Packed full of classic Dalek action, the latest DOCTOR WHO audio drama from Big Finish Productions, ORDER OF THE DALEKS, is a heady mix of classic sci-fi staples – dark secrets guarded by religious orders, crashed spaceships, evil aliens intent on universal domination, possessed abbots and annoying bureaucrats.
The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and his companion, the level-headed Leading Wren Mrs Constance Clarke (Miranda Raison), arrive in the TARDIS on the bucolic, medieval-level planet of Strellin for a little gentle R and R, only to almost immediately fall in with pompous, by-the-book planetary census taker Malcolm Pendle (John Savident), and his rather more intuitive trainee Jane Asta (Olivia Hallinan). Pendle and Asta have only recently arrived on the planet themselves, in order to investigate a mysterious signal suggesting technology far beyond that of the planet’s level of development…
They soon find that the answer lies in a monastery run by the mysterious Order of the Black Petal – but just what is wrong with the Abbot? Why does the Doctor keep feeling strange psychic twinges? And who are the aliens taking control of the order for their own devious ends? Of course, the clue is in the title – yes, it’s the Daleks!
And so, once again, the Doctor’s number one nemeses are back, and they are on fine form, sneaking around the dark tunnels of the monastery in some rather fetching new gear. As shown in Chris Thompson’s tremendous CG design on the cover art, this time the Doctor is up against stained glass and lead daleks, something even he’s eager to check out.
This new, intriguing and aesthetically-pleasing design of the perennial pernicious pepperpots is just one of the many brilliantly visual conceits that this story presents; another is the casing-less Dalek mutants found wriggling around in ‘space buffalo’ stomachs suspended from the ceiling. Wonderfully horrible, it conjures images in the listener’s mind that are probably far more disturbing than anything that could be shown on TV!
Packed full of excitement and adventure, once it starts, the story’s pace never lets up – if anything it possibly goes a little too fast. The tremendous possibilities offered by the creepy monastery are somewhat squandered in favour of a good old-fashioned run-around. It might have been nice to fully exploit the setting and have a little more in terms of cod-medieval shenanigans.
However, what really worked was pitching the Daleks as shadowy manipulators, rather than simply noisy, irate war-machines, as they are commonly presented. Also, the clever use of mind control in the story gets around a frequent problem in Dalek stories: their screeching voices make them totally unsuitable for long expository conversations, especially on audio. Having Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs bring life to possessed Abbot Tanapal is a great idea, so even though he speaks like a human, you know what’s lurking behind his curtain…
In fact, performance-wise, everyone is very strong. Back in the 80s, Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor came across as volatile and frequently heartless, making him a rather unlikeable ‘hero’. Big Finish’s audio take on the character has softened him somewhat, which helps enormously, a fact clearly demonstrated in scenes with the Doctor paired off with the likeable but loud Pendle. Indeed, it’s quite clear John Savident is clearly having great fun with his character, even at one point copying the Sixth Doctor’s habit of repeating a sentence more loudly for emphasis.
Sadly, Miranda Raison doesn’t have especially strong material to work with here, but her performance always makes Mrs Clarke never less than likeable, and her mature delivery means that she makes a satisfying Doctor substitute when the story demands. Indeed, with Hallinan’s nervy Asta as her temporary companion, at one point she attacks a Dalek mutant with a screwdriver, making it clear that Constance is quite capable without a man around, and always maintains a true British stiff upper lip, no matter what she’s facing.
Despite playing firmly within the classic boundaries of Doctor Who, Order Of The Daleks is a great story, told at a frenetic pace with fun performances. There’s a reason why certain formulas are returned to time and again and, as this story strongly demonstrates, familiar does not have to mean boring.
DOCTOR WHO: ORDER OF THE DALEKS is available to buy now exclusively from Big Finish until January 31st 2017, after which date it will be available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading audiobook retailers.