Big Finish Productions
Dalek Empire III: The Healers
|Written by||Nicholas Briggs|
Starring William Gaunt and Sarah Mowat
|Synopsis: The Border Worlds are gripped by a terrible plague... Galanar's mission takes him right to the heart of the tragedy. The Dalek plans for 'Geo-forming' are already in operation.|
Emerging from the shadows... by Joe Ford 1/9/04
I think Big Finish should be applauded for their willingness to branch out into mini series' of their own because it is becoming abundantly clear that this is where the gold lies. Their Doctor Who releases have been great, offering a new lease of life for what was a long forgotten series but the quality of the stories themselves have been hugely variable swinging from the very best and worst merchandise under the Doctor Who banner. But with their mini series growth Big Finish are given the opportunity to find their own voice, to create their own environments and characters and prove just how creative and original these CDS are. Yes every series has a Doctor Who link but rather than using characters as they were on telly they take a more fascinating "where are they now" approach (we have already seen Sarah Jane, Romana, Leela, an alternative Brigadier, Bernice and the Daleks in their twilight time from the series) which provides a hook for the fans but also allows Big Finish to re-invent them to their own specifications. It has proven very rewarding and never more so with the delectable Nick Briggs and his brilliant Dalek Empire trilogy.
It is bizarre that Big Finish have access to the Daleks but at least it means they are still evolving in the new millennium and I wouldn't trust anyone other than Nick Briggs to give them that lease of life because he has an affinity for writing and directing the potentially dull creatures and creating a universe for them to wreck havoc in with spectacular fireworks.
And after impressing with his opening episode into Dalek Empire III he goes straight for the jugular with The Healers providing a far more muscular affair, action packed (Can an audio be action packed? When you cannot see the action?) and adrenalin boosting. It is typically frustrating to have few answers to the sweeping developments taking place especially this early in the series this episode offers a few breadcrumbs as to what the hell the Daleks are really up to... but to be honest the story is far too entertaining dealing with the formidable cast of characters dealing with the dramatic events to have me worried yet. Besides half the fun is wondering just how grand and diabolical the metal meanies' latest scheme is and with a canvas as vast as an entire solar system to play with here (and the revelation of their Changing Rooms style plans for the Graxis system proves they haven't lost their flair for the grandiose!). Needless to say my interest is more than piqued especially after the startling cliffhanging ending!
I love how the characters are slowly moved around the board, how we are slowly seeing their development as the Daleks make their presence felt. Just like the first two series the Daleks are far more useful as a method of exploring the characters than as characters in their own right, by confronting your characters with this expression of pure evil you can probe beneath the surface and see who they really are. Saxton, Galanar, Kaymee and all the other regulars are given the centre of attention but the lingering Dalek threat is constantly felt and like a hand closing around them all it is pulling them together into a brilliantly constructed narrative. Considering this is a six disc series there is an epic sense of a sweeping plot, a story that can take its time and flesh out its characters whilst pushing developments along confidently.
Which is more engaging, the Daleks terrorising the Graxis wardens, Tarkov recovering from the shock of waking up in the future and discovering he has a daughter or Galanar on a mission to find the Daleks and prove there is an invasion eminent? Hard to say really because it's all told which such assurance, each story adding more to the overall plot.
The Graxis plot remains the centrepiece, with cracks showing in the Daleks benevolent exterior, as they are provoked into a blood-curdling massacre that leaves Saxton, Telligan and Kaymee on the run in a breathless Fugitive style sequence. Saxton again comes across really well as she is stripped of her leadership by the Daleks and fights to regain it, refusing to be beaten down by the murdering benefactors. There is one dramatic scene where she is attempting to conduct a funeral for one of the Dalek victims and she refuses to stop her epitaph even as it is screaming at her to. Her relationship with Kaymee is sweetening especially under the circumstances and there is a lot of potential for this duo to drive the series such is their chemistry.
The completely inexplicable absence of William Gaunt's Selestru means that David Tennant gets to command his own plot where Galanar is kidnapped and sneaked into Dalek territory as they work on a cure for the plague that is ravaging the Outer Planets. I loved his reaction to the glamorous City on a cash starved plagued planet and his rhetorical question "How did you manage to build this?" slips with superb menace into a Dalek scene that answers everything.
Cinematic is the only way to describe Briggsy's treatment of the story, this is clearly a labour of love for the top man and he once again proves why he is the best director and postproduction guy on their pay roll. Atmosphere is hard to create on an audio only piece but Briggs makes it look easy, potent sound FX and sinister music combining to full effect. And I have to mention the theme music, which is outstanding, now the most memorable original piece Big Finish have created. It captures the down and dirty feel of the Daleks perfectly...
