Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 3.3: The Survivors by Nicholas Briggs (July 2004)

Playing out like some sick and twisted medical drama gone horrifically wrong, The Survivors (a Terry Nation title if ever there was one!) continues a strong run of focusing on impossible choices where no route forward is an easy way out (look no further than the decision to leave Kaymee behind with the Daleks in the hope that she might be cured). For officious chairman Bulis Meitok (BF stalwart Ian Brooker) the Daleks are a challenge to his way of seeing things, a possibility he would simply prefer not to entertain, a possibility that would shatter his universe. Selestru and Tarkov try and fail to convince Meitok that Daleks are not just some old legend but are a very real and present threat – that they are not just some historical incident but creatures with whom we continue to live, and who we ignore at our peril. Similarly, Galanar’s questions to Mivas about who exactly has been pulling the strings by building the new Healing Zone on Scalanis VIII, blossoming into the much more explicit “where are the Daleks?”, is met with a casual “well, if you’re not going to eat, I’d better clear these things away.” Elsewhere, Provost Carneill repeats mantras about the Daleks being his only chance for survival that it is clear he does not really believe in. These characters are at some level at the back of their mind aware of the existence of darker beings than themselves, and of what those darker beings can do to people, but nonetheless they do their utmost to lie to themselves, and to others, about this knowledge.

This reaches its most overt expression in the revelations around Galanar’s inner nature, unknown even to him. For the most part his storyline here is solid if unremarkable, but scattered hints here and there lead us to suspect there is something fundamentally inhuman about this strange, excitable, at times almost demented man – in the story’s second half, Tennant plays him as he does many of the mad scenes in his interpretation of Hamlet. For this reason I find this twist – that Galanar was created by the Daleks – to be more satisfying than the Amur one (more on that in the notes below), and it makes for a solid pivot for the audio to end on (even if, interestingly, it feels more like a third quarter climax than a mid-way cliff-hanger; I wonder how the tension is going to be sustained for Parts 4, 5 and 6 and whether or not Dalek Empire III will suffer from the old series’ alleged though often overstated six-parter pacing problems).

Proceedings at Galactic HQ allow a further glimpse at how numb and depressed Tarkov has become thanks to the NFS disease. Unless it is revealed that the Daleks are behind the disease in the first place – a revelation I probably wouldn’t take all that kindly to – these scenes really show the toll of age and mortality on our central characters, not some brutal and ravenous enemy. Amur’s description of how her father twenty years ago was a “dashing young man, impetuous and bold enough to abandon everything”, the man now turned into a hollow, quivering shell, hits home that these people are mere flotsam and jetsam, tiny little low priority matchstick figures in the vast galaxy-spanning, millennia-spanning canvas that is Dalek Empire. And yet the torment of Siy Tarkov has its own kind of import; Briggs captures the essence of these little lives and makes them matter to us.

“Without the Daleks we’ll all die a slow, degrading, excruciating death. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There’s no dignity,” says Carneill, and we are brought back to the Social Darwinism that runs through the Daleks not just in Dalek Empire but is the bedrock of stories like Genesis of the Daleks: better for a species to live as aggressors, trampling others and cutting up ecosystems to ensure their survival, than to fade away into a cluster of rotting non-entities and ignominiously perish. As Carneill says, “I can’t afford your principles” – just as humans so often have to exploit the animal world, and indeed fellow humans, to continue to live comfortably, so too do the Daleks. The scale may be grander, the pitilessness more absolute, but they are only the worst human impulses writ larger.

