Big Finish Productions
The Curse of the Daleks
|Written by||David Whitaker and Terry Nation|
|Starring Michael Praed|
|Synopsis: The spaceship Starfinder is taking two dangerous criminals for trial on Earth. En route, they crash through a meteor storm and have to make an emergency landing on Skaro - the planet of the dreaded Daleks. But Captain Redway and his faithful crew donÕt anticipate any trouble. After all, the Daleks were defeated fifty years ago and now they are completely inactive. But when a crate full of mysterious devices is discovered and the Daleks start to come back to life, it becomes clear that there is a traitor amongst the StarfinderÕs crew... A traitor intent on reactivating the power of the Daleks!|
A Dalek Blast from the Past by Matthew Kresal 31/7/16
Today, the idea of Doctor Who spin-offs not featuring the Doctor isn't anything new. There are novels and audio dramas based on characters and elements from across the series, not including TV spin-offs like Torchwood. Yet few people are aware that fifty years ago on the 21st of December 1965, the very first Doctor Who spin-off came to life on the London stage in the form of The Curse of the Daleks. The show closed on January 15th 1966, was never performed again and had been largely lost in the mists of time, until Big Finish Productions re-staged it for audio in 2008 with strong results.
The thing to keep in mind going into The Curse of the Daleks is that it was written fifty years ago. There's a saying that nothing quite dates like visions of the future, and this is no exception. The script by Doctor Who's original head-writer David Whitaker and Dalek creator Terry Nation comes across as utterly dated, even by the standards that 1960s Doctor Who is judged by. Even more so than many of the TV stories from the era, it has the, at times, uncomfortable feeling of being a product of its time, with very casual sexism being apparent throughout. Dating even more is some of the "science" and jargon used from a future where cassette tape is still the height of recording technology, you can't boil water at light speed due to it being a fire risk and spaceships communicate with a "radio-pic machine". As part of Big Finish's objective of doing the stage plays on audio, they chose to be as faithful as possible to the original scripts, so all of this is presented. It is to Nicholas Briggs' credit as adapter and director that he leaves it in, preserving it for posterity despite how uncomfortable it might be for a modern audience.
It must be said though that, moving beyond the dated aspects of the script, it's actually not badly written at all. For, at its heart, The Curse of the Daleks is really a science-fiction take on the stage thriller genre as the crew and passengers of the spaceship Starfinder (including two criminals on their way to Earth to stand trial for their crimes) are forced to land on the Dalek home world of Skaro some fifty years after the Daleks were defeated and left immobilized. Only someone amongst them is keen on bringing the Daleks back to life and will stop at almost nothing to make it so. The result is an interesting mystery but also one that, due to featuring an isolated group of humans with no communications with Earth and the threat of Daleks being given power to terrorize them, pre-echoes Whitaker's script for Patrick Troughton's debut story The Power of the Daleks the following year. For that reason, it is of historical interest at least for fans as well as telling an intriguing mystery tale in its own right.
Moving beyond the script, there's plenty to recommend Big Finish's audio re-staging. Nicholas Briggs does a superb job filling his various roles in the production as both performer and behind the scenes. As well as supplying the various Dalek voices to his usual high standard, Briggs also acts as narrator to fill in some of the more visual aspects that would be difficult to otherwise get across. He proves to be an excellent narrator, avoiding the cliches of either being monotone or overly dramatic but finding the right balance between the two. Briggs does just as well behind the scenes handling the sound design and music superbly, with the music echoing some of the best 1960s Who work of the Radiophonic Workshop and creating the feeling not of a stage play but perhaps of that unmade third Dalek film from the era.
