Season 29 Episode 4 – Daleks In Manhattan, by Helen Raynor

May 11, 2008

review by Martin Odoni.

It’s not got anything outstanding in it sadly, and you get the strong feeling that this story needs to be watched in full before you can get a clear idea of how good it is.

But even so, I found this episode most refreshing. Apart from Hugh Quarshie’s early speech about “we-all-stick-together”, it was mercifully devoid of sanctimonious preaching, there was very little of the tiresome, laid-on-with-a-trowel mushiness that New Who usually can’t get enough of, and best of all, the mindless whackiness that seems to pervade most episodes was toned down enormously. In fact, apart from the scene with Martha sneaking across the stage, there was hardly any of it for once – plenty of irony, but very little zaniness – and this gave the episode an atmosphere far more reminiscent of the classic series than most. For once it was a drama rather than a self-parody.

Some of the guest acting, especially from Quarshie, is excellent. One or two of the others less so, especially those actors struggling to hold down a US accent. I quite liked Talullah. I feared she’d be a rehash of Jodie Foster’s character in Bugsy Malone, but she proved a lot more likeable than I expected. Meanwhile, DT is back on form after a sloppy display last week as well, keeping the performance measured and tidy. On that note, it’d help if Murray Gold’s music was toned down too; with DT now realising he doesn’t need to bellow every single line, the overcooked incidental music is starting to drown him out! Meanwhile, Martha has another good, authoritative outing, once again proving that getting shot of Rose was exactly what the series needed.

There are problems. The most important one is that the tension of the episode doesn’t work properly. Partly it’s because it’s a bit slow, but mainly it’s because we see the Daleks straight away, and then have to spend the rest of the episode waiting for the Doctor to find out it’s them. It’s a bit like the Peter Davison story Earthshock, when we learn in the first episode that the villains of the piece are the Cybermen, but the Doctor doesn’t find out ’till midway through episode 3. (Whereupon he proclaims “Cybermen!” like it’s some massive revelation, when to the audience it’s last week’s news – or rather, two weeks ago’s news.)

You do have to wonder why the Daleks are bothering with this plan. Seeing a vast army of Cybermen was utterly helpless against just four of them, surely they’d make short work of the human race armed with 1930’s technology, so why not just head and out and conquer the planet?

One or two of the Dalek voices sound a bit ‘off’ here, especially Dalek Fey. Also, the Daleks don’t seem all that scary for some reason; somehow the pig-slaves seem more frightening because at least they can move fast.

The Human Dalek doesn’t exactly have me shaking in my boots either. Its voice is rubbish, and it looks, well, like a man wearing a silly mask and a pinstripe suit, reminiscent of the monster in City Of Death in some ways. At least back then they had the excuse that they were using 1970’s special effects budgets.

DT has a strange way of pronouncing ‘Dalek’ doesn’t he? Most people just say “DAH-LEK”, but when he says it, he puts enormous emphasis on each syllable, making them sound almost like separate words; “DA-ARRR-LEEHHK“. And what was with the Doc’s hair in this? Not for the first time he looks like he’s had an electric shock!

To the plot itself; it’s a neat expansion on two plot threads left untied from the previous couple of years. The first is the idea of Daleks ‘extrapolating’ human DNA, as when Rose touched the captive in the Eccleston episode Dalek. Actually merging with a human form is an enormous leap for a Dalek, and although, as I say, the monster that emerges doesn’t exactly have me rushing for the loo in terror, it was startling enough that Sek was prepared to attempt it in the first place (going some way beyond the experiment they attempted in The Evil Of The Daleks). That is the second plot thread that was given much-needed development, namely Dalek creativity. When the Cult Of Skaro were introduced in Doomsday, they were described as Daleks invented with the power of imagination… and then absolutely nothing came of it. It just seemed to be a label pasted to them for sounding grandiose and ‘kewl’. Here, the concept is made use of rather well, with Sek gambling away his own ‘purity’. For any Dalek even to consider the notion that the race it comes from might not be superior after all is most unusual, and for it to accept that evolution is a strength is extraordinary. (How refreshing it is that we hear a Dalek, of all things, speaking out against the absurdity of the Nazi theories of ‘pure racial stock’.) Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, a lazy, throwaway concept introduced by Russell T. Davies in a past episode for the sake of sounding cool is picked up by a guest writer and made far more thought-provoking.

Definitely waiting for this story to hit top gear, but it’s set up better than last year’s two-parter with the Cybermen. And I was tempted to give a bonus point for not being whacky. As it is, I give it a very healthy 8/10.

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