Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 1.4: Project Infinity by Nicholas Briggs (December 2001)

Although Dalek Empire has gone some way to restoring my faith in Big Finish’s treatment of the Daleks and my general feeling that Nick Briggs knows exactly what he’s doing with the blighters – they’re obviously his key interest in Doctor Who, and it shows – I’ve been finding the actual storyline itself increasingly unengaging. The first two of these four instalments are still the best for me, an explosion of exciting action, detail, locations, ideas, and some hard-hitting plot developments. Many of the same strengths are still here – it’s impeccably produced and directed, and retains its focus on the desperate “survival instinct” in all things, from the humans to the Daleks themselves – but it often comes across as both by-the-numbers and overdone. I wonder if this particular story, that of Suz under Dalek oppression, would’ve really worked better as a shorter tale than one which amounts to four and a half hours. But by the time I reached the end of Project Infinity, I found my enthusiasm at least slightly revived. This really is a story which saves its exciting set-pieces and twists for the very end.

The earlier parts of the story are dogged with problems. The characterisation, for instance, is increasingly lacking. With our heroine out of action, Alby gets a touch more to do (desolation at Suz’s death rather than determination) but frankly it’s all a bit obvious, while I’ve also reached Teresa Gallagher saturation point, finding Mirana irksome, superfluous and a repetition of the Pellan twist earlier in the series – I just don’t think the idea of “Dalek secret agents” is all that interestingly used here (either a quick shock moment or, when it’s reversed, a convenient means for the main characters to learn of the Dalek plans). As expected, Joyce Gibbs’ character is one of the heavily foreshadowed Seers of Yaldos, in whom there are more than a few strands of Barry Letts’ Buddhist tendencies (“Our people learnt long, long ago that the universe is a chaotic place, where one life, one race, one planet means nothing, and where attempts to control the flow of history always ultimately fail”). This element is too mystical to really sit alongside the rest of the story easily, and doesn’t end up being all that meaningful, even if the revelation that the narration we’ve been hearing all this time is in fact her telling Alby all about his beloved is pretty neat. Sarah Mowat takes a bit of a back seat as Suz, appearing in flashbacks, but does a reasonable job.

The plotting itself is also rather bland. It might explain why Daleks have been running scared from the Earth Alliance of late, but I don’t take especially well to the revelation that the invasion of the galaxy has been one massive side-show to the Lopra system plot (what was the point of Suz as spokesperson then? It was *all* one huge, elaborate distraction? Really? I smell an Unnecessarily Complex Villainous Plan). I felt concerned that the revelation undermines what has gone before and sacrifices it at the altar of one of those waffley concepts, like Davros’ Reality Bomb, that sound marvellous in a trailer or blurb but are inevitably underwhelming when they actually appear (as it happened, I quite like Project Infinity itself, but more on that later). The project’s director, Espeelius, also comes across as rather comic-book, the performance pitched seemingly at odds with the required tone of dread. And, as above, there are one too many “so-and-so is a Dalek agent!” type twists.

On the plus side, Project Infinity really is an immersive listen; the revolution against the Daleks as thousands of former slaves surge towards them is vividly rendered, and the moment in which Suz is exterminated by the Dalek is heart-stopping. The battle scenes are as expansive and chaotic as I’ve come to expect by now. The Daleks’ gradual yet methodical execution of hostages is suitably unpleasant. And kudos to Gareth Thomas, who gives his best performance yet as Kalendorf, taking a much more active and determined role in proceedings – using his psychic powers against the Emperor, chartering a course for the Lopra System, and so on.

