Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 3.1: The Exterminators by Nicholas Briggs (May 2004)

One thing which came to mind while listening to the first two series of Dalek Empire was the comment William Blake famously made about John Milton’s Paradise Lost: that the author of the latter poem was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. There is some doubt about what Blake meant by this remark, and it seems he qualified it by saying that this was only true from the Devil’s point of view, but it has generally passed into myth as a helpful aphorism to describe a work that unintentionally ends up championing the characters it wants us to think are morally despicable. Certainly, this is true of Paradise Lost, in which God is an absolute bore and Satan a terrifically exciting figure; it’s telling that Milton could get ten books out of the fall of humanity, but only four out of its salvation, and that almost no one has even heard of Paradise Regained. Dragging myself kicking and screaming back to the point, one can only approach Dalek Empire in the knowledge that its USP is, fundamentally, the Daleks. As I said about Invasion of the Daleks, it’s a story which “is almost entirely constructed on the premise that it will be a thing of fundamental intrinsic pleasure to spend seventy-two minutes with Skaro’s finest”. We don’t want them to mess about; we want them to get on with exterminating people. That’s what we’re in it for, right? Yet over the course of those two series, partly because Briggs had a decent-length story to play with, Dalek Empire actually became about something else, and in all honesty it was for Suz and Kalendorf and Alby that I kept listening, because they were involving figures whose struggle against their own darker nature was as compelling as the war they were waging against creatures who are the embodiment of evil.

By the time we reach Dalek Empire III, set 2,500 years after the initial crop of stories, the draw of those characters’ storylines is pretty much over. The Daleks are the major linking thread that binds the two series together (yes, I know we’ve met Siy Tarkov before but he wasn’t exactly a figure you could pin a whole series around without including Daleks, is he?). I mean, even the secondary title underneath the umbrella Dalek Empire III is named after the villains: The Exterminators. We’re back to the simple fact of people buying it because the Daleks are in it – or, if you like, we’re back to square one. This is Invasion of the Daleks Mark II.

What is fascinating, then, about what Briggs does this time is that he goes in the opposite direction to the first time he was in this situation; that is to say, he chooses to give us fewer Daleks as opposed to more. There is no galaxy-spanning Dalek empire here, soaring above the skies of Vega VI like an unstoppable apocalypse; that’s not how he tries to win us over to these new settings and new bunches of characters. He knows we know that Daleks are going to turn up, so he banks on the old Wilkie Collins maxim – “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry…make ‘em wait.” The Daleks are a much less present force here than in any of the preceding eight instalments of Dalek Empire, taking a good 32 minutes to appear at all; instead, they are a nebulous threat, out there somewhere in the distant reaches of the galaxy, but they’re coming. They skirt around the fringes of the narrative, exploiting venal politicians like Provost Carneill, skulking unseen and (almost) unheard in the haunting woods of Graxis Major. It’s the most low-key they’ve been on audio for some time, but no less effective for that.

As in the final part of Dalek War, the events of the earlier stories are here passed into legend, and Velyshaa itself is something of a lost relic of a world. By the time of the 67th century there have been some major changes in the galaxy’s politics, too: there is now a vast, sprawling Galactic Union as opposed to a rag-tag band of rebels – like the progression from the sleek city-scape of the Star Wars prequels to the desperate alliance of the original trilogy, except in reverse. The notion of the Confederate Border Worlds also reminds me very much of Firefly, which I’ve been rewatching lately and which aired a couple of years before this story first appeared: wild, lawless planets on the outer fringes, far from centralised power and technology, rebelling against the centre of authority because the governors have no understanding of such a different lifestyle. In this world, the Daleks play a role akin to Reavers, transgressive creatures that intrude into human space as opposed to all-conquering oppressors under whose authority humans are permitted to labour and toil.

The by-now obligatory Briggsian framing device this time around is a quiet and sombre David Tennant as Galanar, intoning “Let me tell you about my friend” and discussing Tarkov with William Gaunt’s Giorgi Selestru. Tennant’s character inevitably doesn’t make a particularly impressive impact, given how little he’s in this introductory episode, but I’m hoping we’ll hear more from him and his undeniably impressive range. There isn’t a huge amount to Giorgi Selestru as scripted, either, but Gaunt’s performance works well. Tarkov is also very sympathetically portrayed, the distressed, suffering survivor of a fatal plague, a man who will never truly get better. As in Dalek War Chapter Three, many of the protagonists encounter a threat that is somehow more…normal than the Daleks: disease, Neurotransmitter Failure Syndrome to be specific. Placing them under the constraints of a different obstacle – admittedly, a very Terry Nation-ish obstacle, the man who loved epidemics and virulent plagues – has the obvious effect of added desperation on top of (and, indeed, distraction from) the Dalek threat. Over in the Graxis system, we meet Kaymee Arnod, using the familiar trick of introducing us to a new world via the eyes of a character to whom it’s all new as well; she finds herself among the Graxis Wardens, who seem to be like park rangers but on a planetary scale. Of their number, Ishia Bennison is the strongest performer and brings a down-to-earth gruffness to the part of Frey Saxton.

Nothing about The Exterminators is particularly wonderful in and of itself, but taken as a whole it serves as a tantalising set-up for the story to come, introducing some intriguing new characters and situations, setting up a few fascinating plotlines and hooking listeners in with a great, if not entirely unexpected, cliff-hanger.

Other things:
I get what Briggs is trying to do with the sudden pre-titles cut to some Daleks ruthlessly mowing down a monkey, but I’m not quite sure it worked. It was a touch *too* jarring, and the hokey evolving primates thing regrettably reminds me of Scaredy Cat. That said, the scene with the dead one is really rather creepy.
Kaymee’s descent onto Graxis Major is well-rendered, and Laura Rees does a good job capturing her character’s bubbling nervousness (although she overacts a little in other scenes).
“Peace is a powerful drug; it shrouds fear in nobility.”
“I hope I’m wrong. I want to be wrong! The trouble is, I think I’m right.”
“It seems I went out [to Velyshaa] as low priority…and came back the same way.”
“This isn’t just some ancient myth. The Daleks were so ruthless, so powerful, so without conscience, that in order to destroy them, Kalendorf had to risk destroying the entire galaxy. And that’s what caused the Great Catastrophe.”
“What made you apply to become a Warden?”/“Didn’t I fill out that bit on the form?”

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