Asylum of the Daleks
|Production Code||Series 7, Episode 1|
|Dates||September 1, 2012|
With Matt Smith,
Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Nick Hurran
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor must travel to a planet full of insane Daleks.|
A Review by Bill Fraser 9/9/12
With the start of each new series of Doctor Who, we immediately ask ourselves what we have in store for the future. The first episode is so very important, as it sets the tone for what comes next and will often make the decision for new viewers (yes, even Doctor Who, after 49 years of existence, has new viewers each year) as to whether to carry on watching or not. Since the inception of the New Who with its one-off episodes, the viewing public has demanded something special to keep its interest going. Looking back over the previous series, first episodes which we considered great at the time would get short shrift nowadays and there were a couple of stinkers. Of the six first episodes until the present, the only one which makes it into my Pantheon of Top of the Who is The Eleventh Hour, which began series 5. So where do I situate Asylum of the Daleks and what does it augur for the future?
First, it takes a brave man to start a new series with a Dalek story. The Daleks are so popular they are a great fallback at a later time if the initial episodes don't go down well and Steven Moffat must be sure of his plans to have blown his fuse at the first hurdle. Fortunately for him, he has got it right and we are off to a flying start. The great thing about Asylum of the Daleks is that the story doesn't get in the way of all the rest. It is so simple it could have been written by a schoolchild. The Daleks kidnap the Doctor and companions to switch off a forcefield so they can blow up the Asylum planet (and destroy the Doctor at the same time). Makes Rose sound like a contender for the best scenario at the Oscars (plastic people invading Earth), doesn't it? So what does it have going for it?
We discover the sense behind the 5 mini-episodes of Pond Life with Amy and Rory's disharmony<!-Rory delivering the divorce papers to Amy after she has thrown him out->. As we know that they will be leaving the series <!-under tragic circumstances-> in episode 5, this leaves us with merely 4 more episodes to find out how their relationship will turn out and wonder how it will all end; will it be a repeat of Sally Sparrow and Billy Shipton?
After a series-long break we have the return of the Daleks. Just one more of the never-ending Dalek saga? Will they run out of titles for them one day? Well, this is one case where their presence is well worth it. Once again, Steven Moffat shows us his brilliance at creating a sense of terror. Strangely enough, just like the Weeping Angels, the Daleks are never more terrifying than when they are dormant rather than running around screaming "Ex-ter-min-ate". This episode has plenty of atmosphere and is one of the best Dalek episodes ever.
This episode has more twists and turns than an Olympic downhill skiing event and the surprise inclusion of a certain someone the most shocking<!-future companion Jenna-Louise Coleman. This immediately demands the question "did SM choose her for next companion after her part in this or does it have something to do with her future arrival?" No matter what,-> Nothing can prepare you for the meeting between her and the Doctor, which will surely go down as one of the greatest moments in the history of the programme.
Finally, after so many series which were wasted by a 13-part arc, we now have a series clearly split into two parts. Asylum of the Daleks has just set off what will probably be the greatest series ever in the 50 years of Doctor Who. 10/10
God is in the details, and they're mental! by Clement Tang 8/10/13
This review is filled with spoilers because, let's face it, every detail is important. So read at your own risk. And if you do read this, remember that the title is positive. One thing that I really like about this episode is that the atmosphere fits. Everything about the asylum is so dark and mysterious. I couldn't laugh one bit, but I was so engrossed into the story. The details are really good. One flaw is the random orchestra music. Really, that did not lift the mood.
Once again, Rory's and Amy's relationship is explored. If you have never watched Pond Life, you'll have no idea that Amy and Rory had been hostile for a while. Already, they're divorcing. Their relationship is rocky and we have no idea why until much later in the story. Moffat makes sure that Rory mentions his wait in The Big Bang (which is getting a little bit tiresome). He mentions that he demonstrated the strength of his love to her with that event. Then Amy rebuts by stating that what had happened in A Good Man Goes To War made her infertile and she gave up Rory because he wants children. She wants him to be happy but she can't do it, so she gives him up. Their relationship is rekindled at the end. Sorry if this part seems lazy, but it's ridiculous how much Moffat plays this love arc.
