Doctor Who complete reviews: Asylum of the Daleks
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
John Bensalhia's Complete Doctor Who reviews are back, with all-new episodes...
Contained within are spoilers – if you don't want to know what happens, have a look at the episode first.
Can't stand them, personally. Fried, boiled, scrambled, poached, flanned, put an egg in front of me, and I'll go a nasty shade of green. However, despite my anti-egg stance, this humble bit of food has proved to be an invaluable part of Doctor Who over the years. It's been used by a paradoxically dimwit genius as an experiment in cellular acceleration. They're oval houses for nasties such as giant maggots and gastropods. And as the brand, new spanking adventure Asylum Of The Daleks proved the other day, Doctor Who ain't Doctor Who without an eggy twist in the shell.
Cracking on then, Moffat's all-new season opener has a lot to prove. For one thing, it brings back not just one, not just a small group, but a huge menagerie of Daleks. For another, it brings a new twist in the ongoing Amy and Rory love ballad. And for another, it promises a spoiler so massive, so merciless, that it will live forever in history.
Well, for a few weeks at least.
With all that in mind, a lot is expected of Asylum, especially given that the advance screening gave way to masses of positive reviews that promised scary Daleks, heartbreak and ingenious plot twists. Not only that, but the title sequence has been slightly updated – the reworked theme is still intact (and curiously, it's starting to grow on me a little bit), but the big, bombastic cementy actor and episode names have been replaced by more standard typefacing which fades in and out in swirly fashion. They've also redressed the logo, which I suspect will look different each week, in keeping with the theme of the episode – so this week, the logo bore subtle Dalek patterns before the miniature TARDIS floated off into the flamey time vortex.
So, after viewing the episode twice, four main plot strands jostle for my attention: The Daleks and their freezing Asylum dumping-ground. Amy and Rory and a marriage in tatters. The redefinition of The Doctor as an enigmatic madman in a police telephone box. And the fact that Jenna-Louise Coleman turns up six episodes early. Wow, I've heard of eager newbies turning up early on their first day at work, but this is taking the notion to extremes.
That's a lot to pack in to 50 minutes of what the production team have touted as Mini Blockbuster Epics, and to be honest, the story needed a bit more room to breathe. Maybe the BBC could have fanfared the new season with a special one-hour episode, which surely wouldn't have impacted on later programmes such as Casualty – pompous angry man Dylan's perpetually scowly face may have seen a few more frown lines, but what the heck. As it is, at times, it feels like that there's so much going on in Asylum that it's impossible to keep up (especially given the shock revelation of Coleman appearing straight after the titles). The other problem with the 50-minute format is that inevitably, there's less room for the incidental characters, who instead just feel like background furniture.
"However, after this, she's largely standing around doing nothing, apart from contributing the odd snippet of plot exposition while flanked by two baldy Phil Collins lookalikes"
Take Darla, a potentially interesting character: a humanoid Dalek and a walking trap – in the first few minutes, we learn some interesting snippets about Darla: She had a daughter, but because her personality and humanity have been scooped out by the Daleks, she can only remember who she is in the moments when she's “required to facilitate deep cover or disguise”. However, after this, she's largely standing around doing nothing, apart from contributing the odd snippet of plot exposition while flanked by two baldy Phil Collins lookalikes. Shame, especially given that award-winning Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca (one of those actresses who seems to be on every TV programme for miles around these days) plays her superbly, with just the right amount of eerie detachment. Same goes for David Gyasi, as Harvey, the walking dead Alaska crewmember, whose function is over after acting as a temporary tour guide for The Doctor and Amy. I always used to like the incidental characters of stories, since they add a bit more depth – regrettably, 50 minutes doesn't give ample time for such trivialities, so something's got to give, I guess.
Just like the ground beneath the feet of The Doctor, Rory and Amy, after they are “acquired” in a flash with the help of various Dalek converts, including Darla, Amy's stylist, and a surly bus driver – further proof that bus drivers are shifty so-and-so's. They are brought before what's known as the Parliament of the Daleks – ironically, they contain more semblances of humanity than Cameron and his cronies, but in true parliamentary fashion, they're shifting responsibility onto someone else. The Doctor is tasked with beaming down to what's known as the Asylum Of The Daleks (or the dumping ground for battle-scarred, insane, out-of-control Daleks) in order to switch off a force field that will allow the Parliament to nuke it into oblivion – a task made more urgent by a crashed spaceship which has made a rupture in the force field. Only the “Predator” of the Daleks will do for this handy bit of problem solving, proving that the Dalek Parliament members have been too a bit too busy watching 1980s action-horror flicks of late.
