BBC One HD
1st September 2012, 7.20pm
The review contains plot spoilers.
33 years to the day that Terry Nation's Destiny of the Daleks trundled its way onto our screens to open Season Seventeen and, taking a leaf out of the Barry Letts and John Nathan-Turner book of grabbing the audience from the off with 1972's Day of the Daleks and 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks, writer Steven Moffat decided to open Doctor Who's latest series with a Dalek story, Asylum of the Daleks. All three stories from the Classic series were something of a valedictory return for the tin pot pepper pots so inextricably connected to the success of Doctor Who. Letts dusted them down after nearly five years since their last screen appearance, Graham Williams dragged them back after four years in exile, and Nathan-Turner didn't strike a deal with their agent for three and a half years. Launching a series with the Daleks can add to your viewing figures, after all, and the marketing and PR buzz associated with them often pays dividends. It was no surprise that after Doctor Who's eight-month absence from BBC One, the hype was on overload for Asylum of the Daleks.
Apart from cameos in The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang and The Wedding of River Song, their last story proper was Victory of the Daleks. Its meshing of Dalek and World War 2 mythologising might have seemed thematically appropriate but I think it's fair to say that the mixed reception to the giddily coloured new paradigm of the Daleks it introduced hadn't been accounted for nor expected. To say their redesign was a divisive move is something of an understatement and their role in a less than satisfying story begged the question: where now for Skaro's mutated meanies and their 'nippy hatchback' make-overs? Especially true when Moffat himself declared in May 2011 that 'They aren't going to make an appearance for a while. We thought it was about time to give them a rest.' With that in mind, it must have seemed like a good idea to launch the series with a Dalek story as an attempt to redress the balance and prove that the cosmetic changes were just that and their latest convalescence was entirely justified.
... a little fillet of fan wank thrown to the fansOn the surface, this retrenchment works for Asylum of the Daleks. On the burning vistas of Skaro, the skyline is dominated not by the hunched over silhouette of the new paradigm but by the far subtler tweaking applied to 2005's model. Those brass necked, armoured tanks that originated in Dalek are the dominant representation here despite the publicity overdrive, complete with Matt and Karen posing with the silver and blue old school Dalek, breathlessly informing us that the new episode 'will feature every kind of Dalek ever faced by the Time Lord – including the legendary Special Weapons Dalek!' Fortunately, even the new paradigm take a back seat and only make brief appearances. The decision to hire Nick Hurran, who did an extraordinary job of directing The Girl Who Waited last season, definitely works in the story's favour when it comes to reestablishing the Daleks visually.
After a visit to Skaro, the existence of which many will say contradicts what the Classic series and Russell T Davies established about its demise, the Doctor and his friends, the Ponds, find themselves deposited within the parliament of the Daleks. However, you'll need to place Skaro's survival in the context of one of 2010's Adventure Games, considered 'canon' by ex-producer Piers Wenger, where Skaro is removed from the Time War and returned to its time line by the Daleks. The majority of viewers will not notice or care, naturally, and it remains a little fillet of fan wank thrown to the fans. And by pointing that out to you, then I too am guilty as charged m'lud, but I should clarify that the internet is a wonderful thing and I've never played City of the Daleks.
A parliament with the post of Prime Minister comes across as rather a democratic institution for a bunch of pathological totalitarian ideologues. How do they get elected? Did they form a coalition with the new paradigm? Is the Supreme representative of Nick Clegg and the mutant-in-a-jar PM a tongue-in-cheek dig at Cameron? Do they have back-bench committees where the finer points of dominating the universe, concepts of beauty, the pasty tax and rail fares are argued over? Whatever the reasons for adding to the already overflowing back catalogue of the Dalek mythos, the scenes in the parliament are visually impressive and underline the one line pitch of 'epic movie poster' that Moffat, no stranger to employing the epic judging by previous form, is applying to the episodes this year.
Whether that will work remains to be seen in a series where the ordinary and the extraordinary are a consistent trope, where human frailty has been a grounding for the more outré elements of storytelling such as monsters and digital visual effects. It is a delight to see the massed ranks of Daleks chanting in unison, their little headlights blinking on and off as they entreat both the Doctor and, with some irony, Moffat to save them. The parliament scenes are beautifully shot and Hurran is a bit like a kid in a sweetshop, his camera floating across and between the Daleks, with bits of them out of focus in the foreground adding to the overall feeling that the viewer is actually among them. There is also humour in the way he tracks them observing the Doctor, all turning their heads in unison, focusing their eye stalks on him as he paces back and forth. It's a lovely touch.
'you were just pouting at a camera'
The heartlessness between the two is also tied in with one of Moffat's major signatures, the idea that your humanity can be lost by forgetting who you truly are and then recovered or restored by the act of remembering, by delving back into your memories. Much of this familiar stock in trade is reworked throughout Asylum of the Daleks.
'Make them remember you,' suggests the Doctor to Amy as they come face to face with the Daleks; 'do you remember who you were before they emptied you out and turned you into their puppet' he asks Darla, the Dalek agent; the Doctor's encouragement to the insane Dalek of 'come on, who's your daddy?' more or less begs his arch enemy to consider the deep rooted father complex that exists between them; and the meta-textual coda of Oswin's knowing aside to camera that asks both the Doctor and the audience to 'remember' her. Forgive the pun, but the latter is a tad over-egged in the way it underlines that she'll be back in the series, suggesting the Doctor will somehow encounter her again. Whether that's a case of the Doctor rewriting time again or his engagement with Clara is on a similar basis to the time-out-of joint one he has with River is still moot.
The destruction of the Pond's relationship, culminating here in the signing of divorce papers, was foreshadowed in the Pond Life webisodes promoted in the week leading up to the episode. For me, they had the unfortunate twofold side-effect of turning the Doctor, the last of the Time Lords, into the unloved, name-dropping relative you can't stand and who insists on turning up on your doorstep, and revealing the Ponds were as cold and as empty as the flat they live in. Much of this and the later scenes in the Dalek asylum between Rory and Amy unpack the debates about the love, or lack of it, in their marriage and the perceptions, derived from much of the fifth series, that Amy manipulates Rory and subtracts and adds him to her emotional life when it best pleases her.
Since Series 5, she's never really completely thrown that image off and Moffat attempts to counter it by revisiting the consequences of Melanie's birth at Demon's Run and the final cruelty that Madame Kovarian was indeed as good as her gynaecological inspired name. Hurran uses Darvill and Gillan's body language, their positions within the space of the settings of the story and a riot of focus pulling to underline all of this distancing until the key moment in the asylum where Amy provides us with the devastating reason for the breakup and attempts to regain her validity within the marriage.
'who's your daddy?
As a theme it's handled with little subtlety or complexity in the midst of epic spectacle, a brief emotional compress about their failing marriage as a subtraction of love, melodramatically trowelled onto Moffat's discussion about love and hate in the wider context of the story where Daleks discuss hatred as something beautiful and necessary to their function.
Moffat defines the Daleks' fear of the Doctor as the addition to hate, giving their existence a meaning beyond the rabid nature of their purist ethics, but by the episode's conclusion has that beautiful hatred subtracted from their raison d'etre by companion-to-be Oswin, the mad old Dalek who thinks she's human. The Dalek concept of divine hatred, the asylum containing Skaro's mentally scarred and the Doctor's discussion with the Dalek Prime Minister are some of the strongest elements of the script, particularly when the Prime Minister admits to the Doctor about their fear of him: 'Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.'
With no concept of who the Doctor is, are the memory-wiped Daleks left behind at the end of Asylum of the Daleks, their playground chants of 'Doc-tor Whooo?' a reflection of Moffat's The Wedding of River Song meme of 'the question that must not be answered', hurtling us towards a Year Zero where all of the Doctor's enemies forget who the hell he is? Tinkering with the Doctor's relationship with the Daleks, how they define their own nature, is a risk, just as risky as dolling them up in a colourful wardrobe and calling them the new paradigm. The pertinent question here is one the Doctor asks of one of the inmates of the Asylum - 'who's your daddy?'- and by the conclusion of Asylum of the Daleks the usual answer no longer seems to apply. Removing the one fear that makes them stronger either renders them completely fearless, and therefore even more threatening, or reduces them to monsters with no points of reference, a lumbering, generic threat.
None of the Daleks even succeed in exterminating anyone throughout the entire episode. Given that Asylum of the Daleks' closest parallels are with Dalek, where the death count could be the basis for a drinking game, their effectiveness seems curiously neutered. They truly have become 'tricycles with a roof', that equally knowing reference to the way Dalek operators moved the props around locations for The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964.
If we're talking about Moffat's signature, then several other well used tropes pop up again. We get the nano-cloud of nano-genes that convert you into a human Dalek agent, where the Dalek eye piece popping out of the forehead of anyone living or dead not only reflects the transformation of humans into gas-masked zombies in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and the various other human/machine conversions and hybrids that litter Moffat's work, but also gives nostalgic credence to that familiar children's activity of wearing a saucepan on your head, grabbing an egg-whisk and running round the house screeching 'Exterminate' at the cat. I know a few adults who've tried it too. And who hasn't used or heard the old 'eggs-terminate' gag?
The fact that some of these transformations take place in ordinary surroundings for Amy and Rory (getting on the bus will never feel quite the same again) also taps into Moffat's reworking of the uncanny and making the familiar unfamiliar. Also note that director Hurran uses a lot of reflections in mirrors to symbolically indicate what is happening, suggesting that Amy and Rory are in a hall of mirrors and facing a reflection of what they may become, the unconscious evil, hating self that the nano-genes will foster once they arrive in the Dalek asylum and are whisked away from their domestic sphere.
