Susan Mendes sounds like another unsung hero of the expanded universe, not least because she’s not really a hero.
Dalek Empire came out years before new Who introduced the idea of the Time War between galactic superpowers. This conflict between the Daleks and the Earth Alliance in the 42nd century is decidedly more lopsided, evoking desperation and overwhelming odds similar to Blake’s 7’s rebellion and Babylon 5’s Shadow War. Caught smack dab at the beginning of this confrontation is one mouthy young scientist named Suz.
Have a trailer.
Confession: I’m absolutely the wrong target audience for Dalek Empire. Thanks to Earthshock and David Banks making “des-tr-oooo-oy” a four-syllable word, the Cybermen of the early 80s intimidated me far more than oversized, staircase-challenged salt cellars armed with a ceiling sprinkler and toilet plunger. I thought Daleks were cute, slightly comical bumper car menaces who were fun to snarl in a cardigan or beat up with a baseball bat. (Wait! No! Don’t close the window! I’ll repent!) Therefore, despite Nicholas Briggs’ magnificent voicework and efforts to instill Daleks with nuanced personalities, my first reaction to a Dalek on Big Finish cover art is not “Yay, DALEKS!” but “Ugh, not again.” I need a good story like Jubilee to help me over the hump.
However, I have a great deal of respect for Nicholas Briggs, and the Daleks are his babies. So, when I heard from a fellow non-Dalek-fan at Long Island Con that he actually enjoyed Dalek Empire and thought they were superb stories, I caved in. I had already purchased series 2 due to some sneaky sales during Big Finish’s 15th anniversary, and now I’ve purchased series 1.
“We recognise that human beings need hope to survive. If they survive, then they are productive.” — Dalek logic
So far, so good. I’ve only heard Invasion of the Daleks, which simply establishes the setting and key players, but I’m already invested in the characters. The audio does a good job of conveying the sheer helplessness and smallness of being a regular person caught up in a large-scale conflict, despite the fact that there are actually only three or four main characters apart from the Daleks:
- Alby Brook, an apparently humble pilot and taxi driver who seems to be an undercover agent? for Earth Alliance (Mark Mcdonnell). He has a thing for Suze, but he also has a thing for self-preservation.
- Kalendorf, an older man who’s hiding on Vega when the Daleks attack. (Gareth Thomas, Blake of Blake’s 7, whose voice is still absolutely marvelous). Susan befriends him during the Dalek attack and tries to keep his spirits up. He still has a certain gravitas, even when he’s given up the situation as hopeless, hinting that he’s more than just a hapless citizen.
- Susan “Suz” Mendes (Sarah Mowat), the chief protagonist. A geologist and intelligent young woman, she’s our audience-POV character. In some ways, she reminds me of a young Blake, although she hasn’t yet found a way to rebel and in fact is having to compromise to stay alive. We’ll see how her character develops. Sarah Mowat does a good job of conveying a strong-willed but ordinary person trapped in impossible circumstances.
- There’s also an older woman narrating the story in retrospect, voiced by Joyce Gibbs. I’m guessing she’s actually Susan looking back on her life as an old woman, but Big Finish is being cagey about it. No point in taking away the suspense of whether a chief character lives or dies.
I’m afraid of spoiling too much, so I’ll just reiterate that this audio shows why the Daleks are scary, apart from simply exterminating people. It goes back to the old idea of the Daleks as a metaphor for the Nazis, whose occupation of Europe and use of slave labour were overwhelming even if you weren’t unlucky enough to be Jewish, gay, etc. The human protagonists in this story offer a glimpse of what it’s like to be part of a conquered population. In some respects, it’s far scarier than running down corridors and being shot at. The Daleks aren’t anonymous machines of evil, either, because these are Nick Briggs’ Daleks— they include individuals, malevolent and intelligent personalities who can use sly negotiation as well as brute force. There’s a wily Dalek Supreme and the jovial, booming Emperor Dalek.
Also, I have a suspicion that none of the human protagonists are quite as simple and straightforward as they seem to be. All of them are hiding one secret or another, hints of which leak out before the end of the first episode.
I keep forgetting to mention soundscapes in my audios. This one is excellent, albeit minimalist: no theme music, and the incidental music is so unobtrusive that I barely noticed it. With all the spaceship thrums and viewscreen twangles and explosions and static and grating Dalek voices, it really doesn’t need any more.
One final note: while there’s a few Main Range audios that serve as prologue to Dalek Empire, you don’t have to have heard any of those stories to understand what’s going on here.
It turns out Kalendorf is one of the old Knights of Velyshaa. The Knights were introduced in Sirens of Time as a rival power defeated by the Earth Alliance in the 36th century. They were antagonists in that story, but it’s been centuries, and he seems an amiable-enough fellow now, if deeply pragmatic about their chances of survival. The Knights sound a bit Jedi-like: superior combat and espionage skills, telepathy. Although Kalendorf is in no fit shape to do much but provide a sounding board for Susan in the first story, I expect he may become her Obi-Wan mentor. Again, we shall see.
As I mentioned, there’s four Main Range audios leading up to this spinoff series. Confusingly, they were also grouped under the “Dalek Empire” label, since the events in those stories were prologue to this one.
- The Genocide Machine. Main Range #7 was the first Dalek story for Big Finish, pitting Ace and the Seventh Doctor against their old nemesis. The Daleks attacked the great library of Kar-Charrat, a repository for all books in the galaxy, in order to gain vast amounts of information on peoples and planets to be conquered as well as intel on strategy and weapons. The Doctor thwarted them, but evidently the Emperor and Supreme Dalek retained at least fragments of that intel.
- The Apocalypse Element, Six and Evelyn, essentially the opening move of the Time War, saw the Daleks invade Gallifrey in what turned out to be an enormous feint. They held the universe to ransom and wound up burning and re-creating the Seriphean Galaxy, next-door neighbor to Gallifrey’s galaxy (which is presumably the Mutter’s Spiral/Milky Way, although it’s never been made explicit). The Daleks apparently wanted Seriphea as a place devoid of spacefaring races which they could exploit without interference. In the Dalek Empire series, they are using it as their base of operations from which to conquer the Milky Way.
- The Mutant Phase, Five and Nyssa. I’m not certain why this one was labeled “Dalek Empire Part 3,” save that it was the third Dalek episode of the Main Range. It takes place during the Dalek invasion of 22nd century Earth. Looking it up on TARDIS Wikia — which spoils a key plot twist later in the Dalek Empire series, so don’t look— I see that the future parts of The Mutant Phase are 43rd century, so perhaps it’s an alternate timeline to this series. The Dalek Emperor was in that story, but thanks to a temporal paradox, the events of that story shouldn’t impinge directly on this one.
- Time of the Daleks, Eight and Charley. Looks like each of the Big Finish Doctors had a turn at the Daleks before the spin-off series. Again, a temporal paradox and a strong thwarting from the Doctor means that the events of that story shouldn’t really impact this one directly, should it? But that one wound up with the Dalek fleet trapped in a temporal pocket, and I’m not really sure when or how they escaped or whether that was supposed to be the opening attack from the Seriphean Galaxy.
In short, the Daleks gained information about humans and other species through the Kar-Charrat library in Genocide Machine, and established an alternate base of operations besides Skaro in The Apocalpyse Element, but I don’t understand how the other two stories tie into the Dalek Empire series. Perhaps it will become clear later.
Fans have been very busy with Dalek Empire, creating animated shorts using excerpts from the audio. For example: