Monday, 11 April 2011

Invasion of the Daleks written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The Daleks heading solo without the Doctor, an exciting new series that sees them freed from the shackles of Doctor Who child friendly restrictions and kicking ass in the most spectacular way possible. It’s no wonder that Terry Nation tried to sell this idea to the US – imagine a series with the grit and bite of Blakes’ 7 featuring the Daleks and with a whopping American budget. There is every possibility it could have been a winner. With Dalek Empire we get the perfect chance to experience what such a series might have been like. Sod regeneration, the TARDIS, ditzy companions and sonic screwdrivers, this is genuinely hard hitting space opera on an apocalyptic scale. Nicholas Briggs, the most influential Dalek writer and performer after Terry Nation, is the perfect choice to bring this series to life because he not only has a wonderful idea of the intelligence and the sheer nastiness of the creatures but he understands this series has to have a very emotional core in order to make us care.

Angel of mercy: Perhaps the most interesting character in the first season is Susan Mendez, a mineralogist who is caught up in the extraordinary circumstances on Vega 6. Sarah Mowat works her way through this first script, a little uncertain at first of what her character is all about (certainly her initial scenes with Suz and Alby lack the chemistry that should make their love story come alive as they are torn apart by the Daleks) but somewhere around the halfway point of this episode, where the script stops floundering and settles on a linear narrative, she finds her feet and impresses. I have seen Mowat in theatre and she was a real presence on the stage and as this series progresses she slowly steals the show. Susan Mendez is living on Vega 6 with her mum and dad and her gran sends her pickled onions from Earth. She has clearly lived something of a sheltered life because she is utterly shocked as the Earth cruiser tears through the sky and crash-lands. Suz won’t leave her mum and dad behind and leave with Alby despite his insistence and she tells him to go without her. In a number of wonderful moments of Dalek psychology Suz asks a Dalek why they are bothering to keep them alive and screams at the creature to kill her because that is what they do. The linchpin of the first series is the gripping scenes between the Dalek Supreme and Suz which should be stilted and overwritten but instead have a real sense of seriousness and importance and reveal real depths to both characters. The Dalek Supreme is manipulating Suz but she goes along with it as long as she buys some time and food for the slaves. She understands that the Daleks are trying to give the slaves false hope as they will murder them all eventually. She agrees to make a speech to the slave force who are dying out, Suz tells them that the Daleks don’t care if they are alive or dead but they do need workers. Slowly she turns them into a compliant force.

Anti-hero: Whilst it is Suz that makes Dalek Empire as interesting as it is, it is Alby Brook, wonderfully played by Ian Brooker, who makes the piece so enjoyable. You are never quite sure about his character since he is revealed to be undercover on Vega 6 looking for Karlendorf under the guise of working with Suz but his motives are always reliable because he wears his heart on his sleeve so openly. He admits that he doesn’t like to hang around too long in one place. We discover that he is being used as a pawn by the Earth Alliance because he is an ex corporal with 2 years of penal servitude pending for petty pilfering. During a drunken scene after fleeing the Dalek battle and leaving Suz to die he admits he always runs away when he is scared and that he loved her, even though he was too nervous to say anything. Alby wouldn’t waste a drop of brandy on a Dalek but a woman is worth a whole bottle of Southern Comfort, maybe two. Alby is a competent pilot and can see his way through a dogfight in space with Daleks.

Knight of Velyshaa: Gareth Thomas is always good value for money but he doesn’t really get much to do in this first instalment. Karlendorf wants to die after the Dalek battle on Vega 6; he doesn’t see any point in living under Dalek rule. He is very cautious when Suz mentions Alby’s name, almost as though he is aware he was after him. He practices telepathy and uses it to talk to Suz away from Dalek ears and tells her he doesn’t trust the newfound understanding she has with the Dalek Supreme.

Great ideas: Well the series for one, kicking out the Doctor and focusing on the Daleks for the simple reason that the Daleks can triumph and we can enjoy some fatalistic storytelling for a change. There is a fleet of ships running under cover of an energy-scrambling device. An Earth Alliance cruiser crash-lands on Vega 6, a casualty of a battle between the Earth Alliance and a Dalek fleet of thousands. As vengeance for their resistance the Daleks smash the cities of Vega and scorch the land for miles around. The weak, the starving and the infirmed are exterminated. The Daleks are going after the whole galaxy after having kept quiet for an age. The Robomen are described as fascistic thugs. Veganite is a newly discovered mineral which is unfriendly to mechanic mining. In a terrific sequence even the Robomen grow exhausted and are exterminated. For many years the Daleks have been building a power base in the Serephia galaxy (The Apocalypse Element) and the Dalek Emperor and Supreme Dalek have been exposed to the archives on Kar-Charat (The Genocide Machine). The Daleks manipulate Susan into rallying the exhausted and starving slaves into a compliant force and by doing this they have saved other planets from subjugation. Alby realises with some horror that the Daleks have been monitoring Earth Alliance transmissions for some time and using them for target information on the survivor groups. Suz is revealed as a top priority prisoner and has been sent to the Garazone system (Sword of Orion).

Audio landscape: To create an audio landscape, to immerse the listener into a world of sounds, I can think of none finer than Nick Briggs. As I commented recently this was the period where his writing skills were developing but his skills as an audio director have always been exemplary. This story opens with some gorgeous moments that if you shut your eyes you could easily imagine they were happening around you. Static filled radio broadcasts reveal the coming Dalek fleet screaming and murdering which leads into tranquil scenes of waters lapping gently on Vega 6. A speedboat grinds through the waters and a star cruiser crashes into the planet in the distance. After the fight there is a barren, radioactive plain of screams for help and workers chipping away at rock in the mines with whips cracking around their ears. Briggs pulls of a dogfight in space with evasive manoeuvres and gorgeous muscly sounding guns spitting out fire and destroying the Dalek ship. The communications between Suz and Karlendorf telepathically are directed with a nice subtle touch. Even more impressively the silky voiced narrator gives the story a real sense of seriousness and you really get the sense that an epic story is being kicked off.

Standout moment: I love the scene where Suz speaks to the slaves; you really feel that this is an important moment that will have serious repercussions. You wouldn’t be wrong.

Result: A kick ass introduction to an excellent series. There is a real sense of mettle and confidence to this introduction even if the story hasn’t started firing its dramatic twists yet. You get the feeling that the actors are working their way into their roles rather than understanding and embodying them from the start but you can see why the actors were chosen and how they will gel into an impressive ensemble. The story is fractured and hops about a bit too much for you to get a handle on any one storyline but the different plotlines give this a real sense of scale. Susan Mendez proves to be the most interesting of the characters and her dealings with the Supreme Dalek opening up lots of interesting possibilities. At this point you have no idea where the story is going, but it is already a pretty decent ride: 7/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Serendipity, I just listened to this today for the first time. A dramatic and grand story, Dalek Empire also excels at offering tender emotional moments. I had held off listening to this for ages as Daleks on audio struck me as a bad idea, but due to a recent love affair with the pepper pots I experimented.

It's total Dalek bliss.