Sunday, March 23, 2014

Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks - "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and maybe the odd pig slave Dalek mutant hybrid, too."

Daleks in Manhattan (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 3, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #186a)

via songfortenreprise
More a 'period piece' than a 'historical' this feels like it should be in the BBC's wheelhouse ... except it's set in Manhattan so we get the likes of Tallulah who, from the get-go, we suspect is a British actress playing the film and TV version of what we expect the early 1930s showgirl to look and sound like. There's some context in which that could work, but "Daleks in Manhattan" isn't it -- a Depression-era version of Muppets Take Manhattan might have been where that character works in the 2000s. Off on a tangent, thinking about Doctor Who doing a 1930s period comedy set in Manhattan, I can't help remember another of my favorite series that visited this milieu when Jeeves and Wooster and came to 1930s Manhattan in Fry and Laurie's adaptation of the classic Wodehouse stories. The crossover potential for Doctor Who / Jeeves and Wooster strikes me as a missed opportunity here.

As a progressive who thinks FDR, warts and all, is our greatest President since Lincoln, I find myself again in the position of wanting to like the message of the story more than I actually did. The Central Park Hooverville was a real place and the handling of themes of inequality is something I'm always going to be watching for in any TV show. (Yes, even in Jeeves and Wooster.) The Doctor is clearly on the side of the workers against the Diagorases of the world, yet inequality isn't the enemy here. The Daleks are and they're not stand-ins for capitalism. The Daleks are more about racial purity, xenophobia, and fascism, all things that a 1930s period piece could leverage thematically, but they aren't used in those contexts here, at least not in a dramatically satisfying way. Where the tone goes wrong for me is in the depiction of Hooverville as a rough-and-tumble community held together by the wisdom of Solomon ... in that the leader of the community is named Solomon and he splits a loaf of bread to settle a conflict between hungry residents. Race, one of our most crippling social constructs, is depicted as a non-factor in this story. Solomon is a black man who is loved and respected by the mixed ethnicity community he is leads which is great and a positive message about diversity and unity in the face of injustice but is also a glib dismissal of how successfully capital has used cultural fears and prejudice to divide labor -- and continues to do so to this day.

There's never only one way to tell a story, but the elements of this one look like a better foundation for a different kind of story than the one we got about the Cult of Skaro, divided against itself, trying to reconcile it's ideals of racial purity with the necessity of adapting to survive.

The location filming makes this one look pretty good although Manhattan feels a bit empty beyond the characters in this story. We never feel like we're part of a densely populated city. Part of that is Hooverville being in a park, so there's a distance around the encampment that prevents us seeing the city streets, and much of the action taking place in sewers, Diagoras's offices, the Daleks' lab, and backstage at the theater. We see the city from up high, but don't get much interaction with it at street level.

When Eleven comes back with Amy and Rory, we have some of the same disconnects, spending time in Central Park, in locations without crowds and in eerie locations like the Winter Quay hotel. One of the things about Manhattan when you visit is how you are almost always in a crowd, the feeling of being present in sea of humanity is so much a part of the city that these stories where the characters all pretty much deal only with each other feel surreal. At least in this one the Statue of Liberty stays still instead of lumbering about the city menacing rooftops.

Evolution of the Daleks (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 3, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #186b)

Dalek Sec brought low.
Via Doctor Who Gifs
I spent most of the first half of this post talking about how the tone and themes of the story weren't quite working for me, despite having some appeal to my personal politics and interest in both the location and historical period; so, we didn't talk about Pig Slaves, Dalek Sec's hybridization, the Cult of Skaro's plans for humanity, or how the Doctor and Martha interact with the other characters. Let's just talk about this one as a straight-up Doctor v. Daleks story for a bit and see how it works on that level.

The Cult of Skaro are intriguing and, if the series is going to personalize Daleks at all -- perhaps not a valid path for the Daleks as a species -- this was probably as good a way as any to do it. Caan and the others turning against Sec is about the only thing that works in this story. But, by the end, Sec is dead and Caan alone has escaped, so whatever this story accomplished on that front is disposed of and all we're left with pretty much what we started with: the Cult of Skaro on the loose and the door left open for more Dalekmania down the line.

The tiresome dynamic of Martha pining for the Doctor is trotted out again. I've complained about this before and will simply remark again that deliberately sabotaging the Martha character in this way never worked for me.

Once Hooverville is destroyed and Solomon and Sec exterminated, all that's left to do is thwart the Daleks' plans to use gamma radiation to fuse Dalek DNA into their B-movie plot that we know will fail and are just watching to see how the heroes save the day. As an example of Doctor Who crashes into the genre of its choice, the comic book inspired B-movie turns out to be one that just doesn't come together in a satisfying way. In that sort of mash-up, the Doctor's best fit is in the mad scientist role, where he can be brilliant and eccentric and dangerous, but invert the trope by being the hero. What this story does instead is put him in the spot normally occupied by the straightforward hero and twist that by showing he can have compassion for even the Daleks, by offering Dalek Caan an out, even after all that has happened, if only Caan would take him up on it instead of Emergency Temporal Shifting out.

I re-watched this story a couple weeks ago and have been dawdling about writing about it, but found that even though "The Space Museum," which I finished this morning, is less accomplished TV, it's uneven because it can't live up to its ideals, where this story is just muddled through and through with no "high concept" for it to shoot for. The dippy 60s one was far easier to write about and, while no means a classic and from an era when the Doctor is a very different sort of character than he is nowadays, felt more worth watching to understand the series as a whole than this two-part Dalek spectacle.

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