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Doctor Who: Daleks in Manhattan (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Daleks in Manhattan originally aired in 2007.

We must evolve! Evolve! Evolve!

– Dalek Sec has perhaps the most out-of-character moment for a Dalek ever

The concept of Daleks in the past is a great idea. However, with the exception of Evil of the Daleks, it is also a bit of a tricky one. Steven Moffat found that out with the first Dalek story of his tenure, Victory of the Daleks, bringing the Daleks to the Second World War. However, Russell T. Davies tried telling a Dalek story set in the past as part of the show’s third season. The Parting of the Ways had featured a Dalek story set in the future, while Doomsday saw the fiends lay siege to modern-day London. Placing the Daleks in 1930s New York seems a staggeringly ambitious proposition.

It's a hell of a town...

It’s a hell of a town…

Indeed, Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks are two very ambitious episodes, and for that I’m inclined to be quite forgiving. Throughout the second season, there was a sense that Doctor Who was resting on its laurels, with the reintroduction of the Cybermen in Rise of the Cybermen feeling like it was being done on autopilot. For the most part, the third season is a lot more ambitious. That means there’s much more room for failures, but the potential for success dramatically increases.

Daleks in Manhattan would be ambitious from a production standpoint today. Steven Moffat has been able to bring the characters over to the United States for location shooting on stories like The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Town Called Mercy and The Angels Take Manhattan. In contrast, the only overseas work on Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks involved secondary crew, leaving all the scenes starring the regular cast to be shot in the United Kingdom. Replicating New York in Cardiff is a daunting enough task. That task is compounded by the historical setting.

He knows how to show a showgirl a good time...

He knows how to show a showgirl a good time…

However, the ambition of Daleks in Manhattan runs a great deal deeper than that. It’s the first two-part Dalek story that isn’t a season finalé, and it’s the first mid-season Dalek episode since Dalek re-established the monsters as a threat. That’s a hefty burden for a story, but Daleks in Manhattan finds itself a bit overburdened. Not only does it have to tell a Dalek story, it has to feature pig-men, deal with the Great Depression and its impact on ordinary people, insert a musical number, include the Empire State Building and serve as a homage to 1930s American horror films. It sounds more like a laundry list than an episode.

It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Helen Raynor, tasked with writing the two-parter. For one thing, the episode was apparently originally intended for Steven Moffat, but he was unable to do it. That said, despite producing the stellar Asylum of the Daleks, Moffat isn’t too fond of the creatures. Raynor worked as a script editor on the revived show and has worked a great deal in theatre and television. She has actually proven herself a pretty fine Doctor Who writer, providing The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky for the fourth season of the show. It was just that Daleks in Manhattan may have been the worst possible first script for Raynor to write.

Shining some light on the matter...

Shining some light on the matter…

In The Writer’s Tale, in a chapter appropriately titled Bastards, Davies talks a bit about the way that Raynor was impacted the on-line vitriol these two episodes generated:

It’s those internet message boards. The forums. They destroy writers. This job is full of doubts already, but now there’s a whole new level of fear, shouting at us. It is now a writer’s job, like it or not, to put up with it. It’s like when Helen Raynor went on Outpost Gallifrey last month and read the reviews of her two Dalek episodes. She said that she was, literally, shaking afterwards. Like she’d been physically assaulted. I’m not exaggerating. She said it was like being in a pub when a fight breaks out next to you. I had to spend two hours on the phone to her, talking her out of it, convincing her that of course she can write, that we do need her and want her. That bastard internet voice gets into writers’ heads and destabilises them massively.

To be fair, a lot of the problems with the two-parter only really become obvious in Evolution of the Daleks. And there are a wealth of good ideas here. Aside from the treatment of the Daleks themselves, there’s a host of good stuff here. There’s just too much of it. The result is an episode that feels like its running around trying to check items off a list before the end credits start rolling, and never slows down to appreciate any of it. It’s a bit muddled, lacking a clear voice.

Onwards and upwards...

Onwards and upwards…

Given that Terry Nation created the Daleks to serve as stand-ins for the Nazis, you’d imagine it would be easy enough to insert them into 1930s New York. After all, there was a fair amount of fascist sympathy to be found in the New York of the time, lurking just beneath the surface. The German American Bund held a rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 people in 1939. There’s a host of unpleasant connections and ideological links to be unearthed with a story set in the years before the Second World War.

Interestingly enough, Daleks in Manhattan completely avoids exploring that avenue. Instead, it approaches the issue of social justice that informs a great deal of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. It’s the same subtext that was at work in Rise of the Cybermen, but it works a lot better here thanks to the context. Setting a Dalek story during the Great Depression is a fundamentally great idea for a series as interested in the disenfranchised as Doctor Who was at the time.

Just a Sec...

Just a Sec…

“Gateway to the New World,” the Doctor remarks on seeing Lady Liberty. “Give me you tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” Yes, but once you’ve given them over, what happens to them? The notion of Hooverville is stunningly well-realised, and is a pretty harrowing exploration of the flipside of the American Dream. Building off their schemes in Bad Wolf and perhaps foreshadowing the revelations in The Last of the Time Lords, the Daleks are exploiting man’s tendency to exploit man. If the Doctor takes advantage of the best humanity can offer, it makes sense that his enemies prey on the worst.

Okay, sometimes it is a little on the nose. At one point, Solomon points to the Empire State Building and asks, “But tell me. Doctor, you’re a man of learning, right? Explain this to me. That there’s going to be the tallest building in the world. How come they can do that, when we got people starving in the heart of Manhattan?” Of course, even the character names are less than subtle. Wise King of Hooverville Solomon.

Oh, what a world!

Oh, what a world!

Mr. Diagoras seems to be a reference to Diagoras of Rhodes, a successful athlete famously carried on the shoulders of his children – perhaps referenced by the way that Diagoras is building the Empire State Building by exploiting many of his brothers in arms. It’s made explicit that both Diagoras and Solomon served in the Great War. Diagoras simply vowed to rise to the top no matter what, while Solomon learned that to survive you have to stick together. As such, Diagoras climbing over his fellow veterans to success seems a decidedly ironic take on the name. (And, like Diagoras of Rhodes, he meets his end when he reaches that pinnacle.)

We’re presented with a community that is easy prey for the Daleks. The camp is getting smaller and smaller, and nobody seems to care. When martha asks if they’ve gone to the police, Solomon responds, “Yeah, we tried that. Another deadbeat goes missing, big deal.” Diagoras shows up recruit from the camp, but it’s very clear that his terms are nothing short of exploitation. “A dollar a day?” Solomon asks. “That’s slave wage.” When the Daleks wonder if Diagoras can get the tower built on time, he concedes, “Unemployment is such an incentive.”

Well, some men are just pigs...

Well, some men are just pigs…

While it’s hardly the most nuanced view of economic disparity and exploitation, Daleks in Manhattan is a better example of Davies’ fascination with social justice than Rise of the Cybermen. Rise of the Cybermen suggested that being rich makes you evil, with Lumic nothing more than a maniacal villain and alt!Jackie turned into a horrible human just because she has a bit of dosh. While Mr. Diagoras is clear exploiting the people working for him, he’s a much more nuanced character.

Raynor goes out of her way to give him a bit of depth and character development. He gets, of all things, a surprisingly endearing heart-to-heart with a Dalek. It’s a scene that probably shouldn’t work, but actor Eric Loren and direcotr James Strong manage to make it sort of touching. “We’ve had wars,” he confesses after one of the Daleks opens up about the Time War. “I’ve been a soldier myself, and I swore then I’d survive, no matter what.” We understand his point of view, even if he’s still a bad person.

The Doctor has learned that the last thing we need is a good old companion scream right now...

The Doctor has learned that the last thing we need is a good old companion scream right now…

However, the Daleks’ exploitation of Diagoras is really the only part of the script that feels appropriately Dalek. The concept of the Cult of Skaro is that they think outside the box. They were created to ensure the survival of the Daleks by thinking of radical ideas. They even, as we discovered in Doomsday, have names. This is a great hook for the Daleks. The problem is that, quite frankly, Daleks in Manhattan overplays its hand.

For one thing, the idea of the Daleks actively envying mankind seems strangely out-of-character, no matter how radical this group might be. “Humankind is weak,” one confesses to Diagoras. “You shelter from the dark. And yet, you have built all this.” And that isn’t even coming from Sec, the leader who ultimately acts on that weird out-of-character envy. After all, if the Daleks can concede that other life has merit, surely they should be considering abandoning their own philosophy completely – sort of like Dalek Caan does in Journey’s End?

A bump in the road...

A bump in the road…

After all, accepting that other life forms have anything to offer apart from slave labour or the ability to operate a door handle seems so antithetical to the Dalek way of life that it’s not Dalek at all. This seems to be the Dalek identity crisis of Destiny of the Daleks writ larger than life. It’s no surprise, then, that the Daleks are so lost that their next step is to resurrect Davros yet again. Still, this move feels entirely and weirdly at odds with absolutely everything the show has attempted to establish about the Daleks since… well, Dalek. Things don’t come completely off the rails here, but it’s starting to look a bit ropey.

The show’s camp sense of humour seems a bit surreal. Of course, there’s no reason Doctor Who can’t be camp, but it feels surreal in a show about horrible pig men. While Doomsday featured a fair bit of Dalek-related humour, it worked in context. After all, the wonderfully bitchy back-and-forth between the Daleks and Cybermen was swiftly followed by a scene in which the Daleks completely devastated the Cybermen. So there was no sense that the show was diminishing the credibility of the Daleks.

Wingin' it...

Wingin’ it…

Instead, Daleks in Manhattan revels in the camp of the Daleks in such a way that it immediately erodes any threat they may pose. It seems they are more likely to be straight men than galactic conquerors. “You calling me stupid?” one prisoner asks after the Daleks grade his intelligence as “low.” The Dalek responds, “Silence!” If it had fingers, it would click them. Similarly, Tallulah’s objection to the classification of Lazlo as having low intelligence undercuts the tension of the scene entirely.

There’s a bunch of other stuff here that just makes the episode too messy. There’s the seeds of the homage to 1930s Universal Horror that would take root in the next episode. There’s also the musical number which would be pretty nice if only there were a little less happening. The Devil in Me is a nice show-tune-y sounding piece of music, but there’s so much going on that the moment feels more like a weird sideshow than something we should be paying attention to. That said, the whole 1930s theatre angle might have been too much, piled on top of everything else.

At least the lightbulbs on their heads come on whenever they've got a great idea...

At least the lightbulbs on their heads come on whenever they’ve got a great idea…

The guest cast for Daleks in Manhattan actually goes from one extreme to the other. I’ll admit that I’m normally wary of Irish and British actors putting on American accents – there’s too much room for error if they can’t. Miranda Raison is the only major member of the guest cast who seems to have difficulty maintaining her Marilyn-Monroe-esque accent. Andrew Garfield, unsurprisingly, does fine. Hugh Quarshie also does a great job as Solomon, a role that could easily be trite or cliché, but isn’t.

Daleks in Manhattan is an ambitious adventure. Already it’s a bit overloaded, and the cracks are beginning to show. Only in its third season, it’s becoming clear that the Daleks are going to be a bit of a problem. To be fair, at least the continuity is a bit straighter this time around. The story comes completely off the rails in the second half, but there’s still enough ideas and ambition here that I don’t want to condemn it out of hand. At the very least, it’s a little bit better than Rise of the Cybermen.

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