...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, April 23, 2007

Day 2302: DOCTOR WHO: Daleks in Manhattan


So, episode one finished with the time-travelling ALIEN WARLORD turning to camera to reveal that, above his sharply-suited human body, his head was a hideous monstrosity of writhing tentacles around a single alien eye…

Still, enough of CITY OF DEATH.

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What did Daddy Richard think about THIS

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I have to ask: why go to America? Not the series, that's obvious and completely brilliant. I mean, if you're a Dalek stuck in the 1930s… it's not like you have to hang around for long before a bunch of folks with plenty of resources and a compatible ideology are going to come along. And if the Doctor happens to turn up and spoil everything, you've always got the option of escaping into space in one of Wernher von Braun's rockets!

Actually, the whole skulking around on Earth – where you just know the Doctor is bound to turn up – is a pretty dumb idea. But then it does depend on your Dalek's state of mind.

Back in "The Parting of the Ways", the Emperor Dalek decided that he had become god and now Dalek Sec, the Black Dalek, leader of the Cult of Skaro, also appears to have gone potty. Rather than megalomania, however, he seems to have succumbed to chronic depression, doubting everything about his own Dalek nature and comparing his own species unfavourably to humans. It certainly seems that senior Daleks have a propensity for mental instability. Mind you, given that they were genetically engineered by a bloke who really set the bar for mad scientists in Doctor Who, it's hardly surprising.

"If we are superior, why are we not victorious?" It's a question that anyone watching might ask about the Daleks – like Rob Sherman's "Dalek" from 2005, going back to challenging the whole concept of what the Doctor's arch-enemies are all about – but for a Dalek itself to voice it is surely a sign of madness – at least in Dalek terms.

Sec's not alone, either, as there is a rather lovely scene where one of the other Daleks gazes down on New York and – in an echo of the Doctor's speech about Gallifrey – almost wistfully says "My world is gone". The Doctor is not the only one to have lost everything, and for the Daleks seeing humans flourishing throughout time while they themselves are reduced to just four almost seems to have humbled them.

Certainly that seems to be the real reason that Sec to turn himself into a human-dalek hybrid. He's so confused about humans that he wants to become one.

The reason given – the need to increase their numbers – only makes sense if they've got a problem in producing new Dalek shells. Reinforced by the way they are having to use their own armour for their conductor, it would seem they can't get their suckers on any Dalekenium. Which kind of begs the question, why don't they just go somewhere where they can? Even if there is none anywhere on Earth, these guys can fly. Space is no barrier to them!

Actually, there's got to be more to it than that, since if it takes one Dalek to make one hybrid, then there's not a lot of point – they've clearly got four casings and that's enough to go round. No, obviously the next phase of the plan involves reproduction. Probably taking Sec's hybridised cells and using them to infect the "higher intelligence" humans they've been collecting.

In a way, I'm disappointed. The RadioTimes came out on the Tuesday before the show was broadcast, and of course I couldn't avoid it and so saw the massive spoiler on the cover. Russell, whatever possessed you? Anyway, I spent the day thinking "whyever would the Daleks do that?" I know that the Cult of Skaro have a mandate to think the unthinkable, but surely that doesn't extend to "what's going to gross out the viewers the most?"

And then I thought I'd got the answer: they're doing it because the Doctor told them to. In "Doomsday" he casually refers to their problem opening the genesis arc that they stole form the Time Lords: technology that uses the one thing a Dalek can't do – touch. So, I reasoned, this must be Dalek Sec's idea of what a Time Lord should look like.

I think both Alex and I remain to be convinced by this human-Dalek hybrid idea. The "pepper-pot" shape is so iconic, so alien, so unnatural looking that it would be folly to get rid of it. For all its wonderful mechanical articulation, all rolling eye and twitching tentacles, the hybrid does just look like a man with a particularly silly hat on. Nor did I think that the voice was a great success – again, the mechanical squawking that they make is so much a part of the Daleks success that an un-modulated American accent just didn't have the same oomph. It lacked "playground appeal".

Of course, I wasn't at all happy with the Daleks abusing the term "evolution". Evocative of "Evil of the Daleks" as it may be, it should mean the progressive changes in a species by succession of inherited traits, and not just the transformation of a single individual. But, as Alex pointed out, it is entirely appropriate given the number of ways that their other creator Terry Nation found to get the concept of evolution wrong too.

But we did love that they argued about it. And it was a particularly Dalek kind of argument, finishing with Sec basically saying "no, I'm boss". My suspicion is that he might find it harder to make them do what he says now that he is no longer a Dalek.

(Though somehow I doubt that the cliff-hanger resolution will be:

Dalek Hybrid Sec: I am your future

Dalek Thay: B****ks!

