Thursday, 12 June 2014

Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks written by Helen Raynor and directed by James Strong

This story in a nutshell: The Daleks are back and this time they’re human!

Mockney Dude: This not a great showing for Tennant’s Doctor truth be told and much of that comes down to the writing rather than the performance. In the first episode he is little more than a walking history lesson until he stumbles across what is clearly a Dalek mutant (of which he has seen any in the past) and he spends the next 20 minutes trying to figure out what it is. In episode two the Doctor develops a suicide complex and asks for the Daleks to kill him (twice) which is the just about the most stupid thing he could do. It's what they have been trying to do for centuries...surely they would simply cut him down, have a boast and then continue killing the other inhabitants of Hooverville indiscriminately. I cannot figure out why the Doctor agrees to help out the human Dalek since it would mean the people they have kidnapped would be brainwashed – surely the Doctor is not advocating the loss of identity and free will?  Once again the Doctor rails against the indomitable nature of the Daleks (‘They survive, they always survive whilst I lose everything!’) but this time around he seemed to be willing to propagate the species. One of Tennant's less endearing traits in the role is the moments when he starts screaming his head off for no good reason and he seems to be obsessed with pitching his performance at a hysterical level during this story. A shame because the first three episodes of season three featured some very fine performances by the main man. I guess you can only deliver the script as written and if it is written that you shout an awful lot then that is the way it must be. By the time of the climax the script acknowledges how little the Doctor has achieved and it does make you wonder if he has lost his touch. Or at least in Raynor's script.

Delicious Doctor: Does Martha ever get the chance to change out of those clothes? Doesn’t she wear them for four episodes straight? I bet she was pongy! At this point I was getting a bored by the Doctor’s constant assertion that Martha was going home and this was just ‘one more trip’ when frankly Martha is by far more resourceful, intelligent and fun than Rose was in season two and he should be grateful to have her along. I was so glad when she turned around in The Lazarus Experiment and told him she would no longer be his hanger on. About time girl. Look at the wonderful places he has taken her so far…the slums of New New York, the sewers of Old New York...all this fine living can go to a girls head. Her friendship with Tallulah is very sweet and she can see how Martha looks at the Doctor even though he clearly isn’t interested. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out who obvious you are being. Martha is quite seduced by the glitz and glamour of 1930s theatre. Maybe she is a musical junkie back home. ‘You could be Doctors together! What a partnership!’ – at least Tallulah can see how good they are together, albeit she is overselling their relationship a little. Sometimes when the Doctor looks at her she thinks he is seeing Rose, or what he has lost. There was one small moment in the second episode when I wanted to reach in and slap Martha – ‘What are you then some kind of Dalek?’ is a terrible line and Freema bollocks it right up. Almost as bad as the moment where she gives the Doctor a hug when they are reunited and he then berates her for a moment later. At that point I wanted her to slap him. Don't get me wrong I don't mind the requited love angle that season three aims for (it is a common theme in Davies run dramas and one that I think he is very comfortable writing) but I do think it went on a bit too long. I feel the initial stages of settling Martha being integrated into the Doctor's life (let's call it the 'one more trip' effect) should have ended after Gridlock where they seemed to reach some kind of consensus. Waiting until The Lazarus Experiment for her to obtain a TARDIS key (and thus being given a free pass into the ship and his life) means that Martha is only really a companion of the Doctor for three stories. Maybe that is why she hasn't made quite as much of an impact as the other companions post 2005 (check out the latest DWM poll where she doesn't feature).

Sparkling Dialogue: Raynor (helped along by Davies, I'm sure) can turn her hand to some memorable dialogue...
‘It was either this or a spear…’
‘It’s the Depression, sweetie. Your heart might break but the show goes on.’
‘If we are supreme why are we not victorious?’
‘New York City. If aliens had to come to Earth no wonder they came here.’