I seem to be swinging left and right with Big Finish lately. After nearly an entire year moaning about how repetitive and bland their releases have been it gives me great pleasure to announce 2004 has seen something of a coup of quality that is showing no signs of being overthrown.
Much, much more than just part two of six, The Healers remains as complex and engaging as part one. Superb stuff.
Uncomfortably numb by Thomas Cookson 3/11/09
I've been mulling over the issue of darkness in Doctor Who, and continuity which is in the realms of complexity and consequence.
Doctor Who was never originally a continuity-driven series but since 1985 it has been a 'wounded' franchise. Therefore it has been more prone to tactics to keep its core audience, such as the arcs and the darker turns that have defined the New Adventure novels and the Big Finish spinoffs. By making Doctor Who a soap opera, you leave your core audience with little choice but to be dedicated in their following.
I don't mind any fluffs or contradictions in old episodes, but since the books and audios are reliant on a consistent universe, there is more frustration at contradicting timelines or being left with pit holes like War of the Daleks. And over time it begins to resemble a bloated monster of a series that I'd rather would just end.
The problem is that arcs tend to go nowhere, unless the axe is threatened and the show is forced to spontaneously deal with all its demons and unfinished business, by which point they've become intolerable dead wood, and if the show's tone is dark they become depressing to the point of apathy.
The books have set arcs running through a careful selection of stories, but when Gallifrey was destroyed, that arc was prolongued for five years. Which is ironic because apparently the destruction of Gallifrey was meant to sink the continuity in one go rather than sink with it.
With Big Finish, the Doctor Who adventures are self-contained, apart from the short lived Divergent universe arc, but it has its more arc-driven spin-offs, and The Apocalypse Element launched two in one go.
Dalek Empire has remained insular. Project Infinity wasn't something set up to predict how humanity could win the Cyber wars or Sontaran wars. This series has been heavily Dalek-centric. Bringing the Knights of Veleyshaa into the narrative was unprecedented, since no Dalek story has ever involved elements from a non-Dalek story, but that was as outward as it got. "Did you know there probably isn't a soul in this galaxy who's life hasn't been in some way tainted by the Daleks?"
Which is a pretty bold statement, since most Doctor Who stories take place in a universe that only remembers the Daleks ever existed if they turn up that week. But Dalek Empire 1 & 2 fit fairly well into the established timeline. You could even presume that declining Earth empire stories like Colony in Space and The Sunmakers take place after the 'great catastrophe'. The first two series are pretty self contained, but with Dalek Empire III it's a bit hard to be self contained if you don't actually have an ending.
I like to think that Dalek Empire knew where it was going. The Genocide Machine introduced the idea of the Daleks potentially finding compassion and redemption through the power of knowledge, which might end their reign of terror (as well as giving them an edge over human psychology). This was significant because it was breaking taboos to suggest that the Daleks could turn nice, but this was crucially Big Finish's first Dalek story and ergo its mission statement. It was an idea that took center stage nicely in Jubilee, and the last chapter of Dalek Empire III leaves open the possibility of Daleks learning the value of friendship and becoming a more benevolent species.
Since this series projected so far into the future that this could conceivably be the last word on the Daleks, perhaps that's what happened. Maybe the Daleks really do become benevolent and that's the reason why the Daleks still haven't overwhelmed human territory by the time of Frontios or The Mysterious Planet.
What a lovely ending to the Dalek saga that would be, and so appropriately Doctor Who as well, and especially good natured after such dark events and brutal actions committed by our pragmatic protagonists. That way, it's inconclusiveness could work as a case of having its cake and eating it too.
But the Time War made sure nothing came of that, because the Daleks clearly remained all-conquering bastards after all.
Now in Dalek, the details of the Time War were vague enough for that to not contradict Dalek Empire III. The more details surface, the harder this is to do. In Parting of the Ways, it's quite impossible to reconcile these Emperor-led xenophobic Daleks with the Daleks here who don't seem to mind turning humans into Daleks, or for that matter being led by a human/Dalek hybrid.
In terms of the overall story going off the track, you can't get any more lost than this. And the most frustrating thing of all is that had there been no Dalek Empire III, then the end of Dalek Empire II would have segued perfectly into the Time War.
If I were Nicholas Briggs, I'd have held back Dalek Empire III until the New Series. After seeing the Daleks suffer extinction in the Time War, a part of me would feel the responsibility to keep the idea of the Daleks as a galactic empire alive. But I think I'd decide that two series of Dalek Empire is enough and that it's not fair on the buying fans to drag this story out further and deny them a conclusion. I'd think that I should let my story come to rest and let the torch be passed because the New Series does a capable job of it, and also I'd personally be proud of the 'victory or death' conclusion and wouldn't want to overwrite it with something inconclusive.
