Asylum of the Daleks
review


Holistic Review: The storyline requires a great deal of disbelief-suspension, but if you can look past the bits that don't make sense, the rest is creepy and entertaining.


I have some reservations about Asylum of the Daleks, but on the whole — if I can ignore the inconsistencies, which thankfully, in this case, I mostly can — I think it's a fun start to the season, plot-light but action-packed. What's particularly striking are the Daleks themselves, and what happens to them over the course of the story. It's nice to see them back after a much-needed rest last year, and they're presented in a refreshingly different light than usual. That's one thing Steven Moffat has been very good at, actually: giving the Daleks a succession of interesting twists, after their reintroduction as straightforward classic baddies in the RTD era. Here, the Daleks are actually asking the Doctor for help, which is a situation that I don't believe has ever occurred before.

Where the story really shines is its promise to bring back Dalek models from throughout the classic series, which gives the fans a thrill for the upcoming 50th anniversary, and makes the asylum seem more like a living museum of the Doctor's past victories. Or perhaps I should say, where the story really ought to shine. Because unfortunately, this is my first major criticism of the story, and one that I'm having an admittedly difficult time overlooking. We were promised "every Dalek ever!" on the cover of DWM 447, and I had envisioned battle scenes full of Daleks from every era of the show's history. For some reason I was particularly excited about seeing the unique-looking Special Weapons Dalek again. In the finished story, however, I can't find one single classic Dalek. After my first viewing, I assumed it was just because they were all made up to look so dilapidated and uniformly dust-covered that you couldn't tell one from another. Deeply disappointing, but completely understandable from a plot perspective. When I failed to spot any during my second viewing, though, I began to get suspicious. So I looked up old photos of Daleks and realized that the eyestalk is a dead giveaway. Up until the New Paradigm Daleks, there's a clear split between classic-series Daleks and revival Daleks in that the classic-series Daleks have an eyestalk mounted on a sort of wheel that's set directly into the dome, but the revival Daleks have a trapezoidal dome cowl covering the base of the eyestalk. On my third viewing, therefore, I kept myself vigilant looking for dome cowls, and do you know what? Aside from the few New Paradigm Daleks scattered around the Parliament, every single Dalek in the story has a dome cowl. Online sources promise me that classic-series Daleks are there to be found, but if I can't even locate the Special Weapons Dalek after three viewings, much less any ordinary ones, then how well are they hidden? And if they're not obviously in the story, such that even a casual viewer would notice "ooh, those Daleks look a bit different", then what was the point of sourcing them from around the country? The only saving grace is that this plot point doesn't affect the story one iota, so even though I'm disappointed as a fan, their absence doesn't damage the episode.

When the title was first announced, I expected the story to be about a secret haven for the Daleks, a sanctuary where some of them were able to escape the Time War. I never even considered the possibility that it might be about a psychiatric hospital for battle-scarred Daleks, which is a really strong concept. This asylum bears strong similarities to the asylums of centuries ago, where the patients were locked up and forgotten about. Certainly we don't see any signs of warden Daleks or physician Daleks. (Which makes me wonder, how exactly do the imprisoned Daleks stay alive?) Which kind of brings me to my second big sort-of-objection: the plot. I said up above that this story requires a lot of disbelief-suspension, and for me, this is one of the biggest. You see, I love the idea of this Dalek asylum; given the Daleks' assertion that they would rather not kill members of their own gloriously-hateful species, the need for an asylum makes perfect sense. But I think there are a lot of flaws in the execution, even with the very premise I've just defended. It's almost directly contradicted in the episode itself: if the Daleks are so reluctant to kill another damaged Dalek, then why are the Daleks so willing to commit suicide to destroy the Doctor? Perhaps as a last-ditch effort, sure, but the Dalek that commits suicide is surrounded by other Daleks with perfectly-functional firepower, so why not summon them for help instead? Other stories with suicidal Daleks come to mind, too, like the bomb-equipped Daleks in Destiny. So, although I appreciate their viewpoint, I'm not completely sure that I buy it. But, again, it's easy enough to overlook.

