That's right; we're going to start reviewing DOCTOR WHO on BAD! Give a warm welcome to Dan Whitehead. -Meredith
Doctor Who, the longest running science fiction show in TV history, marks its fiftieth anniversary next year. Key to its endurance is its ability to evolve and adapt, able to hop from comedy to horror to drama in the space of an episode, and always willing to refresh its look, tone and even its star on a regular basis. "Asylum of the Daleks," the first in the new series, illustrates the benefits – and pitfalls – of this flexible template.
We open with the Doctor (Matt Smith) apparently summoned to meet with a mysterious woman on Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks, the psychotic fascist pepperpots that have been his greatest foe since they first rolled on-screen in December 1963. It turns out to be a trap. The Doctor realises the woman is bait, but he's caught off guard by the fact that she actually is a Dalek in human form, a sort of flesh puppet with an eyestalk that pops out of her forehead and a raygun in her palm.
It's goofy as hell, but that's always been part of Doctor Who's charm. The show has a Silver Age approach to logic and continuity, always ready to bend or rewrite what's been established in the past if it leads to a fun twist or a new story. So it doesn't really matter if the Daleks have never done this before – they do now.
What does matter is that it's an incredibly stupid trap for the Doctor to fall into. For him to turn up on a planet ruled by his most terrible enemies, and walk straight into such an obvious snare, beggars belief. It's like Van Helsing making a house call at Dracula's castle and being surprised when he gets attacked by a vampire.
Erstwhile companions Amy and Rory are rounded up in similar fashion. Amy is a model now, apparently (a callback to Closing Time in the previous series, it seems) and is getting a divorce from Rory. This, too, is a pretty big deal and its introduced in the sort of “wait, what?” offhand way that showrunner and writer Steven Moffat enjoys so much.
The trio are no sooner reunited than they're summoned before the Dalek parliament. Rather than killing them, the Daleks want the Doctor to “save them”. It turns out that a human spaceship has crashed on the planet where the Daleks keep the most broken and insane of their species. And, as the Doctor reasons, if someone has got in, that means everything can get out. Destroying the planet is the goal, but that can't be done because the planet is protected by a force-field that can only be deactivated from the planet surface.
This is another minor facepalm moment, the sort of contrived MacGuffin that works on a pulp sci-fi level but doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. We need to get the Doctor onto a planet of mad Daleks for the fun to begin, so here's your excuse.
The Doctor, Rory and Amy are blasted down to the surface on some kind of anti-gravity beam and given wrist devices that will protect them from the nanobot security. Needless to say, the trio gets separated – Rory ends up alone in a subterranean corridor full of apparently inert Daleks that are clearly waiting for the cue to lurch into sinister life, while The Doctor and Amy have a brief encounter with another apparent survivor of the crashed spaceship.
This is a weird scene. It's incredibly effective from a visceral point of view, as decaying human corpses, animated by Dalek technology, lunge for the Doctor and Amy in a scene apparently designed to make kids everywhere shit themselves. That's always been a huge part of Doctor Who's appeal – a British childhood isn't complete without a few Who-inspired nightmares – and this scene goes further than most in its co-opting of outright horror imagery.
It doesn't really lead anywhere though, and exists mostly for a bit of a jolt and so Amy can lose her wristband. That means that, for what feels like hundredth time, she's being slowly taken over by a sinister alien force and the episode becomes a race against time to save her before yada yada yada.
Throughout, the Doctor is in contact with the person whose signal alerted the Daleks to the intrusion. She's Clara Oswin, an entertainment officer from the crashed ship who has somehow managed to survive for a year among the insane Daleks, barricaded inside a room and using genius hacking skills to take control of the planet's worn-out networks.
There's a lot of fun banter here, and it's clear that the character is being introduced to the audience as much as the characters. As the BBC has already announced, Oswin will somehow become the Doctor's new companion by the end of this series – and however they pull that off, her turn here inspires a lot of confidence. Amy and Rory have been so good, and provided the show with just the right blend of drama and humor, that the thought of losing them this season is a real downer. By introducing actress Jenna-Louise Coleman here, right up front, we're able to see that she's fun, cute and able to give the Doctor enough backchat to keep him on his toes.
