Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 2.3: Dalek War Chapter Three by Nicholas Briggs (March 2003)

I asked for more scenes with Kalendorf and the Mentor, and lo and behold, they were delivered. The scene in which she takes him to task for the failure of his Jupiter operation is especially good, as Hannah Smith unleashes her full fury on her ally of several years and has her Daleks imprison him. Gareth Thomas continues to excel, playing Kalendorf as a man who holds his cards ever more tightly to his chest just as the Mentor’s suspicions about his true nature continue to grow. In fact, given how mistrustful and thoughtful Kalendorf generally is, it isn’t wholly convincing that he’d fall for the “terraformed Jupiter” trap, so much so that you almost wonder whether the whole fiasco was a part of his plan (it means him sacrificing almost all of his troops, of course, which is to ascribe him perhaps a little too much strategic ruthlessness). In any event, I’m still in the dark about what exactly the Knight of Velyshaa is planning. Contributing significantly, if not particularly at length, to the compelling depiction of Kalendorf is an uneasy flash-forward to Siy and Saloran, discussing the old soldier’s inner nature: “Is he really the monster that brought about the great catastrophe – the Dark One, the Bringer of Death we were all told about at school?” It’s certainly preferable to follow a series about heroes whom we do not know we can really trust – which, although it has sometimes featured memorably as a part of Doctor Who, is certainly not the parent series’ default position.

Another advantage Dalek Empire has over the series that spawned it is its sprawling number of regular protagonists, which really gives it the ability to follow different plotlines in different locations, and means we can get a sizeable range of pairings: Suz/Kalendorf, Kalendorf/Mentor, Alby/Mirana, Suz/Alby, Mirana/Marber, Kalendorf/Herrick, and so on. You need a cast of this size in a galaxy-spanning war epic, of course, but it helps that a number of them are intrinsically interesting figures in their own right. Mirana, for instance, has come a very long way from the chirpy police officer of the first series and is now as capable of bleak musings and heartfelt regrets as anyone. Morli remains annoying, of course, and her simplistic, brainwashed animosity towards Suz feels too convenient and rushed (why now, for one thing? I suppose there’s an argument it took her this long to do anything about it because of her lack of intelligence) – but in general she’s the exception that proves the rule.

Of the others: Suz is a tortured soul, isn’t she? Briggs has really put her through the wringer over the course of these seven releases. Even here – when Mowat plays the lines as softly as she can, and she enjoys the freedom of her romantic reunion with Alby – there’s still that gnawing anxiety creeping into her bones: fear, guilt, futility. There’s still the awareness that their love has so often been manipulated, depended upon as a strategic error or a new phase in a plan like the re-alignment of a gunship (“what good will that love do us now? What good has it done? It’s just given the Daleks what they want”). Even if we weren’t shown enough of them getting to know each other and had to be constantly told how much they meant to one another, the scenes the two lovers share in Dalek War Chapter Three are surprisingly touching. I particularly appreciate the way Alby doesn’t see himself as a macho figure out to rescue her all the time, but knows how she has been through far much more than he has (McDonnell delivers the quiet, broken line “Suz? Will you hold me?” very nicely). I don’t know whether I’d call Dalek War an expressly feminist work, but there’s something very dignified and ennobling about Suz’s defiance in the face of her suffering and her striving for a better world even against her certainty of the brokenness of this one.

The characterisation here is a notch above what we’ve seen previously; Mowat’s work with her other two leads in the final ten minutes of this audio is possibly the highlight of the entire set of stories so far, as Briggs displays a talent for exposing the raw, feverish psychological states of his triumvirate of flawed heroes. The story ends on a knife-edge, with the listener left in very real suspense as to whether Alby has made the right choice or not…and which Daleks it would be better to sell one’s soul to. In a world of xenophobic, militaristic imperialism on the one hand and brainwashing in the name of security and justice on the other, where are love, individuality and humanity to find a home between the two?

I’d also argue there’s more existential horror in this instalment of Dalek War. Kalendorf’s Earth Alliance troops (Herrick, Allenby, et al.) set out across the jungles of Jupiter to explore the possibility of mining its mineral deposits. The whoops of alien birds and the rasp of varga plants are beautifully realised and help to convey an atmosphere of genuine foreboding: Jupiter might be Dalek Empire’s best location yet. The varga plants themselves are a lovely nod to Mission to the Unknown and that episode’s suggestion that the Daleks themselves are like a plague, which we’ve already discussed as an important influence on Briggs’ writing for the Daleks, although the sounds of the transformation sequences are considerably more disturbingly rendered now than they were in 1965. These scenes are terrific, all moody and startling, as more and more teams of soldiers go disappearing off the map or mutate into cacti, and an army of varga plants swarms off towards Kalendorf’s fleet – they’re the closest Dalek Empire has come to properly nasty body horror on the level of Alien.

Elsewhere, Mirana and Marber, two subdued, echoey voices against a void, are slowly and quietly asphyxiated in a tiny, pathetic scout ship in the depths of space, as black emptiness pitilessly watches them die. The universe seems creepy and unknowable above and beyond the imminent military threat of the Daleks themselves, and that’s definitely a plus in terms of the direction this series is taking. Existential horror, political parable, doomed love story, action movie… Dalek War Chapter Three has it all.

Other things:
There’s some particularly cracking music in this one.
The Mentor’s chilling speech to the planet Emmeron: “You must learn to fight for yourselves. We must all unite against a common enemy. Your leaders tell me that the petty affairs of your planet are more important than our great cause. They would rather wage war with other continents than face up to their wider responsibilities. It would seem they have made their choice for you all. I give you one last chance to overthrow your leaders or to make them see sense. If you do not respond, your fate is sealed.”
“There’s nothing on this planet but plants, insects and rodents – but if you see a hostile-looking bug, you have my express permission to blow its ugly nuts off.”
The thought of the Dalek Emperor nestled in Suz’s head while she and Alby are snogging away is just ewww. God, can you imagine what his reactions would be?
“It’s all over, Captain. Don’t let me die of curiosity as well as asphyxiation.”
“Think about it. You’ve got two factions of the most evil, destructive race the galaxy, probably the universe, has ever known. You’ve allied yourself with one faction to defeat the other. It looks like you might win. But then you find out the Daleks on your side are pretty much as bad as the bad Daleks. So then what do you do?”
“There is one word that would sum [Kalendorf] up: warrior. And a warrior must be prepared to risk everything in order to win his war.”
“Brain correction”? Sounds very Mao Tse-Tung.
“I know the Daleks…better than I’d like to.”
“I never sleep, me, just think with my eyes closed.”
“Never trust a man of noble birth – he’ll sell you all down the river just for the sake of honour.”
“The Mentor wants us all to be like Morli someday: simple, loveable, obedient, and...murderous on cue. Is that what you want to be like?”

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