However, the setup of the asylum is even more problematic. Why does it automatically follow that if a spaceship crashes through the planet's impenetrable forcefields, therefore anything inside could get out? This forcefield is meant to keep things in, and it seems to me that forcefields are ordinarily one-way, rather than impenetrable from both sides. So of course something can get in; it just shouldn't be able to get out again. Come to think of it, if the Alaska crashed a year ago, why are the Daleks only just now starting to worry that something might escape? (And isn't this also the setup of Time of the Angels?) But, more critically, why on earth would they put the forcefield controls inside the asylum where the Daleks could never reach it? (Or, at least, where they're deeply reluctant to venture.) Whereas, of course, the insane Daleks could get at it anytime they liked! That, to me, is a much better reason to worry about everything inside being able to escape. The situation is practically identical to the much-derided moment in The End of the World in which the controls for the giant fans of death are located behind the giant fans of death. So who exactly turned on this forcefield to begin with, and how did they escape? And how do the Daleks get any new patients into the asylum, if nothing can get through the forcefield from either direction? (And, once they're on the planet, how do they get any of them into the asylum building, and/or lock them up? As I mentioned, we see no sign of wardens who can carry out any of these administrative tasks.)

I also find myself skeptical about Oswin's fate. I get that the Daleks like to harness genius. But why would the Daleks, a species so obsessed with racial purity, convert a human (genius or otherwise) into one of them? Sure, Davros wasn't against using human cells to create Daleks, but he was never so concerned with Dalek purity as they were themselves. (Hence the war between his Daleks and the Imperial faction!) And the Daleks have done it in moments of true desperation, as when they were rebuilding their race after the Time War, but isn't that why the New Paradigm Daleks exterminated the previous generation of Daleks, because of their inferior racial "impurity"? (Although they seem to be leaving them well enough alone in the Parliament, for some odd reason!) Then again, perhaps that answers my question. The Daleks in the Asylum are entirely new-series Daleks, injured and insane, with lower standards than the New Paradigm Daleks, so perhaps they're just as desperate as they were following the Time War.

But if I can put aside my skepticism on these issues, the plot is otherwise great. It makes quite a change to see the Daleks in need of the Doctor's help, although we've seen similar role-reversals before with the Master, and it's not an uncommon plot element in other TV shows. But their unexpected chant of "Save the Daleks!" is striking, and it's really interesting to see the Doctor working for them, partly out of coercion but otherwise willingly, because they don't have dissimilar objectives on this occasion. The TARDIS crew's adventures on the asylum planet are nail-biting, too, as the Doctor, Amy and Rory must battle their way through various dangers to reach the heart of the asylum. In one sense, I think this might have worked a little better without Oswin, because occasionally the solution to a problem is simply "have Oswin unlock a door". But where it works, it really works. The scenes of the Dalekified zombie crew coming to life and attacking the Doctor and Amy is one of the scariest moments we've had on the show in recent years, and the moment when Amy realizes they've pulled the wristband off her arm is like a punch to the stomach. I was also really impressed with the way the Doctor clears out a roomful of Daleks using only his wits and a "reverse" switch. And of course the whole sad situation with Oswin is really well-written and plotted. In retrospect it's kind of obvious — so many hints are dropped, but even added together, they're not enough to make you even slightly suspicious — but I never had a clue that Oswin had been converted into a Dalek. So many of the puzzlers, like her claim to have been stranded a year versus Harvey's assertion that they had only crashed two days ago, worked out in her favor, and of course, given who played the character, we were all inclined to trust that what she said was true. (Is that, perhaps, why Moffat included her in this story? Not because Oswin ties into any plot events down the line, but just to give us a surprise and make us believe her every word?) And the episode is filled with memorable visuals, many of which I'll discuss when I get to talking about Nick Hurran's direction.

