Doctor Who: "Daleks In Manhattan"/"Evolution Of The Daleks"

Doctor Who: "Daleks In Manhattan"/"Evolution Of The Daleks"

“Daleks In Manhattan” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 4/21/2007)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“My planet is gone, destroyed in a great war, yet versions of this city stand throughout history. The human race always continues.” “We’ve had wars. I’ve been a soldier myself, and I swore then I’d survive, no matter what.” “You have rare ambition.” “I want to run this city, whatever it takes, by any means necessary.” “You think like a Dalek.” “Ill take that as a compliment.”

“Daleks In Manhattan”/“Evolution Of The Daleks” is a story at war with itself. As this season’s requisite monsters two-parter, it follows squarely in the goofy tradition of “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three” and “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel.” It’s a story full of convoluted schemes and dubious accents, set in a Great Depression-era New York City that only bears the most passing of resemblances to the real thing. Doctor Who has never exactly staked its reputation on scientific accuracy, but this episode displays an understanding of genetic engineering and gamma radiation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Silver Age comic book. Indeed, if last season’s Cybermen two-parter represented the show doing its best impression of a big dumb action movie, then this story is Doctor Who’s full-on embrace of daft B movies, the kind that mostly live on thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000. All the elements are there: the conniving aliens, the inexplicable monsters, the downtrodden but vaguely dull human heroes, and the mad science with a capital “M.” This isn’t the silliest premise for a story in Doctor Who history—ladies and gentlemen, I give you “The Underwater Menace”—but it’s damn close.

Still, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being silly, particularly when we’re talking about a show as fundamentally goofy as Doctor Who. The trouble is that the villains of this story are the Daleks, and they’re the only monsters that revived Doctor Who has asked us to take completely seriously. We’ll explore the Dalek side of this story in more detail in the “Evolution Of The Daleks” portion of this review, but for now suffice it to say that the new series went to a lot of work restoring the Doctor Who’s most iconic monsters to their former glory, and this story comes dangerously close to throwing it all away. Their previous three appearances in the revived show have portrayed the Daleks as cosmic conquerors and soulless destroyers, so it’s a bit of a comedown to see them skulking around the sewers and making pig-based hybrids for reasons that are at best unclear. “Evolution Of The Daleks” eventually explains this well enough by explaining that an emergency temporal shift would fry most of the Daleks’ power supplies, but that still leaves all of “Daleks In Manhattan” as a showcase for one of the most preposterous Dalek schemes since the time they tried to hollow out the Earth’s core and pilot the entire planet as a giant spaceship.

Even so, I’ll admit right now that I like “Daleks In Manhattan”/“Evolution Of The Daleks” rather more than its reputation would suggest, but I’d say that any appreciation of this two-parter requires being able to enjoy both of its divergent story paths. David Tennant turns in a tortured performance that indicates this entire scenario represents the Doctor’s worst nightmare, one that he’s not even sure he wants to survive, and the writing of the Doctor-specific sections of “Evolution Of The Daleks” is good enough to support that acting work. But the Doctor’s story, which works well enough in isolation, is a singularly bizarre fit for this amusement park version of New York in 1930. Hell, it’s a bizarre fit for a plot that prominently involves killer pig-men running around the sewers, secret schemes to manipulate the construction of the Empire State Building, and gamma ray lightning that can somehow conduct Time Lord DNA. (“Somehow” is a crucial word for any attempted plot summary of this two-parter.) Last year’s Cybermen story wasn’t half as bonkers as all that, and that story still found it prudent to have the Doctor basically laugh in John Lumic’s face at the general ridiculousness of his scheme. Here, the presence of the Daleks means the Doctor has to treat this mad scenario with a gravity that it doesn’t earn elsewhere in the storytelling.

Doctor Who likely overextended itself by making an American-set story so early in its run (leaving aside “Dalek,” which only leaves its Utah bunker for a single helicopter shot), particularly one set several decades in the past. While Doctor Who was able to budget for some strategic second-unit filming in New York, there was no money for David Tennant, Freema Agyeman, and the rest of the cast to travel there as well. The show later managed a pair of far more convincing America-set stories in the Matt Smith era; it’s probable that the subsequent production team learned from some of the missteps of this two-parter, although it doesn’t hurt that constant improvements in technology likely meant it was considerably easier and cheaper to film overseas in 2011 than it was in 2007.

