Saturday, June 08, 2013

One Flew Over The Dalek's Nest

Hats off to 21st century Doctor Who. They’ve really done a bang-up job of making vast armies of Daleks a tiresome trope. It gets to the point where you miss the days when they could only trundle out three at a time. All the numbers amount to nothing and too-simple solutions wipe them all out as well as undermine all the good work done in Rob Shearman’s Dalek to render them scary and formidable again.

Hats off to Steven Moffat then for supplying a scene of a Dalek host and adding on a new twist. It’s one of many moments in the opening of Asylum Of The Daleks that could have spun us off into the whirling vortex titles. “Save the Daleks!” the alien pepperpots cry, to which the Doctor declares, “That’s new.” And we’re off.

It’s a great beginning to the season – and to an episode which then goes on to do much to make the Daleks scary. Worthy of applause for that alone.

The Asylum is built on shaky foundations. The very idea that Daleks would have an asylum for their nutcases is a dubious conceit, but if you can get past that it’s great. Much as the Dalek eyestalks sticking out of people’s foreheads (and egg-whisk guns sticking out of their palms) has a tendency to look a bit silly – but if you can get past that, it’s disturbing and a rare dose of body horror in today’s Who. It works best in the scare department on the reawakened corpses in the wrecked ship.

The Daleks’ own argument for the asylum is that they consider it sacrilege to destroy such divine hatred. Which is tenuous, but on the other sucker arm it makes a twisted sort of sense in the context of the semi-religious spin that’s been built into Dalek philosophy in recent years and, more importantly, leads to a wonderful rationale as to why they’ve never been able to kill the Doctor. So while flawed, this is essentially a case of the ends justifying the means.

Within the asylum itself, there are Daleks in chains and we can pretty much file those under the same category. The whole idea of chaining Daleks, let alone the logistics of other Daleks chaining them, is absurd. It chimes well with the Gothic aesthetic is all and I can only assume it was included for pure visual effect without pausing to think about it much beyond that. The chains fall apart with all the ease of a Dalek army in the face of a feeble plot device anyway, so it’s clear they serve no worthwhile function as a restraint. Luckily the story is a great deal stronger than these trifling weak links.

From the immediate attention-grabbing opening in the mile-high statue of a Dalek in a war-blasted city on Skaro, it’s bold and audacious and whisks up a perfect blend of vivacious wit, dark and atmospheric menace and an intriguing core mystery that will turn out to be the heart of this season’s arc.

And if I’ve used the word ‘whisk’ one too many times, it’s because Moffat also makes a great play on eggs. And soufflés.

Clara is a gem. Even without the prior press announcements she marks herself out here as clear companion material. And even though (first time around) I guessed her ultimate predicament in this story well ahead of the reveal, it’s still a dramatic and touching moment when the reality hits her and we know that (this particular) Clara won’t be joining the TARDIS crew. (At this point, my imagination is drawn to an irresistible but highly impractical ‘what if’: Dalek Clara could have been saved and become the first ever Dalek companion. Oh, the possibilities.)

Still, as roomy as the TARDIS is, there’s no space that could accommodate the two big personalities of Amy and Clara. Revisiting this such a long time after the fact, it’s wonderful to be reminded of how bloody brilliant Karen Gillan is as Amy. And she and Rory (Arthur Darvill, who's always been great even when his character is underused - happily, not the case here) make a great if slightly dysfunctional team. At the time, I recall being a little disappointed to be starting the season with them initiating divorce proceedings and it still stings a little as you really want these two to be happy together. But their domestic situation serves a crucial role as the basis for a brilliant scene in which Rory expresses what we all felt – i.e. that he loved her more – and is duly obliged to reconsider his perspective in the face of Amy’s emotional outpouring.

Ultimately it re-forges their relationship – phew – and it’s a another strong human core to the story, right there alongside the fate of Clara. Kind of like the Doctor, the story has two hearts.
Matt Smith is on tip-top form here. It’s almost like he’s come back after his holidays and enjoys his work a whole lot more than the break. All his avuncular warmth – which I always find quite a quality to pull off in such a young actor – and his Troughton-esque combination of haplessness and authority, gloom and humour are in full evidence and are a perfect complement to the palette of the episode.

There’s a clever final twist as Clara hacks the Daleks to make them forget the Doctor. This aspect of the Doctor’s record being wiped, lowering his profile so that the universe isn’t quite so out to get him all the time, becomes an incidental sideline to the Clara question throughout the series ahead. But examined again this moment is an effective piece of foreshadowing, setting us up for the ‘new beginning’ that we appear to be heading towards in The Name Of The Doctor.

It’s another testament to Moffat’s skills in that, seen so soon after its ultimate resolution, you get a very clear impression of how carefully he constructs his masterplans. It’s all as delicate as a soufflé and could collapse at the slightest provocation, you feel, but the ingredients are way more complicated and the recipe way more involved. And at this point, in Asylum Of The Daleks, I’m convinced he got the mix right.

It’s loaded with potential for more in-depth exploration of mentally disturbed Daleks (if that’s not tautology) and I do feel more could have been done with that. But ultimately it’s family viewing and a step too far in that direction might have led to a lot of disturbed kids.

At the end of the day it left me wanting more and that’s a very laudable quality in both Doctor Who adventures and soufflés.

Next Time...

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.


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