Monday, 10 February 2014

Sec And The City

Doctor Who
Daleks In Manhattan and Evolution Of The Daleks
Series Three, Episodes Four and Five

Wow.  I don't even know where to start with this one.  Rarely have I seen episodes that so fundamentally Do Not Work.

Or: When Working Titles Accidentally Make It To Transmission,
And Everyone's Too Embarrassed To Point It Out.
Okay, let's consider what this story sets out to do, and how it might have succeeded.  It's about Daleks spoiler alert! and it marks their fourth appearance in the new show.  Now, popular as they are, you can't just keep wheeling them out and have them do the same things.  We know they want to exterminate everybody.  What else?  Well, they want to survive, and there's more to that than just killing all the things.  Fair enough.  This is precisely the sort of thing for which The Cult Of Skaro (four special named Daleks Russell T Davies came up with in Doomsday) were created.  So, lads: what have you come up with?

Well, they've noticed something about humans.  No matter what happens, humans keep existing.  "Right then," says Dalek Sec, or Caan, or Jast, or Neil (or whatever the fourth one's called), "humans must be doing something right, and Daleks must be doing something wrong."  This is actually not a new idea in Doctor Who.  Back in the '60s, in a serial called The Evil Of The Daleks (currently missing all bar one episode sniff!), they tried to figure out "the Human Factor", which enables those pesky humans to keep thwarting them.  Bravery, courage, all that jazz.  Of course it turned out they were lying, and they just wanted the Human Factor out of the way so they could come up with a Dalek Factor and force that on everybody.  Clever!  This time, alas, they're not lying.  They genuinely believe humans have a magic ingredient, and they want to make babies with it.

This is wrong in several important ways.  First off, why do humans always survive?  Is it because they're really great?  Well, no: they just hang in there after every disaster, and keep breeding in smaller numbers until they're back on top.  It's the same strategy the Daleks already use with great success, which is why, y'know, there are still Daleks.  It's why the Doctor says, in this very episode, "They always survive."  And, oh yeah, elephant in the room: the other reason humans survive is that they've got the Doctor.  Which is coincidentally the reason the Dalek population keeps reducing to single figures.  Guys?  All this arsing about with DNA is completely unnecessary.  You just need to kill the Doctor.  Quick, there he is!

At least there's an excuse for not just churning out more Daleks.  They're stuck in 1930s New York, the technology won't support a new batch of Daleks, so they've got to think outside the box.  Okay, that's logical.  But it is illogical to think, "Let's trade an impregnable flying tank for a human with some Dalek DNA."  A Dalek casing can fly, survive in space, repel firepower, attack, and apparently travel in time.  What can a human do?  Age, bleed, catch the measles and die.  It's certainly a puzzling usage of the word "evolution", given that it's a dramatic step backwards in survivability.  Did anybody making this ever take the time to look it up?

"Is it too late to recall the Radio Times cover?"
To get the ball rolling, Dalek Sec mixes himself with a human, the devious Mr Diagoras, and becomes a "human Dalek".  This is realised on-screen as "Mr Diagoras with a Dalek mutant instead of a head."  Not the best monster design, quite frankly: his black suit, tie, even his sharp shoes are weirdly untouched, while a lot of rude-looking tentacles wiggle about on the side of his face.  (Stop laughing!)  The human Dalek finds he's not so evil after all, and says the Daleks can't go on as they are, so they should incorporate what's good about humanity in order to survive.  It's the Human Factor again!  And the Doctor is willing to help.  Well, it's (apparently) too late to rescue the blank humans they've prepared for the experiment, Dalek Sec (supposedly) doesn't mind them being relocated, and the Daleks might turn out nice after all.  Apart from common sense, why not?  The Doctor "has to believe it's possible" that "one man can make a difference".  (Not especially brilliant writing, but it's different, and at the same time true to his character, for the Doctor to try to help them.)

