Television Review: Asylum of the Daleks

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the last seven years of Doctor Who, the first two seasons of Torchwood, as well as one big spoiler for anybody who hasn’t seen the second series of Sherlock. It’s also long, really long. About triple the length of one of my average posts. You’ve been warned.

First off, it’s good. It’s not great, it’s far from perfect, but compared to Victory of the Daleks, Asylum is a fine story so long as you don’t pay too much attention to the Ponds’ emotional drama and Amy’s subsequent descent into Dalek induced madness. There are also Dalek zombies, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them.

Now for the details.

The Problem with Dalek stories

One of the key problems in telling a good Dalek story is that the stakes often become a little too high. Any good Whovian knows that even a handful of Daleks could conquer an entire planet. A Dalek warship, stuffed to the gunwales with ten thousand hate filled Daleks, is a threat to an entire galaxy. Ten thousand ships filled with as many Daleks is enough to jeopardize all of creation. And even when the Daleks get cast into (insert hand wavey, timey wimey, spacey wasey McGuffin of choice) one Dalek always manages to survive to start things all over again; it is the Dalek circle of life. So when Mark Gatiss let one Dalek survive in Victory of the Daleks, which then went on to resurrected a team of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Daleks, who then escaped the Doctor, I was sceptical. Not wary so much of Gatiss and Moffat per se, but because of the legacy of the latter’s predecessor.

When Russell T. Davies was showrunner he had a tendency to try and increase the stakes with each season. Steven Moffat did the same thing at the end of series five, though not with half the emotional intensity and panache of RTD; reboot the universe, my ass. If ever there was a “Holy shit I’ve written myself into a corner, and I have no exit strategy” moment, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was it.

Prior to screening Asylum, my fear was that a reborn Dalek race under Moffat, whose track record as a writer is much stronger on Sherlock than it is on Doctor Who, would yield absurdly high stakes story telling requiring complex and ultimately unsatisfying gimmickry as a means of solving narrative problems. To put it another way, the last time we had a non-God Emperor of Dune style (transitional story telling soft on plot heavy on exposition) Dalek episode, the Daleks nearly undid all creation. If Moffat played along similar lines he’d have to reboot the universe, again.

For now, this fear has proven unfounded. However, I reserve the right to bring the issue up again if, as I suspect, the Daleks emerge at the end of the season to threaten all life everywhere with some nefarious plot. So while Asylum has its faults, it does offer a third way when it comes to telling Dalek stories without going whole hog on the “universe hangs in the balance” narratives.

How Moffat fixed the Daleks

Rather than focusing on the cosmic consequences of a fully realized Dalek race, complete with a new Emperor (cool), a functioning parliament (wait, what?) and borg-like assimilation technology (I could call derivative bullshit here, but I guess eye-stalks out the forehead are better than pig slaves), Asylum gives the doctor a task. Much like when the Time Lords sent the fourth Doctor to paradox the Daleks out of existence by messing with their Kaled progenitors, the Daleks teleport Eleven to a colony where they house the insane of their kind. What begins as the Daleks pitting their greatest foe (who is now called The Predator in lieu of The Oncoming Storm) against the worst of their own quickly turns into a damsel in distress story.

 

The key to the narrative, aside from not asking questions about how Daleks reproduce in such great numbers (the answer of course can be found in the most kinky Hentai ever made), build ships, and other such plot holes, is similar to the Wellesian silver bullet found in the series one episode, Dalek. Namely, the quality of being human is what defeats the Daleks. Asylum asks and answers what it means to be, Human, Time Lord, and even Dalek. Though now squid like in natural appearance, the Daleks were once a humanoid species, indistinguishable (largely for budget reasons) from humanity. Thus the Daleks have human emotions and motivations.

Generally, Dalek psychology is driven by two things: belief in the Dalek race as superior to all others and an unabashed hatred for anything that isn’t Dalek. Clearly though, the Daleks are softening on the definition of what it is to be a Dalek. Why else would an automated Dalek sanatorium give Oswin a full Dalek conversion? After all, these are not cybermen seeking to upgrade the cosmos. As evidenced in Dalek, Evolution of the Daleks, and even Victory of the Daleks, to be less than 100% Dalek is to be worthy of extermination. But its best not to dwell too much on that point or else things start to fall apart.

 

Though Dalek in body Oswin manages to hold on to her humanity, as witnessed in her letters to mom and penchant for baking. Thus she is able to turn the Daleks against themselves.

The Doctor-Dalek paradigm

What of the Doctor, though? When the Dalek parliament sends Rory, Amy, and the Doctor to the Dalek asylum, they give the intrepid trio wrist bands to prevent their assimilation into, foreshadowing alert, Dalek drones. Naturally, Amy loses her thing that keeps the Screamers away anti-Dalekification device during an attack from zombie Dalek drones. I hope whoever came up with that idea in the writer’s room took a victory lap or two.

