Celebrating Doctor Who’s ‘Jubilee’

Big Finish audio drama Jubilee, written to mark Doctor Who's 40th anniversary, is a rich, ambitious story that continues to find new resonance

Doctor Who Dalek
Photo: BBC Pictures

Warning: contains spoilers for 2003 story ‘Jubilee’

The 2003 Big Finish story ‘Jubilee’ is one of Doctor Who’s richest. It was adapted by its author, Rob Shearman, for the 2005 TV episode ‘Dalek’. That adaptation took certain elements from the original (a lone Dalek imprisoned and tortured by humans, bonding with the companion and becoming more dangerous because the Doctor is around) but explores different ideas to ‘Jubilee’. ‘Dalek’ was part of the developing Time War story and much of its impact is due to the carnage being made personal to a traumatised Doctor. ‘Jubilee’ makes the Daleks scary by telling a very serious joke, the feedline being their now trope-laden familiarity, the punchline: violent, terrifying slaughter of everything different.

In its original context, ‘Jubilee’ was a savage look at how popular culture and fandoms can reduce terrifying ideas to memes, punchlines and children’s toys. It was written in the interim period between the 1996 TV Movie and the 2003 announcement that the series was returning to TV, so was intended for an older audience. This allowed Shearman to lean further into the macabre than TV would ever allow.

Jubilee’s title and subjects were clearly informed by being Big Finish’s Dalek story for Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary. Now, nearly 20 years later, it seems hideously prescient in its depiction of Doctor Who, Fascism and England. Leaving the latter two aside for a moment, the reason I decided to listen to this story again a few years ago is simple: my son recently received some Doctor Who baby clothes featuring a Dalek onesie and a hat featuring a Dalek screaming ‘EXTERMINATE EXTERMINATE EXTERMINATE’.

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This is licensed merchandise, part of a set with a bib a bodysuit featuring TARDISes and ‘Future Time Lord’ slogans. There’s something jarring about having a fictional representation of Fascism on clothes, especially one chanting a word invoking mass murder.

It’s this uncomfortable tension that Shearman examines in ‘Jubilee’. In the story, the Sixth Doctor and his friend Evelyn Smythe (a history professor who punctures this Doctor’s arrogance) are stranded in an alternate 2003 where an English empire became the main world power (after a war with the Daleks a century before). The President holds the lone surviving Dalek in the Tower of London. The Doctor and Evelyn are worshipped as war heroes, with the Doctor faintly able to remember the war itself despite it being part of a different timeline. Taking cues from Doctor Who writers David Whitaker (a scheming, clever Dalek) and Robert Holmes (incredibly morbid comedy that twists into seriousness), Shearman builds the unease as the Doctor and Evelyn explore the warped world of the English Empire, the President and his wife. Meanwhile, the Tower of London harbours the tortured survivors of the Dalek war.

Over 20 years, ‘Jubilee’ has grown more savage. The idea of English exceptionalism warping itself into even more ludicrous beliefs and behaviours? While it hadn’t exactly been plucked out of the ether, it wasn’t exactly something mainstream discourse expected to be topical two decades later. And yet, that is precisely what ‘Jubilee’ warned against: forgetting the lessons of history.

Opening with a trailer for a corny action film with the Doctor as a sort of Steven Seagal/Arnie hybrid, the alternate reality shows us the Daleks as a defeated villain, turned into pop culture bad guys, toys and bunting (there’s a line about how slapping a Dalek on any old product increases sales). So we have this thread about the Daleks being kind of chintzy, and some jokes about the diminishing returns (the Daleks’ plot to drill into the Earth’s core, their looking like pepperpots, excitement over extermination scenes or gunfights). This all ties in with the Daleks’ place in Doctor Who, as both marketable asset and reliably defeated laughing stock. Noting the fannish desire to see the Daleks exterminate someone is a hint of the darkness to come: we simultaneously want the Daleks to be more powerful and scary while knowing this will increase their iconography and pop culture cache, which in turn will mean they return to the series regularly to boost audiences which in turn reduces their impact meaning we want the Daleks to be made more powerful and scary…

And so Shearman makes the Daleks powerful and scary, but not merely by having them kill. What Shearman really homes in on, as well as the impact this cycle has on Doctor Who fans, is the way it distances the Daleks from their origins (both fictional and real-world). In ‘Jubilee’ the Daleks are integrated into the background of everyday life. I live in Edinburgh where one of the many tourist attractions is a cheerful walk through the histories of serial killers and plague victims. History, no matter how violent, is repackaged (which is why setting most of the story at the Tower of London is significant). The Daleks are like this in ‘Jubilee’, and the celebrations of their defeat are almost completely removed from the horrors of the war itself. The representation of Daleks on tea towels, bunting and baby clothes seems fine because no one is thinking about what a Dalek can actually do. When the lone Dalek threatens to exterminate the crowds at the Jubilee celebrations, people applaud.

In an astonishing scene, the Doctor attempts to hold back converging timelines as 1903 and 2003 threaten to merge. When it’s just the force of the Daleks, the Doctor can just about manage, but when the baying Jubilee crowd chant ‘Exterminate’ and demand an execution, he can’t do it. Daleks arrive in 2003 because that’s what the audience wanted. And it kills them. That’s the really terrifying moment: ordinary people becoming Daleks, even if it dooms them. As with his novelisation of ‘Dalek’ Shearman expands the horror of Terry Nation’s creations by connecting them with human experiences to devastating effect.

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While the Doctor’s speech in this scene is somewhat on the nose, the ideas here are incredible in what is an anniversary story: it addresses fandom’s desire for death and violence, how defeating Fascism once isn’t enough, and that the Doctor can thwart the Daleks in the context of fiction but when real people start behaving like them he is powerless.

And it’s important that Colin Baker gets to do this scene. His Doctor was deliberately unlikeable, initially. His TV series are not as popular as others (indeed, there’s a continuation in ‘Jubilee’ from his TV episodes of provocative dark comedy with the President having little people sing inside Dalek costumes for him, or the President’s wife deposing him and proposing marriage to the surviving Dalek. It’s ugly and uncomfortable stuff. So to have the Sixth Doctor be defined as the opposite of the Daleks at their most savage, able to hold them at bay single-mindedly, is important. Big Finish were exploring and expanding his character in 2003 and so saying even this Doctor is the good side of this mythic struggle is a big deal. 

While it’s imperfect, partly due to Shearman hoping to write a sequel, it’s an incredibly ambitious story, most of which works on many levels, only getting more powerful with time.