Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Audio Review 15: The Genocide Machine, written by Mike Tucker (2000)

Released: May 2000

The Doctor – Sylvester McCoy
Ace – Sophie Aldred
Chief Librarian Elgin – Bruce Montague
Bev Tarrant – Louise Faulkner
Rappell/Kar-Charratans – Daniel Gabriele
Cataloguer Prink – Nicholas Briggs
Dalek Voices – Nicholas Briggs, Alistair Lock and Gary Russell

Main Production Credits
Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Mike Tucker
Director – Nicholas Briggs
Sound Design, Post-Production and Incidental Music – Nicholas Briggs
Recording and Digital mastering – Alistair Lock
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer (for BBC Worldwide) – Jacqueline Rayner

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The Doctor takes Ace to the jungle planet of Kar-Charrat so he can return a few late library books. The Library of Kar-Charrat though is rather special; it houses the largest collection of printed material and knowledge in the Galaxy, collected from billions of civilisations. However, the Time Lords made the Library invisible to beings who aren’t time sensitive, in order to protect the large repository of knowledge from hostile species. However, the Daleks have been lurking and waiting in the jungle for centuries, waiting for the arrival of a Time Lord, so they can start in motion a plan that will enable them to invade and take over the Kar-Charrat library.
Ace is captured and duplicated, allowing for the Daleks to infiltrate the Library, and deactivate its defences from the inside. After the Daleks invade, they use the Doctor to help channel the Library’s stored knowledge into test Daleks that will help advise them in their future planetary conquests. The Library transfers this data via a recently developed “Wetworks” facility that stores the information in individual water molecules. However, the Doctor soon discovers that the Chief Librarian Elgin and his technical staff have developed this facility by imprisoning Kar-Charrat’s native water-based life form, and wipe their minds clean to hold the Library’s information as part of the “Wetworks” technology. These creatures are microscopic and occupy the molecules of every drop of water on the planet.

While the Doctor and Ace try to save the Kar-Charratans from their torment, the Dalek test subject, which holds all the knowledge of library, turns on its Dalek fellows, when their actions and orders go against the wisdom of ages that its acquired knowledge has given it. In the ensuing Dalek fire fight, the Doctor and Ace lay explosives in the Library to destroy the “Wetworks” facility and free the Kar-Charratans, before escaping in the TARDIS with the few surviving humans as the inevitable explosion does its work, and destroys the remaining Daleks.

Story Placement
Between Battlefield (TV Serial) and Ghost Light (TV Serial).

Although BIG Finish’s intended placement was after Survival (TV Serial), the more generic 7th Doctor and Ace, as well as the notable absence of Ace’s character and emotional development from Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric suggests a position prior to these stories, but after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I prefer a position after Battlefield because Ace still carries a slightly higher level of teenage angst than in this audio adventure.
The story placement for the Daleks is much more complicated. My personal preference is after the 3rd Doctor Dalek TV serials of the early 1970s, but before The Evil of the Daleks, as I like to think it’s the same Emperor Dalek in that adventure. The presence of the Special Weapons Dalek is the only complication, but you could suppose that if it was the Daleks rather than Davros that invented them than it is still possible for Remembrance of the Daleks to be a long way in their personal future. More detailed explanations would require an analysis of the whole fictional Dalek timeline, which doesn’t feel appropriate to do here.

Favourite Lines
The Doctor – “You could acquire the wisdom of a million years, from a billion worlds, in less time than it would take to read a bus ticket”.

Bev Tarrant – “I hate to be a pain, but we did kill the right one didn’t we?” (Referring to Ace)


Big Finish’s first foray into portraying the Daleks on audio is a very traditional one. As they themselves noted at the time, this was a deliberate move to offer a type of Dalek adventure that hadn’t been seen since the early 1970s. This approach may colour how a lot of Doctor Who fans see The Genocide Machine, but I have just as much love for the early Dalek adventures as I do for the later and more creative storylines written around Davros. Most of the Davros TV episodes were superior to the Dalek TV adventures of the past, but this was mostly due to how more dramatically complex and multi-layered those scripts were as well as how fascinating a character Davros is in his own right. I suppose you could say that Big Finish were trying to play it safe with The Genocide Machine, testing the waters as well as their own abilities by first staging a simple Dalek tale before going on to more ambitious storylines with them in later outings. I for one though, greatly enjoyed this return to the glory days of Dalek adventures where the metal monsters are both clever and devious in their own right, away from the shadow of their infamous creator. And there’s a lot to like.

