Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the DaleksBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 April 2007 - Reviewed by Amanda Snyder

There seems to be a theme of moral ambivalence running through the episodes this series, and it's refreshing to find that theme continued so strongly in a Dalek adventure. On the surface, DiM/EotD is a pretty straightforward "Daleks want to rule the world, Doctor has to stop them" kind of story. In fact, as far as Dalek plots go, this one seems downright simplistic. Compare the Dalek plot here with the one in Resurrection of the Daleks, Renaissance of the Daleks or McGann's Time of the Daleks and you'll see what I mean. I thought it was interesting that the Daleks felt they needed a group like the Cult of Skaro for "imagination" when most of their plans were already needlessly overcomplicated. If anything, they needed a group to work on practicality, and in this story, that's exactly what Dalek Sec tries to do.

For a species as dependent on command structure as the Daleks, they have a surprising tendency to rebel against their leaders. They did it to Davros on several occasions, and here the same happens to poor Sec. If anything, the Cult of Skaro demonstrates that Daleks really are incapable of thinking outside the box. To do so is to become something other than a Dalek, and thus to be unworthy of existence. The Cult is, in essence, a contradiction, and was destined to be destroyed from within. The Doctor's involvement in all this is almost superfluous. For once in the new series, instead of the Doctor rushing in, turning everything upsidedown and leaving, he is merely a catalyst, accelerating a process that has already been set in motion. This is how the character of the Doctor works best, in my opinion, and surprisingly, some of the best scenes in this two-parter are those between the Doctor and the Daleks.

Sadly, the human characters are not treated with the same depth, and despite generally strong performances, the humans are largely forgettable. The Daleks and the Doctor are center stage throughout, and we don't forget it. The same goes for Martha, who is saddled with plot-necessary flashes of brilliance and yet more Doctor-pining and Rose-lamenting. Talullah and Lazlo, though potentially interesting characters, seem to have been contrived only to force a happy note onto this otherwise very open-ended story (as well as to give the Doctor his amusing "...and maybe the odd pig-slave Dalek mutant hybrid, too" line).

After 40 years of trundling around, shouting EXTERMINATE! and not killing the Doctor, I've learnt not to expect much else from the pepperpots, which is probably why RTD chose to (if you'll excuse the pun) exterminate most of them. Desperate Daleks are interesting Daleks, and they don't get much more interesting than dear old Dalek Sec. While he very easily could have swayed cliche, Sec didn't. He stayed on-message throughout, a true human-Dalek hybrid in form and personality, neither overwhelmed by the emotionalism of humanity, nor completely insanely power-mad like a Dalek. I'm tempted to go as far as calling him one of the most sensible and relatable villains Doctor Who has ever produced.

But still, one has to wonder what was going on in the Doctor's head when he agreed to help Sec finish his final experiment. However rational Sec's plan, the fact remained that he'd killed at least a thousand humans to do it, which would generally throw up a big red flag for the Doctor. But if their sacrifice would mean the birth of a new race of Daleks not hell-bent on conquering all of time and space, was that adequate justification? The humans in question were already more or less dead. Was the Doctor using the same sort of reasoning that led him to grant the Gelth passage in The Unquiet Dead? He couldn't undo the damage the Daleks had done already, but if he helped Sec, perhaps he could turn lemons in lemonade. Or, was the Doctor merely stalling for time, trusting that Martha would have figured out his incredibly cryptic message and disabled the Dalek antennae (which, unless I've misunderstood, he didn't even know about until after the Daleks captured him)? Considering his final solution, it's also possible that the Doctor used the opportunity to spike the Dalek DNA juice in the lab, and his stunt on the mast was merely insurance, or compensating for the missing piece of Dalekanium (Which begs the question that if the mast did its job with just the two plates, then why did the Daleks bother putting three on in the first place? It's not like they had extras to spare).

Speaking of themes, another one in this series seems to be the Doctor really pushing the limits of his body. He mentions being electrocuted in Smith and Jones and then gets irradiated ("Itches, itches, itches!") and sucked nearly dry by a plasmavore. In his next outing, he suffers partial cardiac arrest at the hands of the Carrionites, then spends a day in New New York sucking lethal levels of exhaust fumes. And now he's been electrocuted (again). Maybe having a medically trained companion has inspired him to take more risks? I'll say this for the Tenth Doctor, next to Peter Davison's fainty Five, he's every pain fetishist Who fan's dream come true. At the very least, it's good to finally see the Doctor showing a more vulnerable side after two series' of having him built up as this unstoppable, angsty superman.

As much as this two-parter successfully rose above the usual Doctor Who formula, the presence of Daleks does dictate certain necesities, one of which being their inevitable escape at the end. The final confrontation between the Doctor and Dalek Khan is a moment that deserves to become a Doctor Who classic. In a situation eerily reminiscent of Rob Shearman's Dalek, we see the last of the Time Lords once more facing off against the last of the Daleks. But this time it's different. In a powerful role reversal from two years ago, it is the Dalek that panics and flees whilst the Doctor calmly, sincerely offers an olive branch. It's a very simple scene, with an ending spotted miles off, but as Khan vanishes in a temporal shift, the viewer is left feeling just as sad and frustrated as the Doctor. Admittedly, though, how else could it end? "Daleks always come back," the Doctor said. And as long as the BBC can fork up the dough to the Terry Nation estate, they will continue to do so. Kudos to writer Helen Raynor for taking a predictable end and making it work quite well.

There are other aspects to the story that are dismissable as too convenient and cliched to make Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks stand out as a truly great piece of Doctor Who, but it's a character-driven tour-de-force for the Doctor and his greatest enemies. Raynor's empathic touch bring a complexity and depth to the main characters that is too often either overlooked or beaten to death in new Who. In this fight, neither side is completely right, nor completely wrong. Moral lines blur in the game of survival, and that is the key ingredient that turns this otherwise overlong, pedestrian Dalek runaround into an intriguing thought piece. "Daleks always come back," the Doctor lamented, and in this story, the Daleks finally have a comeback worthy of their reputation.