Welcome back, Matt Smith! I'm starting to hear rumors that he'll be in the show at least through series 8, which would thrill me no end. Can't leave just before the 50th anniversary, can you? (Although, now that we finally have autumn Doctor Who again, and a season that crosses the key 2013 calendar year, I'm not exactly clear when the showrunners are considering the anniversary season to be. The latter half of series 7 plus the first half of series 8? Or the entirety of series 8 and none of series 7? Or all of both series?) I like that the Doctor is making good on his promise to lie low, and he's clearly surprised that someone like Darla would know how to make contact with him... and, of course, it all makes sense when it turns out that the Daleks are behind it all. If anyone could track him down, it's them. Although, of course, given the brilliant and unexpected twist at the end, they won't be doing that again any time soon! Even though I usually hate a mindwipe, I'm actually really excited to see where the series goes now that the Daleks have forgotten about their greatest enemy. This strips away one huge layer of the Doctor's godlike status, and enables him to operate a lot more covertly again. Plus, as Oswin reminds him, the Daleks "have grown stronger in fear of you." Now that they can't remember him, or anything that he ever did to them, how will that affect their future development? This has the potential for some really fascinating storytelling. Smith has some very nice moments in the episode, too: he and Gillan do a very nice simultaneous head-turn as the corpses stir in their chairs (a moment which I completely missed on my first two viewings because I was so petrified by the zombies!), and I like his reluctant little "Eeyuh." as he contemplates attacking the corpses, and the tender hug he gives Amy on the line "Hang on to scared. Scared isn't Dalek." The only moment I'm not sure about is his terrified screaming to Oswin to open the door, while he does nothing at all to defend himself. I know he's facing down several irritated Daleks with a personal vendetta, but it doesn't feel very characteristic.

We now embark upon "the last days of the Ponds", as everyone seems to like calling it. I'm sort of counting down the hours. I must say, I'm also very pleased that they're finally taking advantage of the opportunity to swap out companions mid-season. I like that, because it makes companion departures and arrivals feel a lot less predictable, even though we knew well in advance when exactly Amy and Rory were leaving and their replacement was coming onboard. I've wanted to see something like this happen since the days of Billie Piper! Though it's going to be a bit weird, in their case, given that they haven't been permanent TARDIS fixtures since The God Complex. At this point they've been on and off the TARDIS almost as often as River!

Happily, Rory is back to his old reliable self this week, which is nice, and Arthur Darvill gets some of the best moments of the episode. Poor caring Rory, even willing to help a Dalek who seems to wants its eggs back; even though I'm sure we all knew exactly what that Dalek was really trying to say (thus making Rory look a bit dense), it's still a brilliant moment, and I like how this Dalek's "E-e-e-e-eggs" ties in to Oswin's soufflés later. I love Darvill's delivery of "I don't... I don't know what you want."; "I can't... remember..."; and his reaction to Oswin asking him to take his shirt off. Plus Darvill looks great this week; I really, really like the 50s-style 'do he's sporting at the beginning.

Amy, though. Amy, Amy, Amy. Every time you threaten to make me like you, you do something to mess it all up. Yet again, she's abusive to Rory, slapping him twice (twice!) and generally treating him like the dirt beneath her fashionable heels. I must ask again, can you imagine a successful companion pairing in which the bad-tempered husband continually slapped his caring wife for no good reason? No. People would be baying for his blood, and so they should be here, but for some reason everyone seems to find it funny because she's feisty and Scottish. (As if all Scottish people act this way! Poor Scotland, what an unfair stereotype.) Someone needs to tell Amy that it is not cool to hit your partner.