There’s something quite quaint and amusingly British about the idea of the Daleks invading a Library. They’re such low-key, unimposing, cosy and above all human places that don’t feel anywhere near as officious or important a target that you always see getting attacked by invading aliens in stereotypical Science fiction, but that’s exactly why I love it. The idea is both unusual and original, and it works. We often hear the phrase ‘knowledge is power’, and Mike Tucker turns it into a possible weapon for the Daleks to be interested in acquiring. Of course, we aren’t talking about books so much as a facility or technology, in this case referred to as “Wetworks” that in the story can hold all the knowledge in the known universe and transfer it into the minds of its users. This technology claims to store its data in the molecules of drops of water. How this is achieved is glossed over, but it’s certainly a fascinating idea for real science to try out in the future. As it turns out, the scale of ability of the “Wetworks” facility is a falsehood, as Chief Librarian Elgin and his technical staff have imprisoned the planet’s native microscopic water-based life forms, and used their minds to hold the digital information of the Library to help the facility fulfil its function.
I also like the use of libraries in The Genocide Machine, particularly the inclusion of a scene featuring the TARDIS Library in a performed Doctor Who story at last. It’s often been mentioned throughout the decades, but sadly the television episodes have seemed to avoid featuring it in the past, and continue to do so now, with the exception of a few out-of-focus images in shots from the 1996 TV Movie; so I’m glad that Big Finish are trying to rectify that on audio, including a notable appearance in Storm Warning.

The Daleks are also quite effectively portrayed in The Genocide Machine. Their long plan to stake out the Kar-Charrat library for a Time Lord is both coldly logical as it is ruthlessly cunning, and really conveys how clever and unsettlingly dedicated and unstoppable they are, always plotting their next move, and waiting ominously like a Spider, for the best moment to strike. It also helps that their plan is a lot more sound than on some previous occasions, although their strict discipline and hierarchy as well as their lack of compassion and consideration are quite ironically and appropriately the main course of their downfall in this story, rather than the Doctor himself so much, which is a nice twist. Of course, as a fan of most of the 1980s Dalek TV episodes, I’ve always loved a bit of Dalek vs. Dalek battle action, and this time we get it as a result of a free-thinking Dalek test subject which contains the knowledge (and supposedly wisdom) of the Universe in its data banks, and decides to rail against the Supreme Dalek. It’s also a useful bit of well-timed action that hugely livens up the end of the story, which seemed to drag a fair bit in its earlier episodes.

And sadly it is that point, which lets the production down a bit. The premise and plot of the story, while efficient, effective and well-executed, is still quite simplistic, with little in the way of additional layers of meaning or story. There is the subplot about the torture and imprisonment of the water-based Kar-Charratans in the “Wetworks” device, but you learn everything you need to know about them over a ten minute section of part three of The Genocide Machine, and although they have a big presence in the overall story, their initial mystery is stretched out far too long, and they’re mainly just used as a plot device to help fight the Daleks by drowning them in their casings. However, the truth about the Kar-Charratans and the “Wetworks” is a worthy repeat of one of Doctor Who’s central moral messages about the need to respect all life as well as the importance of the sanctity of life. It also adds a layer of good character development for the character of Chief Librarian Elgin who proves to be something of a coward as well as misguided, misusing his powers and authority to create such a monstrous device, even if the original intentions were good, supporting the moral message that the ends do not justify the means. I can also tell that Mike Tucker tried to develop the Bev Tarrant character by making Rappell someone she deeply cared about, hoping that the emotional connection will help create an additional layer of drama that will fill up any early gaps in duration left by the central plot of the lead storyline about the Daleks, however any drama ends up falling flat, because Rappell was a pretty dull and basic character to start off with. Another problem which hampers the story is a mass of scenes of padding, particularly during parts two and three of the audio that don’t just slow the pace of the story right down, but also repeat basic plot points and even specific lines of dialogue or exposition multiple times for little reason that I can fathom. Fortunately, these things don’t hugely spoil what is otherwise a really fun and enjoyable outing for the Daleks, but they make it a bit less interesting and a bit more average than I would’ve liked, and as a result is a bit harder to care about what the characters go through.

