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Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks

September 8, 2012

Well, it wasn’t every Dalek ever. In fact, between the odd characterisation of the monsters and their gloomy, dust-beshrouded appearance, there were barely any recognisable Daleks, despite their prominence in promo pictures. Kidnapped and brought to a Dalek Parliament, through somewhat protracted means, the Doctor and now estranged husband-and-wife companions Rory and Amy are sent on a mission to the eponymous Asylum — a repository for Daleks deemed too mad to be of use to the race (but too beautiful to be destroyed). Down there, a girl is trapped — a girl who’s managed to survive for a year in a planet full of insane Daleks. A girl with a secret…

A TV show with a secret too: I’d managed to remain unspoilered, and was as surprised as anyone to see Jenna-Louise Coleman’s debut in Doctor Who, some four months before schedule. Here — though maybe not when she returns — she’s playing someone apparently named Oswald Oswin (wanna bet that overtly improbable name is some sort of clue as to how she escapes her apparent inevitable destiny, Dalekification?), a mile-a-minute talker who guides the Doctor through the asylum, flirts with Rory (who seems, for a man pledged to undying — literally — love for his wife, oddly at ease with being flirted with) and, without having to do much, makes Amy seem even less attractive a character than before. Will Coleman be back before Christmas? And is Moffat — who does like to run the same sorts of stories and characters over and over — really in danger of repeating himself by making a significant character’s first appearance spell out her final fate, just as he did with River Song, ‘killed off’ in ‘The Forest of the Dead’?

Coleman is the highlight of an episode which promises a little more than it delivers. Odd pacing means that the set-up to get the Doctor and co into the Asylum takes what seems like an age. Before that we have an elaborate series of captures involving some bit-part characters (and our first glimpse at the surface of the Dalek planet Skaro since 1979 season-opener ‘Destiny of the Daleks’) and the Dalek Parliament itself. In Russell T Davies’s hands — the Parliament was originally intended to appear in his ‘The End of Time’ (2009-10) — there would, one feels, be satire to spare, even through the fourth wall: the Dalek Prime Minister, for instance, is very obviously a puppet. Oddly, though, there’s no attempt other than the suggestion of democratic rule (!) to differentiate this set-up from the Emperor-centric one of ‘The Parting of the Ways’, despite the immediate, ingenious fan theories that sprang up once the series was aired (my favourite: humans always defeat Daleks; humans aspire to democracy; therefore Daleks should copy that parliamentary system to see if it gives them a military advantage).

Then again, an Asylum for unusually deranged Daleks isn’t a very Daleky concept either, but one with great potential, and no-one (or no-one who counts) protested innovations like the introduction of an Emperor, the glass Daleks of ‘Revelation’ or the Time War Daleks’ ability to emergency-temporal-shift away from trouble. The Asylum itself is nicely creepy, as are the scenes where Rory inadvertently reactivates the dormant creatures. I’d have liked the old-style Daleks to be a little more prominent — the list of planets on which the Doctor defeated his foes in the past is briefly exciting, but there’s really only a couple of moments where ‘individual’ Daleks (the black-topped Emperor’s guard, the Special Weapons Dalek) are prominent enough to make their presence even remarkable, never mind a pre-series selling point. (Nerds of course will ask: didn’t all the Daleks who escaped Exxilon perish when their ship exploded? Didn’t all those on Vulcan get wiped out by the Doctor?)

And now I think of it: insane, malfunctioning or defeated Daleks have tended, in the past, to blow themselves up (‘Remembrance’, ‘Death’) or be obliterated by their superiors (‘Planet’), so the notion that the new Dalek breed can’t bring themselves to be so mean rather lessens, more than strengthens, the impression they are implacable, merciless conquerors. And the Daleks here aren’t that much madder than the normal ones, so much as a bit creakier. When ‘Dalek’ (and ‘Power of the Daleks’ before it) have shown that one Dalek is capable of wiping out an entire space colony or whatever, then to simply think you’re ramping up the stakes by showing vast armies of the monsters, sane or otherwise, is almost beside the point.

Elsewhere, as the new companion isn’t quite with us yet, we’re lumbered with Amy and Rory. Amy’s characterisation is consistent anyway — feeling vulnerable, she acts vilely — and Rory is as likeable as always (even if his raising-a-finger-and-saying-“Er…”-schtick is getting to the point where you’re surprised when he doesn’t boggle at the camera after some outlandish statement); but they’re old hat now. There might be some mileage in characters who leave the TARDIS but who the show doesn’t leave behind — they’ve appeared in four episodes out of four following their ‘departure’ last year — but when the new girl has not only been announced but seen on-screen, it makes it seem like they are bigger than the programme. As to whether their marriage does work out or not, Amy’s been so unlikeable for so much of the time that you can only cheer Rory giving her the divorce papers. They’re reconciled by the end of the story, of course — the Doctor puts them in mortal peril, then twits his bow-tie proudly as they kiss and make up amid mad Daleks and zombies — but the sad news is they still won’t go for four episodes yet.

Scale-wise, the show moves from vast location to vast location — ruined Skaro to Dalek mothership to planet-sized madhouse — but it doesn’t feel as epic as all that. (The most significant scenes of the story play out on two very small sets, containing human Oswin and Dalek Oswin respectively.) This stuff about the new Who series being a movie every week is only the production team setting themselves up for a fall: it’s not that Who can’t (or shouldn’t) be a blockbuster movie, just as it’s variously tried being Hammer Horror, hard-hitting eco-drama and a pantomime (sorry, ‘Dragonfire’, but really) in the past — but really, what blockbuster movies do you come away from thinking ‘My goodness — wasn’t that script spectacular?’

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