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Doctor Who – Alien Heart/Dalek Soul – Audio Drama Review

It’s coming up to the twentieth birthday of Big Finish Productions, who’ve brought us officially licenced Doctor Who audio tales starring all the living Doctors from Baker T. through to McGann, plus Tennant. As a way to get new listeners to give them a go, Big Finish recently offered a 50% discount on three of their earlier releases, one of which was ‘Alien Heart / Dalek Soul’.

Most of their releases up to this point had followed the traditional TV series format –  multi-episode single stories. ‘Alien Heart / Dalek Soul’, however, was the first one to break away from this, and had two stories which were connected, and lasted for just two episodes apiece. Big Finish was, for a few years, the standard bearer for brand new Doctor Who until the show returned in 2005; since then, however, they’ve gone from strength to strength, and produced adventures which have actually been far stronger at times than some of what we’ve seen on our screens.

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Considering Big Finish is telling tales that are set in Doctor Who‘s past, they haven’t been so precious that things have been set so irrevocably in aspic, or pickled in time like gherkins in a jar. In reality, Big Finish has actually managed to play about with the format, creating alternative Doctors, as well as brand new audio companions, and experimenting by doing adaptations of novels and comics, plus innumerable spin-offs. Shaking things up by doing two mini-stories in one is just another part of this work, and helps keep things fresh and interesting for the audience.

We open with Stephen Cole’s ‘Alien Heart’, which sees the Doctor (Peter Davison) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) experiencing spatio-temporal turbulence whilst attempting to land the TARDIS on a planet which seems to have vanished without trace from all of space and time. It soon turns out a total of ten planets have suffered the exact same fate, so the Doctor is keen to find out just who – or what – is responsible. After they discover that the planet Traxana looks to be next in the firing line, the Doctor and Nyssa encounter some strange spider-like gelatinous creatures, which seem to have an odd relationship with time.

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Although they say that the sets are better on audio, the downside is trying to sell the story that you’re telling without having a visual element – the imagination can do so much of the work, but here it falls into the trap of having characters trying to cram so many descriptions into the dialogue, in a way which doesn’t seem organic, and it comes across as artificial. Normal people just wouldn’t talk in the way people do in this story, and it feels quite distracting at times. The story itself is workmanlike and solid enough, but not exceptional, and it all feels like an aperitif before we get the main course – Guy Adams’ ‘Dalek Soul’.

The Daleks gave generally worked better in Big Finish than they have since Doctor Who came back to telly, and this story is no exception – on audio, they come over as master plotters and schemers, not just angry tanks that shoot everything first and then ask questions later. A lot of their success can be attributed to one Nicholas Briggs, who made such a success as voice of the Daleks here that he got promoted to the same role in the TV series proper. No-one can match the range of Dalek voices like Briggs, and he manages to wring out every last drop of drama and emotion from what should otherwise be only a shouting role. Daleks aren’t known for being creatures of nuance or subtlety, yet Briggs has done a fantastic job of showing that’s far from the case.

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‘Dalek Heart’ gives us a fascinating ‘what if?’ look at how things could be should the Doctor ever decided to switch sides and be a collaborator, or a force for evil. The big advantage of this as a storytelling device is it upends our expectations – just when he’s doing his usual job of leading a band of rebels in a fight against the Daleks, he suddenly betrays them in what proves to be a shocking twist. Surely it’s a cunning double bluff, a ruse? The Doctor wouldn’t become a baddie… would he? Well, this is perhaps one of the times we get closest to that, and it’s fascinating to see just how a villainous Doctor would play out, being a real body blow to hear him being so cold, callous and manipulative.

It’s particularly effective here as Davison’s Doctor was known for being nice, or wet, or other faintly damning and derogatory terms. Here is a stark contrast to what we have gotten used to seeing during his time as the Doctor, and it’s actually chilling to hear him screaming threats at Nyssa, and promising he’ll kill her. It’s nice to have a reminder that Davison is a versatile actor, and capable of far more than we tend to see in his more familiar roles – he’d make a decent bad guy in a conventional drama series or film, based on the range shown here. Of course, things aren’t necessarily what they seem, but I won’t give away the neat plot development which puts ‘Dalek Soul’ on another level altogether.

We’ve got at least eight months until we have Jodie Whittaker and Team TARDIS back gallivanting around the cosmos, so there’s no better opportunity to fill that pang by giving Big Finish a go, and if you happen to be a ‘noob’, then ‘Alien Heart / Dalek Soul’ is as good a place to come in as any – unencumbered by continuity for the most part, decent storytelling, and who doesn’t love a good Dalek story? Make a big start to your Big Finish Doctor Who collection here.

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