The revived series has never been short of enjoyable character beats though. What follows in plot terms is as traditional as any Doctor Who cliché you can think of. Lots of scrambling through corridors, lots of doors that slide open at just the right moment and a generous helping of hand-waving technobabble to get everyone out of sticky situation.
There's a very Moffat high concept twist when the Doctor finally comes face to face with Oswin, but for anyone who has been following his writing the clues to its nature are a little obvious. Moffat's best episodes work by suggesting an obvious twist and then switching it for one you didn't see coming, but in retrospect was there all the time (Melody Pond, anyone?).
That doesn't happen here, and the episode feels a couple of drafts away from being up to the show's best standards. The business with Amy and Rory getting divorced is brought up, chewed over and resolved with unlikely haste, while the Doctor's role feels oddly diminished. He's very reactive in this story, and a far cry from the brilliant madman we're used to. The great reveals in the better episodes of New Who come when we find out the Doctor has been one step ahead the whole time, or pulls an ingenious solution out of thin air at the last minute. In this story, he's following the flow, nabbed all too easily by the Daleks and led by the nose by Oswin once on the planet itself.
Moffat's aim with this story was to make the Daleks scary again, and on that score the episode is on firmer footing. The Daleks are a tricky concept in Who lore. In the classic series, they were used sparingly, appearing in just sixteen stories across twenty six years. That gave them an iconic power, even if the episodes in question weren't always great.
Since being brought back, the Daleks have turned up once in every series, which is like having Batman fight the Joker every six months. They'd become exhausted, fumbled in stories like Daleks in Manhattan or used for mostly comedic effect in Victory of the Daleks. The mangled, screeching Dalek husks on display in this episode are certainly more threatening than they've been in a long time, and the scene where they slowly awake, blue eyestalks flickering to life in the darkness, is genuinely chilling.
But still the feeling persists that nobody really knows what to do with them any more. Towards the end, the Doctor discovers “intensive care”, where the most battle-scarred Daleks are kept in chains. These are the survivors of the Time War - “the ones who survived me” says the Doctor of his act of off-screen genocide that happened prior to the 2005 reboot – and it's a scene rich with promise, bringing the Doctor literally face to face with the consequences of his most notorious decision. At the start, the Dalek prime minister (didn't they used to have an Emperor? Dalek politics are notoriously fluid) even mocks the Doctor, suggesting the reason they've never killed him is because they find hatred beautiful, and his hatred of them is absolute. His attempt at wiping out the Daleks was, ironically, a very Dalek thing to do, and here's a story in which people are literally being turned into Daleks by “subtracting love” and replacing it with hate.
The parallels are right there, the Doctor's crime is literally staring him in the face...but nothing really happens. The casualties of the Doctor's war break out of their chains with laughable ease, roll after him and then get turned away with a bit of narrative chicanery. For a writer as skilled as Moffat, who usually seizes on any opportunity to build on this sort of deep character material, it's a weird oversight – a moment rich in dramatic potential tossed aside in favor of the easy scare.
And that's true for much of "Asylum of the Daleks." There are plenty of great concepts and brilliant moments, lots of interesting pieces but the glue just isn't there to hold them together. It's never really established how, exactly, the crashed spaceship would lead to the insane Daleks escaping – they seem pretty incapable of doing anything that organised – nor how that would be something so terrible that it would lead the Dalek race to turn to its oldest adversary for help. Everyone else in the universe, yes, but the Daleks themselves don't seem to need saving. Likewise for Amy's slow transformation into a human-Dalek-puppet, an idea the script seems to lose interest in before simply abandoning it without an obvious resolution. It's unusually sloppy in the details for a Moffat script.
For all its faults, none are fatal and that says more about how resilient the show's strengths are than about this story in particular. It's not a bad episode as such, more a flimsy one and the show has always been adept at using narrative sleight of hand to make up for less than solid plots. But at its best, the show is demonstrably capable of so much more. Episodes like "The Pandorica Opens" or "The Doctor's Wife," where wild and compelling concepts are satisfyingly brought together by the end credits with wit and grace. "Asylum of the Daleks," by contrast, has the points in the right places but never quite connects them as well as it could. As a big opening number, it falls disappointingly flat.
You can watch the episode trailer below: