Saturday, 10 June 2017

Dalek Empire 4.4: The Fearless, Part 4 by Nicholas Briggs (January 2008)

This fourth part of Dalek Empire IV, the eighteenth and final instalment in the Dalek Empire series overall, plays out like that lovely old mixed metaphor of Sir Tom Stoppard's: "all the skeletons in the cupboard are coming home to roost". This finale sees quite the showdown between our two major players, Commander Salus Kade and General Agnes Landen. Briggs gets a good deal of tension out of delaying the confrontations between this pair, but when they do arrive they're electrifying. Together they make for a fearsome combination, both orphaned children of war, the one a marine named 'Fearless' and the other the woman in whose image these marines have been moulded. The idea that Kade and the other Fearless are, as it were, children in Landen's image is not entirely surprising - it's a fairly common trope, going back to the Doctor being used as the Cyber-template in Spare Parts, and as we've noted there's always been something a bit ... motherly about Landen's relationship with her protégé - but it works. As O'Brien puts it in the CD extras, "if you see a marvellous young person who's got this something, whatever it is, in whatever field, in your field, and you know about your field because that's what you've spent your life doing, and you can impart to this person some of what you know and what you think, and see that person rise up - they're like your own creation, aren't they?" And as with the Daleks and Davros, the children quickly outgrew the parent: Kade is a more fearless fighter than the woman who created him.

"Frankly, right now, I think we need someone who's as mad as hell." Enter Landen. Maureen O'Brien is absolutely on fire here, delivering a powerhouse performance full of lovely little nuances - I particularly like her forced politician's chuckle when she tells a crowd hell bent on seeing Kade,  "I know it's not me you want to see... I don't mind, I mean I'm only the Commander-in-Chief here!". As has been the case throughout The Fearless, the best scenes here occur between these two: Landen and Kade go head-to-head, his increasing hysteria and rage focused on demanding her justifications, demanding to know how she is able to sleep at night. Forcing her out of her military command tent - as it were - and into the heart of the battle is a wise move; her terror once she herself is in the battlefields into which she was happy to send others is well-played. I'm reminded of The Day of the Doctor and its quote about "great men" being "forged in fire" and it being the job of "lesser men to light the flame" (we'll just have to ignore the male bias there for now): Landen is brilliant at generating good soldiership in others but less so in the battle itself ("the big bad general who sends people to their deaths...").

"Someone who didn't let death get in the way of doing his job." Enter Kade. The scene in which he hears the cheering crowds as Dalek screaming is magnificent, prefiguring by several years the disconnect between Dalek communication and real-world communication - in the words of Swiss semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure, between the signifiant, the thing spoken, and the signifié, the thing conveyed - that appears in The Witch's Familiar, though here of course we see it in a chilling reversal. Kade's continual confusion of reality and hallucination also comes to the fore in a heartfelt moment where he mistakes a hospital patient for his old friend Fisk, generally better implemented than the more bog-standard 'fridged wife' material. As for the way Clarke plays the laying into Landen and the other narcissistic high-ups in the story's final ten minutes or so, it's quite something.

I want to link to another review in discussing this story and take a good look at what it says - it's a holistic review of The Fearless rather than particularly discussing Part 4, but this is my last opportunity to talk about it. The first of the two reviews on this page (by a poster with the username of Tanlee, funnily enough) is a scathing, practically vicious, take-down of this fourth series, mostly lambasting it as an ugly and misogynist piece of work. It'd take a lot of words to sum up what 'Tanlee' says, but to sum up, they think that this is a deeply mean-spirited, machismo-celebrating story in which women are "reduced to all being victims or villains of ludicrous extremes, never displaying the dignity or guts that elevated them above that. The death of Kade’s wife just sums up the story’s attitude to women. Seemingly women are only there to be killed off so the macho man can go on a revenge mission and have an excuse to bully and terrorise other women". Though I agree with the point about the fridging of Lajitta, and I do think there might be something in a later point that Briggs is in some way glorifying the military (a risk, frankly, in almost every war story), I profoundly disagree with the rest of it, most notably the way 'Tanlee' criticises the story portraying Landen as a "villain[...] of ludicrous extremes". She's a ruthless and manipulative individual alright, but I don't think she's a cartoon villain at all, and the 'Tanlee' critique seems to me to stride worryingly close to the noxious idea that female characters have to always be likeable in fiction. Besides, was Ester Ollander a victim without dignity or guts (I didn't like the performance much, but I don't think that's fair)? Isn't Dr Mezeran neither victim nor villain, just a capable medical professional? This seems a remarkably reductive take on things.

I don't see that the story celebrates Kade or his machismo either; his manifold, quasi-extremist flaws I have tried to illuminate in earlier reviews. Kade exists to be the Yin to Susan Mendes' co-operating, utilitarian Yang. 'Tanlee' mourns the lack of utilitarianism in Dalek Empire IV, but surely that's the point: this is what happens when you try the other tack. And Briggs goes some way, I think, to showing the problems with both tactics. Both approaches - infiltration and the long game versus principled opposition - ultimately see the humans become Daleks themselves. "I guess that's what the Daleks do. They keep coming back. And eventually ... they beat us."

That's why we need a good Dalek. That's why we need the Doctor.

Other things:
"One of us could turn out to be a Dalek replicant" ... says Nicholas Briggs, the Voice of the Daleks(!)
"The President has passed all operational control of Earth Alliance forces to me."/"Things are that bad?!"
The jogging Kade - several seconds of audio of him panting as he runs and runs and runs - made me think of the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits.
"I suppose war is a kind of madness, isn't it?"
For all that the asteroid storm feels like a bit of a McGuffin, the notion of Dalek "gravity nets" towing a huge quantity of asteroids towards Earth's solar system in order to obliterate the Earth Alliance is ... undeniably cool. And, not for the first time in Dalek Empire IV, the Daleks we see here are the ones getting invaded/boarded/attacked.
"I'm not an idea, I'm a person. They can't believe in me."
"I just hope that one day there won't be so many people like you and me, people who've lost everything,.. that one day people like us will be just a bad memory."
The bit where one Dalek interrupts another by saying "I understand the implications!" is solid gold!
"Isn't [war] always personal?"/"It seems some of us always make it personal, Kade."
I love the way Daleks always squeal "What is happening?!!?" whenever their plan is going to shit.

Lovely to hear in the extras that Briggs and Clarke talked through Kade's arc very carefully and came to a compromise on how his confrontation with Landen should end. Respect both to Clarke for his astute points about how he feels the original wasn't quite right, and to Briggs for taking his critique on board.

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