The importance of Big Finish to the fan re-evaluation of Davros can't be understated. Before his first appearance in the range in the 2003 story imaginatively called Davros fans were generally very down on the character. Sure, he was great in Genesis of the Daleks, but then he was always there, never giving the Daleks a story to themselves, played by less good, more shouty and ranty actors. When Big Finish started doing Dalek stories the fact Davros wasn't involved was even something of a selling point.
After three main range appearances and several spin-offs (including his own mini-series) that continued to see the character have new and more interesting depths added to him, his return to TV effectively stopped him being used on audio for several years. Ironically his last chronological appearance saw him being turned into the Dalek Emperor, with the intent this would be the same character seen in the final Christopher Eccleston story, something his eventual TV showing would render impossible meaning there's at least one more fan wanky adventure Big Finish could fit in that gap.
So, having Davros back, and in an adventure with the 6th Doctor, whom Molloy plays off especially well, is a cause of much excitement. We also get a reintroduction of a guest character from last year's Colin mini-series as the new companion, and famous historical guest stars as the Daleks help the French fight the battle of Waterloo (the originally mooted title being Waterloo of the Daleks, which was apparently abandoned for sounding a bit silly. A month after we had a villain called The Bone Lord. No, stop that sniggering at the back). It's a play with a lot in it, and rather than go through the plot linearly as I normally would, I'm going to examine those three elements in turn, from least to most successful, just so the review can end in a more upbeat way.
Sadly the main load-stone around the plays neck is new companion Phillipa “Flip” Jackson. Originally a one off supporting character in 2011's 6th Doctor trilogy opener it somewhat feels like she's only really been brought back because Big Finish were impressed by actress Lisa Greenwood rather than being amazed by the character, who was a fairly forgettable member of the public in jeopardy who only really stood out for a joke about having Lady GGaGa as her phone ring tone. The only way she really suggested any sort of companion potential was in neatly matching the general public's perception of them all being plucky young girls (though she did have the advantage of coming with a dim witted boyfriend who can now play the Mickey Smith to her Rose Tyler).
So, if she was fairly nondescript before, The Curse of Davros has the job of rounding her out as a full character. And it fails. And I think part of the reason it fails is due to something that's mentioned by writer Jonathan Morris in the Extended Extras given to download subscribers (who get more at Big Finish), where he talks about they wanted Flip to be “Realistic”. Now, Morris is a great writer who specialises in wonderfully off the wall ideas (a story where the discs can be listened to either way round; Sillurians Vs. Charles Darwin; Top Gear... IN SPACE) but would be fairly low down on the list of Big Finish regulars I'd go to for realism in either plot or characters.
Flip suffers from two things. The first is a long standing Doctor Who problem going back as far as Dodo of the generally middle class middle aged writers pretty much failing to write teenage girls in what is any way a remotely convincing fashion. Morris seems to have settled on Flip being very well... flippant and glib about everything. Which considering the story has her traipsing over a huge number of corpses frequently seems inappropriate.
The second is related to this, and is the almost extraordinary way she takes everything in her stride. Whilst she had her previous encounter with the Doctor the year before to cushion her a bit, it's extremely silly here to see her get over things like the destruction of her home and all her possessions, the deaths of everyone she works with (I do the same supermarket job as she does and if all my colleges were exterminated by Daleks I'd miss at least three of them deeply), being displaced in time or seeing the many many dead bodies during her time in the past rapidly one after the other. There's some token attempt to make it seem like she's being deeply effected with the odd line here and there, but it never feels like more than lip service and soon she's back to making ABBA jokes at Napoleon in exactly the sort of way a realistic character wouldn't.
Her boyfriend Jared actually comes over much better, generally behaving in a sensible fashion and seeming to be more affected by what's going on around him but still managing to be proactive and likeable. So the fact Flip is frequently rude and bossy to him does more damage to her character. It is after all hard to argue with his assertion that the police should be dealing with the injured Doctor, and whilst the police officer he goes to turns out to be a cunningly disguised Dalek she can hardly claim the high ground when her own attempts to get involved winds up seeing lots of her friends killed.
