on Dalek Universe 3 seems to indicate so – it pushes the series in a grim direction for this already tortured incarnation of the Doctor.

The Lost

Robert Valentine’s closing episode brings Dalek Universe into decidedly more psychological territory. Valentine’s is a relatively recent name at Big Finish – it’s been little over a year since his first story went out – but he’s proven himself adept at crafting engaging science fiction.

What really works in this story’s favour is the small cast and intimate focus. Things stay close and contained: after a high-octane opening sequence, the Doctor and Anya find themselves in an exo-dimension that exists “outside” the universe, but from there the majority of the episode’s runtime constitutes a three-parter between the Doctor, Anya and a vision of Mark conjured by an ethereal being known as the Lost. There are minor guest appearances from Leighton Pugh and Kevin McNally, but the focus is squarely on the leads. (One early highlight is an extended dialogue between Anya and the Doctor as they simply sit, talk and share a meal together.)

The Lost entity, desperate to piggyback on either the Doctor’s or Anya’s shoulders and make it out of the exo-dimension, threatens to tear them apart by presenting visions of both themselves and some well-known faces – such as Ann Kelso and Merrick Kingdom – and break open the revelation of Sara Kingdom’s demise way back in The Daleks’ Master Plan. As a result, the episode is gentle and unassuming on the surface, but with a sharp underside. And to top it off, there’s further foreshadowing for the third and final Dalek Universe instalment and, in true Doctor Who fashion, a banger final line that propels Anya and the Doctor into the midst of a Dalek-Movellan skirmish.

I mentioned above the superb performances; in fact, the production values are strong across all aspects of this release, from scripts to cover art to storytelling ambition. Even the YouTube trailer boasts a cheeky homage to the trailer for The Day of the Doctor. Dalek Universe 2 is big but intimate, not always what you expect but always first-rate.

Doctor Who – Dalek Universe 2 was released in July 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 October 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Extras

If you need a pick-me-up after the narrative’s hard-hitting developments, look no further than the behind-the-scenes. The hour-long suite of interviews is chock-full of recording insights and actors’ praise for their talented peers. Take Jane Slavin’s assessment of Joe Sims as one of her “favourite people in the whole world”, for example, or Roy Gill’s description of David Tennant as a mercurial performer with a knack for turning on a dime.

Tennant himself has high praise for Terry Nation’s enduring influence on Doctor Who, and he’s not alone. “I like playing computers,” says John Banks as he talks through the approaches you could take to playing (a surprising variety of) computer voices. John Dorney shares his reasoning behind the decision to kill off Mark Seven, and Barnaby Edwards explains just how difficult it was to finally voice the Daleks after decades of moving around inside them.

With these stories having been recorded in 2020, there’s also much talk of the lockdown recording experience and some pertinent thoughts around the fate of the arts world in this strange and demanding era we now live in.

Synopsis

These tales take the Tenth Doctor, Anya Kingdom and Mark Seven deeper into family histories, aboard the strangest of space stations and to a truth that might tear them apart…

Cycle of Destruction by Roy Gill

After Mark starts behaving oddly, the Doctor and Anya find themselves on a strange planet with their friend missing. Searching for him they find their way to an isolated research base. The corridors show signs of animal incursions and the scientists are behaving strangely. But a big surprise is waiting for them.

Because this is where Mark Seven came from. They’re about to find out who he is. But is that information too dangerous to know?

The Trojan Dalek by John Dorney

The Doctor, Mark and Anya head for an SSS space station searching for the missing temporal scientist, Arborecc. But the officer in charge denies all knowledge of his presence and demands their departure.

Unwilling to leave so easily, the group split up to investigate… and uncover a heinous plot involving the Doctor’s oldest foes. Or do they?

The Lost by Robert Valentine

When the Doctor’s latest scheme to get back to the future fails, the team’s ship crashes on a strange world, potentially trapping them for ever.

Searching for replacement parts, they find their way to a building where heart-breakingly familiar faces await them.

Lies are about to be exposed. Everyone will learn the truth. And nothing will be the same again.

Cast

David Tennant (The Doctor)
Jane Slavin (Anya Kingdom)
Joe Sims (Mark Seven)
John Banks (Crispin Torr / Jason Four)
Pippa Bennett-Warner (Fliss Keeley)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
Barnaby Edwards (Arborecc)
Avita Jay (Moran Kez / Hera)
Kevin McNally (Merrick Kingdom)
Leighton Pugh (The Lost)
Blake Ritson (Major McLinn)
Nina Toussaint-White (Mariah Six)

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 by Howard Carter
Written by Robert Valentine, Roy Gill & John Dorney

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who – Dalek Universe 1
Doctor Who – Out of Time 2
Doctor Who – The Tenth Doctor and River Song

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