I must confess to being at a slight disadvantage.
Having been a longtime devotee of the Big Finish Doctor Who line (across numerous ranges and spinoffs), due to certain circumstances of finance and what have you (i.e., life intervenes, even among the best of us) I am forced to own up to having fallen off of late.
Thus it is that I find myself immersed in the latest (well, technically, last month’s) adventure of the Seventh Doctor, and I admit to feeling a bit lost.
While the vast majority of Big Finish audio dramas, while inextricably interwoven in a complex web of continuity, are fairly self contained, there have been a few stories over the years that amounted to “two parters” – the Colin Baker/Charley Pollard “patient zero” storyline, for instance, or some of the earlier Eighth Doctor Adventures, in which two months’ releases moved in tandem and served as a single extended tale. To come in to the second part without the benefit of having experienced the first would doubtless prove somewhat disorienting, if not confusing outright.
And here we come to Daleks Among Us, which features the McCoy Doctor traveling alongside the unlikeliest of companions, former Nazi doctor Elizabeth Klein (Tracey Childs)…and one other, whom we’ll address shortly.
While, speaking strictly from the listed synopsis, there would appear to be no direct connection to the prior adventure (Starlight Robbery, which involves those amusing, grumpy clones the Sontarans), it still feels very much like I came in in the middle of the story, not having heard the first two parts of the now standard trilogy of story arc Big Finish gives to each Doctor and companion(s).
Now for a bit of background, to those as surprised as I once was at the existence of this month’s companion. Klein was first encountered way back in the early McCoy/Ace WWII set adventure Colditz, where they infiltrated the infamous castle cum POW camp, and here she played the expected villainous role.
Where things get weird is when the evil geniuses at Big Finish came up with the idea to resurrect the a character a year or so back for the excellent trilogy kicking off with the allegorical Mau Mau uprising-set A Thousand Tiny Wings, where McCoy’s Doctor runs across Klein in hiding down in Africa (like South America, a number of petty officials and such fled the Allies and escaped Nuremburg by fleeing to more equatorial locales, as Simon Wiesenthal and likeminded bloodhounds would reveal over the intervening decades).
What made the dynamic truly innovative and exciting was that this was the chance for the Doctor to put his metaphorical money where his mouth is, and attempt to, if not rehabilitate, then certainly re-humanize and enlighten a deeply flawed and villainous character to “see the light” of empathy for one’s fellow man, exposing the flaws in said character’s Machiavellian, right wing totalitarianist underpinnings. To compare the McCoy/Klein dynamic to the Davison/Turlough one would be disingenous at best, a disservice and miscomprehension of degree in point of fact.
And so it is that after a year or two’s remove, I find a kinder, gentler Klein, apparently so far distant from her earlier roots and characteristic underpinnings as to be noted as working in service to UNIT (!) and bearing a companion of her own, the admittedly quite useless Will Arrowsmith (Christian Edwards), who puts fellow whiners like Hex, Tegan and Bernice Summerfield’s son Peter to shame with his simpering indecision and cowering nature. To call these three “male feminists” or Alan Alda/Richard Benjamin/Elliott Gouldesque “New Men” would be a severe understatement.
The three arrive on the planet Azimuth seemingly mid-story (I checked more than once to see if I started a few chapters in, but no dice), a planet where some prior Dalek atrocities (and apparent defeat and purge of same) have rendered the very mention of the word a criminal offense.
Naturally, there’s quite a bit more going on behind the scenes than might at first appear, and a gordian knot of time travel loops and internecine plotting and counterplotting ensues before a relatively happy ending ties all the various loose ends together (while conveniently and directly setting the stage for a future McCoy/Klein/Arrowsmith adventure).
On one level, the story is all about fathers and children, and the struggle between generations for the top spot – without getting into the deeper Freudian implications thereof, it’s very much an Oedipus/Electra sort of thing. Klein and her late father (when she briefly travels back in time solo), Davros and the Daleks, perhaps even more directly Davros and Falkus and so on – there are numerous levels of this scenario being played out in simultaneity.
If that in itself weren’t enough to keep everyone’s attention, there are direct parallels between the Nazis (there are a few floating around on Azimuth, who may or may not be commanding Daleks) and the Daleks (more on that concept in a bit), clones, and even a brief appearance (and apparent demise) of a character from a previous adventure I haven’t yet been privy to, a supposedly omnipotent (if malevolent) God figure of an alien named The Entity. Whew.