Except, hang on: didn't they pick Mr Diagoras because he's so evil and Dalek-like?  If you mix that with an already-evil Dalek, where does the inner Gandhi come from?  And great as it is to think the Daleks can start afresh, isn't it a bit cavalier to sign off on a whole new race of them, which needs recycled humans in order to reproduce?  Aren't they going to want more of them?  What's the next stage of the plan live peacefully with ordinary humans?  How long would that last?  And all this on the word of a genetic experiment, who could be lying (like they were last time), and could be exterminated by his peers any minute for going Full Human.  Because, oh yeah, big surprise: the other three Daleks aren't keen on the plan.

At least Daleks In Manhattan gets that right.  Probably the best bits are when we see Daleks Jast, Neil and Derek (or whatever) chattering mutinously about their boss.  It's actually a smart comment on Dalek behaviour, that for all their Cult Of Skaro cleverness they simply can't repress the desire to be Daleks.  And it's satisfyingly old-style-Who just to see Daleks being devious.  It's amazingly dull to have the Doctor point all this out, however.  "You had to start killing, because that's the only thing a Dalek's good for!"  Well, duh.  What show were you watching?

All things considered, this is not the Doctor at his brightest, or best.  He makes repeated attempts to shame or embarrass the Daleks for acting like Daleks, which he ought to know is not going to work.  (Just like urging people to do or not do things, which he just won't stop doing even though it never works.)  What's the use in pointing out that Daleks have no concept of freedom, or music?  It's all very stirring (well, it's obviously meant to be, but it's actually quite embarrassing), but there's nothing remotely surprising about the Daleks responding with a bored-sounding "Exterminate".  It didn't work for Solomon an incredibly cringe-worthy character who urges the Daleks to help him "build a better tomorrow", with hilariously predictable results and it won't work for the Doctor.  He's smarter than this.  Well, usually: he's very nearly exterminated at the end, and only survives because Dalek Sec jumps in the way.  Did we all see that?  How he had no plan and was just going to get shot and die?

"Kill me, if it'll stop you attacking these people!"
Er, or they could kill you and attack these people.
But sure, you get yourself killed on the hope that the Daleks
will randomly spare people for the first time ever.
Well, he has some plans.  When he fails to remove Dalekanium from a lightning rod (don't ask), he hugs it just as the lightning hits, and that apparently transfers some Time Lord DNA into the blank humans, adding "that little bit of freedom" and allowing them to question their orders.  Brilliant!  Just two problems with this.

1) DNA isn't going to jump out of his body, through his clothes, into a lightning converter, and then into the genetic makeup of some bodies.  Just all kinds of no.  Do they even know what DNA is?

2) Er, are we talking about the same Time Lords?  Since when did they give two hoots about freedom?  Aren't they famously pompous and power-obsessed?  That's all very Doctorly stuff, but that's his outlook, not his DNA!  Wouldn't human DNA make a bit more sense?

There are a few moments where he doesn't act like a total boob, and seems to have that Doctorly heft.  There's his steely you're-on-my-list-mate glare at Mr Diagoras.  There's a bit where he chats to one of the Dalek pig-slaves (hold that thought) and, though everyone else recoils, he promises to help.  And as above, it's great that he's going to put all his anger behind him and give the Daleks a chance, even if he's going about it so naively that it's doomed to failure.  (Announcing "There's no way this lot are gonna let you do it!" in front of the other three Daleks is not going to help, you absolute berk.)  But everywhere else, he comes across as poorly characterised, stupid, or just David Tennant on auto-pilot.  (Dramatic raised eyebrow, lots of shouting and running, "Allons-y".  Yawn.)

