As you can see, there’s a pretty blatant spoiler in this title if you look closely enough, but I’m not sure what to do about that.
It used to be, the producers of Doctor Who badly mismanaged the Dalek shock. In the days of the first Doctor, individual episodes, rather than multi-part stories, had names, and so the appearance of the Daleks was a genuine surprise, but after the third season, the policy changed, and the Dalek stories were generally referred to as Blank of the Daleks. Despite this — despite a pretty strong indicator of what the main threat in the story was, the writers (primarily Terry Nation) would launch the first episode of these stories as follows: Doctor and company arrive on a mysterious planet, stumble about, wonder where they are, encounter various threats, in a lead-up to a cliffhanger ending which provided the shocking reveal of (gasp!) a Dalek!
Destiny of the Daleks, part 1, is a much, much better story if you turn on the television set after having accidentally skipped the opening credits. Genesis of the Daleks at least gets away with a sense of inevitability (the Doctor and company are here to stop the Daleks and, oops, here’s the first prototype). But starting with Resurrection of the Daleks, the writers (none of whom included Terry Nation) got smart, and rather than “save” the Dalek “surprise” for the first cliffhanger, just accepted the fact that Daleks were in the title, got the Daleks into the story right away and moved on from there.
To make a long story short, these stories are right from the get-go labelled Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks. The fact that this story involves Daleks is not a spoiler. And this whole preamble should be enough to push the rest of the review down the page, giving people who wish to avoid the real spoilers a chance to look away.
Image courtesy the BBC.
Returning from New New York, the Doctor still isn’t willing to let his joyride with Martha Jones end, so he parks the TARDIS at the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1930s Old New York. Thanks to a conveniently placed newspaper on a park bench, he twigs onto mysterious happenings in the Central Park shantytown of Hooverville and he and Martha investigate. This leads him to an off-broadway music hall where showgirl Tallulah is missing her boyfriend, pigs in overalls (don’t ask), and the irresistible image of Daleks atop the Art Deco splendour of the Empire State Building.
To no one’s surprise, Dalek Sec from Doomsday is alive, having completed his emergency temporal shift. However, the three other Daleks from the Cult of Skaro (Daleks bred to imagine) are with him. I guess either these four Daleks were the only ones equipped with an emergency temporal shift device, or the only ones with the imagination to use it. And now they are skulking in the sewers, building a slave force, and altering smarter humans in “the final experiment” (a little bit on the nose, there, Ms. Raynor, don’t you think?).
I’ll say this about Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks: writer Helen Raynor takes risks. There are some complaints to be had about this Dalek two parter. There are pacing issues, some sloppy plotting and some really pat endings, but intellectually I wanted to like this story. And ultimately, I think I did.
Helen Raynor plays with the Dalek concept in ways that no other author has done in the 44 years that the Daleks have been on television. For some time now, Dalek stories have followed the same basic formula: see Daleks, see Daleks exterminate, exterminate, Daleks, exterminate! Rob Sherman’s Dalek in the first season of the Doctor Who revival turned this formula on its head by making us actually feel sorry for what we thought was the last Dalek in existence. This is what a life of hatred and aggression has wrought; don’t you see how pointless it is? And for a second, that lone Dalek does, but it kills itself rather than change its being.
The next two Dalek stories are typical monster thrashes, but Helen Raynor returns to the original question of Dalek, taking a ball handed to her by Russell T. Davies in Doomsday and running with it. These four imaginative Daleks are confronted with the same question, and Helen brilliantly gives Dalek Sec a revelation. You can’t argue with the numbers; as much as the Daleks might claim they are the supreme beings of the universe, the fact that they’re down to four strongly suggests that the entire concept has failed.
The best moment of Daleks in Manhattan comes when one of the Daleks speaks to human foreman Mr. Diagoras atop the Empire State Building. It looks out over the vista of New York City and makes a speech that echoes the Doctor’s own opinions of the Daleks. How is it that humans get to survive when the Daleks lose everything? Humans are weak, flawed, any number of things that simply can’t stand up to Dalek firepower, and yet versions of New York City exist throughout the history of the Universe (a nice tip of the hat to Gridlock there, by the way).
And, amazingly, Dalek Sec isn’t afraid to follow the logic to where it leads him: the Time Lords are gone; the Daleks are essentially gone. This means that the most successful race in the history of the Universe is — wait for it — humanity! If only he can splice the Dalek genome onto the human race, then perhaps the Daleks might survive. And while we can argue with his methods, give him points for deciding that the Daleks might just have to embrace the human values of love and tolerance, even though the human’s capability for war is something Dalek Sec more readily understands.
Speaking as a fan who has watched the Dalek character evolve (or, rather, firmly establish and re-establish itself) over 44 years, this is a watershed moment. That any Dalek would think, for a half second, of stepping outside its shell, is damn impressive, and the Doctor agrees. The question is: is my knowledge as a fan giving me an insight into the Daleks that casual viewers don’t have? Or do casual viewers get the fact that this is a major change in Dalek character by witnessing with shock as the Doctor agrees to help Mr. Sec with his plan?
