Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 1.1: Invasion of the Daleks by Nicholas Briggs (June 2001)

UNIT may have only run for five releases, but Dalek Empire will go on to last for a considerably more impressive eighteen. It’s the first significant audio spin-off, and lasts more than six years, all the while employing a considerable number of talented actors. It’s a series in which the Daleks properly take centre stage in a Doctor Who story. It’s a money-spinning take on Mission to the Unknown. And Invasion of the Daleks, a title so obvious even the most hardcore will surely stop in their tracks and try and work out if this unsurpassably bog-standard arrangement of words have ever been fitted together before (the answer is: in purely on-screen terms, the 60s comes close twice, but no cigar; but David Whitaker and Terry Nation’s 1964 comic strip, the second oldest Dalek story in existence, which also, incidentally, reveals that Daleks can levitate approximately 24 years before one did it in a cellar in Shoreditch, does share the same name as this audio; but I digress) – Invasion of the Daleks is where it all begins.

Let’s talk about what it means to have a story, nay, an entire set of stories, in which they Daleks play the crucially significant role of the known, the familiar, and the comfortably marketable. First, though, let’s talk about Mission to the Unknown, which was after all conceived as the sort-of test-pilot for a “Dalek series” unconnected with Doctor Who, and which I rewatched as prep for this series (and, by the way, which I really, really like. It’s taut and pacey and very, very grim. It’s well-acted, well-scored and well-shot and there’s a real case it’s Terry Nation’s best work until Genesis. It’s a beautifully atmospheric bit of very 60s sci-fi). Mission to the Unknown is like Turn Left (as is Invasion of the Daleks, in some ways; note the similarity between the crashing starliner and the crashing Titanic) or Children of Earth done in 1965: monsters win when the Doctor isn’t around. Because the Daleks would, wouldn’t they? If the Doctor isn’t there to save Marc Cory and Lowery and so on of course they’re all going to get exterminated. Of course the Daleks are going to win. And, ingeniously, part of their winning involves almost literally spreading like a plague – importing their planet’s indigenous Varga plants to other worlds where the local populace are corrupted from their usual roles in a Doctor Who story and fashioned into a new mould, slaves to the Daleks’ story. Another simple, wonderful thing about Mission to the Unknown is the world-building line, “They haven’t been active in our galaxy for some time now, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been sitting around. Over the last five hundred years they’ve gained control of over seventy planets in Ninth Galactic System and forty more in the Constellation of Miros.” In other words, the Daleks really do have a life of their own outside the Doctor’s adventures; in watching Dalek TV stories or reading Dalek novels in which they encounter the Doctor, we’re only really privy to, what, 3-4% of the sum total of what they get up to. Mission to the Unknown is a thrilling glimpse at something else – a truly Dalek world. Not a planet from which Daleks hail (we’ve seen that plenty of times), but a whole fictional landscape in which Daleks are ubiquitous, in which they rule the roost, in which essentially the entire narrative revolves around them, with no hero to distract us. And Invasion of the Daleks takes this baton and runs with it; the two stories make good bedfellows in part because Nicholas Briggs is, as I have said often enough before, the next generation’s Terry Nation. He’s indelibly associated with the Daleks, he shares the same storytelling tics and interests; indeed, Invasion of the Daleks owes a lot to Nation’s legacy. There is that same 60s Dalekmania comic-book feel about it all, in which there are ruthless Daleks with vast, galaxy-spanning empires, rebels trying to stop them, a radioactive world, planetary drilling, transsolar discs, the “Human Factor”, even Robomen. There are even marsh-lakes and water-taxis. It feels like a colourful, expensive, glossy comic.

There is, however, a key difference between the two stories. Mission to the Unknown takes seven minutes, about a third of its runtime, to even refer to a single familiar element from the show’s mythology (at which juncture Cory first mentions “the Daleks”), and ten minutes to show us the staple villains properly. Even by this, their fourth TV appearance, they are still “the Unknown”, creatures of nightmarish, otherworldly horror, possessors of terrifying alien plants, lurking in jungles, gunning down square-jawed heroes mercilessly. In stark contrast, Invasion of the Daleks is almost entirely constructed on the premise that it will be a thing of fundamental intrinsic pleasure to spend seventy-two minutes with Skaro’s finest; it wholly relies on its audience being aware of its Dalek-ness, and if this wasn’t clear enough from both the umbrella title and the title of this individual release, the Daleks’ appearance within the first 138 seconds should really have given it away. There just isn’t much point delaying the basic pleasure of chucking in the Daleks. Sure, part of that is just sped-up storytelling. But it’s also because the world that Jubilee predicted would come to pass already has done, and had done long before Jubilee itself appeared in 2003: a world in which Daleks are attractions, comic-book favourites, old bits of nostalgia, slapped on DVD covers and merchandise of all kinds. Dalek Empire is, in one sense, the ultimate instance of Dalek fetishism – Daleks freed from the bothersome shackles of Doctor Who itself, divorced of the context in which they were originally created. The child has rejected the parent, as it were. In 2001, Daleks are now worth stories in themselves.

