Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 3.2: The Healers by Nicholas Briggs (June 2004)

The Healers is fairly straightforwardly split into three segments – the Selestru/Tarkov business in Galactic Union HQ, Galanar’s quest to Velyshaa, and the arrival of the Daleks on Graxis Major. There is therefore a pretty wide canvas of different strands, above and beyond the mere struggle between humans and Daleks. Nick Briggs weaves his way between all three, and fortunately they are of an equally compelling urgency. This is a story less obviously about grandstanding violence and war and slavery and oppression, or at least it goes about it in a less blockbuster war-movie fashion. In a strange way, given the 67th century setting, it’s a little more grounded; disease is something everybody faces, after all, as is growing old and losing our friends. There is a bit more of a sense of a real, broader world here. We do not need to be in a war to understand these characters’ plight.

The Doctor’s absence haunts this instalment of Dalek Empire in a way it hasn’t really up until now. There’s the obviously unintentional, and yet completely unavoidable, fact that future Tenth Doctor David Tennant is playing one of the main characters (and given his alias, Dr Dennis Grentram, “one of [those] legendary plague-busters”, it’s a strange pleasure to hear him continually addressed as “Doctor”!). There’s the recurring theme of plague and medical care (the first question Tarkov is asked by his daughter is “Who are you? Do you need a doctor?”). But even more interestingly, the title, and indeed much of the plot, immediately signals that Briggs is drawing on Revelation of the Daleks here, with the Daleks (minus their creator) in the mock-helpful position of bringing medical aid and resources to a dwindling populace, “medical geniuses” that they are. This doesn’t just mean we get some deliciously ironic Power of the Daleks-type “the Daleks wish only to help you” lines of dialogue, but there’s something also very specifically sinister about them assuming the mantle of bastardised Doctor-figures, of ruthlessly manipulative medical assistants running their own “Healing Zone” and referring to “human subjects” in the same sentence as “efficiency” and “work cycles”. Like they’ve somehow supplanted the Doctor’s traditional role and taken it for their own; like they’re Not-Doctors, creatures who are in some sense formed out of his absence (although it has to be said that I’m rather enamoured with the idea, only vaguely supported by this story, that if the Doctor is a lone, mercurial quack, the Daleks are a huge and evil pharmaceutical company sponging off human mortality as they mass-produce the latest drug we are all so quick to get popping).

Tennant’s narration continues to be good, and while the business with him in zero-gravity on board the passenger liner are amusing, his best work comes when he observers patients suffering from NFS in one of the Healing Zones, waiting to be treated with Variant 7. Galanar’s obvious shock at seeing how huge the space epidemic has become is powerfully sold, Briggs wisely choosing to cut back on incidental music and let Tennant’s reading of the dialogue stand by itself. Yet the issue of quite what role Tennant is playing in all this lingers on – he’s obviously an internal character within the narrative, as we can see from all his scenes as Galanar journeying towards Velyshaa, encountering Japrice, waking up on Scalanis VIII, and so on. And yet he displays an omniscient knowledge of events of which he could not possibly be aware. I’m intrigued to see how his role in proceedings is explored and developed; it still feels like the most interesting stuff for him is yet to come.

Steven Elder is truly superb as the increasingly desperate Siy Tarkov. The character’s horrific illness is, in pure storyline terms, one of the best things that could have happened to him: it gives us a great hook to remain interested in his fate and allows Elder to give a terrific performance. His nightmarish scenario – returning home years later than he thought, to find his wife and friends long gone, and his daughter’s childhood completely over – is really, really well-handled (and put me rather in mind of some of Matthew McConaughey’s better moments in Interstellar). It’s sensitive and tragic without being maudlin, and actually rather hard to listen to, in the way the best serious drama quite often can be. The horror of his resigned line “Yes, I’m dead” particularly hits home.

Not everyone suffers quite like Tarkov does, but desperation and the necessity of compromise runs throughout The Healers; even a Dalek ally like Provost Carneill is rendered sympathetic when we learn that his entire family has been wiped out by the NFS disease, that he feels betrayed and cut-off from the centralised Galactic Union, and we soon see it is no wonder he was driven to make a bargain with these creatures of terror. The storyline on Graxis Major is brilliantly bleak; the Dalek attempting to rush Sergic’s burial is a very strong scene, as Frey Saxton defies the Daleks’ screeching hysteria and continues to eulogise the exterminated technician. Her words of compassion and tenderness quite literally compete with fascism’s rising pitch to be heard, and she damn well sees her eulogy through to the end. Ishia Bennison is one of this story’s great strengths, pragmatic matriarch of her own little world, and now that world is overrun with Daleks, and her Wardens are being butchered.

Let’s return to the best part about The Healers: a line from Galanar’s shocked reaction to seeing the NFS patients, “And I found myself thinking, if these Healers – these Daleks – were really helping to put a stop to this horror, then what could be so bad about them?” It’s chilling in the way looking at pictures of Neville Chamberlain declaring that a piece of paper he is holding in his hand means “peace for our time” is chilling. Because an evil has been respected, and granted worth and legitimacy where it should have none; and because in times of desperation and panic and yearning for some kind of certainty, people like Chamberlain or citizens of Germany in 1932 or Galanar or Provost Carneill or, quite plausibly in another time or place, me or you, are capable of clinging on to what will help us with our desperation or our needs or our continued survival and trying to forget the atrocities that will allow us to go on living. How appropriate, then, that the cliff-hanger here is the Dalek Supreme speaking with the voice of Susan Mendes, the Dalek Empire character who most embodies, nay, is the dictionary definition of ‘doing a deal with the devil’.

Other things:
“He found out that all his records had been filed under ‘deceased’. He couldn’t find anybody who had the authority to reverse the classification, so…he was deceased.”
“Last year I had to watch every member of my family die.”/“I’m sorry.”/“Sorry isn’t good enough! The Galactic Union are sorry! We’re all sorry!”
“THE – PRIMATES – ARE – OF – NO – VALUE.”/“Well, yes, regrettably the emergency situation means we have to prioritise.”
Nice use of the title music as an incidental score when the Daleks are speaking, and there are some lovely little understated piano motifs too.
“The entire Graxis System is rich in life. It may not be life like ours, or even a Dalek’s, but it’s LIFE! Rich, diverse, unique!”
The ‘grading’ of plague victims is a fairly common motif also observable in Jane Espenson’s Torchwood: Miracle Day episode The Categories of Life.
An excellent soliloquy: “Not a pretty sight. Not pretty at all. What you feel most is guilt. Guilt that you’re not the one who’s suffering. Guilt that most of them are dying before your eyes. Neurotransmitter Failure Syndrome – sounds clear-cut and clinical, like a description of a machine that needs repairing. But human beings aren’t machines. That’s obvious, isn’t it? But never so obvious as when you see a human being physically falling apart as you watch. It wouldn’t have helped even if I’d been a real doctor, it was just a case of counting the dead and dying, then helping those who were still alive onto transport to the treatment units. And I found myself thinking, if these Healers – these Daleks – were really helping to put a stop to this horror, then what could be so bad about them?”

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