Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks (Review)
“This is Christmas!” the Doctor declares, addressing the Parliament of the Daleks early in the episode. Really, Christmas was merely the last time we saw him, but it’s been so long since the last new episode of Doctor Who that it does almost feel like Christmas. This year, showrunner Steven Moffat has promised big budget spectacle. There will be no two-parters and, instead, each instalment will feel like a forty-five-minute summer film. Asylum of the Daleks feels like a fairly efficient prototype for that storytelling model, while still perhaps hinting at the things to come as the Doctor enters his fiftieth year on British television.
Moffat’s crack at writing a Dalek episode…
This is really Moffat’s first attempt to write a “Dalek” episode. Sure, he’s written stories including the monsters before, like The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, but this is the first to focus solely on the genocidal maniacs and (arguably more importantly) the first with a title to include “… of the Daleks.” I think that’s fascinating, if only because – as a writer, Moffat has gravitated rather consciously towards what might be dubbed “his own thing.”
While Russell T. Davies would end his seasons by bringing back fan favourites like the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master, Moffat has generally used the season finalé to round-out the year’s story-telling, to offer something a bit bold and perhaps a bit less obviously crowd-pleasing. So it’s interesting to see Moffat open a season with the most crowd-pleasing of Doctor Who monsters. It’s always fun to see a writer working outside their comfort zone, and it is very weird to see Moffat doing an entire episode based around a very classic concept, rather than something more distinctly his own.
Plunging into a new season with Matt Smith…
It’s very clear what Moffat wants to do here. As he outline in interviews before the series started, he wants to make the Daleks scary again:
Kids are supposedly frightened of Daleks but they take them to bed. Is there a way we can make them scarier, get them back to being more monstery? I hope they will leave them outside their bedroom doors, was my response to that. There is a tremendous temptation to go kitch and sweet with the Daleks. You shouldn’t. They are insane tanks.
Of course, there’s only so much a writer can do. The Daleks are, for better or worse, almost as deeply engrained in our popular consciousness as the good Doctor himself. You can use the word “Dalek”and everybody knows what you’re talking about. They aren’t treated as objects of fear in the collective mind, but objects of ridicule. The very word conjures up a (literal) tinpot dictator screaming nonsense in a shrill voice, often while spinning around uncontrollably.
Graveyard of the Daleks?
That’s not to suggest that it’s impossible to make the Dalek’s scare again. I think that, for all its faults, Dalek did a good job of that years ago. The problem is that you can’t keep them scary. They’ll always vary from episode-to-episode. After all, Russell T. Davies gave us the all-conquering Daleks of The Parting of the Ways and the campy sass-talkin’ Daleks of Doomsday. It really depends on the episode in question to sell the Daleks as a credible and convincing threat. I think it’s impossible to “rehabilitate” the collective cultural opinion of the monsters, if only because the BBC itself is the one pumping out plush Dalek teddy bears. Squeeze them and they say “Exterminate!”
In Hollywood, they say that you are only as good as your last movie. In television, the Daleks are only as good as their last episode. While it has – following this logic – been quite a while since they’ve been really good at all, Asylum of the Daleks does a pretty good job establishing the pepperpot maniacs as credible monsters in their own right, to the point that it feels much more like a Dalek mission statement than Victory of the Daleks, the first Dalek episode of the Moffat era. There, the episode seemed to exist merely to finally reverse Russell T. Davies’ repeated genocide of the creatures. Here, Moffat seems to work to make them actively scary.
Shining some light on the matter…
Asylum of the Daleks does open with the monsters at their lowest ebb. In a way, it follows the reverse arc of most Dalek episodes. In the past, Dalek episodes have introduced the creatures as serious threats, only for the Doctor to undermine them towards the end. Here, Moffat opens with the creatures looking almost pathetically weak. “Save us!” the Daleks chant as the teaser fades. “Save us! Save us! Saaaaaave us!” Our plucky heroine has been introduced seeming to keep an entire planet of Daleks at bay for over a year using nothing more than a few boards of wood, while being so blaisé about the monsters on her doorstep that she bakes soufflé.
