Big Finish Productions
The Curse of Davros
|Written by||Alan Barnes|
|Starring Colin Baker and Terry Molloy|
|Synopsis: It's been a year since Philippa 'Flip' Jackson found herself transported by Tube train to battle robot mosquitoes on a bizarre alien planet in the company of a Time Lord known only as 'the Doctor'. Lightning never strikes twice, they say. Only now there's a flying saucer whooshing over the top of the night bus taking her home. Inside: the Doctor, with another extraterrestrial menace on his tail – the Daleks, and their twisted creator Davros! But while Flip and the fugitive Doctor struggle to beat back the Daleks' incursion into 21st century London, Davros's real plan is taking shape nearly 200 years in the past, on the other side of the English Channel. At the battle of Waterloo...|
"I get a kick out of you" by Thomas Cookson 11/12/14
It seems ever since Lance Parkin revitalised Davros on audio back in 2003, he's become one recurring character who remains to this day a well of interest that isn't drying up anytime soon. Strangely, on TV, he became a tiresome character, yet, on audio, I don't think he has a single story where he's not fascinating.
I had my fears this would be the exception that disproves the rule. In fact, the writer, Jonathan Morris, had written his author's notes about how Big Finish had already done the psychological exploration of Davros, and he wanted to go for something a bit more action blockbuster. Possibly to make the story palatable to new fans wanting another Journey's End.
I was wrong. In fact, I think Jonathan Morris made the right decision. Getting the New Who-inspired, pop-savvy writing perfectly right. Between this and Touched by an Angel, it's a damn shame Jonathan Morris hasn't been brought on to write for New Who. He's the first writer I'd call.
I think I've become a bit lost in the more stream-of-consciousness Big Finish audios, which made me more conscious of the Doctor's thought processes and how you can analyse him like a real person. But the side effect is becoming aware of the Doctor's personal history and thinking again of moments in the classic series' final decade where his thought processes seemed increasingly off the case and unsafe. Which reinforces my griping about if only it ended on Logopolis.
Much like Moffat's era, this story makes the right choice in characterising the Doctor as something more mythic, iconic and idealistic in a way that doesn't necessarily invite analysis. It's more robust than that.
This story reaffirms Doctor Who's roots in light entertainment. It's very RTD-inspired in its setup of the companion's personal, ordinary life that's jeopardized by the Doctor. This encompasses the duller first episode, which consistently fails to grab my interest.
It's also a celebration of the show's tackier, camper moments like Rose, New Earth, Mindwarp, Time and the Rani and Silver Nemesis. Mixing it into the perfect, not-too-oversugared cocktail. It'd feel right at home coming after Trial. And it's like a refreshing example of what RTD's era would be like, done tastefully.
But the first episode feels dull and clunky. In hindsight, it was probably meant to play a bit loose and sloppy. Making the listener wrongly assume the writer's taken his eye off the ball in his blase characterisation of the Doctor and his strategies. So we're not too conscious too early that something's seriously wrong, but in hindsight it all makes crystal clear sense.
This actually feels like a critique of RTD's populist excessive approach. It's an intelligently-thought-out story beneath the somewhat flippant and populist surface. So it exposes all fan claims that RTD's incoherent writing was delivering that all these years as bull. The story's not too deep as to get off-puttingly ponderous, but it's intelligent enough to bear repeat listens and still be a solid, blisteringly coherent piece of writing.
Part one's largely carried by Flip, a very apathetic and fickle companion. This is why the story initially fails to engage me, and why the opening ten minutes get pretty clunky just to set up the scenario and have it fall into this rather passive character's lap. I'm not a fan of Flip, but she's the right companion for this.
There's a killer twist to this story that I never saw coming. If you want to really enjoy this story I suggest you stop reading now.
Flip's a rather trying, obstinately reckless character, who can rather tax patience. That makes her a perfect companion to this bogus Doctor. Illuminating the contrast with the real Doctor. She feels like a teen from Eastenders, but she's not hysterically vaunted as being the greatest companion, like Rose was. And she doesn't have a catty or devious streak, like we were subject to in School Reunion. In fact, she's rather too naive. When she rather carelessly asks if the Daleks have done all this killing of innocents just to find the Doctor, she immediately knows it was the wrong thing to say, which marks her out as loose-tongued and occasionally thoughtless, but never vindictive.
I think she's supposed to seem out of her depth here, but too young to realise it. Her threat to Davros that she'll one day make him regret this 'like you would neva believe' is supposed to sound unimpressive against the man who wrote the book on revenge and grudges. Although her parting line to Davros 'see ya, wouldn't wanna be ya' always cracks me up.
The point is we're meant to think she's a dumb bint who doesn't engage her brain before opening her mouth. And that's what Davros, in the Doctor's guise writes her off as, and nearly treats her as far more gullible than she actually is. There's even vague hints that she might have Asperger's; hence her surface apathy despite her inner emotional horror at what's happening. The Doctor is vaunted by the fact that he is someone who's patient with her and isn't disparaging and isn't one to snap at her for a silly blunder.
