Sunday, 16 September 2012

Doctor Who - Asylum of the Daleks


My earliest memory of Doctor Who involves the Daleks. It is from the Jon Pertwee story, “Day of the Daleks”, the moment when the Daleks exterminate the Controller for betraying them. His last words as the Daleks screech “Exterminate!” are, “Who knows? Maybe I’ve just helped to exterminate you.” That scene had a very powerful effect on me. It scared the living daylights out of me! For quite some time, Doctor Who and the Daleks became synonymous with horror as far as I was concerned. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw that episode. The story was made in 1972 (a year before I was born), but TV Ontario (which was the most likely station I saw it on while my mom was watching it, although it might have been a PBS station) at the time was generally a couple years behind in broadcasting the series, and then would repeat stories yet another couple years later, so in all likelihood, I was around three or four years old.

I find it interesting to compare the responses people have to the Daleks. In my experience (which I know doesn’t really count as a conclusive survey of all viewers, but bear with me), people introduced to Doctor Who as children (such as myself or a few of my friends) were terrified by the Daleks and today, although not so terrified anymore, consider the Daleks as the iconic adversaries of the Doctor, brilliant and awesome. People introduced to Doctor Who as adults (such as my wife) think the Daleks are laughable, dull, and utterly un-scary, and are sick to death of them showing up over and over again (although this is actually now their first appearance in two years).

In recent years, there has been some criticism amongst even the most hardened Dalek fans that the Daleks have lost a lot of their scare factor. Although the Dalek stories of the Russel T Davies years were epic in scope, with modern special effects finally allowing massive Dalek armies to appear on screens, there is valid criticism that the Daleks were too easily defeated. Huge armies look great, but they have to be stopped, so they are all wiped out...only to return next time with a bigger army and a bigger plan...then get wiped out again. The Daleks’ last appearance in “Victory of the Daleks” was meant to reverse that trend somewhat, by allowing the Daleks to not get wiped out at the end. Unfortunately, fans did not respond well to “Victory of the Daleks”. The story was poor, the characters nothing but caricatures (especially the Santa Claus version of Winston Churchill), and the new design of the Daleks themselves was horrible.

In the season’s opener, “Asylum of the Daleks”, Steven Moffat promised to return the scare factor to the Daleks, to return their chills and thrills, and to make viewers want to hide behind the sofa once more. Has he succeeded? I think for children, without a doubt. For more critical adults, perhaps not so much. There are definitely some chilling moments in this episode, some thrills and excitement, and an excellent performance from its surprise guest star. Overall, I’d have to say the episode works. It’s far from perfect and there are some significant issues with it, but I did enjoy it. It’s without doubt a step up from many recent episodes (particularly the dreadful Christmas special), and it makes a decent season opener.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Asylum of the Daleks” certainly looks spectacular, particularly the opening shots showing the ruins of the Dalek homeworld, Skaro (apparently no longer destroyed, but since the universe was reset a couple of seasons ago, it’s hard to know what still did or didn’t happen). The giant Dalek-shaped building is at once both ridiculous and yet strangely fits one’s expectations of the Daleks. The production team certainly spared no expense giving this episode the look of a full-blown movie (Moffat has commented that they want all the episodes of this season to have a stand-alone movie feel to them). Even the title sequence has been tweaked to give it a slightly new, edgier look (and I am immensely relieved that the horrid TARDIS-shaped “DW” in the middle of the logo is finally gone). Tighter bugets in the last couple of seasons have resulted in a few episodes looking rather cheaper than the ones that came just a couple years before, but “Asylum” certainly doesn’t suffer from that problem.

However, there is a lot more to a good story than looking good, and while “Asylum” pulls off much of what it needs to be a good story, it has a few stumbling blocks along the way. The premise itself is very good. The idea that the Daleks have a whole planet set aside for their own insane is an intriguing concept. Unfortunately, once we get down to the planet, we never really see what sets the Daleks there apart from the ones who put them there. These Daleks are all coming out of hibernation and are sluggish. While this helps keep the heroes alive, it gives us no insight into why these Daleks were considered so terrible that even their own kind couldn’t keep them around. This is a shame as I absolutely love the idea that the Daleks consider hatred the purest form of beauty. Too often, Dalek stories fall into the trap of thinking the Daleks are like Cybermen: emotionless and bound by logic. Even their own creator, Terry Nation, fell into this trap sometimes (see 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks”). But the Daleks have never been emotionless. From their very first appearance, they have been beings driven by hate and fear. Yes, fear. Fear of anything different from them. So hatred being beauty is a wonderful insight into Dalek character and culture, something the show desperately needs in order to elevate the Daleks beyond just tin pepper pots who shout, “Exterminate!” As such, I found it very disappointing that we don’t actually get to see this “divine hatred” that has resulted in the Daleks creating a whole world for their insane because they can’t bring themselves to destroy creatures of such beauty. The Daleks in the Asylum seem like nothing more than regular Daleks with a few mechanical problems.

