“Doctor Who” Review: “Asylum Of The Daleks”

“Asylum of the Daleks” represents a departure from the somewhat overwrought sixth series of “Doctor Who”. While the second Stephen Moffat-helmed season of “Who” had its highlights, it was also weighed down by its labyrinthian design, which eventually fancied puzzles and riddles over good ol’ fashioned character development. Part of the problem lay with Moffat’s fascination-bordering-on-obsession with River Song, a figure that works in small doses but eventually overwhelmed the proceedings. Series Seven returns mostly (if not completely) to the fantasy-based, trio-centric realm of Series Five, which was strongest when exploring the unique dynamics between The Doctor, Amy, and Rory.

Calling “Doctor Who” a “fantasy” might offend some, but there was a fairy-tale aspect to that fifth season that separated itself from the harder sci-fi bents of other seasons. Having the cracks in time center around Amy Pond lent a storybook feel to the entire season when viewed from afar, one that favored emotion over scientific explanation. It wasn’t important to understand why those cracks and time were erasing people from existence. It was, however, to explore the nature of memory and love and how those inexplicable forces can overwhelm more tangibly measured forces such as time and space. As with the best of all genre fiction, the fifth season of “Doctor Who” placed ordinary people in fantastical scenarios in order to explore what we either would do or would hope to do in those circumstances.

cult_doctor_who_s7_trailer_still_2.jpg“Asylum Of The Daleks” is somewhat of a stand-alone adventure, in that it presents a seemingly insurmountable problem for The Doctor and his companions to solve and has them sole it by hour’s end. But it also provides forward momentum on several of the themes/plots that have run throughout Moffat’s time at the helm of the series. In Series Six, the word “Doctor” had different connotations to different species. For some, it indicated a “healer”. For others, a “warrior.” Etymology matters in “Doctor Who,” which should be no surprise given Moffat’s love of language. In “Asylum,” The Doctor finds that he is called “the predator of the Daleks,” which surprises him. But it’s unsurprising, given the viewpoint established by The Doctor’s enemies since “The Pandorica Opens”. The Doctor sees himself as someone who constantly stops threats. To everyone else, he IS the threat.

This makes his episode-long relationship with Oswin all the more potent. The Doctor/Dalek adversarial relationship has been embedded in the “Who” mythology since day one. And while it’s amusing to see The Doctor’s befuddlement at being asked to save his greatest enemy (“That’s a new one!”), it’s more potent to see him wrestling with Oswin’s true nature after she leads him through the asylum towards potential safety. He’s heartbroken to see the girl has been fully converted into a Dalek, but that heartbreak turns to revulsion as he refuses to help her off the planet-sized prison before the Daleks destroy it. The Doctor is brilliant, but he’s not always right. And Oswin has to convince him that there’s still a shred of humanity (read: “love”) within her newly-constructed wiring for him to trust what he earlier referred to as “a tricycle with a roof”.

“We have grown stronger in fear of you,” Oswin states when staring down the face of her programmed enemy. And it’s that mutually-assured destruction that feeds not only into the Doctor/Oswin storyline, but the Amy/Rory one as well. We jump into “Asylum” in media res as far as these two are concerned, with divorce papers waiting to be signed. While the dislocation one feels while trying to catch up with this pair is intentionally, it’s also confusing to the point of complete obfuscation. Trying to determine how Oswin gets milk for her soufflés feels like a difficult puzzle to solve, but one with a finite number of possibilities. But the source of Amy and Rory’s woes? Impenetrable, which meant I wasn’t trying to figure out why they were estranged so much as simply finding it all strange.

mv5bmtqxntg4mdi2mv5bml5banbnxkftztcwnjq5nduzoa_v1_sy317_cr1310214317_.jpgNow, the reveal of their tension was still fantastically written and performed, so those complaints hold true yet are minor in the grand scheme of things. (The idea that nanobots can remove “love” from one’s biology is sciency-wiency, but that’s OK! As I said before, give me fantasy before scientific near-reality.) It’s the writing that I want to focus on, since drawing a distinction between the patter of the two pairs is crucial to fleshing out what I meant by a partial, but incomplete, return to Series Five. Not only do Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill almost always rise to the occasion when the material is rock-solid (see Series Six’s “The Girl Who Waited” for a recent example), but the words put into their mouths feel different than those put into the mouths of other characters. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory sing when speaking to each other because they sound like three distinct perspectives and vocabularies melding in three-part harmony. The companions give a human perspective to The Doctor, but also “Doctor Who”.

All of this changes when you get to the Doctor/Oswin dialogue, which feels very much like reskinned Doctor/River dialogue. I almost wrote “reheated” there, but that would be a step too far. I like all the dialogue as dialogue. Where it sometimes gets exhausting is when dialogue fails to turn into drama. It’s a problem I have with other verbose shows such as “The Newsroom”, and while it’s still thrilling to hear so many words coming out of the mouths of so many intelligent people, it’s also…well, kind of exhausting. Language in service of character works for me. Language in service of hearing oneself speak doesn’t.