So we learn more about her background and realise that she does have a crucially good heart. Ironically, since the Doctor here is the imposter, it's her who does the noble, compassionate thing that the Daleks were predicting the Doctor would do, which springs their trap. It's a story where the situation and drama brings out her best, most admirable qualities, in spite of her inexperience and the limits of how capable she is. Likewise, encountering Davros in the flesh, but not the spirit, reveals her past as a care worker with the elderly and disabled, and makes her wonder what makes Davros different and so cruelly bitter?
The story has its initial dark turns. In a way this feels like a darker version of Remembrance in which Captain Gilmore bit the dust first and then his body was perverted and used as an animated cadaver by the Daleks. And the moment on the bus where the Doctor uses mobile phones to infiltrate the Dalek network is where it really begins to get engaging and dark. There's something about using common gadgetary against Daleks that makes the story feel that bit more tangible and Earthy, whilst still sparking the imagination.
For the most part, it's a bit of a slog to the first cliffhanger, but well worth it when it comes. With that out the way, the story can finally get to the meat of the piece. An historical romp in Napoleonic France, where we really become introduced to our big players. Napoleon himself and the Duke of Wellington, and where both the Doctor and Davros begin to show their true colours.
Even when the Doctor shot the corporal, I didn't see the twist coming, or assume anything was out of the ordinary. I took it that maybe the Doctor, given his superior knowledge of human physiology somehow made a precise shot that induced temporary paralysis to convey the illusion of death. Surely the story wasn't going to leave that unanswered. And, of course, even when the Doctor was declaring his intent to do the same to 'Davros', it didn't seem too out of character (considering again that scene in Genesis of the Daleks where the Doctor threatened to shut down his life support systems and didn't sound like he was bluffing), nor did it seem undue.
And yet, when the twist happens in the cliffhanger, the past episode suddenly takes on a much more malevolent and sinister air, when you realise who Flip has really been with all this time. And when you realise who 'Davros' really was all along, the Doctor's humiliating treatment of the helpless crippled man suddenly doesn't seem so championable, and the gloating cruelty of him hits you like a ton of lead.
As much as Big Finish has reformed the image of Colin Baker's Doctor, and then some, I really get the sense this is the kind of darker, more sinister portrayal that Colin himself has long wanted, and it's clear he's getting an absolute kick out of this, which further adds to the fun of this story. There are moments with the bogus Doctor that horrify, and there are moments that raise a smile and make you want to punch the air.
It's by no means a shallow portrayal of Davros. There are moments that really leave you wondering amidst all his careful intellect, what exactly is that spark in his mind, or particular chemical reaction that informs his willingness to commit such malicious wanton cruelty. There are moments where we see Davros exercise his cruel nature in such an unbelievably petty way. And this is what I mean about this being like an RTD story written in good taste. The sharp qualities of vindictiveness and pettiness are ones that define our villain, not the people we're meant to be championing. It's Davros who's spiteful, not the companion or the Doctor, which puts refreshingly clear blue water between this and the sordid ugliness of School Reunion, The Idiot's Lantern or Tennant's spiteful tantrum at Wilf in The End of Time. As a result, it feels cleaner and healthier. There isn't the sickening sense of someone forcing their unpleasant personality onto the hero, or a cynical decision to sell the show to a youth culture that mistakes attitude for soul.
Yes, the Doctor we see here is being more ruthless, and seems to have no qualms about engineering it so that Davros might get exterminated by his own creations, and it's more than suggested that the Doctor's current form has changed and embittered him. Making it unclear whether Davros is rubbing off on him, or indeed offering a glimpse of how Davros became the way he is (indeed, the persistent identity swapping between them actually remains dynamically involving and fun for far longer than it should do by rights). But, as with his ruthlessness in Power of the Daleks, it's not vindictiveness that motivates the Doctor, but compassion, and a pragmatic understanding that Davros must be stopped by all means necessary, to protect innocents. This really is the story that makes me wish Colin's era could have had just one story like this, to justify what they were going for with his character, because this wouldn't be possible with any other Doctor. It is to me the final winning vindication.
As for the historical setting, it's conveyed beautifully in sound and dialogue, with rain and misty dawns and persistent flying artillery. There was always a danger that the personalities of Colin's Doctor and Davros would overshadow the late arrival of Napoleon, so having Davros himself characterise Napoleon in glowing terms by describing him as his progressive warmongerer of choice was a smart move. Napoleon's chat-up with Flip is actually quite nicely done and classy, and draws him as a romantic, gallant figure. Napoleon is presented as an eloquent idealist, as a man of the people. Indeed, in these times of our own snidey coalition government of cads denigrating the lower classes and disadvantaged to a degree that's almost psychotic, it's hard not to long for the bygone days of leaders of sincerity and brotherhood like Napoleon.
In that, this is actually a beautiful anti-war story, one where we see a man's pride and ambition that drives nations to war, and how much death and devastation it often costs before they realise their pride was best swallowed and that none of it was worth it. Likewise, the darker conclusion where the Doctor can't save Napoleon's platoon is a sobering reminder that war rarely has happy endings. It's not preachy. The focus is on sincere characterisation and dramatic events that leave a severe impact, which see the themes pay off properly and elegantly.
Put simply, it's a story that is good for the heart.