Worst of all is their relationship issues. Now, in concept, this idea is brilliant. Until last season, we'd never had a married couple on board the TARDIS before, and something else we've never had is a bickering couple on the outs. Sure, we've had Tegan and Turlough, but they weren't exactly cuddle buddies. One assumes. Having Amy and Rory thrown together and forced to work out their marital troubles through TARDIS travel is a superb idea, and could have made for some really interesting (or tiresome, but I'm optimistic) drama if it were played out for several episodes. So it's a shame in some ways that everything is resolved by the end of the season premiere, but I can live with that; it's typical for most TV dramas that conflict of this sort is lucky to even get a three-episode arc. But what I cannot bring myself to terms with, and what becomes my third major criticism of the story, is the lame reason behind it. "I can't have children" is hardly an automatic reason to end a relationship, particularly if you never even discuss it with your partner! And it gets worse. Amy kicked Rory out, but never even told him why? And Rory didn't ask? Amy just unilaterally decided that if she couldn't have kids, Rory was better off without her, and then ended their relationship without even giving him a vote, a chance to say his piece, or at least admitting her true reason? That's absolutely ludicrous. Then again, perhaps that's also its saving grace, because this is exactly something that I could see impetuous, self-centered Amy doing. It's infuriatingly illogical, yet exactly in line with her character. Why not tell him that she wanted to give him the chance to have kids with someone else, and then let him make the decision? Was she so desperate to avoid being rejected that she decided on a preemptive strike? Didn't she even consider the possibility of adoption?!? Or that she might have misjudged how badly Rory wanted kids at all, compared to how much he wants her? (Again, can you imagine this plot point reversed? Rory has a low sperm count, so he drops Amy like a hot potato and never tells her why?) This plot point just requires an incredible suspension of disbelief. If it had been about, say, Amy cheating on Rory, then I would totally have bought their breakup. But this idea smacks of Moffat trying to think up a reason why they would split up which was both workable, yet not so serious that they couldn't get right back together the moment the misunderstanding was clarified. (And it should have been easily clarified ages ago. Another example of the Poor Communication Kills trope, and I haven't had to trot one of those out in a while.) I do, at least, like the fact that it's made clear throughout the episode that, despite Amy's "I despise you" front, she really does still care about Rory's well-being. For example, when she regains consciousness on the surface of the asylum planet, Amy's first thought isn't for the Doctor, but for Rory.

But I won't allow my continuing vacillation about Amy to affect my appraisal of Karen Gillan's acting, because in this story, it is fine indeed. The highlight is the scene in which Amy defends herself against Rory's assertion (entirely accurate, in my opinion) that he loves her more than she loves him. I may be on Rory's side, but Gillan does her heartstring-tugging best as Amy belatedly expresses the depth of her passion. (Although she's a right jerk, again, when she informs Rory that his waiting outside her box for two millennia is peanuts compared to her breaking up with him for no valid reason. Um...) She gets a lot of great line deliveries: "Scared? Who's scared? Geronimo."; "Oh, stuff! You know, we split up, what can you do?"; "And don't lie. 'Cause I know when you're lying to me, and I will definitely fall on you."; and "It's just people!" and her reactions to the Doctor thereafter. I also liked her plaintive "Rory..." as he walks out of her makeup room, which hints again at Amy's vulnerability, but it would be much more believable if she hadn't just been making stank-face at him. I got a kick out of the modelling scenes, too; Gillan looks fantastic, particularly whenever she glances upward. It gives Amy a sort of Marilyn-Monroe-style innocence, mixed with a Betty-Boop-style insouciance. Don't ask me to explain it. You know you see it too.

