Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 1–Asylum of the Daleks

“You will save the Daleks!”

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So, the young/old feller’s finally back, in the first of five new adventures that showrunner Steven Moffat has said will be standalone stories, each in the style of a ‘blockbuster movie’. This should please those who found last year’s convoluted, overcomplex story arc too dominant in that series, but from the looks of things Moffat still can’t resist seeding future plotlines into these ‘standalone’ stories. We open with Asylum of the Daleks – not, as I first imagined, a story of the metal meanies hiding out in the Ecuadorean embassy to avoid extradition.

So how ‘blockbuster’ was this series opener? Even apart from that stated intent, the first episode always has to be a grabber – you’ve got to hook the audience on your new run with some spectacle and a meaty story. As so often these days, this one seemed to mostly succeed, but had (for me) a few glaring flaws.

It has to be said, the flaws I perceive are generally products of the writing style Moffat employs; others may not find them so objectionable. Still others find them unbearable – I know many fans who have come to actively dislike the show under Moffat’s tenure. Fair enough, every era of the show has had its haters – who can forget fanzine headlines like “JNT Must Die!”? But still, a change in style might bring a few of those doubters back, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Asylum of the Daleks managed it. In fact, judging by the Facebook comments I’ve seen so far, some of the earnest Moffat-haters I know seem to have been swayed somewhat. Perhaps the changes are working.

There was plenty of tinkering, to be sure. For a start, the title sequence has been tinkered around with again, with a different typeface and an altered logo. Not to mention the fact that Moffat has split up the couple whose dynamic was vital to the chemistry of the TARDIS crew. Well, split them up for a bit anyway. Actually that was one of my biggest criticisms, so let’s get it out of the way early.

We’d seen from the last of the short ‘webisodes’ Pond Life that Amy and Rory’s idyllic marriage has come to an end, and that was reinforced in the (very, very long) precredits sequence as he turned up at her modelling shoot with divorce papers. Fine, I thought, one of the good things about New Who is that it actually develops its regular characters rather than leaving them likeable but static as the original show did. Bringing Amy and Rory back not as a couple, but as bickering exes who have to rediscover their relationship, would be a plot thread that could be interesting.

So it seemed a little convenient that the requisite ‘tear-jerking’ scene (© Russell T Davies) got them right back together again after a mere one episode. Yes, I know I’ve been harping on about my preference for standalone storylines, but it felt like an artificially manufactured crisis. It did at least provide some payoff for those like me who found Amy’s lack of concern over her kidnapped child last year somewhat unlikely. And it was sweet that each of them had pushed the other away rather than confront the issue that Amy can’t have children any more – and that the only one she did have was stolen from them so they never experienced actually bringing her up.

Nevertheless, it all felt too quick, too convenient, and something of a box-ticking exercise, with the result that I was left distinctly unmoved, despite some earnest teary acting from Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. Still, if standalone stories it is to be, I suppose I see the reasoning behind sorting it out quickly. It’s just that it felt like padding to have the plotline there at all.

Still, if that didn’t work for me, there was plenty here that did. The episode certainly had the epic feel of a blockbuster movie, with some spectacular (and well-realised) CG vistas – the giant Dalek statue amid the ruins of Skaro, the massively-populated Dalek Parliament. Not to mention some impressive location work; I don’t know where they went to film the snowy, mountainous exteriors of the Asylum planet, but it looked great. And had the presumably intentional effect of calling to mind The Empire Strikes Back, what with those Dalek eyestalks popping up out of the snow like the Imperial spy drone in that movie.

As has often been mentioned, the Daleks have become so ubiquitous of late that it’s hard to think of anything new to do with them – at least they weren’t invading Earth again. Top marks to Moffat for giving them a rest since 2010’s underwhelming Victory of the Daleks introduced the less than well-received New Dalek Paradigm. Those flabby, Austin Allegro-coloured New Daleks were to be seen here again, but as if acknowledging their unpopularity with the fans, Moffat kept them largely to the background. Instead, we were treated to the much-hyped spectacle of “every Dalek ever”.

In practice, this mostly meant the previous bronze and gold design seen from 2005 onwards. This is no bad thing – it’s an excellent redesign that keeps the basic proportions Ray Cusick designed back in 1963, unlike the flabby, unwieldy New Daleks. It was down on the Asylum planet itself that we saw some of the oldies, but the atmospherically dark lighting and general decrepitude of the Asylum’s inmates meant that you had to look pretty hard to see that any were different from recent styles. Most obvious was the Special Weapons Dalek from 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks – lucky for the heroes that one didn’t wake up! Later on, it was a nice callout to classic Who having a room full of the survivors of Kembel, Aridius, Exxilon etc, but a bit of a fail that those ones were still the 2005 style.

And the Daleks have a Parliament and a Prime Minister now, as opposed to their previous power structure of being led by an Emperor and/or Davros. How this state of affairs came to be was not revealed, but it’s hard to imagine a Dalek democratic process – the select committees could just exterminate the likes of Rupert Murdoch. This is already causing much hilarity on Twitter under such hashtags as #tweetlikeadalekmp . For myself, I couldn’t help thinking, “so that’s what a sweeping Conservative majority would look like…”

The Daleks’ actual plan (ie the plot of the episode) didn’t really seem to hang together logically. It’s a nice idea that the Doctor’s arch enemies have something they’re so scared of that they would call their nemesis in to help them, but a Dalek Asylum? Really? I mean, how mad would you have to be to be too mad for the Daleks? None of them have ever seemed particularly well-adjusted in the first place.

