Big Finish Productions
Dalek Empire II: Dalek War
|Written by||Nicholas Briggs|
Starring Gareth Thomas and Sarah Mowat
|Synopsis: Dalek Empire II: Dalek War is a four part mini-series that continues the story begun in Dalek Empire.|
It's back and it's about time... by Joe Ford 15/10/03
My expectations of Nick Briggs work seems to get higher and higher with each new production of his I listen to. He has been responsible for some wonderful stuff in the Doctor Who universe, Embrace the Darkness and Creatures of Beauty in particular being exactly the sort of quality Big Finish should be looking to maintain. It is clear this man is a long term fan and one who understands the show and it's parameters. Never is this more certain in how he handles the Daleks in his own mini series, Dalek Empire.
It was a brave move for Big Finish to make, to centre a series around the metal meanies that initially secured the show's success. I mean they are not the most interesting of conversationalists are they? Ex-ter-min-ate and all that. They worked well on screen because of their bizarre yet compelling appearance, their stark contrast to practically every location they visited made it impossible to look away. How on earth could they create a four part series that sustains interest in these monotonous creatures?
By making it as epic as possible of course. By taking a scale as wide as the galaxy (and later, the universe and later beyond even that) and setting up a full scale war for the viewer to become entranced by. Cleverly, Nick Briggs manages to pull of the incredible feat of making Dalek Empire both epic and intimate thanks in no small part to the carefully crafted characters. The three main protagonists of the series, Alby Brook, Susan Mendez and Kalendorf worked especially well because they were all pretty much normal people thrust into an impossibly daunting situation. Whilst all the fireworks were going on elsewhere Suz and Alby romanced away and Kalendorf was at hand to remind Suz that her actions were coming close to the Daleks. The plot was full of twists and turns that climaxed unforgettably in the fourth instalment but from my point of view it was the studied character drama that gave the story its kick. Nick Briggs kept a huge ace up his sleeve and left the audience reeling in the last five minutes of the mini series, desperate to discover the fates of the characters and securing a second series. There was just too much potential to let it end there.
Which is where Dalek War comes in, the second series. It is impossible to stop yourself making parallels with the first series and listening to the whole thing over a week I have to say I was just as impressed, if not as completely riveted all the way through. Dalek War felt quieter despite the incalculable deaths and wrenching twists and of course we are now used to Nick Briggs writing and can start second guessing his work. It was still almost five hours of top notch drama and I would recommend it to anybody who has affection for the Daleks or just likes a good story with some crafty plotting (oh and anyone who likes big noisy explosions too!).
What I think is especially clever about Dalek War is how it looks to the past affectionately but remembers it is dealing with a modern audience. There are so many references to make a fanboy like me glow with appreciation, subtle links to the Daleks' history on the telly that are there to be enjoyed if you get them and are unobtrusive if not. I loved the use of the Varga plants, essential to the plot and very nasty to explore further but just simple things like the Daleks counting in Rels and a squadron of trans-solar discs are heart-warmingly cosy to remember.
However this is made in 2003, not the year of cheesy action adventure science fiction and Briggs makes this point well by the use of the story arc. Arcs are all the range these days, practically unheard of ten years ago until the despicable Babylon 5 showed up but now there is not a single show that doesn't get bogged down in a long running storyline that arcs seasons, sometimes even two or three. Just look at 24!!! I'm not dismissing arcs completely, after all it is a way of capturing your audience in a long storyline and therefore securing strong ratings in the long run. You can take your characters on journeys, seeing their adventures from all angles and providing a depth otherwise absent. No, arcs can be extremely satisfying if done properly.
And Dalek War uses its arc structure to its fullest advantage. So much of the story has been set up in Dalek Empire so now it is just a case of the story continues... without any of the awkward set up that polluted the first chapter of Dalek Empire.
Basically this is the point in which we start. Susan Mendez (or the Angel of Mercy) has been discovered alive on a Dalek ship. The Daleks scheme to take over the galaxy was just a side show, their true aim was to create a dimensional portal and seek help from Daleks in an alternative universe where they rule completely. In a brilliant move of audacity, Nick Briggs has these Daleks turn out to be 'good', they have secured peace in their universe and are appalled at the destruction the Daleks have wrought in our universe. They turn on the 'bad' Daleks and kill the Emperor. And so we begin Dalek War with the 'good' Daleks and the Earth alliance working together to destroy the bad Daleks.