Fortunately, he redeems it in the plot. We've always know Daleks were manufactured, but we've never wondered what happens to faulty Daleks. That's where the asylum comes in. And then finding out about the nanoclouds that converts humans into partial Daleks. Because of that, the scene in the Alaska ship was really frightening. Also because of that, we understand the changes through Amy when she loses her wristband that can heal her. I'm also pleasantly surprised that there is a Parliament of the Daleks. I saw remnants of past Daleks come back. I love the nostalgia factor. This episode is filled with surprises.
But the biggest surprise isn't the divorce. It isn't the Parliament, the nanoclouds, the asylum etc. It's a surprise appearance by a certain woman named Oswin Oswald. She is supposed to be the companion next year, so Moffat is planning something else again. And the last scene where she finds out that her intelligence was so great she needed to be a Dalek, it's heartbreaking. She fooled herself for a year that she was a human and that the revelation kicks in. I wonder how she'll come back. Already, I like her. She has such a great personality.
The previous series asked the oldest question of "Doctor Who?" When Oswin deleted all info of the Doctor from the Daleks, all the Daleks were asking that very question. How will Moffat play the arc? I don't know, but the series looks promising.
"We'll always have Skaro" by Thomas Cookson 6/3/14
This for me is the high point of a problematic half-season run.
It's also been heavily panned by fans. MrTardisReviews described it as the worst New Who season opener overall. I can appreciate reasons why, and the story's flaws. But still I feel compelled to defend this story.
I'll jump to the big criticism. The Pond's divorce. There were rumours Rory would die in the Ponds' last story, and when information leaked about the divorce, I felt like Moffat was going for a crass softening of the blow by having Rory mean less to Amy than he used to.
Perhaps the divorce wouldn't be so jarring if we'd last seen them both in Wedding of River Song, where Amy coldly, viciously killed Madam Kovarian. It almost could make sense of the divorce. The pent up corrosive anger and guilt that Amy now has toward Rory, and realisation that she's been changed, she's not the innocent woman Rory fell in love with anymore, and she can't feel secure anymore.
But we saw them in The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, being the very image of marital happiness (a sweet scene in an otherwise terrible story). So the transition here feels jarring. In fact, typical of Moffat lately, there's no transition, just 'this is suddenly the way things are now'. Maybe no one would tell Moffat that something's missing here. Or maybe, no matter how hard Moffat hammered the script, it only made things worse, whilst production deadlines and future pending scripts forced him to go with it anyway. In fact, whilst Moffat's scripts lately have felt rushed, they've also felt overlaboured in the wrong areas.
I think, for many people, even if they could buy the Ponds tossing away every serious gesture of commitment they'd made to each other, this is still a far too vicious, acrimonious split to associate with them. The central point is that Moffat is writing this as any divorce, possibly even based on memories of his own. The vicious hurtful words, frayed tempers and toxic inability to share a room together for five minutes. But it doesn't feel right with these two characters. Sure, a substantial portion of the audience wanted Rory to occasionally bite back at Amy's many insensitive put-downs over the last two seasons, but we know it's not in his nature, and that it's not in Amy's nature to maliciously cut that deep. I firmly believe the hateful older Rory that Amy encounters in The Doctor's Wife was an illusion, not a genuine alternate future. After all, that false Rory accused Amy of abandoning him for 2000 years, and the real Rory would remember she'd done no such thing. It was because he'd shot her that she ended up in the Pandorica.
The main criticism stems from the reason why they split up, which is Amy's infertility after the events of Demons Run. Some even taking objection to how Moffat handles such a sensitive real-life issue crassly, or the idea that Amy should consider herself worthless as Rory's wife, with nothing to offer him anymore now she can't give him children (can't they just adopt?). Why did this reason never come up during the seven months of a separation period, and why's Amy directing so much venomous anger to Rory? It feels like a flimsy justification after the fact.
Many complain how in A Good Man Goes to War itself, it was never mentioned that the Silents had sterilized Amy. But it fits perfectly with the fact that Amy was unconscious in their captivity for so long and so there's all manner of terrible things they could have done to her reproductive system in that time. Plus it makes pragmatic sense that if they wanted a Time Lord baby as their weapon, they would only want one they could control, and would want to ensure that Amy can't give birth to more superbabies like River.
