|I am a human Dalek. I am your future. My head is covered|
It’s April 21st, 2007. David Tennant’s joy is over, and not just because of the story we’re talking about today. Timbaland have made it to number one with “Give It To Me.” There are no other significant changes to the charts, but a week later Beyonce and Shakira take number one with “Beautiful Liar,” and Arctic Monkeys, Enemy, Mark Ronson, and Natasha Bedingfield also chart, the latter with the rather impressively titled “I Wanna Have Your Babies.”
In news, the Virginia Tech massacre takes place, about which I find myself wanting to say little more. Boris Yeltsin dies. The first of the 2008 US Presidential debates takes place, which should provide lots of flavor and color in these sections in the days to come. And Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, calls a general election.
While on television it’s Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, a pair of beloved and well-regarded episodes that nobody has a bad word for. One of the things that starts to happen with Season Three, and continues throughout the new series, is that Doctor Who begins to attempt to update various past eras of the show. Having done most of its “the definitive X” ideas in the first two seasons, the series moved on to pilfering the past in a broader way. Gridlock was part and parcel of this – in many ways, it’s just Paradise Towers or The Happiness Patrol for the modern age. Which also clarifies the sorts of stories that this approach is meant to open the door to.
With Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, then, we get a combination of two old types of stories: the Hartnell-style historical, and the Hartnell-style periodic Dalek epic. It’s easy to forget that in Seasons Two through Four of the classic series, the Daleks were given twelve to thirteen episodes a year. Something between 20-30% of every season of Doctor Who in the first four years was consumed by Dalek stories. And so after two seasons in which the Daleks were mostly wheeled on as surprise villains, here we get Daleks treated as something ordinary – an obligatory, annual engagement. This is not bad so much as it’s different – certainly the Daleks have had that role before, and not just in the 1960s (there’s an annual Dalek story in all of Seasons Nine through Twelve).
This results in us having to re-evaluate the Daleks in terms of their basic function. They are no longer the apocalyptic “worst threat imaginable.” They’re a routine but perennial threat. The Doctor even acknowledges this, mocking the Daleks, saying, “time was, four Daleks could have conquered the world, but instead you’re skulking away, hidden in the dark, experimenting.” But this isn’t a devastating change as such. The Daleks become the occasions for celebration – excuses for a big popcorn-munching runaround. This also has to be taken in terms of the at times formulaic structure of the Davies era – the past/present/future trilogy of the first three stories, an action heavy two-parter with prominent monsters “for the kids,” a darker and more horror-focused two-parter, a cheap/Doctor light episode, and finally a big narrative collapse for the season finale. Among these ten of the thirteen episodes in a given season are already accounted for.
And so putting the Daleks in that opening two-parter slot cements their status, in this story at least, as monsters one is meant to say “oh boy!” about. This exists in sharp contrast to two seasons in which it was reiterated again and again that the Daleks were the single scariest thing in existence, but is also an essential part of what the Daleks were, and it’s gratifying to see them move into this classic structure instead of being held back for postmodernist epics in which they stand as the most terrifying concepts imaginable. If we cannot have fun with the Daleks occasionally then it is not entirely clear what they’re for.
On the other side, then, we have the Hartnell historical. It is a fact lost on devotees of the new series that history does not exist entirely so that the Doctor can meet famous character actors in heavy makeup. Celebrity historicals are a charming invention in their own right, but in their original conception history wasn’t just a place to romp through the fun bits of the textbook, it was a place of proper terror. On the one hand, it’s familiar, and on the other, the rules of it are tangibly and dangerously different from our world.
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks embraces this sort of treatment of history. There’s no famous personages here – a first for the new series. (The Idiot’s Lantern was ultimately a celebrity historical in which the celebrity only appears on telly.) Instead we get a slightly awkward infodump about Hoovervilles and some impressively bitter lines about economic injustice. Sure, we’re playing around in the Empire State Building, but it’s not just a New York City landmark, it’s a visceral collision of art-deco opulence with exploitative labor conditions in which the Daleks become the ultimate in capitalist pigs. Even the theater is not allowed to be a Moulin Rouge-style celebration of the jazz age, becoming just another workplace filled with desperate people.
There’s a jarringness to this, as the excited shots of the Statue of Liberty give way to a story that is aggressively uninterested in tarrying for too long in Heritage Theme Park New York. Like Raynor’s previous contribution to the world of Doctor Who, Ghost Machine, this is a story that treats the past as an unresolved anxiety, and is prepared to reflect our nostalgia for it back at an uncomfortable and unnerving angle. It’s not what viewers expect, and certainly not what they expect in what is otherwise set up to be a big Dalek spectacle.
