Doctor Who reviews: Asylum of the Daleks
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
An insanely good episode which redefines the relationship between The Doctor and his greatest foes...
There are some television shows so involving, so emotional, and so impactful, that it seems mere words can’t do them justice. Doctor Who is just such a show, and Steven Moffat’s ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ is an episode that exemplifies this.
Yet, when you think about it, the brilliance of such shows derives ultimately from the writing, which is, essentially, words on a page. Just really, really good words. That happen to fit together in really clever ways. It takes a genius such as Steven Moffat to translate words into emotion so fluently. But if words can form the basis of stories like these, then maybe they can also engage with those stories, however inadequately.
So, here is an attempted review of ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. Rather than recapping all the events of the episode, it’ll instead try to explore some of the themes that the episode plays out so beautifully.
Following on from the events of the online mini-series 'Pond Life', Amy and Rory are about to get divorced (Nooooo! Why?!)
The Doctor, Amy, and Rory all get captured by some kind of humanoid Daleks, which we later find out are Dalek puppets.
(Maybe when the Daleks are bored, they use the puppets to act out skits and see who gets the most hits on YouTube…
That was a reference to Dollhouse, by the way; a show that Steven Moffat is a fan of, and includes various thematic parallels to in this episode: to do with the nature of memory, identity, and perception, for instance.)
The three of them are brought to the Dalek Parliament, who, instead of exterminating them on the spot…ask for their help. Weirdly, Daleks’ voices are such that they even make phrases such as “Save us!” sound scary; but it’s as weird for the characters as it is for us.
The old enemity between The Doctor and the Daleks is still there, but Steven Moffat finds new things to say about it.
This episode redefines the relationship between The Doctor and the Daleks. For instance, The Doctor’s line “I am The Doctor! And you are the Daleks!” from ‘Victory of the Daleks’ is given new shades of meaning and nuance here.
The best villains mirror the hero, and make them confront and overcome their own flaws; and that’s what’s happening here. The following exchange is a good example of this:
The Doctor: “I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. You think hatred is beautiful…”
Dalek Supreme: “Perhaps that is why we could never kill you…”
This implies that The Doctor doesn’t just oppose what the Daleks stand for and do his best to stop them; he actually, at least in part, hates them. But he’s not the ultimate authority to judge them; he’s not God; at least not in the Steven Moffat paradigm (as opposed to the Russell T. Davies one).
The Doctor allows himself to hate, to seek vengeance against the Daleks, and thus becomes a little like them. This arguably compromises his very identity.
(Does this also mean that if The Doctor gets rid of all his latent hatred (as this episode implies he is at least in the process of doing), then one day the Daleks might be able to kill him? Is that how the current Doctor could die, and then regenerate as normal?)
Going into the heart of the Dalek asylum, The Doctor and his companions have to fight for their survival, but more than that, Amy and Rory have serious relationship issues they need to work out, and The Doctor needs to resolve his complicated attitude towards the Daleks.
There are parallels drawn between The Doctor and Oswin (played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, who's set to be the new companion after Amy and Rory leave). At first glance, the show's simply setting up a new companion who's smart, capable, and confident, but it's actually much more interesting than that, shedding unexpected light on The Doctor-Dalek relationship. The Doctor eventually works out that she's not who she thinks she is. She's not human; she's a Dalek; a fact which The Doctor works out in part due to the fact that she has no way to obtain milk for the souffles she makes. He's like Sherlock Holmes! No idea how that parallel could have popped into Steven Moffat's head...
At any rate, when he confronts her with this truth, she fights it. They're both right, in a sense. She's been turned into a Dalek, but by resisting it and hanging on to her humanity, Oswin effectively remains human. With the words, “I am not Dalek! I am human!”, Oswin fights for her very identity, and regains it a hold on it, ultimately helping The Doctor in spite of her Dalek-ness. It's not simply a matter of willpower, though; The Doctor had to open her eyes. (And it's not as though humans are all made of love, though; they're capable of their share of hate, too, even without Dalek interference. But shush, inspiring moment! Don't ruin it with nuance!)