Overall, despite these flaws and issues, the divorce and infertility subplot worked for me. Simply because, in Series 6, the emotional repercussions of what happened to Amy and Rory at Demons Run and the losing of their baby became non-existent, and the characters both flatlined emotionally because of it, becoming ciphers. This was the first full-blooded hint of the emotional impact that Demons Run had on Amy, and so it gave me my emotional investment back, like a sudden resuscitation. I wish they'd carried this issue through the season rather than resolving the issue in one go here, thus shooting the emotional arc in the foot. I think Moffat wanted the divorce at the beginning of this half season to bookend with them reasserting their marriage pact in their final story. But Moffat seems to miss that it's the journey as much as the destination that matters.
If Moffat was working through issues with his own divorce, the viewpoint taken is unusual. Given on the Eleventh Doctor's petulant man-child nature, he essentially adopts the role of the child of the divorcees who wants his parents to get back together and can't understand why they won't, and why they can't stand each other anymore. The Doctor of course being the fantasy fulfilment figure, the boy with the know-how to actually fix his parents' marriage. This is actually very sweetly done, and pre-emptively echoes how the Doctor will feel when they're gone. The horror to a child of knowing something wonderful is coming to an end and things will never be the same again.
The opening modelling scene is symbolic of this. Not just the 'love' and 'hate' memes on Amy's hands, but how she's buried herself in a much more metropolitan and hyperkinetic modelling lifestyle, as if speeding away from her old life and leaving it in the dust. It feels like she has let her past happy life be jettisoned in baggage to the scrapheap. And that time has moved mercilessly on.
Okay, so there are slight structural flaws with the Dalek and Oswin plot. I can't help think the Parliament of Daleks element needed cutting out. It's introduced in a way that causes whiplash. A side effect of doing away with two-parters is that it feels like the teaser is now mispaced to provide a cliffhanger. But if you can have the Doctor survive being in the court of several thousand trigger-happy Daleks, then, suspense-wise, the story almost has nowhere else to go. They'll never be up against that many Daleks in the Asylum. And so it feels like if the Doctor can survive those ridiculous odds in the opening, he can survive anything.
Also it would make more sense if the Doctor actually heard Oswin's distress call himself on the TARDIS's telepathic circuits, which would allow the later twist of who she really is to make more sense.
Now the scenes in the Asylum are very atmospheric and gripping, because things are scaled down. Because the more dormant and decrepit the Daleks are, the more frightening they become when they gradually come alive and immediately try to kill. These Daleks feel more lethal than they have since Rob Shearman wrote them. It's a very emotive environment of redundancy and despair, where Daleks brood without a function, reduced to scrap. The pitiful misery of the Asylum is conveyed brilliantly. Enough to make the Daleks feel sympathetic, or like for once they are the ones trapped in someone else's nightmare. It's taken several years but finally we have the first TV Dalek story since 2005 to actually feel worthy of Big Finish.
I just wish they'd not overshadowed this better, scaled-down concept with the over-scaled opening.
However, I have some issues with the Doctor's characterisation. In principle, I like that the Daleks are an empire again. Suddenly the nature of the Time War's outcome has changed back to arguably how it should have been from the beginning. It was no longer mutually assured destruction. Now it's a war that the Daleks outright won. With the Time Lords gone, nothing stands in the Daleks' way of expanding their empire and destroying all lesser species in their path.
But, the Doctor should care, and the story's bookends almost go out of their way to suggest he doesn't. It actually makes me pine for Resurrection of the Daleks. When you're missing your least-favourite classic Doctor, something's gone wrong. He treats Hannah's distressed mother with shocking coldness and seems resigned to the fact that the Daleks have masses of humans kept in inescapable slave camps and seems happy to let them fend for themselves. Even though back in Victory of the Daleks he had a chance to prevent any of this happening. The Doctor stepping back into the shadows and no longer being the overbearing superhero he was, I can go with. This, however, threatens the very reason to watch the show at all.
See I think what appeals to people, particularly children, outsiders and autistic people in the 'white noise' spectrum, is that the aloof Doctor exists in a jolly, imaginative world of his own, on a separate higher intellectual plane, despite the nasty universe he inhabits. So he should come off as naive and negligent. Sometimes he does. But largely his methods work precisely because of his detached pragmatism and otherworldly, untainted confidence, and his shrewd knowledge of how to win through more Zen means, through gentle, deflective action or subtle persuasion. Teaching how ordinary people can endure adversity or make a difference for the better simply by doing 'the right kind of a little'. But there's a terrible potential, all too often fulfilled, for stories to use this against the Doctor and prove his methods ineffectual when writers want to contrive a downbeat defeatist ending. Or to make him come across as passive aggressive, obtusely self-obsessed and even downright calloused.
