Big Finish Productions
|Written by||Nicholas Briggs|
Starring Gareth Thomas and Sarah Mowat
|Synopsis: The Daleks have their sights firmly fixed on Project Infinity. In the hands of the Daleks, the human race's only hope of victory could signal the destruction of the entire universe.|
And Tonight on Watchdog... by Rob Matthews 22/2/04
Before I start this I should point out that, fresh off the back of my first listen to the Dalek Empire miniseries, I feel rather cheated. It reminded me of that sense of disappointment I'd get back when I was a teenager when I read a couple of the DC Comics lines - mainly the Batman and Justice League titles (this was in the glory days of JM DeMatteis, of course). I enjoyed them, but every three months or so there'd be this annoying incursion: the Crossover.
There you would be, happily ensconced in some three-part story about say, that giant scorching-pink menace Despero returning to Earth to wreak vengeance upon J'onn J'onzz, only to reach the final page of part 3 and find the Green Lantern stepping into the fight and carrying Despero off to Metropolis to get Superman to hold him in a headlock or whatever. Then a caption would abruptly inform you that the story will thus be continued in Green Lantern no.87, then Superman no. 554, then Action Comics 638, then Black Canary 6, then thru part 4 of the new Green Arrow miniseries, all as part of the ongoing GREENLANTICIDE! crossover epic that stretches across the entire DC universe. And you'd be left either facing the daunting task of tracking down - and the frankly impossible task of paying for - all these titles, or alternatively just gritting your teeth and accepting that you're not going to know what happens at the end of a lot of the DC stories you read. Or, third option, cutting your losses and just giving up on the whole damn thing. Which was what I ultimately did, deciding that DC Comics were at this point geared towards the extraction of serious money from mad completists, and weren't much concerned with casual readers.
You can no doubt see the parallel I want to draw with Dalek Empire - it is, simply, not a self-contained story. Episode Four is billed as 'Part Four of Four', but it's not, it completely lacks the sense of resolution it needs to be seen as such; in fact the play halts so abruptly I wasn't certain whether it was really supposed to end there or if there was actually a fault with my disc. No, an honest and accurate description of Project: Infinity would be 'part four of eight', because if you want to have any chance at all of making sense out of the story, you're required to buy the next miniseries. (either that or just calmly accept that you may not come to the actual conclusion of some of these supposedly self-contained Big Finish stories. Or else give up on the whole damn thing...)
Probably you think I'm making too much of this, but I think for one thing it's blatant false advertising and doesn't show much professional integrity, and for another it doesn't show much creative integrity either. To draw one of my creaky Star Wars analogies, A New Hope works as a story whether you watch The Empire Strikes Back or not. The tapestry it creates is massively enriched by Empire, but New Hope still stands alone as a narrative in its own right. This isn't the case with Dalek Empire in relation to Dalek War. I mean, perhaps it's more profitable for Big Finish to just assume that they're dealing with an audience of Who completists - and, let's face it, very often they probably are -, but completists will come back whether you have a cliffhanger or not, and a more casual audience might just as easily decide - like I did with the DC comics - to chuck out the baby with the bathwater as to come back for the next one. I guess maybe from a business point of view, the hardcore fan buck is the one to go for.
So. Had to get that off my chest. And I'm afraid I'm going to have to harp on about it a little longer, because it's what makes this miniseries ultimately disappointing. It's an incomplete story.
Still, I'll try to look at what there is of the story as far is it goes. Part one is interesting, not to mention potentially ghastly - a mix of elements from the sixties stories: the Dalek invasion of course, the Robomen, the planetary mining operations, the Space Security corps, the 'classic' Emperor Dalek, the Human Factor... it's enough to make John Peel come over all giddy.
