Episode 4: Daleks in Manhattan

“We must evolve!”

And from that simple idea sprung the seeds for the most imaginative Dalek story in years. Indeed, you could say the Daleks have actually devolved from their initial appearance in 1964, when they were portrayed as individuals with distinct personalities who had conversations with each other. Succeeding stories have increasingly portrayed them as regimented automatons without a trace of individuality, hence the need to invent figureheads like Davros and the Emperor. Russell’s idea of the Cult of Skaro from last year’s Doomsday was a similar idea, but it gave personalities and imagination to the Daleks themselves. So it was with some delight that I welcomed back the wily Dalek Sec, with his guile and cunning schemes.

And what a setting for them. The Daleks have traditionally been portrayed, as is the tendency for sci-fi icons, in a future setting, or at best loitering around on contemporary Earth. Their occasional forays into Earth’s past have had… mixed results, from the dire The Chase to the rather better but still somewhat disjointed Evil of the Daleks. New York in 1930 is an oddly appropriate choice, mixing the Daleks’ struggle for survival in with that of the humans caught up in the Great Depression. Thematically, the story is about adapting to survive, with the Daleks recognising that “there are only four Daleks, but millions of humans”, and setting out to redress that balance. The comparison is further strengthened by the shadow of the Great War that hangs over the characters, echoing the war which led to the creation of the Daleks themselves.

Perhaps taking a cue from the excellent 1930s New York of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the production team have gone all out to make this one look visually sumptuous, albeit with almost no filming in the Big Apple itself. Yet again, this ambitious approach has had somewhat mixed results. A beautiful shot of workmen at the top of the Empire State with the sun setting behind them was rather spoiled by the curiously immobile waves on the river behind them, for example, and some of the compositing that placed tall buildings above the treeline in Central Park seemed a little unconvincingly matched. For the most part though, the CG was rather good, doing an artistic depiction of a city whose skyline has changed immeasurably since 1930.

Inhabiting this recreated metropolis was a well-rounded, if rather small cast of main characters. Eric Loren was superb as Diagoras, the epitome of the Depression era ruthless capitalist determined to prosper by exploiting the desperate unemployed, while Hugh Quarshie’s Solomon provided a more humanistic counterpoint. A nice touch was having his character live up to his name in his first scene by tearing in half a contested loaf of bread! Quarshie does “imposing” terribly well, and is looking more and more distinguished with age. Also in Hooverville, Andrew Garfield was believably waiflike as teenage runaway Frank, a character who seemed to have strayed in from a John Steinbeck novel.

Perhaps more contentiously, Miranda Raison’s Tallulah was something of a love-her-or-hate-her character, a cliche from all those nostalgic showgirls pictures of the 30s. Obviously this was the point, but her perilously close to parody version of a Brooklyn accent was occasionally rather grating. Desperate Housewives hunk Ryan Carnes was rather better as Laszlo, giving a surprisingly earnest performance from under a mountain of prosthetics. It’s a lovely idea to cast an actor who’s usually judged on his looks and then cover up most of his face! Still, it’s telling that he was nonetheless quite an attractive pig-man…

The best characters though had to be the Daleks themselves. It’s hard to imagine the Daleks we saw return in 2005 having a reflective chat with their human lackey while gazing almost wistfully at the skyline of Manhattan, but here we get that and more. Not to mention them arguing among themselves as Sec initiates the hybridisation procedure. Nick Briggs has done some sterling voice work giving them distinct characters, as well as conveying Sec’s pain as he undergoes the process. Presumably the Sec/Diagoras hybrid that emerged at the end is now voiced by Eric Loren, but I still sense Nick’s larynx under that too.

With all this local colour, the Doctor and Martha actually didn’t make much of an impact this week. I did groan at one point as David Tennant fell back on his irritating and trite “I’m sorry” catchphrase, but by and large he was rather subdued. Not even his usual manic outbursts of comedy were in evidence, though it has to be said that the story’s tone was more serious than any yet this year. Martha too got little to do; there was a nice character moment with Tallulah as she discussed her unrequited feelings for the Doctor, but generally she seemed to be there to scream, run away and get captured in an unusually retrograde style.

I don’t usually comment on the scoring of the show, but I was mightily impressed with Murray Gold this week. As a composer he seems to have matured no end since the awful Queer as Folk-like music for Rose, and this episode he produced a score eerily reminiscent of the 1930s Universal horror classics that superbly fitted in with the story’s setting. Fitting, as the Cult of Skaro’s laboratory seemed to have been deliberately designed to resemble Frankenstein’s workshop! There was also a new choral theme for the emergence of the Sec/Diagoras hybrid, in which I’m pretty sure the chorus were just repeating “Dalek Sec, Dalek Sec…” Sounded pretty good though.

Scoring aside, this is, I think, the first Who story since Talons of Weng-Chiang to feature a musical number! Kudos to the guys for not using an overly familiar song. The Busby Berkeley style choreography (which actually only works if viewed from above!) and the red feathered chorus girls were as reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as any 30s era musical, but in my view that’s no bad thing. It was almost a shame Martha had to interrupt it!

So, Helen Raynor’s first script for the series proper is as good as I would have expected from her standout Torchwood episode. There’s a fine grasp of history with its depiction of the Depression and its repercussions, and the whole thing has the feel of a more polished take on the (in my view) rather disjointed Evil of the Daleks. Of course, this being the first of a two-parter, the plot doesn’t move much; it’s all about getting the elements in place. The Daleks want to evolve, they’re building the Empire State building and grafting bits of themselves to the radio mast. Why? Hopefully next week’s episode will live up to the promise of this one and conclude this imaginative story in some style…