Part four though, shows a marked improvement, with an increase in pace, an exciting action sequence, moments full of dramatic tension, and a satisfying finale that left a big smile on this listener’s face. It’s like the story suddenly wakes up and has been shifted back into the right gear at last. It certainly makes up a lot for the dithering of the preceding two episodes, and last we can actually begin to care about the characters properly for the first time. Although, having that said that, I don’t think that’s entirely true as part one is also good. Part one actually benefits from the large servings of invisible menace and mystery that we first get from the story, before they’re dragged out too much by parts two and three. Furthermore, most of the characters are really well sketched out before the mixed results of character development in subsequent episodes.

The quality of characterisation overall though, is decidedly patchy. Considering how well Mike Tucker wrote for the 7th Doctor and Ace in his earlier BBC novels, particularly Illegal Alien, it’s a bit disappointing to hear how generic they are in characterisation, especially in the early parts of The Genocide Machine. The Doctor is absorbed in the mysteries of Kar-Charrat and the menace to the Library, while Ace is full of teenage angst and moans a lot to start off with, like in some of her early TV episodes, although at least she recognises her foolishness later. Fortunately a lot of these generic character moments are saved by the performances of Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, who help to insert more of their characters’ individual quirks to help them appear more fleshed out than they are. It also doesn’t help that a lot of Mike Tucker’s dialogue, regardless of character is also very generic, at times giving the impression of scriptwriting-by-numbers, verbally pointing out nearly every slight plot movement as it happens. Maybe I’m being too harsh though, particularly if this Mike Tucker’s first time at scriptwriting, which I must say is very impressive if that is indeed the case, considering how well the story generally comes together. The characters of Chief Librarian Elgin and Bev Tarrant are really well done though. Elgin is the epitome of the eccentric pompous librarian who has a slight contempt for his inferiors and in a great (but anticipated) twist that shows up his aforementioned cowardly and greatly misguided nature, having unconsciously committed an atrocious crime against the Kar-Charratan species. Bev Tarrant, on the other hand, is a very likeable character who has been caught up in this Dalek catastrophe, and has to endure the deaths of her friends, the elements and serious injuries in her personal fight to survive the calamitous events taking place around her. Despite being a thief, Bev is easy to sympathise with, as although slightly misguided too, you can tell her heart is in the right place and is clearly enlightened by the whole experience. Furthermore, Bev also has some of the best lines, and a warm sarcasm, which is surprisingly easy to like, given how hard it is to come up with good sarcastic jokes that feel right for the moment (listen to The Land of the Dead to hear how not to do it). I also loved the running gag about Cataloguer Prink not being able to get a word in edgeways, despite Elgin’s continuous moans about how chatty he is. Despite having only two lines in the whole story, Prink’s death in part four is a great dramatic moment, and one of the best in the whole audio as we genuinely feel for this downtrodden man, who has clearly dedicated his life to the needs of others for several years.

