Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the DaleksBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 April 2007 - Reviewed by Robert F.W. Smith

A disappointment after the promise of the first three stories of the season, this two-parter nevertheless had a liberal sprinkling of the good qualities which characterise the 2007 run so far, enough to save it from sinking all the way back down to Series 1 and 2 levels.

The first 15 minutes are really excellent; Hooverville is a superb setting for a Doctor Who story, its pathos is well evoked despite the clich? of two men fighting over some bread, and the Doctor fits right in, of course. The loveable American characters are what really make the episodes, particularly as there are some fabulous accents on display, particularly Frank's Tennessee drawl: Helen Raynor deserves points for showing us more of a cross-section of US society than a story populated only by New Yorkers. Solomon is a commanding and sympathetic character, and Tallulah has some nice moments. The novelty of a traditionally Anglo-centric series venturing Stateside had me hooked from the word go.

More important by far is the treatment of the Daleks. Their role in the two previous two-parters has been to provide a 'shock' twist at the cliffhanger, meaning we only had one episode with them in. That trick got undeniably stale, and in an episode entitled 'Daleks In Manhattan' would certainly NOT have worked, so it was a relief to have two full episodes of Dalek action in this one, meaning I wasn't left with the sense of being short-changed that 'Bad Wolf' in particular gave me. Their reveal in the lift is excellent, as is the Dalek's ensuing dialogue with Diagoras, and our first sight of their operation recalls the spirit of countless Dalek stories which has them hidden away below stairs and working on mysterious things through human operatives: 'Day of the Daleks' especially, with Mr Diagoras standing for the Controller.

By the end of 'Evolution', however, the story much more readily recalls a mid-80s story than anything else; probably 'Resurrection'. The fragmented storytelling and multiplicity of loose ends give the whole thing an unsatisfying 'bitty' and episodic feel, as characters are killed off (though Solomon's death is quite a powerful moment) and we jump from setting to setting and threat to threat. The early promise deflates as plot lines fizzle out and everything starts to get repetitive; most annoyingly, the Doctor gets two scenes in which he offers himself up to the Daleks for extermination, and both times, in increasingly contrived ways, survives. That's just lazy. As is the confusion over whether the flashy special effect on top of the Empire State building is a simple "lightening strike" or a "gamma strike" from a solar flare (not to mention how the Doctor manages to alter a chemical process through standing in the way of the power source! What??).

Still worse is the cliffhanger. It's not even particularly exciting conceptually, as it is very hard to see just what Sec thinks he will get out of his 'evolution', but the lack of payoff, the way in which the Daleks (in evident agreement) just remove Sec from the plot fairly soon after he changes, with Raynor leaving him to be accidentally shot when the running time runs out, is practically unforgivable. I'm tempted to say, all told, that Helen Raynor's proper calling is script editor rather than writer. She shows clear and incisive understanding of the Doctor's character and obviously knows just what the programme SHOULD be like, better than almost every writer so far in fact, but the broad-brush characterisation and clumsy plotting negate the impact.

The Doctor still works though, thanks to a combination of a well-considered role in the story and David Tennant: the Doctor is at last beginning to consistently treat other people with a bit of respect, and his anguished scream when he believes Frank to be dead in part one is great. His willingness to help the Daleks is also surprising and shows a maturity which this incarnation is only infrequently capable of. He's still a bit omnipotent though, recovering from a very dramatically filmed zapping with disappointing ease.

Martha is, if not the strongest, then the most faultless element of these episodes, again. Freema Agyeman plays it with a healthy dose of fear that is absolutely necessary with such an all-knowing and invulnerable Doctor, and is gifted with a supremely traditional companion's role. She makes friends with the secondary characters, uses her wits and individual skills together with what the Doctor has taught her to defeat the minor villains and assist the Doc to wrap up the story; it doesn't get more classical than that! Although the two leads have a rather pointless spat about orders in the theatre, apropos of nothing, by and large Martha's chemistry with our hero is excellent, and her regret at killing the hybrids, when as a trainee doctor she is supposed to be dedicated to preserving life, is nicely handled.

James Hawes directs the Daleks nicely, but I've gone off him rather. And, despite the classical music echoes which keep appearing, of Gershwin especially, Murray Gold's music is even more ghastly than usual in this one, the execrable techno-choral chanting which follows that Daleks around doing nothing for them and nothing for the story.

The first misstep of Series 3, but with enough residual quality to keep me entertained.