But it works pretty well. Partly, it has to be said, this is because it's not all that difficult to improve on the dreadful Dalek Invasion of Earth - I mean, I could make a better Dalek story than that with a camcorder, four pepperpots, a Barbie doll and an Action Man; I'm convinced fans only think that serial's any good because of the Daleks doing their London-tourist bit. Partly, as well, because Evil of the Daleks probably isn't as good as its reputation either (perma-skint as I am, it was for me literally a matter of choosing between Dalek Empire and the Troughton-era 'Dalek Tin', hence a good part of my disappointment with its incompleteness), and because the non-Davros 'classic' version of the Emperor appeared in only one TV story and really did mandate further exploration. Also, in my case, because the lack of visuals really brings out the armchair production designer in me. You should have seen the various ranks and designs of Daleks that popped into my head as I listened; not to mention the terrifying cadaverous robomen with secondhand technology grafted clumsily into their skulls - that's the good thing about audio - no more crap actors with buckets on their heads. And perthaps most importantly, though it more or less goes without saying, Big Finish audios simply have a more thoughtful, adult texture than most of the TV serials - certainly the more childish sixties ones (excepting the odd mould-breaker like The Aztecs). The basic elements may be familiar, but what really matters is how they're used, and here they're sculpted into a humanistic epic about love and war. This is something that Big Finish does really well, even in its more indulgent forays like Zagreus - really tapping the potential of those familiar ideas and scenarios from the TV series. (Course, us fans have always been able to construct cosmologies from throwaway lines)
And it's really all down to the crafty use of the Emperor Dalek that this story works at all on the Dalek front. He's a fascinating creation - not quite halfway-Dalek, halfway-human like Davros, but certainly not your run of the mill 'Exterminate!'-chanting pepperpot. Perhaps because Daleks were so often treated as one-note creatures it's great to discover this inscrutable, evolved version sitting at the top of their hierachy, trying for reasons of his own to understand the psychology of human beings, and not bothering to explain any aspect of his plans to his underlings, because they all know their function is just to obey. It helps, too, that he has a better command of vocal intonation than your average Dalek, without going to the Davrossy lengths of ranting and raving about how all-powerful he's going to become next Tuesday afternoon. I have no idea how true this is to his portrayal in Evil of the Daleks, but Big Finish being so keen to use all those Dalekmania leftovers, I'd hazard a guess it's an accurate imitation. The idea of Daleks trying to understand and exploit human emotion is a nice develpment considering their customary blindness to such things.
On the human front, the focal characters are 'Angel of Mercy' Susan Mendez and her estranged would-be lover Alby Brook. Nick Briggs obviously gets that the best way to write a love story is to keep the lovers apart for as long as possible because, as was often the case with the Doctor and his companions, they're separated with indecent haste after a fairly brief introductory scene.
Susan's plight as the Dalek's chosen beacon-of-hope for their empire of slaves is perhaps the most striking thread of the story; the persistent question being whether hope can survive when hope itself is being deliberately exploited. The warrior knight Kalendorf, a bit of an Orcini knock-off, helps illuminate the dilemma in his scenes with Suz, scenes which are certainly some of the best and most memorable in the play. Alby's mission to seek out Suz is by comparison perfunctory stuff, though he's a likeable enough bloke.
It's a slow-moving tale though, and doesn't really pick up the pace until part four when our complacency about Suz's ultimate survival - complacency born of the fact that an elderly Susan seems to narrate the story - is shattered, and new character Mirana (an oddly abrupt replacement for Pellan - was there some behind-the-scenes bust-up?) has the little fit which reveals her as an unwilling agent of the Emperor Dalek . From then it's all action, no less effective for being aural action, and the race against time to discover what the Emperor is up to is pacey and breathless.
Unfortunately the Emperor's masterplan is in the end pretty silly and unconnected to anything we have encountered previously in the plot. He's building up an enormous Dalek Empire and sowing the seeds of hope for an eventual slave rebellion and war, purely as a blind to stop anyone noticing his task force setting out to capture Project Infinity. And Project: Infinity is... daft. It's a big machine that can scan all the alternate universes there are, through which he hopes to make pals with all-powerful Daleks from a universe where they're the dominant species.
I find that pretty hokey. And it just comes out of nowhere, Briggs forgetting that the best plot twists are those which are not only surprising, but also manage to seem inevitable in retrospect. And though I'd imagine it was planned all along, the Project: Infinity revelation could really have just been come up with on the hoof, or been replaced by any number of others. And since it has little to do with Suz's dilemma, it feels like an arbitrary ending to the miniseries, one that has absolutely nothing to do with what came before. Plus the question of what has really become of Suz, the one character I was really interested in, remains unanswered. Because, as I've mentioned, you have to buy Dalek Empire II: Dalek War to find out.
I haven't done that yet, and I'm not sure I'm going to. Despite a lot of of quality material there are noticeably ropey bits towards the end. Dalek Empire doesn't measure up to the very best of Big Finish and makes for an an oddly constructed and dramatically unsatisfying epic. And who's to say the sequel will be any different - I don't want to reach part 4 of Dalek War only to discover that the story won't be concluded until Dalek Empire III. As was the case with the Unbound story Deadline, my main complaint here arises from the tale's particular context as a Big Finish audio, something that we're paying for rather than watching on TV. In the case of Deadline I thought the story insulted its target audience, seeming to imply that only a stupid wanker would buy a CD such as Deadline in the first place. In the case of Dalek Empire it's that we're being misled as to what we're actually getting for our money. I realise that may not matter to everyone, but it does to me.
