Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Audio Review 22: Fear of the Daleks, written by Patrick Chapman (2007)

Released: February 2007


Zoe – Wendy Padbury
The Daleks – Nicholas Briggs
Story Narration and other characters voiced by Wendy Padbury

Main Production Credits

Producer – Sharon Gosling
Script Editor – Alan Barnes
Writer – Patrick Chapman
Director – Mark J. Thompson
Incidental Music
and Sound Design – Lawrence Oakley
Recording – Steve Tsoi at Sound Magic Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe arrive in a city built into an asteroid in space. The society is a politically neutral one, and is currently hosting peace talks between the leaders of two disgruntled alien races, the Xantha and the Tibari, hoping to avoid an outbreak of war between their two peoples. However, Professor Atrikar, a mad deluded Tibari scientist, and his mysterious metallic allies have other ideas...

The Doctor and his friends are kidnapped by Atrikar’s men, and discover that the Professor has allied himself with the Doctor’s worst enemy, one which he thought long dead, the Daleks. The Professor has constructed a technology which enables him to transmit a person’s mind across space, give it physical form, and allow them to literally be in two places at once. Atrikar’s plan is to assassinate the Tibari president and join the Daleks in taking over the combined empires of both races. Atrikar forces Zoe to become the assassin, and once her consciousness is sent aboard the Tibari spaceship, is able to control her actions.

The Doctor is helpless to prevent the atrocity, until he tricks Atrikar into transmitting his consciousness aboard the Tibari spaceship, whereby he disarms Zoe and resists Atrikar’s control with ease. Atrikar sends the Daleks’ minds after them to complete the assassination themselves. However, after the Daleks let slip that Atrikar is just their puppet to abandon and murder once their plans are completed, the Professor rebels and announces the Daleks’ presence publically and calls for help. Before the Daleks’ physical machines murder Atrikar, he transmits his own mind onto the spaceship, attacking the Daleks telepathically before destroying them. The Doctor and Zoe are now free to return to their bodies and leave with Jamie, while the peace talks take place in safety without a hitch.

Story Placement

Between The Wheel in Space (TV Serial) and The Dominators (TV Serial).


I did originally choose Fear of the Daleks to review for the 49th anniversary, but after listening to how bad it was, I couldn’t bring myself to put out such a negative review on a day of celebration, so it inevitably went on the back burner. Weeks later, I’ve finally resolved to take it on properly, and the audio is sadly just as poor as when I first heard it. After the delightful and promising first release of the Companion Chronicles range, Frostfire, Fear of the Daleks is a dire retreat into amateurish, fairly unimaginative and possibly even lazy writing, the likes of which I’ve never seen in a Big Finish audio production till now. While the Companion Chronicles is a great and original audio format for Doctor Who, listening to the very first series, one gets the impression that Big Finish were still feeling their way along as to how to get the most out of the format, experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t, and as a result getting somewhat mixed results. Judging by the many positive reviews given of some of the range’s later releases, Fear of the Daleks appears to be one of Big Finish’s wake up calls as to how to proceed with and improve the Companion Chronicles, and listening to the audio itself, it’s not hard to see why.

On the surface, there’s much to look forward to – a nostalgic celebration of the Patrick Troughton years; a space age civilisation on an asteroid; hints of a political conspiracy; a machine which can project a person’s consciousness across space. However, it doesn’t take much exploration or examination to see that, minus the mind machine, all of the story’s promise is entirely wasted or realised so poorly as to be completely ineffectual. 

Instead of celebrating the best aspects of the Troughton TV episodes – chilling monsters, quirky characterisation, intelligent and challenging villains (Tobias Vaughn, for instance), moments of great atmosphere and dramatic tension, and the occasional sense of pervading mystery during the early parts of a story; Patrick Chapman decides instead to celebrate many of the Troughton era’s decidedly naff and poor elements – one-note monsters and villains, weak cardboard characterisation, dull, corny, or unimaginative dialogue, padding and tired, predictable storytelling. Sadly, Chapman’s script is guilty of all these things. While Fear of the Daleks may work thematically in the context of the era of the show its set in, as season six of Doctor Who had the most storylines with these negative attributes, it doesn’t exactly make an enjoyable experience for the audience. I’m sure there are some Doctor Who fans out there that pine for the days of The Dominators and The Space Pirates, but I’m not one of them. Also, I feel that Fear of the Daleks ironically doesn’t even match the standard of these stories due to how basic, tiresome, unimaginatively written, and poorly characterised it is. At least in the poor 1960s TV episodes there was always a comedic, suspenseful or thought-provoking element that helped the viewer through most of it, but in Fear of the Daleks, even that is denied to the listener. This is Doctor Who, not just by numbers, but boiled down to single digits, if you follow my meaning.