If only the Terry Nation estate had revoked Big Finish's contract on the Daleks in late 2003, then Dalek Empire II would have to be the last word on this arc.
Dalek Empire III is a lot of fun but its lack of a conclusion is frustrating, though if I could believe in the 'redemption of the Daleks' direction, I would mind this a lot less. Dalek Empire III really didn't need to be made after Dalek War. As I said, I take continuity more seriously with this series because it is continuity driven and based on an authentic and consistent view of the whole galaxy. Like the books, Dalek Empire has put forward the parallel universe get-out clause to muddy its bleak canonicity, and I latch on to that theory because it's the only hopeful one. And, ergo, it's harder to feel that any of this matters.
But it's also hard to care because by this point the darkness of it has reached quite ludicrous and apathetic qualities. Nothing here is sacred so there's nothing to hold onto anymore. In the first two series, the horror of the Dalek war, and its punished populations and spaceship graveyards was all very affecting, as was the sense of the great catastrophe literally ripping worlds apart. But I think after that it became too much to imagine any more suffering for the galaxy, and so here we're called upon to imagine a plague spreading across the galaxy and killing millions, particularly in this chapter, but by either compassion fatigue or a lack of focus on the story's part it just doesn't quite become envisionable. Yes, on a smaller scale it works. When David Tennant narrates the gruesome details of plague victims dying, he really conveys the helplessness of the situation wonderfully, and it's hard not to experience Siy Tarkov's agony and muse on the horror of how he was one of the lucky ones. Incidentally, I think the Suz/Dalek hybrid is a lovely touch, and it suddenly becomes apparent how her presence was meant to mislead the audience. Maybe it was Suz's old compassion that led her to order the curing of plague victims. But beyond that it is just out of sight and out of mind.
When Carneill says that he lost his whole family to the plague it registers nothing, and that's one reason why he never comes off as anything more than a weasely quisling. It's a bit like in The Apocalypse Element when the Seriphia galaxy burns. The destruction is somewhat out of the blue and the scale is ridiculous and all of it is out of sight and out of mind, and it barely gets by on melodrama alone. Basically, it is really hard to make a silent but deadly killer work in an audio format.
It's not just that. The massacre of the Wardens at the end conveys nothing to me either. When the Daleks massacred the population of Vega VI or the hostages at Project Infinity, it was horrifying. It made my jaw go slack because I'd never experienced anything like it. Here it's just a routine massacre of some ciphers we never got to meet. Maybe that's the problem, because Vega VI always felt populated, but somehow you never believed there was more than just six wardens on Graxis, so it feels like a whole load of them has been introduced just so the Daleks can massacre them.
I suppose The Survivors compounds the felony rather by having the Wardens escape Graxis too easily and too quickly in what has become a side-show plot. The Healers nicely feels like a full on extention from The Exterminators, whereas later chapters feel half hearted, slightly unbalanced bits of follow on. As such, the relentlessness of the Daleks comes through well here but briefly goes out to lunch in the next few chapters. Though I'll say that The Future has a real sense of the race against time that Parting of the Ways really botched.
Characterisation is another issue. Frey Saxton gets a great scene where she stands her ground during Sergic's funeral and refuses to obey the commands of silence from the observing Dalek. As I said, the Dalek in that scene reminds me of Russell T Davies' type of trampling, mean, 'laughing at a funeral' humour. There's also the moment where she loses her rag and tries to choke Carneill, not that I approve of course but her strength of feeling comes out so well in that scene. But other than that there is a sense that the characterisation has become a little basic. Frey has the curmudgeonly characteristic but it feels like something of an afterthought. A competent one, but little else.
Nick Briggs is very good at characterisation; indeed, he has a wonderful sense of psychology and how people behave in a panic situation. Certainly, I prefer the characters here to the repulsively self-involved characters of New Who. But they don't really have the strength of character that drives the plot, or get to wrestle with it like in the first two series. Certainly, comparing Suz's sympathetic complexity as a collaborator, and Carneill's base weaselyness in the same role speaks volumes. I find with this series that repeated listenings don't hold my attention like with the previous two series, because there isn't quite the same sense of propulsion, or at least there are spurts where the propulsion is out to lunch for rather too long.
The Graxis Wardens were of course an afterthought to the story and I think that's the problem with Dalek Empire III. I don't think Nick's heart is in this kind of Dalek Empire: The Next Generation storyline, which is perhaps why it ends in a massacre that burns all bridges, and why Nick at present seems to prefer writing around the timeline of the first series. I think Nick really wanted to end the series and he exhausted and chucked as many ideas into it as possible, and for all that it lacks the previous series' diverse multiculturalism. I think if he intended to do a follow up to this series then he probably would have kept the Graxis Wardens for Dalek Empire IV.