At core, this is a story that works purely on an intellectual level. Like the difference between, say, an Agatha Christie mystery, all mind games and details twisting round on themselves to keep the listener guessing to the last scene and the more emotional engagement of a well fleshed out character piece, the characters themselves could practically be ciphers: interchangeable to the extent that it is certain bits of alignment and role that matter, rather than the core of what makes a person who they are, interrelating as such and on that level.
While there’s plenty going on in a certain surface level, it’s almost comic book in that respect – while never sinking to those comparative depths, it’s like modern cinema as compared to that of the 1970s – all twists, turns and explosions without the heart and soul that gets the listener to care about the protagonists and their virtual fate.
Further, given the high standards set by earlier Klein stories, there seems to be a marked degree less of the deep exploration of moral grey areas that were offered in particular with the excellent A Thousand Tiny Wings, where the cold (and occasionally frighteningly accurate) logic of fascism (as when Klein predicts what would actually occur historically with the dawn of African self-rule) contrasted with the bigger picture of empathy, compassion and the fact that the real world is never black and white, nor does it fall into neat place like the rows of numbers being crunched by corporate accountants which determine (and ultimately destroy) our collective well being and livelihood economically (there’s always someone desperate enough to do multiple roles worth of work for less money, as the diminishing middle class is discovering to its pronounced worldwide misfortune).
With the tug of war of pluses and minuses (and if you will, “good and evil”) of the Mau Mau revolt contrasted with the heartless, elitist imperialist attitudes of the British usurpers and the parallel story of the alien “birds” with a symbiotic relationship to their oppressed and suffering “slave” host tertiarily mirrored by the high level back and forth of standpoints between The Doctor and Klein, this earlier tale approaches a level of core philosophical debate and discourse our global situation requires be addressed in today’s day and age.
“…like making sure the trains run on time?”
“Is it so bad to have an efficient transport system?”
“That all depends on what happens to the drivers who are late.”)
Even among the generally elevated standards of the Big Finish Doctor Who line(s), that earlier tale set a high water mark and unassailable standard for politicosocial, philosophical, and even moral debate that our current national divide demands here in the States (with an increasingly extremist and rabid hotbed of often irrational right wing types spewing nonsensical “talking points” by rote, tutored by Rovians in a near-Art of War style of shouting down opposition with rapid fire psychobabble in place of actual meeting of the minds and reasoned, rational debate between those of differing viewpoints).
By contrast, Daleks Among Us cannot help but pale in the reflected light of Klein’s effective debut (as a companion, at least), and further comes off a bit simplistic, with Klein instantly (appearing to) side with the Daleks against The Doctor and falling back into lockstep with the fascist motif and obvious analogue of Robert Holmes’ inassailable Genesis of the Daleks.
Admittedly, another overtone of Daleks Among Us is about trust and, if not forgiveness, then letting go of one’s past prejudices in light of the ability of a person to change for the better, and this plays out in the Doctor’s (and our) views of what is actually happening (or not) with Klein here.
But still, unlike the earlier A Thousand Tiny Wings (and subsequent trilogy completed by Survival of the Fittest and The Architects of History), we get no high level debate, no tug of war or chesslike game of ever moving lines in the sand and adjustable level setting – just a more surface and in fact childlike “black and white” “good vs. evil” mentality that betrays the intent of the former tale (and subsequent story arc) by delivering (as Davison put it with reference to The Common Men,) “a soulless cover version of the real thing” in its place.
While McCoy and Childs deliver their usual high standard of performance, the story just doesn’t seem up to the task this time around, ultimately being just another Dalek story, of which we arguably have far too many already.
While there have been a few notable entries that have surpassed Terry Nation’s overexposed creations’ inherent limitations in the Big Finish oeuvre (the Davison/Nyssa Plague of the Daleks for one, and particularly the similarly high minded and highly recommended “which is the greater of two evils” McCoy/Ace/Hex tale Enemy of the Daleks), sadly this is not among that halcyon group of the exceptions to the rule.
It’s not bad, and certainly far from the often vapid level of discourse of televised Newvianism (few Big Finish Doctor Who stories really are, in the end), but it’s nothing to write home about either.
I will say that I’d like to go back and catch up on Klein stories I’ve missed, to see how both character and events progressed from there to here, but I doubt that would have a tremendous impact on one’s assessment of the tale in question – it is what it is for better or worse, awareness of the listener in all the vagaries of continuity or no.
Dalek fans content to chant “ex-ter-minate” in the assurance that these are The Doctor’s sine qua non of adversaries (an assertion which I have never subscribed to myself) will doubtless find more fodder to sustain themselves on for a few months, until the next inevitable round of Dalek stories comes to our respective doorsteps.
Those expecting a bit extra based on the generally exemplary efforts of the folks at Big Finish may find themselves a bit less enamored this time around.