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DWMR193_mastersofearth_1417

When I first spoke with Alestorm’s Scottish pirate Christopher Bowes, we shared a few laughs over a little ditty he’d enscribed called The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee.

Part of an album (and side project) he’d created in homage of such loveably cheesy power metal acts as Rhapsody (of Fire) and Manowar entitled Gloryhammer, this song was the album’s most deliberately absurd, with malevolent flying unicorns spearheading the flaming destruction of an area of his nation which he’d described as especially “boring,” where nothing ever really happened or happens.  It was a big absurdist joke on all ends of the equation, and one he asserted worked best for those most familiar with the layout and lore of Scotland itself.

So why mention this in the course of a review of a Big Finish Doctor Who adventure? 

Simple answer: what’s the most unlikely locale you can picture to stage a prequel of sorts to the classic Hartnell era Terry Nation-scripted second appearance of the Daleks? 

The Tardis lands in the middle of a Scotch peat bog, one year before the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth.  Quickly winding up as part of a resistance front, The Doctor and Peri find themselves in a deadlock situation where they cannot save the day…for in one year, The Doctor will return to defeat this very menace. 

If they act, if the Doctor is captured…history may find serious changes in store…

“I choose my friends very carefully.”
“And your enemies?”
“Usually choose me.”

The specific locale aside, Masters of Earth is an unusual entry in the ever-increasing log of Dalek adventures in a few respects.  First, it’s one of the few Dalek tales set on planet Earth, which in itself is historically something of a litmus test as to how enjoyable such tales are going to be*, with the aforementioned Dalek Invasion of Earth, Evil of the Daleks, Day of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks all falling beneath that umbrella.

* at least for the sizable if all too oft silent faction of Whovians who find themselves well tired of the persistently recurrent alien pepperpots…

Secondly, it’s one of the rare usages of the Robomen.  While their mopey, quite literally braindead delivery can be quite comical, these lobotomized shock troops provide something of a break from the incessant robotic screeching and explosions Dalek stories are all too prone to fall into.  Just don’t mind the fact that you keep picturing the stocking-faced, gasoline pump hose-eared “Faceless Giants” from Superargo every time they get a line…*

* Euro-cult film fans, queue up to thank me later for that indelible image…

While the story is given a fair measure of atmospherics courtesy of sound designer Martin Montague, the setting works both for and against the story.  On the narrative end, it certainly holds up as a more recognizable and therefore believable story of resistance and insurgence against totalitarian oppression.  That said, the fact that quite so many of the accents on display come off so stridently over the top provides a measure of distancing that better serves a sort of detached bemusement than a more desired emotional engagement in the particulars of the action. 

Now, I can’t vouch for the heritage of any of the folks in the guest cast, so take all of this in light of that fact.  But unlike known born and bred Scots such as Karen Gillan, Sheila Walsh or Chris Bowes, the better part of these folks wind up coming off more like Scrooge McDuck arguing with Flintheart Glomgold than, say, the locals featured in The Nightmare Man.  Forget Frazer Hines’ delightful and much beloved Jamie McCrimmon, Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer was more subtle about it…

The one exception is Tracy Wiles, whose accent appears (or at least comes off as sounding) far more genuine than a fair majority of the guest cast.  Even Colin Baker’s tongue-rollingly impish impression of a Scots lad bears more authority, if not realistic approximation thereof, and we know he’s no kilt-bearing local! 

“No comment.”

Where things really kick into gear is when we approach the second half, with our ragtag band of revolutionaries bound for the Orkneys.  Suddenly, in place of Daleks, Robomen and silly accents, we get suprising run-ins with the Varga (which evokes memories of the Tom Baker-era Seeds of Doom in their near-transformation of Peri into their own image) and a spot of high seas adventure (well, cross channel, anyway) with the krakenlike aquatic Slyther. 

In fact, from the middle of part 2 through the better half of part 3, Masters of Earth takes a quite welcome turn into Day of the Triffids territory, with a dash of Island of Terror or even (at a stretch) Island of the Burning Damned tossed in for good measure. 

It’s all abandoned and looted inns, village shops and false havens, with the occasional local nutter thrown in for good measure as the Varga close in on our heroes and both Peri and Moira face some internal struggles of their own.  It’s quite diverting, and with many of the more egregiously forced accented characters falling by the wayside, even rather gripping.

“The program failure rate is within acceptable parameters.”

Of course, our titular villains must return for the denouement, and there’s even a twist or three in store.  But for about half of the tale, we’re able to forget all about the Daleks, except as unspoken motivation and unseen instigator of the action.  And that’s one hell of a big plus.

Authorial team Mark Wright and Cavan Scott (Pathfinder LegendsBlakes Seven) craft an interesting if admittedly quite off kilter tale that ranks among the more palatable of Dalek stories (speaking as one of the aforementioned Whovian faction), particularly once we winnow the cast down to a core of Baker, Bryant, Wiles and Damian Lynch’s late-introduced Orkney local Curbishly.  While Nick Briggs, known best for spearheading most Big Finish Dalek-based and special event stories directs, this is far more even toned and quiet than the sort of John Williams meets Andrew Lloyd Webber-level OTT extravaganza he’s generally known for fronting – again, both welcome and quite a surprising change from the sort of thing listeners have come to expect under his aegis.

“Give that Dalek a gold star.”

In fact, not only is this one of the least bombastic of Dalek tales (always a significant failing of any offering featuring the ever-warring, shouting and explosion-fraught one note fascist hate machines), but the strong elements of abandonment and isolation throughout the travel to and earlier Orkney sequences play together marvelously with the sensation of siege from within and without, tapping into some of the best sci-fi cum horror efforts of earlier decades. 

Colin Baker is his ever wonderful self, having developed from something of a misfortune-plagued (if still quite wonderful) televised incarnation into what is without question the most loveable of Doctors, equally loquacious and direct, self-effacingly pompous and warm hearted. 

A recent meeting with the man himself shows that the core persona of the character does in fact arise naturally from the actor portraying it, as one of the most genuine, likeable and good humored of the folks attending a local Who convention the other week (and when another of those is the eubellient Frazer Hines, you know that’s saying quite a bit).  If anything, my love of the man has increased after speaking with him a few times!

Nicola Bryant continues to impress with her seemingly ageless Perpugilliam Brown, and the aforementioned Wiles and Lynch provide the rare subdued (and therefore more authentic sounding) Scotch accented characters among the proceedings. 

“I reckon that’s enough chocky-bickies to keep even his nibs satisfied.”

Speaking as a Whovian who feels Dalekmania has run well past its early to mid-1960’s due date, Masters of Earth proves a fairly unusual and quite listenably different entree into the annals thereof.  With elements seldom seen since the earliest days of Who (the Robomen, the Varga, the Slyther) and a bit of semi-traditional gothicism in the earlier Orkney sequences, even those whose eyes roll at the mention of yet another Dalek adventure may find themselves quite pleasantly surprised by this likeable tale.

 
http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/masters-of-earth-865

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