The Genocide Machine’s cast is also a highlight of the story. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, hit the ground running and both put in strong performances, at times even improving the quality of the story by adding more life to their characters where needed, when it isn’t always apparent in the script, which does give them some bad lines. The chemistry between these two great actors is as flawless, brilliant and palpable as it was over ten years ago in their television episodes (The Genocide Machine was recorded in late 1999). Sylvester McCoy in particular has some great scenes where he effectively rages against Elgin for his crimes against the Kar-Charratans. Although I’ve noticed that some listeners dislike McCoy’s delivery of these scenes, feeling off-kilter with his established TV persona, or just a bad way of acting angrily, but for me McCoy’s delivery of these lines is totally believable, just like his angry speech to Morgaine in Battlefield (TV Serial), albeit in a different way, and I buy into it. He sells the Doctor’s incandescent rage with Elgin with intense distaste, but never goes over the top in my view. Moving on though, Sophie Aldred is rather oddly unconvincing as a robot, while voicing Ace’s android Dalek duplicate. I never thought it was possible to create a flat sounding monotone voice before hearing The Genocide Machine, but I guess it’s better to be bad at being a robot than a human character, so it’s not hard to forgive. Sophie Aldred is an amazing actress the majority of the time, so you can’t blame someone for having a weakness somewhere. Meanwhile, Louise Faulkner is brilliant as Bev Tarrant and imbues her with a convincing vulnerability and bravery that really helps round out the character. The best performance on this occasion though, goes to Bruce Montague, who really brings out the different dimensions in Elgin so vividly, from his vanity and bitter resentment, as well as his excitable eccentricities, as well as his nervous apprehension and trembling cowardice at anything remotely threatening. I really can’t imagine the character being played any better or any differently, which is a testament to Montague’s memorable performance and skill in the role.
As Nicholas Briggs’ first official production as the voice of the Daleks, it’s very impressive to hear just how outstanding his performance of the metal monsters already is. I suppose some people would say that’s called professionalism, but nevertheless his performance is spot on from the start. Alistair Lock is very good also, and even Gary Russell passes muster (I’m pretty sure Gary is the second Dalek test subject, the one that eventually takes on the Special Weapons Dalek), but Nick Briggs is certainly the strongest Dalek performer in the audio, and as we would discover over the course of subsequent Dalek audios, is clearly the best Dalek voice artist since the late Roy Skelton, who impressively voiced them on TV for over three decades (from The Evil of the Daleks to Remembrance of the Daleks, and other 1990s cameo appearances). That’s no doubt why the BBC employed his vocal skills when the Daleks returned in the new Doctor Who TV incarnation that started in 2005.

There is a noticeable error in some settings of the voice modulation during part one and some of part two though. According to Doctor Who – The New Audio Adventures: The Inside Story (Benjamin Cook, 2003), Gary Russell provided some of the voices in the earlier episodes and they turned out to be not as good as the Big Finish production team wanted, and were promptly re-recorded by Nicholas Briggs and Alistair Lock. However, they couldn’t recall the exact ring modulator settings at that time, and as a result there is a distinct lack of distortion in the Dalek voices during those early episodes. It doesn’t spoil the listener’s enjoyment of those scenes, because the voices are still well-performed, but I found myself unconsciously yearning for the more developed and exciting voices to turn up. It’s merely a harmless and understandable mistake given that this was Big Finish’s first attempt at recreating the Daleks, and the voices are still superior to those used in Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs’ Audio Visuals back in their amateur years, and were absolutely perfect from the end of part two onwards.
As well as the Dalek voices, the rest of the audio production is also impressive. I really like Nicholas Briggs’ score, which while experimental, brilliantly sets the tone of the story, underlining the suspense and mystery in the script, and comes into its own during part four. The ring modulated segments also suit the Daleks perfectly, a trick that Nick Briggs would reuse on both his future Doctor Who Dalek scores, and his epic audio Dalek spin-off project, Dalek Empire. Meanwhile Nicholas Briggs’ other work in The Genocide Machine, his sound design, is extensive, meticulous and also superb. The mix of tropical atmosphere, subtle background rain and plant rustling brings Kar-Charrat to life and is totally convincing as a Jungle planet, making it easy for the listener to immerse themselves into the drama taking place. He also clearly has fun getting lots of little effects out of the ring modulator to use for various scientifically advanced machines and Dalek technologies. With the stock Dalek sound effects too, the audio has a great soundscape all told.

The Daleks’ first official appearance on audio is an engaging and fun production all round. The Genocide Machine may be a more simplistic and traditional Dalek story, but it has a great premise, fantastic post-production and a well-paced plot that becomes quite thrilling in the last 15 minutes. It may have substantial padding, mixed characterisation and occasionally generic dialogue, but these don’t derail the success of the overall production, and its good points more than make up for its shortcomings. The Genocide Machine is the first in many enjoyable Dalek audios to come, and although it may not be one of the best, it’s a good starting point.
Score: 8/10
P.S. Illustration by Lee Sullivan
Also thank you to James Parker for the use of his wonderful CGI images which are copyright to him. I would recommend other Doctor Who fans to check out his other CGI work at:

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