It is an intriguing set up and one that was not done justice on the preview CD handed out by Doctor Who Magazine. I have to say after listening to that I wasn't very excited about the new series but after listening to chapter one of the series my fears were crushed. This was pretty much more of the same albeit with some juicy new problems to solve. For example, the very idea of working with the Daleks is a tenuous one and one that helps generate a lot of tension. Can they be trusted? What will happen once the bad Daleks are defeated? How do they want to bring 'peace' to this universe?
It is all brought home vividly by the use of the Mentor, a brilliant creation who provides Dalek War with its best moments. She reminds me of the Borg Queen from Star Trek, the spider who sits in the middle of the web and makes all the decisions. But she is far more interesting than that one dimensional, KY covered monstrosity from Next Gen, her silky voice and flaring temper make for discomforting listening. It is certain that she doesn't trust Kalendorf from the start and their scenes together, where both is trying outsmart the other, both with plots behind each others back work a treat. The first scene of chapter three, her calm but deadly message to a world that is refusing to fight against the bad Daleks is a superb opening and one that caught my full attention. Hannah Smith was perfect in the role, her dulcet tones and gentle aggression gave Dalek War a real boost.
But of course it is the four (yes we now have Mirana, once a Dalek agent but now a goodie... introduced in chapter three of Dalek Empire) main stars you have to watch out for. It is interesting to note that these characters probably would not have amounted to much in the universe if it hadn't been for the dramatic events that occur here but as they cope the best they can we get to hear (in some confusing cuts to the future) just how their roles were viewed in the future.
Alby is probably the weakest of the four and that is not to dismiss Mark McDonnell's heartfelt performance. He just doesn't have as much to do this time around. He was the perfect protagonist for Dalek Empire, drunk, broody and mad as hell. Here we get a more controlled character, one who is reunited with his former lover. Alby has matured into a sensible, thoughtful character, good development sure but in places a little dull. Still he has some quality moments, the overwhelming amount of OTT (but effective) punchlines come from him. He provides chapters one, two and three with some memorable cliff-hangers.
Suz is much more interesting and Sarah Mowat gives an uncertain, emotional performance that constantly caught me off guard. It is astonishing to follow this character through the four parts, her horror at what has transpired since her capture in chapter one, her defiant willingness to kill herself if her friends are harmed in chapter two, her romantic dealings with Alby in chapter three and her willingness to see the war end by any means necessary in chapter four. It must have been a blast and half for Mowat to play a role this good, she gets to be the good gal and the bad gal and loads of shades of doubt in between.
But it is Karlendorf is the one to watch out for, his absence in the first two chapters is keenly felt but works in context to the plot. He emerges in chapters three and four as a brilliant tactician and an extremely brave man. Gareth Thomas is always good value and he provides a lot of the subtext to the series. So many of his scenes are shielding his true plans it is impossible to take anything his character says on face value. Everybody knows Kalendorf has a plan to defeat both sets of Daleks but he has shared it with no one and his pretence that he is just making it up as he goes along is highly misleading. Especially for me, with all the political machinations going on I had no idea what it was.
The plotting is excellent because the first three segments flow very well without giving you any idea of what to expect in the last chapter. But once you've finished the series it is easy to spot the clues and hints that could have helped you to guess. If I had any complaint about the actual events in Dalek War it would be that there were far too many shoot outs and not enough psychological probing, Dalek Empire was chock a block full of riveting scenes where Susan and the Dalek Supreme got inside each others heads and although Dalek War used Kalendorf and The Mentor for the same idea there just wasn't enough of those scenes. Action scenes on audio are difficult to pull off, with sound effects and tactics you can vividly pull off a space fight but without the visuals it is hard to concentrate.
However Dalek War opens out intriguingly in each new chapter and adds a new layer to the story as it progresses. Loads of mysteries to solve. Why have the Daleks terraformed Jupiter? What has happened to the security force sent there? Is the Dalek Emperor really inside Susan's mind? Is Kalendorf truly a double agent? What is the purpose of Morli, the girl discovered by Alby in the attacked hospital? What are the Mentors secret plans?