This is frustrating because this story shows both his effectiveness as a shrewd one-man warrior and a callous, defeatist unwillingness on his part to put it to good use to help those in need. A perfect example of the former is when he uses the Daleks' own suicidal martyrdom against them and destroys a whole squad of them in a great punch-the-air moment. And yet, why is he applying that propensity for Dalek destruction to obsolete Daleks stranded here, and not the ones who actually are a threat to the wider cosmos? By the end the Doctor just seems jubilant that the Daleks can't identify him and leaves. What about the slaves? What about the robotized sleeper agents they have on Earth who abducted Amy and Rory and might be preparing for invasion? I think actually the conclusion was a completely wrong turn. The fate of Oswin should have gotten under the Doctor's cold exterior and made him decide to do something about the Dalek threat and the conclusion should have been him administering vengeful bloodshed for Oswin. A woman's love redeeming his earlier callousness.
It's not that I don't like the story we have, but it makes me pine for ways it could have been really satisfying, and there are so many frustrating ways it could have done.
But that aloof-white-noise aspect really works with Oswin, as she exists in a dreamscape, and a metal cage functioning as a symbolic womb, waiting to be born to enjoy a life of love and bliss that can never happen. The Moffat trope of the sassy flirty woman is framed suddenly as a heartbreaking cry for help, a need for love and intimacy that can never be fulfilled.
It's hard to escape a sense that the emotional impact is mainly coming from Nick Hurran's shrewd direction. Like in The Girl Who Waited, he frames confined spaces, painful separations, emotional barriers, beautiful dreamscapes that inevitably come crashing down and nightmare futures where raw human emotion is spliced into machines incapable of love or affection. Cruel changing states alongside stunted lives and emotional prisons.
Here New Who made me cry for the first time.
Renaissance of the Daleks by Mike Morris 13/12/14
Asylum of the Daleks is the story where I thought that some sort of logjam had been freed; the story where - without wishing to be grandiose about it - I felt like I could get behind Doctor Who again. It's the start of a fairly new way of approaching Doctor Who for Steven Moffat and, while he hasn't quite got everything nailed down yet, it's the most exciting Doctor Who story since... well, since The Eleventh Hour, if I'm honest.
This isn't meant to be a review where I praise one story as an excuse to criticise others, but context is everything and there's no getting away from the fact that Series Six reduced my faith in the show to an incoherent black puddle on the floor. Now, I don't have any grasp of what fandom - if we're going to describe it as the monolithic block it clearly isn't - actually thinks about anything, but a trip round the internet suggests I wasn't alone. Some of the more common complaints I read: it's too weighed down by an over-complex story-arc. It's obsessed with being dark and in some places unpleasant. The Doctor does some very questionable things. River Song is annoying.
Now, I think all the above are fair observations. However, even if they're not to my taste, none of these things are empirically bad; there's nothing wrong with complex storylines or moral ambiguity. I might not like them, but nor do I get to define exactly what Doctor Who should or shouldn't be. It all skirts a bit close to something Mike Heinrich said about RTD-bashers in his review of Series Two - in short, that "I don't like the moral don't-stick-a-fork-in-a-toaster so any story that features the moral don't-stick-a-fork-in-a-toaster is automatically incompetent" isn't actually a valid objective criticism.
The problem, in my view, is that Series Six is... sloppy. It's just badly done. It's not that the Silence arc is too complicated, it's that it's poorly crafted and requires people to behave bizarrely to maintain its structure. ("Why was an alien species, covertly in control of mankind, augmenting a little girl into something unknown? What could they possibly - ah who cares, let's bugger off and have adventures." That's not quite a direct quote but it's close.) It's not that the 'darkness' is annoying, it's that the lights are often turned down whether it's appropriate to the story or not. It's not that the Doctor's sometimes nasty, it's that there's no reason for him not to explain what's happening before he apparently slaughters a woman in front of her husband. It's not that River Song is annoying, it's... OK, OK, it's that River Song is annoying.
