Doctor Who episode 742: Daleks in Manhattan (21/4/2007)
‘This action contradicts the Dalek Imperative.’ In some respects the most old-school episode since the series returned, with a plot that’s not a million miles from Davros’ 1980s’ experiments to build a better Dalek. It’s a decent enough idea pretty thoroughly undercut by the appearance of the human Dalek Sec, which pretty much looks exactly like what it is: a man in a Dalek mask. The stunted appendages are an additional laughing point. It’s not a good sign in 2007 when you suspect John Friedlander might have been able to come up with something better in 1975. Give the mask more human expression, like the Pig Slaves’, perhaps a single human eye staring out like Stengos in Revelation of the Daleks, and you might have had something more horrifying, or at least less jokeworthy.
It’s hard to get past that cliffhanger, ‘I… Am a… Humen… Dalek’, to focus on the rest of the episode. I like the parallels with the soaring spires of the Overcity and the destitute Undercity of New York’s futuristic in Gridlock, and the contrast between the decadence of the theatre with Hooverville is pretty striking. However, I’m not entirely sure what the point of this is: maybe there’s some link to be drawn between the desperation of the down-and-outs and the desperate measures the last four Daleks are willing to take, but I don’t really see it. Possibly there’s a Universal Horror (or at least an Island of Lost Souls) take hinted at as a Dalek shadow appears on a sewer wall, but if they’d wanted to push that idea they should have shifted it forward a couple of years and set it in pre-Code Hollywood. Unlike The Shakespeare Code, the historical setting doesn’t seem to shape the story (as Rise of the Cybermen showed, there are desperate and homeless people wherever and whenever you look).
So, as it stands, 1930 New York just becomes another exotic backdrop: not the end of the world, but inherently less satisfying than, say, a creature that travels through radio waves manifesting at the dawn of mass television broadcasts. Similarly, other than being desperate and poor, there’s nothing hugely notable about any of the characters. Which all sounds like I’m down on the story. I’m not really, I just find it hard to latch on to anything that particularly leverages the backdrop, or utilises the period flavour beyond Tallulah’s stage performance. Even a nice Art Deco Dalek casing (because Dalek Thay has had to give up his own for the experiment) might have done it. It seems much of this was imposed on Helen Raynor, who had notions of involving Laszlo with the mob, or set some of the story in a Prohibition speakeasy. The excision of these elements robs the episode of a lot of its flavour.
As a result, it starts to become almost generic, with the Doctor and companion wandering round sewers, the Doctor finding a Dalek blob, the hissable villain info-dumping to Dalek Sec, and a brave, ragtag bunch of locals uniting to fight the Dalek menace. Perhaps that’s its selling point: it’s the modern episode that feels most like it could have starred Colin Baker.
Next Time: Evolution of the Daleks