We also have the surprise appearance of our companion-to-be, or at least the actress who portrays her: Jenna-Louise Coleman. I certainly had no clue that she was going to be appearing this early (well done, everyone, on keeping that spoiler so well under wraps!), and I could scarcely believe my eyes when she popped up onscreen with nails in her mouth. It wasn't until we got a close-up of her reclining in the hammock that I was 100% sure it was actually her. Now, I'm operating on the assumption that Oswin Oswald is not our new companion. I've been spoiled on a different name for her, although perhaps it's just a baseless rumor; but I assume that Jenna-Louise will be playing a different character when next we see her. And I think I'm okay with that. Coleman is adorable, and I really like a couple of aspects of Oswin's character, namely her soufflé-baking (a companion who likes to bake? I could get on board with that!) and her genius tendencies (which gives her two out of three similarities with Zoe; plus, I'm a sucker for a good "geeky girl makes smart sexy" character). But, aside from that, I'm not sure I'm sold. The problem I had with Oswin is that her dialogue, as scripted, is sometimes trying too hard to be clever. It's a problem that recurs sporadically throughout the episode, in fact, but I feel it most keenly with Oswin because I think Moffat is trying to sell us on her in the span of an hour. It actually made me appreciate Amy in a different way, because in this episode at least, Amy isn't all clever and witty, she's blunt and straightforward. She talks like ordinary people talk, even if the things coming out of her mouth aren't necessarily things that most ordinary people would say. I think what jumped out at me the most is Oswin's habit of giving people nicknames, and I'm trying to figure out why I seem to have a problem with that. I didn't mind Ace's habit of giving people nicknames, even if some of hers — like "Doughnut" for Mel — were obscure and inscrutable, but at that point it still felt fresh. Other recent companions have adopted the same habit, but it felt more tied into their characters. Donna's "spaceman" suited her snarky, "don't get too full of yourself, mister" personality, and even Amy's "Raggedy Man" was a link back to her childhood. But with Oswin, it feels more like a case of quirky for quirky's sake. Of course, it's the Doctor who starts it all, calling Oswin "Carmen" and "Soufflé Girl", so she apparently retaliates by calling the Doctor "Mr Grumpy", "the Chin", "Chin Boy", and "you clever boy" (as if he's her pet dog!), while Rory gets "Nina", "Binkie Boy" (huh?!) and "The Nose". At least Amy and Donna gave the Doctor nicknames with "man" in them; "boy" just sounds wrong. (Then again, "Soufflé Girl" isn't much better, but maybe Moffat thought "Soufflé Woman" would sound too much like a cut-rate superhero.) Actually, I think that's a big part of the problem: Oswin's nicknames aren't cutesy or endearing, they're belittling. At any rate, Oswin, in general, came across as less of an interesting character in her own right, and more of "the ideal companion". As on this line, where everything goes spectacularly wrong: "Rescue me, Chin Boy, and show me the stars!" Oh, brother. It is, however, nice to see another (potential) female companion who's valued for her intelligence, so I wouldn't mind a bit if that character detail were kept. And the baking. We must keep the baking.

At any rate, until we know for sure whom exactly she'll be playing, I must reserve judgment on the character, but I found Coleman herself to be delightful. She's energetic and enthusiastic and very likeable, so if she's paired with the right character, I can see her being a huge success. Lots of great line deliveries: "Maybe they're vampires!" (but if Oswin knows what Daleks are, then why does she even entertain the possibility that they might be vampires? Does she think that Daleks can be vampires? ...CAN Daleks be vampires?!??); "Happy birthday, Mum. I did make you a soufflé, but it was too beautiful to live."; "I know a Dalek when I hear one, yeah."; "See ya later!"; and her mental war between her human side and her Dalek side (the "eggs" dialogue, echoing Rory's earlier confrontation with a Dalek, is wonderful); and her final line ("And remember."), complete with a knowing glance to camera. Very clever.

The rest of the cast is unusually minimal, which is nice because it gives us more time with the core team. On Amy's photoshoot, we have the PA (Zac Fox) and the makeup artist (Naomi Ryan). When Amy asserts "I don't have a husband.", the PA's response — "Uh, well, apparently you still do!" — is more than a little impertinent, but I liked Fox's performance. Ryan, too, has a lovely bubbly presence, and I was sad to see that her screentime was so brief. The third member of the guest cast is Anamaria Marinca, whose beautiful and intriguing Romanian accent livens up the part of Darla von Karlsen. My favorite of her lines is probably her cool, unruffled response to the Doctor's "You had a daughter.": "I know. I've read my file." Fourth, and finally, David Gyasi is really likeable as the short-lived Harvey, although he doesn't get much to do either, before he becomes un-undead. And, of course, with no face time but extensive vocal exposure, we have Nick Briggs, voice of the Daleks, who does an absolutely spectacular job in this story. His performance as the Oswin-Dalek is touching, particularly on "(I'm) human!" and "They hate you so much! Why?"

