In this diamond jubilee year for Doctor Who, we celebrate not just the first time our hero materialised on our tellies, but also the debut of the Doctor’s longtime arch enemies, those malevolent pepperpots who helped make the show the cultural icon it is today: the Daleks.
Their first ever appearance – albeit by means of a waggling protuberance menacing a companion – was only five weeks after the series’ premiere, and gave rise to the phenomenon dubbed ‘Dalekmania’. There was Dalek soap, Dalek slippers, an Anti-Dalek Fluid Neutraliser (or in actuality a repackaged Dan Dare water pistol), Dalek board games, and pretty much more Dalek-themed stuff than you could shake a plunger at. The pop group The Go-Go’s even sang a novelty record about wanting to spend their Christmas with a Dalek (plying one of them with the decidedly human treats of plum pudding and custard).
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However, one of the most popular traits of the Daleks – their easily imitable staccato voice – also proved to be one of their weaknesses. Would-be supreme power of the universe they may aim to be, but they were also boring conversationalists. Scenes of one Dalek talking to another could be interminable at times, so to get around this, creator Terry Nation – having been asked to come up with a tale showing the genesis of the Daleks (which ended up being called ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’, oddly enough) – devised Davros, a half-human, half-Dalek scientist who brought the initially stair-averse horrors into being.
For all of the exposition and discussions that needed to take place in Dalek stories, there was now a (semi-)humanoid to act as their mouthpiece, and show far more expression and range than his creations. Although seemingly exterminated by his ‘children’ at the end of ‘Genesis’ in 1975, Nation knew the character was too valuable to just kill off, and Davros has been something of a hardy perennial since then, cropping up almost as many times as his errant offspring. The big lure of Davros is having someone who is an intellectual equal to the Doctor, posing a real challenge to our hero on every occasion when they have crossed paths.
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Davros is very much at the fore in this latest chapter of Big Finish’s Doctor Who: Once And Future – ‘A Genius For War’, by Jonathan Morris. Still caught up in a degeneration crisis, the Doctor’s form has temporarily stabilised on that of their seventh persona (Sylvester McCoy). No nearer to knowing what the cause is, the Doctor is pulled out of his timestream by the Time Lords, who need to employ the Doctor’s help in a dangerous errand. The continuing Time War is going badly, but a possible advantage has presented itself, in the form of a message from Davros, who is being held by the Daleks on a moon of their home world, Skaro.
Davros has said he will give the Time Lords the upper hand in the Time War if he is rescued, on one condition: his saviour is to be the Doctor. Never the most trustworthy of characters, a game of traps laid by Davros – and, possibly, the Daleks also – is heavily suspected by the Doctor. Reluctantly, the Doctor is sent by the General (Ken Bones) to extract Davros, with the assistance of a fellow Time Lord, Veklin (Beth Chalmers). If it comes to pass that the claim made by Davros is actually true, and he comes through on his promise of changing the course of the Time War, then a terrible ancient Gallifreyan prophecy may yet come into being…
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Having portrayed Davros on screen during the 1980s, and – since then – numerous times for Big Finish, Terry Molloy is an old hand at bringing the disabled Kaled scientist to life, often being given far more opportunity to show depth and range in exploring the character on audio than he was ever afforded when behind the latex mask on television. Being Mike Archer on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers since 1974 does mean that Molloy is no novice when playing parts without the aid of visuals, and Molloy perfectly straddles the ever so fine line between genius and ranting maniac, managing to let the character’s burning intelligence show through at all times.
McCoy’s Doctor never really had his due when on air, his run coming as it did at the end of Doctor Who’s original 26-year stint as a mainstay of the BBC schedules. Seeing him reprise the role – albeit too briefly – in Jodie Whittaker’s swansong, ‘The Power Of The Doctor’, was an emotional experience for legacy fans, and made you realise just what was lost, his time on the show unfairly curtailed by cancellation. McCoy always comes at the part with great gusto, and here he shines as the Doctor engages in a battle of wits with Davros, each trying to anticipate and out-think the other, constantly attempting to get the upper hand.
All of this is helped significantly, no doubt, by the quality of the script. Morris’ work always operates on a higher level to that of many of his compatriots, his name against the title a sure-fire guarantee of a real treat. Here, he ably manages to rehabilitate what had seemed like a bit of a non-starter of a thread first introduced by Steven Moffat, in the form of the prophecy of ‘the Hybrid’, making it feel fresh, vital, and key to events here, and giving it a significance and a relevance it sadly lacked before. It also helps cast a new light on the fate of Gallifrey in the ‘Timeless Child’ story arc, managing to link ‘the Hybrid’ into that outcome in a way which now seems so obvious, but was missed even by Chris Chibnall.
Of course, where you have Davros, the Daleks are seldom far behind, so Nicholas Briggs is – as ever – on good form here, breathing life into the wicked, bonded polycarbide armour-encased mutants. ‘A Genius For War’ definitely is a polished, accomplished production, easily reaching that high bar that has not only been set, but also consistently raised during the last 20+ years by Big Finish. Doctor Who: Once And Future is a perfect platform to show the programme’s versatility in its time and space-hopping format, and it was only fitting that the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest foes show up in this 60th birthday big shindig. After all, who isn’t a sucker for a decent Dalek adventure?
Doctor Who: Once And Future – A Genius For War is out now from Big Finish.