The next question to be figured out, then, is what kind of Dalek stories can be told? This is something that Invasion of the Daleks doesn’t need to conclusively answer by itself – Briggs does have seventeen more rolls of the dice, after all – but gives it a damn good shot. Freed from the need to do an Earth invasion, which is the shortcut way to getting emotive responses to a Dalek story in Doctor Who, Briggs whirls us away to Vega 6 (or VI, if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing). This is a story that, more than almost every other, goes for broke: it’s got war, invasion, romance, humour, mystery, tragedy, horror, humanity, inhumanity. It’s exciting, scary, moving. The scale and ambition is outstanding – and right from the burning starship crashing through the sky into the swamps to a dogfight with twenty Dalek transsolar discs high above Vega VI, Briggs’ wonderful technical production sells his own leaping, bounding imagination admirably. He does do some interesting structural things here, as well – a blistering action film is not an obvious place to rely on narration, but it actually works quite well, some choice dialogue conveying the extent of the Daleks’ warfare. He knows how flashbacks will heighten drama, and he knows when to ease off on the accelerator and to give us some nicely pitched character scenes, such as the drunken Alby in the bar of the Aquitania. Sarah Mowat and Marc McDonnell play the two principal characters, the human lovers Alby and Suz, archetypal “ordinary” figures whose lives are turned upside down by the Daleks’ arrival. Their performances are pretty good for an Episode 1, and I look forward to hearing what happens to this unlucky but brave pair in their future engagements with the Daleks. Alby is in point of fact an undercover agent, yet of the two, it is mineralogist Suz who is a particularly fascinating, defiant character (her scenes opposite the Dalek guards and, later, the Dalek Supreme, are excellent); the worse the situation, the more her best qualities seem to emerge.

So what kind of story can be told with the Daleks as the central attraction? The narrator, perhaps, has an answer: “What is it that makes a person go on? Even when every breath is pain, and all hope is ended? Fear of dying, perhaps, mixed with some involuntary, purely physical desire to live? A lethal cocktail, guaranteed to prolong suffering…but even that desire cannot last forever.” It’s a grim narrative, to be sure, full of suffering. The Daleks’ constant association with Nazism rears its head again in the form of “assessing mental acuity”: they are the hierarchical horror of eugenics personified. People = functions; they are either more or less useful; and the dead wood is to be thrown onto the fire (an attitude which, in such austere circumstances, extends even to Gordon Pellan: “I just ran…it’s like I didn’t care a damn about anyone else. Those voices and the screaming…I remember climbing over people, people screaming for help. I didn’t care, I just wanted to get out”). The scenes of the prisoners dying off under the Daleks’ austere demands and terrible working conditions recall Nazi Germany’s labour camps, as Dalek iconography so often does. The Daleks cannot understand resistance; resistance is almost certainly illogical and futile; and yet Susan Mendes resists, clinging on to hope, in the magnificent scene in which she speaks to a ramshackle collection of slaves in a forgotten cavern. A Dalek story, therefore, is one of almost incomprehensible bleakness and fatalism, and yet Briggs still uses it to champion the basic indomitability of the human spirit, of people smaller than the Doctor’s demigod status but still more impressive for their smallness. Is it Doctor Who? Like Mission to the Unknown, it may not have Doctor Who in it, but with its heart and soul in the right place, Invasion of the Daleks is a Doctor Who story and then some.

Other things:
Another spin-off, another theme. I like this one a lot more. It sounds a bit like Murray Gold’s later Dalek motifs.
“We were so cold. We thought they were leaving us to starve. But they were waiting. Waiting for our spirit to break.”
“I wouldn’t waste half a drop of brandy on a Dalek, but a woman…a woman’s worth a whole bottle of Southern Comfort. Maybe two.”
BF continuity meets classic Who continuity: there’s the somewhat unexpected return of a Knight of Velyshaa from The Sirens of Time, plus Invasion of the Daleks is also a kind-of sequel to the initial trio of Dalek Empire stories, The Genocide Machine, The Apocalypse Element and The Mutant Phase (although I’m not 100% sure how The Time of the Daleks fits into this, but that’s more because that story was messy as hell).
I did guess that Kalendorf was the prisoner with Suz, and Gareth Thomas isn’t in this story much, so I hope he gets more to do in future releases.
The Daleks have a great reaction to laughter: “Silence! Do not make that noise!”
The Drudger pilot makes for an effective C3PO to Alby’s Han Solo.
The Robomen spent their time “lashing and jabbing at corpses, as if they had forgotten how to recognise the living.”
“I am reading twenty discs with single Dalek occupancy.”/“Oh, and well-appointed bedrooms as well, I take it?”
“Death didn’t seem very far away.” Nice nod to The Crusade.
The words of Suz’s speech are nicely overlaid, as though different echoes from different parts of the cavern.
“The thought that she was merely clinging to an excuse to justify her instinct to live at any cost…that thought seemed to gnaw at her very soul.”
A cliff-hanger, as Alby and Pellan head off to the Garazone System to rescue Suz (I’d complain about ‘damsels in distress’, but Suz is easily the story’s best character, so I can forgive this).
“Hang on, Suz. Just hang on.”

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