As I suspected, “too mad for the Daleks” was something Moffat couldn’t quite pull off, and in sanity terms, there didn’t seem to be much to distinguish the inmates from regular Daleks. Yes, they were in the sort of disrepair I’m used to from buying secondhand cars, but that hardly gave them mental problems.

Also, if the Daleks needed the Doctor to switch off the forcefield surrounding the planet so they could bombard it from space, why couldn’t they just send a small team of their own, as the Doctor snarkily asked? And for that matter, if the forcefield was so impenetrable, how did a human spaceship manage to crash through it, with its escape pods landing intact?

Plot holes seem to be a bit of a Moffat weakness, but let’s be fair, the original series was hardly immune from them. At least the pacing was pretty good, with the initial kidnapping of the Doctor, Rory and Amy being the beginning of a mounting level of action and… well, ‘headfuckery’ is the best word I’ve heard for it. It’s something Moffat specialises in, twists that turn what you thought you were seeing completely on its head, with often impressive dramatic results.

We got that from the very start here, with the reveal that the nice lady asking for the Doctor’s help was a Dalek agent capable of extruding an eyestalk from her forehead, not to mention a gunstick from her hand. She didn’t even know that she was a Dalek ‘puppet’ – as it turned out, a vital plot point.

It happened again with the nice chap who greeted Amy and the Doctor as they popped down to the snowy wastes of the Asylum planet, who, it turned out, had died a year ago but been reanimated by Dalek ‘nanogenes’ (a word coined by Moffat in 2005’s The Doctor Dances, if memory serves). The reveal that even the dead could be reanimated as ‘puppets’ gave rise to a nicely horrific moment as the shrivelled, rotten cadavers in the escape pod came to shuffling life around the Doctor and Amy – never thought I’d see a zombie equipped with a Dalek gunstick.

But the biggest headfuck of all was reserved for Oswin, the poor young lady the Doctor had been trying to rescue all along. Her story never added up – as the Doctor kept asking, where did she get the milk for all those souffles? I began to suspect fairly early on that her perception was not reality, and her easy interface with all that Dalek technology gave the game away pretty quickly – she was, of course, a Dalek herself. And given her delusions, probably the only one we saw who genuinely could be called ‘mad’.

But it was a headfuck for we the viewers too, for Oswin was played by none other than Jenna-Louise Coleman, widely publicised as the Doctor’s new companion when Amy and Rory leave in the fifth episode. Moffat had said that the circumstances of the Doctor meeting her would be like no companion ever before; he was right there, given that she’s been converted into a Dalek then blown to smithereens along with the whole Asylum planet.

So just how will she become a companion? Presumably the Doctor will have to meet her earlier in her timestream. If so, will he have to hide the knowledge that she eventually becomes a Dalek, goes mad and dies? Will he do something clever like trying to change the outcome? If so, that would surely undo her clever bit of trickery at wiping all knowledge of the Doctor from the Dalek database.

That was a nice bit of retconning from Moffat, but I’m not sure it really adds up. It’s the same problem as the whole ‘Doctor faking his own death’ thing – it only works on a linear timeline, not with a character who can pop up anywhere in history. The Daleks aren’t going to be lulled into a false sense of security thinking the Eleventh Doctor is dead, when for all they know Patrick Troughton could pop up next week to ruin their plans.

So, have the Daleks forget the Doctor altogether; that’s one major baddie dealt with in that regard. Trouble is, that assumes that the Doctor and the Daleks always meet sequentially. In practice, the show has usually adhered to that idea. But given Moffat’s delight in using time paradoxes, it would be just as valid for the Doctor to meet up with the Daleks later at a point before they’d forgotten all about him.

Moffat’s witty, flirtatious dialogue was very much in evidence throughout, but every time Oswin dispensed a bit of flirty banter, I couldn’t help thinking, “she talks just like River Song”. Because she does; every line out of her mouth could be given to Alex Kingston’s spacetime diva, or Sherlock’s Irene Adler for that matter. A friend of mine asserts that while Moffat’s dialogue is wonderfully clever, it all actually sounds like Moffat himself, with only the actors’ performances to give it any individuality. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but certainly I’m beginning to feel like he has a special computer program to spew out similarly toned lines for his identikit strong, dominating women.

Nitpicking aside, I did enjoy this episode, even with its flaws. It moved well, there was genuine spectacle, a bit of horror, some inventive direction from Nick Hurran and it was mostly self-contained. Plainly the story of Oswin will form at least one continuing plot thread, and we kept being reminded of “the final question” as referenced by Dorium Maldovar last year. It was on the lips of the Daleks (insofar as they have lips) and later the Doctor himself – “Doctor Who?” Like so many ‘blockbuster movies’ this was a lot of fun, and its breathless pace generally stopped you from thinking too much about its logical inconsistencies, which is probably a good thing.