Doctor Who: 701 “Asylum of the Daleks” Review
Review by Adam James Cuthbert.
Series 6 left much to be desired. What began as a genuinely intriguing sequence of mysteries – aliens occupying the Earth, River Song’s identity and her connection to the Doctor, the Doctor’s alleged death, a little girl regenerating – had an irritatingly disappointing pay-off, and the convoluted story-arc didn’t help matters. However, regardless of my overall opinion of the series, the finale posed us with a question: “Doctor Who?” In my experience, it succeeded in challenging our perspective of the central character by asking us to consider: who is the Doctor? What has the Doctor become? Arguably, Steven Moffat’s tenure thus far has pivoted around examining the legend of the Doctor and the nature of the Doctor’s influence within his universe. The Doctor, under Moffat’s direction, is characterised as someone to be feared yet revered. He is a notable paradox – a man who claims to be a pacifist yet, when motivated by love and rage, will topple armies and empires to save innocent lives. As Series 6 drew to its close, the Doctor had decided to “return to the shadows”, aware of how dangerous his influence was. With the universe believing him to be dead, he’d seemed to retire. As Asylum of the Daleks began, I thought we would see the progression of this idea.
The story opens at a breakneck speed with a sweeping shot of the devastated landmarks of Skaro – home planet of the Daleks. The boiling red skies create a hellish setting. Within a giant Dalek statue, a redheaded woman, Darla, wearing a cloak, narrates. She describes the war of the Daleks against their enemy – the Doctor. But now the Doctor is dead. She says there are rumours of his survival. We are then reintroduced to the Doctor. In an interesting stylistic detail, the Doctor is first seen through his silhouette, his profile projected onto the wall. He has, quite literally, emerged from the shadows. This is a striking visual technique that subtly connects the series and reminds the audience of the overarching storyline at play. The ruins outside the statue evoke imagery of a battlefield, the resting place perhaps befitting of a “great warrior”, the title attributed to the Doctor by the people of the Gamma Forests. The effect is that the Doctor has been summoned from his proverbial grave, drawn back into the light by Darla’s call for help.
Darla describes how she escaped from a Dalek prison camp, while her daughter remains captive. The Doctor laughs: no one escapes. He realises that her skin is cold. Darla is revealed to be a Dalek puppet designed to lure the Doctor into a trap set by the Daleks. Her dehumanisation, removing all emotions and memories, is appropriately dark and unsettling – an innocent woman enslaved to the Daleks. I felt sympathetic towards the character and the effects of her transformation juxtapose effectively with the Doctor’s visible disgust and horror at the Daleks’ own inhumanity. Her conversation with the Doctor (“You had a daughter.” “I know. I’ve read my file”) and the dark humour of that scene helped set the tone for the episode and was, by far, the highlight for me. Darla’s dehumanisation also lends a weight to the story’s exploration of themes relating to humanity.
The Doctor is brought to the Parliament of the Daleks, an interesting diplomatic development of Dalek mythology, where he is reunited with his former companions Amy and Rory, who he had since left behind to settle down in matrimony. Their marriage has reached a tipping-point, as we discover, over Amy’s infertility. They have signed divorce papers. The story, however, sees the companions swiftly reconcile when Amy reveals she wanted to give Rory the chance to have children of his own. I felt their inclusion in the story contributed little to the narrative and the actual scene of their reconciliation, while emotional, I think would have been better developed throughout the series. This would present us with a deeper insight into how they individually cope with single life and the pain of the separation. I also found Amy’s line: “Is it bad that I really missed this?” to present an opportunity to explore how she sought an adventurous life again, unable to endure the tedium of routine married life, an element, I feel, consistent with the character’s development.
The Parliament, led by the Dalek Prime Minister, request the Doctor’s services in disabling the force-field activated within a Dalek prison planet – the Asylum – where the most insane and psychotic Daleks are held, which even the Daleks are terrified of. We are also informed that Daleks consider hatred to be beautiful. Moffat raises an interesting twist on the Doctor-Dalek relationship, suggesting that the Daleks’ concept of beauty may be responsible for their incapacity to destroy the Doctor.
One of the aims of Asylum was purportedly to make the Daleks scary again. When I first heard about the Asylum from reports, I’d theorised the imprisoned Daleks were the result of experiments into Dalek psychology. They were Daleks bred to enjoy what they did, relishing in bloodshed and carnage: a sadistic breed of Daleks throughout the generations that took pleasure in prolonging their victims’ deaths, ideally reinvigorating the species’ deadly capacity to instill fear and terror in the audience. However the onscreen result is sadly lacking. The Asylum Daleks were creepy; nothing more. I found the dehumanisation of Darla and the effects of the nano-cloud on the planet, converting corpses into Dalek puppets, significantly more disturbing, but even then the Dalek puppets are uninspired zombies with little impact. Compared with the Flood from The Waters of Mars or Moffat’s own Empty Child (which Asylum borrows its use of nano-genes from) the story’s ‘horrific’ elements I found to lie in the Doctor’s relationship with the Daleks instead. I loved the idea that when the Doctor entered the “Intensive Care” section of the Asylum, the Daleks that had survived the endless wars against the Doctor, he might be faced with the horrors of his past, in a way that revisited and heightened the ‘warrior’ facet of the character, one of the few positives of last year’s story-arc. I was intrigued by the potential symbolism of the Doctor being drawn, gradually, back into the light/public awareness (and who better than his oldest and deadliest enemy to do so?), thus advancing the storyline in that respect. I am angered by Moffat’s decision to have the Daleks’ history with the Doctor completely eradicated. I get the impression he wanted to wipe the slate clean simply so he can impose his own vision of the Daleks – which surely was the purpose of the story he just told? Frankly, the story’s ending, with the Parliament of Daleks iterating “Doctor Who?”, felt like a repeat of last year’s finale, with no progression. The story, while stylistically and innovatively directed, failed to establish the movement towards a more ‘cinematic’ Who: it felt like the remains of Series 6, which I attribute to Moffat’s writing.
This leads me to discuss the appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman. It actually took me several minutes to believe it was her. I must say I have every confidence in the young actress when she assumes the companion role this Christmas: she brought a sparkling, suitably sexy presence to the story. However, I found her character, Oswin Oswald, unsympathetic: yet another feisty, flirtatious woman who outsmarts the Doctor; a personality reminiscent of River Song in her worst days. The climatic reveal that she resided within a dream-world created from her denial about her conversion into a Dalek was shocking but by this time it was too late to sympathise with the character’s plight. I found her line “Rescue me, chin boy, and show me the stars” like a quote from River Song. It remains to be seen whether Jenna as the companion Clara, and Oswin are the same individual or unrelated characters. My hope is that the companion-figure has a markedly different personality from Oswin: a more reserved, sweet and compassionate individual who embodies the Doctor’s conscience as he ventures into his dark days, following the loss of Amy and Rory.
My final criticism is the marginalisation of the Classic era Daleks: they might as well as be decoration. A story that advertises the appearance of every Dalek variant is obviously going to raise certain expectations, and naturally I was disappointed that the popular (and powerful) Special Weapons Dalek wasn’t used.
In conclusion, Asylum of the Daleks was entertaining but hardly an improvement on last year’s opener.