This article covers the episodes Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks, which together form a single Doctor Who story, and one that was not especially well-received at the time. Few David Tennant episodes were particularly slated, but this is one of the few stories that has been subject to what we might term ‘mild disapproval’. This can be put down to a couple of factors. Firstly, something that was no fault of the production itself, the cliffhanger was spoilt by the Radio Times, with the approval of Russell T. Davies, one of his rare bad decisions. So when that moment came on first broadcast it was a case of “so what?” for a lot of viewers. Then there are the pig slaves. The pig-in-a-spacesuit from Aliens of London was generally disliked, so I’m not sure about the thinking behind having another stab at the idea. They are mindless, grunting slaves of the Daleks, who live in terror of their masters: Ogrons by any other name. The problem is that Daleks are always less impressive when they have to resort to using slaves: at their most frightening they simply wipe out all other forms of life, rather than working with them.
I think this is at the heart of why this story doesn’t quite work, which is actually something that is quite hard to pin down as there are some good ideas here. But the Daleks are not at their best. On one level this is an attempt at doing a Dalek greatest hits. There is a strong focus on the Dalek/Nazi parallel: ‘but we must remain pure’; ‘this is the true extent of the Final Experiment.’ The Evil of the Daleks is mined for ideas once again: we had the Emperor in The Parting of the Ways, and now we have another go at the Daleks trying to capture the “Human Factor”, but seeing the Daleks trying to adapt in order to survive is always going to diminish them. They work better as an unstoppable force that never needs to change. So what happens here is we have Daleks in a Cybermen story, as the monsters who are on their last legs and constantly need to adapt to survive (even lurking around in sewers as per The Invasion).
As I type this I can hear the counter-argument forming: it worked for The Evil of the Daleks. But that was specifically designed to be the last ever Dalek story, and followed on from 38 Dalek episodes in four years. These are the 6th and 7th Dalek episodes of the new series. The last thing they needed at this stage was a radical restatement of the nature of a Dalek.
The Dalek Sec human hybrid is also far from being the best ever idea for a monster. The limitations of having an actor in the costume means that it looks rather comical, as if somebody has perched a Dalek mutant on the top of his head. The moving tentacles work well and the single eye is especially good, narrowing and widening to match the hybrid’s emotions, but despite that it is probably still a monster that viewers will look back on in the future and laugh: not quite a 21st Century Myrka, but not a million miles away from it. That might seem an exaggeration but look at the monster designs in the stories that surround these episodes and it is clear that there is a huge gulf between them in credibility and realism.
So the story cobbles together a bunch of ideas that were almost guaranteed to fail, but does pull a few irons out of the fire. The character of Laszlo could have been a cheesy disaster but instead he is sympathetically scripted and acted. His survival at the end of the story is a very clever piece of writing because it goes against the usual drama format, which would see all loose ends tied up. Instead a man with the face of a pig is allowed to live his life in New York. Then there is Hooverville, convincingly replicated in a Welsh park with a CGI skyline superimposed. Where the Daleks do work well within the story is as the power behind a horrible social injustice. They are obviously a good fit on a metaphorical level for this kind of thing, just as they always work well as Nazis. There are some truly thought-provoking and poignant moments, but best of all is Solomon’s speech to the flying Daleks. Solomon of course has to be deliberately named after the Biblical figure, a wise man who solved a dispute over who was the true parent of a baby by suggesting dividing it in half and giving the women claiming to be the mother half each(!) One mother agreed to the judgement while the other offered to give up the baby so it could survive, and Solomon therefore awarded the baby to her, as the only woman who cared for the life of the child. Here of course Solomon actually does the breaking in half thing (although with bread, not a baby!). So he is established as having a kind of biblical wisdom, and he is full of religious righteousness and the belief in the innate goodness of all things when he makes this appeal to the Daleks
Right. See, I’ve just discovered this past day, God’s universe is a thousand times the size I thought it was. And that scares me. Oh yeah, terrifies me right down to the bone. But surely it’s got to give me hope. Hope that maybe together we can make a better tomorrow. So, I beg you now, if you have any compassion in your hearts, then you’ll meet with us and stop this fight. Well? What do you say?
