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Predator of the Daleks

September 11, 2012

Doctor Who’s highly anticipated return to our screens last Saturday reminded the audience that even in the run up to its fiftieth year this show is still king. Asylum of the Daleks, the first Dalek episode penned by head writer Stephen Moffat,was an ideal opening to the series that struck the delicate balance between emotional, intriguing and hide-behind-the-sofa frightening. Let’s get stuck in, shall we?

“They say you can help.” “Do they? I wish they’d stop”

It seems that Stephen Moffat is still playing with his favourite theme, that of memory. Toying with memory has been his favourite thing since he invented the Weeping Angels to terrorise Carey Mulligan back when David Tenant’s was still playing the Doctor. Since then, and since Moffat’s move to head writer of the show when Matt Smith came in, we’ve see the use of memory become increasingly prominent. At the end of Smith’s first series it was Amy’s memory of the Doctor that saved him from being deleted from history. In the next series the Silence were the latest monsters to manipulate memory, influencing the human race without us even realising it. Even when we finally think that the Doctor’s about to meet his maker all that’s really happening is an elaborate plot to make people think he’s dead, which will lead to people forgetting him and being left instead with that immortal question, “Doctor Who?”. This question, having previously been a bit of a throw-away line for when people aren’t satisfied with “Doctor” being his name, was suddenly very prominent at the end of The Wedding of River Song and has now been highlighted again in Asylum of the Daleks. If Moffat was one for series long plot-arcs as Russell T Davies was I’d suspect that “Doctor Who?” was this series’ buzz-word. Maybe it still it, or if not a buzz-word per say maybe it’s leading up to a fiftieth anniversary spectacle where memory and the identity of the Doctor both play key roles. Maybe we’ll even find out his real name, although I doubt that would really happen.

Whatever the significance of this question though – and I’m sure that it is significant – it was certainly strange heading the Daleks asking it. Doctor Who’s most notorious monsters, the existence and very identity of the Daleks is tied up the Doctor’s own history. Oswin even tells the Doctor that his arch enemies have grown stronger in fear of him, although to be fair this is also true of the Silence according to Madam Kovarian in A Good Man Goes To War, and his enemies’ shared hatred of him played a significant part in the alliance of monsters who tricked the Doctor into the Pandorica in The Pandorica Opens. However, despite ‘strength in hatred’ being a fairly common theme in new Doctor Who, making the Daleks forget the Doctor is an incredibly significant thing to do within the Doctor Who canon as a whole, although it’s also a very clever thing for Moffat to have done specifically within new Doctor Who. Since Christopher Eccleston stepped into the TARDIS the Daleks had menacing points – 2005’s Dalek was a cracker of an episode – but on the whole the Daleks in the new series have been too numerous and too easily defeat-able. For all the criticism of last 2010’s Victory of the Daleks, in a strange way I was glad that they’d finally won. It meant that the next time we saw them there didn’t have to be this big reveal about how they’d managed to return after the last time the Doctor had defeated them, which has happened a lot. What Victory of the Daleks did achieve, which was also a theme in Asylum of the Daleks, is to restore the Daleks to being a more consistent presence, and a more threatening one. They’ve returned from the brink of pantomime villany to become a proper threat once more. Not having to rely on elaborate plots about how they’ve been revived/restored/rebuilt/reborn, and not having the Doctor easily defeat and destroy them all over again, has saved the Daleks from the sort of bathos that has rendered the modern Cybermen largely un-frightening. The whole “Doctor who?” thing has also introduced an entirely new dimension to the Daleks. I for one can’t wait to see what happens with them next time in their post-Doctor existence.

And while we’re on memory, and in case you missed it, “remember me” is the last thing Oswin says to the Doctor before he flees the doomed Asylum. Given this line I’d say we’re definitely going to be seeing Oswin again. However, that’s not the only thing we have to base this assumption on…

The Girl and the Dalek

If you’ve been following the Doctor Who news then you’ll know that Jenna-Louise Coleman, the actress playing Oswin Oswald in this episode, is lined up to be the Doctor’s next companion and will enter the TARDIS in this year’s Christmas special. Seeing her pop up in this episode was a big surprise, and one that the show’s writers and producers had somehow managed to keep a secret. This poses something of a conundrum. We know that Oswin will be back at Christmas, yet we’ve also seen the planet that she was on blow up. Then there’s the small matter of her being a converted dalek when it happened (which I thought seemed a very Cyberman thing to do) and the fact that she doesn’t recognise the Doctor. Barring some sort of memory wipe this does seems to rule out a younger version of Oswin joining the TARDIS at Christmas. Plus, even if she had already travelled with him and somehow forgotten, that would mean that when he meets the younger Oswin he’ll know how she is going to die, and I’d be willing to bet that Moffat doesn’t want this sort of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey relationship with another companion given that the Doctor already has it with River Song.

Working on this basis we must assume that he somehow saves her from the Asylum moments before it is destroyed as well as saving her from being a dalek. Given that he’s a time traveller and does this sort of thing all the time this first problem may not be too difficult to overcome. It’s the second, more dalek-y problem that might prove trickier. However, aside from some flashback shots of Oswin with her head some sort of machine we didn’t actually see her get converted. What if the dalek that the Doctor encounters in the room where Oswin thinks she’s hiding is actually some sort of relay, and she’s actually controlling it from elsewhere? The room with the soufflés that Oswin thinks she’s in could be real. Or, taking inspiration from the Teselecta and the Doctor’s own escape in The Wedding of River Song, maybe Oswin has been shrunk and is driving the dalek from inside it but remains fully human, just smaller. These theories may solve the conversion issue but problems still arise when we remember that the Asylum was blown up, that nothing within the Asylum could get out, and that the forcefield would probably prevent someone controlling a dalek remotely.