This gets me to the final point I want to make about “Asylum,” which is a point I want to make about the potential future of “Doctor Who” in general. If you don’t want to know anything about the rest of the season, stop here. I don’t know anything about upcoming episodes other than what has been officially released. And chances are, if you’re reading a “Doctor Who” review, you already know what I will be discussing. But I’m being safe rather than sorry here, mostly because I’m sorry that I know what I will discuss.

We good? Good.

As many “Who” fans know, the actress playing Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman) will eventually become the next companion for The Doctor. Her introduction here is set-up for the Christmas episode that will introduce her fully into the mix, after the departure of Amy/Rory from the show in the upcoming fifth episode “The Angels Take Manhattan.” The powers that be at “Doctor Who” have made this publicly known, for reasons that are practical yet disappointing. It’s possible this disappointment is the minority opinion, since feelings vary wildly on the nature of spoilers in television. Then again, it’s not really a spoiler if the show itself makes such proclamations, is it? Calling them “spoilers” probably isn’t fair, but having that knowledge inevitably informs the viewing audience for this season of “Who”.  (I mean, I don’t think ANYONE knew she’d be in tonight’s episode, and how great was THAT surprise?)

I’m disappointed because it’s always more fun, for me, to have no idea where a story is going. And while the nature of Amy/Rory’s exit and Oswin’s reintroduction are still secret, the question is “how”, not “if”, those things will happen. As such, every scene with Amy and Rory over the next four weeks will take on added importance but also added narrative weight. For some, this turns their interactions into a type of Greek tragedy, with our foreknowledge ironically juxtaposed against their naiveté. For others, this turns their actions into a series of steps towards the inevitable. This type of viewing doesn’t work for me when it’s established in-show (such as the opening scene of “Breaking Bad”’s fifth season) or through the press.

In the end, knowing about Oswin’s eventual place in “Who” meant what could have been enjoyable as a one-off set of interactions between her and The Doctor instead turns into a possible preview of what the show will be like on a week-to-week basis. It seems to indicate that the type of dialogue that The Doctor and River Song engaged in will serve as the de facto rhythms for the show going forth. Now, obviously there is plenty of room for Oswin to grow as her own character, and prematurely assigning such patter as the default is a guess at this point. But it’s an educated guess, based on Moffat’s love of River Song, Irene Adler in “Sherlock”, and language itself. Why write only one Doctor per week when he can write two? There’s a difference between a love of language and a love of dialogue, and so long as Moffat steers towards the latter, things should be fine. If not, well, get ready to weep for those transcribing these episodes on “Who” wikis.

Random thoughts…

  • The opening shots of Skaro, the Daleks’ home planet, were gorgeous in their devastation.
  • Bigger “Who” devotees than I will be able to detect which Dalek model inside the Parliament was from which “Who” era.
  • Anyone else detect a “Star Wars” reference with Oswin’s periscope-like device after The Doctor lands on the asylum?
  • “Life…that thing that goes on when you’re not there.” Sounds like Amy Pond is a big John Lennon fan. Also, The Doctor seems to be a big Spinal Tap fan, with his assessment of the danger level at 11.

What did you think of tonight’s premiere?

2 Comments

  1. Siythe
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    They really didn’t have any option but to release the general details of the companion change. Who simply has too much scrutiny on it in the UK for them to pull it off without things coming out. Especially since the Moffat era has had disgruntled Davis favourites leaking plot details from the word go.

    Nice catch on the similarities between the Oswin/River patter. Never occurred to me when watching but it does fit precisely into the style of writing Moffat likes. I’ve got more than enough faith in the show to think he’ll make her a distinct character but it’s something to watch out for.

    The only issues I had with the ep one I’m not sure will be a factor for the US audience. The Daleks at this point have been reduced to just another monster rather than THE Monster. Really disappointing treatment given their Iconic nature over here. Well two issues actually, why bother breaking the Ponds up only to put them back together that quickly?

    Cheers for the review.

  2. Posted September 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Excellent points all, with one caveat: It’s by no means a foregone conclusion whether Coleman will be playing the same character when she returns at Christmas. That uncertainty — underpinned by the new companion’s purported name and her wardrobe in various paparazzi photos from filming locations — is the puzzle-loving Moffat’s native element, and he’s sure to mine it for all it’s worth over the next few months.

    Still, they’re sure to be connected in some way (and probably one more integral than the throwaway-line identification of Adeola, Freema Agyeman’s guest-star role, as Martha’s cousin), so your central point still stands: We have a good idea of a substantial chunk of where we’re going, so it’s all about how we get there.

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