It’s also a shame we don’t really get to see more of the old-style Daleks. In advance of this episode, Steven Moffat proclaimed that it would contain “every Dalek ever”, and publicity shots showed Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill posing with Dalek props from the old series, even ones from the sixties. Those Daleks are in the episode amongst the Daleks in the Asylum. Even the special weapons Dalek from 1989’s “Remembrance of the Daleks” is there. But you have to look carefully to notice them, as they’re never in the forefront. All the ones in the forefront are new series Daleks. Strangely, even the Daleks in intensive care, the ones specifically stated to be survivors of those old stories are new series Daleks. Shouldn’t those have been the ones they used the old props for? To be nit-picky, most of those occasions referenced (like Exxilon) had no Dalek survivors, so there shouldn’t even be any Daleks there in the first place. (Oh, and to be super nit-picky, they pronounce Spiridon wrong. To be fair, they pronounce it the way the word actually looks, not the way it was actually pronounced in 1973’s “Planet of the Daleks”. The same mistake was made in “Remembrance of the Daleks”.) Of course, these references to old stories are not things most viewers (who have never seen those stories) are likely to get, and they don’t intrude on the story at all. As such, they constitute a very minor complaint.

I mentioned earlier that Dalek stories often fall into the trap of treating Daleks like Cybermen. It’s odd that this story completely avoids that trap in one way (acknowledging Dalek emotions and their concept of “divine hatred”), yet completely falls into it in a very different way. Since when have Daleks turned people into Daleks? They sometimes capture and enslave, yes. They have been known to turn people into near automatons (Robomen), but they don’t turn them into Daleks. That’s a Cyberman trait. Daleks don’t want their own kind tainted by other kinds. Daleks exterminate other Daleks that aren’t pure enough (see “Victory of the Daleks” and “Remembrance of the Daleks”). When Dalek Sek (in “Daleks in Manhattan”), the supreme commander of the Cult of Skaro, contemplated that there were valuable attributes in humans that the Daleks could learn from and then actually made himself half human, the rest of the cult exterminated him. Yet now we learn that the nanobots on the Asylum will fully convert humans who are intelligent enough into Daleks. I have to say, I don’t buy it. Maybe the nanobots are insane too?

There’s also the matter of the hive mind, or rather “Path Web”. The Daleks have never had anything like this before, and the idea that someone can simply erase information from Dalek minds like they’re computers just doesn’t work for me. Again, this is more a Cyberman trait, and I am forced to wonder if maybe the Cybermen would have been a better choice of villains for this story. They would have had to do away with the wonderful concept of divine hatred, but since that is not really explored anyway, it wouldn’t make a large difference. The Cybermen on the Asylum could be the ones for whom conversion went wrong or were just plain rejected. They could be the ones who still retain some of their previous humanity. Just a thought. Jonathan Blum contemplates the same idea in his own review of this episode, so it seems I'm not alone.

That said, the (not particularly surprising) revelation that Oswin is actually a Dalek makes for a very strong, and even heart-wrenching storyline (one that could have been just as strong if she had turned out to be a Cyberman). Indeed, Oswin is the best part of “Asylum of the Daleks”. Of course, I can’t talk about her without referring to the surprise appearance of the actor playing her: Jenna-Louise Coleman. In this day and age, it’s hard to keep a secret like this. Yet despite numerous preview screenings of this episode around the world, the news didn’t leak. The press and fans lucky enough to attend the preview screenings kept quiet, allowing the rest of the world their moment of shock when they saw her. For the few people not in the know, Coleman will be portraying the Doctor’s new companion, who will be replacing Amy and Rory later in the season. She will make her début in this year’s Christmas special. Although her casting was announced months ago, and she’s been in the British press quite frequently ever since, no mention was ever made of her appearing in the season opener.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to what this appearance means. We know very little about what her companion role will be like. Even her character’s name was kept hidden for quite some time. We now know that it is Clara. This is all we know for sure, but rumours have abounded since well before “Asylum” aired that her full name is Clara Oswin. Her character in “Asylum” is Oswin Oswald. Are they the same character, or will Clara simply be a relation of Oswin’s? It would be very much in keeping with Moffat’s style for him to have performed some “timey wimey” manipulations, having us meet Clara/Oswin out of sequence, showing us the end of her life before the earlier parts. While this would be a new approach for a companion (although it’s already been done with River Song), I really hope this is not the case. Knowing that the character is destined to turn into a Dalek will make viewing her travels with the Doctor rather depressing.