It’s a tricky one then, and Moffat will have to work hard to get himself out of this corner he’s written himself into, but then he’s no stranger to doing that. I reckon that the very fact of Oswin’s ship crashing on the Asylum when it’s supposed to be impenetrable will have some significance. There are also several indications that Darla von Karlsen, the dalek puppet who first met the Doctor on Skaro, is Oswin’s mother, despite the fact that she says her daughter’s name is Hannah. Did the Parliament of the Daleks know that Oswin was in the Asylum and use her mother to bring about her demise? If so, was their plan really to destroy her and the Asylum was just collateral damage? And if they did want to destroy her, why would they wait a year to do this and not call the Doctor in sooner? Maybe the Parliament converted her themselves and then banished the dalek that she had become to the Asylum, placing it right in the centre, because to them was the most dangerous dalek of all (she is, after all, “a total screaming genius that’s also a little bit sexy“). There is much food for thought here. Sadly we can do little but wait to see if any of this is anywhere near the truth.

Trouble in paradise

Moving from the new companion to the current ones, surely we we’re all asking what’s happening with Amy and Rory? So far in the new series we haven’t seen a future companion crossing paths with an existing companion in the same episode, but in Asylum of the Daleks this worked rather well as it gave the Doctor a reason to rush off, leaving Rory and Amy alone to talk things through. I’ll admit here that I had agreed with Rory when he said that he loved Amy more than she loved him. From the start of her time in the TARDIS Amy has been flighty, flirty and aloof, and it wasn’t until Amy’s Choice when she thought she’d lost Rory that we properly saw that she loved and needed him. Subsequent episodes like The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang and The Girl Who Waited have seen Rory and Amy’s relationship deepen, and the Pond Life mini series (which I highly recommend because it’s brilliantly funny!) showed us some of their life when the Doctor isn’t around.

After all this, seeing them divorcing at the beginning of Asylum was really surprising. In the Asylum we find out why. “You want kids, and I can’t have them” Amy tells Rory, “and I didn’t kick you out, I gave you up”. This was pretty heavy going for what is still in essence a children’s television show, and kudos are due to Moffat and his team for not talking down to the audience when it comes to such adult themes. This scene added a huge amount of emotional weight to the episode and to the start of the new series, and gave more depth to Rory and Amy’s relationship ahead of their imminent departure from the show. We still don’t know how this is going to happen, all we do know is that it’s going to be tragic. The winding road of Rory and Amy’s relationship so far has proved that both Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill are actors capable of pulling of heavy emotion as well as light relief, and whatever happens to their characters I for one am really going to miss their presence in the TARDIS.

Asylum in action

Turning to the episode generally now, I have to say that the special effects were top notch. Reviews and previews that I’ve read have talked about the new series being more about stand-alone stories than series plot-arcs, and the production team’s efforts to make each story feel like a mini movie are definitely showing. The effects in the scene where the daleks wake up and attack Rory were great and did a lot to make the daleks feel threatening again. I also thought the episode was really well paced which was really effective for balancing the action and suspense with the emotion and intrigue of the episode. My only criticism with this point was that maybe they were too ambitious in trying to get everything in. In a 45 minute episode it must be really difficult to find the time to pull off properly tense action scenes, provide a heartfelt emotional resolution, set up a convincing conundrum and then a reveal and squeeze in the usual amount of classic Stephen Moffat witty dialogue. To be fair though, the fact that the team have managed a really good balance between all of them is still a remarkable achievement, and in my opinion the only real flaw with this episode was that the Amy and Rory plotline and the Oswin plotline dominated to the point of almost relegating the daleks to second fiddle. A particular illustration of this is that we saw so little of the Parliament of the Daleks that I only noticed two dalek models, both of which are from the new series, despite the rumours that we would see daleks from across the show’s 50 year history including a Special Weapons Dalek. I also thought the appearance of Skaro at the start of the episode was a nice but slightly gratuitous nod given that it was destroyed back in Remembrance Of The Daleks and the Doctor doesn’t explain how it exists again apart from saying “look at the state of it”. However, given how much commentary I’ve seen about Asylum of the Daleks (a particularly good Den of Geek review can be found here) I think it’s done more than enough to rejuvenate the Doctor’s oldest foe and make them scary again, despite a couple of plot holes. Good work!

Best bits:

  • Even though they’re divorcing Amy still signs the form with the name ‘Amy Williams’
  • You think hatred is beautiful.” “Perhaps that is why we’ve never been able to kill you.
  • Oswin calling Rory and the Doctor the Nose and the Chin. Normally it’s the Doctor saying stuff like this so it was quite funny to see it being used against him for once.
  • What colour?… Sorry, there weren’t any good questions left.
  • The Doctor using the dalek’s self destruct program to defeat a whole group of other daleks.
  • Don’t be fair to the daleks when they’re firing me a planet!
  • Amy’s speech about what the Doctor’s doing when he first arrives in the Parliament of the Daleks, and the shot of him fixing his bow-tie after he’s helped Rory and Amy talk through their problems without even being in the room.
  • You’re a tricycle with a roof!
  • The nano-cloud that converted the crew from the other ship was reminiscent of the nanogenes in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. I like nods to technological consistency between different episodes.
  • The Doctor arriving back to find Amy and Rory kissing moments before the planet was destroyed. “Oh for god sake” indeed!
  • *Rory dances as he follows Amy back into their house* “I can see you.” “Sorry.” Rory’s still my favourite!
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