The story mainly boils down to the Daleks attempting to contrive a devastating war between two aggrieved races who are trying to make peace with each other, and little else. Any possible complication or mystery that could have made the story more substantial is neglected at every turn in favour of sub-standard ‘B movie’-like pantomime melodrama and lazy run-arounds, highlighted by the fact that the Doctor and his friends are whisked away to a direct confrontation with the enemy almost immediately after arriving. The so-called ‘mad scientist’ Atrikar himself is a poor and stupid villain, who is an incidental plot device at best, used to force the TARDIS crew into their dilemma, and also to easily resolve it at the end.

Furthermore, this has to be the weakest Dalek appearance in any official Doctor Who fiction that I’ve ever experienced. There is no tension, suspense, or even mystery; they are very quickly identified by the script as the main culprits of this conspiracy, and wheeled out later on to artificially contrive dramatic tension, when the assassination plot is stretched too thinly to carry the listeners’ interest. Rather than give the Daleks a big dramatic entrance in light of how much the script revels in the wake of The Evil of the Daleks’ climatic showdown, you get the impression that this is very much business as usual, and the Doctor comes off looking a much weaker and ineffectual hero as a result, due to how much emphasis Patrick Chapman puts on the Doctor’s belief in the Daleks’ “final end”. So in effect, Chapman is choosing to ignore the immediate continuity that he himself chose to acknowledge and highlight at the beginning of the story, or at the very least, is guilty of not using it to the benefit of its dramatic potential, beyond the Doctor going, “oops, I’ve got it wrong again”. If the Doctor himself is a weaker character, then the villain, Atrikar, is doubly so, just by being outwitted by him.

However, the problem with the script’s overall characterisation is far more than just wasted potential for the development of drama and character; it’s poorly written in general. The characterisation of the 2nd Doctor feels basic, generic and clichéd. He gets easily alarmed, shouts out his remembered catchphrases, and makes fun of his opponents. However, there’s no hint at all of the clever and wily intelligence that was often a key part of Patrick Troughton’s subtle, yet lively performance. Patrick Chapman also gives him some slightly bizarre things to say too, like saying how much he likes another genius aboard the TARDIS, for instance. I mean who would really say that, let alone the Doctor, and the humble and sensitive 2nd Doctor at that. I also can’t imagine him rebuking Zoe for being frightened, by complaining about her giving a “much a to-do”, both in the style of dialogue delivered, as well as the action.

Zoe too feels dumbed down and erroneous in character. Sure, we know Zoe is clever, but the script ham-fistedly harps on about it as if that was all there was too her and all subtlety and complexity is thrown out of the window. The rest of the time, Zoe feels like as if Chapman is writing Victoria Waterfield instead, always nervous, and often petrified, without the strong confidence and bravery that was present during Zoe’s TV episodes. Jamie however, gets the worst deal of the leading characters. He hardly features, and gets a few stereotypical one-note lines that do him no favours whatsoever. Sure, Jamie was mostly a thin character by modern standards, but there was always more to him than this. He doesn’t even get to fulfil his usual role as the action man, but then again, I suppose he’s not an easy character to write for, given his limitations as a simple man, Scottish background aside. Still, I’m sure could have made more of an effort with him than this.

