Thursday, 6 September 2012

WHO REVIEW: 7-1. Asylum of the Daleks

An overdue return for Doctor Who, in the first of a short run of what’s promised to be “mini-movies” set to write out the Ponds. As season openers go, Asylum of the Daleks is a success, although it lacks the shock spectacle of last year’s The Impossible Astronaut or the sheer charm of The Eleventh Hour. Altogether, this first episode is decidedly derivative, but is presented with such confidence and verve it’s very hard not to enjoy it.
The big news, of course, is the sudden reveal of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character, Oswin. Brilliantly kept under wraps despite the seemingly spoiler-ridden world of the series publicity, Coleman’s debut comes weeks earlier than was expected and is a genuine surprise. She immediately makes a huge impression in the role, proving beautiful, sassy and confident, but let’s not overlook the regulars. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are now perfectly comfortable in their roles. They have an easy chemistry that here works just as effectively when they’re at loggerheads as when they’re gazing adoringly at each other. Matt Smith, or course, is totally at home as the Doctor, a mercurial, swift-footed eccentric, with a strangely graceful clumsiness.

With viewers now as familiar with these characters as they are with each other, it would be easy for them to become boring to watch. Thankfully, Steven Moffat has granted Amy and Rory some much needed development, allowing them to live lives away from the Doctor. It’s not surprising that, without the constant distraction of alien incursions, temporal anomalies and a full-grown daughter, the couple have been able to focus on their relationship and found that it’s in trouble. Being on the verge of divorce, barely speaking to each other, makes them a much more interesting couple to watch. It’s also satisfying that the events on Demon’s Run are finally shown to have personal consequences for the two of them. Nonetheless, it’s good to see them back in each other’s arms by the end of the episode.
The Doctor rarely experiences a great deal of character development. The main change for him in this latest run is his faking of his own death at the end of the previous series. Quite how a man who pops up throughout the whole span of history, up to millions of years in the future, can be considered dead by the wider universe is anyone’s guess. It is, however, pleasing to see the series holding to this development, particularly with the final erasure of the Doctor’s identity from the Daleks’ collective memory. A real punch the air moment, and one that could prove to be something of a game-changer, if the writers choose to run with it. For this episode, at least, Moffat gets to have it both ways, with the Doctor mythologised as ‘the Predator’ of the Daleks, and then finally being stripped of his legendary status (seemingly) for good. As the Doctor says himself, though, he’s no sort of predator, and it’s hard to take this young, tweedy sort as a potent threat to this shipful of alien killers. (Imagine Eccleston in this position.) Then he goes to prove that all wrong, tricking a Dalek to self-destruct (convincingly, for the first time) and take his comrades with him. I like to see the Doctor acting like a bastard.
 What’s interesting about the Doctor here is how he reacts to Oswin. They have an immediate rapport, and it’s actually true that she gives as good as she gets with the Doctor. It’s not often that the Doctor struggles to get a word in edgeways, with even the most verbose of characters. It’s clear that he likes the girl, even as he forges ahead in his mission, always suspicious of her true identity. It’s fun to watch the four characters react differently to the stress they’re under. Under pressure, Amy gets cocky, Rory gets sarky, while the Doctor and Oswin get gobby. Coleman gives a layered performance, with a deep vulnerability behind her playful banter. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t hard to guess that she was going to turn out to be either a Dalek or one of their agents. Like an M. Night Shyamalan film, a Moffat script is viewed looking for the twist. It’s still a powerful sequence when Oswin is revealed to be nothing but a dream, trapped inside the shell of a Dalek, although you’d think she’d be a red one, to go with her dress.

It’s tough to do a Dalek episode these days, after so many have come before. Moffat does admirably, riffing on the Daleks’ previous hits and mixing them up for a new generation. It’s deeply satisfying to see that the production team have finally relented and more-or-less retired the chunky toy Daleks of the “New Dalek Paradigm” in favour of the more effective bronzed Time War model. While the inclusion of “every Dalek ever!” was something of an over-hype, what with most of the models obscured by a layer of dust and grime and hard to distinguish from one another, it’s great fun to see the vast Dalek Parliament and the intensive care unit for Doctor-scarred Dalek vets. There are some very nice revelations about the Dalek race: that they find hatred beautiful; that they have some form of government aboard a starship; that they care for their insane (or at least, don’t destroy them straight away).
There are some wonderful visual elements on offer. Amy’s descent as the Dalek nanogenes rewrite her biology is beautifully envisioned, with the surreal sight of disturbed Daleks rendered as dancers through her confused perspective. The Dalek agents, although coming from a long-line of such troops, are well-executed visually, with their frankly nonsensical but effectively creepy Dalek eyestalks protruding from their skulls. Even better are the skeletal versions that menace the Doctor and Amy on the wreck of the starship Alaska. From the revamped title sequence, the show has never looked better than it did in this episode.
What next for this segment of the series? It will be interesting to see where the erasure of the Doctor from the records ends, or whether it will be quietly forgotten. It certainly seems like it will be something of a theme this season. The other big question is Oswin. How does she become the Doctor’s companion, when she is here reduced to a dead Dalek? It will be thoroughly disappointing if she just turns out to be another River, and the Doctor simply picks her up earlier in her timeline. Will she, come Christmas, even be playing the same character? Where did this “Clara” rumour come from? Perhaps Coleman will be playing a different character every week. I mean, what sort of name is Oswin Oswald anyway?

Title Tattle: Asylum of the Daleks is the twelfth to follow the “… of the Daleks” format in the TV series alone (thirteenth, if you count the near-miss of Death to the Daleks).
Planets visited: Skaro, the original planet of the Daleks. Last thing we knew, the Doctor had blown it to kingdom come, but there’s the time travel aspect to consider. For the most part though, this episode is set on the Daleks’ Asylum Planet, a snowy globe that’s been hollowed out to be used as the prison for millions of mad Daleks.
Links and References: Hardly the first time we’ve had a whole planet hollowed out for one purpose in a Moffatt script; the Library, of Silence in the Library, was such a thing. Other planets mentioned include Kembel, Spiridon, Aridius, Vulcan and Exxilon, sites of previous Dalek defeats by the Doctor. We’ve seen humans turned into Daleks in Revelation of the Daleks, Evolution of the Daleks, The Parting of the Ways and Blood of the Daleks on the radio, and Dalek-ised human drones in Resurrection, Evolution and The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Daleks appearing in the Asylum include various models from earlier years - it’s easier to pick them out in publicity stills, but the Special Weapons Dalek is recognisable anywhere. The ‘nanocloud’ is comprised of nanogenes, Moffat’s brand of nanite that appeared previously in The Empty Child.
Hanky-panky in the TARDIS: Jenna-Louise Coleman is simply gorgeous. She loves a bit of Beaky – Rory gets some more flirty attention from a woman who turns out to be something other than human (as previously in the Gangers two-parter). Amy gets to do some pouty modelling – enjoy her while you can, fellow redhead fans.

Best Line: “A Dalek without a gun? You’re a tricycle with a roof!”

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