Doctor Who: Escape The Daleks! – Written by Steve Lyons & Read by Katy Manning (BBC Audio)

It’s probably fair to say that you never quite know what you’re going to get from the BBC Audio range in terms of Doctor Who.

After all, in a sense, that’s a reflection of the vast flexibility of the show itself, across more than sixty highly changeable years.

With Escape The Daleks!, what Steve Lyons delivers is a kind of two-part Jon Pertwee story that would absolutely seamlessly have fitted into his era (if only they’d done two-parters in that period), but using realities from our modern world.

It’s a seamless, genius synthesis, to give him credit, and a highly effective Dalek story – which is particularly odd, because there’s only one Dalek in it and (spoiler alert) it’s proper knackered when we encounter it.

Essentially, Escape The Daleks! is a slightly Sarah Jane Adventures premise – what would happen if the Daleks set up an escape room – written with a tone that’s perfect for mid-era Pertwee.

That’s where we find ourselves in this adventure – trapped inside a not-ostensibly Dalek-themed escape room, with a university team who’ve decided to spend their holidays cracking it.

What’s the incentive? Again, in a throwback to Sarah Jane’s adventures, they’ve been promised “a new life” by a cutting-edge tech startup if they solve the room.

What nobody appears to have made clear to them is that if they don’t solve the room – or indeed, if they disobey what the room wants them to do in any way – they’ll be put to death by poison gas (a particularly resonant touchstone between the Daleks and their real-world inspiration).

Think about that for a second – if you were merrily solving puzzles, and one of your party was suddenly gassed to death…that would concentrate the mind pretty sharply, wouldn’t it?

You could make the argument that that right there is a Hollywood blockbuster horror movie just waiting to happen – The Cabin In The Woods meets Saw.

But put into a Pertwee-era Who context, Lyons does that lovely warm thing that Pertwee stories often did. It starts with the Doctor and Jo as unwelcome outsiders, lets them charm their way in and even in the Doctor’s case take over, while making it clear they’re not after the prize in any degree. 

That leaves you lots of room for characterization, and Lyons and Manning between them deliver it. There’s a highly bright but slightly dotty Australian professor, a moderately blustering Welshman, a squeaky young girl from the north of England, and others here, Manning reaching into her grab-bag of go-to accents to fill the thing with life and differentiation, and above all, investment.

But there’s also a good deal of how Pertwee would deal with a degree of his own past here, too. Without giving too much away, there are resonances of the “solve puzzles and escape” elements of Dalek testing from The Dalek Invasion of Earth here, and the Third Doctor is plagued by unpleasant memories of the fate that awaited those who succeeded in those tests.

Add in a dawning love story, a stickily paranoid question of trust, a rapidly ticking clock and that deeply psychological element of a room that’s going to kill you unless you give it reasons not to do so, and you’ve got a belter of a story in its own right, and an almost immaculate Third Doctor adventure.

There’s a bleakness at the end that might feel out of character with the era, but gives the story a kind of cleanness – albeit the cleanness of a slaughterhouse after it’s down its job. You may not stumble out at the end of Escape The Daleks! feeling particularly chipper about the universe.

But you do get a sense of how the desperation of a race like the Daleks can manifest itself in twisted, inventive, horrifying means to meet the needs they always prioritize. Given that they have always essentially been Nazis in a tin can, there’s a chilling sense at the end that what you’re dealing with here has never been about fun puzzles and ticking clocks, but a kind of mini-Auschwitz, where only the very occasional survive – and it takes everything out of them to do it.

There are a handful of solid cliff-hanger moments here – they’re not especially used as such, because in just over an hour, there’s no need for the breathers that cliff-hangers deliver, but they’re points of very dramatic high tension that stud the storytelling in ways that will please the listener if they’re a longstanding Doctor Who fan. Most especially, there’s a classic Jo Grant moment, where she risks everything, up to and including her life, to save the Doctor, refusing to leave him behind when that’s clearly the most rational option.

Yes, this among so many other things is why we perpetually love Jo Grant, and why she can do no wrong in our eyes. Ever. 

Ultimately, Escape The Daleks! is one of the stronger Doctor Who releases from BBC Audio in recent months, made all the stronger by the fact that it unfolds its secrets, lies, and wonders only as you progress – both through the escape room and the story. Absolutely worth any Who-fan’s cash, it’s a thing of warmth, joy, possibility, and a deep, deep horror that reminds us what the Daleks really are. Tony Fyler 

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