The Good Stuff: The opening scenes give the impression that this might be a pure historical piece set in Manhattan with the music and theatre scenes capturing the tone and atmosphere of the period beautifully. Tallulah is instantly likeable (‘I’m coming! Quit yelling!’) in a Stacey Solomon ‘so pure she’s an angel’ kind of way. We get a nice snapshot of the Depression without ever going into any great detail; it’s a very worthy period to teach kids about even if it does tend to stall the story somewhat (a rarity in the new series - there's usually no time to stall the story). There’s a gorgeous shot of builders on scaffolding high above Manhattan that mirrors the black and white photography that was taken in the 30s at the time. It's touches like that where James Strong scores some major points, raking back some respect for the story in lieu of a decent script. Art deco really matches the Dalek aesthetic, another nice touch on the part of the designers. I love how shamelessly b-movie this story is at times, the musical score is hugely over dramatic, the dialogue is overripe (‘the Masters call it the final experiment...’) and there is even a mad scientists laboratory complete with leaping flames and pig men. If watch in this vein, as a hugely expensive b-movie shot with some care, you can salvage quite a lot of respect for the story (a have to apply the same process to Mindwarp at moments which is a similarly OTT storyline with mad, melodramatic moments and yet ridiculously well made and doomy). There is a rare moment of character for a Dalek as it looks over New York and pines for its lost home world. That scene really surprised me (in a good way). Sewers make for a nice spooky location and a change from the usual corridors and these sewers are dripping with atmosphere with strong shafts of light cutting through the darkness, filth on the walls and water dripping in the background of every scene. For what is a daft idea the bestial, unthinkingly violent pig men are pretty scary at points. Like the Daleks themselves they look pretty daft but if you shoot them with care they can really give you the willies. A bit like the Ogrons. Go and watch the scenes between Tallulah and the Doctor at the end of episode one – she would have made a great companion. They enjoy a feisty, sparky relationship. It would be very much like him and Donna, I think, but I would much rather have Catherine Tate back. I’m a big fan of musical theatre so the musical number was very appealing, stylishly choreographed and featuring some stunning colours. It's a shame that I was unconvinced that the theatre was packed to the gills with punters but it is still a classy, atypical diversion. The score at the end of Daleks in Manhattan might sound like a choir having a heart attack but it still insanely memorable and I was humming it for weeks after transmission. Dodgem Daleks hunting through the sewers...just fantastic, shot from below they are very menacing and dynamic. Even better are the two that gossip behind Sec's back, the eye stalk swivelling to take in his surroundings to make sure they aren't being overheard. Genius. I do think this two parter has issues but it is lots of little sparkling moments like that which elevate the story and make me nuts when people suggest it is irredeemable. For the aggressive Dalek attack on Hooverville alone the second episode deserves some kudos. This is a full on Hollywood action sequence pulled off on a BBC budget - the production crew deserve a massive round of applause for how well this is realised. Daleks flying through the air and blowing the crap out of everything and one is a little boys dream come true and so I was in my element. I really felt for that poor Dalek that had psyched himself up to kill the greatest enemy of the Daleks only to be told not to hold his fire…he nearly explodes with fury at being told not to kill! Sec acknowledges that Davros' conception of the Daleks was wrong, which is the most interesting conclusion that the second episode draws.