It's all very exciting as these are answered one by one and as with the first series events come to a shattering conclusion in the fourth chapter. Nick Briggs obviously did not realise he was going to get the go ahead for a third Dalek series as he gives this tale a genuine sense of finality and unlike many producers is not above killing off well loved characters for shock effect. The plots and schemes all come to a head brilliantly, we get closer and closer to finally hearing what Kalendorf's plan is and I was on the edge of seat, excited in a way only an arc can make you when its done properly. There aren't any of the hysterics of Project Infinity and I'm glad, the ending here is quietly done but all the more shocking for it. There is a real feeling of Blakes' Seven style bleakness to the ending that I found very brave. It certainly does not finish in the way I expected and that can only be a good thing.
Plus there is an inconclusive cliff-hanger that reminds me of Star Trek's Q-Who in all the best ways. The Daleks are coming... are you ready for them?
Dalek War is a triumph of all the things that made the series such a winner, quality writing, committed performances and brilliant twists. Nick Briggs music just gets better and better, he gives these Dalek stories an eerie, threatening feel that adds so much tension. I wish they would release it on CD!!!!
I cannot wait for series three...
The Doctor can't save you now... by Thomas Cookson 26/6/07
The idea of a galactic war with the Daleks and entire star systems falling and billions dying had been hinted at enough times in the series to perk my fascination with the dangerous and uncertain Whoniverse, but this was always an absent paradigm in the show. It was never really seen in explicit form, until Big Finish did their Dalek Empire spin-off.
Recently, fans had been telling me some of the plot details that I'd missed out on that had gone on in this series. A plot development that made me cream my pants, in which we encounter Daleks from a parallel universe with a female Davros. So I picked up series two.
Strangely enough I found it possible to follow the story of Dalek War and get the basics of what had gone on previously quite easily. It made sense to me in its own complex, nonlinear way and I loved decoding its cryptic narrative. Even without having heard series one, I already felt immediately well-acquainted with the characters. Mainly because they all operate on such a primal level, and are so purposeful that they instantly engage me, and also I suppose because of the way the series deals with a timeline of several years. It's a series which is meant to present a puzzle piece but it gives you all the pieces you need. It can also skip long periods and hint at off screen worlds facing conquest because it depends on keeping its canvas large and broad and getting the listener to fill in the blanks, and that makes it truly epic by engaging the imagination.
But at the same time as being epic, it also is claustrophobic. There's an efficiency of storytelling and pacing that makes even the long exposition scenes riveting. Blended with that is the way the Daleks make surprise appearances, how the comfort zone of reminiscence is built and then spontaneously invaded. How this universe is never fully 'known' and each seemingly benevolent scene can turn uncontrollable in the click of fingers. The story begings on a note of inevitable victory for the good guys and the tide turns completely against them from there. For instance, when the humans break through the Jupiter defences and send down the landing party, I knew a trap was waiting for them, but when it happened I was still surprised at how overwhelming and relentless the ensuing disaster became.
It is remarkable how all the diverse, potentially erratic elements and story strands of this series are brought together in a symbiotic way. How it can be both epic like The Daleks' Master Plan and yet also intimately introspective like Kinda. How it can draw characters with depth and yet still have them operate as gung-ho fearless warriors in the face of death. These are characters who fight in the knowledge that their individual lives aren't important when the fate of the galaxy is at stake. I would honestly give my two front teeth to play the role of any of them. At the same time though, they're morally ambiguous enough to keep me suspicious of most of them and the fact that they have nothing to lose makes them even more dangerous, and the kind of decisions and duplicitous actions they commit is also where the series gets its power to shock and surprise. Even when I know they're being duplicitous it still shocks me when I realise how far they'd go.
In many ways there is almost a feeling of watching a computer game or a roleplaying game. The actions of the protagonists are so unpredictable but based on a methodology and puts me in the position of really wondering what I would do or choosing who I agree with and trust the most, who made the best choices and who made the worst.
It is so laden with key choices and devastating consequences in a way that makes each character and decision open up a universe of possibilities in a way I've never known any kind of storytelling to do, and in a way that makes me mull over so many of the turning plot points and of what could have been done differently. The utopian parallel universe idea puts the final layer of icing on it beautifully. It does what Doctor Who often couldn't do, which is make the consequences of a story last and remain visible beyond itself.