After those moving words of wisdom, appealing to their better natures, he is cruelly gunned down; at that moment the viewer is reminded that the Daleks have no better nature. The scene is swimming against the tide of a story that diminishes the Daleks, and it is entirely predictable, but it is still an amazing moment. And that’s Doctor Who. Even the weakest stories engage the brain, and exhibit flashes of brilliance. RP
The view from across the pond:
Daleks… why do fans love them? It’s actually senseless when we think about them logically. Let’s face it, they were designed in a way that made stairs a real challenge and it took until 1988 to finally address that. In other words, one year short of the end of the original run of the series, 25 years since their introduction. But when Dalek brought them back, they looked more like tanks, they could “elevate” so stairs were no longer an issue for them, and they actually seemed like the earned their place as Time Lord Enemy #1. They are even responsible for wiping out the Time Lords, so, yeah, scary! The Doctor informs us just how intelligent these creatures are, running through millions of computations per second. They are ruthless killers and expert marksmen. But they also have had some of the most outré plans of any race in Doctor Who history, including (but not limited to) de-coring the planet earth to fly it around as a spaceship and even hosting their own brand of TV game shows. Now, for this encounter with the Doctor and Martha in The Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, they have a new idea…
They are going to take low intelligence humans and make them pig people (in case they take a farm and have a particularly talkative spider named Charlotte that needs a friend). High intelligence humans will become part of an experiment to merge human and Dalek to create either a reject Ood or a member of one of Lovecraft’s Elder Races. Complete with a New Yawk accent, of cawse. Hey, Dalek Sec, pass me da friggen plungga, woodja? The whole plan centers on turning Earth into a new Skaro, which totally ignores the Dalek desire for genetic purity. Since the Cult of Skaro is behind it, they may not know of the events of Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Way where Daleks are actually disgusted by the idea, since that story takes place in the future but the Daleks are all over the time-map just like the Doctor, so that’s not a foregone conclusion. The Cult was introduced in the season 2 finale, Doomsday, having been left in a void for safe keeping, though, so chances are they truly did not know about the Dalek mandate of purity. (Unless, you know, it was built into their genetic programming from the outset…) And they were developed specifically to try new things like escargot, caviar and breeding pig people, so maybe we can give them a pass on this one.
The crazy thing is, episode one may be largely filler getting us to episode two of this story, where the action and dialogue actually amount to something. Oh, I like the song that we get from the first part, and it’s not to say the Doctor’s rage on the battlefield of episode 1 isn’t impressive, but it does strike me as odd that none of the Daleks actually shot at him. But the second half is where it’s at! In Evolution, the Daleks recognize humanity’s proclivity for war and genius at waging it, which seems a step in the right direction and actually gives a little credence to their acceptance of merging human and Dalek DNA. The Doctor has a chance to actually terrify a Dalek and he does it without being a bully; a marked difference from what we’ve seen before, and proof that Rose has helped the Doctor to heal and accept his loss without sacrificing who he is and what he represents. Dalek Sec becomes a deeply interesting creation that has to be destroyed but, oh, what potential there was if that character had been able to carry on for a while! Oh, and we get a pigman with a weak heart roaming the streets of Manhattan with his girlfriend Tallulah (three l’s and an h). All in all, a good second half.
The early years of rebooted Who really saw a flux in writing. Charting them will make for an interesting project one day in the Junkyard’s future. This story, coming off the much deeper story Gridlock, left something to be desired. If Sec had survived and gone with either the Doctor or the Daleks, I think he had so much potential that it could have added something to future tales. Then this story would have had more of an impact on the overall lore of the Doctor Who universe, instead of being a throwaway romp. One day, I hope the creators of Doctor Who will have the conviction that the creators of Babylon 5 had and actually have a regular alien on the TARDIS crew. If they were able to pull off the makeup job in the late 90’s, Doctor Who should have no problem doing that today, so that’s no longer a viable excuse. Then we could do some truly spectacular stories especially coming to Earth with something that looks like Sec as a companion. Take some time to think on the stories and the morality that could come from something like that!
For now, I’m planning on getting a t-shirt made that says: “It makes no sense..” and I’ll wear it with every episode that the villains come up with a scheme that one of my nephews could outwit. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Lazarus Experiment