In fairness, some of the camera tricks to hide this story’s filming limitations are unlikely to attract the attention of a first-time viewer; for instance, the TARDIS does indeed materialize in front of the base of the Statue of Liberty, but the episode then has to cut to a close-up once the Doctor and Martha appear. Rather less successful are any of the shots that attempt to prove that the Hooverville location is in the same part of the cosmos as the Empire State Building, particularly since every such unconvincing shot is from the same angle. “Evolution Of The Daleks” manages more verisimilitude than “Daleks In Manhattan,” mostly because the second episode largely takes place at night, but the cumulative effect is the sense that this two-parter’s reality is a particularly fragile one. The story can only just about maintain the illusion that this is really New York in 1930 if the audience agrees to look precisely where they are told to, but any attempt to look off to the sides will bring the façade crumbling down.

And then there are the accents, which can most charitably be described as all over the place. The cast is composed of a mix of British actors putting on accents (Miranda Raison as Tallulah and Hugh Quarshie as Solomon), American expats who now work in Britain (Eric Loren as Mr. Diagoras and Ian Porter as the Foreman), an American actor who has otherwise worked exclusively in his home country (Ryan Carnes as Laszlo), and a very young, very much pre-stardom Andrew Garfield. Of these, it’s no surprise that Carnes turns in the most convincingly American performance, but I’m actually inclined to give the silver medal to Quarshie, who finds a plausible accent that, crucially, allows him to emote; if this two-parter has any emotional core, it can be found with Solomon. After all, it’s his big speech that triggers the most crucial phase of Sec’s development; Solomon is hardly the first person to make a big, futile appeal to the Daleks, but Quarshie brings out enough of the humanity in the monologue to make it feel plausible that Sec would respond in the way that he does.

Loren is a tad stilted as Diagoras, though, oddly enough, he’s rather more effective as the breathy, whispering Dalek Sec. Raison is a lot of fun as Tallulah, but her enjoyably cartoonish performance and over-the-top accent don’t really gel with the much more serious Dalek story unfolding elsewhere. As for Andrew Garfield, it’s possible to see flashes of the talent that would launch him to bigger and (depending on your opinion of The Amazing Spider-Man) better things, but whoever asked a 23-year-old British actor—albeit one born in Los Angeles—to try to pull off a rural Tennessean accent is a damn sadist. I’ll acknowledge that the story’s shaky accents are likely not going to be quite as noticeable to the show’s primary British audience as it is to American viewers like myself, but the accents do tend to either curb the performers’ ability to act or push them to more cartoonish choices, and those effects should be noticeable. So then, that’s the case against “Daleks In Manhattan”/“Evolution Of The Daleks.” Now the case for, such as it is.

Stray observations:

  • Just to go back to the pig slaves for a minute, because I don’t want readers to think I’m being obtuse when I say it’s unclear why the Daleks would create them. I mean, I get that they needed slaves, and I can even see why the pig’s willingness to eat anything makes it an ideal template for such hybrids, but it’s still odd to think of the Cult of Skaro holding a brainstorming session and coming up with these creatures; also the Daleks totally stole the idea of genetically modifying a pig from the Slitheen, which is never a good look.
  • This two-parter continues to develop the non-romance between the Doctor and Martha. Her observation in the second episode that the Doctor sometimes doesn’t so much look at her as he remembers his old companion is a trenchant one, but all the constant talk of Martha’s unrequited crush on him—both Shakespeare and Tallulah have now picked up on it—is starting to get repetitive. I’m not entirely convinced by the use of the “musical theater” euphemism that Tallulah uses to describe the Doctor; I mean, I don’t take any particular exception with it, but I also don’t find it all that funny as a running gag.
  • This is Martha’s second excursion to the past, following “The Shakespeare Code,” and once again there’s the question of whether it’s really plausible that she wouldn’t face any prejudice during her time in 1930. The story tries to deal with this by presenting Solomon as the leader of the Hooverville and claiming that everyone’s shared poverty has broken down traditional social barriers. My very cursory research of Hoovervilles suggests that the reality is that most of them were racially segregated. Then again, it’s worth emphasizing that I didn’t know that one way or the other until I very cursorily researched Hoovervilles for this review, so I’m not really willing to take much of a stand here. I will say that it seems unlikely that a rural Tennessean like Frank would be quite so comfortable talking to Martha; even if he doesn’t have any prejudices and has benefited from his time spent with Solomon, you would think he might still have some social conditioning that would make him act a bit awkward around her. I suppose that’s the clearest point I’d make about how this two-parter handles race in the context of 1930; while I don’t necessarily take issue with the story’s elision of the issue on its own terms, this is another area where these episodes feel disconnected from reality. Once again, it feels like a sanitized version of 1930, and that undercuts attempts elsewhere to construct a more serious story.