Where do my allegiances lie? by Thomas Cookson 7/8/07
When the New Series came onto our TV screens, it majorly made me question myself as a fan. All of a sudden the old series wasn't the last word on Doctor Who as a TV legacy, and I found myself being quite critical of the old show's faults and certainly my previously easy-going attitude to the 80's had hardened. It was like the New Series had wiped a clean slate and I suddenly realised what a mess had been there beforehand. Suddenly I really liked this new tough, vengeful Doctor over the preachy old one, the eye candy visuals over the technicolour dreamcoat and fast-paced coherent stories and complete absense of dead wood.
But then of course, just as I'd rediscovered a love for Doctor Who in a new, vital and affirming form, I found myself getting more and more irritated with Season Two and the Christmas specials and the unpleasant bitchy tone to them, and so I found myself out of favour with Doctor Who again. So what kind of fan was I?
I suppose the most comfortable conceit was simply to fall back on how no matter what else about the show, the story arc running through the five Davros stories was always going to be my favourite series within a series.
Then I discovered Dalek Empire and it suddenly made Doctor Who superfluous to me. If it was on TV, I wouldn't even look twice at Doctor Who again. It was everything wonderful and arresting about Doctor Who, with all the crap taken out. It was Doctor Who, if Doctor Who had ever been consistent and mono-authored. If it had ever followed up the consequences of Genesis of the Daleks so that the story didn't end the moment the Doctor left, and we actually had seen the Daleks spreading forth from Skaro and spreading havoc and destruction throughout the galaxy. Given that Genesis was one of my earliest experiences of Doctor Who and one that really arrested me to the show, it's no wonder I've never felt satisfied by the show until I heard this.
Of course Dalek Empire isn't perfect. Certainly not when compared to its more fluid and effective sequel Dalek War. These are the first four chapters of the series, and in some ways they bear the same bugbears as most pilots. For one thing, the theme tune is pretty crud, far too noisy, far too static, and it is a relief that come Dalek War the makers have chucked it out for something better, for a theme tune that really stings rather than grates. But there are other aspects that feel a bit unrefined. Not in terms of sound or production which is extremely competent and solid throughout, but something else...
Often you find with watching a new TV show for the first time, that the pilot is ironically far from the best episode to start with. Pilots are all about establishing things and are often clunky and unsubtle about doing so. They are often expositonal and cumbersome in a way that makes you relieved to see later stories that cut to the chase more. That's not necessarily the case here, but there is a sense that it's making its mission statement quite didactically and witlessly. Since Dalek Empire's mission statement is to depict violence, death and destruction on a galactic scale, what we have here is a parade of pain and atrocity and a pile up of shock effects. Long stretches of slaves being worked to death, cities being destroyed, burning bodies, Daleks being tortured by mad-dog humans, massacres and relentless emotional cruelty. The violence and horrors take on a very graphic and explicit form that makes Resurrection of the Daleks seem squeamish, makes Countrycide seem like a *ahem* walk in the park, and I'd be hard pressed to call the end product entertaining.
Dalek War was violent and had a huge death toll too but it tended to imply its horrors in a less grisly spoken word or draw on the pathos and nobility a lot more rather than simply graphic shock effects. I feel that Dalek Empire had yet to find a more artistic and less vulgar way of conveying its darknes and galactic war. It rests for me somewhere between the sound and fury mess of The Apocalypse Element and Mutant Phase and the more symbiotic, primal beauty of Dalek War.
I suppose I can't deny that this is ultimately Doctor Who at its most no-nonsense, where the stakes are at their highest and the evil monsters really are evil and a bit of whimsy won't save you. It's very modern, very vivid and unflinching, using its violent content to dare the listener and keep things intense. If there was ever an example of Doctor Who that cast off all the labels of being camp, cheesy, frivolous, family orientated or preachy and demanded to be taken seriously then this is it.
There are some key flaws to the violent presentation. I suppose one of the things about Genesis of the Daleks that I found eye opening when I first watched it, is just how much uncertainty it opened up for future stories because there was so much carnage and destruction and the Doctor didn't save the day. When the level of destruction is that high to begin with, it makes the outcome uncertain because the ante of destruction has been upped. That isn't entirely the case here though. In fact, in regards to its cast it is pretty blatantly predictable that anyone outside the main cast is almost certainly going to snuff it by the end. So there are no surprises there. I mean Dalek War had a similar zero survival rate for all concerned but it still managed to make the deaths surprising. This just feels cynical and rather witless.
