Monday, 3 September 2012

Duncan reviews Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks

This is a spoiler-free review for those that haven't seen it:

My expectations of this episode's quality, high as they were, were exceeded by the superb, tightly-written plot from the back-to-form Steven Moffat. Any initial worry I had about why the Daleks - of all the races in the Doctor Who universe - would have an asylum for their own kind was laid to rest with an explanation that was not only internally consistent within the show's mythology regarding what we know about Daleks and Dalek psychology, but also shown in a clever way without the need for any clumsy exposition.

Given my intense dislike for Moffat's Mary Sue character River Song, I was pleased to see that he has finally shown the ability to write female characters who aren't sub-Buffy wisecrackers devoid of fear (or indeed any emotion other than sass, if sass is an emotion) but who instead react realistically to terrifying situations and alien environments. Both Amy Pond and new guest-character Oswin were convincingly portrayed in this manner.

On the subject of performances, Matt Smith showed a reaction to the Daleks that couldn't have been more different to how he played against them in Victory of the Daleks, treating his mortal foes with respect designed to affirm the narrative danger in defiance of the implausible scenario, for the benefit of the viewers. This is exactly what was needed from Smith and Karen Gillan, since anything less might have undermined the threat and made the prospect of a bazillion Daleks all not exterminating the Doctor seem rather silly. I could easily imagine any of the first four Doctors saying Smith's lines.

The Daleks, likewise, were on a return to form after the abomination of Victory. We were promised old series Daleks and, by jove, old series Daleks we got! RTD's era is "old series," right? More importantly, they are a credible threat once again, with the stupid fear-of-the-Doctor weakness removed. Indeed, I can't imagine these Daleks being afraid of anything, and they're certainly not the kind to get the Doctor to do their dirty work in a ridiculously contrived way either.

Thank goodness, after last year's 'arc' which put the Companion's personal lives front and centre (and pointlessly linked them to a certain River Sue) that there wasn't another contrived element introduced to Amy and Rory's characters. I look forward to the rest of this season being free from such soap-opera and more like the story-driven adventure series I tune in to watch. And if the rest of this season's stories are as good as this one, then this season is going to be a classic.

And I know this is only a little thing, but I was pleased at how little the Doctor used the Sonic Screwdriver this episode. Given how much of a magic wand it has been in recent times, I was half-expecting the Doctor to use it to take control of Dalek motor-functions or something else similarly drama-destroying.

A triumph. The only thing stopping me from giving it a full five star rating is that none of this is true.

My real review:

Between Victory of the Daleks and this, the undermining of the Daleks must be complete. Not only are the Daleks afraid of the Doctor (which was a nice twist when first used in Eccleston's season, but - like the Cybermen's gold-allergy - has now been overdone beyond the point of parody) but they are afraid to go down to their own asylum - which is a fucking bullshit idea in the first place - finding it easier to make the Doctor do it for them. When the whole concept behind the plot is so fundamentally flawed, there's not much more I can say about the story that isn't just a sequence of expletives.

So, taking it as read that I think Asylum of the Daleks is pish, instead of an angry rant (I'm Scottish: we do anger, Amy Pond says so) here's a list of the things I did like about the wasted opportunity that was this episode:

The setting of the Asylum was atmospheric, exactly the kind of place that deserves a really good Dalek story to be set in it.

Arthur Darvill rose above the material to play his scenes well and once again demonstrated that Rory, though underdeveloped compared with po-mo badass Amy, is the best regular character in the series at present (damning with faint praise, there). Highlight of the episode for me was his scene with the Dalek because Rory both (a) is compassionate, and (b) doesn't really know what the Daleks are like because, unlike Amy, he hasn't met them* before. I felt it was one of the few moments of genuine peril, arising believably from the situation and a character's reactions to it.

Alas that it was surrounded by pure shit.

* I think Rory encountered one Dalek in The Big Bang, but even if Rory has met Daleks before, his actions in that scene make sense if he doesn't know that they're the most dangerous, ruthless killers in the universe (because they've been pretty ineffectual since... well...) but if he did know that fact then either he was just doing it to create some artificial tension, or for the sake of a cheap "eggsterminate" gag. Or both.

And there was me trying to give some credit.

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