It is very much about the legacy of war. Chapter three particularly focuses on how the Daleks brainwash humans and turn them into psychotic savages, and features a particularly tragic robotization scene, and this works as a poignant metaphor for what war and military indoctrination does to people, particularly the young and hopeful.
An overall point is even made that humans can't achieve peace and this works as a parable about humanity violently rejecting a utopia because it is unnatural. Of mankind biting the hand that offers us survival and a future. War and subjugation is supposed to ultimately bring peace, but people won't submit to the dehumanising pascification. The first series showed that the fight against the Daleks was purely about survival, but here survival is shown as being not worth the price to our honour and freedom.
From that comes the idealism of the Mentor and her Daleks. The idea of good Daleks from a parallel universe and a female Davros with the aura of an angel polarises the story brilliantly. It plays on the ideal of what if the Daleks had become a force for good. The Daleks as a concept have always spoken to both mankind's savagery, and man's fearful need to pacify his surroundings (remember the moral debates of Genesis), so the duality of good Dalek/evil Dalek works even without these themes needing to be said. The difference in voice modulation alone creates an immediate sense of these being far more benevolent, endearing Daleks.
The Mentor herself is a beautiful character, nay my favourite, which is saying something, because all the characters are kind of my favourites, I'm in love with all of them. I love Alby's working-class hero gung-hoism and colourful vocabulary. I love Karlendorf's unyielding sense of warrior honour that makes him a law unto himself to the highest degree; in fact, he's the character I'd love to play the most. I love Susan's ferocious selfless compassion, like a mother protecting her child, and Geordie Morli's naive innocence (a shame there's no sign of Tanley this series though; I loved that guy, he was such a creep).
But Mentor is my favourite of them all, and despite everything, she is the one I'd choose to ally myself with. She is played as something of a dark Romana, with similar elegance and authority. I can't help but think how if this was on TV now, the Mentor would probably be revered by female viewers in the same way as Trinity or Lara Croft.
The angelic, measured quality to the Mentor is fairly true to the way control freaks can be. They can be very inspiring with their evangelical hope and determination. In a way I see the Mentor as quite a tragic tyrant, like all control freaks who are blind to reason and empathy, who are doomed to make the things they fear the most become self-fulfilling and to be rejected and alone. In a sense, she is a powerful figure because her perceptiveness recalls an understanding, intimate friend as much as it does a shrewd enemy. This is very much her series I think; even though she only has a precious few scenes in it, each one is electrically charged. Her final scene is the most beautiful and poignant and really echoes through the final chapter like no other scene.
This is a rather feminine series in some ways. It has a kind of sensual beauty in the way it intermixes the violence and hope, and emotions. It's like rough sex in a way, finding such beauty in its violence, such warm intimacy in its characters and their principles, and such orgasms in its pain and its primal screams. The way its ugliness is multilayered and masked. The way it soothes as much as it excites and has the kind of intensity that literally leaves me breathless. This intimate, organic symbiosis is what marks it above the first series of Dalek Empire, which tended to be rather loud and vulgar with its violence and shock tactics, and in places made me feel like a captive audience to a goulish car crash. It is also a rather more hopeful series than the descent into hell than Dalek Empire was.
If I've slammed Briggs' writing in my Mutant Phase review, then this is where I must start buttering up to the man because he's done an absolute masterpiece here. Possibly the best Big Finish I'll ever hear, better than Terror Firma, in fact. If The Mutant Phase had been a half-baked, inconsequential, bad melodrama, then this was Nicholas Briggs when he is properly simmered and has enough of a grand and uncertain tapestry to do melodrama but do it right in a primal, raw, swirling, disturbing, furious vortex of colours. It also shows how a sense of consequences, rather than a reset button, makes all the difference.
For me, the most moving and beautiful blend of horror and humanity has to be the Kinda-like sequence where Susan is subjected to a mental rape by the Emperor Dalek. Now, true, it doesn't quite move me to tears in quite the way that Susan's first speech to the slaves in the first series does. But it's still an exquisitely harrowing scene and superbly acted with such rawness. The well of emotions, the orgasms of pain and terror, it's all so living and breathing and vibrant in its hysteria.
