Thursday, 8 June 2017

Dalek Empire 4.1: The Fearless, Part 1 by Nicholas Briggs (October 2007)

The definition of a sidequel is a story which "portrays events that occur at the same time as the original work, but focuses on different characters in a different setting. Such stories may intersect with the original work, and often involve similar themes" (Our Lord and Master, Saint Wikipedia). The Star Wars anthology film Rogue One doesn't quite count, I guess, since it is really a sequel to one set of films and a prequel to another set; Philip Pullman's forthcoming Book of Dust trilogy is being called an "equel", what with the first book taking place 10 years before His Dark Materials and the others some time after (that is to say, none of it during the original). But Dalek Empire IV: The Fearless is a classic instance of a sidequel. The entire four-part series is its own work, it seems, but slots seamlessly into the earlier Dalek Empire I, during the time in which Suz was the "Angel of Mercy" and serving at the Daleks' command; it thus spans a roughly similar time period as the original, but with a whole new set of characters. So far, so uncomplicated. 

In a number of ways, The Fearless feels - at first at least - like it's going back to the bare basics of Dalek Empire I. For one thing, there's the fact that the Daleks appear very, very early into the story - as with the very first release in this run, Briggs knows we're here for the bad guys, and they show up as soon as possible (this is in stark contrast to Dalek Empire III, the opening segment of which kept the Daleks in the shadows for as long as possible). The backdrop of Suz's broadcasts as the Angel of Mercy hangs over the whole of this audio play, naturally evoking the feel of that first series.

As well as going back to the past of Dalek Empire, this new run of stories take us back to the past of Doctor Who in an extra-diegetic sense, casting two former companions (one from the distant past and one from the recent past) as the leads: Maureen O'Brien, who played Vikki Pallister in 1965, and Noel Clarke, who played Mickey Smith in 2005-6 but returned for minor appearances in 2008 and New Year's Day 2010. There's something rather canny about this, raiding from the cupboard two polar opposite instances of the show's long, long list of solid actors, and both O'Brien and Clarke deliver terrific performances that feel well-tailored to their respective abilities, plus there's a weird thrill in hearing the two of them act opposite each other (Clarke's role here feels a little like the sort of thing Mickey Smith will eventually develop into, but to be totally honest he gets given a lot more interesting, challenging, and intense material than he got as Mickey).

This time round, it is O'Brien's character - General Agnes Landen of the Earth Alliance - who gets a framing device of narration, couched in a military pep talk about how the humans need to accept the fact that the Daleks have superior armaments and firepower (though I can't imagine that's a particularly revelatory bit of news to anyone, but still). But the idea that she and others put into action as a result of this inequality is a bit of a corker: the Spacer, a kind of super-powered space-suit that enables humans to fight Daleks on their own terms, with more or less equal firepower and even the ability to travel between solar systems and to breach spaceships and Dalek shells alike. How scared do you have to be to seal your own people inside a tank...

The plot-line of this opening segment is thus the need to find hardcore guerrilla warriors who are exceptional enough to wear these Spacers: in short, the need to find "the fearless". There's a lovely moment where two characters mistake a Spacer for a Dalek, hinting at that old Dalek Empire chestnut of how much you have to become like the people you're fighting in order to beat them (echoed later in the line "how bad are these Daleks? Because they're going to have to be pretty bad to be worse than you", but also the fact that the Earth Alliance put the people of Talis Minor in chains in order to "recruit" them). See also how it is a rural "hick" who is the one to bravely save the situation rather than those wearing the Spacers. Elsewhere, O'Brien subtly underplays Landen's canny and calculating qualities (particularly towards the end, where it's implied she's putting Kade through hell just to see how he'll react); she's very much the utilitarian Kalendorf of The Fearless.

It seems obvious from the moment we meet them that Salus Kade (Clarke) and Egan Fisk (Oliver Mellor) are destined to join the ranks of the Fearless, and thus the scenes of Kade deliberating the matter feel a little overplayed. First we see them staring out to sea on the planet Kedru 7, wondering about the choices that got them there, and then we flashback to a more carefree time in their lives on Talis Minor, where they spend their time hunting animals called baktos and generally being untroubled by the war (compare how we first met Alby and Suz...). Mellor, and particularly Clarke, are very good at selling the way their characters are different in different situations. Briggs is quite good on this nostalgic/carefree/bitter blend, and puts in a few nice touches between them ("wow! a real interplanet-er!"), but it's Clarke's performance that really lifts the whole thing; there's a visceral anger just under the surface of his every line that's terribly effective.

One action sequence on the Earth Alliance ship falling to Talis Minor feels curiously flat, partly due to repetitious sound design, and there's a bit too much exposition at points, but for the most part Briggs' skill in crafting these sorts of audio dramas is in full evidence. But I am not yet quite sure about what sort of story this new Dalek Empire series is telling: we're hitting the same notes as previous entries, such as how ordinary people and communities get caught up in war, and how people are forced to adopt the ruthlessness of those against whom they're fighting, but we've heard these play out before, even if they're being told in new permutations with new characters and new settings. At the moment, it feels like a curious blend of the 'anthology series' we know Briggs was planning - snapshots of people across the galaxy whose lives are changed by the war forever - and a more developed, long-form war story, and I don't know how successful the blend will be. But Clarke is so good that I don't mind that uncertainty, and sealing humans inside machinery to fight the Daleks is a nice reiteration of one of Dalek Empire's central motifs.

Other things:
Awww, I have missed that old theme (even if the new remix isn't my favourite).
Helpful that a selection of clips from 1.1 Invasion of the Daleks help any listener who hasn't heard that first series for a while find their bearings again.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Did a Dalek say "EXCELLENT"? The iconic Cyberman catchphrase? That seems like the kind of move Briggs would never make. How odd.
"Hope makes humans efficient."
I notice that Briggs casts at least three actors in this production with whom he has already performed scenes for the TV show (Clarke; Oliver Mellor, who was in Army of Ghosts; and Colin Spaull, who was Mr Crane in the Cybermen two-parter earlier that year).
"We need more soldiers to fight the Dalek War. It's too much of a luxury to ask politely."
Decent cliff-hanger, if a little ... tacked on in the last few minutes.
The extras seem to confirm Salus Kade was written for Noel Clarke, which makes sense. What a likeable man he comes across as. Also interesting how Maureen O'Brien doesn't like sci-fi very much but likes playing roles for BF because she likes her characters.

No comments:

Post a Comment