10 July 2015

BF: We Are The Daleks

What a fantastic story this is. We Are The Daleks has everything I love in a Doctor Who story: humour, satire, imagination, contrast and - most importantly - soul. If Big Finish were trying to usher in a new era with release 201, then they have most certainly succeeded. There's an exciting vibrancy about this story and it really does feel different.

There are two major plots at work in this story, connected by both a time corridor and the Daleks. It all begins when the Doctor's attention is captured by a Dalek-shaped skyscraper in 1987 London. He and Mel quickly establish themselves in relevant jobs - him a city trader (in futures, brilliantly), her the head of the IT support department inside the Zenos Tower - in order to investigate the operations of the mysterious Zenos Corporation. Sadly, far less is made of the Doctor's assumed role than Mel's, as he's soon off to Bradford to check out a factory. Already events are tied neatly together, with Mel unwittingly learning more about new computer game Warfleet and the Doctor poking around the factory where it's made. 

Whilst there, he soon becomes acquainted with journalist Serena Paget, and with a little help from leader of disgruntled workers recently laid off with no warning Frank Lewis, they take a look inside. There, they find Daleks operating the production line and a time corridor in operation. At the same time, at a swanky event Mel's blagged her way into at the top of the Zenos Tower, she also discovers Skaro's finest. 

It says a lot about this story that so far I've nowhere near summarised even the first episode or very many of its key characters. We Are The Daleks is incredibly busy, but that's not a criticism. Despite the pacing necessarily being pretty fast, nothing feels rushed and there is plenty of time set aside for character moments that give the guest parts more depth. In We Are The Daleks Jonny Morris, who you may have noticed is something of a favuorite of this site, has done his typical thing of being totally faithful and authentic to the source material - here you'll notice things such as controlled policemen (see Resurrection of the Daleks) and Daleks offering vol-au-vents (Power and Victory of the Daleks) - whilst creating a truly original conceit and story from them.
The Morris magic comes strongest here in the form of the characters, as it so often does. I think that may be one of the reasons why Jonny's writing rates so highly with me. Like that of Russell T Davies', his work seems to me to be constructed around believable, interesting characters. Even though Protect and Survive does have a strong plot, for the first half it's more or less just four characters reacting to things happening around them, not influencing their fate at all. And yet it's a strong contender for my favourite Doctor Who story of all time. It's a strength the writing exhibits again here, and that's without even mentioning the Daleks.

I feel confident in saying that Morris is also one of the company's best writers for the Daleks. The current trend seems to be for Terry Nation's most lucrative creations to feature in at least one Big Finish story per year, and how glad I am it fell to Morris this year. Although this is only his second published story featuring them, he seems to understand their psychology possibly better than any other writer. In his excellent DWM article We Are The Daleks, Morris concluded that the Daleks are the incarnation of the dark side of humanity, of all feelings we try to suppress, and I think he was exactly right. It's in this way that this story is written, contrasting humanity with the Daleks and showing just how little division there is between politicians and them (no comment). It's an angle I can't remember being exploited before, and as such makes for intriguing listening. Morris has form in this area though - The Curse of Davros was similarly innovative and did things with the Daleks I'd never heard before. Even though he feels he's at his strongest when handling his own creations, Morris is obviously more than capable of writing compelling stories for others' characters and villains as well.

And, naturally, this story has so many layers that it could be interpreted as a slight on a hundred different things. But the real strength of it lies in the fact that while you could easily take it as a parable against the Tories, against computer game addiction, whatever, it works just as well as a straightforward action adventure. That's what I love about this, and what marks it out as something truly special in my eyes: there is plenty of food for thought but the presentation is ambiguous enough not to imply any bias and therefore doesn't detract or distract from the narrative itself.

Moving away from the writer adolation (sorry Jonny) the plot of this story is really enjoyable. Taking in a diverse range of characters and locations, it simultaneously marries them together seamlessly and creates a really interesting spectrum of perspectives. What other story do you know that takes in journalists, trade unions, sleazy politicians, computer fanatics and the Emperor Dalek? And the best bit is that throughout they all remain true to their own characters without ever becoming predictable. The twists of the story are really enjoyable when they come to, most notably the the double-bluff with Warfleet and the true allegiance of MP Cecelia Dunthorp.

And I've written all this whilst barely mentioning the Doctor and Mel, which is hardly fair since they're front and centre throughout. I'm not sure anyone was a massive fan (or a fan at all) of Bonnie Langford's character during her short stint on the show, but as the actress notes in the extras she has been afforded much more variety and depth since coming to Big Finish. Here, Mel is resourceful like never before and Langford is also afforded the opportunity to show off another side to her acting vocabulary in the second half. Morris writes wonderfully for McCoy's Doctor, finding all the bits he's good at like the inquisitive pondering, the simmering rage and the outspoken loyalty to his friends, and informs scenes very successfully with them. The Seventh Doctor perhaps isn't as whimsical as you might expect from a story set at the heart of Season 24 - though he does have his moments - but if the alternative is what we actually got, then I know which option I'd prefer.

In charge of post-production duties on this one was Wilfredo Acosta, another old favourite of the site. Acosta once again reminds us quite why he deserves that introduction here, with some truly excellent music that is as familiar as it is impressive. The synth twangs are all present and correct, but somehow they upgrade the story rather than upstaging it as in 1987. The sound design is just as good - this really is like a TV story without the visuals. You won't find any cues that appear to come from a stock library in a story with Acosta's name on it. The Daleks' gliding and the space battle were the two parts I was most impressed by, but there really wasn't anything to criticise. Equally, it was really nice to have so many new voices present here. With Ken Bentley being very much the house director these days, and given the considerable output of Big Finish, it's understandable that he's often not left with much spare time to look out new voices. But I would encourage it whole heartedly if these are the kind of results such research yields. It's a strong cast, and after a few weeks in the company of the Bernice Summerfield range, it feels like a huge number of characters appear, but it's all down to clever writing and scheduling.

There's a few other things I wanted to mention as well. The resolution is very clever, and I love that the stock market crash and infamous Michael Fish incident of 1987 can be attributed to the Daleks. Comments made about Britain's cultural heritage seem particularly apposite this week, when the dismemberment of the BBC has begun, and I can't help but agree. Alek Zenos is a great character and his true role is really well thought out. The very end completes the Thatcher allegory and I can only hope this is picked up before too long. Oh why must we wait until January for more Jonny Morris Doctor Who?

I think the true testament to how much I like this is that I've listened to it three times in the 24 hours since it was released, and each time my appreciation has grown.
All in all then this is easily the strongest story of the last few years of Big Finish's main range for me, which given recent competition in the form of Eddie Robson's The Secret History and Morris' own The Entropy Plague is pretty good going. The overriding thing I like about Morris' writing is how new it always feels; very few other writers can excite me in the same way, and get me writing however many thousands of words this review has become. In that respect, he was completely the right choice for release 201, heralding in a new era. If it can live up to the precedent set here, I very much look forward to it. 

In a Nutshell: A truly remarkable story that is as authentic as it is innovative. A classic.

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