Shortly after their Romero-esque escape, the Doctor rescues Amy from a descent into conversion induced madness. Knowing its only a matter of time before Amy is fully converted, the Doctor tells Amy to hold on to her fear and her love, human qualities that the Dalek nano-probes will try to purge from her mind before converting her body. Rory, suspecting he loves his wife more than she loves him, offers to give Amy his wrist band, assuming he can retain his humanity longer than she can. Only after the Ponds share a moment of maudlin heart break followed by honesty, wherein we learn that Amy is barren and Rory wants more children, do we find out the Doctor snuck his wrist band on to Amy. So why didn’t the Doctor transform?

Because in some ways the Doctor is already a Dalek. As my friend J.M. Frey so often says, the Doctor is not a hero in the traditional sense; he is Chiron, the trainer of heroes. While the classical allusion certainly holds, we must not forget that the Doctor is also The Oncoming Storm. In that, he is Shiva, the destroyer and transformer. We know from The End of Time, that when the Doctor used “the moment” – the ultimate weapon of mass destruction – he affected not only the Daleks and Time Lords, but a myriad of other races as well. Yet these races were not simply killed, but condemned to eternally repeat the nightmarish hellscape of events that constituted the Time War in a “Time Locked” portion of space-time. Since then, Nine, Ten and Eleven have all demonstrated the capacity to be driven by hate, the Dalek hallmark.

In the year 200,100, Nine was so raw with hatred that he was willing to use another weapon of mass destruction and accept the Earth as collateral damage when the Daleks invaded Satellite Five. Turn Left shows us an alternate reality of Ten whose hate would have led to his death during the Racnoss invasion. Eleven is less so motivated by raw hate but similarly Dalek in his own way. Where Nine and Ten had passion, Eleven is colder and more calculating than the other two. He lies, deceives, and manipulates his best friends to suit his own ends. The Cult of Skaro, the Daleks made to think like their enemies, mirror Eleven despite being introduced at the end of series two. But no matter the incarnation the Daleks can always see themselves in the Doctor. The mad Dalek Emperor, Dalek Sec, Davros, they all knew the post Time War Doctor’s capacity for hate and capriciousness because it was reflected in themselves.

Thus do we return to humanity. Because this Dalek side to the Doctor, also known as “the Time Lord victorious”, isn’t what saves the day in Asylum of the Daleks. It is Oswin’s refusal to be Dalek, her ability to be better than the Doctor. Barricaded in the sanctuary of her mind, she records letters to her mother, bakes failed soufflés, and escapes into the refuge of classical music to drown out the Dalek part of her brain that screams, “Let us in”. What is her reward for this fortitude? Oswin becomes another person willing to go to their death in order to save the Doctor. It is in Oswin’s “death” that Asylum shows the Doctor’s true power: not his TARDIS, nor Time Lord physiology, but his ability inspire/manipulate others into self-sacrifice. How many people have died to give the Doctor his nine hundred and some years? Just like the Daleks, others die and he keeps living. One Time Lord survives. Now, as a warped parting gift, Oswin has made it so the Doctor’s worst foes no longer recognize him.

Stop and consider this for a moment. The Daleks are now beholden to nobody. They do not fear The Oncoming Storm. What horrors could a restored Dalek empire perpetrate without having to factor for a blue box? Moreover, the Doctor may have been all laughs and smiles as he made his escape from the Dalek Parliment, but now he is alone in a way that the series has never before presented. He is anonymous. The lonely god who goes to museums to keep score is a stranger to the species that forced him to condemn every other Time Lord and countless others to an eternity of hell within the Time War. Nine once asked the broken Dalek of Dalek “What is the point of you?” Now we can ask what is the point of the Doctor if his foes don’t know to fear him. Is he still a god? Or is humanity more than just a one off for this episode?

 

Motherhood and tantrums

One of last seasons’ recurring themes connected to the strength of motherhood. Nowhere was this idea more overwrought and tired than in 2011’s Christmas special The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe. I’ll gladly accept any allegations of cynicism that people would care to toss my way, but the idea that a mother’s love can guide something through the time vortex, while successfully re-writing her own history, was just too damn much for me. Asylum walks a very narrow tightrope in its themes of motherhood. On the one hand, part of Oswin’s effort to maintain her humanity comes through letters to her mother. In so much as I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to assume the Daleks would bother assimilating a human (EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE) I’m fine with this mother motif in play. Where things get a little too hammy is with the Ponds and their reproductive challenges. Silence induced sterility? Really? Of all the things that could have happened between part four and five of Pond Life that’s where Moffat went? Never mind the fact that the Ponds already have a daughter. Apparently Rory wanted another child so badly he prompted Amy to do the hardest thing in her life and “give Rory up.” When did the Ponds turn into Gwen and Rhys? No, cancel that. Rhys and Gwen had real people problems. Granted the girl who waited and the lonely centurion have always had a tumultuous relationship, but setting a very good Dalek story against the schmaltz of two characters whose days are numbered on the series seemed a waste of effort.

