‘The Human Factor’
The Daleks are half-way to conquering the galaxy, and they have Susan Mendes to thank for it. Recruiting her help as a spokesperson demanding better conditions, food and rest in exchange for hard work, she has earned the name ‘Angel of Mercy.’ At her side is the beleaguered fallen knight of Velysha named Kalendorf.
While Mendes is preaching her message of hard work for better conditions, Kalendorf is laying the seeds of a psychic message for the slaves to await a signal. Traveling the ring of Dalek-occupied planets, he and Suz are attempting a risky operation of subterfuge, a long game that gambles the safety of the free planets in exchange for a coordinated strike against the Dalek Empire.
But all is not going well. Kalendorf and Suz see things very differently. While Suz feels that she is actually doing good, Kal reminds her that she is a collaborator with the deadliest creatures who ever lived. Dalek Empire is an ensemble cast, but much of the weight lays on the should of Gareth Thomas (of Blake’s 7 fame) as Kalendorf and the amazing Sarah Mowat as Susan Mendes. Their interactions are electrifying and very reminiscent of Blake’s 7 in many ways. These people are not out to make friends, they are fighting the war of survival.
Following her path is a love-sick Alby Brook and a former newscaster Gordon Pellan using a broken down craft to trace the Daleks movements and monitor their transmissions for mention of Susan Mendes. After crashing on the oceanic planet of Guria where rebel forces are moving toward a victory, Pellan’s will snaps. Adrift on the rocks of an alien world, he watches his ship sink to the murky depths and feels his fingers go numb. All this for some girl?? Alby reluctantly explains that he’s an agent of Space Security, a post that he reluctantly took up to remove a stain on his personal record.
After a life of hard knocks, he had little choice. But when the Daleks attacked, Suz stayed behind while Alby ran off to save his hide. She showed him such kindness and bravery and… he wants her back. Pellan thinks that it might have more to do with Mendes’ connections to the Rhinesberg Corporation and a top secret Project Infinity, but Alby dismisses it without a thought.
Playing Alby Brook is Mark McDonnell who forms the other half of the Dalek Empire story. Much of his drama is spent pining after Suz which can get grating so I commend him for keeping the story going and making it come alive. A tortured and lost soul, he has hinged his whole life on one woman whom he barely knows. She has become the ‘Angel of Mercy’ to the slaves of the Dalek Empire and the personal savior of lowly Alby Brook. In reality, she’s neither. One can hear the inner turmoil in Suz’ head as she is both obeyed and berated by the Daleks in equal part. They put her on a pedestal and make her feel like scum all at once. Somewhere in between is the real Susan Mendes.
When they are rounded up by Daleks traveling on trans-solar discs, they are surprised that death is not forthcoming. Instead, Alby is shown to Suz via a video communication link for a brief period of time, just enough to confirm that they each have a chance at a reunion. Suz and Kalendorf had been hovering over Guria watching the Daleks appear to face defeat before rousing to a crushing victory that apparently destroys the city structure where the rebel forces had collected.
The Daleks had been watching Susan Mendes very carefully. She gave the slaves of every planet on the brink of misery a sliver hope and that hope would make them more efficient workers. If hope existed, there was something precious that could be lost and that could be used to control the workers. In much the same way they watched how Suz and Kalendorf interacted. Whereas at first they seemed close they had become spikey toward each other. A born freedom fighter, Kalendorf resented collaboration with the Daleks and rubbed the celebrity status that Suz enjoyed in her face. He was no longer important to Suz… whereas Alby Brooks was.
Suz and Alby clearly loved each other, and that love could be used against them. The Daleks had tracked Alby’s progress as he chased her across the galaxy with little more than a slim hope that she may be alive. That could be dangled over her.
Susan Mendez had given the Human Factor to the Dalek cause, the most formidable weapon of all.
The gripping conclusion reveals that Alby and Pellan had indeed escaped, at the cost of Alby’s legs, now replaced with robotic ones. Before he can get over the shock, their stolen Dalek ship is intercepted by a rebel cruiser and boarded. As Alby and Pellan insist that they are not working with the Daleks, the soldiers open fire…. a sterling cliffhanger!
Heavily influenced by the old Dalek Chronicles comic strips by David Whitaker and Terry Nation, Briggs’ Dalek Empire reads like some weird forgotten action comic lost in the annals of time. But Briggs has added these wonderful folds of sophistication to his scripts that are masterful. His characters move through the narrative with strength of purpose and the danger of the Daleks hangs over the proceedings like some dreadful murder of crows.
The Daleks are due to return in a massive story in which the Doctor faces every iteration of the creatures ever made in ‘The Ruins of Skaro,’ yet I wager most fan of the BB Wales Doctor Who series have lost interest in the metal monstrosities at this point. I can’t really blame them. In each appearance they have lost more credibility and have less and less impact. Personally I’m fine with the new model Daleks (isn’t that a prog rock band?) but most everyone else thinks they’re laughable. Rose felt bad for them, Tennant waltzed around them (and helped them), Smith threatened them with a cookie. They’re a joke, surely.
(I mustn’t be one-sided about bad Dalek stories as the classic series had its share. Compared to Doomsday, The Chase is absurd and Death to the Daleks seems to be a better idea for a home video game than a TV program… but the new program just treats the Daleks as an after-thought. They lose out to Rose and a recovery truck in Parting of the Ways, are less important than a pig-mutant’s love for a showgirl in Daleks Take Manhattan, and Victory of the Daleks hinged on an android imagining he had experienced love. In their most recent appearances, they are relegated to one of many aliens out to get the Doctor, shoulder to shoulder with Judoon… I ask you, is that fair?)
So what makes the Daleks so cool? Why keep bringing them back?
Nicholas Briggs and company know just what makes them so scary. It’s not the rayguns that make the Daleks so effective, but the calculating evil inhuman minds hiding behind an impassive baleful electronic eye. Throughout the Dalek Empire series, the Daleks are shown as devious creatures that are almost inscrutable by the human resistance. Every loss in battle makes the resistance fight back harder but what is most terrifying of all is victory against the Daleks.. because surely there is some pre-meditation in a tactical loss. These Daleks are so terrifying that they strike fear into humanity just by existing. Even their silence is haunting.
In many ways, Briggs is using the idea of a Dalek as written by David Whitaker in Power of the Daleks and Evil of the Daleks, two major works that cemented the horrifying and alien menace of the creatures from Skaro. They seem to emerge from the darkest pits of a nightmare, an endless army of unstoppable mechanized death.
If you are a stranger to the Dalek Empire series, you must seek them out. A polished production with a stellar cast and telling a gripping drama that operates on the large space operetic scale and on the smaller human end of the spectrum, it is unsurpassed in the annals of Doctor Who audios (except perhaps for the Cyberman series).
Told in four separate sags, this is part two of the four-part Dalek Empire I series, followed by The Dalek War (4 parts), Dalek Empire III (6 parts) and Dalek Empire: The Fearless (4 parts).