I picked up strongly on the rather feminist parable to Susan's story. Susan's story was central to the first series, but is rather more peripheral here. But still there is the echo of the way Susan's story worked at making the years under Dalek rule an allegory for patriarchal subjugation and abuse (in a similar manner to Tenko really). It actually says a lot about the iron determination of the abuser's mentality and what it means to be constantly intimidated and how it wears down your defences to the point of surrender, and about being preyed upon and victimised simply because you won't be docile. In that regard, I think this is very inspirational and deeply empowering. Potent enough to crack open mindsets, in fact. Not bad for an audio adventure that some have dismissed off the cuff as being Boys' Own.
So, as a spinoff, it borrows well from its parent series, and not just the Dalek stories but also in regards to stories like Inferno and Kinda and their concepts. So it displays its own capability as a Doctor Who spinoff for having a variety and reality-bending power of its own, even without a TARDIS to take us into the stranger realms. Not only that, but it maintains the legacy of using these abstract fantasy plains to say something about our own society and human nature. It goes some distance to showing that a Dalek spinoff series isn't limited to the space invaders routine, and it could be every bit as powerful, challenging, diverse, strange and topical as its parent series.
And so from the womanist angle we get the other key theme. Traditionally, women are associated with being closer to nature, and nature is a driving character in this series, polarized well against the mechanised Daleks. Emotions are at their most primal and humans are at their most survivalist and instinctive; a technologically advanced galactic civilisation is decimated back to feudalism. The most effective weapons of war are plagues and Varga plants and technology is frequently used to pervert nature.
There was a point when I got to Chapter Four, where I started to feel the plot had been lost rather, which is saying something because I'd been so riveted by both Dalek Empire and Dalek War that I'd stayed up until four o'clock in the morning until I got to the end. The cliffhanger to Chapter Three had left me literally breathless and the suspense of what would happen next was killing me. But part four seemed to go on a wild tangent with most of its big events taking place off screen and being narrated very vaguely. But this sense of puzzlement quickly got rectified by an enormous twist that reaffirmed this as a thoroughly solid narrative and the pay-off really blew me away.
It is a very traditional narrative that gives the ending its power and its sense of thematic potency. In the H. G. Wells tradition, it is ultimately nature and history that are proved to be the most robust elements when all the technological strength of humanity has been destroyed, its civilisations ruined, its weapons and military might exhausted. In the end the answer comes from a mixture of ancient legends, natural gifts and an old-fashioned sense of honour and the human spirit which are proved to be far more powerful than the Dalek empire.
The final moments of the last chapter are something of a cliffhanger, and a chilling one that is reminiscent of the opening of Invasion of the Daleks. It creates the sense of the Serifia galaxy being a gateway to hell and the Daleks being its perpetual evil spawn unleashed on our galaxy once more. But it is a proper conclusion to the series in a way that Project Infinity wasn't. In terms of the emotional story of its characters, that is completely wrapped up, as is the present Dalek invasion even though we learn that Dalek reinforcements will be arriving a few decades down the line.
I'm going to say that I think this is an absolute masterpiece. Suddenly, I feel I've found everything that I always wanted Doctor Who to be. As far as I'm concerned, a Dalek spin-off was meant to be, far moreso than pap like K9 and Company or Torchwood. It will always frustrate me that something as good as this couldn't have made it to screen and gained the audience it deserved. The characters are absolutely to die for and I just can't imagine any teenager who wouldn't fall in love with them. The acting is flawless too. The stakes are higher and more epic than in any other TV show I've seen. It's highly exciting and there is never a dull moment; in fact, I'm amazed at how wonderfully it was paced and how it made its running time fly by. The only fault I've been able to spot is a continuity error in the beginning of Chapter Three and the fact that I noticed such a detail indicates how much the storytelling held my interest.
In fact, if it was televised then I can honestly say that it would outclass its parent series, to the point where I'd consider Doctor Who to be utterly superfluous and I probably wouldn't look twice at it again because I'd have found a series that did all the things Doctor Who does in terms of morality, danger, scope and strangeness but done far better and more maturely.