When Big Finish announced the details for their first batch of 2007 releases, my interest was piqued by this four-parter. The word 'Dalek' in a story's title is always a great attention-grabber, but it was actually the name Christopher H. Bidmead that really made me raise an eyebrow. To the best of my knowledge, "Renaissance of the Daleks" marks the first involvement of Doctor Who's former script editor with Big Finish productions, and I certainly hope it isn't the last.
Curiously though, the cover reads 'From a story by' Christopher H. Bidmead rather than the usual 'by.' The CD booklet only serves to fuel the intrigue further by saying that "Chris felt that changes made during the script editing process meant that he could not lay claim to being its sole writer," yet nowhere on the packaging does it mention who actually wrote the script! It really made me wonder if we're dealing with another 'Robin Bland' situation?
On listening to the play, the whole four episodes have Nicholas Briggs written all over them, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jason Haigh-Ellery and Sharon Gosling had also contributed their two penneth. However, 'From a story by' certainly rings true as the plot of "Renaissance of the Daleks" is textbook Bidmead. In fact, this serial borrows a little bit of something from all at least two of the TV stories that Bidmead penned, if not all three. The theory of Block Transfer Computation is integral to the plot, as is Gary Russell's concept of the 'multiverse.'
When the Doctor visits Earth in 2158, he is surprised to find out that the Daleks haven't invaded. Somehow the TARDIS has crossed a time track and ended up in a reality where the Daleks didn't invade; at least, they haven't invaded yet. However, this isn't quite a 'parallel' universe as it converges with our own.
"An Island of Time, carved out of the Dimensional Nullity."
It is in Parts Three and Four that Bidmead's presence is felt the most. In this extra-dimensional nullity outside of time and space the Daleks are preparing to invade Earth. The script describes a city, literally in the middle of nowhere, built entirely from Daleks, stacked one on top of the other higher than one can see. It's certainly an imposing image, doubly impressive on audio.
"What am I thinking? Well I've got a TARDIS full of strangers and, er, yes the TARDIS has been locked on course to an undisclosed destination by a couple of toy Daleks. That's what I'm thinking, Nyssa."
The Daleks' plan, however, borders on the absurd. I say 'borders on' because although it is outlandish, it does have merit. Many people will scoff at the idea of 'Nanodaleks' (essentially, just animated Toy Daleks) but they do have that same kind of creepy edge to them that the infamous Troll Doll in "Terror of the Autons" had, for example. Bidmead (if indeed he came up with this part of the plot) is playing with the same sort of idea that Rob Shearman tapped into with "Jubilee." If the Daleks are debased, belittled and dismissed as mere 'toys', then when they inevitably emerge as their true Machiavellian selves they are twice as fearsome.
The Gralish is also a remarkable creation ? a Dalek who does not realise that he is a Dalek. The spearhead of the whole Dalek scheme, and yet he envisages himself as 'impartial,' neither on the side of the Doctor or the Daleks.
"Your are an outsider, meddling in the shape of the Time Tracks."
To me though, the most interesting aspect of the whole story is the Doctor's attitude towards the 'proper' timeline. As early as in Part One, General Tillington realises that the Doctor is going to want to restore what he perceives to be the 'correct' course of history even if it sees the Earth occupied by the Daleks. The Gralish makes an excellent point in that were it not for the Doctor's interference, the Dalek occupation of Earth may never have been thwarted, and so who is to say that the Doctor's version of history is the correct one? After all, the Doctor wields his Time Lord powers not only recklessly, but with such alarming frequency that he has incurred the wrath of his own people on multiple occasions. As such, is what the Doctor perceives to be the 'proper' timeline necessarily the right one?
In the end the Doctor manages to convince the Gralish to sacrifice himself to save the day, and in doing so the Doctor's 'proper' timeline is restored. Tillington knew that this would happen and, deep down, I'm sure that the Doctor did too. In the long run the 'proper' timeline is worse for the Daleks, but in the short term it is immediately obvious that a lot of people who were alive and well are now dead or enslaved as Wilton ? General Tillington's spy on board the TARDIS ? suddenly vanishes from the console room. History resets itself and the Doctor and Nyssa move on. This is Doctor Who at its best ? no easy answers.
Having recently heard Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton performing together so wonderfully in "Circular Time," in this four-parter the two leads seem to pick up precisely where they left off and once again give stellar performances. William Hope is also worthy of mention in his much-hyped role of General Tillington, and Richie Campbell as Floyd also impressed me. Sadly, I could barely stand to listen to Regina Reagan as Alice; it was just painful. I'm talking 'Becky Lee' "Minuet In Hell" painful.
"Renaissance of the Daleks" also marks a renaissance of sorts for Big Finish, being the first monthly release to feature the new cover design. Unfortunately, on this occasion Alex Mallinson's cover art is decidedly bland. Until I actually held the CD in my hand, I didn't even realise that the cover design boasted any Daleks ? they're far too small to see on the thumbnail pictures online. That said, I can't argue that overall the new design is definitely much more pleasing to the eye, and the CD booklets are certainly much improved ? it's amazing what difference a dash of colour and a bit of modernisation makes. As with last month's "Nocturne" and the eighth Doctor BBC7 CDs, we're again treated to 'CD Extras' that look like they're going to become a regular feature. I know that a lot of Big Finish subscribers (myself included) have long been lobbying for such 'special features', and I for one am pleased with both the quality and quantity of the extras now included on the releases.
In summary "Renaissance of the Daleks" is good, but not as fantastic as I thought it would be. Perhaps I was expecting another all-time classic from Bidmead; perhaps I'm just a little too hard on stories that I get overly excited about pre-release and so they can never really live up to my lofty expectations. Stories like "The Time of the Daleks" that I've absolutely hammered in the past have now grown on me a fair bit, and so it's likely that my opinion of this story will improve with repeated listening. For now though, I'll just say this:
It's no "Logopolis."