The remaining Daleks exterminate the hybrid.)

It's not as though this hybridisation is without precedent, though: the Emperor was turning humans into Daleks, tuning them into blobs and sticking them in shells; now Sec is trying the reverse.

In fact, this humans-into-Daleks idea goes back earlier than that to Davros' experiments in "Revelation of the Daleks", and there are other several moments where "Daleks in Manhattan" has a "Revelation…" feel, not least when the Daleks are gliding through the sewers and the Doctor pulls Tallulah into a niche to hide. This story doesn't quite manage the "Revelation…" trick of portraying the Daleks as maggots burrowing into the skin of the world, though.

It's reminiscent of "The Evil of the Daleks" too. In that lost Patrick Troughton classic, the Daleks travel to Earth's past to try and obtain for themselves the secret of the "Human Factor", the reason why time and again humans defeat the Daleks. And, of course, their intention is to convert humans into Daleks then too.

In many ways it's the Daleks' episode anyway. The Doctor spends most of it trying to penetrate the mystery: the paper leads him to Hooverville, Diagoras shows him to the sewers where he finds the glowing green whatever-it-is genetic material – charmingly described as "alien pig poo" by the BBC's fear factor forecasters – which finally reveals the presence of the Daleks. Could have lived without the 4-6-gamma-9 technobabbly deduction: what's wrong with something like "fourth segment of time… Dominai Hydrax galaxy… Constellation of Alskar… Skaro!"

The Daleks, in contrast, are able to conduct all their genetic experiments and get some building work completed ahead of schedule. Maybe Tessa Jowell should give them the contract for the 2012 Olympics.

For the train-spotters amongst us, you can play the game of: which member of the Cult of Skaro is which?

Dalek Sec, of course, is easy to spot because he's the one in the Black tin. The others are a little more difficult, even with this handy "spotters guide" from "Battles in Time".

It seems from his name tag that it is Dalek Thay who answers the lift, and who appears again later being wistful before conveying Mr Diagoras to Sec. Except, by the time he gets downstairs, his name tag has changed and now he's Dalek Jast.

Thay appears now to be the one on the left, who challenges Sec to halt the experiment because it violates the most fundamental Dalek tenant. And in fact, Sec does later address the one on the left as Dalek Thay, assuming they haven't all swapped places by then.

Logically, that would leave Dalek Caan the overeager one on Sec's right who replies to Thay's challenge with "Daleks are Supreme!"

However, the Dalek who orders Sec to halt is revealed – in the same scene – to be the one who has sacrificed part of his shell to make the conductor that is being riveted to the mast at the top of the building. Whichever Dalek it is who goes upstairs, we see them from behind as they leave the lift and they've definitely got all the bumps, so it can't be the same one.

Meanwhile, in the sewers, it appears to be Dalek Jast who scans for intelligence with his sucker-arm. He's therefore the one who answers Martha's cry of "It's inhuman" with "We are not human". This suggests that he might have ideological problems with Sec's experiment, but it's also an echo of the Doctor from "Pyramids of Mars", which would fit with Jast being the one who echoed the Doctor's sentiments about losing his planet.

Unfortunately, you can't just tell from the voices. Nick Brigg's Dalek voices are great, but he only does two: the deep one and the high pitched one. And he alternates between them as different Daleks speak. Which, weirdly, gives the impression that Daleks have some kind of "politeness circuit" so that they never speak in the same register as the Dalek who spoke last. Sec and the Dalek who goes upstairs speak in the deep voice, and the two downstairs speak in the higher one, except later, the one with missing bumps challenges Sec in the deep voice and the one who's just brought Diagoras down in the lift presents him to Sec using the high voice…

Best guess: Dalek Jast is the wistful one who goes upstairs and mostly seems to agree with Sec's argument that they need to leave their shells; Dalek Thay is the aggressive one who is missing some bumps and thinks this is not a good plan; and Dalek Caan is the too keen one who's probably doing most of the work since he seems to be the one who injects Sec with the "final solution".

As in "Gridlock", New York is used as a Lexx-like representation of Heaven and Hell.

While the Empire State Building – or Dalek Empire State Building, perhaps – stretches to the heavens, the diabolical Daleks inhabit the underworld with their latest "sub-human" slaves where, almost echoing "Aliens of London", "Daleks in Manhattan" has its own, considerably less cute, pig men. Not quite sure what that is trying to say in a story that goes out of its way to avoid mentioning the racial tension of an America less than half a century after the civil war, and still thirty years before the civil rights movement.

In between, again, the ordinary humans find themselves trapped in a limbo: the motorway in "Gridlock", the Hooverville shanty-town in Central Park here.

