Picture the scene. It’s early on in an alternative 2009 where Big Finish has already got the license to modern Doctor Who and is making a fourth full series for the Tenth Doctor before David Tennant gives up the role going into the new year.
There will be a few television specials through the year, but after Planet of the Dead on 11th April, the fandom will be feverishly anticipating a full 13-episode audio series with the current Doctor. Except the Radio Times has only listed nine episodes with the current Doctor, with episodes one to four without cast details. Then, a present from the troves of times, it is announced the Fourth Doctor will be appearing in ‘NuWho’ in a prequel story that sets up the latest adventures of the current Doctor, and that Tom Baker will be returning to play the iconic role.
Severe storms means few are dining out in the United Kingdom on the evening of Monday 13th April, and so cometh a record audience figure for BBC Radio 7’s 6:30pm slot as a brand new Doctor Who story appears between Journey into Space and The Goon Show on the schedule. The Fourth Doctor, Leela and K-9 return in The Dalek Protocol.
There are grinning faces across the nation as the theme kicks in and we are taken back to 1977…
Back to 2021.
The Dalek Protocol begins by introducing us to Mark Seven, a famous Terry Nation creation who is an android but also a hero of the human race for his continuous fight against the Daleks as part of the Space Security Service.
We encounter Mark working in a security position on the planet Exxilon, last seen in Third Doctor TV story Death to the Daleks, which is imagined very effectively with some brilliant sound design by Benji Clifford.
What brings the Doctor and Leela to Exxilon is an error on the Doctor’s part as he allows his companion to choose where they should go, and he has to steer the TARDIS far enough into Exxilon’s future to avoid its previous Dalek-related troubles. As it’s clear by the title of this release, the Daleks are an ever-present threat.
Through the first half of this four-episode story we only get glimpses of the Dalek threat, instead having writer (as well as director, native Exxilon Bellal, and the voice of human Barnard and the Daleks) Nicholas Briggs divulge in possibly his favourite planet in all of Doctor Who history and its local population and politics.
Most of the Exxilon interactions come with their elected leader Bellal, of Death to the Daleks fame, and Gislen. They act as two sides of the same coin in trying to best represent their people’s interests, with Gislen the dark side to Bellal’s light in a far more binary way than how good and bad is represented between the human colony on the planet and the Daleks. Gislen’s presence, and the consequences of being either side of that coin, grow throughout the story.
For those who have seen Exxilon’s appearance on television, then you’ll find this straight sequel to that tale fairly similar, with a beacon draining the planet of its energy, the Exxilons shooting arrows at anyone they find threatening, and the Doctor being action hero, diplomat, and doom-bringer all in one.
And therefore it’s crucial that there is an added element: that of Mark Seven and fellow SSS agent Anya Kingdom.
Those two come into their own in the second episode, while the Doctor and Leela busy themselves in getting down with the Exxilons via surrendering and then having a kind-of reunion with Bellal who doesn’t recognise the Doctor since he has regenerated.
But Anya does recognise the Doctor from her past, and while both her and Mark are working together, they are on separate secret missions with different levels of security clearance that leaves them both having to second-guess the motives behind each other’s actions and makes it even harder for Anya to stay out of the way of a Doctor who hasn’t met her yet. That culminates at the halfway point of the story with a shocking cliffhanger.
The plot speeds along into an exit from Exxilon via the humans’ spaceship Thunderbolt in Episode Three, with the Doctor and Leela gassed so they can come along too, which comes as some surprise for them and the listener when they awake as the TARDIS and K9 are still on the planet.
By this point, they are closer to Anya than ever before, and so begins a complicated set of disguises and engineering of circumstances to ensure she doesn’t cross paths with the Doctor while also trying to get him to help her fend off an impending Dalek threat as Mark Seven goes loco.
These scenes in particular are a treat, for listeners new or familiar to Anya, as Jane Slavin adds a subtle but increasingly emotional performance as the story goes on, and her interrogation of the Doctor without facing him is also supported by a brilliant music score.
The Fourth Doctor spends much of the story until this point being pretty mobile, so to slow him down physically for this segment also slows down his quips and enables Tom Baker to match Slavin in their scenes together. Which is no surprise, given the reason Slavin got the role of Anya was because of her relationship with Baker.
Of course, having a slow-down moment like that takes the listener off the edge, making it perfect timing to then hit them with chaos and destruction and Daleks!
It’s a very well-worked full introduction into the plot for the main villains, and it then goes into full speed because there’s still lots of unanswered questions from earlier in the story to be solved while the fight with the Daleks begins. Genuinely, it feels as if it would fit into the 2009 specials ‘series’ on television because, through Episodes Two and Three, it hits the dramatic beats of classic Russell T Davies episodes from the Tenth Doctor era.
The second half of Episode Three is absolutely brilliant, but enters a lot of spoiler territory that this review won’t cover (which links back to some 1960s Doctor Who too). And it all builds up into a dramatic cliffhanger.
An even bigger cliffhanger comes after that in Episode Four, which, if you’re listening to the episode on its own, would be odd, but, when enjoyed as a two-hour epic, feels well placed. The main cast are on top form now, clearly totally energised by the script, and the music and sound design support them in what becomes more and more like a TV special rather than a serialised radio drama.
All in all, it is the character moments that win out for enjoyment over the action, particularly when Anya meets Leela again late on, and while this was produced long before Dalek Universe came to be, it definitely ramps up the anticipation for the series. It’s a perfect way to introduce a larger project that one expects takes all the ambitious bits of this piece and ramp them up several notches — and has probably been aided itself by its sales switch to being a Dalek Universe release rather than a Fourth Doctor Adventures tale.
Dalek Universe: The Dalek Protocol is available now from Big Finish.