Doctor Who: Dalek Universe 3 (Big Finish Review)

The (first) Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who won a deserved reputation for stakes-raising. Each consecutive season ended in a bigger impending calamity, a bigger emotional gutwrench, and bigger special guests – until 2010’s The End of Time threatened existence itself. So as the latest Tenth Doctor box set comes to close, fans could reasonably expect a big bang. Luckily, epic finales are part of the Big Finish DNA – the clue is in the name. 

The first two volumes of Dalek Universe gave us a set of strong individual stories, which sometimes felt like they could have been told elsewhere: arguably, more could have been made of the event’s unique selling point, with the Doctor finding himself stranded years before the Time War. Much time, too, was spent developing the character of Anya Kingdom (Jane Slavin), the Doctor’s de facto companion. But that time investment pays off, and the foot is firmly on the plot accelerator, in this final instalment. 

With Mark Seven out of the picture, the Tenth Doctor and Anya finally confront the Dalek menace, and face a reckoning with the future. Light spoilers may follow as we head for the conclusion of Dalek Universe.

Check out our reviews of the Big Finish Dalek Universe range below.

  • Dalek Universe: The Dalek Protocol here
  • Dalek Universe 1 here
  • Dalek Universe 2 here

 

 

The First Son by Lizzie Hopley

We pick up on the cliffhanger of last season’s Dalek Universe set, with Ten and Anya picking up a transmission, in a suspiciously Dalek-like voice – “hello, sweetie”. There’s no mistaking who that could be. 

The Doctor only has a few moments to process this before he and Anya crash on a planet of smashed and abandoned ships – except there’s no planet at all, just twisted metal all the way down to a doomed Movellan warship. They meet a hostile Movellan, which the Doctor quickly disarms (you just have to remove the power pack), before being picked up by human Officer Rodekka (Noma Dumezweni, of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fame).

Rodekka explains that 300 colonists crash landed on the planetoid a few months prior, and have been fighting off everything that gets pulled in from the surrounding war ever since. Many of the colonists are hoping to remain undiscovered and grow crops, having found sanctuary from the war above their heads. While Lizzie Hopley’s script packs in pages of exposition, she also takes time for thoughtful world-building details like this – Rodekka notes that the younger colonists believe the exploding starships above their heads are fireworks.

The planet’s medical officer, Karl Lamb (Paul Panting), informs the Doctor that the young prodigy Kamen (Matthew Jacobs-Morgan) has saved them many times over – he’s patching up human tissue with metal and circuitry. If this sets off alarm bells for you, you’ve probably been listening to too much Big Finish – but you’re not wrong. We learn that all of the ships have been linked into a kind of gestalt habitat – it’s a wonderful, grand sci-fi conceit. Kamen describes it as a “science project”.

Kamen’s ‘mother’ turns out to be River Song – who both Doctor and Anya, of course, have met before, but she’s now wearing “silver dreadlocks and a leotard.” She introduces herself as Mto – which the Doctor notes happens to be the Swahili word for ‘river’. He tries to find out just why River has assumed this new persona, while dodging her suspicion and fighting off invaders. 

“Don’t be absurd. Pride is a human emotion”

It’s a cinematic, exciting opening chapter. Composer Howard Carter’s music is excellent, as it has been in the prior two volumes – switching from tense and jittery to huge and grandiose, with hints of Hans Zimmer’s work on Blade Runner 2049. ‘Go big’ seems to have been the assignment here, and Carter aces it. 

The latter half of the story picks up the pace: revealing Rodekka’s tragic backstory, the mystery of why the planet drags down ships, and Kamen’s real agenda. While this might be seen as a mere prologue to the set, to me it’s the strongest opener yet. Hopley crafts a moving story about inheritance, legacy, and what we leave behind for the next generation: though I might have liked to see more sympathy for Jacobs-Morgan’s villain, who gets short shrift as the Doctor and Anya are catapulted into the next adventure.

The Dalek Defence by Matt Fitton

The middle chapter of Dalek Universe 3 finally brings the Doctor face to face with the titular enemy, via another group of humans caught in the middle of the Dalek/Movellan fray. The humans are carrying a very important cargo, one whom they’re eager not to allow to escape – or be captured by another party. It’s Davros, the Daleks’ creator. Vilsa (Ajjaz Awad), a high-security prisoner specialist, is keeping close watch over him: Colonel Keelan (Joseph Millson) confirms that Vilsa was dispatched to them by another human agency. 

When the Doctor is picked up by the humans, he’s very concerned – he even tells Anya that, knowing what he knows now, he might have eliminated Davros when he had the chance. Borrowing from the ethical dilemma at the heart of Genesis of the Daleks is stealing from the best. But there’s little time for regrets – the Daleks are after Davros, and make that very clear. 

Speaking of the big man, Terry Molloy’s performance as Davros, even under digital manipulation, is sensitive and intelligent. At his best in previous adventures, Davros is like a caged tiger: taciturn, but merely waiting for an opportunity to escape. Fitton captures that well. When circumstances make Davros the key to the Doctor and Anya’s survival, it’s a masterstroke. 