In this vein, then, it’s helpful to turn again to the story’s title; I generally don’t like doing too much waffling on about titles, as it can be a bit distracting and overwrought, but in the instance of Dalek Empire III the individual instalments helpfully set out their own major themes in the appellations on the front of the discs. The words ‘survive,’ ‘survival’ and ‘survivors’ really are bandied about a lot in this audio drama, and there is no great fist-pumping triumph in them. It is not always luck to be a survivor; sometimes it is a curse. Tarkov is a wreck of a man, the last survivor of the plague that hit his ship; the Graxis Wardens are almost all gone, eliminated, with only a handful left. Are things really that much better for those that live on, given that they live with the knowledge that everyone they know has been massacred and they themselves are sick and in terrible danger? Is there a point at which surviving, that is to say, clinging on, against all the odds, is just not worth it, and endless sleep seems far more tempting?

Briggs’ eleventh script for this range raises these questions, and more, but doesn’t provide pat or maudlin answers. The thing about all these haunted survivors is that they are all sick. The Daleks’ ruthless determination to live at the expense of all other beings is a sickness. Ignoring the Daleks’ propensity for evil, as Carneill does, is a sickness of heart based on wilfully blinding oneself to the truth. Tarkov and Kaymee are plagued by both a virus and the pain of loss. Seth Arnod shares the latter suffering with them, and it’s telling that his first excuse upon being found outside his station on Tantalus by a patrolling Dalek is that he wasn’t feeling well and needed fresh air. And, of course, Galanar’s entire conception of self is his own worst enemy, for he is in thrall to the creatures his heart yearns to fight against. In Tarkov’s words, it’s like they’re all “lab experiments gone wrong”. Perhaps survival can sometimes be the real sickness.

Other things:
Does anyone else think William Gaunt’s Selestru sounds a bit like John Humphrys at times?
“You did good today.”/“I don’t feel like I did anything.”/“You kept it together. You helped the ones you could.”
“He [Tarkov] just…stops talking. Like he can’t be bothered anymore. Like he’s given up.”
“Without the Daleks we’ll all die a slow, degrading, excruciating death. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There’s no dignity.”
It is a bit silly that Briggs keeps cameoing. His voice is just really recognisable. Couldn’t they cast someone else as Carneill’s pilot? He only has a couple of lines!
Ishia Bennison sells the hell out of her farewell scenes with Kaymee. Great job.
Although it makes Tarkov’s situation appreciably more desperate, I’m not entirely sure of the “isn’t really Amur, she’s a Dalek agent” twist. Too many of such twists (and there were a fair number in the first two series) and it stops working as well as it should, in my view. I get that it raises the stakes and means we’re kept on our toes, but there’s a fine line between that and “who’s the Dalek agent this week?” which will quickly become boring.
Generally the characterisation here is great, but Japrice and Mivas are never much more than ciphers. Seth Arnod is also a little lacking and overacted. “It’s about my daughter Kaymee, isn’t it?” Hrmm.
More from Sarah Mowat’s Dalek Supreme this time round; Mowat does particularly well at the underplayed sinister tones (“I knew where to look…”). I want to see more “female” Daleks in the TV show itself after both her and Hannah Smith’s Mentor.
The first hint that Galanar’s narration is addressed to someone else who’s a part of the narrative: “I was exhausted, and you knew it…”
“The peace and security of the galaxy are already at stake; it’s just that you and your friends on the Council are too wilfully blind to see that!”/“Not blind. Determined to keep the peace. To survive.”
There’s a 10-minute extra at the end of The Survivors, revealing that Dalek Empire III was originally supposed to be an anthology series, for which Briggs invited Clayton Hickman and Rob Shearman to pitch ideas. Their replies? That they’d rather not do it because they wanted to know how the story was going to continue, and preferred to listen to it! He discusses a renewed confidence in writing Dalek Empire III which I personally feel shows, and of script editor John Ainsworth and Shearman’s highlighting of a poor first-draft line of his that was some clunky exposition about the Graxis Wardens. This led to the Graxis Wardens becoming major, significant characters instead. Briggs also points out this is more of an "ensemble cast" story, more about friendship, than the first two series. Plus, Tennant turned down the National Theatre to fight the Daleks! An interesting little listen.

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