That's a thumbnail, rather than a full critique. But here's my central point; Series Seven also contains elements I don't much like (see my Night of the Doctor braindump for more) but it - and Asylum of the Daleks in particular - is so assured, so confident and achieved with such conviction that these things don't matter anywhere near as much. Doing things well covers a multitude of sins: I'd still prefer if the two-parters hadn't been junked, but that's less of a problem if the one-parters are good. And by stumbling onto the idea of forty-five minute mini-films, Doctor Who finally seems to have recovered from an identity crisis and figured out where it's going. For all the crassness of Moffat's "movie poster" and "slutty title" rhetoric, it achieves something important; every story feels like an event again.
A lot of what makes Asylum of the Daleks work is that it goes for big, spectacular set-pieces and pulls them off well. It's also got cracking visual ideas. The pre-title sequence alone is brimming with them - the Dalek homeworld replete with giant sculptures (exactly the sort of thing neo-fascists like the Daleks would do), the beyond-the-edges-of-the-screen world-building in the talk of labour camps, the downright creepy agents used to capture the regulars. It also sets up a new dynamic for Amy and Rory with just a few lines of dialogue, and the parliament of the Daleks - kind of a stupid idea, if we're honest - gets by just from the sheer scale of the notion. Steven Moffat has always been able to construct intricate, self-sustaining worlds; now he's trying to suggest a galaxy-spanning empire, and it's breathtaking.
The forty-five minute stricture does mean a lot of loose ends. The following compliment might sound slightly backhanded, but I mean it genuinely; the brilliance of Asylum of the Daleks lies in the ease with which it papers over the cracks. Ultimately the story rests on the completely ridiculous notion that a planet full of insane and dangerous Daleks is protected by a forcefield that can only be deactivated from within. That's beyond stupid. But it doesn't really matter, because just as you're thinking "Well god only knows why no one escapes from Dalek labour camps, since you presumably hide the keys in the cells" you're distracted by the sight of the Doctor, Amy and Rory being fired from an orbiting spaceship towards the planet like corks from a toy gun.
It's a surprisingly simple plot, especially for a Moffat story. The Doctor and friends have to blow up a macguffin. That's it. In fact, this is the most blatant macguffin in the series' history; can you even remember how the Doctor blows up the forcefield? I sure as hell can't, because that bit doesn't really matter. The story's core lies with the Doctor's impromptu rescue mission for Oswin Oswald, and that has nothing to do with the grand setup at all. They could have just had the Doctor and pals land on the planet by accident for all the difference it makes - the parliament of Daleks doesn't serve any story function, it's just spectacle and nothing more (a damn fine spectacle, mind).
So really this story's about the environment and whatever set-pieces can be thrown in the characters' way. The various subplots and details just about knit together without feeling disjointed; for example, Amy's encounter with "survivors" is a standalone set-piece that doesn't have much connection with anything else, except for that thing with her bracelet - but the bracelet introduces the nifty idea of Dalek nanothings, which in turn forces the character issues with Rory to the forefront, and so on. The story's just a string of ideas, making it feel bigger than its 45 minutes, even if they only just relate to each other.
If I have a problem with Asylum of the Daleks, it's that neither of the character plots work as well as they should. Rory and Amy is the most obviously problematic. We meet them as they're on the verge of getting divorced. They spar and sulk a bit while going through the obligatory bonding experience. Then, towards the end, Amy blurts out something she's been hiding, and everything is fine. Sorry, but adult relationships don't work that way; they aren't on the point of ending and then solved in an hour. It feels like the TV-construct it is. The obvious rebuttal is "Well you can't treat relationship issues with the same depth as Our Friends In The North, this is Doctor Who." But the obvious response to that is "Fine. So don't do it."
What's worse is the truth Amy reveals. It's hard to discuss this without spoilers, but... look, this is something that's deeply traumatic for many, many people and tears a lot of relationships apart. Using it as an "ah-ha!" moment is tasteless and crass, particularly when it's mentioned in this one scene and then never hinted at again. Yes it's unconvincing, but it's also terribly inappropriate, for exactly the same reason that the line "The Rani's greatest weakness is the psychological trauma she suffered when she was raped by her great-uncle when she was eleven. Quick, hand me my sonic screwdriver!" would be grotesque.
The Doctor and Oswin don't have the same obvious problems, but it's still not completely satisfying. Jenna-Louise Coleman has, over the course of Series Eight, become cemented in my mind as the best actress to play a companion in New Series Who. But here she's stuck with a role that's effectively a collection of all the tics and quirks Moffatt injects into all his female characters. She makes the best of it - her flirting with both the Doctor and Rory is genuinely funny ("You two could fence" made me laugh out loud) and her delivery of lines like "no idea - I've never met you" puts more depth into the character than is contained on the page. Smith, by the same token, can do put-upon comedy falling off a log. But ultimately the two share prolonged banter rather than conversation, and none of it quite seems real until...
