Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 1.2: The Human Factor by Nicholas Briggs (August 2001)

The second, murkier Dalek Empire story, The Human Factor, picks up six months after the first, with Suz trapped by the Daleks in the Garozone System for all that time. Nicholas Briggs’ direction really is at its height here. Amid the flurry of Gary Russell work in the last two years of main range stories, I’d kind of forgotten how terrific Briggs is at creating a soundscape you can lose yourself in: music, dialogue, effects all cohere very impressively. The telepathy exchanges are well-managed without sounding too mystical, while the geographical scale is as big as last time round, or possibly even more so – ranging from Garazone Central to Moon K-5000 to Guria to the Daleks back in Seriphia, yet all of the environments are sold convincingly (Guria in particular, an ocean planet like Attack of the Clones’ Kamino, is great; everyone likes a bit of oilfield drilling in Doctor Who). I really like that this is fundamentally one big, epic story rather than the more episodic nature we get with the Doctor’s adventures. Also worthy of note is that this second part of Dalek Empire owes a fair bit to the ultimate 60s tale of human/Dalek moral complexity – The Evil of the Daleks. When you couple this with the previous release’s nods to the Hartnell comics and the fact that Morebi’s chanted slogan “Death to the Daleks” which comprises the next title is a Pertwee-era Dalek story, it starts to look as though Briggs is deliberately working his way through the iconography of previous Dalek eras to homage – ones previously out of the reach of BF’s 80s-centric Doctor adventures. It will be interesting to see if Project Infinity carries this on, or if I’m reading too much into things.

This instalment sees more of a showing from Gareth Thomas’ Kalendorf, which is welcome as Thomas is a strong performer; the ill-fitting odd-couple rapport Kalendorf has with Suz is to the story’s benefit, as it allows a degree of uncertainty rather than a blandly united front – these two protagonists do not act in tandem. We learn a little of the Knights of Velyshaa’s history and Kalendorf’s suffering under the defeat at the hands of Earth; he is an embittered man but keeps his dignity in time of war nonetheless. Alby and Pellan’s storyline is less immediately gripping than Suz and Kalendorf’s (the fact that Alby has no idea what he’s going to do to help Suz once he gets there does slightly give the impression their subplot is there to fill out time and give two regular actors something to do), but nonetheless it does add to the sprawling and epic nature of the Dalek Empire landscape; Briggs is spinning a heck of a lot of different plates here, and by and large it works; that some elements are of a slower nature than others is par for the course in very long stories like this. Pellan’s pod deactivating early is a touch suspicious, and unsurprisingly I get the feeling that the secret agent is more straight-talking than the journalist. He’s certainly more likeable, particularly as a result of Alby and Pellan’s best scene, where they discuss their lives and lost hopes in a cave on Guria.

The Human Factor centres much more on the bargains people will make with evil than its predecessor, and on what it means for Suz to really be helping the Daleks, even if she is only doing so to cling on to life and to bring a rebellion into being. Certainly, Suz’s behaviour is meant to unease us, and Sarah Mowat makes her sound much more cheerful and flippant in the opening than we might expect of someone who has lived under Dalek rule for six months; it’s like she’s somehow off-kilter. The reality is ugly and slightly askance from what we might be used to in stock adventure stories (in Kalendorf’s words, “life’s not like that”); she moves from this to shockingly advocating the slaughter of Wernay and the other rebels as a tactical move because it means the long-term rebellion might have a greater chance of success. The depth Briggs gives to her moral dilemma is impressive – there’s a lovely detail near the start where she’s making quips about Kalendorf’s name, to his annoyance, but then breaks down a few minutes later when the Dalek Supreme addresses her by her own name: she compartmentalises the aspects of her life, shields her identity, her sense of self, from the system within which she is complicit and acquiescent, and when faced with undeniable evidence of the stark truth it is more than she can bear.

Because that so often is the Human Factor, is it not? Shirking the awful truth, and not being able to cope with it when we face it.