Another matter of motherly outrage connects to spoilers. Last year Steven Moffat put himself on the pop culture radar for a few choice rants directed against people who perpetrate spoilers. He called those who engage in such activities vandals, and in concept I agree with him. Going out of your way to ruin something for somebody is rather classless act. Yet Moffat himself is near unto a spoiler in his Doctor Who writing. Case in point, by the time we got to Let’s Kill Hitler in series six, it was painfully obvious how the long arc would resolve itself. Just like the anti-Dalek bracelets, a writer does not introduce a piece of technology if they don’t plan on using it for something later.

This season’s big to do came in the form of announcing Jenna Louise Coleman as the new mid-season companion, only to bring her into the first episode. To some it might seem anti-climatic. To my eyes, it appears that Mr. Moffat has Reichenbach’d himself in the most low stakes away imaginable. We know Oswin didn’t really sacrifice herself to save the Doctor and the Ponds, just as we know that Sherlock isn’t really dead. Now the only thing the audience has to look forward to figuring out the type of trickery Moffat and company will invoke to bring Oswin into the TARDIS in a plausible way i.e. she was controlling that Dalek shell from another location, or the Daleks made a clone of her per Dalek operating order 5532-13-A. I know, it’s not a spoiler when it comes from within the series itself. But when it comes to Doctor Who, Steven Moffat doesn’t exactly play his cards close to his chest – certainly not in the same way that he does with Sherlock. Nor is Moffat bound by the rules of reality in Doctor Who as he is in Sherlock. While figuring out how Sherlock survived the fall constitutes detective work on the part of the audience and the writer, rationalizing Oswin’s return is nothing more than a study in candy coated bullshit.

Then again, we must not forget rule #1 – The Doctor Lies (and by extension so does Steven Moffat).

It would be a shakeup of RTD proportions if Oswin actually stayed dead and Coleman’s role in the show was just a one off akin to Kylie Minogue’s in Voyage of the Damned. If so, Steven Moffat will have perpetrated the biggest sleight of hand casting maneuver in the history of Doctor Who, if not television itself. The man would go down in entertainment history with the likes of Orson Welles for making dupes of Whovians around the world. Alas, such a maneuver is probably not meant to be, so I shall say no more on this particular long shot bet.

While we’re talking about the new girl

Considering that Jenna Louise Coleman is, almost certainly, going to be joining the Doctor for the second half of this series, I think it fair to devote a few words to initial impressions of her character. The short version is that Oswin seems just a little too awesome.

By virtue of her Dalek conversion, Oswin is capable of doing things that the Doctor can not. Beyond a raw talent for clever computer hacking, she has the constitution to maintain her humanity despite Dalek conversion. Not to mix genres but even Captain Picard could not resist assimilation by the Borg. Who is this Oswin girl that she can stare down the enemy that brings the best of Doctor Who to despair?

 

Oswin also finds the time to have a flirt with Rory and the Doctor. Through a quick narrative info dump she manages to frame herself as a character with the sexual forthrightness and flexibility of Captain Jack Harkness. Nor should we forget that she demonstrates courage and self-sacrifice in the finest tradition of the heroic epic.

Don’t mistake my observations for criticisms; none of the things that make up Oswin’s character are ill traits. But where’s the catch? Also, didn’t we already a have an equally impossibly awesome character in the form of River Song? Hell, Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother is a better rounded character than what we know of River and what we’ve seen of Oswin.

Even within canon other characters demonstrate their obvious flaws. The Doctor is perpetually guilty, angry, and forever trying to find absolution for his past. Amy has her short temper. Rory is the little man called to do great things. The Master is vainglorious. Donna is Icarus; she flew higher than any human ever could, but in becoming the Doctor-Donna lost it all. Martha was a tedious fan girl. Rose was naive. Jack, well I’d need another three thousand words to properly inventory and categorize all of Captain Jack Harkness’ issues. I could start with his adopting a dead lover’s name and persona before another ex-lover buried him alive for a couple of millennia wherein he was constantly dying and resurrecting. How about this: Jack has problems connecting with people.

Yes, Oswin will have half a season to develop as a character. And I’ll also concede it’s not fair to the writers to judge a character based on first impressions alone. However I will be watching very closely to see if Oswin becomes anything other than a younger version of River Song.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, Asylum of the Daleks, is a great episode as long as a viewer is willing to accede to the notion that the Doctor was so preoccupied with the Silence that he let the mortal enemies of all life everywhere develop to the point where they would move from the Dalek Emperor’s absolute monarchy into a what appears to be a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature. Square yourself with that bit of cognitive dissonance and the rest of the story, even with the Pond drama, unfolds as a very strong Dalek adventure. Further kudos to Steven Moffat for writing an episode that actually lets a critical viewer make some connections to the Dalek stories of the previous showrunner, even if indirectly. So much of Moffat’s writing has been working within a Fawlty Towers framework where he is almost pathological in not mentioning the war anything Russell T. Davies worked with.

Now we just need to get rid of the Ponds, who by all rights should have been written out during the Christmas special.


About Adam Shaftoe

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