Tony Fyler goes to Skaro.
When it comes to mammoth undertakings, Big Finish has always had the staggering optimism of the wonderfully clueless. They haven’t been clueless, which means they’re either maddeningly overconfident, or just really, really brave and good. What determines which they actually are is the rate of their success. Bringing back classic TV monsters and villains for new adventures and making them as good or better than the originals – plenty of Dalek stories, Robophobia, Spare Parts, Domain of the Voord and a handful of Vardan stories versus plenty more Dalek stories, a few weird Cybermen stories, an odd Morbius double, The Feast of Axos, an OK Krynoid story and The Juggernauts probably puts them ahead in the ‘brave and good’ category on points. Creating companions as good as any – yes, any – on TV: Charlie Pollard, Lucie Bleedin’ Miller, Bernice Surprise Summerfield, Hex, Eli real person on a journey of destiny, rather sabeth Klein, Oliver Harper and Evelyn Smythe probably more than make up for the incidental Hannah Bartholomew, Flip Jackson, Sally Morgan and so on, and most of them could stand toe to toe with Sarah-Jane Smith and Jo Grant. But what really gives the company its claim to being as good as it thinks it is is its talent for expanded worlds – Gallifrey, Jago & Litefoot, Counter Measures, Bernie Summerfield, Unbound, and there, right there, is Big Finish’s version of a Roman epic. I, Davros dares to tell the story the TV show never did – the story of the man behind the monster, from his youth to just before we first meet him in Genesis of the Daleks. The sheer scope of such a thing is ridiculous and scary. Delivering the definitive Davros in just four hours seems like an insanity.
So does it work?
Pleasingly, it does more than work. By bringing the sense of Roman epic I, Claudius to the story, and merging it to the world of racial supremacy and dirty war envisaged by Terry Nation, Big Finish does the seemingly impossible – taking us into the world where Davros’ creation of the Daleks make a hideous kind of sense, and where he is a real person on a journey of destiny, rather than just the scheming, screaming megalomaniac we know as the force behind the Daleks.
Episode 1 – Innocence – is the most ‘Roman’ of the four episodes, with Davros as a teenage boy, born to a wealthy, political and military family, but with an overriding interest in science and history. Rory Jennings (Tommy from the TV episode The Idiot’s Lantern) plays Davros with a clipped precision and either a quiet or a psychopathic disinterest in the people around him as people, rather than as players in his story – the uncertainty over whether he is merely quiet and reserved or actually a psychopath is cleverly, creepily rendered as we see him in the context of a ‘Roman’ family saga – a Caligula or Nero in his own time, his mother Calcula unhealthily doting, his father Nasgard (played with surprising brio by Richard Franklin) determined that an army career will be the best thing for him, Aunt Tashek a kind of prophetess of doom over the household, and Yarvell, Davros’ sister, the only one who can prick his bubble of self-importance. Innocence is the story of exactly that – the journey from a kind of normality to the first steps on a journey towards monstrosity, and when Davros goes – still with a magnificent quietness, far beyond the pale of even the moral bounds of Kaled society (a society predicated on war and the philosophy of racial purity, don’t forget), it’s more shocking than anything the Romans did, straying into territory familiar to horror fans from the Omen movies. Oh yes, there’s more than a pinch of Damien Thorn in the young Davros, his relinquishing of ‘innocence,’ and the allies he finds on that path setting his destiny a long way from that of any normal Kaled soldier or politician.
Episode 2 – Purity – shows us Davros at 30, now played by on-screen Davros actor Terry Molloy, but played as ‘human’, desperately frustrated by his lack of progress into the Kaled scientific corps, taking a desperate gamble to earn promotion and once again shake off a ‘normal’ destiny in favour of the one he believes he is due to have. Davros signs up for what could be a suicide mission across the wastelands of Skaro to the Thal dome and back, determined to win his chance to help direct the Kaled cause. Along the way, he encounters weakness, disposes of friends, runs into old enemies and learns a lot about the kind of weapons that could win the war, the threats of politics and the threats closer to home, to bring the coldly rational psychopath back out of hiding, and make him determined that nothing will stand in the way of his career.
In Episode 3 – Corruption – Davros learns to play politics with the leaders of his race, while rising to the summit of the Kaled Scientific Elite. He’s growing old in this play, but still has not become the thing he will become. If you’re looking for a ‘Genesis of Davros’ moment, this is where you’ll find it, but not before one final temptation threatens to sway him from his terrible destiny. You remember that hint of Damien Thorne? Episode 3 throws a threat more terrible than any other his way, just as the third Omen movie did to Damien – the threat of love, here embodied in a young researcher with a fine mind, Shan. But while Davros acknowledges her brilliance – and admits a thing about the future creation of the Daleks that will surprise you – we know from the beginning that any hope she has of turning him from his path of extremism and extermination will be doomed. That’s the scope of drama we’re in with the I, Davros collection – it’s Shakespearian tragedy, because we know going in what becomes of the protagonist, so we know his pathway leads not to love, happiness, children, but to darkness, to impotence, to horror.
Episode 3 sees that moment we’ve always wondered about – the horrible wounding of Davros, his rebirth in his life-support unit, but it also shows us how the transformation went beyond the physical, how the creature we know was essentially born out of a will to survive, a will to prove wrong people who thought his physical disabilities meant he was lessened, and how his terrible clarity of purpose, already at psychopathic levels as a child, became stripped of all but the most political of pretence.
And Episode 4 shows us the path coming full circle, as Davros begins to simply outlive the people he grew up with, to span generations on a planet where, famously, no-one dies of old age. It shows us Davros captured by Thals, rescued by a young lieutenant by the name of Nyder, and taking more and more control over the offspring of Skaro, leading to not one but two conclusions, both as shocking and horrifying as each other. But the mission of I, Davros is completed with terrifying effect – we hear Davros assume control of everything he needs, and we hear the creation of the Mark I Dalek. From the end of I, Davros to the beginning of Genesis of the Daleks is nothing but a little time away, and we’ve traveled the whole length of Davros’ life up to the invention of at least the prototype Dalek. The scope of the drama and the tragedy of brilliance perverted by single-minded dedication to hatred and self-supremacy, only ever suggested on-screen, is shown to us through these windows on Davros’ life at its pivotal moments – first blood, taking control of his destiny, the rejection of love, uncovering of corruption, his transformation into a power that could theoretically live forever, and his development of the ultimate evolution of Kaled life. While in Michael Wisher’s and Terry Molloy’s performances particularly on TV, so much of this is hinted, it took the dedication of four hours of superlative audio to render this journey in a way which, nine years later, still feels fresh, and shocking, and absolutely canon, true to Nation’s world, but with a grander storytelling sweep than any he ever mustered.
Big Finish is a company with many triumphs under its belt. It’s hard to beat the ambition of Spare Parts, the Cyberman genesis story, hard to dwarf the achievement of the second Bernice Summerfield box set – four hours of Gabriel Woolf’s return as Sutekh. But in I, Davros, it’s possible the company achieved a thing that can stand as its greatest contribution to the expanded world of Doctor Who, and yet also stand on its own terms as the history of a world and a character we think we know, given a new vitality, a new horror, and a new warning on the single-mindedness of science stripped of conscience, of ethics, and of everything bar the ends it sets itself.