Cynical is the word really. I stayed up all night till four o'clock in the morning listening to this, completely riveted. Every time I got to the end of a disc I considered going to sleep and listening to the rest the next morning, but I couldn't sleep so I put the next disc in. My God, I've rarely gone at Doctor Who in such a hardcore way, except maybe that time I stayed up till five in the morning watching The War Games. But even then there was a nagging sense that it was the violence and horrors that were holding my attention. It felt like I was a captive audience in places to its shock tactics. It was like watching a car crash, and in that regard I can't help but find it not a little manipulative.
I mean there was more to hold my interests than that but it did feel in places like the violence was being used as a final incentive to hold attention, which felt a bit crass. In terms of what else I got out of listening, it's only really discs three and four where the fun factor comes in. Up until that point it is simply a tirade of brutality and punishment. But I will say this, compared to that other adult and vulgar Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, this is far more memorable. It's also more potent and humanistic.
Coming out as it did in 2001, it causes me to see that the reputed groundbreaking aspects of Jubilee and the 2005 season weren't really that groundbreaking. Before Jubilee, this series was saying some very potent things about the nature of history and even tackling man's inhumanity to a helpless Dalek. Before the New Series, this presented a profoundly moving emotional journey for its lead character Susan Mendes.
It was touted as an emotional journey by many reviewers but I was surprised and overwhelmed at how heartrendering the story of Susan was. True the love story between her and Alby Brook is very corny, so it's something of a relief that they spend the length of the adventure literally worlds apart, separated by enemy lines, and the real emotional meat comes from her experience at the hands of the Daleks. I'd always found the Susan of Dalek War to be an endearing tough nut of a woman, but it was wonderful to see the circumstances that changed her from an easy-going land-loving colonist through to degraded and manipulated Dalek slave, to the manic, fearless crusader that she eventually becomes.
Her story is a very sad one and her first speech to the slaves about hope and survival always brings me to tears. It's the naivety of the hope, the shy self-consciousness of speaking to a crowd for the first time, the surrendering of dignity, it always makes me cry. Mike Morris said in his review on the companion Ace how presenting strong women in science fiction often simply involves shallow macho conventions. There is certainly an overtone of Aliens about this series, not least in its dystopian galactic carnage and high-body counts. But I would say that Susan Mendes is far more directly and potently a feminist heroine than Ripley was.
In fact, by accident or design the Daleks come across as an image of everything evil and cruel about patriarchal society. I mean, the Daleks have always been an abstract image of the evil of mankind in all its forms. The Nazi allegory constrains them rather, as the Daleks have always represented the real world of tyrants and killing fields to me, and even of domestic evils like chav gang culture, domestic violence, hate groups and mad-dog teenagers. This isn't merely about a feisty woman leading the fight, it's about how her feistiness makes her noticed and singled out by the Daleks who want to break her spirit, or even manipulate her. It's about being preyed upon and victimised because you won't be docile, and that's a very real aspect of our society.
I think the scene that did it for me was when Susan has been given a position of authority as a member of the slave elite. The Dalek supreme even allows her to treat his subordinates as her subordinates. So, given a bit of power and an oppurtunity to verbally trample a few Daleks she becomes complacent. Her aide Karlendorf warns her that she is being used and she retorts "No, I'm using the Daleks", which really struck a chord in how insecure young women now seem to adopt degrading or bullying behaviour as though it is somehow empowering, leading to a hollow sense of complacency.
Basically everything that was supposedly so progressive about Rose Tyler - the feisty companion with three-dimensional heart and soul - is moreso true here of Susan. In fact, watching Rose blubbing in front of the Doctor or Mickey or Jackie or anyone else who'd spoil her with twee comfort grew sickeningly saccarine and turned the show into a chick flick. Listening to Susan Mendes breaking down in front of a Dalek, such undiginified naked weakness in front of an enemy that doesn't care, and is incapable of empathy is genuinely heartbreaking.
The Daleks are wonderfully done here. This really dispels any of the perceived weaknesses or silliness of the Daleks as they appeared on TV. They're not the unmanouverable boring automatons of the old series, and they're not the Doctor-fearing wusses on emotional or religious journeys of the new series. They are shrewd, they are ruthless and terrifying and they understand the human mind. Quite simply, these are Daleks at their most cyber-gothic hardcore. Even the way their voices are harshly barked is disturbing and skin crawling. You really can believe that these Daleks were spawned from hell and that they could conquer the entire galaxy. There's something truly relentless about the Daleks. Even when one Dalek is being tortured by 'mad dog' Morebi, it still won't yield and persists with threats of extermination.
