Tony Fyler hems and haws.
It’s rare that I come to the end of a Big Finish Doctor Who audio without a firm opinion about it, one way, the other, or in subtle cases, the other other.
We are the Daleks, by Jonathan Morris – hmm.
On the one hand, I can definitely see what’s been attempted here – a story that fills in some gaps in Dalek history, from Evil of the Daleks to the reason, for instance, that in Remembrance of the Daleks, the Daleks use a child to integrate with their battle computer, and how, come to that, it was OK for the Doctor to blow Skaro to smithereens when that was where the Thals lived too, all the way through in the very last line to explaining the most ludicrous notion from Asylum of the Daleks: Daleks with a democracy, a parliament, and a Prime Minister – yes, there’s an explanation for that here. And there’s something inherently chuckleworthy about the ambition of all that, there really is. There’s also something breathtaking about the way We Are The Daleks has been conceived and delivered – when Remembrance was written and shot, it was actually 1988, and it took us back 25 years to the beginnings of Doctor Who in 1963. Now it’s 2015, and We Are The Daleks takes us back in the same way, 25 years, to the year before Remembrance hit screens – 1987, to find the tin-plated pepper pots invading in a very 80s way, with yuppies, investment portfolios and giant skyscrapers in the financial heart of London.
Now as far as that goes, that’s fine – there’s plenty enough to satirise about the 80s, and the idea that the Daleks would have fitted in jussssst fine and dandy to a world run by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan is in itself fairly comical. But my word, We Are The Daleks takes its own social satire seriously. Big glooping spoonfulls of ‘these people are the kind of nasty, pernicious, unfeeling slime the Daleks would appeal to’ are ladeled into your ears at almost every turn, from the outright human villains of the piece, who indeed were that kind of person, through to everyone within a radius of the financial heart of London, the suggestion being that they need just a little brain adjustment to start acting like Daleks. It’s a message that seems to say ‘everyone in the 80s was just a Dalek waiting to happen – that’s how pernicious the political ideology of the leading parties was.’
That’s dangerous ground to play on. Were the leaders of the big free market economies exactly the kinds of people the Doctor would love to take down? Yes, undoubtedly. Were their philosophies emotionally stunted? Yes, arguably – Sylvester McCoy and others are on record as saying there was a left-wing political agenda to the show in his day, in stories like The Happiness Patrol. The difference, probably, is that there’s enough going on in The Happiness Patrol to detract from the over-the-head beating of the political message.
Not really so much here. It’s particularly noticeable when even the Doctor seems to be in on the writer’s joke – declaring at one point that ‘there’s no longer any such thing as Dalek society – only individual Daleks!’ It’s just a touch too neon, too ‘Look, look! This is what I’m doing!’ A tiny bit too heavy-handed to work, because it shows too much of its wiring to the audience.
This sort of thing has been done before with much better effect – on screen, for instance, Remembrance of the Daleks tackled the unpalatable side of the sixties with its racial purity politics, and in audio, Big Finish did the same thing beautifully in the First Doctor Companion Chronicle An Ordinary Life, stranding 60s companions Steven and Sara in a London bristling with racial tension stoked by locals less than happy about incomers of different skin colours than their own.
Am I arguing that the point it’s making is particularly wrong? Actually, no – we’d live in a different, and probably objectively ‘better’ world now if the Doctor had brought down leaders of the 80s who made ‘society’ a dirty word, and yes, it’s distinctly arguable that the unfettered free market ideologies of the 80s, the inheritors of which we live within today, are as fundamentally flawed as the colour prejudice of the 60s, to which the show drew attention in both Remembrance and An Ordinary Life. It’s very possible that viewers and listeners of the future will see them that way. But it’s also very arguable that we’re not there yet – at least, not in the mainstream, making the political message of We Are The Daleks something palatable only to those of us unafraid in the2010s to define ourselves as Socialists. It’s a message that could have been delivered with a good deal more subtlety, and as a more observation-based piece of work, it would probably have won more fans than it will as it stands.
But then, perhaps it’s me who’s missing the point – asking a story determined to show the worst of the 80s for subtlety, when the 80s was a decade most remembered for relegating subtlety to the slag heap.
If you have an immediate, visceral reaction to it, We Are The Daleks is probably a love-it-or-hate-it story, one that either hits the nail of the 80s on the head, or misses it completely, depending on your own view of the decade (and very possibly, whether or not you lived through it, and if you did, what your income level was). Me? I’m conflicted, my emotional, Socialistic heart loving it for what it’s trying to say, and for the love letters to several great and less-great Dalek stories. My intellectual, listening brain just wishes it had been delivered with more subtlety, more storytelling nous (which I know Jonathan Morris possesses – he’s got a great CV) and more overall polish. It ends up feeling most like Destiny of the Daleks – a great idea, but the Daleks look badly used, and badly maintained due to a lack of love and care.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk