This box set consists of 2 adventures, ‘The Foe from the Future,’ and ‘The Valley of Death.’ Both follow the format of the show as it was in this Baker era, usually 4 or 6 episodes of 25 minutes each, complete with cliffhangers and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s theme music. For more on Big Finish, see here.
I came to this ‘origins’ adventure with expectations that this would be a pathos filled tale of a scientist whose perhaps good principles are corrupted and through a series of terrible accidents becomes a monster. Superhero and sci-fi and other genre tales are full of such tragic falls from grace. They are what makes the resulting uber-villain or monster so compelling. From Batman’s Two-Face to Dr Jekyll, such stories abound. In recognising the humanity in the monster, we recognise a little of the monstrous in ourselves.
With the Davros in this series, however, there is no such light and shade. None to speak of anyway. Davros starts in Part 1, “Innocence,” as a cynical and sadistic and sociopathic child, and really just degenerates further from that. It’s just a descent from one kind of moral darkness to another. As such, although there is much to thrill and entertain in this series, it did not quite have the impact I hoped for.
The whole thing is explicitly and knowingly framed in an “I Claudius ” world of a dysfunctional, powerful family, ruled over by a scheming matriarch, Lady Calcula, Carolyn Jones here channelling SIan Phillip’s Livia. As in Robert Graves tale and the BBC drama, the good characters are culled ruthlessly by a cynical elite. It’s framed in such a world but this is very much the Skaro heading towards the blasted Hell of ‘Genesis of the Daleks.’ A delight is how especially the later episodes reference the music and sound-scape of Genesis. In part one Rory Jennings plays Davros in short trousers. The kind of boy who will pull the legs of a spider not out of enjoyment but out of a detached scientific “fascination.” Warped by his world and his family, we her see him already locking teachers in radiation chambers and other such hi-jinks.
In Part 2 Terry Molloy takes over the reins (he played Davros in a number of the tv show adventures) as Davros, here a soldier desparate to join the scientific elite. He is sent on a seeming suicide mission with a team, and displays real courage, and shows the most human range of characteristics in the series yet. He does get to rant, though, in true Davrios fashion, over a crippled comrade, shouting at him for his weakness.
Part 3 picks up the ‘Shan’ plot-line first sketched in the Colin Baker adventure ‘Davros.’ What begins as a very human attraction and flirtation develops, in true Davros fashion, into denial, murderous betrayal, and bitter contempt (on the part of our titular scientist). He also has his body changing accident.
Part 4 brings us nicely to about the year before the events of Genesis. Davros has near perfected his experiments on people with radiation, creating genetically evolved mutants. Here he meets Nyder, a classic character from Genesis, and it’s a treat to hear Peter Miles reprise his role, and the two get on like a city on fire. Davros demonstrates his love for children by turning them into radiation soaked monsters, the first Dalek creatures that will go on to pilot the ‘travelling machines.’ The story ends with the demonstration of the Mark 1 travelling machine (Genesis has him just finishing Mark 2 when Tom Baker arrives).
And during all this his family, friends and country men die and are massacred around him. It is an entertaining, well produced and clever tale, and it’s a powerful and logical extension of the world of ‘Genesis.’ But it is also a bit depressing in its catalogue of atrocities, and eh Davros origin tale, as I have mentioned, is I think harmed by the lack of subtlety or human change. He just goes from monstrous to more monstrous to experimenting on children scale monstrous. You miss the light touch of the Doctor, any Doctor, and the sparring that would bring, which is what Genesis captured so well.
There’s also a disc of ‘extras,’ interviews with cast and crew which are good and illuminating, but I did wonder at the discussion on whether Davros was at all misunderstood. Er…no?
In a desolate, demon blasted landscape, a lone Seraph night, and his winged, eyed sword, treads the road. Behind him trails a goat, and hidden under the flaps of his coat nestles a small baby girl. He finds corrupt and corrupted humans, out and out monsters and demon Lords on his travels. He eschews companions but where the need greatly outweighs the harm, and where it will aid his quest, he does take on various companions. A petty criminal named Harm, a raging demon yearning for its lost innocence and humanity called The Hammer, and other more transient helpers, some more ambivalent than others, join the quest. Their quest is to return the winged and eyed sword to the Seven, the original Seraph rulers. But what this will mean is uncertain…
Peter Newman has accomplished an incredible feat of world building. My initial feeling on starting this work was disorientation. Was this Earth of the far future or a different reality / dimension? The archetypes are ours (people, Hell, Knights, Demons, Animals etc.), and yet the strangeness, the otherness, is bewildering. Twin suns in the sky. A demonic invasion through a huge breach (crack) in the ground that has remained dormant for centuries. A demonic essence that infects and mutates like radiation. An ancient order of Seraph Knights that has ruled before the Infernal invasion. A technology including sky-ships, Centipede tanks, laser lances, all framed in medieval and feudal archetypes. It is head-spinning stuff. Then there’s the adventure, the quest, which is more straightforward; lone hero, a man with no name, must deliver a powerful talisman to the high powers to rid the world of a massive evil. But that itself is spun by the wonderful tricks in the narrative. The titular, eponymous Vagrant does not speak. Instead his thoughts are reflected by his expressions, actions and interactions, including with the baby he protects, and with his companions. And his goat! How the Vagrant got to this position is told in intervals in a thrilling back-story that begins with the demonic invasion.
