Big Finish Productions
Dalek Empire IV: The Fearless
|Written by||Nicholas Briggs|
Starring Noel Clarke, Maureen O'Brien and Sarah Mowat
|Synopsis: The Daleks have devised a plan that will deliver a decisive victory.|
Road rage! by Thomas Cookson 12/9/10
I cautiously bought Dalek Empire IV. I'd felt cheated by Dalek Empire III's non conclusion and this prequel series wasn't going to provide any resolution.
Well it provided some resolution by telling a story of human endurance and a new superweapon that could survive the centuries ahead, allowing humanity to win many future wars against the Daleks.
General Landen's project of heavily armed Spacer suits as a perfect human counterpart to the Daleks made the story seem to have benefited from its three year hiatus and rethink, exploring a perfect new premise. That hooked me, making me stick with the coming chapters, keenly anticipating Tanlee's cameo, and hoping to discover who else had a disc in their head.
The Daleks sounded terrifying again. Dalek Empire III downplayed and wore out the horror element, as the Daleks mostly put on a benevolent act and did little. Even when the Daleks massacred people, it was glamourised Dalek-chic.
But here the Daleks are far more evil and vile. Kade and his people hide out from the Daleks, but discover that the Daleks' stalker relentlessness will literally pursue them to the ends of the Earth. Real evil. Real 'nowhere to run' horror. The stuff of nightmares. Nightmares about being chased by someone who magically appears at both ends of the tunnel. Nicholas Briggs' stories are often nightmarish, like The Nowhere Place's sleepwalker horror.
This sense of concentrated evil even augments the Dalek's physique. In my minds' eye, the Dalek grill ruts seem sharper and more barbarous. Their camera eye burns with a thousand suns' fury. Their skirt studs are striking and unsettling like a wasp's stripes. Indeed, I keep envisioning these Daleks in a wasp-yellow hue.
In Chapter Two, Kade and his Spacers blast through a Dalek ship. We get punch-the-air moments and deliciously bad macho one liners. Initially, the Daleks' defeat looks too easy, like the Daleks have gone the same demeaning path of Journey's End. But in a blink we see just how suddenly bleak things can get. When the Daleks are beaten, we see what they're capable of when they have nothing to lose. It's a shocking moment that really had me unnerved and unsettled, getting so agitated and stressed, waiting for the worst to happen, and slack-jawed and speechless at the end of it. Like a blind countdown, where you didn't know what was going to go off, or where, or how soon.
Having encountered Daleks in war where even fully armed and armoured battalions can still end up barbecued, now we shift to the slave characters who have to share a room with the evil bastards, who might kill them at the slightest irritation. We really feel the Daleks' presence breathing down our neck, which again Dalek Empire III lacked.
Some fans complained that Susan Mendes is getting overused. But given Dalek Empire's beautiful symbiosis, I doubted Susan would be brought in gratuitously. She'd almost certainly have a crucial part to play in the story. Apart from the Daleks, she's the story's only constant. Her story is like a Buddhist parable of a woman who faced her fears, died metaphorically and was reborn as someone braver, shrewder and more noble, unfettered by fear of death.
We really didn't see enough of Suz's actual influence on the Dalek Empire and its slaves. We learn why the slaves are so important to the Dalek war effort and why the rebellion was a turning point. And that beautiful symbiosis shows how the atrocities on Kedru 7 are largely down to her influence.
Simultaneously, we see the other side of the coin, and the hope and joy she brings to the slaves themselves. Suz meets Ollander, a character straight out of a Mike Leigh film. A rather tragic, pathetic, people-pleasing and lonely character that you can't help but like for her innocent fragility, and how anything elicits an enthusiastic emotional response from her. Hearing of her suffering grief and torture is genuinely harrowing and disturbing, and I absolutely dreaded what her fate would be. But she and Susan immediately bond. There is warmth between the two characters, and trust.
In terms of the Buddhist angle, Susan here is at a point before she learned to face her fears, and perhaps she yearns for a friendship with Ollander because unlike Kalendorf, Ollander will tell her what she wants to hear rather than the brutal truth. And we see that Susan really does give people hope. In some ways it's a terrible, degrading gratitude for small mercies (Ollander lost her father but she's grateful the Daleks let her have the funeral), but her meeting with Susan, that connection between a weak person and a strong person gives her the gumption to stand up to the Daleks.
Elsewhere, two humans have panicked and are trying to hide away in the Dalek-populated ship. It's like Shakedown and the sequence where they're hiding in the ventilation system fearing that a single Dalek blast could 'barbecue' them is frightening, courtesy of Nicholas Briggs' way with words.
Siy Tarkov predicted humanity would become a brutal fascistic military power where people fight the Dalek war under state coercion. Same way Kade was forcibly drafted. Whilst I'm against the military draft on principle, if there was a real Dalek war and it was a question of our survival as a species, I'd support the draft.
The Daleks destroy Kade's family and the military plays on that grief, encouraging him to keep fighting to take revenge. Perhaps we are seeing how the military provides rehabilitation and second chances to society's mad-dog thugs and damaged goods. Taking their ceaseless rage, unyielding defiance and nothing-to-lose resilience that sees them picking another fight even after the last one left them with broken bones. It takes all that force of will and aggression, and applies it to the noble fight against a mutually unyielding evil. It gives them discipline and heroism, and sees them saving lives.