And none of those moments go anywhere.  Take his promise to the pig-slaves.  (And briefly, a word on the pig-slaves: what?  Why would the Daleks mix humans with pigs?  They're just a random, far less effective version of the Robomen from The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.  And oh good, another monster that's a recognisable Earth animal in a uniform.  Paging Mr Imagination!)  He promises to help, because that's what the Doctor does.  Which is lovely, but then what?  He successfully makes sure the Daleks won't do this to anyone else, but that's all.  The rest of the piggies get roasted or forgotten about or die anyway.  His offer is just lip-service a photocopy of Typical Doctor Behaviour.

He does "help" Laszlo, a guy who mysteriously escaped full conversion and kept his mind, power of speech and hair-do.  (The Daleks don't notice this because um.)  He uses his Doctorly amazingness to lengthen his lifespan, so hooray!  Now he can live on, hiding in slums with his girlfriend who can't show him to anyone!  (This is almost as "helpful" as turning Elton's girlfriend into a talking paving slab in Love & Monsters.)  A quick trip to a plastic surgeon might solve most of his problems, and yeah, doesn't the Doctor have some sort of time-space-travel-thingie?  (I forget what it's it called.)  But no, he doesn't think of that.  Bad luck, Laszlo, but I'm sure there's a paper bag you can wear.

A note on the direction.  The Doctor says:
"I don't exactly want to get noticed."
This is him 'hiding'.
Not content with being merely stupid, the Doctor's pretty unlikeable in this.  That brilliant scene at the end of Gridlock, where he opens up to Martha about the Time War, might as well not have happened, since it's had no impact at all on their relationship.  The Doctor spends most of the story with other people, which is obviously thrilling as they're all cringe-worthy idiots, and at one point when he and Martha are reunited after a battle, he says: "Hi.  You survived, then."  Yeah, that's a fair summary of their relationship.  Why are they written like this?  Martha meanwhile is back to moaning about the long shadow of Rose, and oh dear god can we let that go now, but there are a few good scenes which remind us she's a doctor in training.  She values human life, and objects strongly to killing.  She deserves better.

I'm at a loss.  Nothing here works.  The New York setting?  A novel backdrop for Daleks, but the action's awkwardly limited to sewers, a theatre, a laboratory and a park in Pontypridd, so big whoop and everything, but it could be anywhere.  The accents are ham-tastic ("Top o' the woild!"), and none of the supporting characters seem at all like real people.  The dialogue is sodden with clichés.  ("If you choose death and destruction, then death and destruction will choose you!"  "And from this island, we will conquer the world!")  And the plot, oh, the plot.  But it's probably best I give up now, before I go completely mad trying to list all the things that don't work.  You might as well try counting stars.  As for what works?  Well, the whole thing has a certain camp, comic value, but I doubt much of it's intended.  The human Dalek's face, for instance, is a constant source of hilarity.

Stupid Daleks, stupid Doctor, stupid everything.  Chuck the whole thing in the bin and pretend it never happened.


  1. I agree with a lot of what you've said here, particularly about Tennant's performance and the gaping plot holes (the Doctor's transferral of his DNA down into the Human Daleks is just about the worst thing DW has ever done), and yeah, the accents were generally pretty grating. The Pig Slaves looked ridiculous, and Lazlo worst of all. But I'm going to have to disagree on a couple of points.

    I think, if taken by itself, Daleks in Manhattan isn't absolutely terrible. It's the second episode that's the real let-down, and that's mostly (MOSTLY!!) in the execution. I quite like the Dalek's chats with Diagoras in 'Manhattan', and I think associating them with the particularly brutal form of capitalism seen in this episode is quite a logical extension of their nature. The Empire State Building is emblematic of a particular set of aspirations - even its name is suggestive - and I think it's a really fitting symbol of the self-aggrandizing, elitist mindset of the ruthless owners of industry and capital in the era depicted. The story is set in a time of extreme disparity in wealth and quality of life, brought about by the sort of 'survival of the fittest' rhetoric that would make a comeback in a big way in the 1980s (and arguably, in the last five years or so to some extent), and I think RTD's associating the Daleks with that, when they have also been explicitly linked to religious fanaticism in their past two appearances, is intended to link the two ideas. The point, to put it bluntly, is that the Religious Right are fascists.

