“Asylum of the Daleks” Review

E892AC82-F107-44F7-86D0-9F8B2E5D5E48.JPGSo was the secret kept or did it leak out? Being slightly spoiler-phobic I naturally avoid all but the mainstream Doctor Who news sites, and so I was not only unaware of the big surprise, I wasn’t even aware that there would be a big surprise. But in an episode I feared would be mired in the petering-out Pond storyline and dubiously dalek continuity, the excitement came flooding back.

Even though it was an episode with an unusual number of apparent plot flaws – and a few dramatic choices that jarred with me – it was fast, mind-bending, thrilling and visually luscious and it’s become easy to forget how spoiled we are, the show’s potential realised in ways I’d scarcely have dared dream when I watched Rose seven years ago, or even Doctor Who back in 1996.

I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from this season of Doctor Who and, in particular, this mini-season of 5 episodes concluding the Pond-River arcs. After the massively interconnect Amy & Melody story of last year, five stand-alone stories just seemed to constitute a rump of loose ends and an over-abundance of valedictory adventures. I remain, however, a huge fan of Karen Gillan who has been amazing as Amy (not always easy to play such a prickly and occasionally unsympathetic character); with her performance in The Girl Who Waited absolutely blowing me away. I found it hard to see how anyone could fill her shoes, so knowing the Christmas special would herald her replacement I had little anticipation for that, either.

In one episode, Steven Moffatt has changed all that.

Soufflé Girl.

I’ve never seen Jenna-Louise Coleman in anything but Doctor Who publicity stills. I thought it was her, but I couldn’t quite believe it. I hoped it was her, because I loved her character even before I’d recognised who she was. I became more and more convinced until the shocking reveal ending when I had a few moments of doubt again between then and the credits rolling. Now I’m hugely exciting by the prospect of Oswin’s Christmas resurrection. Will it be an earlier Oswin? Is she really a dalek, and a dead dalek at that? Can she be rescued, or will she become the first ever Doomed Companion (is Moffatt capable of resisting the happy ending, and of matching his predecessor for darkness?) Time will tell, but the way this production broke the fourth wall with such swaggering confidence indicates that surely there can be no ganger/Teselector nonsense this time. Right?

The excitement is back!

What about the rest of the episode?

The Daleks

Most of the build up was, presumably as a diversion, focused on the daleks and the collective fan-gasm that resulted from every version in the show’s history showing up. In the event, the daleks were as ever a sideshow to the real story, and while the Asylum was a nice idea, this could have been a story with almost any other monster. That said, Moffatt’s first ever dalek story was above average, the best showing from the metal menace since 2005’s Dalek and The Parting of the Ways. And of course, Moffatt has thrown out great chunks of dalek backstory that would do little to serve this episode, which is quite sensible and will give the more hardcore fans an excuse to rant that it is disrespectful to their 49-year dedication to the show (something I would assume they must enjoy doing, so that’s win-win). No one has yet tried to write a dalek arc and although, for a while back there, I thought Russell T. Davies was going to with the Cult of Skaro, I don’t think anyone will. The daleks themselves simply cannot provide the dramatic sustenance.

But while I think it was wise to avoid too much baggage from previous dalek outings (including the awful Moffatt era Victory of the Daleks) I wasn’t convinced by the idea of the daleks having a Parliament and a Prime-Minister. There’s nothing human about the daleks, so while I understand the desire to draw easily understood parallels with our own system of government, any kind of democratic decision making runs against the ethos of the amoral survivalist monomaniacs, especially in an assembly with the size of membership that would have the Tories itching to redraw constituency boundaries to reduce the number of seats by 19,500. And can you imaging them making speeches and advancing causes? “Mist-ER speak-ER, the right honourable member for Skaro North should BE EXTERMINATED!” I’d admire any race, though, whose Parliament flies around in a space-ship.

Nor do I much care for robo-men, replicants and all the other humanising devices which have tried to both provide something that is easier to relate to the a talking trash can and the kind of dexterity that a travel capsule with a ray gun and a sink plunger lacks. So while I admire Moffatt’s ability to inspire a whole new generation to suffer nightmares about dalekified zombies, I can’t find much enthusiasm for them myself. And has the Doctor been affected by the nano-cloud?

While the dalek parliamentarians were a bit too cuddly, the daleks of the asylum were not only terrifying but spooky too.

I do like the idea of a dalek telepathic web-thingy, but why haven’t we had this before? One of the worst aspects of dalek stories has always been two or three of these metal antagonists monotonously intoning plot-points to each other. Since they’re machines, I always wondered why they weren’t at least fitted with short-range radios so they could avoid the need to vocalise all this data (not to mention bring the drama to a shuddering halt). Perhaps some of the ‘classic’ episodes could be re-edited to incorporate this ‘pathweb’?

Nice to see Skaro again, though.

The Divorce

Having watched the five part mini-prequel Pond Life I was expecting the Amy-Rory axis to be suffering some trouble. That series had set me thinking about their marriage, post-River. They have a child, but they’d never had a family. Would they give River any brothers or sisters? Or would adjustment to “normal” life prove too difficult, as suggested by Amy’s plea to her raggedy man in the fifth and final Pond Life.

In the event, while Gillan and Darvill sold the couple’s estrangement, the resolution to it was astonishingly glib. Amy can’t have children since Demon’s Run? It’s a retcon of convenience of a magnitude to rival their sudden recollection of childhood friend Mel in Let’s Kill Hitler. And all rescuing their marriage took was that quick conversation (without even mentioning adoption)? “It’s not one of those things that you can fix like you fix your bow tie.” Except apparently it is.

In fact I didn’t really understand why Amy and Rory were there. Why did the daleks “acquire” them? “It is known that the Doctor requires… companions…” doesn’t really cover it. And since they don’t travel with the Doctor anymore, getting popped home afterwards, does that mean we’re going to get another four excuses of a similar nature?

The Direction

It may have been a bit flashy (Rory’s slow-mo slide), but what what a visually stunning episode! The bright snow, Skaro orange, eye-stalk blue, Oswin red, the shadowy beiges and greys through which the silhouetted Doctor crept. Beautiful. Incredibly tightly paced, too, lots of jolly explosions whilst making sense of another convoluted script. And Amy’s asylum hallucination was a superb realisation of Mr Moffatt’s scarily weird conception of dalek insanity. Good job Nick Hurran.

One episode in, and the promise to provide feature-film style entertainment has certainly been made good. Can next week live up to it too? The guest cast is impressive (Mark Williams and Rupert Graves) though following the casting surprise this week, nothing short of a turn by Samuel L. Jackson “I have had it with these mother******’ dinosaurs on this mother******’ spaceship” will be enough to match it.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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