James gives us his review of ‘Asylum of the Daleks‘ as a first reaction ahead of our podcast commentary,
coming later today online now! Does this story restore the Daleks as effective villains, or do they just rely on nostalgia value for their survival? SPOILERS ahoy!
It’s amazing that this episode wasn’t spoiled well ahead of broadcast, and it’s undoubtably better for it. There’s at least two twists in there that I don’t think anyone coming in blind will expect, so I’m going to save talking about those until the end so as to avoid spoiling it for you.
Let’s get right down to it. The Daleks are no longer a good Doctor Who villain. They survive more on nostalgia value than anything else, and there’s not really been a New Who episode that showcases them as potentially lethal threats since Dalek. The closest thing we’ve had to an episode in which the Daleks constitute a real threat since then is The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, episodes which hardly stands as a high point for villainous masterplans.
We start the episode at a frenetic pace, we’re introduced to a status quo that’s totally changed since the last episode of series 6. Amy and Rory are now getting divorced, something that was hinted at in final Pond Life short, but will come a little bit out of the blue for anyone who hasn’t watched those. So, yeah. That’s already a bit of a weird intro to the new series, relying on a one second spot that was introduced in a series of webisodes to highlight the direction.
That’s not even mentioning that those characters you loved are now getting divorced because, as is addressed later on this episode, it’s because they never thought to talk to one another.
So, yeah. There are a few big problems with this episode.
“The character that drives this episode forward is Oswin”
The Doctor is reduced to, at best, a bit part in his own series. That’s not always been a bad thing, anyone who’s seen Blink knows that an episode in which the Doctor isn’t the star can work, but it’s a strange way to open the series. The character that drives this episode forward is Oswin, who not only provides the Doctor, Rory and Amy with all the handy exposition they need to survive, but also actually resolves every crisis in the episode. Whilst the Doctor unwittingly stumbles across teleportation devices and reacts to each new occurrence Oswin proactively comes up with solutions and defeats the Daleks.
It’s a strange way to present your main character, the one who’s name is on your programme. There’s a fine line between the Doctor not knowing what’s happening but working it out, and the Doctor explaining what you’re seeing and then it just being fixed. This time, I don’t think they quite tread it well enough to pass. In The West Wing the character of Donna Moss is used to explain all the complicated bits to the viewer in a way that doesn’t make things too exposition and tries to show, not tell. This episode of Doctor Who doesn’t manage that, and the best they can do is just have the Doctor say what’s happening.
Steven Moffat obviously wants to set up Oswin as a companion we can get on board with, an intellectual equal to the Doctor, a powerful female who uses the means at her disposal to wage war on the worst of the Daleks and win. Mostly, that works, but the way they do that is by undermining the Doctor himself, setting him as the character who has to play catch up.
It’s not just a problem for the Doctor though, the Daleks have been undermined to the point where they are no longer a credible threat to the safety of the Doctor or his companions. They are no longer good Doctor Who villains, surviving more on nostalgia value than anything else. There’s not really been a New Who episode that showcases them as potentially lethal threats since Dalek. The closest thing we’ve had to an episode in which the Daleks constitute a real threat since then is The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, episodes which hardly stands as a high point for villainous masterplans.
In fact, the only times in new Who they actually acted as a serious challenge to the Doctor was in Victory of the Daleks, where they defeated him through an actual plan rather than just force of arms. That’s the weakness if the Daleks, they’re supposed to be a physical threat but that’s rarely demonstrated on anything other than redshirt security agents and random soldiers.
This isn’t a problem that this episode really solves. Plunged into a situation where they are facing the worst of the Dalek race the worst that the team face is nanotech. Over the course of this episode the Daleks express fear, fail to kill those around them multiple times and finally demonstrate that they’re so far gone that they would convert a mere human into a Dalek for her mind.
Ah yes, the twists. The first one is rather good. The expectation that companions don’t cross over, and especially the misdirection of a start date for Christmas, means that the appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman is a real surprise.*
Oswin IS a great character in the vein of River Song, someone who plays off the Doctor and his companions as a more knowing protagonist. Coleman plays her in a way that is sure to win her a lot of support as the new companion. She’ll have a hard time replacing Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan, but this is a solid start.
But it’s the second twist which really shakes this episode up. Having set Oswin up as the ghost in the machine, a genius enemy of the Daleks, Moffat pulls the rug out from under us with a last minute twist. The revelation that Oswin has been a Dalek all along, that her mind is still human but she’s been converted is a neat one. It’s not something that it’s easy to see coming although clues are there – they only come at night, presumably when she’s asleep and not able to fight back, the eye stalk view, the fact that she ‘survived’ for a year at all, the ladder escape route.
Is it enough to save an episode that up until then has been fairly pedestrian? Well, almost. If anything, the real problem is that we’ve seen all of it before. The major set piece events are all massive Moffat tropes. The creepiest scenes, and the only ones with any threat are a rehash of a couple of earlier Moffat episodes; nanotech weaponising the dead with promonating extrusions (Empty Child), the dead stalking the living (Silence in the Library and Time of Angels), it’s all classic Moffat.
“The script has Moffat’s usual zip”
The script has the usual zip we’ve come to expect. Moffat writes dialogue exceptionally, and Oswin’s various discourse on Soufflés, her first crush and her sense of confidence in her own ability nicely undercut the pompous tone of the episode.
No, if anything, the main trouble is the plot itself. When you take the time to strip away the twists and the action scenes not very much happens. The Doctor is kidnapped and then dropped onto a new planet. And then? He doesn’t investigate, he doesn’t explore, he simply moves around as instructed by Oswin until she wipes him from the Dalek’s hivemind and transports him away.
Amy and Rory have even less to do – their interactions amount to one scene in which they spend a few minutes remembering why they’re married, reminisce about what caused them to split up and then get back together again.
Finally, the actual parliament of the Daleks is totally devoid of any menace. In fact it further underscores their status as also-rans of the Doctor Who back catalogue, the full firepower of the Dalek race resorts to essentially using the Doctor as their catspaw to solve their problems for them. This from a race that wanted to undo reality and fought the Time Lords for control of the history of the Universe.
None of these are exactly worth watching, their actual contribution to the show is negligible. They’re there because the plot demands the Doctor, companions and enemy be present. The story Moffat wants to tell is the introduction of Oswin. It’s done well, but it maybe could have been saved for another episode when it wouldn’t overshadow the programme as billed.
I’m glad Doctor Who is back. I’ve missed it whilst it’s been away, but this was a cinematic return in all the worst ways – boring and poorly plotted, overly reliant on (admittedly rather good) twists and emphasising shock characterisation over a decent story and slow burn tension. All in all, just another ordinary Dalek episode.
*The questions remains, for the casual viewer who doesn’t know about what the future hold, would her appearance mean anything. After all, if you don’t know she’s a future companion, she may as well be just your usual character in peril found in every episode. It’s a nice twist for the geeks like me who know some of what’s ahead, but I doubt it will mean much to most other people.