24 January 2024

Doctor Who: Dalek Empire by Nicholas Briggs (ed.)

Doctor Who: Short Trips #19: Dalek Empire
edited by Nicholas Briggs with Simon Guerrier

Dalek Empire is a 2001-08 audio spin-off series from Big Finish (its first, actually, I believe), chronicling a Dalek invasion of the galaxy, focusing on the humans caught up in it when the Doctor's not around to save anyone. I picked it up in a sale a few years ago, but have never actually gotten around to listening to it; there is always too much new Big Finish to listen to first! The range engendered a tie-in of its own, the sixteenth volume of Big Finish's Short Trips series of anthologies, which was released between the third and fourth series.

Published: 2006
Acquired: July 2008
Read: December 2023

I haven't heard Dalek Empire, but I know the broad outlines of the plot; probably there's stuff here I'd get better having heard it, but I felt okay for the most part. Most of the stories here fall into two buckets. The first is made up of character studies of Dalek Empire's three human leads: "Kalendorf" by Nicholas Briggs and "Alby" and "Suz" by Sharon Gosling. "Kalendorf" takes place at the very beginning of the series, during the initial Dalek assault, while "Alby" and "Suz" take place later on, delving into the thoughts of those characters. They were all decent stories (I liked the horror of the Daleks in "Kalendorf") best, but also the ones that I suspect would most benefit from actually having heard the series.

Most of the rest of the stories are side stories to the Dalek invasion of the Milky Way, many of them including the Doctor in some capacity. But in these stories, he doesn't go around defeating dastardly plans; because the events of Dalek Empire already proceed without him, they're kind of what you might call "future historicals," featuring the Doctor on the fringes of future history, helping the little people, but not making any significant changes. My favorites among these included Ian Farrington's "Hide and Seek," where the third Doctor and Jo help a group of refugees evacuate; Farrington captures the Doctor and Jo particularly well.

The best of them as definitely Joseph Lidster's "Natalie's Diary," which is about a young woman named Natalie trying to stay alive during the Dalek assault on her planet, aided by the seventh Doctor, Ace, and Hex. As usual for Lidster, the strength of the story is in its characterization, as Natalie slowly discovers the hardness of the world she has come into. Ace and Hex aren't focal characters, but are deftly drawn, recalling one of Big Finish's best runs. The story is framed by a history student reading Natalie's diaries sometime later, which I think is set during the events of Dalek Empire III (when the Daleks return). The other ones are fine enough, though I found Ian Farrington's "Private Investigations" and Justin Richards's "Mutually Assured Survival" kind of pointless and dull.

There are two stories that break from this format. One is Simon Guerrier's "The Eighth Wonder of the World," which isn't a Dalek Empire tie-in at all, but a follow-up to the first Doctor serial The Daleks' Master Plan, featuring the sixth Doctor and Evelyn investigating what happened to a Dalek left behind in ancient Egypt during that adventure. Guerrier does his usual clever and interesting work, but it feels too fanciful in this context; Dalek Empire just isn't this kind of Dalek story.

The other is the volume's definitely standout, "Museum Peace" by James Swallow. Long after the events of Dalek Empire II: Dalek War, Kalendorf is retired and visiting a museum devoted to the Dalek War, contemplating how time has moved on. The Doctor is there, too (who he already knows; more on that in a minute), in his eighth incarnation, contemplating some terrible action against the Daleks. It's a deftly written, powerful story about grief and anger and moving on. Clearly when it was written, Swallow intended the eighth Doctor to be thinking about obliterating the Daleks, though subsequent revelations in "The Day of the Doctor" mean that can't be the case. But it holds up regardless—you can imagine the Doctor is at some terrible low during the Time War. (Or, in a very tenuous pet theory of mine, it takes place between To the Death and Dark Eyes, with the Doctor driven to despair.)

The book also includes the script for The Return of the Daleks, a 2006 audio drama that crossed the seventh Doctor into the events of Dalek Empire, as well as a sequel to the tv story Planet of the Daleks. (Hence, how Kalendorf knows the Doctor.) It wasn't a particularly great audio (I have actually heard it; it was a freebie for subscribers to Big Finish's main Doctor Who range), and reading a script is honestly never really that interesting. It feels like it's there to pad the book out—a whole forty pages! Given how many authors contribute two stories, one wonders if the volume was put together in a hurry.

(Despite the cover, the first, second, fourth, and fifth Doctors do not appear in this book.)

Every three months, I read the unread Doctor Who book I've owned the longest. Next up in sequence: Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership

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