Even though the character apparently dies in this episode, with Jenna-Louise Coleman slated to be the new companion, no doubt she'll be back, in some form or other. That's something to look forward to, since the relationship between Timelord and (sort of) Dalek working together is a potentially fascinating one, that's only briefly touched on in this episode. It's a concept so good, and so high-concept, that it should be a comic book. In fact, there's no reason they can't do a comic with this character dynamic, tying in with the show, though we'll probably have to wait until the show gets to this point, so as to avoid spoilers.
The episode's other main storyline is Amy and Rory's disintegrating marriage, set up at the end of 'Pond Life'. It's heart-breaking, but the resolution is wonderful. As Amy's beginning to turn into a Dalek (which starts with the process of losing all her love and leaving only hate), Rory tries to persuade her to take his protective bracelet, because he'll last longer. She challenges him on this, and he reluctantly says that, "In this relationship, I think it's clear that I love you more than you love me...I waited two thousand years for you!" Amy replies, "How can you say that?!" She explains that since Madame Kovarian et al. made her infertile, she was trying to act in his best interests by kicking him out. "I gave you up!", she says. "How is that easier?" Her actions, however misguided, were motivated by love. She made the wrong choice for the right reason; which still makes it the wrong choice.
And then Rory realises (or admits; it's not exactly clear) that Amy had The Doctor's bracelet (maybe Rory put it on her, or maybe The Doctor did?), because Timelord probably don't need them. And they reunite tearfully. It's a phenomenally powerful scene. Also, The Doctor is the most unconventional marriage counsellor ever. He even tries to get them to stop kissing so they can get out of there more quickly. Admittedly, the Daleks are just about to blow up the planet, and they get out just in the nick of time, with The Doctor teleporting directly into the TARDIS, congratulating himself on his aim.
This episode, and the show as a whole, is about the triumph of love over hate. That’s what makes it so resonant, and that’s why we love it so much.
Oswyn wipes the Daleks' memories of The Doctor (they have something that's a bit like a hive mind), and so effectively gives him a clean slate with the Daleks. He doesn't necessarily have to hate them and to be an object of fear for them anymore. Of course, presumably they'll still try to do evil things in future (they are driven by hate, after all), and he'll have to stop them somehow, so it'll be interesting to see how he goes about that differently.
There's a great moment towards the end, where The Doctor is just about to fly off in the TARDIS, and he says, "I'm The Doctor." And the response is markedly different from normal:
Daleks: “Doc-tor Who? Doc-tor Who? Doc-tor Who?”
The Doctor: “You’re never going to stop asking me that!”
It’s about the fluctuating nature of identity! Or something.
The Daleks referenced the name of the show! That means they’re breaking the fourth wall! Probably because they hate it, like they hate everything else.
Of course, Steven Moffat, being human, breaks the fourth wall because he loves doing so. And The Doctor’s line is probably a comment on the rabid nature of fandom, hanging on to a mystery and not letting go. Also, it implies that he’s never going to tell us the answer, which would be slightly annoying. After all, he asked the question in the first place…
Or perhaps it’s a comment on how Doctor Who, the show, constantly changes and regenerates; a fact which is part of its genius and keeps it alive. Central to this, The Doctor changes, in the very literal sense that the actor playing him changes, regularly bringing a new personality and a new take on the character. Though at the same time, The Doctor is still The Doctor.
Perhaps, in mathematical terms, the show’s portrayal of The Doctor is a curve asymptotic to The Doctor’s identity. That is to say, the more you watch the show, the more you’ll get to know the character, in all his nuances and complexity, but you’ll never get the full picture. But that’s okay, because from what we know of The Doctor, he’s a truly great character; and also, the nature of the show, arguably like The Doctor himself, is dynamic rather than static. Like The Doctor’s companions, maybe The Doctor will remain partly a mystery, but we can still go along for the ride. And what a ride.
‘Asylum of the Daleks’ is a stunning, inventive, textured, and emotional episode, which kicks off the new season in explosive style. And if you don’t cry, you're probably a Dalek.
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