This is one of those sleeper scripts like A Full Life that achieves a lot with a little. It’s a must-listen, but I can’t tell you why without spoiling it.
Steven is separated from the Doctor and Vicki, stranded on a terrible post-apocalyptic world infested by dangerous monsters. It’s atmospheric and forbidding, aided by some pensive and rather modern music. And Peter Purves reminds us that he spent years and years anchoring a variety show, so that he’s excellent at narrating, setting the entire stage for us and bringing a scene to life. There’s moments of action, tension and drama when I absolutely forget it’s a narrated Companion Chronicle instead of an “as life” Main Range.
Most important to this story is that it’s an intense psychological two-hander between Steven and an uncomfortable ally. There’s a taut, sparkling tension between them. It’s hardly the first story to use the “enemy and protagonist forced to work together” trope, but this is a fresh take, aided by Nicholas Briggs and his knack for turning aliens from Daleks to Judoon into complex individuals yet decidedly inhuman.
Steven is pushed to emotional and physical limits, grappling with difficult questions of compassion, anger, mercy, revenge, and trust. I haven’t heard all the Companion Chronicles yet, but this is one of those that shines a spotlight on an underdeveloped TV classic companion and stretches his wings. Despite the Doctor and Vicki’s absence for nearly the entire story, it’s quintessential classic Who, but with more depth of character.
For all that this audio is an intimate little two-hander, without even the Doctor for most of the story, it has some fascinating implications for the larger Doctor Who universe. Steven has no idea what impact his actions during this journey will have on times to come.
Good stuff. This is what Big Finish is about.
I hope you listened past the ending theme.
No? Go back and do that now. There’s an important coda.
This is one of those stories where Big Finish has the audacity to tinker with major established canon and overlay it with something new. It’s either a daring stroke of genius or gratuitously reductive bit of fanservice, and I’m sure there’s fans on a bulletin board arguing about it somewhere. All I can say is that Big Finish seems to perform open heart surgery on classic Who with more skill than Moffat, for whatever reason. I think it worked this time.
So Steven Taylor has unwittingly helped create the Emperor Dalek of Evil of the Daleks and Dalek Empire, and explains where it got the idea for the “human factor.” If Steven had let 2-1-0 die, an awful lot of lives would have been saved. But how was he to know? And had he exterminated his ally, he would’ve become a Dalek.
Speaking of which, there’s a nice red herring at the beginning of this audio. While I can often see exactly where a story is going, especially when it’s using an old trope, I was fooled by the Daleks scanning humans for suitable candidates to be robotised in the opening scene. I assumed this whole journey was a test for Steven, at the end of which he would find he’d passed the Daleks’ test and was slated for some roboman headgear. Instead, it was a test for the Dalek he was helping!
Also, for at least the first part of the story, I wondered if the Doctor would turn out to have stowed away inside 2-1-0.
One more thing: there’s a double story arc in the use of names in this audio.
At first, the Dalek is just a Dalek, then Steven starts to think of him as “2-1-0” yet fighting against it— significant since he demanded the Dalek call him by name, as a sign of respect and as acknowledgement that they’re individuals working together. Daleks don’t have names, and he shies away from giving it one.
Yet he does. Right after the coda, he calls it 2-1-0 and doesn’t correct himself. He starts using it aloud. At the same time, 2-1-0 finally calls him Steven Taylor, which made me jump. Of course, Nicholas Briggs tends to say things the same way, but I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the inflection reminded me very strongly of the Daleks saying Susan Mendes. Somewhere back there while reviewing Dalek Empire I noted how very chilling it was when the Dalek Supreme singled out the protagonist and started addressing her.
It’s a form of psychological manipulation, which Steven unwittingly handed to 2-1-0 in the very beginning of the story by expressing how much he needed to hear the Dalek say his name. It helps convince Steven that 2-1-0 really is a different kind of Dalek. A person. A friend? And at the end, he finds out it was all a lie.
Funny how the Emperor calls itself 2-1-0 for a moment in the process of burying the name. And it says it’s learned much from “Steven Taylor.” The human factor.
Now, I wonder why the First Doctor’s voice keeps repeating itself once in each story. I didn’t think it was an audio glitch in Fields of Terror, and now I’m sure of it. Something to do with the First Doctor’s regeneration, perhaps? Presumably it will be resolved by the end of this boxset.