Things go awry starting with the revelation that Vilsa isn’t quite what she seems, and just get worse for the travellers from there. The Doctor is called on to save the day: there’s a great moment in which, trying to help the human ship evade destruction, he hacks its systems using future engineering. It’s a wonderful reminder that the Doctor’s superpower is his mind. 

“Haven’t seen this many Daleks since… well, in a while…”

There’s great voice work from the Movellans – their clipped tones distinguishing them from the human cast and making their calculating nature feel vivid and real. Fitton takes his cues from the Fourth Doctor’s classic story Destiny of the Daleks in depicting the Movellans as a compelling threat, an equal match for the Daleks in strategy and ruthlessness. Perhaps the medium of audio permits us to focus on their nature, rather than their jazzy look. 

It all ends on a stunning cliffhanger. If nothing else, few Doctor Who series will ever be able to match Dalek Universe for sheer volume of WTF moments, and listeners will struggle to pace themselves between chapters. 

The Triumph of Davros by Matt Fitton

Yes! Yes! We come to the concluding chapter of Dalek Universe, an epic 70 minute showdown between the Doctor and Anya, Davros, and the very progenitor of the Movellan race. 

Davros has been held captive, forced to work on a Dalek-killing weapon to ensure Movellan victory. He selects the Doctor as his lab assistant. Isolated together, we see the two great minds tormenting one another. It’s clever and exciting, just as thrilling as space battles and war fleets. Elsewhere, Anya and Keelan are trying to escape the clutches of the Daleks, with the Dalek Supreme lurking in the shadows nearby. 

As for the Movellans, it would be spoiling one of Dalek Universe’s biggest reveals to say any more, but we learn a great deal about their origins here. Bringing in a very big name to play the Movellans’ leader (of sorts) is a masterstroke, playing with the Doctor Who mythology in interesting ways and giving Davros and the Doctor a worthy opponent. 

“Did he set you on this path – to war?”

Fitton weaves in references to previous Doctor Who adventures, across both audio and TV: dedicated fans will note that the setting is the planet Kembel. History looms large as the tale wraps up: Ten, in a moment of defeat, wonders if he can ever really escape the Time War. It’s a moving, fitting end for this chapter in the Tenth Doctor’s adventures. Writer Matt Fitton conjures a tender emotional climax for the story: David Tennant can do this in his sleep, but here he calls on reserves of sensitivity and sadness that he rarely gets a chance to show off.

All in all, Dalek Universe is one of Big Finish’s biggest triumphs of recent years. A compelling story which never forgets to deliver action and excitement, and a showcase for some of Doctor Who’s most talented players. There are quibbles: while the story convincingly depicts a hard-fought battle for survival for the Doctor and Anya, it has the effect of removing some of their agency – being transported here and there against their will. But for excitement, nuanced characters, world-building and sheer production value? This third volume sticks the landing, and then some. Russell T Davies would be proud. 

Doctor Who: Dalek Universe 3 was released in October 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 January 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Extras

While there’s no music suite, we’re lucky enough to have nearly a full hour of behind the scenes tracks, detailing the production of this final volume as well as reflection on the entire Dalek Universe story. 

Contributors include script editor John Dorney and writer Matt Fitton. Writer Lizzie Hopley talks about fitting her story into the wider arc, and getting a script note from David Tennant himself! Tennant pitches his own Movellan origin story for Big Finish, while Jane Slavin says that the character of Anya has totally replaced Ann Kelso – her retired alter ego – in her heart.

Synopsis

Lost in a universe before the Time War, the Doctor is still struggling to find a way back home… but has only found himself in the middle of another war. A very familiar war, involving his oldest enemies – and their malevolent creator.

However he’s not alone – as there are old friends here too. At least he thinks they’re old friends… but when the stakes are as high as this, can he really be sure who to trust? What side are they truly on?

3.1 The First Son by Lizzie Hopley

The Doctor’s attempts to return home have led him to the middle of a war zone… and a familiar voice.

The travellers have arrived on a planet made up of crashed space-ships where they encounter River Song… Or do they? Because she’s dressed as a Movellan and claims to be a member of that robot race. Is she undercover, a duplicate, or something more sinister?

And more importantly… who is her son?

3.2 The Dalek Defence by Matt Fitton

The Doctor and Anya are trapped between battling Dalek and Movellan forces and only the intervention of Earth can get them out of trouble.

But the humans have troubles too – and a very familiar prisoner. Davros.

Cast

David Tennant (The Doctor)
Jane Slavin (Anya Kingdom)
Alex Kingston (River Song)
Terry Molloy (Davros)
Ajjaz Awad (Vilsa / Jeska / Dranta)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
Noma Dumezweni (Rodekka)
Matthew Jacobs-Morgan (Kamen Vers)
Joseph Millson (Colonel Keelan)
Paul Panting (Karl Lamb)

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
Sound Design by Howard Carter
Written by Lizzie Hopley, Matt Fitton

Suggested Listening

Dalek Universe 1

I, Davros: The Complete Series

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