Saturday, 11 July 2015

We Are The Daleks written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The year is 1987, and Britain is divided. In Bradford, strikers are picketing and clashing with the police. In the City of London, stockbrokers are drinking champagne and politicians are courting the super-rich. The mysterious media mogul Alek Zenos, head of the Zenos Corporation, is offering Britain an economic miracle. His partners wish to invest – and their terms are too good to refuse. While the Doctor investigates Warfleet, a new computer game craze that is sweeping the nation, Mel goes undercover to find out the truth about Zenos’s partners.The Daleks have a new paradigm. They intend to conquer the universe using economic power. The power of the free market!

The Real McCoy: This is precisely the sort of thing I think they should have been doing in 1987, a contemporary setting and a Doctor and companion team that are actively driving the plot in smart ways. Instead what we got was a clownish Doctor looking like a tramp bouncing around a quarry with a reject from Dynasty, trying to pull off her explosion of ginger curls and avoiding rainbow bubbles littering sad skeletons over the surface of the planet. After the PR fiasco that was Trial of a Time Lord the show needed to remind the audience that it could be taken seriously again and this kind of sharp characterisation for the Doctor and Mel would have been just the ticket. I love the idea of the two of them working independently to uncover the mystery of War Fleet and the Xenos Corporation, the Doctor dressing as a businessman and doing the capitalist bit and Mel's technological knowledge being brought to the fore. Listen to how McCoy growls that a Dalek is a bubbling lump of hate, he sounds as though he loathes to even mention them. When the Daleks don't offer him a reception party he is appalled, he expects to be expected! Does the Doctor have a right to complain if he isn't interested in politics? Does the Doctor know better than the average man on the street? The Daleks think that without the Doctor their enemies will give up all hope and stop resisting, they have truly bought into the myth that he is symbol for their cause. Alone and defenceless, that is when he is at his most dangerous. He gets by with a little help from his friends.

Computer Programmer: The Doctor suggests Mel avoids bumping into somebody she knows since they have landed one year into her future - it could lead to some awkward questions. Mel, a computer programmer from Pease Pottage scores 'fairly adequate' at computer games. But then she doesn't like to be the sort of person that is good at computer games.  It would seem that 'have you tried turning it off an on again?' is the standard IT response the universe over. In Mel's experience things that seem too good to be true usually are. Mel never gives up, she never surrenders and she is smart enough to think outside the box and play the Daleks at their own game, by refusing to behave in a way that a character in a computer game would. The best computer hacker there is, apparently. She can't see an international network catching on somehow and declines Brinsley's offer to try it out.

Standout Performance: Mary Conlon gives Sheila Handcock a run for her money as most terrifying impersonation of Margaret Thatcher in Doctor Who. Her closing line is just perfect. Prime Minister of the Daleks? She has all the credentials.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Ambition is not a dirty word' - the 80s in a nutshell. Mind you 'All we want is a deal' from strikers to the management is another familiar trope of the decade. 'Would you a Prawn Cocktail?' from a Dalek pretty much completes the eighties love-in.
'Daleks invest and return!'
'Given we offer full employment and prosperity, even a trade unionist would be hard pressed to find something to moan about' - Skaro, living the entrepreneurial dream.
'Good grief. Who needs Daleks when you have politicians?'
'You're taking innocent children and using them as your killers?' 'They enjoy it. They find it amusing. Addictive. They are as good as Daleks.'
'People don’t care. They don’t care if their petrol is provided by an oppressive regime, or if their oranges are grown by a country with apartheid. They just want to be allowed to get on with their lives' - a frightening truth when it comes to the masses in a progressive society, I'm afraid.
'Too much hate will kill you, every time.'

Great Ideas: How's this for potent imagery? A skyscraper slap bang in the middle of London in the shape of a Dalek. Bang, there's your story right there. They popped it there just to get the Doctor's attention, assuming that he would be up to something terribly devious. There is a new computer game on the market which is taking the world by storm and it is utterly anachronistic. An automatic conveyor belt producing a mass market product, 100% productivity and no human labour to hamper profitability, that's the capitalist way. The Daleks are manufacturing the games on another world and sending them to Earth. In the future the Earth will be competing against thousands of other worlds in the intergalactic market and it is going to survive in the cutthroat market of universal capitalism it is going to need financial investment, which is what the Daleks are offering. The Daleks will deal with the UK and the UK will act on behalf of the Earth, naturally. It's always fun to see the show pushing the Daleks out of their comfort zone of simply gliding around killing people and having the Daleks get a strategic foothold in the UK rather than punching their way through with military might is just as terrifying as their suspect benevolence in Power of the Daleks. In both cases they are exploiting humanity's greed to achieve their aims, a powerful statement about our need to always come out on top. The vision of the UK's future as glittering skyscrapers, palm trees and swimming pools (basically the image of Paradise Towers before it fell into wrack and ruin) is the capitalist dream. The reality is that under Dalek subjugation the Earth will become factories and ruins and chain gangs, the sort of future we saw in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Day of the Daleks. Warfleet isn't simply a game but a direct interface between humanity and the Dalek war, the people playing the game are guiding Dalek drone ships against their enemies. Somehow I think that if the kids knew the reality of the situation, they would be even more hungry to play. Warfleet is the ultimate computer game where humanity is free to kill without being killed. It's terrifying. Celia is a stand-in Margaret Thatcher ('you can't negotiate with rebels'), the mouthpiece for a whole generation of industrialists that share the Dalek ideals. Brinsley playing the game and crying 'Exterminate' with joy is a supremely chilling moment, a moment when you realise that with very little coaxing humanity can be made to behave just like the Daleks. I wish we could put Celia's supposition to the test - that the majority voice of Britain would accept the Daleks offer to turn their world into a productive, industrialist landscape. I'm almost willing to bet she is right if it meant a guarantee of food in their mouths, power for their devices, heat and light for their homes. What's even cooler than a skyscraper in the shape of a Dalek being built in the middle of London? Mel transporting said skyscraper to Skaro! A giant Dalek shaped building appearing in the city? Reminds me of a visual in Asylum of the Daleks...  If the Daleks are brainwashing people to behave like them...what happens if that technology is turned back on them? All that Dalek rage and paranoia, raged to the power of ten. So much fear an anger they will literally blow their tops. Poor Michael Fish, embarrassed for the rest of his career by the Daleks.

