Or – “Tibbles & the Daleks #4: Capitalist Dalek”
Sometimes, there’s just a story that pushes you to reconsider a lot of stuff you took for granted.
See, one of the very first things I wrote for this humble blog was a contradictions-ridden series about the Daleks, their aesthetics, and their politics. Which arrived at the semi-sincere, semi-provocative conclusion that Daleks, as symbols and embodiments of fascism, had kind of ran their course, prisoners of a rather dated idea of totalitarianism, incapable of properly carrying a story in a post-Trump world. By othering fascism, they shift the blame away from the human race, away from our own potential for horror.
As it turns out, that might have been a really bad take. For starters, giving human fascists the benefit of “complexity” feels a tiny bit too centrist, in this day and age. But mostly – writers have adapted, and overcome, and found ways to connect the Daleks with sheer, raw political horror once again. The first sign came from Janine Rivers’ “Ghosts in the Machine”, a fan audio which came out a few months ago (1), and its very direct engagement with the worst of alt-right ideology, albeit seen through a sci-fi prism. And then, completely unexpected, the Big Finish writing debut of one David K. Barnes, award-winning audio writer and official recipient of the Best BF Barnes award (they have like, four of those now?) – “The Dalek Occupation of Winter”.
The signs should have been here from the very start – after all, “Invasion of Earth” is a really impressively political serial, with its aliens taking Earth apart from profit and defeated by a worker’s revolt; so the title should have been a clue. Pointless to waffle around, really, so let’s say it loud and straight –
It’s a story about the interactions between fascism and capitalism. The Daleks are your stand-in for fascism, of course, and the humans are trapped in a capitalist system under their thrall. Except, it’s more complicated. It all goes back to a bunch of colonists coming on harsh, foreign land, and deciding that establishing a social model that guarantees comfort, at least for a few, is preferable to morality. The Daleks never force anyone to do anything in that story – really, it’s a tale about their almost hypnotic power, the draw they have. It’s a story that makes the prospect of siding with them repugnant, but understandable. Daleks too often are portrayed as militaristic conquerors just passing through galaxies and destroying everything, and that’s politically dull – fascism compels people, fascism sells, and the prospect of annihilation does not. The aliens here are a spiral that lure people and slowly, deliberately crush them to fulfil some grand, abstract crusade. A Venus flytrap rather than a supernova.
Seriously. A Dalek lurking a dark corridor? Tired. Passé. A Dalek hanging around a snowy festival, while sweet flute music plays in the background? Now we’re getting somewhere – some place much more powerful, and much more disturbing. Of course, the pieces were already there – the imagery clearly calls back to “Power of the Daleks”, with its massive production lines; and the idea of Daleks being well-integrated within society is a theme Nicholas Briggs has gone to several times, including in Dark Eyes – “Tangled Web” and his book “The Dalek Generation”. But David K. Barnes makes something that feels deeply radical and new with all these existing ideas. Mostly – he makes the story a human drama, through and through. This is a story where the Daleks, and, really, indeed the Doctor and his companions, are important, but not really crucial to the proceedings – what matters are ordinary, human people having to stare straight at absolute horror. Characters like Steven or Vicki are too familiar, too well-known to us, they have been explored too thoroughly by expanded universe material – the real thrill here is in the unexpected creation of a complex, three-dimensional guest cast that’s allowed to carry most of the narrative and thematic stakes. The performances are stellar, too – some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in Big Finish, naturalistic but inspired.
The thing that’s perhaps most striking about that story, though, is how precise and deliberate it is. Sometimes, it’s the little things – the fact all the working-class characters are played by black actors, for instance, which the story never draws attention to, nevertheless carries a silent but relevant point about the interactions of class and race. And sometimes, it’s not – once the lie gets exposed, some people start siding with the Daleks, for the only reason that late-stage capitalism is so boring, so soul-crushingly repetitive and inane, with its rules and its timetables and its production constraints, that fire and blood and fascism seem like a viable alternative, suicide instead of a slow death. That kind of ideology could come, word for word, from one of the modern Nazi recruitment videos you can see on the net, produced by fuckweasels like Richard Spencer – belonging to something, even if it’s morally wrong, is still a better feeling than the loneliness and disorientation induced by a capitalist world. Of course, the people who do feel this loneliness are the middle classes, the pencil-pushers and bureaucrats, without the privileges of the high and mighty, but with enough awareness of their condition to be deeply, deeply unhappy; not the working class, who hasn’t really has time to feel some sense of “economic anxiety”, given that it’s already way too busy trying to survive and earn a living. It is intensely political in a way that’s so pointed and precise it hurts – Big Finish knows how to get political, and does it pretty well most of the time, but this is on an entirely different level. It is utterly unrelenting in a way that really could not exist beyond the political context of today: it is basically a giant, Dalek-shaped “Let us assume that we are fucked” (2) sign.
And these observations about our epoch are driven home with a sense of tragedy and pathos that really, really hurts. The first episode, that way, is a remarkable piece of work, following the steps of a young student and his sister as he’s graduating and being sent to one of the “research facilities” of the Daleks to work. “Daleks need geniuses”, “Asylum” said, and this story expands on it in brilliant and horrific ways. There’s an almost mythological power to these scenes, echoing tales of the Athenian youths being sacrificed to the Minotaur, a symbol of repressed and hidden subconscious passions – that here takes the shape of the capitalist Daleks and the death drive they carry and embody. But not just that. It’s sad – very sad, because very human. This is a story that touched me deeply, because being a student that feels trapped within a capitalist, nonsensical and cruel system is one I’m intimately familiar with; the idea of this loss of self until you’ve just become a part of the system, a cog in the machine of society, is one that haunts me. Science-fiction can be an escapist endeavour, but it also can express what happens when you can’t, or won’t escape. And it’s awful. In a beautiful, raw, human way.
Nobody gets away from the Daleks here. Characters seem to become more and more like them – dehumanised factory workers, a policewoman that grabs a Dalek flamethrower to use it as an instrument of torture, the rich politician that’s so unfazed by their presence he’s ready to offer them cashews. And, in the end, the Daleks win. The First Doctor, this mercurial scientist, this wise revolutionary, stops them for a while, but the status quo is installed once again, because that’s just what capitalism entails. No sense of progress, or beauty, or community – just the fluctuations and needs of the market, of exchange. Actions and reactions. In a way, it is a case, not dissimilar to “Twice Upon a Time”, for the Doctor to change, to evolve past their first incarnation and become the proactive champion of justice we know now. But above everything, it’s a desperate call for the listener to try and break the cycle, to understand the systems of oppression that weigh upon their own heads.
And maybe it won’t work. Maybe people will just come away from it thinking it was a cool story with cool monsters – which it is, incredibly well-paced and structured. But maybe, just maybe, they will get “something” out of it. Not much, but a glimpse of important – vital, even – political truths.
And that’s why “The Dalek Occupation of Winter” is one of the best Who stories of the last few years.
And – honestly, that’s maybe why we need to keep the Daleks around. For just a bit longer. Because maybe, if we fashion them in terrifying enough an idol, they can help us find our way out of our current troubled times. Out of Winter, and into Spring.
(1) Full disclosure – Janine has contributed to the site several times, I’ve played a minor role in one of these audios, so that recommendation is absolutely not objective. But objectivity sucks ass, anyway, so just go check it out, it’s some seriously good audio work – https://twelfthdoctoradventures.wordpress.com/episodes/
(2) To quote SANDIFER, Elizabeth – Neoreaction, a Basilisk