21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks

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. Meanwhile, 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 exactly your average Doctor Who tale either.

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 take, 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. 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.

In 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 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.

Apparently poor old Helen Raynor was considerably shocked by the sheer amount of vitriol on the internet forums. Me, personally, I don't think the story's quite as bad as it's been made out to be. Sure, all the howlers are in evidence, 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.

The story begins 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. 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 decomposing Rutan).

Meanwhile, in the Empire State Building, the Cult Of Skaro Daleks are skulking about with a fiendish plan in mind to allow their race to continue. This time around, they figure that the combination of human and Dalek will allow for some sort of ultimate, all-conquering future. Poor, snidey Mr Diagoras is used as the human guinea pig for this experiment in a great, behind-the-sofa scene. 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.

Good stuff so far. Up until the end of the episode, it's a perfectly acceptable slice of Doctor Who. There are plenty of nods to the past for dedicated 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.” It's those elements of survival and ruthless ambition that make him ideal Dalek fodder. “You think like a Dalek” croaks a pepperpot, and while Diagoras gets his wish of survival and dominance, it's in the most perverse way imaginable.

Solomon on the other hand, is 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. Like 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 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 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. 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.

Eric Loren, on the other hand, is saddled with considerably more problems. Make no mistake here – the humanoid Dalek Sec is rubbish. The whole idea is 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 big 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 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 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 Doctor 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 the Third Doctor-phobic bun vendor.

Good ideas created in the first part are reduced to paste in a botched climax. It's not just the fault of Dalek Sec, there are 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 guy in a pig mask that he presumably nicked from the local joke shop. Miranda Raison and Ryan Carnes do their very best with the short straws of this story's broad characterisation, but the script doesn't allow anything more than cliché. 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 in the second part. The characterisation of the Doctor sums up the opposite sides of the coin in this adventure. In the Manhattan episode, Tennant underplays rather than overplays, and it's a far more palatable interpretation. His dawning realisation that the Daleks are back is superbly conveyed, ditto, his quiet, blazing-eyed fury as he muses on the fact that while he loses everything, the Daleks always manage to survive. When he turns the volume down, it's easy to see why Tennant commands such respect.

All of this goes to pot in Evolution. While Tennant tries hard to come up with the goods, the script makes this an uphill struggle with a shouty, histrionic and unlikeable Doctor Ten. Sure enough, he's still giving Martha the cold shoulder, whether he's regretting a quick hug or brusquely shrugging off his companion's innocent assertion that there's someone for everyone. When he's not carrying on like a swine to Martha, he's either shouting the place down or starting his odd penchant for screaming and crying like a woman.

The shouting first. Hoo boy, there's plenty of this. Many of his confrontations with Dalek Sec run along the lines of Jeremy Kyle patronisingly shouting down some workshy chav. Plus, there's that strange bit when he starts shrieking “KILL ME!” over and over again at the flying Dalek. 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 convinces for a second. Another question is why the Dalek doesn't put him out of his misery, given that it was quick enough to zap Solomon.

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 programme with Tennant in it, he always seems to be playing a character who's rolling around blubbing like a baby. It's all a bit laughable, though. Tennant's screams are way too high pitched and melodramatic, and not a patch on the almighty Baker Bellow. In Evolution, he's asked to shriek at the top of his voice while hugging an electrified Empire State Building mast. To add insult to injury, 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.

Altogether, the laughable elements are too great in number in Evolution. Don't forget the unconvincing pig men or yet another emergency temporal shift cop-out. As a result, the ambitious two-parter isn't as good as it could or should be. After all that great work, that's bound to rankle.

Visually, though, it's a triumph. James Strong's direction is very good. He manages to craft some eye-catching set pieces, including explosive battles in Hooverville or the song 'n' dance number in the theatre, which is shot very well. 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.

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