Matthew Kresal heads to the theatre, via Big Finish Productions, for a performance of the first ever Doctor Who spin-off.
Today, the idea of Doctor Who spin-offs not featuring the Doctor isn't anything new. There are novels and audio dramas based on characters and elements from across the series, not including TV spin-offs like Torchwood. Yet few people are aware that fifty years ago on the 21st of December 1965, the very first Doctor Who spin-off came to life on the London stage in the form of The Curse Of The Daleks. The show closed on January 15th 1966 and was never performed again, and had been largely lost in the mists of time, until Big Finish Productions re-staged it for audio in 2008 with strong results.
The thing to keep in mind going into The Curse Of The Daleks is that it was written fifty years ago. There's a saying that nothing quite dates like visions of the future and this is no exception. The script by Doctor Who's original head-writer David Whitaker and Dalek creator Terry Nation comes across as utterly dated, even by the standards that 1960s Doctor Who is judged by. Even more so than many of the TV stories from the era, it has the, at times, uncomfortable feeling of being a product of its time with very casual sexism being apparent throughout. Dating even more is some of the “science” and jargon used from a future where cassette tape is still the height of recording technology, you can't boil water at light speed due to it being a fire risk and spaceships communicate with a “radio-pic machine.” As part of Big Finish's objective of doing the stage plays on audio, they chose to be as faithful as possible to the original scripts so all of this is presented. It is to Nicholas Briggs credit as adapter and director that he leaves it in, preserving it for posterity despite how uncomfortable it might be for a modern audience.
It must be said though that, moving beyond the dated aspects of the script, it's actually not badly written at all. For at its heart, The Curse Of The Daleks is really a science fiction take on the stage thriller genre as the crew and passengers of the spaceship Starfinder (including two criminals on their way to Earth to stand trial for their crimes) are forced to land on the Dalek home world of Skaro some fifty years after the Daleks were defeated and left immobilized. Only someone amongst them is keen on bringing the Daleks back to life and will stop at almost nothing to make it so. The result is an interesting mystery but also one that, due to featuring an isolated group of humans with no communications with Earth and the threat of Daleks being given power to terrorize them, pre-echoes Whitaker's script for Patrick Troughton's debut story The Power Of The Daleks the following year. For that reason, it is of historical interest at least for fans as well as telling an intriguing mystery tale in its own right.
Moving beyond the script, there's plenty to recommend Big Finish's audio re-staging. Nicholas Briggs does a superb job filling his various roles in the production as both performer and behind the scenes. As well as supplying the various Dalek voices to his usual high standard, Briggs also acts as narrator to fill in some of the more visual aspects that would be difficult to otherwise get across. He proves to be an excellent narrator, avoiding the cliches of either being monotone or overly dramatic but finding the right balance between the two. Briggs does just as well behind the scenes handling the sound design and music superbly, with the music echoing some of the best 1960s Who work of the Radiophonic Workshop and creating the feeling not of a stage play but perhaps of that unmade third Dalek film from the era.
The cast is strong as well, often making the best out of the script. Michael Praed is cast as Ladiver, a former space pilot turned criminal who becomes the prime suspect as events unfold, and is perfectly cast as an ambiguous character while sounding all the while like a gruffer Paul McGann. Derek Carlyle is another piece of perfect casting, coming across as the slimy criminal Harry Sline. John Line, who played Ladiver in the original 1965 production, plays the elder Professor Vanderlyn here and does well in a role that's quite heavy on technobabble. Bringing some of the slighter more cliched characters to life are the trio of actors playing the Starfinder's crew (Patric Kearns as Captain Redway, Nick Wilton as “Rocket Smith” and James George as Bob Slater) plus Beth Chalmers and Denise Hoey in the female supporting roles, who perform admirably given the script. Indeed, the entire cast should be complimented on bringing their characters to life despite issues involving stiff dialogue and other aforementioned items.
In the end, The Curse Of The Daleks is a number of different things. It's a presentation that has saved for posterity a performance of the first Doctor Who connected stage play from a half century ago complete with all of its faults. It also highlights some of the extraordinary people at Big Finish both in front and behind the microphone who help bring their stories to life. Above all else, it at last gives fans a chance to experience a Dalek story long lost to all but a handful who saw it on stage during a few weeks in 1965-66. It's time travel in its purest form and something that one suspects the Doctor would approve of wholeheartedly.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.