So with the ideas thrown into it, there's a sense that some of it just doesn't make good fuel and the whole thing could be a lot tighter. This doesn't feel like a labour of love in the way that the last two series did, particularly on a character front. Which is why the Daleks seem somehow more glamourised and propagandised than anywhere else. Indeed, where once they seemed at their most repellant when massacring people, here they seem at their most cool. There is the strongest whiff of Dalek chic here, and I quite like that in a perverse way but it does reflect badly on the heroes here that they don't have quite the same allure.
But even the Daleks seem a bit like soft touches in patches of the series. They may not be scarpering from the heroes like wusses a la Evolution of the Daleks, but certainly gone are the days when even mad dog Morebi's men couldn't bring down a single Dalek without most of them becoming barbecued in the attempt. In the previous chapter, a Dalek got it from a speeding tractor and didn't bother to get out the way, and in The Demons a Dalek ship is destroyed in a single lucky shot. Here the Daleks are unscathed but they're easy to escape from. But cleverly they are actually letting the Graxis Wardens escape easily and get hold of the armoury as an excuse to kill them all whilst feigning provocation to Carneill and his fellow Borderers. Provoking their enemies, giving them ammunition and turning opinion against them. That's another way that the Daleks are like Russell T. Davies and his sneering critic baiting.
To get back to complaints, the lax characterisation also rather handicaps the overall tragedy of the story. To a degree, Dalek Empire did treat its characters rather disposably, but it endowed them with fatal flaws that were core to them and made their death mean something. Both Morli and Mirana were killed by their role of being someone's unquestioning follower, Alby was like Romeo in that he was too quick and rash to fall in love and spent the whole series chasing a woman who eventually killed him because he never knew what war had done to her. And of course Susan had her wilfullness and high ambitions which the Daleks very quickly noticed and played upon. And of course you'd have to be deaf to not know in advance that the odious Tanlee was a marked man.
That doesn't come through here. To a degree, Kaymee's plagiarised application brought her to Graxis where she meets her end, but does that punishment really fit the crime? Gallanar and Siy contrast well in terms of being optimist and pessimist and how comparing their fates, maybe Siy's fate represents his pessimism consuming him. Except that the story goes out of its way to make him pessimistic. It wasn't a core characteristic, and certainly he never exhibited it in Dalek War. At its best, tragedy is about a person's relationship with their fate, but this just feels like a relentless parade of pain, and that's unpleasant. There's a point in this chapter where Siy's pain feels cathartic as he tells his long-lost daughter Amur of his spiritual death. Listening to this now makes me feel disappointed that Nick pulled the cynical move he did with Amur's character and sent Siy back into unimaginable grief again. A bit like the Doctor losing Gallifrey twice over.
Also, a good tragedy has a finality about it, that comes from everyone dying. But this doesn't have that. In chapter six, the Daleks have reached their goal in the healing zones in creating their army, and then we skip ahead seven months and hear nothing else about this mass army. Given that the Daleks already have a huge chunk of our galaxy and are swelling forces in their millions, and Earth is still recovering from the great catastrophe, I don't see how Earth is meant to survive. Yes I can accept Doctor Who giving me various contrary accounts of the end of the world, but not when the Daleks are responsible for one of them, because I can't really turn a blind eye then.
Maybe Dalek Empire IV will follow something up. Maybe the cast of The Fearless will end up in cryosleep and be reawoken 2000 years later to fight this new Dalek war.
My final complaint is that this is a bit derivative. The previous two series were inspired but also narratively unlike anything else in Doctor Who. This just covers over Power of the Daleks and Frontier in Space really.
I still enjoy Dalek Empire III. It still displays Nicholas' talents well. Quite simply, this is Big Finish at its most poetic and literate; forget Rob Shearman's thesis-like verbose stories, this is literate in a much more organic and beautiful way. The polarised conflict between nature and technology, and harking back nicely to the eco-themes of The Green Death. Here the Daleks, in destroying conservationist lands and its inhabitants, are a menace to the environment more than anything. In fact, it's wholly appropriate that the Daleks should track the Warden's ship by polluting their fuel tanks to leave a smog trail.
When I listen to Dalek Empire, my eyes and imagination draw out the techno-horror in my appliance-littered surroundings, and cosmic fear too. It draws a resourceful imagination. But my recommendation of getting the first two Dalek Empire series and boycotting the rest still stands.