Characterisation of subsidiary characters is also very well done. The baby (Vesper) and the Goat are powerful characters in their own right. In the audio-book, wonderfully voiced by Jot Davies, Vesper’s infant gurgles and expressions are convincingly done. Also, the main companion, Harm, is a wonderful piece of character development, from jittery low-life to a redeemed man both grateful and anxious about the shelf life of his redemption. Again, Jot Davies’s audio-book narration imbues him with humanity. Other characters such as snarling demons and Knight Commanders are given a wonderful range of expression. The monsters are truly alien and frightening. Shape shifters that feed off souls and clothe themselves in corpses, or inhabit and posses and mutate live bodies, they are a cross between Anime/Manga monsters and HP Lovecraft. The chief baddies have wonderful names like “The Uncivil.”
The Vagrant himself is a true Knight in that, where he can, he will right wrongs and save lives. He won’t where it will mean the failure of his mission and where he does have to leave people to die, it is shocking and he is racked with anguish. He also redeems others and wins followers of the most broken in humanity in a very Christ like way. Harm vocalises this more than anyone, speaking about how he has been changed and his life give new meaning. This goodness is set against an evil that can only consume, corrupt and destroy, not build anything new. The book portrays good versus evil with a refreshing (take note Game of Thrones) lack of cynicism.
If there are weaknesses, it’s that sometimes the multiple strangeness’s combine to make the action confusing. Events seem to be heading for an epic conflagration that never quite happens. Yet. There is so much here the book could have been much longer. There seems so much to explore. I hope there is more from this strange, compelling and yet familiar world. Very recommended.
This is a four part audio drama with Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor and Sarah Sutton reprising her role as Nyssa from that era of tv Who.
It’s a complex, surprising production that keeps you guessing as to which way it’s going to jump in terms of its direction. The 50’s setting alien world of Mondas makes you think initially that it is going to overdose on quirkiness. But then it plays out as a classic, chilling Cyberman adventure that does not downplay the horror of the conversion process or the loss of humanity and identity it involves for the poor souls involved. The Cybermen here are modelled on those of the Troughton era, with their never bettered drawn out synth voiced monotones. “Youuuuuu willll beee like usss….” Gary Russell does a fantastic job of world building on his Mondas. It’s a world stuck in the 50’s due to the squalor and retrogression caused by living underground on a dying world, whose path is wandering into that of a nebula. The underground survivors send selected enlisted parties to the surface to try and start the giant propulsion engines that may move their planet to safety. It’s a world of curfews, power-cuts, dimly lit streets, boarded up shops and homes, tram-stops, and a town-square with a huge “Committee Palace” with iron gates where the mysterious committee rule. Meanwhile cyber augmentation runs through this society like veins of silver through rock. The classic cyber-mat creatures scuttle through the streets like vermin. People have augmented budgies for pets, and cyber chest units and artificial limbs to help with medical difficulties. It’s a technology in its infancy. Meanwhile cyber augmented police on cyber augmented horses keep order. And this all heading in a direction that the Doctor, and us if we know our Who history, know only too well.
The Doctor and Nyssa arrive on Mondas, with the Doctor clearly knowing where he is and immediately filled with foreboding. They find a struggling family, the Hartleys, Yvonne (Kathryn Gluck), Dad (Paul Copley), and Frank (Jim Hartley). Dad has a chest unit and Frank dreams of being enlisted to the surface which fills Dad with horror. Dad loves his tea and Yvonne is consumptive but popular in the community and pretty much the glue in the family. The actors bring all these characters to believable life and make the distinctly odd setting believable. And when horrible cyber things do happen to certain family members, you really feel it and are appalled by it.
The Hartley’s, the Doctor and Nyssa become tied up with the comically horrible body-snatcher Thomas Dodd (Derren Nesbitt) whilst being watched by the snooping official Sisterman Constant (Pamela Binns) in discovering the terrible truth about the hidden Committee and its plans. On the way they meet a Doctor involved in leading the cyber augmentation, the conflicted Doctorman Allan, and come face to face with a Cyber nemesis Zheng (played by Big Finish stalwart Nicholas Briggs). The Doctor finds he must do what he can to bring a kind of redemption to Mondas without breaking the strictures of history, his own prime directive.
The story surprises, scares and entertains and has some truly memorable ideas, scenes and set pieces, and I won’t spoil them for you, but the revelation of the true nature of the Committee is a treat. The production scores on every level. The 50’s level is a rich and resonates with themes from that era, such as the Stalinist Committee and it’s Palace to the domestic scenes of the Hartley family. The Cybermen are a nasty and dehumanising evil here, and a fitting monster for our current age of upgrades and increasing reliance on technology and apps.
Get a copy if you can. I was staggered to see it selling on Amazon for £90, but I grabbed a copy for a tenner from a high street genre comic/book store. And you can download it for £2.99 on the Big Finish Web site.