    Whether you agree with the politics or not, I think the story deserves some praise for actually trying to do something different with the Daleks, and on paper, I think what they came up with is actually a fairly good idea. The story of Sec's 'evolution' and his subordinates' reaction illustrates a fundamental truth of the Daleks - they already consider themselves perfect, so of course they're going to respond with revulsion to any deviation. And we, as an audience, are supposed to have a similar reaction - we don't want them changing, because they're such a good metaphor for bigotry. In that regard the design of the humanized Sec succeeds admirably - I think we feel pretty much exactly as we're supposed to - disappointed and a little disgusted. We don't want the Daleks we know and love being replaced by THAT!

    Where it all falls down is that, as you said, Sec starts developing a moral conscience, when Diagoras clearly lacked such a thing and was chosen for the dubious honour of being consumed by Sec for exactly that quality. But the story had to give us a reason to get rid of him other than because he's a bit icky, and do so in a way that illustrates the Daleks' psychology and why they can NEVER change, and the resolution RTD and Raynor settled on was to have him start to develop some compassion, an imperfect but functional solution.


  2. (continued...)

    If it sounds like I'm being a bit of an apologist here, I guess maybe I am, because despite all the problems with 'Manhattan' and 'Evolution' there's some stuff in there that I actually rather like. I think credit has to go to director James Strong and everyone involved with the production side of things, especially the lighting director. This story is just so interesting to look at, the lighting and camera angles actually make the Daleks look threatening again after the unflattering bright lighting of their previous episode showed them for what they really are - big props that get wheeled around and wobbled a bit for effect. Here, they're far more believable. I also have always believed that having just a few Daleks lurking in the shadows, manipulating events from the sidelines, is always more effective and gives them a more powerful and devious feel – instead of the huge armies of flying Daleks that RTD likes to use in his Dalek stories, and so I think that helped me enjoy these two episodes more.

    I also think Martha still comes across pretty well here - we get to see her being independent and intelligent, solving problems on her own, interrogating her captors and so on. She does some doctoring and demonstrates her compassionate side, and even though Rose's shadow still falls over the episode I think Freema Agyeman does a pretty good job of it all. It's a story that hasn't ever been told in Doctor Who before, and while it's a bit tedious, the payoff comes later - Martha eventually overcomes this character flaw and walks out with head held high. I love her for that.

    But yeah, a story riddled with problems. The worst though, to mind my mind at least, is Tallulah's awful cabaret song. It's atrocious ;)

  3. These are interesting points, and I don't necessarily disagree with them. I very much think the fewer Daleks, the better; like I said, it's very Classic Who to have them sneaking around and being devious. I love the shots of them looking around to make sure no one's listening, or earwigging on someone else's conversation. (In one case, *just* as I said to myself, "Doctor, you fool! Don't you realise the Daleks have really great hearing?") You raise an interesting point re the Daleks being presented as evil owners of industry. (And as other reviewers have noted, they certainly go with the ESB decor. That shot where the lift opens...!) But I'm not sure any of this makes a difference to my enjoyment of the episode. I tried, but I just found the whole thing abominably embarrassing. I'm not 100% convinced Dalek Sec is meant to be that rubbish on purpose, but it's certainly an intriguing thought. The idea that we, as an audience, don't want the Daleks to change, is certainly one with legs.

    And yeah, that song. Bit on-the-nose lyrically! I've got a love-hate relationship with Murray's music. I'm hardly noticing it in this bloggy rewatch, but I quite enjoy it in its own element. (Funnily enough, I really like the Series Three OST overall. But much of that is the lovely Human Nature stuff. I also like Series Five's music a lot.) It generally stands out too much, often stampeding over dialogue. He has an obvious urge to tell the whole story with music.