Speculation aside, however, what’s important now is her role in this episode, and here she really is the life of this episode. Oswin has a snarkiness to her that is typical of many of Moffat’s female characters, but Coleman brings it alive in a captivating and enjoyable way. Her banter with both the Doctor and Rory is a lot of fun, and if her companion role is anything like Oswin, she’ll be a joy to watch. She also makes the story of Oswin’s transformation into a Dalek, her accepting that she is a Dalek, and then reclaiming her humanity totally heart-wrenching. Recent Doctor Who has suffered a dearth of believable, sympathetic characters, so it’s very refreshing to see Oswin be a character I can fully believe in. In this particular case, I think it is down more to the performance than it is to the writing. I have only one problem with Oswin and her story, but it has nothing to do with Coleman’s performance or her character. Since Oswin turns out to be a Dalek and when we see the real her, she speaks as a Dalek (kudos to Nicholas Briggs, Dalek-voice extraordinaire, for creating such a sympathetic Dalek voice for her!), how is it, through the rest of the episode, she is able to broadcast over the communications system in her human voice? Where is that human voice coming from since she doesn’t seem to have human vocal chords anymore? In the fantasy world she has constructed for herself, speaking in her human voice makes sense, as does having her hear herself as if she is human. But how do the Doctor and the others manage to hear her as human? Unfortunately, it makes no sense, yet removing it would change the story completely.

I’ve left for last the story’s subplot about Amy and Rory’s relationship and impending divorce. This is my biggest problem with the episode because once again, we’re treated to developments in their relationship and characters that are just thrown in because somebody (presumably Moffat) thought it would be cool rather than because it’s a natural development that arises out of what’s come before. I suppose, though, that I’ve come to expect that from Amy and Rory, particularly Amy. She will forever be a character that just doesn’t feel real to me, whose only real constant of personality is a horrible selfishness that is starting to disgust me. Those who have read my reviews of last season will know I was very dissatisfied with the handling of Amy’s pregnancy and the way that Amy and Rory seem totally unaffected by having their daughter kidnapped and never getting to raise her. It’s a criticism I am not alone in. Shortly before “Asylum” aired, Karen Gillan said in an interview (in response to this criticism from fandom) that we will be learning some pertinent new information about this in the new season, and heavily implied this new information would put an end to the criticism. I don’t know for sure if the revelation that Amy can no longer have children is meant to be this new information, but I have a feeling it is (although perhaps it is only one part of it). Alas, in my mind, it only makes the situation worse, as Amy comes across as even more selfish than ever. I don’t know, but somehow I feel that Rory waiting around for 2000 years outside a box, protecting her from harm is a far, far bigger sacrifice than “giving him up”. Sure, giving up someone you love because it’s better for that person can be a horrible emotional sacrifice, but it’s one that’s over with relatively quickly in the grand scheme of things. And in this case, it’s not even to his benefit. Has Amy really never considered talking to Rory about the situation to find out his opinion? He clearly doesn’t want her to give him up. His desire to stay with her outweighs his desire for kids. A short talk could have revealed that to her if she didn’t realize it already. What about adoption? Even though she can’t get pregnant anymore, there are still ways they can have children together, thus making them both happy so they don’t need to break up. Yet Amy apparently never considers any of them. Instead, she chooses the option that just makes things worse and ruins Rory’s life. Although honestly, I don’t know what Rory sees in her. I certainly wouldn’t stick around with someone who slapped me so frequently. Seriously, is anyone else starting to get just a little creeped out by how frequently Amy slaps Rory? Just imagine if it were the other way around, with Rory slapping Amy.

Alas, Amy slapping Rory is symptomatic of Moffat’s portrayal of women. It comes across as Moffat saying, “Look! She’s a strong, independent woman because she can stand up to her man! She doesn’t take any crap from anyone.” But she also has to have a baby, just like all other women. And the moment she can no longer have a baby, she’s not good enough for the man she loves. Sigh. In his review, Jonathan Blum paraphrases a comment from his wife (author Kate Orman, who wrote many popular Doctor Who novels in the 90’s): “Can we please have a storyline for Amy Pond which does not involve things either going into, or coming out of, her ladybits?” I am one hundred percent in agreement with Kate here. I would only make one small change: Can we please have a storyline for any female character which does not involve things either going into, or coming out of, her ladybits? Even Oswin, a great character in this story, spends much of the time flirting with the Doctor and Rory. It’s getting old and tiring.

Luckily, the Amy/Rory subplot is a fairly small (though significant) part of the episode, and the rest of the episode is quite enjoyable. There are flaws in the rest of the story as well, but “Asylum of the Daleks” does manage to rise above them and provide fifty minutes of enjoyment. It’s a definite step up from many of last season’s episodes, and I hope further episodes this season continue to step up higher.

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