The villains are handled even worse. The Daleks just trot out their usual catchphrases, and the script even seems to go to great trouble to show them up as being weak and stupid, rather than the cunning, clever and manipulative personas that we see in all their best appearances. Atrikar is also a complete joke of a villain. Assured of success, he boasts of his plans, and is completely blinded to the Daleks’ true nature, despite Chapman’s obvious headlining of this in dialogue during a scene that occurs right in front of Atrikar, which heavily undermines him further. He does come to his senses eventually, but only after 30 minutes of obvious clues, which is another thing that makes the audio come across as a dire and painful listen. The narrative takes ages to go anywhere, and contrives to delay any real dramatic or character development, so that it can include a run-around in a spaceship, and maybe even disguise that is a plot that could have been easily foiled in just 15 minutes flat. When the story reaches its final climax, I can’t really care about the dilemma or dramatic tension anymore, because of both how long it took to get there, and the fact that both Atrikar and the plot are so contrived, that I find them utterly unconvincing.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, Patrick Chapman, commits to audio, some of the most appalling and amateurish dialogue. These include such scriptural disasters as, “cabal of subversives”, “talking of sartorial lapses, be quiet skirt boy!”, and not forgetting, “Didn’t they teach you anything in Universal Domination School?” If I didn’t know better, I would say this was the writing of a ten year old. Now, if the story had had the imagination of a ten year old too, then that wouldn’t have been so bad, in fact it may have been quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, Fear of the Daleks doesn’t, or at least not in the script. As Patrick Chapman is himself a writer of many children’s’ fiction and television programmes, so in a way, a lot of this makes sense, but on the basis of Fear of the Daleks I dread to think of what his writing efforts for adults are like. Then again, maybe it was another case of someone confusing Doctor Who as being ‘just for kids’. It doesn’t take much examination and study of even just the 1960s Doctor Who episodes to discover that this is not the case, and there always was more to the programme, than more casual viewers would have you believe.

So, it begs the question “is there actually anything good to like about Fear of the Daleks?” There are a couple of things fortunately, even if that isn’t a ringing endorsement of this audio. Firstly, I like the idea of Atrikar’s mind machine, which can telepathically transmit a person’s consciousness across space, and allow it to have a physical presence, so that a character could indeed be in two places at once. It’s a brilliant futuristic idea, the like of which often sprung up throughout 1960s and early 1970s Doctor Who, and is probably the only nostalgic element that works and successfully fulfils its creative potential. The idea of the Daleks trying to trigger an intergalactic war, to help strategically weaken its opponents, while being an old one, is still a very strong plot concept that can work brilliantly in the right hands, and is still far from being tired. Although Patrick Chapman fails to handle it effectively, it is at least the beginnings of a good storyline, even if it didn’t work out well in the end.

The other good aspect of Fear of the Daleks is the strong performance of its small cast. Wendy Padbury holds her own here, even if it ends up in vain, with such a poor script. The actress puts in a great effort, despite the weak characterisation, to help give both the 2nd Doctor and Zoe more accurate and believable personas. Padbury’s Troughton mannerisms are very good indeed, and she also makes Zoe sound young again. Nicholas Briggs also brings his consummate vocal skills as a Dalek voice artist to the audio, and definitely livens up the production a great deal in places, despite the padded script. In fact Nick Briggs’ Dalek vocals are always a joy to listen to, even when the rest of the story is an absolute disaster, maybe even more so, in fact.

It’s a great shame then that the rest of the production doesn’t quite live up to the high quality of the acting performances either. The direction is ok, but hardly stands out, but what really disappointed me was the weak and poor soundtrack. There’s very little sound design to be heard, and the music feels so tired, clichéd and bored, that I’m certain, as an amateur composer myself, that even I could have done better on this one. Considering that Lawrence Oakley did a fairly good job on Frostfire, one hopes this is merely a misstep.

In short then, Fear of the Daleks is as complete a disaster as Big Finish audios have come close to since they first begun in 1999. Despite a couple of good ideas, wonderful acting, and a lots of potential, it is an audio full of tired clichés, padding, amateurish scriptwriting and weak characterisation, the likes of which I hope to never encounter again. I can say for certain, that the majority of the blame can be put at the door of the writer Patrick Chapman, given that the script is where all the big problems stem from. Given the usual stellar standard of Big Finish’s work, it seems that Fear of the Daleks was a timely lesson and reminder, in how not to write Doctor Who. For other listeners of Big Finish audios, I would strongly advise them to avoid this release. I certainly will be in future.

Score: 2/10

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