Big Finish's latest subscriber-only release, 'Return of the Daleks', sees a welcome crossover between the Dalek Empire series and the main Doctor Who range, as the Seventh Doctor meets Kalendorf and Susan Mendes on the planet Zaleria. The story is clearly a labour of love for writer and director Nicholas Briggs, who also revisits some continuity from the television series adding an element of fanwank, but to rather satisfying effect. Whereas the Dalek Empire series revisited the Dalek stories of the sixties in spirit and in occasional references, 'Return of the Daleks' draws upon the seventies Dalek stories, with appearances by the Ogrons and a return visit to the frozen Dalek army on the planet Spiridon. Given how bad 'Planet of the Daleks actually was, Briggs' effective use of plot threads from the story works extremely well, and the story builds up to the revelation of what Zaleria really is very nicely; the Daleks' mysterious tests on the Zalerians suddenly fall into place with mention of the ice volcanos.?
Crossovers of any kind are always in danger of benefiting the characters from one series at the cost of the other (witness Sherlock Holmes paying second fiddle to the Doctor in 'All-Consuming Fire'). Briggs also does a good job of maintaining the balance: the Doctor ultimately defeats the Daleks, offering to cure lightwave sickness and ending up spending several years working for them until he is in a position to strike, but he does this because he is all too aware of the importance to history of Kalendorf and Suz. They also get plenty to do here: their relationship is at its most turbulent, with Kalendorf reluctant to confide in her and Suz asking, "You don't trust me anymore, do you?", whilst Suz herself is in her overconfident phase, getting lippy with the Daleks and receiving a broken arm from an Ogron for her troubles. Briggs gives her an especially memorable scene in which she tells the Daleks, "You can break every bone in my body but I won't stand by?" only to cave in when an Ogron inflicts more pain on her. The Daleks are at their most sadistic here: when she asks the Daleks what they'll do if she refuses to cooperate, one of them ominously replies, "Our records indicate that you have extensive knowledge of the Daleks. Need you ask us that question, Susan Mendez?" It also gloats, "It is clear that you are afraid, that you are in pain" and in display of psychology common in the Dalek Empire series, it manages to frighten her into telling them where Kalendorf is.?
The cast is very good here. Sylvester McCoy's recent performances for Big Finish have been rather variable, but after some hammy talking to himself in the opening scenes he once again working without companions he recaptures some of the darkness and restraint he brought to the role in 'Excelis Decays', 'Master', and 'Project: Lazarus'. This is especially obvious when the Doctor is grimly talking to Kalendorf, and later when he uncomfortably realises, "I thought I wasn't meant to interfere, but that can't be right." Gareth Thomas and Sarah Mowat meanwhile effortlessly reprise their roles as Kalendorf and Suz. Thomas is especially good at conveying Kalendorf's mixture of confusion and anger when, knowing the pair's importance to history, the Doctor capitulates when the Daleks threaten to kill them. ?
Slotting neatly into the middle of Dalek Empire, 'Return of the Daleks' succeeds in telling a good story in its own right whilst feeling like part of something greater, especially with Skerrill's grim voice-over, recalling the events being heard, providing an epic, almost mythic tone, especially at the end when she tells us that the Doctor spends years working with the Daleks. Overall, the story bodes well for the forthcoming Short Trips: Dalek Empire anthology. Perhaps more importantly, with a tightly focused script and a sensible, satisfying use of continuity, it bodes well for the Big Finish Doctor Who range as a whole, coming as it does on the eve of Nicholas Briggs tenure as new producer of the series?