Luckily, my fears about the nature of Project Infinity were in some sense unfounded – it’s still a wonky change of direction to shift the focus away from galaxy-conquering and slavery but thank goodness the eponymous project isn’t some Death Star stand-in or gigantic mega-rocket. The ‘quantum realities’ reveal is a welcome hard SF concept and the thinking behind investigating a reality in which the Daleks were conquered forever is sound, although it only really arrives in the last twelve minutes and so is sold a little short. That said, I was so pleased that it wasn’t merely some hokey weapon that my opinion of the story from then on picked up considerably; indeed, Briggs almost trolls the sceptical audience about how predictable they thought he was going to be (“You think it’s a weapon, don’t you?” he chuckles patronisingly as David Sax playing Tanlee). The Daleks’ master plan (importing Daleks from a Dalek-only universe to our universe) spirals up to ludicrously apocalyptic proportions in the final moments, yet the charming and joyous pulpiness of it is something of a guilty pleasure. Jubilee’s predictions about a universe in which Daleks are the only life-forms again strikes a chord here – Dalek hatred is such that they cannot help turning on one another, the series ending in an orgy of Dalek-on-Dalek violence.

Better still, the most obvious thread running through this series so far – the nature of human and Dalek, what makes them separate and what makes them alike – reaches a thrillingly perverse conclusion in the form of “millions of human beings, and their close cousins…millions, sleeping, all the best specimens waiting for rebirth.” Humans that become Daleks. Some find human-Dalek transformations too similar to the Cybermen’s MO, a common complaint about The Parting of the Ways and, later, Asylum of the Daleks, but in my view it can only add to their horror simply because the Daleks and the Cybermen do it for such different reasons. Cybermen want to help; there is a genuine, tragic desperation in what it means to be a Cyberman because the removal of emotions has been done to you nominally for your own good. But Daleks want to pulp and sift the matter of your atoms and turn you into a Dalek because then there will be more Daleks. You are not the receiver of an ultimate upgrade into a stronger lifeform. You are a strategic advantage.

It’s a small thing, but the image of a jar of pickled onions (allegedly a personal passion of Briggs’) on the slope of a windswept mountain as a key turning point in Alby’s emotional journey is one of those archetypal banality-as-myth moment that Cornell and Davies favour so much, the random food choice acquiring immense significance to the characters involved where otherwise they would have little meaning. It is also, of course, typical British bathos of the kind which Doctor Who has always deployed as an antidote to too many Star Warsisms. I highly approve, and I’d like to see more of these little details in Dalek Empire in the future – maintain the grand cosmic sweep, but devote proper, intelligent time to dwell on and flesh out the human moments and do it with originality.

This episode seems to have more of an emphasis on the futility of resistance, if you’ll pardon the cliché, and a nihilist’s acceptance of the fact that all kingdoms are going to turn to dust in the end. Yet it also wants to have as gung-ho a heroic cheer as possible, emphasising Kalendorf’s status as an armed Knight and having the humans travel on a battleship by the name of Courageous. Perhaps the clunkiness of this blend is part of its appeal. It’s an odd listen in many ways, sometimes impressively fatalist, sometimes crackling with bursts of exciting direction, yet sometimes plodding and unfocused. As finales go, Project Infinity is no real disaster, but it’s fair to say this is becoming a series in need of a bracing shot in the arm.

Other things:
Alby on the Yaldos mountainside: “If you must know, I’m looking for some pickled onions.”
“Empires must rise and fall. It is the nature of history.”
Does anyone else just think of Flight of the Conchords’ Racist Dragon when they hear the name ‘Alby’? I’d been wondering why that moniker was bothering me.
The GalSec colony from The Sontaran Experiment gets a brief nod.
“How much death can you witness before it all becomes meaningless?”
“I cannot hear anything. I cannot hear anything.” Kalendorf’s best line, as the telepath struggles to forget the sounds of the dying Project Infinity personnel.
Alby on Project Infinity and, in effect, timey-wimey plotlines: “Sounds a bit like cheating to me.”
Tying in the Daleks’ interest in veganite from Vega VI in the first instalment to this finale works well.
Altogether now: “SUUUUUUZZZZ!”
What a strange ending, and not one I’m necessarily keen on. I’m all for cliff-hangers but that was bizarre.
The origins of Briggs’ stunningly successful portrayal of the Daleks post-2005 would all seem to stem from the sterling work he does for them in this series, and for that I say bravo.

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