The concept of what was billed as practically every past Dalek under the sun is a bold one. Does it come off? Well, yes and no. It's a story that's challenging the most die-hard Who geek to try and spot each type of Dalek on display, both in the Parliament and on the Asylum planet. But the production team are not making this easy for the hardcore fans who are clutching their Dalek Bingo cards – given that a lot of the time, the Daleks are either shrouded in darkness or glimpsed in far-away crowd shots. And given that I recorded the story on video, a wobbly VCR pause button just isn't the same as a crisp DVD one. It's an ambitious concept, and generally, the notion of a huge gaggle of Daleks works very well, thanks to advancements in technology and camera trickery – not to mention the sterling voiceover work of Nicholas Briggs. And for those dedicated Who fans, there's kisses to the past with mentions of Spiridon, Exxilon, Kembel, Aridius and Vulcan.
The issue that I have with the Daleks though is: Are they scary again? Some of the reviewers seemed to think so, but in all honesty, I'm not exactly quaking in my boots here. The most notable innovation is that of the Dalek nanocloud – think of far less benign nanogenes from The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – these babies have one aim in mind. To process any organic matter, living or dead, into a Dalek puppet. This is easily the most disquieting aspect of the story – particularly the lumbering skeletal corpses of the long-dead Alaska crew. That's a great bit of terror for the kids, and there's also a near score when The Doctor is in danger of being suckered to death by the surviving past-war Daleks (and that's thanks to Matt Smith's suitably tortured acting) – but apart from this, they're still a bit inept. The Asylum Daleks are lousy shots for one thing – Rory's like a couple of feet away from them, and they still can't hit their target (OK, dormant Daleks were never going to be great shots – try and function first thing after a long lie-in and it's impossible, so fair do's), but there's still the notion that the Daleks are great big cowards. On learning of his new task, The Doctor crows: “Oh, ah, that's good. That's brilliant. You're all too scared to go down there!” It's a fact that's further cemented by the disappointment that no-one is exterminated in this story. Even a couple of faceless army grunts got zapped in the lacklustre Victory Of The Daleks, but in this story, there's not one negative skeleton to be had.
Having said that, Moffat does understand their very raison d'etre in that inside each tin can is a living, bubbling lump of hate. This is best seen in an early exchange between The Doctor and the Dalek Prime Minister (you can call him Dave, if you're so inclined). When discussing why the Asylum Daleks have never been got rid of before, the PM crows: “It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred... Does it surprise you to know that Daleks have a concept of beauty?” As The Doctor himself replies, “I thought you'd run out of ways to make me sick. But hello again.” The concept of the Daleks' concept of hatred for all living beings runs throughout the story, and how the concept of humanity is such a monstrous one to them. “Do you know how to make someone into a Dalek?” ponders Oswin Oswald, soufflé maker supreme. “Subtract love. Add anger.”
"Even if the two are reconciled a bit too easily following this revelation, it's still a welcome sign of how Moffat has injected a bit more human emotion into his stories"
Which neatly dovetails with another key subplot of the story: Amy and Rory. We've seen the whole saga of Amy and Rory unfold before our eyes, from their awkward, fumbling beginnings, through to marriage, and now alas, the marriage is in tatters. On the surface, Rory's assertion that the cause is down to one key factor (he loves Amy more than Amy loves him) would seem to carry more weight. Let's face it, Rory's always been a bit of an underdog, a bit of a doormat – she's been sarky and rude to the whole scamp in past adventures (best epitomised in that scene in The Doctor's Wife when an aged Rory bellows with halitosis in Amy's fear-stricken face about how she left him). Subtract love. Add anger.
But in fact, in a notably moving scene, Amy reveals that the events of Demon's Run have left her unable to have children - “I didn't kick you out,” she explains to Rory. “I gave you up... So don't you dare talk to me about waiting outside a box because that is nothing, Rory, nothing, compared to giving you up.” Even if the two are reconciled a bit too easily following this revelation, it's still a welcome sign of how Moffat has injected a bit more human emotion into his stories. A sensitive issue handled with dignity and humanity, thanks to some superb scripting, and just as importantly, reliably strong performances from both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. Despite an initial shaky start, Amy and Rory have come on leaps and bounds as believable, fully-formed characters. Make the most of them in these last five episodes: you'll miss them when they've gone.
