While growing up in Columbia, Missouri my parents became deeply involved with community radio. KOPN was one of those rare stations in America producing radio theatre in the early eighties. When they couldn’t get a sitter on recording days I would sit silently on a threadbare sofa whose cushions emitted that intoxicating cocktail of so many performance spaces: spilt coffee and stale cigarettes. Sometimes I would play the odd role if a child was required, but most of my memories are of listening to the magic happen around me.
My early love of Radio Theatre followed me into adult life. I wrote, directed and performed in many audio programs. As an actor the challenge of Radio Theatre is that you must use only your voice to communicate with your audience. One of the actor’s most expressive tools is removed. No body means no facial expressions, gesture or movement. I consider this challenge a gift. In the auditory world I am not bound by the culturally encoded restrictions of my appearance. I can be anyone—ANYONE in a radio theatre performance. It’s better than masked Cosplay or auditioning for The Voice. Age and size mean nothing—only my ability to manipulate my vocal instrument matters.
As an audience member I feel similarly liberated from another’s vision of the story and its characters. Nothing intrudes on my imagination when listening to an auditory performance. It is a truly emancipating art form, a feminist performer’s dream and an important contribution to the world of Doctor Who.
Dalek Empire is an ambitious undertaking by Big Finish. The story is massive, the cast of characters in the hundreds and I haven’t even listened to half of it. What drew me right away to this audio performance is the idea of a Whoniverse Dalek story minus The Doctor. The Daleks with no Doctor? How could it work? Wouldn’t it be rather short? Exterminate. Exterminate. End of. What sort of hero might step up to thwart them?
In Invasion of the Daleks, the first instalment of Dalek Empire, it turns out it takes three heroes to fill the Time Lord void. This trio has no particular genius, no Tardis, no real clue what they are doing and few tools with which to carry out their plans. They are wonderfully flawed and completely out of their depth. The galaxy is utterly screwed. It’s brilliant!
At the heart of Invasion lurks a weird but very sweet love story, while in its head churns a thought-provoking exploration of the methods and morality of political resistance. Susan “you can call me Suz” Mendes is a human geologist working on Vega 6 for the Rhinesberg Institute, a faceless corporation, when an army of Daleks attack. She is quickly separated from her “taxi driver” and almost lover Alby Brook as he escapes the war torn Vega System. The Daleks imprison Suz, along with the remaining Vega 6 survivors, in a slave labour mining camp. There she befriends fellow prisoner Kalendorf.
While Alby drowns his guilt over abandoning the woman he might have loved if given half a chance, Suz becomes the Dalek’s poster girl. Her role begins benignly enough. She co-ordinates with the Daleks to create work schedules for the human slave miners which include breaks for rest and food. So far so Labour Union. But Suz finds herself trapped in a vicious cycle of helping the war machine become so efficient the Daleks soon occupy almost the entire galaxy. Suz struggles with her conscience for most of the story—torn between her desire to survive and preserve humanity whilst realising she has betrayed her race and made it possible for the Daleks to subjugate billions.
Kaledorf assists Suz as much as the Daleks allow. To her he reveals he is a key member of the ancient order of noble warriors known as the Knights of Velyshaa. Kalendorf’s training in telepathy allows him to plot with Suz against the Daleks and nurture a very slow burning resistance movement. Just as Suz struggles with her conscience, Kalendorf’s position as her right-hand man tortures him. From birth he is trained to fight and die for the honour of Velyshaa, but his current situation makes this impossible.
Meanwhile, Alby wanders almost aimlessly in an effort to avoid the Daleks and his spy mission for the Earth Alliance. Once he discovers Suz is not dead and is, in fact, a valued ambassador for the Daleks, his only real goal is to find her and tell her he loves her. This alone is not enough to sustain a four-part epic narrative of course. There are many other characters, conflicts and sub-plots shaping the destiny of these three people. At the end of their road lies the mysterious Project Infinity which provides the mother of all plot twists in the cliff hanger ending to the first chapter.
But the story does not draw me in nearly as much as the philosophical questions posed by the characters. What is the most effective way to over-throw a repressive regime? Is it possible to bring a system down from the inside? How far would you go and how much would it change you? These are questions I have asked myself many times during my activist life.
Anyone who has ever worked as part of a grass roots political group can identify with Susan Mendes. Anyone who has ever found themselves in a position of facing down a tyrant (or group of tyrants) can sympathise with her difficult situation. Few of us will face an enemy as powerful as a Dalek army but as feminists we are all resistance fighters against patriarchy. I know in my own life I have had to forge uneasy alliances and have often felt like a traitor to my own values and the people to whom I owe loyalty for the sake of political survival.
Good science fiction should always strike a balance between adventurous storytelling and insightful social commentary. Dalek Empire: Invasion of the Daleks does both. The characters stay with you and the complex philosophical questions haunt you.
Best of all: the Daleks are freaking terrifying! These monsters truly have a face for radio. In this dramatic format, the most frightening thing about them—their voices—reigns supreme.