The Mutant Phase by Nicholas Briggs

For the third entry in Big Finish’s initial Dalek Empire series of connected stories, Nicholas Briggs delved into the backstory of the Daleks themselves, had a good rummage in and around their earliest appearances in particular and came up with a story which covers Earth in two time zones with a trip to Skaro thrown in, plus the return of the Thals and an appearance by the elusive Emperor. In other words, it’s a return to the Daleks of the black and white days; if the ambition of the plot and settings parallels ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ and one of the time zones is that of ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, there are also nods to the time-travelling Daleks of ‘The Chase’ and ‘The Dalek Master Plan’; having said that, the Daleks’ preoccupation with their own genetic purity belongs firmly to their later appearances and thus ties the story together so that the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa don’t feel incongruous. In the sleeve notes, Briggs describes one of his aims as to tell a story where the Daleks are the ones forced onto the defensive out of fear of a greater enemy; it’s natural, therefore, that this enemy should emerge from the Daleks themselves and as a threat to their genetic purity. The television series has recently addressed the idea of the Daleks’ response to the imperative of evolution; in the same vein, ‘The Mutant Phase’ forces them to face the consequences of a spontaneous genetic mutation latent in the Dalek creatures themselves.

One of the most surprising things about the story on reflection is the amount that’s accomplished with a handful of actors; by the final episode, we’re left with the Doctor, Nyssa, Ganatus, Ptolem and two Dalek voices. Admittedly that includes the Dalek Emperor, however the other three speaking parts (including an unobtrusive Mark Gatiss cameo) are concentrated in the first and second episode, but it’s testament to the spread and pace of the narrative that the size of the cast is barely noticeable. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are now totally at home in their roles, and it’s a nice touch that their first scene refers to the events of ‘The Land of the Dead’, reinforcing the sense of the additional mini-season in between the televised seasons 19 and 20. In fact, the attention to detail throughout the story is excellent and adds to the effect; elements such as the aggressive wasps and the battle-damaged Dalek which are crucial to the overall story are introduced in a single line so as to repay concentration and repeated listening. Similarly, the supporting characters don’t really need much introduction or explanation; the few surviving humans in the future time zone are more or less readily identifiable types (and played as such), while Ptolem in particular has a certain inner dignity and conviction which belie the fact that he’s working with and for his people’s sworn enemies. Reviving the Dalek Emperor might otherwise have been a questionable creative decision, but it doesn’t feel out of place here and if anything has rather more effect than just some random Black Dalek or Dalek Supreme- to be honest, anybody looking for the starting point of the revived TV series’ approach to the Daleks could do worse than looking here.

As with much of the best Doctor Who, not least the 1980s variety, it makes a difference when the ideas side of things is also right, and ‘The Mutant Phase’ gets it just about on the nose. I’ve already mentioned the strength of the basic idea of the Daleks being threatened by a spontaneous mutation emerging from within their ranks, a logical extension of their obsession with racial purity as manifested in their later television stories, and what initially appears to be a slight dig at genetically modified crops later turns out to be relevant- the GM crops are protected by similarly modified wasps, one of which stings a Dalek and sets the whole process off. Similarly, the idea of the last 25 human beings left alive lving in a decaying bunker and dependent on the Thal observers for food is appropriately original and carried off with enough conviction to work. It’s just a disappointment in the end that the whole adventure is a red herring- at the end of four episodes, the Daleks solve the problem of the Mutant Phase themselves, the adventure never happened and it’s difficult not to feel cheated- of two hours of your life and the best part of a tenner if nothing else. Still, as Dalek stories go, it’s innovative and traditional in even measures and a good addition to the range, even if it’s a blind alley as far as the ongoing story is concerned.