Hang on a minute though, isn't that the new companion waiting in the wings? Way back in the rainy mists of early 2012, Jenna-Louise Coleman was announced as the new companion, poised to make her début in the Christmas special. In true Moffat style though, Coleman's début is not all that it seems, and more to the point, it's shrouded in a whole mesh of unanswered questions. Evidently, Moffat's other monster hit Sherlock has sauntered into the realm of Doctor Who in terms of writing style – presumably, Who fans should watch their favourite programme while dressed in deerstalker hats and capes, while puffing on pipes.
"The surprise reveal of Jenna-Louise was the real masterstroke of Asylum Of The Daleks"
Not that there's anything wrong with posing challenges to the audience – in fact, the surprise reveal of Jenna-Louise was the real masterstroke of Asylum Of The Daleks. So in true, Hercule Poirot fashion, what are the mysteries and what scant clues have been thrown our way? Well, clue-wise, in this story, Jenna-Louise plays a girl called Oswin Oswald – the rumours were that the new companion would be called Clara, so who knows? What do we learn about Oswin? She's junior entertainment manager on board the Starship Alaska – whether this means that she's had to organise tacky fun 'n' games initiatives for a load of bawling brats is open to speculation (if so, presumably Harvey had to strut about in a giant cuddly toy mascot suit to keep the kids entertained). She likes soufflés, but can't bake 'em. She's flirty. She's good with a computer. And she also has lousy taste in music – really, someone of her age should be bopping along to far trendier music than lots of posh people yodelling in the key of whatever. Blimey, even a quick blast of Frampton Comes Alive would have made for a more preferable distraction.
But already the mysteries stack up more than a pile of unwanted soggy pancakes: The most obvious one is deduced by The Doctor, who wonders where Oswin gets her milk from to make her beloved soufflés. As ever, a bit of Moffat genius, in that an apparently throwaway line becomes a vital plot point. And just as clever is the big reveal that Oswin has been turned into a Dalek – the clues are there if you look for them: the Dalek eye-style scanner screen; her detailed knowledge of all things Dalek... It's a work of genius and one that's again, surprisingly moving – Oswin's reality is no more than a dream, because “the truth was too terrible”. Dalek conversion was the option for Oswin because of her genius, but it's Oswin's humanity that saves the day - “I fought the Daleks and I am human”. Where Oswin's story goes from here is anyone's guess. Does she escape the inferno? Does she go all Scaroth and splinter herself in time somehow? Can The Doctor de-Dalek her? Or is she a completely different character, as Adeola was to Martha (mind you, given that last direct speech to the camera in which she urges The Doctor to remember her, this last option's probably dead in the water).
However her return is handled, Jenna-Louise already proves her mettle with a scene-stealing performance that makes her an instant hit. She can handle Moffat's humour with aplomb (“Hello, The Chin!”), she can handle the emotional side of the drama and also proves to be a likeable, chirpy presence. Darn those unanswered questions, roll on Christmas already.
But now the Daleks have an unanswered question, in that by the end of the story, and thanks to a handy reboot, the pepperpots no longer recognise their mortal enemy. Had Moffat been watching some Season Nine choice cuts I wonder, given that some of the stories end with Amazonia or the Skybase Investigator muttering “Doctor... Who?” At least it ties in with the resolution of the last season in that The Doctor is now more of a mystery to his enemies – something that the main man's delighted with, given his non-stop whooping in the TARDIS at the end.
In theory, there should be some smarting criticisms here – there's many of the familiar riffs of recent times. We have a disembodied female in some weird virtual reality world (CAL from Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead); walking zombie skeletons (same story again), nanogenes (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), grotesque body morphing (ditto that story), an emphasis on remembering (The Big Bang) and of course, lurve is all that matters. Maybe the Daleks aren't as scary as I'd have liked. Nor were the incidental characters fleshed out enough. Come to that, where was Davros? But despite these pathetic little nitpicks, the triumphs of Asylum Of The Daleks reign supreme. Steven Moffat's script contains a plethora of witty lines, intrigue and emotion; the direction from Nick Hurran is superb, and boasts some fantastic snowy landscapes for the outside of the planet (recalling the planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back); the production values are magnificent, and the same goes for the acting, both from the guests and from the regulars – and yes, Matt Smith is still da man.
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