Doctor Who Review – 7.1 ‘Asylum of the Daleks’

Giant Dalek statue on SkaroJames 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.

Jenna Louise Coleman as OswinSteven 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.

7 thoughts on “Doctor Who Review – 7.1 ‘Asylum of the Daleks’

  1. Well, I must say that I’m about as polar opposite as one could be with James on his account of what I think is a thrilling, well-plotted masterpiece. I tend to look at things, including Doctor Who episodes, as a whole entity and am not one to inspect details and focus on minor elements at the expense of the whole experience (the “Doctor Who Experience?” LOL), so I won’t do that here, or even attempt to counter James’ points one-by-one. But I will say that I sat in rapt awe of the event as it aired on BBC One, and then immediately watched it twice more on iPlayer just to relive the magnificence. Kudos to the Moff and his crew!

  2. I don’t disagree with a lot of what James has said, the packing of a lot into one episode did mean that somethings might have benefited with a bit more room to breathe. Amy and Rory could have been more believable if the reveal had been left for a another episode (mind you I suppose if you can’t square your differences on an alien facing extermination, when can you do it?). However if feels great to have my Saturday’s viewing back. I loved the idea of Daleks left over from previous encounters with the Doctor had been driven mad and kept out of the way. Oswin was the story Moffat had been desperate to tell and he did use most of his tropes (Moffat bingo anyone?) but in the end I didn’t care and wanted a shortcut to next week. “DInosaurs on a Spaceship” come on.

  3. Thanks Guys, I definitely think that this will be an episode that divides people because for the most part it was a fairly enjoyable episode. Having said that the jettisoning of plot, character points and motivations part way through the episode for conveniences sake all bothered me considerably. It suffered from the single episode compression that seems to have been mandated on it whereas a two parter may have given Moffat a bit more time to actually flesh out anyone other than Oswin.

    I think the Doctor Who experience is going to carry me through next weeks episode though; a B-Movie mashup of historical figures, dinosaurs and aliens sounds too goofy for words.

  4. It may be coincidence but I think I may stumbled upon another Doctor Who trope. Basically every female companion since Rose has had the character or the actress playing her feature in a story prior to their full run in the TARDIS (doing a Colin Baker so to speak). Catherine Tate had “The Runaway Bride”, Freema Agyeman had “The Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”, Alex Kingston had “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”, Karen Gillian had “The Fires of Pompeii” and now Jenna-Louise Coleman with “Asylum of the Daleks”. I had thought about including Eve Myles and “The Unquiet Dead” but she joined Torchwood. In Old Who the only person that came close was Sarah Sutton, she was introduced in “The Keeper of Traken” and joined in “Logopolis”.

  5. After having viewed this several times now, three of the more detailed points of the episode have struck me as particularly interesting or outstanding. The Murray Gold music was spot on, and really set the mood for the different parts of the story very appropriately. I even enjoyed, from a production standpoint, those parts of the episode where the music was notably absent. Second, the direction was absolutely magnificent. Nick Hurran has now directed three amazing Doctor Who episodes: this one, The Girl Who Waited, and The God Complex. It will be interesting to see how he’s directed The Angels Take Manhattan! Finally, on a small note, did anyone else think that the very opening shot with Amy modeling, and the “HATE” and “LOVE” on her knuckles was a clever foreshadowing of what was really the whole theme of this episode? I did, although it only struck me on the second viewing, when the hate of the Daleks and nanogenes subtracting love from the captors were clearly revealed as main story elements.

  6. I was much more impressed with the episode than the reviewer, though I agree with some of the criticisms presented. Namely, that the Amy/Rory storyline should have been built-up more. Moffat does have a tendency to rush through his emotional subplots in order to execute his more complicated plots (in comparison to Russell T Davies, who was good at emotional stuff but often had no idea how to string his plots together). So I would have liked a slower burn on that aspect of the plot.

    However, I do think this episode did a nice job of making the Daleks creepy again. The interaction between the Doctor and the Prime Minister Dalek was great, especially the implication that in their worship and admiration of hate they also admire their greatest enemy because his hatred for them is so pure (“It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred”). I also liked that it tied into the greater themes Moffat has been exploring in the show, namely in The Pandorica Opens/Big Bang/A Good Man Goes to War/The Wedding of River Song. This idea that in becoming that man who can turn away a foe at the mere mention of his name, the Doctor may also be making his enemies more desperate and dangerous. “We have become stronger in fear of you.” I’ll be interested in seeing whether falling back into the shadows actually works for the Doctor, or if being forgotten will somehow come back to bite him when The Ultimate Question is finally asked.

    I also want to mention my favorite scene in the episode that I haven’t seen many people mention, where Amy is succumbing to conversion and sees the insane Daleks as people dancing. That scene is just crazy. Very unnerving and Lynch-ian, and it’s shot incredibly well (more applause for the great eye that Nick Hurran clearly has). It added to overall creepy factor of the episode quite well.

  7. You know what Sean, I actually really like that reading of the Daleks – especially the idea that maybe they keep the Doctor around because they see his anger and hate as semi-divine. That would be a nice hand wave to why they don’t ever just kill him (although I doubt that will change the next episode they appear in).

    That scene actually reminded me most of the bar scene in The Shining, it’s been a while since I last saw it, but that slightly anachronistic all-is-not-well-here vibe made me think of that! Not a bad bunch of connections at all. Unfortunately, for me, that was the only point where the Asylum motif really seemed to work and the Daleks/Amy did seem insane, rather than just run down.

    As Mark mentioned as well Nick Hurran is a fantastic director. All three of these episodes have used enclosed space brilliantly. I hope that The Angels Take Manhatten doesn’t struggle with ‘Die Hard’ syndrome – claustrophobia replaced with an open plan run around that doesn’t serve those involved well at all.

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