If you think these contrasts are accidental, consider the names of the leading human protagonist and antagonist: Solomon and Mr Diagoras. King Solomon, of course, was the fantastically wealthy king of Israel and chum of god in the Old Testament; Diagoras the Atheist lived in 500 BC and was sold into slavery. As Solomon remarks in "Daleks in Manhattan", one minute a guy is on top of the world and the next he's down in Hooverville, for some folks it goes the other way.

Not that Solomon is all as nice as pie. When Diagoras comes offering work at a dollar a day, Solomon persuades the other men that that is a slave wage… but then sneakily takes the job himself. A bit sly or a bit more desperate than he lets on? Or is he just is protecting his place as leader letting the Doctor take over?

In "Doctor Who Confidential" writer Helen Raynor spells out the deliberate similarities between Solomon and Diagoras: both leaders of men, both having fought in the First World War, but each having taken a very different lesson from it.

And if that doesn't convince you, there's always Tallulah's angel with devils song-and-dance number!

How about that! A genuine song-and-dance number in a Doctor Who episode. And on a real stage too! When was the last time Doctor Who stopped the show just for a show-stopper? We suspect it's "The Talons of Weng-Chiang". That had a pig-man in it as well. And was filmed in a real theatre.

(Failing that, Steven and Dodo sing at the piano – and at gunpoint – in "The Gunfighters", and that had dreadful American accents too!)

Producer Phil Collinson said on the podcast commentary that he was disappointed that the stage didn't look more lush. Alex is more disappointed that they didn't turn the grading up to "Technicolor™".

The cleverness of the story, and of that vertical separation, coupled with some marvellous inserts shot from the top of the genuine Empire State Building, is that after the opening establishing shot of the outside of the theatre, you never have to see the famous streets of New York again. Which no doubt saved a fortune. Mr Diagoras' office at the top of the tower – seemingly open to the elements thanks to judicious use of the wind machines – is light and airy, just as you would expect heaven to be. And of course, it has an elevator straight to hell, with that perfect Art Deco door that lights up to resemble a Dalek eye… just as the doors open to reveal a Dalek eye!

Down below, the sewers are also terrifically realised as a dank labyrinth, a cleverly designed set allowing, as Ruther of Castrovalva might say, for much variety of movement. There's only one brief moment where they have to do the "Doctor Who running" thing of not running very fast so that they don't run off the end of the set. Mostly, they can run fine!

While it seemed Freema didn't have a lot to do in this story, often switched for alternative companion Tallulah, she still managed to shine – particularly her sense of fun on arriving on Liberty Island, and her calm authority when directing the prisoners to obey the Daleks' orders. Nice reaction on learning exactly who the Daleks are – obviously a great set up from last week's heart-to-heart in New New York.

Miranda Raison as Tallulah is also great. Comical and feisty and yet also the romantic heart of the story – her semi-tragic beauty-and-the-beast romance with unlucky pig-boy Lazlo bringing some needed human emotion to this story of Daleks and Time Lords. "most men are pigs" says Tallulah – oh sweetie, if only you knew. Lazlo, played by Ryan Carnes, is also very sweet, and the half-pig mask allows some real depth of emotion to come through from his eyes and posture. Though it would be nice to know how he escaped the Dalek laboratory with his personality and haircut intact. Between them they remind us of the humans caught up in the machine. And personally I put any wandering accent syndrome down to Tallulah putting on a posh nice-girl voice for her theatre performance and letting it wander under stress.

David Tennant, though, just continues to grow in stature as the Doctor. Just as Dalek Jast (probably) contemplating human success and survival shades the edges of the Daleks without weakening them, so Tennant is able to give the Doctor a bitterness that he has lost everything again when he lost Rose and still the Daleks keep coming back to haunt him.

And this is why the Daleks should always return: because they have such a depth of history with the Doctor now, such a mythology.

Next time… What is the gamma spike? How do the Daleks intend to evolve? Will the Doctor do a deal with the devil? And can anyone survive all-out war in Hooverville? "Evolution of the Daleks" at 6.45pm!

1 comment:

Nick Campbell said...

Great review, as per. One thing:

I wasn't at all happy with the Daleks abusing the term "evolution". Evocative of "Evil of the Daleks" as it may be, it should mean the progressive changes in a species by succession of inherited traits, and not just the transformation of a single individual.

But if Sec's hybrid is intended as procreative, might he not be imagining a much broader, longer-term process of evolution? The fact that the hybrid didn't immediately introduce itself as Sec or Diagoras or Diagorasec suggests it is in some way new, like a child. It must be said though, the more I think about it, the more I can't wait to hear what sort of a plan could be behind such crazy behaviour. (I loved the monster in the cliffhanger though - everybody else seems disappointed but I thought it was absolutely pitch-perfect, even if Scaroth did get there first.)