Audio Landscape: There's no denying that Wilfred Acosta captures that energy and excitement that comes with the best computer games. The pacing helps too but the music and sound effects combine to make the action scenes explode into life with some punch. Cars passing, music thumping, cafe atmosphere, writing on paper, protestors, lift descending, water fountain, Dalek heartbeat, drones firing, extermination blasts, playing Warfleet, ships screaming through space, exchanging fire, growling taxi driving off, an explosion in a building, the internet dial up connection.

Isn't it Odd: Because they are essentially characters in a computer game, the Thals are not given much characterisation beyond what you would expect in that scenario. They're violent and reactionary and lack shades of grey. 'We must fight to the last Thal!' is the sort of dialogue we're talking about here.

Standout Scene: I really enjoyed the revelation that whilst the Daleks scheme is typically overcomplicated, it is a plan within a plan to leave Skaro undefended and open to attack. You have to give it to the anti-Dalek league, they think big. Plus the end of part three deserves a mention, just because it's so fucked up to hear Mel crying out 'Exterminate!' like a crazed Dalek.

Result: 'It is our new paradigm! To extend our influence through economic power! The power of free market!' Remember when I said that Jonathan Morris had written the type of giddy and creatively fertile Dalek tale that Douglas Adams might have concocted in The Curse of Davros? Well he's done it again in We Are the Daleks, possibly even moreso because this has a very intelligent point to make about the worst aspects of humanity and uses humour as skilful weapon to get that point across. Human greed, or rather capitalism can be both our salvation and our downfall depending on how far we let it dominate our lives and the Daleks exploit that need to have more to gain a foothold on Earth and have their wicked way. The terrifying truth that Jonny Morris has uncovered is that if you strip away our humanity and focus on our capitalist nature ('the favoured elite rules and the rest of the inhabitants become a slave labour force'), we are the Daleks. Elitist attitudes, computer games exploding on the market, worker strikes and a vision of chrome and glass...somehow Morris manages to out eighties the Doctor Who of the period and offer a peak into a world where ruthless capitalist ideals thrived, both as a dream and a nightmare. If I'm making this sound too dry then comfort yourself in the knowledge that We Are the Daleks also flaunts the gloriously offbeat premise of a computer game that is directly plugged into the Dalek War that has taken Great Britain by storm. In fact I think I would have preferred it if the story had taken a less entertaining and more scathing approach to it's psychological exploration of our baser instincts but there's no denying that the swift action and bouncy dialogue provide a rollicking good time. We Are the Daleks kicks off a new trilogy with great verve, it's wildly entertaining but like the best Doctor Who stories it also has something to say. It's a delight to have Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford back together again too, both the Doctor and Mel get a strong role in this unusual and quirky story. Score one for the main range: 8/10


Unknown said...

The monthly range has been very good of late and this release was no exception. Thanks for the review.

Jimmy W said...

I've been looking forward to this Sylvester/Bonnie trilogy for months now, glad to hear it got off to a good start. It's nice to see Big Finish finally take a break from Ace and give the 7th doctor someone new. With the notable exception of Unregenerate, I think some of Sylvester's best performances come when he's paired off with Bonnie. Here's hoping we'll her more stories from them in the near future

dark said...

Loved this one. While the only really aweful story of late was The Defectors and both Last of the cybermen and Secret history had a couple of flaws, this is the first absolutely rousing success sinse The Entropy plague.

Capitalist Daleks who exploite rather than exterminate is a perfect idea and a great satyr, though I was wondering where they'd take it, and I'll say the computer game plot was quite surprising in how it developed, though I liked the mirror of the elite taking and sipping champaign while their kids and missfits got to fight a war as entertainment, another worrying observation sinse it's not just greed that makes people like Daleks.
I also really hope we see Celia again, sinse the Daleks with their own Maggy thatcher at the helm is a terrifying idea, I'll also say it's great to have a tough, charismatic lady villain as well.

I always like stories that take my expectations and play with them, so at the mention of the Dalek drone fleet being so easily withdrawn I was just thinking "oh hear we go, oil up the deus ex machina" when there is actually an amusing reason why the plan is so flimsy (even if it does make the Daleks look a bit dim for not having better computer security).

My only miner issue was with the Dalek mind control field, sinse it seemed far too convenient. I much preferd the robomen and quizlings approach we've seen in the past as the idea of people working for the Daleks because they want to like Celia is much more interesting than the idea of people being brain washed, that being said the resolution of the Dalek's fear turned up to eleven was a nice one and the Doctor's call back to Evil of the Daleks didn't feel out of place.

Very awesome all around and I'll be interested to see where this trilogy goes.

MerseyMal said...

Loved this. Great take on the video game is real idea too. Have fond memories of reading Vurfing the Gwrx by Michael Scott Rohan in Peter Davison's Book Of Alien Monsters.

Adam Graham said...

I wonder if you're going to review, "Secret History."

dark said...

Wow, don't believe someone else has heard of Vurfing the Gwrx! I loved that story, and many others in that book.

Interesting though that the daleks managed to even take this in another direction by having Mel and co not act like usual game enemies.