... never quite fulfills the trade description of showing every Dalek that ever featured in the show
Add to this the sequences in the asylum, suitably atmospheric and packed with handheld and overhead shots, full of demented Daleks and crowned with the superb scene where Amy hallucinates and sees Daleks as people. Hurran uses a camera mount to shoot Gillan using suitably warped, surreal imagery and intercuts overhead shots of the ballet dancer with the red hair (suggesting an analogue to Amy herself) that fans out around her as she whirls round in a Dalek manner. The snowy vistas of the Sierra Nevada also provide epic value for money, boosting the show's 'quality television' status and offer an admirable scale to the production as well as a passing nod to The Empire Strikes Back and the R2D2 gag using the Dalek periscope.
The asylum sequences are by turns both impressive and disappointing. Crammed with Daleks, lit in dark browns and sepias and matched by their appropriately tense and explosive encounters with Rory and the Doctor, these scenes never quite fulfill the trade description of showing every Dalek that ever featured in the show. If you don't pay attention you'll miss what few shots there are of the 1963-89 era Daleks, including the Special Weapons Dalek, still down there recovering from its encounter with Sylvester McCoy.
Understandably, it would have been hard to give each one a passing acknowledgement but where Hurran missed a trick was in the scene where Oswin lists the Doctor's previous encounters with the Daleks now abandoned in intensive care. The images feature the bronze versions from 2005 and it would have been so much better if the list matched the Daleks in the scene, with a number of variants reflecting encounters on Exxilon, Spiridon, Vulcan and Kembel. Finally, a few words for Nicholas Briggs, whose vocal performances as the various Daleks were exceptional, and designer Michael Pickwoad whose fantastic production design, together with Hurran's visuals, made these scenes so powerful.
And so to Jenna-Louise Coleman who was the biggest surprise of the episode. It's a miracle her appearance was kept quiet by those members of press and public who saw the advance screenings in London and New York. However, I do hope she's not going to be lumbered with the moniker 'Soufflé Girl' for the rest of her incumbency in the series because that's as trite as all the other Moffat idioms and catchphrases. Can we not move on from reducing characters to 'the Legs, the Nose and Mrs Robinson' or 'the Chin' or 'chin boy' or whatever?
It's all getting as repetitive as the nano-genes, the oft-used altering of perception and the human/Dalek hybrids presented as living-dead zombies. I have no bone to pick with Coleman, who was actually very good, but when, and if, Oswin actually returns as the Clara Oswin of the forthcoming Christmas Special I would hope that the material she's given moves on from the generic 'feisty girl genius', perhaps exaggerated in Asylum of the Daleks by dint of her being a Dalek, and that the partnership with the Doctor more reflects, let's say, the combination of Romana and the Fourth Doctor.
Again, she's displaying some of the traits that Moffat tends to give his women characters, another variation of those he's been using since he started writing for the series. The use of Carmen on the soundtrack is also the equivalent of putting a big flashing neon sign up declaring this woman to be rebellious, sexually liberated and as many other similar adjectives covering female emancipation you may want to add to the list. Naturally, these are initial assumptions and it is too early to tell exactly which direction the character will take but like the red dress she wears, it's all a bit obvious and familiar to those of us who know Moffat's work on Doctor Who and from his other shows. I look forward to seeing Coleman defy these conventions as there are some very fine qualities in evidence beyond Moffat's broad prescription, found especially in the final confrontation between the Doctor and her as a Dalek that echoes the similar themes in Dalek and underlines the love/hate dichotomy explored in the rest of this story.
Overall, it's a competent return that looks and sounds great, completely fulfilling the remit that episodes this year will come across as small-screen epic movies and a great deal of that has to do with Hurran's direction of this episode. Performances are good, with Smith brushing aside that rather irritating version of the Doctor as seen in Pond Life, Gillan and Darvill effective in their melodramatic emotional confrontation in the Dalek asylum and the promising introduction of Coleman whose further appearances will decide if Oswin/Clara can overcome the tokenism of Moffat's approach to character. The idea of a companion born out of a conversion into a Dalek is very original and that is hopefully a development we will see. However, beyond the eye candy of Asylum of the Daleks, it's slim pickings as far as plot is concerned and there's a wealth of ideas and tropes here that quite honestly are simply ticking the boxes off on the Moffat formula checklist.
It's not just the divorce between the Ponds we have to worry about here, a state of affairs that can only be emotionally effective depending on your own love/hate for the characters, as there's also the parting of the ways between Doctor Who and the Daleks, a separation of two forces so historically and inextricably linked together, each defining the other, that leaves the Daleks metaphorically scratching their heads in puzzlement about that odd fella with the police box. How will they define themselves now? Hopefully, by subjugating races and planets and being particularly horrible to the universe all over again rather than spending nearly 50 minutes gazing at their own navels.