“Evolution Of The Daleks” (season 3, episode 5; originally aired 4/28/2007)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Do you trust him?” “I know that one man can change the course of history. Right idea in the right place at the right time, it’s all it takes. I've got to believe it’s possible.”

How many times has the Doctor promised some alien aggressor that he will find them some new planet on which to live, if only they will halt their invasion of Earth? “The Unquiet Dead” established that as one of the Doctor’s main negotiating tactics in the new series—he most recently tried to relocate the Racnoss in “The Runaway Bride”—but one has to wonder whether he believes any monsters will ever really take him up on it. That’s why it’s rather clever that the story has the humanized Dalek Sec request that the Doctor take him and his new race of kinder, gentler Daleks to some new planet. The Doctor is furious with the Daleks in a way he hasn’t been since his initial (re)encounter with the species in “Dalek,” yet Dalek Sec manages to defuse that rage at every turn. The audience has to know that this is all too good to be true, and the two-parter never makes any secret of the other Daleks’ disgust with Sec’s evolving perspective, but what’s tantalizing about this story is that Sec’s plan could have worked.

The reason this part of the story is effective is that Helen Raynor doesn’t overplay her hand; Sec is never portrayed as a saint, his final heroic sacrifice notwithstanding. The infusion of humanity—even from a source as uninspiring as Mr. Diagoras—doesn’t instantly make him a good person, as he initially proclaims that he now feels human traits like “ambition, hatred, aggression, and… genius for war.”  (All of which are also Dalek traits, a point that the story seems just a bit confused about, but I’m focusing on the concepts that work.) Yes, Sec eventually develops compassion and a conscience, and Eric Loren turns in the best parts of his performance—assisted by the deeply unsettling but reasonably expressive makeup—in Sec’s childlike reactions to these new feelings. But more crucially, before all those other specific traits, Sec gains something far more important from Mr. Diagoras. He gains sanity.

After all, let’s go back to what is generally considered the greatest Dalek story of them all, the Tom Baker serial “Genesis Of The Daleks”—which, it should be said, features plenty of science that’s just as ludicrous as what’s on display here. That story tells the story of the Kaleds, a once mighty people brought to the brink of extinction by endless, horrific war, and it tells the story of one insane genius who sought to remake his own people into something that he believed would be better equipped to survive in this universe. Broadly speaking, “Evolution Of The Daleks” tells the exact same story; indeed, the Doctor and Sec discuss the universe-shattering mistakes of Davros, even if they don’t mention him by name. The fundamental difference between these two Dalek creation stories is that Davros was a madman and the humanized Dalek Sec isn’t. The Daleks only really make any sense at all when you remember they are the creation of a psychopath, and Sec is simply the first Dalek in millennia to break free from the collective insanity woven into the very DNA of his species. Sec’s undoing is that he believes his fellow Cultists can recognize his sanity while they themselves remain trapped by Davros’ eternal, unreasoning hatred. He believes the Dalek command hierarchy will hold even after his transformation, which proves fatally optimistic.

As for the Doctor, you can actually see part of his worldview shatter when Dalek Sec tells him the deaths of the Hooverville residents were wrong; the Doctor manages a shocked “I’m sorry?” in response, but that’s as close as this incarnation ever gets to being at a loss for words. The rest of this episode follows the Doctor as he tries to forget everything the Daleks have ever done to him and embrace the possibility, however remote, that Sec represents something genuinely new. The Doctor makes this point to Laszlo in the quote up top; after all, Davros changed the course of history by having the wrong idea in the wrong place at the wrong point in history, so perhaps it’s time that the universe finally balances the scales.

That exchange represents an optimistic moment in what is generally a story defined by the Doctor’s anger toward his enemies and his struggle to look past all the evil they have done to the universe in general and to him in particular. After all, the Daleks obliterated the Doctor’s home planet—or forced the Doctor to obliterate his home planet, but it’s much the same thing—before the new series even began. “Dalek” demonstrated the unending carnage that a single member of the species could unleash, and it revealed just how much fear, hatred, and even cowardice the Doctor could be capable of when confronted with his greatest enemies. “Bad Wolf”/“Parting Of The Ways” demonstrated at length just how terrifying a reborn, insane Dalek army could be, although I’d say the most indelible moment remains the brief sequence in which the Doctor breaks down by the TARDIS door as a legion of Daleks scream outside. “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” made it clear that even a single Dalek could wipe out a planet’s worth of Cybermen.

