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Doctor Who complete reviews: Daleks in Manhattan

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Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks (Doctor Who)

Somewhere, sometime, in a parallel universe, faded pop stars are attempting some sort of comeback in Doctor Who. In Fear Herman's Hermits, the roaring Honey Monster in Chloe's closet turns out to be an amalgamation of the twee 1960s crooners who are looking for a fresh supply of helium canisters. In Courtney Love And Monsters, the grungy one-time squeeze of Kurt Cobain joins forces with LINDA to banish the Abzorbaloff to the mists of time. While a shocking revelation takes place during Daleks In Manhattan Transfer, as the evil pepperpots break out from the chirruping close-harmony quartet – a prospect nearly as terrifying as listening to 'Chanson D'Amour'.

There's a daft re-imagining of the first 2007 two-parter if ever there was one, but then the real Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks isn't your average Who tale. It's an odd story of extremes, both in content and reception. The idea of Daleks wreaking havoc in 1930s New York is a pleasingly different one, and one that's only been fleetingly glimpsed in The Chase . It's a fresh tack from Daleks boarding space stations or invading present-day Earth, and altogether, it's a bold (if not quite successful) attempt at steering the pepperpots in a new direction. Even the main settings of Manhattan Evolution are on opposing sides of the fence: On the one hand, we have the jobless and homeless in Hooverville, struggling to find their way again while squabbling over loaves of bread. And then contrast that with the rich Art Deco surroundings of the Empire State Building or the gaudy interiors of the theatre – two dissimilar types of battleground for the small Dalek cult.

"For a story to start off with such good intentions and then to deteriorate into a convoluted mess is regrettable"

Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks (Doctor Who) - Grunting Pig BlokeIn the real world too, fans were also making their own notes on how Manhattan Evolution fell between two very notable stools. The first episode was seen to be a good, hearty return to Old School Who with Daleks, sewers, green blobby aliens and a somewhat macabre cliffhanger. The second part unfortunately was seen to fall short of expectations with some very dodgy science, a poorly conceived plan of Dalek Sec, ridiculous dialogue, and an unwelcome return for everybody's favourite chestnut, Shouty Doctor, who could be heard as far away as the planet Pluto.

For a story to start off with such good intentions and then to deteriorate into a convoluted mess is regrettable. And apparently poor old Helen Raynor was considerably shocked by the sheer amount of vitriol on the internet forums. Me, personally, I don't think it's quite as bad as it's been made out to be. Sure, all the howlers are in evidence, you can't deny that, but in its own weird way, it's quite entertaining and does at least have some interesting ideas on its side, along with some strong production values and direction from a man called – er – Strong.

The story begins quite well with plenty of mysteries set up from the outset. Theatre showgirl Tallulah – Three L's and an H, incidentally – is already doomed for a rocky relationship with her fellah, Laszlo, who's accosted by a grunting pig bloke in a boiler suit. Laszlo turns out to be one of many who have been disappearing lately in New York, and naturally The Doctor can't resist a quick investigation – even if he's stretching his One Trip For Martha rule to the limit. Not only that, but during his investigations, The Doctor stumbles across a green, glowing lump of mould in a nearby sewer – which of course, turns out to be from the planet Skaro (as opposed to what actually looks like a dead Rutan).

And of course, the Cult Of Skaro Daleks are skulking about in the Empire State Building with a fiendish plan in mind to allow their race to continue. This time around, they figure that the mixing of human and Dalek races will allow for some sort of ultimate Dalek future, and so poor old snidey Mr Diagoras is used as a human guinea pig for this experiment. That's a good scene for getting the kids behind the sofa – Diagoras is covered in Dalek goo and is then pulled into the casing of Dalek Sec, who then simmers nicely for about 10 or so minutes. Good visuals here, and the idea of a human Dalek not only provides an example of this season's mini-theme of identity and humanity, but also harks back to 1967's Evil Of The Daleks , in which the Daleks were attempting to find the Human Factor. Evidently, Daleks never learn.

