Blurb: On the planet Shade, The Chaons, an invading race of strange, amorphous creatures that ravenously absorb energy, have reduced the city there to a desolate ruin. Separated from the Doctor and Vicki, Steven has to join forces with an unexpected ally to find his way back to the TARDIS. Ahead, lies a nightmare journey through the dark - a test of endurance and trust.
Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Steven Taylor. Published by Big Finish Productions and released June of 2017.
Setting: The planet Shade, time unknown. Steven narrates the story at an unknown time afterwards.
Continuity: This story takes place between "The Time Meddler" and "Galaxy Four". There's no indication of when it's set with regard to other stories set in the same gap. The story ends up by setting up the Dalek Emperor's plot to discover The Human Factor (see The Evil of the Daleks). The Daleks scan the prisoners to see if they'll be suitable for robotization (see The Dalek Invasion of Earth).
Canonicity Quotient: The origin of the Dalek Emperor doesn't fit with what Big Finish had already established in "Terror Firma". Otherwise this story fits in well with established continuity. 0.98
Discussion: I knew from the beginning that this one was going to be about Steven and a Dalek working together to survive. I have to confess that when I first learned that I was a little annoyed. A story about Steven trapped on a planet with a Dalek sounded great if it were set between "The First Wave" and "The Massacre". This seemed like a wasted opportunity. Give Steven some real baggage and hatred for the Daleks after they'd been responsible for the deaths of three of his friends and there could be some real meat to this story. Vicki hardly figures into the story and is only namechecked to show when this story takes place in the Doctor's timeline. Ultimately, though, I think that it works where it fits. The story relies on Steven being a little more optimistic and charitable towards a Dalek then I think that he would be post-Masterplan, which is fine because this story is great.
If I'm going to fault the story on anything it's the fan-wankiness of the ending. So the Daleks sent three of their number down to a planet to see if any survived and if that one did then they get to be Emperor? They don't consider the fact that statistical anomalies may favor one candidate over another? Why are they purposefully manipulating their own genetic code anyway? Davros did that, but the core Daleks never did. It just doesn't seem right. It also seems a little too cute that a Dalek becomes the Emperor because of the actions of one of the Doctor's companions. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth that could have been avoided by leaving the epilogue out entirely. The scenes on Skaro seem out of place anyway because Steven doesn't narrate them. When we get so few Companion Chronicles every year, I wish that they'd stick to the idea of them. These are tight, personal tales told by the companions about an important event in their own lives. Outside material can only take away fro that. I really hope that the next installment is a little more traditional, but I have a feeling that with their linking Time War theme that they won't be.
The thing is, the main story on this one is fantastic. It works because the story continuously pivots on Steven and the Dalek's relationship. Both could double-cross the other. Both take turns doing things suspiciously, but you think because you know that Steven survives that somehow this alliance will work. You think that this Dalek's genetic variance will give it a conscience or something similar. What I like is that David Bartlett capitalizes on the Whitaker characterization of the Daleks. 210 thinks ahead. It knows what it needs and will act how it needs to to survive. It makes the whole thing tense and thrilling. The Chaons are a throwaway, there to provide a peril and nothing more. They seem to have missed a trick by not making the creatures The Mim, since they're pretty much the same thing, but oh well. I also really adore that both "Shade" and "Chaons" sound like such Terry Nationish names.
I also love how tight the story is. Once the first few minutes are out of the way and until the last couple of minutes, it is just Steven and a Dalek. There's no need for Purves to try on a bunch of funny voices. He just needs to play Steven and do the narration. First off, Purves maintains his excellent narration. The man is a master of the craft, and it's always a joy to listen to him. Unfortunately, age is starting to creep up on him. For years I've given him praise on sounding just like his twenty-something year old self in each Companion Chronicle that's finished now. As a narrator that's fine, but Steven is starting to sound like a much older man. It's disappointing, but he still sounds closer to his old self than some others who work on the range, so it's ok. It's just disappointing that one of the few exceptional performances is starting to falter. The script, though, definitely gives him a lot to work with and as an actor he definitely rises to the occasion. Steven gives a speech about the Daleks that would normally be reserved for the Doctor and Purves handles it with relish, chastising the evil of the creatures. The nice thing is that the script allows him to do a turn, though, and actually care about the Dalek. There's a scene where he thinks that it's dead and you can hear his frustration and anguish over the death of his only companion on this world. It's a great story for Steven as a character and Purves as an actor to show their range.
The production is great. Nick Briggs does a fantastic voice as a Dalek. There's also some nice, tense music to help heighten the action as the Dalek and Steven must outrun the Chaons and get off the planet. The sounds are great. I particular like the sound of Steven pushing the Dalek. The squeaky wheels make you ache with sympathy at how much Steven must be straining to push the thing for so long. The Chaons sound like recycled Mim sounds, but they work well enough. I also really appreciated that we have the authentic 60's Dalek extermination sounds although I wish they'd added in the sound of their blasters opening and closing repeatedly. That omission makes the sound feel unauthentic when in fact the sound of the extermination itself is just fine.
If I'm going to pick one more nit, it's that Bartlett said in an interview in Vortex that this story takes place very early in Dalek history when they're just getting into space. Yet, these are Daleks that already have intergalactic travel and transmats that can beam them across those distances. It makes you wonder why they have ships at all when they can just beam behind enemy lines to exterminate at will. Also, what happened to Chaons absorbing all kinds of energy. The transmat must use a lot. Why they haven't they drained its power long ago? Something seems fishy about that side of things and next to the epilogue it's my biggest problem with the story.
Final Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: A wonderful, tense, psychological tale that will have you guessing which way the story will go from beginning to end. There's a major plot hole, and a fanwanky epilogue, but this story will still keep your captivated with the fantastic scripting, great characterization, and wonderful performances, music, and sounds. This is definitely one of the standout stories of the entire Companion Chronicles range. I definitely recommend it.