Admittedly, the season two finale didn’t dig as deeply into the Doctor’s fears of the Daleks as the first season stories featuring those monsters. But then, that story found the Doctor at the height of his powers and his confidence, because he had Rose by his side. Including the off-screen events of the Time War, the new series’ Dalek stories have seen the Doctor lose his entire people, his ninth incarnation, and his beloved companion. Very technically, the Daleks weren’t directly responsible for any of those tragedies, but that doesn’t take away any of the power of the Doctor’s reaction to the Daleks’ reappearance: “They survived. They always survive while I lose everything.” Whatever inner well-being that allowed the Doctor to brush off the Daleks in “Doomsday” departed with Rose, and the Doctor displays a death wish at multiple points in “Evolution Of The Daleks.” While one could plausibly argue that the Doctor was pretty sure he would survive the final confrontations with Daleks Jast and Thay in the theater, he could have no such confidence about his offer to sacrifice himself to save the residents of the Central Park Hooverville. As he tells Martha, it is unprecedented for a Dalek to change its mind after deciding to exterminate. In the absence of any suggestion of some cunning plan, we have to conclude that the Doctor was, at least for that moment, ready to die.

Indeed, this isn’t the first time in the new series that the Daleks have pushed him to that ultimate breaking point; when the Daleks had his previous incarnation surrounded in “Parting Of The Ways,” he acknowledged that maybe it was time to be exterminated and prepared for the final end. The 10th Doctor has displayed rage to rival that of his predecessor, but only in brief bursts. This two-parter features the most sustained anger we’ve seen from his Doctor, and never has this Doctor seemed quite so alien. For this two-parter, the Doctor is a weary veteran of a war he desperately doesn’t want to fight anymore. So many of his appeals to the Daleks are based on the premise that the quarrels between them and him are best left in the heavens, where the lowly mortals of Earth can’t be caught in the crossfire. That isn’t to say the Doctor is aloof here, or at least not any more than the situation demands. But his final plea to Dalek Caan, in which he tells the universe’s last Dalek that he is not prepared to preside over yet another genocide, and his subsequent bit of wizardry to save Laszlo’s life both suggest not so much an eccentric traveler through time and space as they do a lonely, wandering god. Really, there are far more than the kernels of a great story in here. It’s just that New York City, for all its wonder, wasn’t the right place for it, at least not in the form it takes for this two-parter.

Stray observations:

  • This Week in Mythos: Although the word “Skaro” was first used in “Doomsday,” it’s only here that it’s actually reconfirmed that it’s the name of the Daleks’ home planet. Davros is also discussed, much as he was in “Dalek,” although again he’s not mentioned by name. This story takes some of its inspiration from the Patrick Troughton serial “Evil Of The Daleks,” which features Daleks attempting to isolate both the Human Factor and the Dalek Factor and to implant each of these qualities in the other species. Unfortunately, only a single episode of that story survives, and I haven’t yet listened to the remaining six episodes, so I can’t really comment on any more concrete links. The Doctor’s final confrontation with Dalek Caan recalls the 7th Doctor’s confrontation with the last Dalek in existence in “Remembrance Of The Daleks”—my pick for the third best Doctor Who story of all time—though there the Doctor was more than willing to end the species once and for all. Also, “Evolution Of The Daleks” is the first new series episode to use the standard classic series naming convention “______ Of The Daleks,” which was used for all but one of the post-William Hartnell Dalek stories.
  • I want to briefly discuss one other way in which this two-parter wastes some of the potential of its setting. Terry Nation, the real-life creator of the Daleks, quite explicitly used the Daleks as a way of working through his World War II experiences, with the Daleks situated as a not terribly subtle allegory for the Nazis. As such, 1930 really should be the perfect historical epoch in which to tell a Dalek story, considering the interwar period was the great incubator for fascism. World War I is mentioned as a formative experience by both Mr. Diagoras and Solomon, but their takeaways are so broad and superficial; Diagoras decided to only ever look out for himself, whereas Solomon recognized that people only succeed when they stick together. The Daleks claim that Diagoras thinks like a Dalek, which is part of the reason he’s the ideal candidate for the Final Experiment, but surely the best human analogue for a Dalek is not some ruthless businessman. One could imagine a more nuanced, historically rooted version of this story that focuses on the fascist groups that popped up throughout both Europe and the United States in the Great Depression, and how their ethos resembled that of the Daleks (which, again, is not a coincidence, given Terry Nation’s motivations in creating the Daleks). I decided to stick this in the stray observations as it quite explicitly is not my job to rewrite these episodes, but I will say there’s some precedent in the series for such a subplot. Indeed, part of why “Remembrance Of The Daleks” is so fantastic is how it incorporates ‘60s-era far-right groups into its story.

Next week: Doctor Who somehow manages some even madder science with “The Lazarus Experiment,” and then it’s off into space for “42.”

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