However, over the course of Asylum of the Daleks, Moffat continually builds up the monsters as a threat in their own right. Both of those opening images are brutally subverted. Our survivor is not who she appears to be, and the Daleks actually plan to save a bit of bother by blowing up the Doctor with their asylum – killing two birds with one gigantic explosion. In a way, Moffat seems to set out the same thing that show set out to accomplish with Victory of the Dalekstwo years ago.
One flew over the Daleks’ nest…
That episode also began with the Daleks at their weakest possible point (“WOULD! YOU! CARE! FOR! SOME! TEA?!”) and then sought to reveal them as a grand galactic threat in their own right. The notions seemed to be that you might elevate their stock by allowing the monsters to “win one” for a change. However, the episode was somewhat undermined by the fact that it interpretted “win one” as “produce a bunch of toyetic new models and run off like cowards into outer space.” It was more Stalemate of the Daleks than Victory of the Daleks.
The ending of Asylum of the Daleks feels a more successful one for the monsters. They don’t get to kill the Doctor, but they do succeed in getting him to do their dirt work. They accomplish their goals, but miss out on the perk of killing him. The Doctor doesn’t “win”by any stretch. He loses a new friend in a rather brutal manner. He just about manages to avoid losing at least one of his companions.
Primed and ready for action…
Indeed, the closest thing to a victory he earns in confronting his foes is the fact that they don’t remember who he is. (Incidentally, preventing them from planting another of their brutal traps – next time presumably intending to kill him.) While it isn’t a clear victory for either side, the Daleks emerge as a much more credible threat going forward.
There are, of course, other very “Moffat” ideas that exist to enhance the scare factor of these most iconic of monsters. The notion of Daleks that have literally hallowed out human beings so that they could live inside is a terrifying one. It’s a creepy image, especially as the eye-stalk does emerge through a clean portal, but instead breaks the skin, evoking Ridley Scott’s Alien for a family friendly audience. Indeed, the line that they come “still only at night” feels like a shout-out to Newt in Aliens.
They’ve really cornered the market…
While those creepy human-Daleks are introduced early on, it’s the notion of the “nano-cloud” that makes the monsters so unsettling in a way that they haven’t been in a while – the fact that they can animate any matter – “living or dead” – in their own image is much creepier than people on Dalek ships in weird fetish gear. The thought that they can “subtract love and add hate” without you really realising it is unsettling, as is the notion that you might be a Dalek without even realising it.
In fact, the early part of the episode does a wonderful job of exploring the relationship between the Doctor and the Daleks. It’s fascinating how clearly they seem to understand each other, while completely failing to grasp the most essential facets. The Doctor understands the Daleks are bred to hate, and knows the plan that they have concocted to simultaneously wipe out him and the rogue elements. However, he’s aghast at they “divine hatred” that they see as “beautiful.”
At the same time, they seem to understand him quite well. Perhaps, in some ways, even better than he does himself. They bring Rory and Amy along, if only because, as they state, “the Doctor requires companions.” It’s a truth that the character himself seems to be denying at the moment – and experience has taught us that he lacks the self-awareness to see that this is a very bad thing. And still, despite their understanding of him, they fail to grasp that he will inevitably escape because… well, that’s what he does.
It’s interesting that Moffat actually takes the time to reverse the direction that Russell T. Davies took the Daleks. I like the revelation that he is “the Predator of the Daleks”, and I love the fact that the interplay between the Doctor and the Daleks in this reluctant team-up reveals so much of each. (“This conversation is irrelevant!” serving as perhaps the most obvious expression of the philosophical conflict between the two.) So it’s interesting that Moffat takes the time to effectively re-write that dynamic, erasing the Doctor from the Daleks’ memory banks.
(Eye) stalking their prey…
To be fair, maybe he has a point. Maybe that dynamic ha splayed a part in humbling the creatures – making them too casual and too familiar to the Doctor. After all, it’s hard to construct a credible threat when they shake in their little space boots at the very mention of his name. So now they meet as equals. It’s quite similar to how Moffat used the “tear” to quietly tidy up his predecessor’s continuity. I also love how the Doctor seems almost insulted as he asks, “You made them forget me?!”
