Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 2.4: Dalek War Chapter Four by Nicholas Briggs (April 2003)

Just as the previous series finale, Project Infinity, avoided the obvious plot strands and threw something new at us, and just as Dalek War Chapter One rather skipped over the first series’ almighty cliff-hanger, so too here, as the climactic events of the last installment are left hanging in the air, unaddressed, for the first third of the runtime. It’s quite disorientating to say the least, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we knew the names of two of the new characters from earlier episodes, one would be forgiven for thinking this was a new storyline altogether. It’s a risk Nick Briggs runs here – on the one hand, it could actively put listeners off, but it had me keener than ever to see how he was going to tie it all together (and crucially he puts the time-jump to very good use). Yes, in Briggs’ most audacious narrative leap yet, the entirety of Dalek War Chapter Four takes place in the 67th century, long after the events we have otherwise been following. Only The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang does a comparable leap that I can think of (and even that’s 1,896 years, not 2,500). This allows more fleshing out of Saloran Hardew and Siy Tarkov, the enigmatic characters we’ve been teased with all along, but also to tell the barn-storming finale we’d been waiting for via flashback and retrospective.

Hardew and Tarkov have a pretty good dynamic, if hardly guessable from their brief appearances prior to this. Her bitterness and his calmer nature work in an effective tandem. Karen Henson makes a more immediate impression as Hardew, in part because of the character’s forceful nature; she has an appealingly maverick quality to her with a side order of acrimonious cynicism. That she’s sleeping in a chamber of Kalendorf’s memories and hence dreams about his past is mildly contrived and a bit of a Seer of Yaldos remix, although since it’s actually far more refined and concrete than his first attempt I’ll forgive that. Steven Elder’s performance as Tarkov is less noteworthy, but he, too, acquits himself well. It’ll be interesting to see these two, if indeed they both appear, get developed over the course of Dalek Empire III – a properly different scenario but still a (belated) sequel to the first two series.

I mentioned in one of the earlier Dalek War entries that the advantage of the 67th-century segments was how it mythologises the very story we are listening to. This is where that properly sets in, and it’s where Briggs really starts to do something fascinating with his galactic war saga. Those people of flesh and blood, in whose joys and woes and terrors we have shared, are now akin to statues, chiselled works of art that are long-crumbling; or, more ephemeral still, mere memories in the air, snatches of voices in the ether you might catch on the wind, or you might not. A Dalek becomes a terrifying nightmare in a mausoleum (see The Big Bang again), a remnant of its former glory, a still-potent dream. We finally get to see Velyshaa and learn more about Kalendorf’s homeworld and society; it’s a planet I’d always pictured as a super-advanced cityscape-world like Coruscant or something similar. Perhaps it was once like that. But it emerges that it is now a ruined world, all desolate winds and abandoned, echoey chambers full of statues, much more in keeping with Cormac McCarthy-esque apocalyptic fiction than the war epic genre to which Briggs has previously been adhering fairly rigidly (I say Cormac McCarthy, but what with Survivors and his Who scripts, Terry Nation is more likely to be the primary influence). Millennia after a terrible catastrophe, it is Kalendorf who is held to be the Dark One, the Bringer of Death, the Harbinger of Darkness, who brought it all about (Kalendorf’s Peter Mandelson?! Who knew). Time can be rewritten – and so can stories. We can follow the likeable Gareth Thomas throughout the twists and turns of Dalek Empire, an actor so charming he convinced me of his good and noble nature (me and my “it means [Kalendorf] sacrificing almost all of his troops, of course, which is to ascribe him perhaps a little too much strategic ruthlessness”, indeed! Bah humbug), only to have our entire perspective and impressions turned on their head when we learn how the universe remembers him. He is, all things considered, a pretty utilitarian guy: the war hero version of John Stuart Mill. A man whom one scarcely knows whether to condemn or endorse. Billions die and civilisations fall because of his actions, yet they are actions he took to rid the galaxy of the Daleks.

But they are always with us.  They always survive, when we lose everything… the embodiment of our own dark history, the History of the Tower.