The cast is strong as well, often making the best out of the script. Michael Praed is cast as Ladiver, a former space pilot turned criminal who becomes the prime suspect as events unfold, and is perfectly cast as an ambiguous character while sounding all the while like a gruffer Paul McGann. Derek Carlyle is another piece of perfect casting, coming across as the slimy criminal Harry Sline. John Line, who played Ladiver in the original 1965 production, plays the elder Professor Vanderlyn here and does well in a role that's quite heavy on technobabble. Bringing some of the slighter more cliched characters to life are the trio of actors playing the Starfinder's crew (Patric Kearns as Captain Redway, Nick Wilton as "Rocket Smith" and James George as Bob Slater) plus Beth Chalmers and Denise Hoey in the female supporting roles, who perform admirably given the script. Indeed, the entire cast should be complimented on bringing their characters to life despite issues involving stiff dialogue and other aforementioned items.
In the end, The Curse of the Daleks is a number of different things. It's a presentation that has saved for posterity a performance of the first Doctor Who connected stage play from a half century ago, complete with all of its faults. It also highlights some of the extraordinary people at Big Finish both in front of and behind the microphone who help bring their stories to life. Above all else, it at last gives fans a chance to experience a Dalek story long lost to all but a handful who saw it on stage during a few weeks in 1965-66. It's time travel in its purest form and something that one suspects the Doctor would approve of wholeheartedly.
We Got Our Power! by Jacob Licklider 16/3/22
The least well known of the Doctor Who stage plays was The Curse of the Daleks, a story that didn't even feature the Doctor or his companions. Written at the height of Dalekmania, the story focuses on a possible solution as to how the Daleks were reactivated in between The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth with our main characters being the crew of a spaceship that has had to land on Skaro for repairs. It is a product of its time. The characters are standard pulp fiction, and there are strong first-wave feminist motivations. It was by no means progressive or regressive, but sits in the middle of that political spectrum. The original play was by David Whitaker, from a summary of Terry Nation's, and that credit really shows. Once Nation gets the Daleks back to full power, the plot is a rehash of The Daleks. This is where the main flaw of the story lies, with all David Whitaker's efforts in the characters actually creating a diverse cast, the flaw is still present. It rears its ugly head and any fan will realize exactly where the story is going to go next and exactly how it is going to go.
The plot is at the very least, the most consistent in structure of the stage plays, as outside of the rehash it doesn't follow the traditional Doctor Who format. It instead follows the format of an adventure play as we get introduced to the characters, the crisis happens, an unlikely ally appears, there's the twist of the traitor revealed and finally the escape. It's a formula that works really well on stage in the two-act structure, as the climax can be right when the Daleks have the heroes captured and all things seem lost, which is really how we end the first act. The characters follow the cliches of adventures stories. The main character is John Ladiver, played by Michael Praed. Ladiver is the typical hero in quite a few regards, but his actual gimmick is that he is a convict heading for prison for hiding millions in treasure. He isn't a space pirate, as he has the galaxies interests at heart as he had already been to Skaro to investigate if the Daleks were actually dead. Praed is the actor who steals the show here just by how smooth his voice is on audio. Ladiver was originally played by John Line, who returns here to play Professor Vanderlyn. Vanderlyn is the absent-minded professor, too wrapped up in his own work to really care. He serves comic relief for the story, which is funny enough and barely intrusive to the narrative. It's almost sweet that Big Finish tracked him down and made him a part of the proceedings.
The adaptation as written by Nicholas Briggs includes a narrator in the style of linking narration for the Missing Episode Soundtracks. It is how the adaptation opens as a way to set the scene and just keeps interjecting at scene changes, which would be done on stage. Now I don't have a problem with the narration in theory. The opening poem, the ending and description of the spaceship really works, but whenever else it interjects into the action takes the listener out of the action really easily. Briggs narrates the audio and has a voice that really works for the position of narrator, but he is barely needed.
To summarize, The Curse of the Daleks is honestly the best of the stage plays. The plotting and pacing is great even though it is basically The Daleks without the entire Doctor Who plot. Nicholas Briggs did his best to adapt the story into audio, but failed when he decided to add in a narrator when it really wasn't needed. The best things in the story are the acting, with Michael Praed and John Line both being the best parts of the story and the characters, who are all archetypes that for once really work at creating a period piece. 70/100