So up until the end of the episode, it's a perfectly acceptable slice of Who. There's plenty of nods to the past for dedicated Who fans, with snatches of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang , The Evil Of The Daleks and Revelation Of The Daleks thrown in to the pot. Most of the characters are generally well defined – the two opposing main men, Diagoras and Solomon are on different sides of the coin. Diagoras is the ruthless, self-made man, a former soldier who has since built his life on survival and self-preservation, to the point where he's become a power-mad control freak. “I'm gonna run this city whatever it takes,” he snarls. “By any means necessary.” Ah, the irony – it's that very element of survival and ruthless ambition that makes him Dalek fodder. “You think like a Dalek” croaks a pepperpot, and sure enough, Diagoras gets his wish of survival and dominance, but in the most perverse way imaginable.

Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks (Doctor Who)Solomon on the other hand, is very much the voice of reason – whether he's rallying his Hooverville troops for battle or mediating over a loaf of bread, he's the force for good – if Diagoras is the Dalek equivalent, then Solomon is Hooverville's very own Doctor (complete with broad-brimmed hat). Even though Solomon's had bad breaks, he's still keen to use his intelligence and directly asks The Doctor about his thoughts on the disappearing people – the same sort of curiosity and morality that the Time Lord champions all the way. Both actors are excellent – Eric Loren does a good job as Diagoras, conveying the man's single-minded ambition well. He also does his level best with the considerable limitations of the Dalek Sec character, contributing a fractured, disjointed speech and movement that implies that the human Dalek is struggling to adapt to a life outside of a giant tin can. As Solomon, Holby City actor Hugh Quarshie is the perfect choice, and his American accent is actually quite convincing. Again, like Eric Loren, Quarshie has some iffy dialogue to battle with, but he overcomes these hurdles to deliver a strong performance and make Solomon into a sympathetic, well-rounded character.

The problem with both of these characters is that in the second part of the story, they just go to waste. Solomon is bumped off early on in the instalment after delivering a speech so corny that it was probably written by the grandfathers of Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson. Solomon's death is actually both brutal and blackly comic – he basically gives a floating Dalek the big spiel about how humans and Daleks are the same and how they should live together in perfect harmony etc: to which the Dalek inevitably exterminates him on the spot. But it just feels like that this scene should have been nearer the end – the theatre hall feels considerably smaller in scale, especially compared with the big Hooverville showdown. It feels like the story's already shot its bolt, and so the big finale scene feels underwhelming by comparison. Also, it would have been better to have Solomon survive for a bit longer and kill off the annoying Tallulah or Laszlo instead. And so again, a great actor like Hugh Quarshie is relegated to Fleeting Cameo Of The Week.

"The only way I can describe Dalek Sec is a hybrid of Scaroth and Stevie Wonder, as realised by a porn film director"

Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks (Doctor Who)-  Eric Loren as SecBut then we have Eric Loren, who's saddled with considerably more problems. OK, let's make no mistake here – the humanoid Dalek Sec is rubbish. The whole idea is deeply flawed for one thing. Quite why the Daleks think that merging with a human will allow for their survival is anyone's guess – especially since the Dalek race is programmed to regard any other species as inferior. You can tell a mile off that the other Cult Of Skaro members will admit that this is a mistake – which they do during some incongruously girly chin-wagging in the sewers. They later take command and tie Sec up in chains (yes, really), while later destroying the Human Dalek army. But it begs the question of why the other Daleks went along with this crazy plan in the first place. It never rings true for a minute, and if you pay close enough attention, you can hear the thrumming sound of Terry Nation spinning at one billion revolutions a minute in his grave.

To add insult to injury, Dalek Sec looks like a complete joke. Presumably, the cliffhanger to the first part was meant to send kids behind the sofa, but in reality, jaws were dropping for the wrong reason. The only way I can describe Dalek Sec is a hybrid of Scaroth and Stevie Wonder, as realised by a porn film director. It's impossible to take Sec seriously for precisely the same reason that Erato failed in The Creature From The Pit. But then at least Erato wasn't forced to crawl around in chains like some freakish alien gimp. What's worse is that Sec is lumbered with some of the worst lines ever heard in Who history. Every sentence he's forced to say is hokey B-movie cliché at best and the following line at worst: “My Daleks, understand this. If you choose death and destruction, then death and destruction will choose you.” It's a sentence that's so ham fisted, it feels as if it was constructed by a lobotomised butcher in an abattoir.

