Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Dalek Empire 3.6: The Future by Nicholas Briggs (October 2004)

Though it’s had its ups and downs like any story – and particularly like any story with fourteen episodes! – Dalek Empire has impressed me enormously, if only for mustering a Dalekmania in me that I previously didn’t think was there. I would’ve been in the ‘dubious’ camp with regard to whether a Dalek solo series could work well, and yet Briggs pulls it off magnificently in many ways (I’ve mentioned before about how Dalek Empire is a bit like a child that has grown up enough to live its own life now, such is the relation of the Daleks to the parent show, but a worthy comparison could also be made with their own creator. Davros, back recently in such (IMO) triumphant form, is conspicuously missing from these audios and is instead given his own spin-off. With the brief exception of the Mentor and the AU-Daleks, this divorces the Daleks from the context of ‘creations’ or ‘underlings’ and rightfully keeps the focus on them). Briggs gets it right. That’s because the man understands the fundamental terror of the Daleks, which is of course paradoxically their great appeal in storytelling terms. And that is just quite how absolute they are. They are absolute and always have been. “We were just following orders.” Sans doubt, sans choices, sans inconsistencies, sans any kind of free will at all.

As current Doctor Peter Capaldi is fond of saying, Doctor Who can function on both the entertaining “dude-wearing-a-rubber-mask-pretends-to-be-a-monster” level and on a fascinating philosophical level, about what it means to be human (OK, granted, some stories lean heavier on the former…). And that question is inexorably bound up in the dilemma of free will. Like Elaria (or indeed like many former Dalek victims, say, Stien fighting against his conditioning), do we have a choice? We know Elaria would rather it all ends, would rather endless sleep. For example, she says on why she was hiding in the engine room, “It’s dark, and quiet, and usually empty. It suits me…it was warm. It was peace. Centuries passing, and we didn’t care. Nothing complicated. No fears.” And, later, she wants death because she’d rather die than fail, or lose, because she has given the Daleks her soul (“sounds almost romantic, doesn’t it?”). Yep, she’s a classic Dostoevskian Nihilist alright: just like his great character Kirilov, she longs to die. Suicide appeals as a refusal to make life’s choices, as the ultimate rejection of taking responsibility for one’s actions, in the tradition of Sartre’s mauvaise foi  – and suicide is, of course, also the Dalek response to the confliction of emotions and the eradication of the absolute (see the ending of Dalek). And thus she despairs of any last vestige of humanity: “that we’re both Demons doesn’t really give us anything in common at all, not in any real sense. We’re alone because we were made by machines to do a job. We’re just stuck with the impression that we’re human beings, that’s all. It’s like feeling a limb that someone cut off. Our humanity has gone, Galanar. It withered away while the centuries passed us by. All that’s left is our conditioning, our special abilities. But we’re not people. We’re just soulless creatures!”

The word “soul” crops up quite a lot in The Future: a slightly clunky bit of philosophising, perhaps, but if we must have a catch-all term for the human essence I suppose it does the job. Most of Briggs’ Dalek work involves some kind of discussion on what separates humankind from Daleks, and the plague scheme, rewriting humans’ genetic coding so that they mutate into Daleks, is a simple way of playing up this familiar dichotomy between them. As all Dalek stories are, in the end. They function in stories as an inversion of how the Doctor functions, because they reflect parts of our (in)humanity back at us. The Human Factor.

What does it mean to be human, and, in clashing with something as elemental and absolute as the Daleks, how does one retain that basic humanity? Is it in fact worse to take up arms against the Daleks? “What will we have to do to defeat them?” And here we see established the classic ‘if you fight monsters you become a monster’ theme that runs throughout both Doctor Who (particularly the new series) and Dalek Empire. It’s at the heart of Genesis of the Daleks, both “do I have the right?” and the Doctor’s not-that-rhetorical-anymore question, “…could you then kill that child?” which we see lived out in The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar. I don’t want to take a definitive stance on whether or not Kalendorf, for instance, was ethically in the right to do what he did in bringing about the Great Catastrophe, or whether the Twelfth Doctor would or would not be in the right to kill Davros. I know that for some it’s risible, Ethics 101, an utterly basic question with an utterly basic answer: of course he’d be right to do so, and overly liberal hand-wringing over such an obviously morally correct ethical choice is abhorrent. I know that for others, it’s an equally certain answer in the negative, because the Doctor must never kill a child or stoop to become like those he fights against; pacifism is the way forward. I can’t answer it because I don’t know. I don’t know if it would be better for someone to nip back to Berlin in 1938 and kill Hitler, and I don’t know if the world would have developed in a better way as a result. I don’t know if the Doctor is right not to kill Davros, or whether “out of [the Daleks’] evil must come something good”. The not-knowing is just something you live with, and setting yourself up as someone who knows the answer to these things, with an absoluteness to match the Daleks, is fundamentally problematic. That is my preferred reading of Genesis of the Daleks (again, thank you Sandifer) – that it’s not necessarily just the moral implications of wiping them out that should give us pause so much as the assumption that it is even a choice an individual in that single instant should make, the assumption that one should have that godlike power to rewrite things and choose who can live or die. Because whatever one chooses, surely possessing the choice would make a person, even a Time Lord, into Mr Copper’s “monster” from Voyage of the Damned? It is a choice that could be made by a narrative force as absolute as the Daleks, but surely it should not be by flawed, empathetic, doubting humans?

