Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Big Finish Reviews+ Alien Heart/Dalek Soul by Tony J Fyler

Alien Heart/Dalek Soul

By Tony J Fyler

The Fifth Doctor and subterranean tunnel networks. We’re not entirely sure what it is about the Fifth Doctor and subterranean tunnel networks, but something happens to the unsure, generally less cocky, sunshine-tempered, young-man Doctor when you get him underground. It’s as though the pressure of all the earth on top of him compresses his character like a diamond and makes it shine. Earthshock, his encounter with the Cybermen spent at least most of its first episode beggaring about in a subterranean tunnel network and ended in the death of his companion, Adric. And of course his own final adventure, The Caves of Androzani, is often regarded as the best overall Doctor Who story in over fifty years, and involved him struggling through a subterranean cave network. Seriously, if you want to write a guaranteed hit for the Fifth Doctor, stick him in some subterranean caves or tunnels, and see what happens. Probably at least one death, to be sure, but a cracking story along the way, usually.

Alien Heart, the first two part story of the latest release from Big Finish Productions, sticks the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa in some subterranean caves and tunnels.

So that bodes well.

What’s more, for a two-parter, there’s a lot of texture in this story, as Nyssa and the Doctor tangle with relatively primitive natives on a moon of the planet Traxana, acquisitive Earth imperialists, sticky green bogeyspiders and a cave architecture that changes in the blink of an eye – a dark additional threat if you actually intend on doing anything in the cave network or moving about at all.

Alien Heart is tonally very exciting, writer Stephen Cole mixing Classic Who references (it’s a story set during the Dalek-Movellan wars, recently blink-and-you-missed-it glimpsed in New Who, but much more a factor of two Classic-era stories) with modern influences (the bogeyspiders are actually cellspiders – single-celled organisms shaped like arachnids, as seen in Kill The Moon). Alien Heart feels like it exists in a very much bigger universe than many four-part stories, and its two-part structure makes no concession to any smallness of ambition or characterisation simplicity – the unpleasant people here don’t necessarily become good people when it’s revealed there’s a bigger game at stake, a bigger threat to fight. What’s actually going on is sufficiently grandiose to be a Big Finish Dalek plot – the company has a famous knack for doing Daleks as though they really were as clever as they think they are, something the TV version has often conspicuously failed to do. But a word of warning – you’ve only the slimmest chance of working out what actually is going on here until the very end, and even then, you’ll likely be clinging on to sense by your fingernails by the time the dying’s done. It’s the Fifth Doctor in a subterranean cave network, of course there’s dying to be done. In fact, for fans of the Fifth Doctor’s on-screen battle with the Daleks, there’s a familiar amount of dying to be done in this story, which sets up a slablike bank of bleakness for Guy Adams’ Dalek Soul to distil and purify.

Adams’ story is in some ways a simpler affair, and again, fans of Resurrection of the Daleks (surely the Emos of the Who world – almost everyone dies) will be in familiar territory here. But for the less intense fans of the Resurrection bleakness, there’s plenty to ponder in this story. Pity Peter Davison for a moment – born with the face he has, he’s been almost destined to play a succession of ‘nice’ people, or lads at the worst. But here Davison gets to cut a little loose from his nice-character straightjacket and play a ruthless spitting psychopath. Or the Doctor, as he calls himself.

There’s perhaps not an awful lot of underlying sense to Adams’ principal premise – on a Dalek-colonised world, the Pepperpots of Doom are using humanoid chemists and virologists to brew up a batch of something nasty to sterilise the planet of its indigenous life and make it a truly Dalek homeworld…rather robbing themselves of some extermination-fun and allowing elements of risk into their life that aren’t strictly necessary. It makes even less sense when we consider that that humanoid resistance to Dalek occupation is more than a little pathetic. But Adams is intuitively intelligent in his construction of the story, dropping us into it after quite some period of time has elapsed since the end of Alien Heart, so it delivers maximum suspense from its premise, working as both an effective ‘alternative reality’ storyline and a mystery in terms of what is actually happening to Nyssa and the Doctor. Again bringing in just a touch of recent Twelfth Doctor magic, there’s a solid play on repeated, iterative action too, our ‘heroes’ doing the same thing time and time again, advancing just a little with each repetition.

Alien Heart/Dalek Soul marks the beginning in a shift at Big Finish – for many years now, one of their annual releases has been broken down into a three-parter and a single-episode story, sometimes with impressive success, sometimes notably less so. With Alien Heart/Dalek Soul and the stories which follow it, the company rebalances that sense of storytelling, giving us two connected two-part stories, each of which has a very different thrust and tone. As an example of what can be achieved in just two episodes – as if much of the Fourth Doctor range hadn’t already proved this point – it’s an impressive banner-wave, each story created a textured world and its own tone, against which familiar characters can be explored in new ways. Each story works within its own remit, and when you listen to both together, you end up with something richer than either of the halves on its own.

That makes Alien Heart/Dalek Soul worth investing in, quite aside from the strong Dalek deviousness in Alien Heart, the bravura ‘Dark Doctor’ performance from Davison in Dalek Soul, and the notes of nostalgia the combination-story gives for fans of Davison’s entanglement with the Daleks and its signature tonal bleakness. Give it a whirl – but be prepared to look at kittens and puppies for an hour or so afterwards to bring yourself back from the sense of infection by the Dalek mindset.

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