"While David Tennant mostly comes up with the goods, the viewers are still being asked to accept a Doctor who's just not very likeable"

Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks (Doctor Who) - David TennantSo the good ideas of the first part are quickly reduced to paste in a botched climax. It's not just the fault of Dalek Sec, there are plenty of other problems dragging down a potentially classic adventure. Tallulah and Laszlo I've mentioned – one's a squeaky, boss-eyed beanpole with an accent that's about as authentic as a £6 note, the other's a monotonous bore in a pig mask that he presumably nicked from the local joke shop. Both Miranda Raison and Ryan Carnes give dreadful performances – Raison's all Krusty The Clown-esque “Oy”s, wide eyes and irritating shrieking, while Carnes displays all the emotion of a cardboard box. It's also debatable as to why The Doctor thinks that a future as a pig man will lead to any sort of happy ending. I'd give Tallulah and Laszlo three days, tops.

But then The Doctor's still carrying on like a complete imbecile. It's funny – while David Tennant mostly comes up with the goods, the viewers are still being asked to accept a Doctor who's just not very likeable. Sure enough, he's still giving Martha the cold shoulder, whether he's regretting a quick hug or shrugging off his companion's innocent assertion that there's someone for everyone. When he's not carrying on like a bastard to Martha, he's either shouting the place down or starting his odd penchant for screaming and crying like a woman. The shouting first: there's that strange bit when he starts shrieking “KILL ME!” over and over again at the flying Dalek. Blimey, quite why The Doctor's got a sudden case of Deathwish is never really explained, especially when he's so reluctant to regenerate in his later stories. Presumably, this is meant to emphasise The Doctor's long-standing feud with the evil pepperpots, and how they always seem to win while he always seems to lose this particular battle, but it never feels convincing. And also, why doesn't the Dalek just put him out of his misery, given that it was quick to zap Solomon?

Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks (Doctor Who)The girly screaming's also a bit odd. For many of the 2007 stories, Tennant is required to scream or cry – actually, whenever I see a post-Who programme with Tennant in it, he always seems to be playing a character who's rolling around blubbing like a baby. But it's all a bit laughable – Tennant's screams never sound as convincing as say, The Baker Bellow, which was a mainstay of the 13th season. Instead, they're way too high pitched and melodramatic – so in this story, he's asked to shriek like a woman while hugging an electrified Empire State Building mast. To add insult to injury, we later find that as a result of this, the Human Dalek army grunts have somehow absorbed his Time Lord DNA during the gamma strike. Without wishing to sound all Christopher Hamilton Bidmead, this is science for two-year-olds, and makes no sense at all. Even The Wonderful Stories Of Professor Kitzel contained more logical reasoning than this.

Altogether, the laughable elements are too great in number – don't forget the unconvincing pig men or yet another emergency temporal shift cop-out. And as a result, Manhattan Evolution isn't as good as it could or should be. After all that great work, that's bound to rankle. As I said, James Strong's direction is very good – he manages to craft some eye-catching set pieces, whether they're explosive battles in Hooverville or the song 'n' dance number in the theatre, which is shot very well (shame about Raison's attempts at husky crooning though). Some of the other actors give good accounts of themselves, notably Andrew Garfield in the days before he became a big screen name. Some of Murray Gold's music cues are quite atmospheric (not the ones with his Pompous Choir making a meal of things, as usual), and both Freema and David make the most of what they've got, even if Martha's still confined to whining Second Banana status and The Doctor's making too much noise.

I guess that Manhattan Evolution feels like a very well made version of a first draft script. The seeds of a great adventure are sown, but they never sprout because of the deluge of half-baked ideas, bad dialogue and ropey characterisation in the second half of the story. I still quite like it in its own silly way, but regrettably, Manhattan Evolution never manages to live up to its full potential. Sec-ond best, I'm afraid.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Gridlock

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