With the introduction of the new lead something of a failure, it's down to the two pronged plot to keep up the interest. After some Dalek avoiding shenanigans in the present day “The Doctor” (and the use of the inverted commas will be explained shortly) Flip and Jared wind up on the eve of Waterloo where the Daleks are planning to help Napoleon win. This in theory should be much safer territory for Morris, but it doesn't really work either.
The big problem is that Davros has placed a really bizarre priority on the importance of the battle claiming it's the most important in the whole history of Earth and that Napoleon is one of the greatest military minds of all time and the contents of his brain will greatly help the Daleks. Which, considering the Daleks hatred of all other life forms is the equivalent of a Neo-Nazi calling Topol his favourite actor.
There's one really great idea here, of Napoleon, when he realises the Daleks are using him, deliberately looses the battle to save France, and he even manages to make a nice callback to Flip's earlier ABBA reference that doesn't make me want to punch him. However, a lot of the fallout from Waterloo being fought by lasers is completely ignored, with Jared somehow managing to convince Wellington that none of this should ever be mentioned to anyone in just one line, which even more impressively means none of the hundreds of soldiers in all three armies involved all keep stum on the subject as well. The British are also seemingly left in possession of five Dalek guns at the end, the potentially huge ramifications of which is totally ignored.
The listener more familiar with the 6th Doctor will however spot right off the bat that his speech patterns are a bit off and without contraction, his memory is far less reliable than normal and, what eventually tips Flip off, he's happy to kill people in his way. The play does arguably reveal slightly too soon that the Daleks can now put their minds in human bodies (though why they'd want to do this with their extreme xenophobic views when so many stories have shown they have the skills to either duplicate or control humans directly) it still works that you're aware of what's coming and the danger the companion is really in far in advance of Flip.
Yes, it's the mind swap story. Something that perhaps surprisingly considering it's such a cliché, hasn't been properly done by either Big Finish or the TV series before (Peri managed it very briefly at the end of Mindwarp, but there was no time to explore the idea and the whole thing got retconned so instead of having a slug in her head she married Brian Blessed instead). There was at least some vague plan to do a 7th Doctor/Master swap during the brief period Big Finish thought Anthony Ainley might become involved with them, but this is the first to make it all the way to recording.
The joy of it comes from Molloy and Baker being old hands who know exactly what they're doing, with Colin being especially impressive at sounding wrong even when Davros is trying to talk like the Doctor. And Molloy is clearly having a blast getting the chance to be nice for a change, trying to run the Dalek operation in a way that will keep his fugitive body alive without giving the game away that he's not really their creator.
The swap also gives the chance for the continuation of the previous Davros audios deepening of his character. When the Doctor talks about the incredible pain he's in whilst in Davros' body and how if this was his permanent position he'd have killed himself years ago it really does emphasise what a wretched existence this would be world conqueror actually has. When Davros doesn't want to go back in the end it's hard not to have a great deal of sympathy for him. And in a story where his main plan is as silly and stupid as anything he's ever come up with that's impressive. The scenes with the two characters rise about the rest of the material considerably, and even give Flip her best stuff as she helps Doctoros (see what I did there) confuse the Daleks over who is really Who when the Doctor manages to get them swapped back.
Despite the brilliance of these moments however, the play as a whole is a disappointing one. And it's somewhat baffling that Big Finish could fail so badly at introducing a new companion when just three months ago they managed the much more difficult task of making historical celebrity Mary Shelley work.
With the far more likeable Jared unceremoniously sent back to the future in the Dalek pod before the Doctor has to put up with Flip making a deeply annoying “changed my mind joke” as they head back to the Tardis it's hard not to have a sinking feeling. Greenwood does OK, but she's not got much in the way of good material to work with and the next two plays in this trilogy are going to have to do a great deal of damage limitation to get me onside with her. Because at the moment if she came to work at my supermarket I'd probably start to look forward to being exterminated by the Daleks as a means of escape from her.
Two out of Five Demolished Deli Counters.