...well, until that conclusion. It's a long time since a shock twist actually shocked me, but this surely did. This is partly because there's been some cheating in the buildup (both the Doctor and Rory hear Oswin's actual voice) but it packs enough wallop that such things don't really matter. It's also brilliantly directed, with the intercutting between Oswin and the Doctor really capturing the horror of the situation.
(For completeness, I'm going to note that a friend of mine really, really didn't like the conclusion. His point is that the Doctor effectively rejects Oswin because of appearances, not because we've established she's actually dangerous. Ultimately she's entirely in control of her own mind, after all. I don't quite subscribe to this - I think it's implied that Oswin is clinging on to who she is, but will succumb sooner or later - but it's certainly not made entirely clear and he has a valid point. So I'll mention it and move on.)
Overall, Asylum of the Daleks is a triumph. It sets the tone for a season that's brash, expansive and exciting, it's got some great set-pieces and is also very funny. I personally think Moffatt didn't quite get to grips with his new approach until The Bells of St John, but this is a big step towards an altogether more exciting show and it remains an engaging watch.
Oh, and not that I fall for fanboy touches but... the Special Weapons Dalek is in it. Hooray!
Careful, dear, you'll put someone's eye out by Evan Weston 8/8/19
My Series 6 reviews, particularly those directly concerning the arc plot, spoke at great length of the failure of Steven Moffat's attempt to serialize Doctor Who. Clearly Moffat agreed with me, and so Series 7 goes in the complete opposite direction: not only is there no season-long arc (other than the Clara mystery, which is dealt with in four episodes and is merely in the background of two of those, including this one), but there aren't even any two-parters! We have 13 fresh-faced, standalone "blockbusters", each meant to send up a different genre of movie with a twist of Doctor Who. It's an awesome idea, one executed with good to mixed results. The first part of Series 7 is, however, very good overall, and the king of these five stories - and possibly the entire season - is Asylum of the Daleks.
While future episodes will specify a genre and run with it, Asylum of the Daleks seems to simply send up Dalek episodes of Doctor Who, and it's a lovely homage indeed. Every type of Dalek ever invented makes a cameo appearance, even the vaunted Special Weapons Dalek. The most prevalent returner is the Russell T Davies Dalek, used to such menacing effect in Series 1. Thankfully, we only get a brief appearance from the New Paradigm (Power Ranger) Daleks, and it's only the white one. I totally buy that, upon return, the Daleks would look to expand their fleet back to full strength and create a Parliament, run by a Prime Minister given lovely form by the production team and an even lovelier, gently nasty voice by Nicholas Briggs, who does stellar work for this episode.
It's a cracker, too, running at a much faster pace than any episode since at least The Pandorica Opens, if not all the way back to The Eleventh Hour. The Doctor, Amy and Rory are kidnapped and sent on their way within the first ten minutes, and a lot happens down on the Asylum in the next 35. It's worth noting that Asylum of the Daleks is roughly five minutes longer than the average episode of Doctor Who, and yet it feels even shorter than a normal episode. This pace never gets too quick, though, as the action on screen is far too captivating for that. The Daleks get no fewer than four big action set pieces, there's a time limit counting down Amy's transformation into a Dalek, and a certain souffle girl pops up five episodes early to keep our jaws firmly dropped...
We have, shockingly enough, the Doctor Who debut of Jenna Coleman, then going by her full name Jenna-Louise. While I'll obviously discuss her new companion Clara at great length over the course of the series, I'll wager that Coleman is never better than she is as the delightfully peppy and snarky Oswin Oswald in Asylum of the Daleks. She's hilarious, intriguing, drop-dead gorgeous, and absolutely robs every scene she's in blind. If Moffat wanted to reassure his fans that the Ponds' impending departure wasn't going to hurt the show, this was some way to do it. Even with all the awesome that is this story, Coleman is definitively the best thing in it, and that's an extremely impressive first go from an actress tasked with being the main companion in perhaps the show's most important episode ever, The Day of the Doctor.