"Each time she looked into its camera eye, she became more and more certain that it had no soul."
The Emperor Dalek is portrayed in a way that makes me feel like I'm coming to know him for the first time. His first confrontation with Susan Mendes, having been watching and studying her and manipulating her from behind the scenes for years is genuinely sinister and creepy. There's a very subversive aspect to it. More than anything he comes across as an evil diabolical oracle. Powerful, intelligent and wise enough to predict and manipulate future events. As a master of destiny and all its atrocity he seems unkillable in the way true evil is. The Emperor's absense in Dalek War does see the Daleks lose that manipulative edge somewhat.
Unlike with Jubilee or Dalek War however, the themes of feminism or history or anything else don't provide the story with any sense of hope. It's carnage from beginning to end, and it gets more and more hopeless as more starsystems fall and even Earth itself is forced to surrender. Furthermore, it ends on a cliffhanger that makes the bloodshed seem momentarily pointless. There is only one path to victory shown here and it's a very bloody one, and it comes from a willingness to be self-sacrificing and from sheer numbers rushing the enemy in the line of fire. There's something of an indictment of the Doctor in his absence here during what is arguably the galaxy's darkest decade. I'd say the art of this series is in the way it builds works of art, beautiful worlds, a diversity of alien cultures and adorable characters and then sees evil destroy them all.
The fact is that every disc has a selection of favourite moments for me. Moments that stand out as powerful and vivid. With Disc One: Invasion of the Daleks, it's the teaser opening as the Serifia galaxy, like a gateway to hell, sets forth its evil spawn, and the aforementioned hankie-reaching speech from susan to the slaves. Disc 2: The Human Factor, has the manipulative scenes between Susan and the Daleks, and the Highness of Guria and his daughter having bouts of nervous laughter in front of his Dalek masters (one of the precious few moments of comic relief). With Disc 3: "Death to the Daleks", I'm quite fond of those talking insects on the communications station, and pretty much any scene with the very punchable Tanley. I love that odious sunovabitch!
I'd say that Disc 4: Project Infinity is the one I've relistened to the most. It seems to cram so much wonderful stuff into it that makes me surprised to note that it actually doesn't have an extended runtime over the others. The Project Infinity device has been dismissed as a tacked on McGuffin, but personally I think it is a wonderful means of showing how this linear, TARDIS-absent spinoff isn't merely about space invaders, and can just as competently take us into stranger futurist sci-fi realms beyond imagination as its parent series does, even if it only really explores this in the sequel series.
The final battle is remarkable and shows that Big Finish has come a long way from the noisy, incoherent explosions of The Apocalypse Element. The battle is riveting stuff and is very vivid. It's like how the most interesting car chases keep the camera largely inside the car; this does the same thing with the bridge of the rebel battleship to keep an eye (or rather an ear) on the tactical moves. Even though the moment with the ciphers of hostages does come across as pretty heartless, I still find the whole thing brings out the brave spirit of warriors in me.
All things considered, it's a very solid (if barbarous), hardcore, fantastically produced and relentless epic action adventure. There's none of the flaws that usually taint Big Finish, such as contradictory script revisions that got missed, there's no frivolous tone, and there's not a poor performance in earshot. I could penalise it for its vulgar shock tactics, its cynical, hopeless tone. But the fact is I love it too much for that to really matter overall. I would stand by Rob Matthew's point about the cynical cliffhanger ending rendering its 'part four of four' label as false advertising, but I'm glad I went ahead and bought it anyway because this spinoff series has brought out the collectionist fan in me in a way that it's parent series never did.
I think it's a shame that given the stubbornness of the Nation Estate and Russell T. Davies' insular 'no-one's interested in the aliens on the planet Zog' remit for the Earthbound new series, this spin-off would never make it to TV, which is a shame because it's fantastic. I really think Nicholas Briggs should try submitting these scripts to Manga because I think he's sitting on a goldmine.
As for me, I am finally turning traitor on Doctor Who. I'm selling out the embarrasingly pandering, fat and bloated and occasionally neurotic old banger for the sleeker new model of this spin-off which is frankly better (or rather more consistent) in every way. This is everything I've always wanted from Doctor Who without all the crap.