Kade and his squad are sent to assassinate Susan. It's really distressingly nailbiting for a sustained length as Kade transforms into a monster before our eyes. Rage, indoctrination and the corrupting power of having a gun make Kade the sadistic monster he is. But the slaves show courage telling him that he's a hateful, cowardly creature who's no better than the Daleks. Noel Clarke's performance is terrifyingly real, intense and heart-thumping. It's a horrifying sequence, but it's also important. As the women are held at gunpoint, there's an unspoken but sinister implication of the threat of rape. These men can do anything they want to these women. It's frightening because this kind of thing really happens in war. It's a harsh dose of reality refusing to be hidden. Dalek Empire is fantasy, but this could be our future. But halfway through, it all goes completely off the rails.
Dalek Empire has always been twist-heavy to offset the cliches of how samey and dull a Dalek series might sound, emphasising turning points and decisions shaping history. But the twists here are gratuitous, done on a thoughtless whim and seem unplanned. There were no clues beforehand and so the twists themselves seemed like a real cheat that made me feel honestly offended by the cheap deception that ruined the very character story I had invested in. The 'dreamlike' quality becomes ridiculous.
Frankly, the revelation that the military had conspired in the death of Kade's family was ridiculous. There are too many variables in the military's plan. Surely the military would have minimised the collateral? What if Kade had been blown up with Kedru 7, or become suicidal and therefore useless to the military. It was portraying the military in a villainous light, on a whim simply to justify one detestable character's self-righteous, self-agrandising indignation.
It's an adolescently bored story using twists and wrong-footing the audience for the hell of it. To be honest, it's quite hypocritical, exploring the manipulative nature of the military whilst simultaneously being such a manipulative story. Fair enough, make a point that the military would take advantage of Kade's grief and would push him over the deep end when they should be pulling him back from the brink. But that the military deliberately caused his grief? It's basically as contrived and self-aggrandising as having the prosecution lawyer turn out to be the real murderer, because if he opposes the main character then he must be evil.
The battle to save Earth from a Dalek fleet and meteor shower was a superb climax. A thrilling descent into hell with us as a captive audience. Unfortunately, foreknowledge of the outcome for Earth in the first Dalek Empire series, made the whole sequence ultimately pointless and inconsequential.
But the climax should have been Kade's redemption or comeuppance. But instead of reckoning with his monstrous dark side, he blames everyone else for what happened to him. Twisting their arm at gunpoint into sympathising with him. I wished someone would shoot him and shut him up. It all left me with a nasty, toxic aftertaste. A fantastic production marred by unforgiving scorn, a self-involved nasty piece of work as its hero, and strong themes tackled immaturely. A pointlessly angry story, and not in the exorcising way that the previous three Dalek Empires were. This was just aimlessly spewed, unpleasant anger and scorn.
Perhaps shortening the story to four parts had curtailed some needed characterisation. As the story of a 'good' man corrupted by hate and revenge, there wasn't enough backstory to convince me he wasn't a nasty piece of work in the first place. It was shocking when Kalendorf became a turncoat to the evil Daleks, but I knew the character enough and his obsession with honour and victory at all costs to have no doubt that he was capable of it. Landen was criminally underdeveloped so I just couldn't buy it; I never supported Kade's revenge on her because I couldn't believe her guilt.
By focusing on Kade, all other characters are blotted out, so we're saturated with hellish macho masculinity. Mainly because the female characters (who usually come out strongest in Dalek Empire) are only allowed to be victims of Kade's bullying, and it feels like navelgazing of a sadistic kind. I never felt any sympathy for Kade; by his prominence and whining I felt I was being forced to. He turned the once-humanistic series into nasty self-aggrandisement. Yet we're meant to root for him against Landen. At least she acted for the greater good and humanity's survival. All Kade cares about is himself, his own petty revenge.
But quite simply Dalek Empire has exhausted itself. Dalek Empire has presented the brutal truth of war, military life, survival at all costs, and human gullibility and what separates natural leaders from followers plenty of times already. This says nothing new.
Rather like Battlestar Galactica, it's unimaginative and joyless. I usually find something strangely comforting and life-affirming about miserable, hellish visions of the future and humanity on the brink of extinction. Dalek Empire was both miserable and joyful, with an ecstacy of passion. But this was a miserable, unpleasant listening experience. I'd long wanted a resolution to Dalek Empire III, but after this I suddenly couldn't care less.
These days when films like The Matrix do all the work for us, explaining its own subtexts and leaving nothing to read into, it's refreshing to get something that, like Genesis of the Daleks, leaves the impression of much more story to tell. Dalek Empire answered Genesis' imponderables about the future and what the Dalek wars would be like, but still suggested other untold stories and imponderables about the ambiguous future to come.
Ultimately, this filled in the blanks and wore the concept out, so now there seems nothing left to tell. Dalek Empire didn't know when to quit and has completely lost my trust with its chaotic characterisation, empty shocks and off the map plotting. It's dead to me.