While she's funny and charming throughout, Coleman also handles her character's gruesome end with subtle grace, allowing us to see what Clara will look like in a darker moment. The plot twist itself - Oswin has been converted into a Dalek - is one of Moffat's best ever. I'll even go as far as to say it's his best bit of storytelling since the Billy Shipton sequence in Blink. Moffat lays out plenty of clues to tip the audience off, and at times it becomes a bit too obvious, but it's handled so subtly by Moffat and Matt Smith and there are so many other things happening that you don't realize what's happened to Oswin until right before the revelation, which makes it all the more powerful for the audience. It's certainly not cheap, like half the River Song arc, and it makes perfect thematic sense within the context of the episode.
The main themes at play here are the Doctor's relationships with the Daleks and with his companions. The Doctor and the Daleks are, at this point, basically playing a game of chicken, as both fear the other above all else. The Doctor, of course, is astonished by this, and he doesn't quite come to terms with it until he sees Oswin in her Dalek shell, forcing the two sides out of stalemate and into a new future. She grants the Doctor a way to live with himself, which is what all great companions do in the end. It's a hint of what's to come from Clara and her mystery, which has its ups and downs but gets off to a great start here and comes to a strong conclusion in The Name of the Doctor.
Of course, the Ponds are also hanging around, and they threaten to burden the episode with too many players. But Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill make sure that doesn't happen, with both turning in different and surprising performances in their now two-and-a-half year-old roles. Gillan is plastered in makeup and looks like a hollow shell of the old Amy Pond, her life taken away first by her husband and then by the Daleks. Rory looks cynical, a trait we'd never have pinned on him previously, and Darvill carries it off well. The divorce subplot has its positives and negatives: it definitely keeps us interested in the Ponds even though they don't have much of a place in this story, but it often feels sort of tacked onto the script, as if Moffat knew we wouldn't care about Amy and Rory unless he gave them something extra-special to do. Still, the scene in which they reunite is so powerful and so singularly Pond that I can't help but praise it. Moffat cuts right to the core of the relationship for the first time ever - other writers like MacRae, Whithouse and Nye have done it, but not the showrunner - and Gillan and Darvill respond with two of the best performances in their time on Doctor Who. Watch it and bawl.
Moffat then expects you to jump back in fright in the very next scene, as his Daleks are crawling everywhere. It's great to have them both back and not sucking, and I mentioned the terrific way in which they were reintroduced, but they still aren't quite knocking on the fear factor the way they did in Series 1. They are, for the first time since Doomsday, a fine threat, but they aren't quite the Daleks. They don't kill anybody onscreen, and when their actions concerning Oswin are revealed, they're shown in quick flashbacks without a Dalek actually appearing. The only moment in which the Daleks are truly horrifying, ironically enough, is when Coleman mutters "ex...ter...mi...nate" and sets off to kill the Doctor. For all that's going on in Asylum of the Daleks, the margin of error was not wide, and the Daleks just miss this time around. I walked away thinking they need one more episode to reach their former glory.
But, while the Daleks might be the weakest point of their own story, they're still good, and there's nothing about Asylum of the Daleks that isn't at least entertaining. Nick Hurran's direction steers the ship marvelously in that regard, leading us through suffocating Asylum corridors and slowing things down when necessary while still imposing a frenetic pace. His best moment comes during a slow part, when Amy sees a dancing ballerina spinning in the back end of a room. It, and all the other guests, are revealed to be Daleks, in a sickening and heart-stopping scene.
This is an action-packed blockbuster, no doubt, and Series 7 never gets closer to achieving its goal than in Asylum of the Daleks. Moffat builds his story on a phenomenal performance from Coleman (and, I should mention, Matt Smith, whose Doctor is nicely contemplative and dramatically more mature throughout) and lets it go from there into a narrow, focused thriller that never lets up. Yes, there's a bit too much crammed in there for even 50 minutes, and maybe it doesn't have the gravitas of the greatest Doctor Who, but it's damn close, and for a show that's been running as long as this one, those are fantastic words.
"Lock Me in the Looney Bin" by Aristide Twain 25/9/19
Now, first, it goes without saying that Asylum of the Daleks is a very fine piece of television, carried by a stellar cast (including Coleman!), great direction, creative musics, convincing effects and occasionally stunning visual imagination.
All that being understood, here is why I kinda hate it.
