Thursday, 28 July 2011

Spin-off Review 1: The Daleks - The Destroyers, written by Terry Nation (2010) - 7/10

Released: December 2010
Sara Kingdom/Narrator – Jean Marsh
Mark Seven – Alan Cox
Jason Corey – Chris Porter
The Daleks – Nicholas Briggs
David Kingdom – Alex Mallinson

Other characters played by members of the cast

Main Production Credits

Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Terry Nation (adapted by Nicholas Briggs & John Dorney)
Director – Lisa Bowerman
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording – Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
1960s Dalek Sound Effects – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
A newly established human colony on the M5 asteroid, Explorer Base One, is attacked by a mysteriously large and unknown force of Daleks. A trio of Space Security Agents, including the feisty Sara Kingdom have been surveying the asteroid during their visit to help the new colony settle in. On their discovery of the massacred human base, they attempt to seek out and rescue Sara Kingdom’s brother, David, the sole-surviving member of the colony left alive, but missing.
David is a prisoner of the Daleks, kept alive for interrogation and to supply intelligence on Earth and its human civilisation. The Daleks are secretly planning an attack on Earth, and currently lie in waiting within an underground base on the asteroid. Sara and the Security agents, through their wits and cunning, successfully penetrate the underground Dalek base, but are just too late. The Daleks have evacuated the asteroid in a rocket, to join a bigger Dalek force elsewhere, as their Earth attack plans advance, taking David with them.

Story Placement
Possibly before Mission to the Unknown (TV Serial), but most likely outside of known Doctor Who continuity.

Favourite Lines
‘These tubes glow with a soft, pulsating green light, eerie and luminous in quality’.
‘The metallic tube jerks up at him. It flares with energy. Carson is blasted, engulfed in a merciless glare so bright that it would burn the image of his helpless writhing form as a negative onto the retina of any human onlooker’.

