Asylum of the Daleks: A Review

Spoilers ahead, Sweetie. You’ve been warned.

252 days passed between the previous episode of Doctor Who, “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” and Saturday’s first instalment of series seven. Of course, that is assuming that you are discounting the Blue Peter special “Good As Gold” and this week’s quirky online/red button curtain raiser “Pond Life“. Whether or not you do discount these offerings, they probably didn’t satiate the desire to sit down in front of the now familiar 45-minute slice of Moffatian goodness. Before launching in to my review of “Asylum of the Daleks” it is probably worth giving “Pond Life” a quick mention. The collection of daily, mini episodes last week only ran to about five-and-a-half minutes in total and, right up until the final moments, it seemed set to be little more than a comic diversion. However, the sit-com feel turned slightly melancholic as it became clear that the happily ever life of the Ponds was going through problems of its own. It might have just made us ready for the fact that AotD wasn’t going to be a laugh a minute affair. “We need you, Raggedy Man” said Amy, and so did we, the viewers.

During the build up to the forthcoming 14 episodes we were promised no two-parters, no strong linking arc of stories, and fourteen, standalone movie-style episodes with a sense of scale and drama that would sit well on the silver screen let alone being labelled as a kid’s show and stuck on your early evening tellybox. And if that hype wasn’t enough, we were also promised that we were going to be Dalek’ed up to our eyeballs in episode one and that the series’ Dalek mythology was getting a good kick up the plunger too. Happily it delivered… for the most part. Before the nicely redesigned titles sequence got to roll, we saw the Doctor being called to Skaro as part of a Dalek ruse to kidnap him. Skaro itself was looking even nastier than we might ever have imagined and there was a great, opening panning shot of a gigantic yet decrepit Dalek statue in which the Doctor’s trap was set. Ever since Rose, we’ve come to expect a dramatic opening shot in the first episode or a series to set the scene, this was arguably the best of the lot and definitely helped deliver a sense of that promised scale. In slightly less dramatic fashion, Amy and Rory, still clearly struggling through a tricky time in their marriage, were similarly kidnapped by this new kind of Dalek-ised “Robomen”.

On a scale of one to ten, our heroes were in eleven kinds of trouble as they arrived on the spaceship known as the Parliament of the Daleks. These deranged pepperpots have never struck me as being a particularly democratic bunch but the Prime Minister had brought the ship to its destination: the Asylum, into which the Doctor and his trusted companions were to be flung, in order to switch off a force-field to enable the Parliament to destroy the Asylum and stop all the *really* mad Daleks from escaping. A task which the Daleks themselves were apparently too scared to undertake. I suspect that, rather than being too scared of the Asylum, the real intention was to use this as a way to get rid of both the Mad-Daleks and the Doctor in one fell swoop but that was never mentioned on screen, and I was left with a feeling by the end that the Asylum wasn’t as scary a place as we’d been led to believe. Back in the parliament, I assume that the Chief Whip had had to persuade the Dishonourable Member for Skaro West about the virtues of this plan in order to get the vote passed. The 1922 Community probably insisted on getting the wording of the plan’s White Paper changed at the last minute, which in turn had led to heated discussion and a few exterminations during PMQs. However, like it or lump it, the set-up was there and as soon as the trio were pushed into the chasm, I was fully expecting this romp to burst into life.

I have been trying to avoid all the bigger spoilers from this series, especially since the press screening of Asylum a couple of weeks ago and I had happily sat down to watch this episode completely unaware of the big surprise that the new companion, Jenna Louise Coleman, had a role to play in this tale. A bit of after-the-event Googling showed that this fact had not been kept entirely secret from the internet dwellers but had, thankfully, not been revealed in any mainstream way. After about ten minutes of arguing with myself (“Is that her?” “No. It can’t be.” “It is you know.” “Well, I guess it looks like her.” “If it is her, ‘Oswin’ is a bloody terrible name for a companion!“, etc), I finally started to try and work out what was going on with the plot. The Daleks in the Asylum all seemed to be a little rusty and slow and not really anything much to worry about if you happened to be a fully oiled up and pristine Dalek MP on the spaceship above, but they were menacing and creepy and a suitable threat for Rory, Amy and the Doctor. Whichever way you look at it, Sakro’s finest definitely moved away from their “cuddly” nature that Steven Moffat has said he was fearful that they might have become.