We see it in Morebi, too, a young hothead driven insane by what he feels is his own compromised morality (“we are helping the Daleks; that cannot be right!”). The humans are just as much a discussion point here as the Daleks, which is what all the best Dalek stories achieve; indeed, as you’d expect, the two are thematically linked throughout. Suz bewails her fate, saying, “I sometimes wish I was mad, that I couldn’t think straight, that I didn’t care about life anymore,” as though life would be easier and less painful if one could more fully embrace the utter callousness that marks out Daleks from us. The scene where the humans torture the Dalek is a chilling reversal of so many torture/interrogation scenes in other Dalek stories (and its scream is properly eerie). And take Kalendorf’s admiration for Dalek engineering – “beautiful simplicity to the [Dalek saucer] design, isn’t there? How could something so smooth and graceful have anything to do with such hatred?” Beauty and evil co-exist, mingle, merge. We meet the Daleks somewhere in the middle. Speaking of beauty and evil, I don’t think the Daleks have never sounded more menacing on audio. These are creatures that are fascinated by Suz, by the Human Factor, by the complexities of personhood that allow humans to function in the Daleks’ paradigmatic system and yet retain confused emotional responses. They are creatures that allow two lovers to see a flicker of each other’s faces on video link and then cut the transmission dead, because their calculating understanding of human error and emotional weakness is supreme. The Dalek Supreme’s interrogation of Suz is the story’s most stunning scene, intense and anguished like some Cold War thriller, the Dalek piling repeated “Answer!” upon repeated “Answer!” until she gives in and screams that Alby is someone she loves – which Alby reiterates as he flees Guria. For now, then, humans and Daleks seem to be distinct. But the line grows ever more blurred.

Is Suz’s co-operation justified? Perhaps. It remains to be seen how she will act in the future, as her alliance with the Daleks will no doubt have an end point. I just hope that by the time we get to that juncture we will not, as with the pigs and men in Animal Farm, look from Dalek to Suz, and from Suz to Dalek, and from Dalek to Suz again, and find it impossible to say which is which.

Other things:
The reuse of the bazaar music in the background is a cool nod to Sword of Orion.
“The war goes on.”/“It will go on without us.”
Great line: “Those words hurt the girl. And only the truth hurts.”
“Each time she faced this creature she became more and more certain that it had no soul. Yet it somehow knew how to invade the very heart of her.”
The conceit of having a narrator recounting prose about Suz’s reminiscing continues to intrigue me – it allows us to get a bit more of the character’s interiority, which is great (and the score that accompanies it is appropriately haunting), but there must be something more to it all: who is this mysterious narrator?
“Leave me alone – and stop saying my name!”
David Sax? Nice pseudonym, Nick, but you’re fooling nobody.
“Have you ever looked into the eyes of someone for whom survival has no meaning? It’s a pitiful and terrifying sight. Men and women, allowing their lives to bleed away into futility…”
“They’re brave people.”/“They’re insane.”/“Isn’t that what bravery is, in the face of the Daleks?”
 “It had to be done.”/“You almost sound like a Dalek.”
The only bit I really disliked is the Gurian Highness’ nervous laughter business, which is implausible, unfunny and irritating – worse, it doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the piece. It’s just baffling.
“Alright, I’ll tell you what she did. It’s very simple. She made me happy.”
“The Dalek Supreme, watching me, dissecting my humanity with mechanical precision.”
“Who is he? Who? Who? Who? Who is he? Answer!!!!!!”/“SOMEONE I THOUGHT WAS DEAD! Someone I’d… fallen in love with. But you wouldn’t understand that, would you? Just…put it down to the Human Factor.”
“If you see her, tell her…tell her…”
And so we end on an exciting (if slightly rushed) cliff-hanger to set up 1.3, as the Daleks launch a massive counter-attack on Guria while Alby and Pellan, in a Dalek saucer, come under fire from the Earth Alliance…

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