REVIEW: “Doctor Who: Dalek Universe 1”

If there are two things I feel are overused in current Doctor Who expanded universe material, it’s the Tenth Doctor and the Daleks. So, it’s kind of weird that I’d find myself so excited for Dalek Universe, the newest series of Tenth Doctor audio boxsets from Big Finish Productions. Truth is, I’m interested in it because it reminds me a bit of the (infamously missing) First Doctor story, “The Daleks’ Masterplan.” That story was, partially, an attempt to flesh out the Dalek universe, introducing The Space Security Service, multiple planets/governments, and a universe that’s constantly at war with the Daleks. It’s one of those Doctor Who things that has always begged for further exploration, and it’s bonkers to think that the show has never really returned to it. This is why it was so exciting to see Big Finish leaning into it as hard as they are with Dalek Universe. This first volume of Dalek Universe feels like a prelude for stories to come. It’s an exciting, sweeping space opera that reintroduces elements from Classic Who into the world of New Who. It features fantastic sci-fi ideas, David Tennant’s best Big Finish performance to date, and a captivating throughline that makes me eager to hear the rest of the series. Plus, if you’re like me and a bit tired of the Daleks, then fret not. The Daleks barely appear in this. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

NOTE: There will be minor spoilers for Dalek Universe 1. Nothing major is spoiled, but read at your own risk.

Doctor Who: Dalek Universe 1
(written by John Dorney and Andrew Smith)
Time has gone awry. The Doctor is lost, without his TARDIS. But he’s not alone. The Space Security Service agents Anya Kingdom and Mark Seven haven’t always been on his side in the past, but now they are here to help him. And he’s going to need them – because the oldest foes of all are waiting to strike. Ready to take down their greatest enemy…

Buying Time” and “The Wrong Woman” (by John Dorney)

Full stop: These first two stories combined are my favorite Big Finish stories in quite some time. It’s one two-part story, and it’s as delightful an opening two-parter as Series 6’s “The Impossible Astronaut” / “Day of the Moon” is. In this story, Anya Kingdom (Jane Slavin) and the Space Security Service are investigating a crashed spaceship on an obscure jungle planet when they come across the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), who’s been pulled out of his proper time and stranded without his TARDIS. To solve this mystery, the Doctor, Anya, and Mark Seven (Joe Sims) investigate George Sheldrake (Mark Gatiss), a businessman on the verge of introducing consumer time travel to the public. Naturally, it all falls apart from there in true Doctor Who fashion. 

The first chunk of “Buying Time” feels a bit like its title suggests, with Dorney slowly setting up the story. Quite a bit of time is spent on Mira (the jungle planet), reestablishing the characters of Anya, Mark Seven, and the Doctor, and their relationships with each other. Some of this will be confusing to new listeners as the characters share an oft-referenced but hardly explained past (the internet tells me this is explored in some Fourth Doctor audios from a few years ago), but Dorney provides enough context to mostly keep viewers up to speed with things. It’s just that certain emotional beats don’t land as well without that prior knowledge. Still, it’s nice that Dorney takes this time to slowly reintroduce the characters and build up the boxset’s premise before fully jumping into things. Because, man, once this story gets going, it doesn’t stop.

Once the crew gets to 41st century Earth and starts investigating Sheldrake, the first episode careens towards an explosive, breathtaking cliffhanger that sets the second episode down a completely exciting and unexpected path. I don’t want to say much more than that for fear of spoiling the fun, but if you imagine a mixture of “The Stolen Earth” and “The Wedding of River Song,” you’ll have an idea of what to expect. It’s rip-roaring fun, brilliantly setting up a compelling story for the rest of the series while still including a lot of superb character moments—the Tenth Doctor’s conversations with Gemma Whelan’s “Newcomer” are equal parts heartbreaking and revealing, and are the highlights of the whole story. It’s not perfect—the second episode’s conclusion doesn’t work super well in an audio-only medium and Sheldrake could’ve used more development—but it’s hard to imagine a better opening story. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

The House of Kingdom” (by Andrew Smith)

If the first two episodes were akin to “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon,” then this one is like “The Curse of the Black Spot.” It’s the calmer episode that comes directly after the action-packed opener that primes you for what’s to come. Picking up where the previous episode ended, the mystery of how the Doctor was removed from his proper time has been solved, but now he, Anya, and Mark Seven have to figure out how to return him to where he belongs. Complicating matters is the discovery of a Dalek inside the Doctor’s most logical means of escape. So, the gang goes off in search of a scientist they hope can help them and accidentally uncover a conspiracy involving Anya’s grandfather, a space station, a rogue Space Security Service agent, and a deadly plant.

Compared to the first two episodes, “The House of Kingdom” is a quieter, more intimate affair. Yes, there’s the backdrop of this bigger conspiracy and the quest to get the Doctor back to his TARDIS, but the episode mainly focuses on Anya’s relationship with her grandfather—a relationship that’s frayed in the wake of losing her aunt and uncle (in “The Daleks’ Masterplan”) and her mother to the Daleks. On the surface, there’s nothing really wrong with this. Anya is a fascinating and engaging character and I appreciate the nuances found in her relationship with her grandfather. But it’s a weird episode to end the boxset with, especially after such an explosive beginning. The conspiracy plotline is never super interesting, nor does it go anywhere, leaving the episode feeling like the definition of a “middle episode.” It deepens the characters and the world without doing much to further the overarching story. And that’s fine, but I wish it wasn’t the episode that ended the boxset.

Still—there’s a lot to like. Anya’s character work is excellent. There’s a lot of truly fascinating worldbuilding. I love how important the Space Security Service seems to be to Dalek Universe. There are rogue agents trying to fight the Daleks, there are all of these weird conspiracies and shady businessmen, there’s the return of Classic Who things (like the Varga plant, a key element of “The Daleks’ Masterplan) and it’s just so much fun. I love that this feels like a big, enthralling space opera. I love all of the different storytelling avenues this opens for the next two box sets. I love that it uses the Daleks very sparingly, allowing their threat to build more gradually. Plus, it solidifies what the structure of this series is gonna be—a quest to return the Doctor to his time while also stopping whatever the Daleks are up to. “The House of Kingdom” may not be the most exciting episode, but it’s a solid one that lays a lot of necessary groundwork for the future. Plus—it ends on a pretty killer cliffhanger. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, Doctor Who: Dalek Universe 1 is an exciting first installment in the Dalek Universe series. It’s a beautiful marriage of elements from both eras of Doctor Who, giving David Tennant’s Doctor the chance to have the kind of space opera adventures afforded to some of the Classic Doctors. I adore the opportunity to revisit the Space Security Service (and the Kingdom family) and I really enjoy getting a nice, lengthy look at a futuristic society in the Doctor Who universe. Rarely do we get to see this kind of epic, world-spanning space opera story on screen, so I’m just happy to get it on audio. The performances throughout this boxset are excellent—with special kudos to David Tennant, Gemma Whelan, and Jane Slavin. I’m excited for David Tennant to get a Big Finish series that actually feels like a season of the TV show and I cannot wait to see where this series goes. It’s an exciting breath of fresh air and, believe it or not, it’s got me interested in seeing what the Daleks are up to again. While there’s a surprising lack of Daleks (they appear in one scene at the end of the second episode), you can still feel their looming threat. And I’m eager to find out their plans. And that’s pretty high praise, indeed.

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