The Bad Stuff: We have had some amazing Dalek reveals over the last half-century – Daleks coming out of a river! Daleks coming out of sand! Invisible Daleks! Here is Helen Raynor’s chance to join the ranks by having her Dalek reveal…coming out of an elevator! Groan. It is so rare for a NuWho episode to be even considered slow paced (given most episodes are trying to squeeze an old style four parter into 45 minutes) that when one comes along like Daleks in Manhattan it feels like a bizarre aberration (despite moaning that the series is usually far too fast). Perhaps I'm just fickle. Am I saying that this could have worked as a single part story? Well I'm sure there are some viewers who would love for that to be the case but I think you would need about an hour to squeeze all of the plot elements that Raynor attempts to juggle and pay them off adequately. That still leaves half an hour of footage that could be happily cut away. The builders moaning about building the Empire State Building, the extended scenes in Hooverville, Tallulah's bovine love affair, the attack of the pig man thwarted by Martha...all these elements could be excised without losing the essential elements of the story. Diagoras being consumed by a Dalek mutant is where the first episode tips over into sheer madness..every bubbling along with relative sanity until then. If I can recognise Lazlo through his transformation then it makes Tallulah look an idiot that she can't. ‘You can kiss me later. You too Frank if you want’ – what the hell was the point of that line aside from giving Russell T Davies a boner? I’m all for gay/straight/bi references but only when there is a valid reason but sometimes I feel that writers slip them in to gain points. The human Dalek is the rudest looking alien since 'cock in a cape' Alpha Centuri and the 'fishy lips' Vervoids – he’s got six wrinkly, twitching phalluses hanging from his face! Kudos to the actors that continued working with a straight face. Solomon’s speech is so long, tedious and saccharine that I was thinking about murdering him myself. It was a blessed relief when the Dalek cut him down as he offered a hand of friendship, I was laughing my head off as the only adequate punishment for such a speech was dished out. What is it about NuWho that finds the Doctor climbing incredible heights and fiddling with antennae in the most brainless climaxes possible so compelling (The Idiots Lantern, Evolution of the Daleks, The Vampires of Venice, The Crimson Horror)? It really does reduce the stories intelligence to the lowest possible ebb. By the time the Doctor was electrocuted, the Daleks have unleashed their utterly drab new army and the action moves to an unspectacular climax in the theatre and I had completely lost interest in the story. The Dalek attack on Hooverville is the big set piece of the concluding episode so it baffles me that it should be situated so early in the episode and that the climax should splutter out as a result. I think there is a market for laser quest with Daleks (can't you see the Nation Estate salivating at the prospect?) but the way it is depicted here it might as well have been directed by Pennant Roberts (its return of the stand and shoot without trying to find any cover).

Result: The first episode tries to do far too much for its own good; a history lesson, a continuation of the Dalek arc, a horror, a musical, a love story, a character drama and a b movie and it winds up a schizophrenic mess. It has lots of good moments but the elements fail to gel, sitting awkwardly next to each other. I couldn't figure out what genre I was watching from one scene to the next. The second half abandons much of it's characterisation for something that is entirely plot driven, something that was common in the classic series but feels alien in it's new incarnation. Perhaps if the plot had been a little better thought through I wouldn't have minded so much. The second episode begins really well but the big climactic set piece happens ten minutes in and leaves the rest of the story limping to its conclusion. It's like watching a dying man slowly bleed to death. Adding to the mire is a poorly characterised tenth Doctor is back in full shouty mode and behaving quite irrationally (he seems to have a real suicide complex in Raynor's hands) and the dragging out of the 'just one more trip' Martha saga which should have been tied up in Gridlock (and felt like it was). Raking back a lot of respect for Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks is James Strong who directs the story like a big budget creature feature and working in harmony with the designers manages to deliver some gorgeous visuals, dynamic scenes and little moments of charm that sweeten the pill throughout. I was rather keen on some of the characters too, there is definitely a place for Tallulah, Frank and Lazlo in Doctor Who. I don’t want to be too hard because this has clearly been put together with a lot of care, the location is beautifully realised and the performances and direction are both top notch. It’s simply a case of too many ideas pulled randomly from the bag and not enough cohesion to bring them all together. A stylish mess, I am inclined to be more forgiving towards a story that is trying and doesn't make it to one that is coasting and this definitely a case of the former. Raynor hones her talent next time around: 6/10


Anonymous said...

Love your review! I was bothered too by Martha always wearing the same clothes in her season, I'm glad I'm not the only one! (I'm a bit of a fussy person over this kind of issues LOL)

I have always thought that if Martha's season wasn't so over dominated by her unrequited love on the Doctor and by him moaning over Rose all the time, she would have been a much more appreciated companion. MY fav is still Donna, but I think Martha would have been better than Rose

Off topic: I love ypur big finish reviews, are you planning to review the new Charley Pollard box sets?

Joe Ford said...

Many thanks for taking the time to comment. Looks like our opinions of the RTD companions matches.

Yes I will be getting around to the Charlotte Pollard series - I was mightily impressed with the quality overall (after going in with quite low expectations) and hope there is a second year. I think CP is the next BF range I will tackle :-)

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David Pirtle said...

I was dreading coming to this, but it is actually better than I remember. That's not to say I really liked it. I totally agree with you that there's too much going on, even for a two-parter, and some possibly great characters and ideas feel under-cooked.