Dalek Empire: Invasion of the Daleks Review
The Daleks are coming! I take a look at the opening episode of the epic Dalek Empire spin-off.
Back in 2001, Doctor Who spin-offs were quite the novelty. Up till that point, we'd only ever had a pilot episode for K9 & Company (which failed to generate a series) and Bernice Summerfield (a series which was, for licensing reasons, far removed from the Doctor Who universe). This was before the TV show was resurrected, so there was no Torchwood, no Sarah Jane Adventures, no Class, no Jago & Litefoot, not even any Gallifrey. So, the first Dalek Empire audio does hold an important place in Doctor Who history, as the first episode of the first ongoing, fully-fledged spin-off. And it remains, to this day, one of the high points of this great series. As a founding episode, it sets the template for everything to come with style, confidence and a whole lot of Dalek action.
Of course, the big draw with a series like this is that the Doctor doesn't feature. So, unlike a regular Doctor Who story, where the Doctor and his friends arrive, do something clever, and defeat the Daleks, the heroes of our story are pretty much defeated by the Daleks right at the story's beginning, and all they can do is either to run or to resist the Daleks. That fundamental question is one that runs throughout the play: is it folly to try and fight a foe that is quite that powerful, or does running away from the Daleks imply an acceptance of, and even a complicity in, what they are doing? Between the two central characters of Alby and Suz, we get an examination of that question from both perspectives; one who runs and one who resists. But, of course, writer Nicholas Briggs ensures it isn't as clear cut as that, and the play throws up more moral dilemmas for our characters to wrestle with. As the play goes on, you start to wonder if our central characters are doing this for the right reasons: whether they do, genuinely, want to make a stand against the Daleks, or whether they're just using their standpoints as a way to survive or achieve their own selfish goals. I will point out that none of this is preachy or spelled out in any way, if you are worried about things like that, just a nice layer of subtext Briggs allows you to read into the story. Like all the best Dalek stories, this is full of action and adventure, and it feels like a huge, blockbuster film in that regard. Briggs has found a way to marry the approaches of Terry Nation and David Whittaker regarding the Daleks, and it makes for a wonderful combination that has since been repeated in the 2005 revival of the show. They are merciless destroyers, but, if they do spare you, its for a very particular reason, and it isn't just because they're being kind. It takes two approaches to Daleks that were often kept apart in the TV show, and brings them together in order to give them the agency they need in this series.
While Alby and Suz may be our main protagonists, that doesn't mean we don't encounter others throughout the episode determined, or otherwise, to strike back at the Daleks. Kalendorf, played by Blake's 7 legend Gareth Thomas, starts out as someone who is just willing to roll over and let the Daleks take what they want. However, as the episode goes on, he becomes more determined to stand against them, especially when it seems like they might be offering the slaves concessions. But its clear he's also hiding his own dark secrets: secrets relating to the Knights of Velyshaa (from Briggs' earlier Doctor Who play "The Sirens of Time"), and this play doesn't really answer any of our questions about him. Nonetheless, he makes for a great foil for Suz, and allows her the chance to bounce her frustrations off, and pose those thorny moral dilemmas that I mentioned above that the script deals with. Alby, meanwhile, gets a slightly wider spectrum of characters to interact with, though none that are quite as interesting as Kalendorf. While only in one scene, his interaction with his boss, Tanlee (played by the enigmatic 'David Sax'), nearly steals the whole thing. Both Mark McDonnell and Sarah Mowat bring the characters of Alby and Suz to life brilliantly, as does Gareth Thomas as Kalendorf. It's a very different role to Blake, and Thomas really shows a lot of steel in the role. But, of course, the standout stars are Nicholas Briggs and Alistair Lock as the titular Daleks. The range of voices is phenomenal: seriously, the pair bring an whole fleet of Daleks to life with consummate ease. Briggs isn't just the writer and Dalek voice artist here: he directs the play as well, and even does all the sound design and music. It's a fantastic feat of production, and it produces a consistent, uniform vision that runs throughout the whole series, something few Big Finish productions can truly hope to claim.
Overall, then, "Invasion of the Daleks" is a truly standout first instalment in the Dalek Empire series. Taking the old Terry Nation playbook and giving it a dust down, this sets in motion all the key plot threads that will run throughout the series, as well as the characters we're going to spend the next few episodes with. While this part doesn't really answer any questions that we as listeners have to what is going on, we do get an exciting introduction to what promises to be an outer-space epic for the ages. Simply put, Doctor Who's first full-length, official spin-off is a masterpiece, and sets Dalek Empire off on a massive high.
You can purchase "Invasion of the Daleks" as a digital download here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/dalek-empire-invasion-of-the-daleks-361
All pictures copyright to the BBC/Big Finish Productions/Doctor Who Magazine. Thank you for reading.