Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 2.1: Dalek War Chapter One by Nicholas Briggs (January 2003)

I know it’s an awfully overused word, but do you know what’s better about Dalek War so far? It’s atmospheric. There are fewer vast, planetary vistas and more creaking space stations and vessels, but by God this thing’s classy space claustrophobia creeps right into your ears in the same way that Alien burns into your eyes. From the eerier, more subdued incidental music to the opening Kalendorf/Dalek exchange (“And now we’re alone. Do you understand me?”/“I – UNDERSTAND!”), the listener knows they’re in for a hell of an uneasy ride. If possible, it sounds even slicker and better made; the whole thing is just so damn vivid.

The strapline for this opening episode at least could well have been “They’re back – and this time it’s personal”. I hadn’t expected that Kalendorf, Alby and the rebel humans would rally to the side of the Daleks from the parallel universe to fight against this universe’s Daleks, but as ever it’s a neat evolution of the ever-more damaging bargains and alliances the humans must strike in the face of an evil, existential threat. The next step from a battery farm of humans becoming Daleks is, of course, humans fighting alongside them (in Earth’s very solar system, no less). Daleks vs Daleks & Humans is a setup that’s certainly going to hold my attention for a bit.

Wisely, for this first part Briggs chooses to focus on our three separate protagonists going their three separate ways. Gareth Thomas makes easily the best impression in this audio drama as the pragmatic Fleet Commander Kalendorf, as he is now known, rallying forces both human and Dalek alike. He’s almost certainly the best actor the Dalek Empire series has, so giving him the best material possible is an inherently wise move. Teresa Gallagher’s Mirana is still far from my favourite character, but she works better when not saddled with the “Dalek agent” business and is given some actual meat to deal with. And meanwhile, the ever-steadfast Alby Brook is pursuing a different tack entirely, mysteriously seeking out an Alliance space station in the Pkowik System. Even if it means not getting an immediate answer to the cliff-hanger, the shift in the war, five years on, permits some intriguing developments without losing the focus on individual characters caught up in the clash of opposing forces.

The most important new character is the Mentor, who appears to be some kind of alternate universe Davros. The parallelism is fascinating – far from a crippled male, she is a golden, angelic female encased in gems, indicative of the sleeker and more beautiful Alliance Daleks, Daleks as the “guardians of peace and order”. This side appears to be as fascistic and controlling as the Daleks we know, but in a different way, ruthlessly attempting to uphold justice. Hannah Smith does a marvellous job in the role of the Mentor – her voice giving the Dalek sheen an eerily feminine overlay that makes it sound like nothing we’ve heard before. Her fraught relations with Kalendorf bode extremely well for some good character drama in the rest of the series. Their scenes together are great, tautly written and full of mistrust. Also given something of a makeover in Dalek War is Susan Mendes, who is summoned out of cryogenic sleep like Han Solo and thus becomes the receptacle for a decent amount of exposition. It’s good to see her back properly, and she has some unexpectedly strong scenes with Mirana. There’s just one catch – Suz now appears to have the Dalek Emperor residing in her mind (like Ganatus did in The Mutant Phase).

Another series of Dalek Empire, so we get another Brechtian defamiliarization effect: Dalek War Chapter One sees us move from the Seer of Yaldos’ enigmatic narration in the first series to a new conceit. This time the action ‘proper’ is framed by a discussion thereupon between Saloran Hardew and Siy Tarkov 2,500 years into the future (TARDIS wiki says it’s the 67th century), which in a typical lapse of logic I like to picture as being round a campfire on a dark night despite the fact they are clearly inside a room with a computer. The advantages this framing device affords Briggs in telling his story are manifold: (a) it gives the story a sense of broader significance outside of the immediate events of the year 4177, (b) it allows him to introduce two new semi-regular characters in an innovative way, (c) in a reasonably neat trick for something already set in the future, it elevates the proceedings of Dalek Empire itself and the protagonists with whom we are already familiar to a near-mythic level, in that they are being discussed with hushed voices far into the future, and (d) it permits some typically fascinating commentary on the story as we go along (viz. Doctor Who and the Pirates). It also, of course, allows for some handy info-dumping for an audience who might’ve needed reminding of the events of Dalek Empire I approximately twelve months later.

If Dalek War Chapter One has a major flaw, it’s that it is relatively heavy on recapping and examining the fallout of the previous story and relatively light on pushing this new one into high gear. But given the complexity of the first series’ loose ends, this is pretty forgivable, and Briggs uses the fact that he needs to rely on exposition and flashbacks as a springboard for some good character drama. In one sense, it’s comparable to Creatures of Beauty in that the wholly out-of-order, told-in-retrospect nature of the story manages to deceive you into thinking by the end that you’ve heard it all in the correct order; it’s surprisingly easy to follow. Of course, this isn’t an exceptional Doctor Who story. But it is a very, very highly accomplished slice of space opera and if that’s what you’re looking for you probably won’t hear much better than this.

Other things:
Awesome revamped title music, much more haunting and urgent. I hope they keep it around.
Words one definitely isn’t expecting to hear: “A…Dalek? What’s a Dalek?”
I like the subtly different vocal work between the Enemy Daleks and the more human-sounding Alliance Daleks. Very nice.
“Let’s give the enemy a bloody nose before we even think about retreating!”/“BLOODY – NOSE?!”
Creepy Mentor: “I am teasing you, and that is the action of a friend, would you agree?...and we are friends, are we not, Kalendorf?”
“You’re never certain about anything, are you, Johnstone?”/“I find it’s the best policy. Nothing in the universe is ever certain.”
“Susan, I’m a friend.”/“Then how is it I don’t remember you?”/“We’ve never met.”/“Then how can you be a friend?”
I’d forgotten Dalek guns have a ‘stun’ setting, and I bet Briggs knew most of us had forgotten that.
Dalek sass: “Do you mean the Project Infinity thing?”/“AS – YOU – SAY, THE – PROJECT – INFINITY – THING!”
“It seems we may have swapped one dictatorship for another.”
Will Alby and Suz ever have a happy ending? They still haven’t been properly reunited yet…

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