Sunday, 20 December 2015

Daleks in Manhattan

Following the bolder but otherwise safe format of Series 2, Doctor Who’s third series shows Russell T Davies near his peak in confidence as a showrunner: delivering a very experimental and genre-bending set of stories. We have the first and arguably only three-part finale, the real-time format of 42, the overtly thematic and plain weird story that is Gridlock, Blink, and the intentionally alienating Human Nature two-parter. Even the core relationship dynamic is unusual: throwing a companion and doctor so obviously ill-suited for each other, and the absence of Rose exposes how unpleasant and alien the main character is in a way which was present, but cheerfully ignored in Series 2. Martha can’t relate to him, for even up to the finale she still views him as a saviour, and that gives rise to the best parts of Series 3: beautiful, bleak, and messy examinations of what comes after the end of the halcyon days.

Daleks in Manhattan is no exception to any of this. Instead of invading a space station or present day Earth, the Daleks are skulking around sewers, seemingly co-operating with humans, and considering evolution and change. One thing the best Dalek stories do is explore the creatures from new angles; seeing the Daleks at the very end of their rope, and in the second part gossiping and launching mutinies against each other, is certainly novel and well-considered. With the pig slaves and the frankly rather hideous human hybrid prosthetics, the Daleks are ugly and pathetic in a way they never are anywhere else and the episode should be commended for that.

To fully appreciate this story, we have to place it into the context of Series 3. One aspect of the previous episode, Gridlock, shows Martha wanting The Doctor to “let her in”. When faced with his greatest enemy not only surviving but blurring lines between good and evil, human and Dalek, he goes off the deep end and this time he doesn’t have the support of a companion who gets him in the way that Rose did. We see The Doctor full of rage, disgust, and with a clear and disturbing death wish. We see his warped, twisted compassion and idealism manifest where he’s so enthusiastic to offer the Daleks a chance he’s helping them carry out horrific experiments on humans. Here, Ten is straight back to the war-torn minefield of early Nine’s character, and his lines between light and dark, and between selfless hero and unlikeable hypocrite, are blurred more openly than ever before. Tennant does very well of toeing this tortured line… Until the script orders him to do his shouty Doctor anyway, at which point he’s just shrill and annoying.

The script being super subtle about its themes here.

We couldn't have had this story without losing Rose, and Martha’s naivety and relative lack of empathy facilitate the story in a way she never could. Martha is utterly hopeless at grasping Tallulah’s powerless position amidst the depression, so what hope is she supposed to have at understanding The Doctor and where he’s at here? I think Martha is pretty rubbish at empathising with people outside of her experience, and I never really got the impression she was that interested in seeing all of time and space. Through her eyes, history is often a grim and dirty place filled with prejudice (though racial prejudice is curiously and disappointingly not seen in 1930s New York…), while her futures are gritty, functional, and only hopeful through an often false faith – in The Doctor, in Solomon and Hooverville, or literal Utopia. Her relationship with Ten is based on a shared respect and admiration, but that begins to fail when one of them begins to fall apart. It’s that relationship which uniquely allows for the exploration of The Doctor and of themes such as powerlessness, and the fragility and naivety of hope – in a brutal subversion of RTD’s previous optimism. Unfortunately this leaves Martha herself to do not a great deal more than standard “resourceful companion”, though her strategy in defeating the pig men is one of the more satisfying moments of the second episode.

The symbolism of The Doctor literally clinging on to a symbol of false hope - with the Empire State being a false utopia looming over Hooverville - is not lost on me.

The ideas and contexts presented by this story are interesting, it’s failures are mostly superficial. Pacing issues, uninteresting and undefined side characters (with dreadful accents to boot), some silly and ham-fisted dialogue choices, and a seriously shaky plan. However, they tug so badly at the experience they become a chore to see past – not only dragging certain aspects of the episodes down but clouding the parts which are done well.

There’s a lot of characters here who all serve some kind of purpose: as mentioned earlier, Tallulah illustrates the context of the depression and a sense of powerlessness; Diagoras shows someone abusing their power and a dark side of humanity needed to further blur the atmosphere of the tone; Solomon provides an antithesis to Diagoras as well as an ideal to compare The Doctor to.  However, in the first part of this story we’re introduced to them all in a very clunky and mechanical way. We flicker quickly between new settings and new characters, with not much happening, for a large part of Daleks in Manhattan with only a single pig chase through the sewers and the gruesome absorption of Diagoras to break up what is a fundamentally boring first half. 

This would be less of an issue, but we also have issues with some of the characters. Tallulah is very annoying and her dull-as-cardboard romance with Laszlo is one of the weakest and most predictable sub-plots in the episode. Frank, played by pre-fame Andrew Garfield, is lovely but pretty useless. Diagoras is disposed of before we can fully explore his character.  Solomon is the most obvious missed opportunity: it’s never quite clear what role he’s supposed to be playing, and after descending into a bizarre parody of Doctor Who’s optimism by trying an embarrassingly cheesy “Not so different” speech on the Daleks, is humorously and quickly exterminated and forgotten about.

At the very least, The Doctor's own exasperation with Tallulah offers some degree of catharsis.

In fact, the showdown in Hooverville feels like the traditional climax of a normal Doctor Who story. But this is series 3, and things are not as simple as that; we still have all the morally dubious experiments to go first. While I appreciate the complexity, the way in which the remainder of the story extends from the Hooverville set piece feels awkward. We continue cutting between action pieces and characters at various levels of the Empire State Building with no regard for a sense of time progression, or tonal consistency, and watching becomes surreal and disengaging. Which is a shame because this is where the most interesting parts of the episode all take place – The Doctor’s anger being diffused by Dalek Sec at every turn, the remaining Dalek’s mutiny, the fascinating prospect that Sec’s plan might actually work... sadly surrounded by dull sequences of Martha and Tallulah comparing building blueprints. By the time we reach the finale at the theatre, the story almost feels worn down and kind of exhausted. Which works with the shades of helplessness and fragility inherent in the story, but make the twists and shocks of the scenes anywhere between unsurprising and boring.

Overall the story is a mess, and that is both its greatest strength and its fatal flaw. Its messiness adds to the blurring of moral lines, and the brutal, very angry mood as the Daleks push The Doctor a breaking point not seen since Series 1. But as effective as a story at war with itself can be, it’s still ultimately a story at war with itself. On the one hand we have a story which embraces goofy sci-fi B-movies with ridiculous schemes involving tenuous grasps of genetics, mad scientists conspiring, and goofy pig men running about the sewers of New York. Which is fine, but on the other hand we’re expected to take the Daleks, including Sec and his phallic tentacles, totally seriously. We are to take The Doctor’s torment seriously when it’s contrasted with silly stereotypes like Solomon and Diagoras. It fails to cohere, and to some extent that doesn’t matter, but it is a shame to see a story with such obvious potential foiled, and it’s unfortunate that the line between kooky family sci-fi and dark, heavy drama is something that Doctor Who still to this day struggles to find.