That seems like it might be a nod to the series’ fiftieth anniversary, coming up. The episode leans pretty heavily on the notion of legacy and memory. There’s the discussion between Rory and Amy about kids, which is quite a potent piece of drama for a family show, but also the fact that the Daleks forget the Doctor and the final plea, “Remember me! Remember me!” (Speaking of which, how weird was it to hear Nicholas Briggs speaking in his Dalek voice in an almost conversational manner? The man’s vocal performances continue to impress.)
Alone with every genocidal pepperpot…
Of course, Moffat’s re-writing of Dalek history does raise a few questions, retroactively. After all, the opening sequence has the Daleks efficiently corralling the Doctor in a fiendish plan. It’s a fantastic reversal of their needless complex schemes that often end up backfiring, portraying the monsters as strong and ruthless. However, it begs the question of why – if the Doctor is such a pain – they never did this to simply exterminate him in the first place? The nano-cloud is a brilliant idea, but it makes it seem a bit strange it never came up before. Still, that’s something for others to figure out. It works well here, and it makes them a pretty convincing threat. And that is undoubtedly the most important thing.
It also feels a bit strange to meet “the Parliament of the Daleks” with the “Prime Minister” at its head. What do they do, sit around and talk exterminating policy? Do they hold constituency elections? Is there a Dalek election by-law? I really liked the “Holy Dalek Emperor” from The Parting of the Ways, but I always saw the Daleks as a distinctly fascist species. (In fact, Moffat’s reference to “divine hatred”seems to reference that most daring and most wonderful of Davies’ take on the monsters.)
If David Tennant were around, I would make a “Beam me up, Scotty” reference here…
Even using terms associated with democracy feels kinda strange in relation to the creatures. Did they vote on the plan to coopt the Doctor? Still, it’s not a problem, just a small element that feels a little out of place. I can’t help but wonder if Moffat was trying a bit of blunt social satire, like he did in The Beast Below.
The episode’s twist also feels just a little bit familiar. After all, Moffat did the “person-isn’t-really-a-person” twist not too long ago, in Silence in the Library, another story of a girl interacting with the Doctor’s adventures from a secure location who turns out to be part of some ghastly mechanised operation, with an element of tragedy concerning the state of her humanity in this altered and distorted form.
Come to a dead stop…
I will confess to being a bit disappointed (as I was in Closing Time) with the revelation that Amy became a model. It’s a shame that character has been defined by jobs that involve her looking appealing to men. Not to suggest, of course, that there is anything wrong with Amy enjoying a career as a model, it just seems that her skillset has not really evolved. She’s still defined by her job as “really, really good looking”, albeit just in a less sleazy context.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to seem puritanical or anything. However, it seems strange that the recurring theme of the new series has been that the Doctor has allowed his companions to grow as individuals through their interactions. Rose became a super extra-dimensional secret agent. Martha became a kick-ass medical professional and alien invasion specialist. The great tragedy of Donna was that she was eventually denied the growth that stemmed from her time with Doctor. So it feels strange that Amy’s character development is measured in becoming a “pretty face”on a billboard.
Carry on regardless…
That said, it’s interesting that Moffat chose to have Amy and Rory break up. Of course, it’s inevitable the pair will get back together, but I like the idea that largely adult concerns – well, almost – could come between the two. The notion of a couple being unable to conceive feels quite an adult development. Of course, Amy’s decision to kick Rory out instead of actually talking about or dealing with it is undoubtedly childish. That said, it feels like a place to begin a second character arc for the pair. Amy has still not quite “grown up” enough to deal with these adult problems in a mature manner, so it feels appropriate that her “raggedy Doctor” has returned to help her through it.
Still, it’s great to have the team back. And it’s certainly a blockbuster start to the year. The sequence with the Dalek missiles destroying the asylum did look a bit gnaff in an eighties sort of way, but the rest of the production was pretty stylish. I especially like how Moffat effectively structured the episode like a James Bond or Mission: Impossible type plot, with the teasure spent putting the gang together, only for the group to be tasked with a nigh-impossible task. It does go a long way towards adding a cinematic feeling to proceedings, which seems to be what Moffat is trying to do. It’s really quite effective tea-time telly.
Graveyard of the Daleks?
While I certainly hope that we might get something a bit quieter at some point this year (or next), it certain accomplishes what it set out to do. If they can do twelve more of these, I’ll be very impressed. It’s a great way to ring in a fiftieth anniversary.
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