You see, Asylum is a prime example of Steven Moffat using what Dr Sandifer of the TARDIS Eruditorum has cleverly dubbed "narrative substitution": making it seem as though the story is going to be about one thing, which the audience thinks they see coming from a mile away, then pulling the rug from under their feet and making them feel silly and slightly ashamed for having yearned for the other thing. It is, more specifically, a prime example of it failing.
Because it promised us the Asylum of the Daleks, and instead gave us a cheap straight-to-DVD movie about cyberpunk zombies. I don't wanna hear about nanites converting the dead! Even if it weren't a cheap melodramatic ploy besides, I wouldn't give a damn about Rory and Amy's divorce right now! And no, I don't care about how they're going to get around those dusty corridors without waking up the monsters! I want the monsters to wake up, dagnabit! In an episode called Asylum of the Daleks, about a planet full of Daleks who were too murder-crazy to keep around even by Dalek standards, I expect to see me some crazy Daleks. Get that?
But no, what we get is those idiotically designed Dalek-zombie things and a bunch of empty Dalek props lining corridors, catatonic. (Hey, Moffat, know what you could have done to throw the fans a bone and sidestep that awful design choice? Bring back the bleeding Robomen instead of these cheap knockoffs.) What does it matter if the shield keeping all the Daleks inside fails, really? None of them seem like they can muster the willpower to move a bit, let alone flee the planet and wreak havoc throughout the galaxy as the Dalek Prime Minister fears they might.
You know that moment, when that periscope-thing pops out of the snow and moves about in whimsical ways, and it confuses the hell out of Amy, Rory and the Doctor? When I first saw that, I expected it to be the eyestalk of a crazy Dalek who was frolicking below the snow for reasons known only to its bent mind... but no, it was Clara.
Right, let's talk about Clara, or, I suppose, Oswin. She's awesome and everything - perhaps slightly too awesome: I know I am not alone in thinking that this Oswin and the Clara from The Snowmen would have made much more compelling companions than the Clara we got, who was yet another present-day person with a hazily defined occupation - and inasmuch as the narrative substitution works, it does so in that watching Oswin bake souffles and quip while listening to Bizet is an acceptable substitute for Nicholas Briggs doing "kookoo-bananas Daleks". I still wish we'd gotten to hear the latter too, but both are fun.
But that twist...
...look, I get that some famous stories did it before this one. But, dang it, I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now.
The Daleks should not be converting people.
That is the Cybermen's thing.
This should be obvious, but somehow isn't, and a story nominally about celebrating 50 years of Daleks ends up hinging on the revelation that the Daleks randomly seized a human woman (because she was "a genius", we are lazily told) and converted her into a Dalek, whom they then... proceeded to lock up in the basement? Huh? But never mind that last bit. The whole idea's very questionable, and inasmuch as it was worth anything at all, it certainly didn't belong in a story called Asylum of the Daleks.
Directly related, of course, is the idea, here introduced by Moffat, of the "Dalek pathweb". Not that the Daleks shouldn't have a communications network and shared databank, of course: it's just common sense that they should have one. But it would appear that these databanks are all the memory that the Daleks have. Wiping the Doctor from the onboard computers of the travel machines is all fine and good, but why does it result in the Prime Minister, who just had a witty chat with the Doctor forty minutes ago, to personally forget his existence? And ditto for all the Daleks who were right in the middle of chasing him when Oswin hit the "Erase" button.
Again, Moffat gets his Daleks and his Cybermen confused, but there's really no good justification for why the Daleks appear to not have any biological memory in their actual brains. The Daleks aren't cyborgs, not in the same fully integrated sense as the Cybermen. The casings are travel machines, mini-tanks that the mutants are forced to use because they're squishy and impotent on their own, but expecting them to forget you because you erased yourself from the casing's built-in computer shouldn't work, any more than you'll forget your home exists if someone hacks the GPS system in your car.
Oh, and I get that the BBC wouldn't have allowed anything that dark (not to mention it would have screwed up the Impossible Girl arc quite a bit), but you know the fix I thought of, to remove both the daft 'Dalek cyberconversion' idea and fulfill the title's promise to show us some crazy Daleks?
Oswin should have been a Dalek.
Not a converted human. A crazy, but genetically 'pure', Dalek. One of those the rest of the Empire locked up in the Asylum because they were delusional nutjobs. This particular nutjob's delusion being that it thought it was a human.