Well, given that this is David Tennant we’re talking about, and given that he’s been on a roll here for a while, I think it’s a good bet — though still quite a gamble. At the end of Daleks in Manhattan, I wasn’t sure about this whole venture. As impressed as I was by the Daleks’ thinking, I couldn’t help but wonder how the producers intended to sell us the fundamentally unfrightening image of a humanized Dalek. Fortunately Helen Rayner sidesteps this by focusing on the division Sec’s move stirs up within the remaining Daleks.
All of this almost makes me more willing to overlook this two-parter’s flaws. Almost. Helen Raynor uses some convenient plot tricks in order to shoehorn the Doctor and Martha into the story — including a trick which, critically, contradicts other elements of the story. With the inhabitants of Hooverville worrying about some of their people being snatched in the night, and with their cynical attitude that the police don’t care about finding missing deadbeats (a view shared by showgirl Tallulah as she pines away for two weeks following the disappearance of her boyfriend Laslo), how is it that the disappearance of deadbeats in Hooverville still manages to make front page news in the conveniently placed newspaper? Rather sloppy.
The pacing was also flawed, with the Doctor and company not travelling to various parts of New York so much as hop, skipping and jumping across it as if they had their own personal TARDISes. Despite the impressive visuals of the 1930s Manhattan skyline, especially around Hoovertown, there is no sense of the scale of the city. It’s as if the traffic doesn’t exist. Also with pacing, I can’t help but point out that Martha, Tallulah, Laslo and Frank’s desperate arrangements to hold off an attack from the pig slaves is helped by what must be the slowest elevator ride in history (something which the director, at least, delivers some chuckles with, by showing the slaves fidgeting as the elevator ascends; if he had just put anachronistic muzak in the scene, it would have been complete). I’m sure the Dalek arrived much more quickly in part one.
I also couldn’t help but wonder if there were too many characters in this story. The inhabitants of Hooverville sort of peter out after Solomon (one of the most unsubtle and pointless allegories ever; oh, look, he divided a loaf of bread in half, geddit? geddit?) delivers his Samuel L. Jackson moment (from Deep Blue Sea). If their story was supposed to be a parallel of the Daleks being down on their luck, it didn’t come across. Only Tallulah and Laslo’s subplot really gets attention, here, but at times it seems to be a distraction from the main story (although it provides a nice bit of catharsis after all the killing).
And while there are nice little touches (the first reveal of the Daleks inside the Art Deco elevator, Tallulah’s ‘men are pigs’ line and the fact that the Dalekized-humans bring along a fusion of a Dalek weapon and a 30’s machine gun), some of these things are wasted. I’ve no understanding of why this story needed to be set in 1930s Manhattan; the setting is only half-heartedly used and is thus somewhat irrelevant.
Fortunately, the actors are again in top form, and director James Strong (veteran of the past two seasons) provides us with wonderful visuals and a number of set pieces. The final confrontation in the darkened theatre is a particular highlight; claustrophobic, perfectly staged, rendering a centuries old conflict involving millions to just two Daleks and a Time Lord surrounded by pitch black.
The flaws I described could have crushed a lesser episode, but I have to give Helen Raynor considerable credit here. For a few moments, I believed that a Dalek could change his spots — or his etheric beam locators, as it were — and that is a remarkable achievement.
A part of me wishes that Helen Raynor had taken more time to go over this story, tightening themes, removing plot contrivances, getting the tone just right. If this had happened, Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks would be a story for the ages. Even so, there is a lot to recommend this tale. It takes risks, it looks good, and it’s genuinely entertaining. A solid entry, but a frustrating one, because I’m left to wonder what might have been, even as I watch it again and again.
Doctor Who Notes
As I said, Helen Raynor nicely sidesteps my concern about selling the fundamentally unfrightening image of a humanized Dalek. That didn’t stop me from chuckling at the challenge of selling the image as frightening. I quickly pictured a scene reminiscent of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Movie wherein brains-on-the-outside Mr. Sec has his first run-in with Mr. Angry Man Wielding a Baseball Bat.
Sec: I. Am. A. Human. Dalek. / I. Am. Your… Future!
Man: Oh yeah? Well, say hello to my little friend!
Sec: Ow, my vulnerable head!
Sec: Ow, my vulnerable head!
Sec: Ow, my vulnerable head! Why do these humans always go for that part of my anatomy?
I do have to ask about the whole pig slave issue. If the Daleks are going to create a bunch of slaves, why waste so much energy grabbing humans and adding pig parts to them? Why not just lobotomize the humans you need? But then we wouldn’t have the whole “men are pigs” joke that Tallulah walks right into, and that’s not enough.
I couldn’t help but chuckle over Tallulah’s comment that Laslo, even though he’s been deemed of “inferior intelligence”, was still the smartest man she ever dated. Later in the next episode, Laslo delivers the unfortunate line: “two Daleks. That means there’s still one left.” Way to show off those subtraction skills, Laslo. Sorry Ms. Rayner forced you to state the obvious.