I have a confession to make. I still have yet to enjoy the pleasures of Nicholas Briggs’ acclaimed Dalek Empire audio series. BIG Finish have produced so much great material, that even for those of us who have followed their work since The Sirens of Time, it’s been hard to catch up with it all. The Destroyers though gives a helpful taste of what it might be like. Of course I’m fully aware that Terry Nation is a much different writer to Nicholas Briggs. For a start, Nicholas Briggs can get to the heart of a character, and help make a story come alive with imaginative touches and interesting dialogue, whereas Nation’s forte was all about the big ideas. Fortunately in this production, we are blessed with both, although Terry Nation’s work doesn’t always deliver on the promise that the impressive entrance hints at.
The first thing about The Destroyers that leaps into your attention is the gloriously evocative descriptions written for the narration. From every tense extermination to every shadow and plant, the attention to imaginative detail here is astonishing, making the world of the lonely asteroid feel so very alien. Harking back to Terry Nation’s own past work, the asteroid feels just as creepy as the planet Kembel from The Daleks’ Masterplan, full of weird creatures totally unlike life on Earth, such as the sponge-like rock creature and the Spider-like ghostly spectre in the Dalek cave. One almost expects a forest of Varga plants to be lurking nearby. The behind-the-scenes material informs us that a lot of this great descriptive material actually comes from Terry Nation’s own stage directions. This was a happy surprise considering Nation’s infamous history of pragmatically-written scripts like The Keys of Marinus, The Chase, Death to the Daleks, The Android Invasion and Destiny of the Daleks (The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth were substantially script-edited by David Whitaker, while Genesis of the Daleks was script-edited by Robert Holmes). However, a fair amount of credit for the narrative passages also has to go to Nicholas Briggs and John Dorney. Being two of BIG Finish’s strongest writers at this point of time, I have no doubt that they improved the script for The Destroyers immensely.
The story of The Destroyers is an intriguing, but overall inconsequential one. Sadly it feels a lot like a missed opportunity for Nation as the plot consists of a string of set pieces without a substantial storyline to make it all feel worthwhile. We have the early Dalek attack on the human colony, weird alien creatures attacking our ‘heroes’, humans hiding from Daleks, humans attacking Daleks, and then suddenly that’s it. There’s no indication of Dalek intent or motivation, other than the fact that they’re planning to attack the Earth...again. I know this story was supposed to take place outside of Doctor Who continuity, but the lack of substance seems to hint at a lack of inspiration and imagination on Terry Nation’s part, which seems rather paradoxical considering some of his great prose in the script. The rescue attempt of David Kingdom, by Sara and the other Space Security agents is a reasonable plot in itself, helping to keep the narrative moving and interesting. However, the fact that they fail at the end of the episode, coupled with the fact that we know that the Daleks will exterminate David shortly once they’ve extracted what they can out of him, makes the whole endeavour ultimately feel a bit like a waste of time, both for the listener, as well as the characters. Of course I fully realise that this was supposed to be a pilot into a whole bigger adventure series, but it’s hard to see where the series could have gone, except into a more downbeat and protracted rehash of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, without the Doctor.  There are certainly no indications to suggest the contrary. To be fair though, the set pieces are truly magnificent and atmospheric; it’s just a shame there doesn’t appear to be much of a story to go with it.
It appears that Terry Nation’s prose is also significantly better than his characterisation, which I discovered was also true during The Destroyers. The lead, Sara Kingdom is a happy exception. Resourceful, brave, courageous, and yet vulnerable, Sara is every bit of the inspiring and wily modern-day heroine that viewers experienced during The Daleks’ Masterplan. Inquisitive and intelligent, she examines and takes in the alien environment around her with due caution, and when trouble strikes, can put up a fair fight. When Sara learns that her brother is missing and prisoner of the Daleks, we see her vulnerable and emotional side show, as a tragedy close to home reveals cracks in her usual calm and focused manner. This is partly why I’m glad Nicholas Briggs made David Kingdom the Dalek prisoner, rather than Sara just running around the jungle and becoming the prisoner, as it was in the original script, because it now means we can enjoy a more layered interpretation of one of Doctor Who’s strongest companions, rather than waste her in a more thankless role. This now means of course that David Kingdom is an even more thankless and dull character, because we know next to nothing of him, and all he does is throw a couple of protests at the Daleks, and that it’s entirely up to Sara to sell the loss of David to us. The other characters are only marginally better. Mark Seven is a clever and strong android, with a very casual and almost monotone delivery, and is actually supposed to be a one-note character, whereas Jason Corey is a stereotypical soldier type, who also has no depth in character to interest us. So once again, it is entirely up to Sara to sell the whole drama of the story. Even the Daleks fail to impress. Although every utterance in Dalek voice is usually music to my ears, they seem to spend the majority of the story just doing rather mundane duties, and appear to be just waiting for the call to evacuation. It really is a shame that even the stars of the show feel like a shadow of their former selves.
Fortunately though, The Destroyers is backed up by some wonderful production from BIG Finish at their usual high standard, and a good cast to match them every step of the way, with some more positive, dynamic direction from Lisa Bowerman. Jean Marsh delivers a masterful performance throughout the production, especially considering the 45 years that have passed since she played Sara Kingdom on-screen. Jean really brings the description to life with a brilliantly-judged reading, full of wonderful expressions; and also is able to perform young enough to make the character of Sara believable. A difficult feat indeed; and Jean Marsh pulls it off splendidly. Nicholas Briggs also continues his superlative Dalek voices with ease, although I just wish he had greater lines to say. The rest of the cast, namely Alan Cox, Chris Porter, Alex Mallinson, also perform well, doing their best, with what is fairly weak material for them to voice.
Meanwhile, supporting Terry Nation’s (and Nicholas Briggs and John Dorney’s) lovely prose is a great music soundtrack by Jamie Robertson. Beautifully simple and very effective, his score perfectly captures and reinforces the creepy atmosphere set out in the script. At times it sounds positively Dudley Simpson-esque. Even the Daleks have their own action motif. However, the style of the ‘title’ music is rather questionable. It’s good, but sounds more like The Incredibles than an adventure sci-fi series. No doubt Robertson had a brief to make something James Bond-like, to reflect the space security agents, but in this case I think it’s just unnecessary and rather brash and unsubtle in comparison to the rest of the brilliant score.
The Destroyers is an impressive and interesting example of what could have been. It succeeds as a pilot, in so far as it feels like the beginning of a setup to an epic Dalek adventure, and that there are many unanswered questions that would help intrigue potential viewers in the coming weeks. However, I’m not sure if it would have the substance to last the duration of a proper series well. I feel there are almost too many unanswered questions. What was the Daleks’ purpose in being stationed on the asteroid M5, and what was there that was worth protecting? What are the Daleks’ true intentions, or are we experiencing just another re-write of The Dalek Invasion of Earth? It wouldn’t matter so much if we hadn’t had any concrete answers, but surely there should’ve been some hints that this was a story that would be worth following. This lack of storyline, particularly for the Daleks, is certainly a important flaw, even if it does succeed as a pilot episode.
However, this is in some respects, all in the past, because a new and arguably better audio series was born out of inspiration from this unmade script, Dalek Empire (by Nicholas Briggs). What we can do though, thanks to BIG Finish is enjoy this missing adventure for what it is – a lovingly produced string of glorious, adventurous and atmospheric set pieces, tied together with expert narration, performed by a great cast, and set to an imaginative score. From the Dalek attack to the sponge-like alien predator; hiding in a living forest to the creepy spider-like spectre creature; these are all moments that we can sit back and savour with delight.

Score: 7/10

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