As part of addressing that, I’m going to quote a line from the episode of Doctor Who that only aired this weekend. I want to refer to it because it’s perfect for the last Dalek Empire entry for a while and to lead me in to my first Cyberman entry. The line in question is “Cybermen suppress emotion; Daleks channel it.” To me, it’s a pitch-perfect summary of both of the show’s iconic alien races (more on the Cybermen in future reviews). Steven Moffat’s take on the Daleks has been particularly rooted in their uber-zealous emotional devotion to, one might even say love of, their own ideology – whether it’s their concept of beauty being revealed as hatred in Asylum of the Daleks or the more recent instance, in The Magician’s Apprentice, of Davros describing their burning need for Clara to run so that they may feel the “ecstasy of crisis” that binds hunters to their prey. This might seem anathema to some in terms of how the Daleks function, but it’s worth noting that it is *exactly* the view held by Mr 21st Century Dalek himself, Nick Briggs, who speaks at length in the Dalek War extras about how love is something the Daleks feel (even if it is an abhorrent version of love). It’s not for nothing people talk about love-hate relationships. Instead, it is friendship and compassion, the friendship and compassion Galanar and Tarkov show each other over the course of their shuttle journey together, that the Daleks lack, not the terrifyingly utter, unswerving, blind-to-everything-else adulation with regard to a singular goal. Which in turn means – in the story’s view, at least – it is not devotion, or single-minded passion, that makes us human, but empathy, friendship, compassion. Quiet fulfilment. Mercy.

Perhaps it’s this dividing line, in the end, which justifies the story’s ending. It’s bleak, yes; of course it’s bleak. All kinds of nihilism and Lovecraftian horror and the absoluteness of military might conspire to destroy almost every character that we have held dear for the past five releases, and Susan Mendes, emblematic of that human optimism at the beginning, is here at her worst at the end. But to paraphrase Galanar, even though it was mainly pretty grim, mostly to do with death and suffering, somehow I still managed to smile. Briggs leaves just the right amount of potential optimism at the end; perhaps the transmission got out there…perhaps, in the future, flawed humans might do better at dealing with Dalek nature. Perhaps Tarkov is right that humans will have to become as bad as the Daleks to win. But perhaps they won’t. Which in its own way ties perfectly to how so much essence of humanity is exactly that non-absoluteness, that adjustability, I talked about earlier; right down to us never knowing if Elaria sent the signal or not. And so Dalek Empire III ends, strangely, on the essential confidence in the fact that the future remains unwritten. That anything could happen. That there’s a completely new set of stories on their way. That they are not absolute, or set in stone, and that no writer knows how they’ll turn out. They might be better; they might not. As Saloran says, Saloran who becomes an almost K’anpo-Rinpoche-style Buddhist figure, tacitly accepting her own oblivion when it comes to call: “maybe this chapter of history will be a bad one, another one in which the Daleks win. But maybe it won’t be.”

Other things:
Amid all the above discussion of theme, one could lose sight of all the strengths of characterisation it’s hard to find time to mention. The relationship between Elaria, Galanar and Tarkov is especially fascinating, with their own needs and grievances and preferences clear yet unspoken in any given scene.
The series remains unafraid of showing grim consequences where possible – Japrice and Mevis are dispatched in an off-hand way before the opening titles have even begun, Frey Saxton and her Wardens are slaughtered unceremoniously off-stage, Tarkov’s final scene is properly horrific, and Galanar’s murder of Elaria is pretty visceral stuff.
“Did you know that there isn’t a soul in this galaxy whose life hasn’t been tainted by the Daleks? Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever be rid of them.”/“We’ve just got to do our best. That’s all we can do.” (Very much like Joss Whedon’s Sartre-inspired brand of existentialism: “If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do”).
“And, d’you know, even though it was mainly pretty grim, mostly to do with death and suffering, somehow we still managed to smile. We laughed quite a lot, too. People do that, you know. They laugh and smile, sometimes even when things are terrible and everything looks so bad and hopeless that life itself feels pointless, people can still have that moment of contact, a sort of mutual acknowledgment of their shared humanity. It’s nothing big, it’s nothing grand, it just…is. And it seems to make everything worthwhile.”
“It’s like everything’s suspended, blissfully unaware. And here we are, about to give it all a little nudge. And then it’ll come crashing down.”
“But…why?”/“It’s what Daleks do, Galanar.” And there it is: the absolute.
Some niggles: something about Karen Henson’s performance as Older Saloran didn’t quite work; the battle scenes are generally well rendered but the shouty style of acting that even good actors resort to (like Bennison and Tennant) is curiously weak; a fair bit of the dialogue is a bit too on-the-nose and obvious. But the broad strokes are good.
“We knew we’d never be able to run far enough…that the Daleks would never stop coming after us.”
“The joke’s on us, ultimately. We’re probably going to end up being like you, anyway. That’s the irony of it…the human race will have to become a militaristic, mechanized entity, a war machine fit to defeat a race of machines. There’ll be tight security and paranoia, conscription, uniformity. Just your sort of thing, really. The human race will have to end up being like you in order to defeat you. How about that? Does it make you proud?”
The trouble with optimism is “it’s like carrying something precious around with you all the time…no matter how tightly you hold on to it, there’s always the chance that it’ll fall out of reach and get crushed.” But isn’t it better to take that chance?
“War is the creator of the Daleks, and war, the struggle for superiority, is how the universe functions!”
“No matter how much human beings might change their attitudes if they’re forced to fight a war, they will always be better than the Daleks!”
“In what way [are the Daleks superior]? Superior killers? Superior lust for conquest and domination? But that’s it, isn’t it? That’s all you can ever have!”/“What else is there?”/“Contentment! Being happy with who or what you are! You’re never at peace with yourselves, are you?! Always looking for your next enemy, your war. True superiority comes from the ability just to … be. To exist. And to be glad of it.”
“Maybe you can defeat us. Maybe you will succeed in making the entire human race extinct. But you will never be better than us. Because you just don’t like yourselves. It’s that kind of simple, calm emotion which truly gives any creature real power.”

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