Kalendorf is a man who throws himself into the hellhole of war “because that’s where he wants to be these days”: between Briggs’ writing and Thomas’ portrayal, he’s a very compelling portrayal of what war can bring out in people. His scene with the dying Dalek on Meecros V, communicating telepathically with the bare, naked, mutant form, is a fantastic monologue. Better still is his final meeting with the Mentor, as the two former allies confront one another to discuss the freedom of choice, and Kalendorf must deal with “that fixed exquisite smile and the gentle voice” (see also Hamlet’s “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”). The Mentor is one of Briggs’ most chilling, most fundamentalist creations, and a warning sign of the certainty of being right. She calls the war against the Enemy Daleks a “crusade”; the certainty of being right* is what lies at the heart of all Crusades, after all. Given this unwavering conviction, it’s fascinating that she should choose to end the war – in effect, to back down – because a destructive stalemate has been reached. She is the precise symbiosis of zealous righteousness and risk-calculating strategist. A zombified universe ruled over by the Mentor, however peaceful, is not one worth living in, and here Dalek War Chapter Four hits the same theme we’ve seen replay throughout this series – that freedom of choice and individual rights are to be championed in the face of any systemic certainty. In the real world, alas, those with a resolute but misguided determination do not always make collateral damage and loss of life part of their sums before they act, and they rarely if ever withdraw to their own solipsistic universe.

Amid all this, Susan Mendes kills Alby Brook for the galaxy’s sake – and in such an ignominious, even understated, way. In fact I’d go so far as to say the moment is swallowed by what is surrounding it. Given the tendency towards hopelessly overwritten death scenes, it’s a pleasant – if that is the right word – surprise how the offing of one of our key leads is nothing but a flicker of radio waves in a larger story. But that’s war for you, I suppose. Suz herself undergoes the last, worst subjugation: she is irrevocably the Dalek Emperor and the woman we knew has been mentally crushed with barely a trace of the Human Factor still alive. And that, of course, is the Daleks’ downfall – without Suz, the Dalek Emperor simply cannot understand Kalendorf’s actions. They win, as of course they must; their race ultimately survives the Great Catastrophe at the end of this story. But the Daleks are a vast, galaxy-spanning Empire and Suz is one woman. When you look at those odds, and you see what this ordinary human mineralogist achieved, and how many lives she saved, I’d say she comes out of it pretty well. We probably all hope we could be a bit like Susan Mendes in times of desperation.

Of all his work that I’ve heard, Dalek War as a whole (but particularly Chapter Three and Chapter Four) ranks as the very best thing Nick Briggs has written – alongside Creatures of Beauty. And where the latter audio drama was certainly more radical, Dalek War has the edge of being a longer, more involved work, which meant there was time to flesh out almost every character and get an audience more involved, and this arguably makes the final sucker-punch a still more sobering one. Though it often does similar things to the first series, Dalek War is much, much more compelling than Dalek Empire, a richer and more nuanced treatment of the characters, better plotted and structured, and with a plethora of more powerful scenes. Bring on round three.

Other things:
Stunning sound design as ever – Briggs’ spaceship effects just get better and better.
“OPEN THIS DOOR!”/“There’s a simple latch!”/“Oh.”
“Has there been trouble here?”/“Yes…didn’t you hear, the civilisation died over two thousand years ago.”
“Little by little we’re making improvements.”/“About three thousand years ago our ancestors would’ve made the same journey in only a fraction of the time. Sobering thought, isn’t it?”
“I’ve seen the debris and dust that were once star systems. I’ve visited planets where the atmospheres are still poisoned, that still bear the scars of some… unimaginably violent upheaval.”
I can’t decide if the fact that the entire galaxy seems to always change its mind every time Suz gives a speech is a superb Coriolanus­-style comment on people’s innate fickleness, or shabby plot contrivance.
Sancroff? The Knight of Velyshaa from The Sirens of Time? I’ve almost forgotten his storyline by now.
Ah, good to finally get an explanation for the pre-titles sequence of Dalek War Chapter One.
“On a crusade against evil there can be no equivocation.”/“Those planets weren’t equivocating, they were sick of war! They’d lost their will to fight! Most of them had had their natural resources ripped out of the guts of their worlds. It isn’t that they didn’t want to fight alongside us, most of them couldn’t!”
“You are a Warrior at heart, Kalendorf. What will you do without a war to fight?”
A Dalek conception of nihilism’s terrible beauty: “There is something almost poignant about the futility of what we are engaged upon.”
Helen Goldwyn’s Godwin impressed me quite a bit in her brief appearance; could have had more from her.
“If you attempt to escape you will be exterminated!”/“Why the hell would I come here just to try and escape? I could’ve just stayed away!”
“You fear me – me, a mere a humanoid.”
* Of course, “Victory or Death” is also a very fundamentalist phrase, and makes Kalendorf (and by extension his Velyshaan philosophy, embracing Sancroff’s Strategy and the Suz-mind-device detonation business) a mirror image of the Mentor’s fundamentalism. Note how Kalendorf longed to make an ultimate sacrifice to save others and become a martyr.
“The war with the Daleks isn’t over. It’ll begin again.”

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