    Alas, Tallulah. At 2000 words I didn't feel I had time to go on about the characters - lookie, it's Spider-Man! - but she's an atrocious caricature in particular. I've seen endless am drams with that character. Pathetic. (And when she fails to spot that the pig guy is Laszlo, despite having Laszlo's very identifiable voice... what a thicko!) I also have a soft-spot for the doomed Dalek-human extra who's the first to bleat "I... ehm... a Dah-lek!"

  4. Yeah... I would never show these two episodes to a new or casual viewer, they are embarrassing... they're sort of a guilty pleasure for me, and one that I skip through large bits of, to just enjoy the bits I actually like (such as the Dalek in the lift, etc). The Daleks DO look good here, and like you say, all those fun little moments when they look around to see they're alone and so on... great stuff.

    I think we're meant to cheer when Daleks Caan, Thay and Jast turn on Sec. "You told us to imagine, and we imagined your irrelevance!" is such a great line. It sums up the Daleks so well - even if their very nature will ultimately doom them, they'll still stubbornly persist in doing things their way. And the image of Sec in chains, being led like a dog on a leash, is one of my favourite Dalek moments ever. Sure, the Doctor moans about the tragedy of it all, but he has to - he's supposed to be the moral centre of the story. But we don't have to share his feelings - I think we're meant to grudgingly accept that he's right, but the show allows us the satisfaction of seeing the Daleks be what they're supposed to be - conquerors, slavers and exterminators. They have a glorious camp value - they're so outrageously over the top as villains it's fun to watch them being evil, and we don't want that to change.

    I quite like a lot of Murray's music, but it's often badly mixed in so that it obscures the dialogue. Case in point - Capaldi's first scene. His first lines were almost unintelligible because of the music, and as a result a moment that should have been a little shocking came off as 'business as usual' - which I get is what they were probably going for, hence the music - introducing the Twelfth Doctor theme to entice the viewers with the promise of more adventures to come. Badly handled. But yeah, Murray's done some lovely stuff - Rose's Theme is beautiful, Madame du Pompadour is a sweet, sad piece, This is Gallifrey is thrilling, Vale Decem is melodramatic but amazing, A Dazzling End is one of the most stirring pieces I've ever heard and Clara's Theme is just lovely. But 'You put the Devil in me' (or whatever it's called - I really don't want to subject myself to it even by looking it up) is just ghastly. The most appropriate description I've ever heard of it is 'ear worm' - it gets in and wriggles around causing all sorts of discomfort. Ugh.

    And yeah, Tallulah. She has I think one moment in the sewers when I actually like her, the rest of the time she's incredibly annoying. Am Drams indeed ;)

  5. Some of my favourite Murray music is The Life & Death Of Amy Pond, which is just dazzlingly put to work in that episode - here is a big, how-can-he-get-out-of-this? finale, a fate possibly worse than death, and this music encourages to find it right, almost sweet. I love when they're actually creative with music. Also wonderful: most of the music in The Eleventh Hour. (I will NEVER forget the excitement of those first two notes, baaaaaaaa-BAM! I think I was hooked on Eleven instantly! I've got those notes saved as my phone alarm.) All the music in Human Nature is sumptuous. There's loads of good stuff. But as you say, it's often the mixing that's the problem.

    My favourite Angel Put The Devil lyric: "One and one and one is three. My bad, bad angel put the devil in me!" Great rhyme. I take it "Fiddly, diddly, diddly dee" was taken?

  6. Oh, and as much as I love Four Knocks where it is, I had no problem with them reusing it in The Time Of The Doctor. Thought it worked rather well as a sweet ode to a silly old man.

  7. "My favourite Angel Put The Devil lyric: "One and one and one is three. My bad, bad angel put the devil in me!" Great rhyme. I take it "Fiddly, diddly, diddly dee" was taken?"

    I read this and cracked up laughing - my flatmate looked at me like I was mental ;)