The last of the Big Finish stageplay audio adaptations (until they decide to do Recall Unit: The Great Tea-Bag Mystery) was the one which was originally produced earliest: The Curse of the Daleks, which hit the stage for just a couple of weeks back in 1965. It is the only one in this series to not feature the Doctor as a character, although of course the Daleks are on hand in abundance, portrayed as always by Nichoals Briggs.
OK, let’s get this out of the way: Curse of the Daleks definitely has problems. First, there’s a bunch of nonsensical science (“nonscience”?) in it. I don’t just mean goofy fantasy stuff, I’m talking about out-of-date nonsense—like where somehow the Dalek planet is somehow on the way from earth colonies back to earth, or where iron filings are used to destroy the spaceship’s “radio picture” transmitter”or where a slave trade exists between the colonists on Venus and the ones on Mars.
Also, there’s a lot of awkward sexism in the story. Apparently, very few women are space travelers, as most are happy to stay on the earth and be the weaker sex (with 20th century ideas about women’s lib being mostly a thing of the past). This is not subtext or anything—it’s blatantly on the surface in a couple of extended dialogue scenes. Actually, the play is obviously trying to be progressively, as all of this set-up is used to argue about why one of the few female characters is more independent then most, but the whole thread just ends up being both uncomfortable and boring.
I mention all this because I want to get it out of the way. The script’s problems are so obvious and so in your face, they could easily distract from the fact that Curse of the Daleks is actually the best of the stageplays adaptations that Big Finish has produced in this series. It features a genuinely gripping mystery plot, lots of clever dialogue, and some well-drawn characters. It is the only entry in this series that stands out as a story on its own, and is not just here to satisfy the interest of the Doctor Who-completists amongst us.
Now, that story does feel like the sort of dialogue-driven, minimally edited low budget story that Doctor Who produced in the 1960’s, or maybe like an episode of The Twilight Zone from the same period. The story is about space freighter with three crew, two passengers and two prisoners en route to earth, which experiences mechanical failures causing it to land on the nearest planet, which just so happens to be..Skaro, the home of the Daleks. Earth won a war against them some fifty years earlier, and in that time of peace the majority of humanity has become a bit complacent about their old enemies, with most of our cast treating their sojourn in their world as a bit of a necessary evil or even a historical curiosity, but nothing more. Of course, the audience knows better, and slowly the characters realize this as well as they come to realize their situation has been manipulated into existence: one of the humans has designs to awaken the Daleks, believing that they have the means to control them.
The story keeps us guessing until almost the very end as to the identity of this traitor. Suspicion falls at first upon one of the prisoners, but this man—Ladiver—is our main point of view character, we come to hope that it’s not him, but it’s a while before we are sure. Indeed, there were numerous times that I thought the identity of the culprit was being telegraphed to me, only to find that I was falling victim to a series of red herrings until nearly the very moment of the reveal—an impressive feat to say the least.
If there is a weakness to the play (aside from the dated qualities already mentioned), it’s the fact that the second half is not as gripping as the first. The first act is marked by a mounting sense of dread and paranoia, as the cast come to grips with the true implications of their situation. The second half, in which the Daleks actually feature extensively, is a more traditional runaround, with a climax that belies its stage roots. The mystery is still good, but the actual identity of villain is not all that interesting, and of course he or she still comes to the same sorry end that every character who tries to collaborate with or control the Daleks comes to. Although to be fair, in 1965, this wasn’t such a common trope—there’d only been three complete Dalek stories and none of them featured a character like this.
In addition to Nicholas Briggs, the cast is led by Michael Praed as Jonathan Ladiver, the prisoner who just might be more than he lets on. Praed is well known as the original lead character in Robin of Sherwood (another protagonist on the wrong side of the law). I used to really love that show before I got put off by all its pagan worship scenes. Praed is excellent in the role, with a rich speaking voice that brings a lot to the role. His voice reminds me a lot of 8th Doctor Paul McGann’s, actually.
The script for The Curse of the Daleks was written originally by David Whitaker, who had been the script editor for Doctor Who for its first bunch of stories, and adapted by Nicholas Briggs. The result is a strong piece of work that is in many ways quite dated, but could easily be modernized into a compelling adventure, even for today’s audiences. It was enjoyable way to end this odd run of Big Finish adventures.