The inclusion of Oswin gave what might have been a running-through-corridors-by-numbers segment a frisson of excitement and intrigue while the development of the Amy / Rory relationship pulled on the audience’s emotional heart-strings. The conclusion of that section where we get to the episode’s big reveal that Oswin appears to be a Dalek was magnificently directed from the camera swinging over Matt Smith’s shoulder to show the enchained monster, to the blending of the dialogue between JLC’s Oswin and Nick Brigg’s Dalek voice, and the fourth wall breaking, “Run, you clever boy. And remember“. There were great, quotable segments like this littered throughout the episode. Another favourite being the self-destructing Dalek hopelessly screaming “Forward. Forward” after being thrust in to reverse by the Doctor.

By the end of the episode, there were three strands to the story had all reached significant points but none of them seemed to be entirely resolved, and I say this as a good thing. Firstly, the Doctor’s relationship with the Daleks had taken a dramatic sidestep. Having had their “sort-of hive mind” reprogrammed to forget about the Doctor altogether, they began to wonder (in a beautifully Dalek way) as this manic bow-tied stranger lectured them, “Doctor Who?“, echoing the final words of Dorium Maldovar at the end of the last series and reminding us that the Fields of Tressalor (sp?) still await us. This cannot have escaped the attention of Eleven either, who pranced around the TARDIS veritably singing it to himself at the end. I’ve found myself looking forward to the next Dalek meeting with eager anticipation to see how these facts might change the dynamic. I suspect that the wait won’t be as long this time.

While the Dalek element, as ever, was a story of hate, the second strand, which centered around the marriage of Amy and Rory, was one of love. It’s intriguing to think that even though the marriage seemed to have been steadied by the end, the issue of Amy being unable to have children (courtesy of the events at Demon’s Run) was left hanging. We know that the child that she does have, River, is coming back soon, so I’m sure it’s not the last we’ll hear of this and I guess that the final departure of the Ponds in a few episodes’ time will have a pregnancy/baby/motherhood dimension to it.

Finally, the third strand is the most puzzling of all. Who was Oswin, apart from Junior Entertainment Officer on the Alaska? Was she really a Dalek? Will she be the new companion? Did she really die at the end? Could she be converted back from Dalek in to a human? Is the “Alaska” spaceship, the same spaceship as the one in next weeks dinosaur-ridden tale? Will we get to see JLC again before Christmas? Why does everyone seem to think that JLC is playing someone called Clara, and if so, why does Clara have the same face as Oswin? These questions are exactly the reason that I love Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. The creativity of the speculation alone is a marvel.

The theme of love and hate was literally spelt out for us from early in the episode as Amy’s appropriately tattooed knuckles punched outward towards the viewer during her photo-shoot. The love of Amy and Rory’s marriage was tested by their break-up and reconciliation while conversely even the hate of the Daleks was tested by their inability rid themselves of the Asylum’s inmates due to the ‘beauty’ they saw in them. Even the basis for the hateful trap set for the Doctor at the start was one based on a mother’s love for her child. The other theme that intertwined with this throughout was the recurring one in recent Doctor Who history: that of memory. Whether it be the Doctor asking his kidnapper whether she remembered her life beforehand, or Amy’s forgetting details and conversations when the nanocloud began its reprogramming of her, or Oswin wiping the Daleks memory of the Doctor, or finally Oswin’s plea to the Doctor (and the audience) to remember her. This question of how much our memories define what we become is not new to Moffat’s Who and is not one I see ending any time soon.

So in conclusion, using my patented Marks-out-of-Twenty system, the series seven opener “Asylum of the Daleks” get an impressive 17 out of 20

As ever, some of my favourite bloggers and journos have beaten me to their reviews, which can read here…..

From The North (yer actual Keith “Telly” Topping)

Feeling Listless (Stuart Ian Burns)

Telly-Centric (Gareth Bundy)

Cathode Ray Tube (Frank Collins)

The Medium Is Not Enough (Rob Buckley)

The Telegraph (Michael Hogan)

The Guardian (Sam Wollaston)

Golden Anniversary Countdown = 447 days to go

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