The difficulty in doing these two categories of Hartnell story together, though, is that they’re very, very different stories. Just because they came from the same period of the show’s history does not mean they’re easy bedfellows at all – after all, the Hartnell era, more than any era other than the Davies era, reveled in its ability to say “and next week, a program with nothing whatsoever in common with the one you just watched!” The big Dalek spectaculars of The Chase or The Evil of the Daleks (the second to last Hartnell story) are meant to juxtapose sharply with things like The Crusade and The Highlanders. So attempting to do both at once is tricky.
Inasmuch as it’s possible, most of the progress comes from the progression of historicals from what we’ve described as the Lucarotti style – history as a dark and uncertain place to be gradually understood – and the Spooner style – essentially prototypic versions of the celebrity historical in which history is to be toured for the highlights. The Spooner style, bent as it is towards spectacle, is well-designed for dropping Daleks in – which actually explains bits of The Chase. But Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks is going for the Lucarotti style of history, which seems like it ought to resist Daleks.
But Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks ends up clawing out a space in which the two disparate styles can be made to play nicely. The Daleks fit all too well into a setting defined by the stark power imbalance between the people of Hooverville, who can’t meaningfully protest against appalling wages and unsafe working conditions, and people like Mr. Diagoras, who sit above the fray in seats of privileged power. Their status as the self-proclaimed supreme beings of the universe gives them a clear place in this world. So as the world’s uncertain and dangerous contours become clear, the fact that the Daleks are at the apex of it seems the most natural thing in the world. They are, in the end, the exact right metaphor for what this story is trying to do.
The result involves a unification between two moral visions from opposite ends of the classic series. On the one hand the story fits into the late-McCoy tradition of attacks on social Darwinism; things like Survival and Ghost Light that draw links between political power and an ideological view of evolution. On the other, however, its central conflict is clearly nicked from The Evil of the Daleks – good old Human Factors and Dalek Factors. So we have the Andrew Cartmel tradition of brash political statement and the David Whitaker tradition of alchemy and of history as a fundamental force in the universe.
The link to Cartmel is telling, especially after a story that draws from the same comic book roots that Cartmel based much of his era on, and that is also set in New York. This story trades openly on Gridlock, working in the dialogue that got lost for New Earth and having the Daleks talk about the indestructible nature of New York City. In many ways what’s being fought over is the idea of New York City, with the same issues of control, authority, and power that animated Gridlock. Just as that story ultimately suggested that we are saved by each other, Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks creates a mythic image of New York that all the characters are wrapped up in and in awe of.
This sense of New York, as the city in which a Broadway star and a pig man can fall in love, is ultimately what gets subbed in for the Human Factor, and is shown to be so powerful that it can overwhelm the Dalek factor. Human nature becomes a sense of some larger purpose or teleology – something that transcends the social order, although the social order seems to be its greatest expression. Its nature is perhaps a bit opaque, lurking underneath a variety of speeches about the glories of human nature, but the sense of it is clear.
And so the Daleks make a lone attempt at a different sort of survival, changing themselves from the unalterable mark that cannot be rewritten into something that will thrive and survive. They go from being absolute to being eternal, such that Whitakerian alchemy becomes the explicit alternative to the neoliberal ruthlessness that Cartmel decries.
But, of course, it can’t be. The Daleks are the one absolute and unalterable aspect of Doctor Who, the show that can change forever. Any effort to change them falters, even Dalek Sec’s well-intentioned plan. (Just like the last time someone tried to change the Daleks this way.) The glorious depravity of them making Dalek Sec crawl, in chains, jumps out here in highlighting just how nasty the Daleks are in practice – the sadistic brutality that they embody. Because the historical situation they find themselves at the apex of may be cruel, but it’s also temporary. History progresses. Things change. They also don’t, of course – this story is, if anything, more apropos in 2013’s austerity Britain than it was in 2007. But equally, all of the economic injustice and gross exploitations that we see in this story will pass.
The Daleks are so much worse than that. Truly undefeatable, guaranteed to survive while the Doctor, over and over again, has to change and reinvent. Unchanging terrors that the series shapes itself around. As ever, one survives, setting up a new adventure – some future configuration in which the world of Doctor Who will bend itself around their implacable singularity. They stand as the exceptions to history – the opposing force to change and to building things. They are undying, yes.
But not eternal. Eternity, in the end, is reserved for New York, and for Doctor Who. For things that can change, and reinvent themselves endlessly, embracing multitudes. Growing so large that plot beats from early 1960s television can be sewn back together and reassembled into something at once new and unmistakably of the past. Is this, perhaps, what material social progress is?