Nick Hurran, who threatens to become my second-favorite new-series director (after Hettie MacDonald, naturally, and why hasn't she come back, eh??), reliably adds flair to Asylum of the Daleks. There are, again, a couple of moments that I found confusing rather than enlightening — why is the frame pitch-black when the Doctor pushes back Darla's hood? (Surely it would've been more exciting if the light had faded as he was pushing it back; as it is, we can't even see what exactly he's doing.) and when we hear the Doctor saying "How much trouble, Mr Pond?" as a Dalek comes gliding through the doorway, I momentarily thought he'd been converted! (Then again, perhaps that was an intentional bit of foreshadowing?) Aside from those arguable missteps, though, the rest is a treat. I love the shot of Darla's face half-covered by the hood as she turns; the opening shot of the slowly-turning ballerina figurine (which suddenly makes me wonder, was this anything to do with Amy's hallucination...? ...naaaah.); the quick racking shot from Harvey to the corpse in a hoodie; the extremely creepy shot of the corpses coming to life and rising from their seats; the shot over the monitor screen of a corpse apparently taunting Amy with her own wristband; Rory dropping the Dalek "egg", which loudly bounces away; Rory sliding through the closing doorway in slo-mo; the overhead shot of the little redheaded ballerina doing pirouettes; the great shot of the Doctor carrying Amy through a room of blown-up Daleks (which, from the way it was used in the story's advance publicity, I was expecting to occur at the story's end); the fantastic shot of Amy sitting moodily on the transporter pad; the nice shot of the Doctor straightening his bow tie, as if he knows he's succeeded in fixing Amy and Rory's marriage (perhaps Oswin filled him in?); the Dalek sucker advancing toward the Doctor's face; and Oswin curled up into a ball, sobbing.

Effects this week are very impressive. I must give a big round of applause to the Mill for their work on the Dalek appendages pushing their way through the skin. Not only does it look flawless, it also looks creepy, particularly when they're just starting to emerge and we can barely see the outline of the eyestalk pressing against the unfortunate victim's forehead from underneath. It makes you almost hold your breath and wonder "am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" Really well done. The giant Dalek statue on Skaro looks realistic (although I'm not sure why there is a giant Dalek statue on Skaro... do the Daleks still have pride, or did they think it would intimidate the Thals?), and the the Dalek Prime Minister mutant, with its pustule-covered face, is convincingly detailed. I love the periscope-eyestalks that emerge from the snow. (So cute! should they be so cute??) Finally, the effect of the forcefield around the asylum planet is attractive and elaborate — love that electric blue glow — and there's a very nice shot of the planet exploding, although it does seem like a slightly extreme reaction to the situation. I suppose the Daleks can always set up another asylum later. There are some great sound effects, as well, my favorite being the slowly-mounting Dalek-ship sound as the first Dalek wakes up in the asylum. The Dalek self-destruct alarm also sounds a lot like other alarms in Doctor Who, although off the top of my head I can't think where else we've heard it! And, to top it all off, Murray Gold's music is actually rather effective this week, particularly during the mind-trippy sequence of Amy's hallucinations, in which the music has an appropriately Twin Peaks vibe.

Oh, and we have a new title sequence this week! After hearing it rumored, I was excited about a change to the sequence itself, but less so about a change to the logo; I think the current logo is really attractive and I was a little bit leery of changing it out so soon. I was, therefore, slightly disappointed to see that the sequence itself was basically the same (although I really love the extra tinging of green and orange in the clouds), but greatly relieved to see that the logo was basically untouched, just re-textured. I can't say I was a huge fan of the stamped-metal look, but it's perfectly fine, and I've since heard (and seen!) rumors that the texture will be changing week-to-week to reflect the nature of the story. That, I think, is an extremely cool idea. It gives them a lot of room to have fun, so if it's true, I'm really looking forward to seeing how they play with it. I'm neutral on the new names-and-title font, but it's nice, and I like the way it billows away, although I wish they'd left some space between the names to truly be able to appreciate the effect. I guess we can't afford to dilly-dally during the credits, eh? And, finally, I really like the way that the "DW" logo evaporates away from the TARDIS... very cool. All in all, a very successful upgrade.

Minor points:

Even though there's a bit of a letdown on the "fan references" side, and it could've used another draft, Asylum of the Daleks kicks off the 50th-anniversary stretch in great style, rebooting the Doctor's relationship with the Daleks and promising interesting revelations to come.


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