Asylum of the Daleks: In Perspective
Asylum of the Daleks: In Perspective Part 2
In the introduction to the first part, I noted what some Whovians had expected the inclusion of ‘every Dalek ever’ would mean there would be an epic Dalek civil war or some other sort of battle. This part will look at whether the usage of the Daleks in the episode was a letdown because of that, as well as how other concepts such as The Question and The Doctor’s darker side were explored. In addition, I’ll be looking at how the episode comes together through the writing, the acting and the music.
A Dalek Success Story?
I don’t need to tell you that the Daleks had started to become a bit of a joke to some people after Series 3’s dire Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks; and nearly everyone (Disclaimer: may be exaggerating. But you should have been) was laughing after their embarrassing defeat in the Series 4 finale. Series 5’s Victory of the Daleks was both a move forward and a step back, a move forward in that the Daleks, were, somewhat obviously, victorious. The step back is also rather obvious. I am referring to the garish and somewhat bulky redesign that made it nearly impossible to take the Daleks seriously, even if they did achieve their primary goals. Moffat, noting the overwhelmingly negative fan reaction toward the redesign, made the wise decision to reinstate the use of the Time War Daleks that his predecessor had created. Now, the Daleks could again be taken seriously, provided they backed this up with their actions.
Did they achieve this goal? Well, I believe they did. Asylum of the Daleks is the most sinister and scary that Daleks as a species have been since 2005’s Dalek and Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways. They were also at their most effective, as well as being a subversion of Conservation of Dalekanium, the revived series’ rule that the no. of Daleks was inversely proportional to their threat level/ease of defeat. In addition to having turned people into Dalek Puppets; sleeper agents that can remember their lives but have no emotional attachment to them, the Daleks, while losing all knowledge of the Doctor, achieve their primary goal for the second episode running where they’re the main threat, incurring no losses apart from the aforementioned loss of information. Considering some of their recent plans have resulted in massive loss of Dalek life, that’s more or less a 100% increase in efficiency.
Some have been scathing about the introduction of both the Parliament of the Daleks and the Asylum Planet, saying that there was no evidence that such things existed. I say poppycock to these people, particularly in the case of the former. There was no evidence of a Dalek Emperor before it was invented either. Is the showrunner no longer allowed to add to the Canon of the Daleks (which incidentally sounds like a good name for a Dalek story)? It’s not as if there’s any contradiction, regardless. The Paradigm Daleks may well have realised that after the failure of two Emperor Daleks (if we take City of the Daleks and The Eternity Clock as canon, that is); a species governed by a monarchy was perhaps not the most effective route to go down. Winston Churchill has been quoted as saying ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. Perhaps the Daleks, being geniuses, came to the same conclusion. Besides, it is highly amusing to imagine Daleks participating in elections, going to the polls and voting; and one can only imagine the manifestos. Perhaps a prequel called Election of the Daleks is in order. I’ll write it if no one else will. As for the Asylum, seeing as the Daleks have identified individuals (the Special Weapons Dalek and Dalek Caan off the top of my head) as insane, it is therefore evident that they must have had a procedure for dealing with such individuals. Hence the Asylum, though accusations that it was a slight letdown in depicting the resident Daleks as insane are merited.
Regarding the use of Classic Daleks in the Asylum (Oh, did you think I was going to let him off? No chance.), well, yes, it was a letdown. But I’m going to be fair. There were never going to be enough models for the scene in ‘intensive care’. That being said though, there were still opportunities to use the Classic models which weren’t taken. For example, the aforementioned Special Weapons Dalek was shown to be residing in the Asylum, but it doesn’t show any signs of movement, or even of stirring from its esteemed repose. That was for me the single biggest disappointment in the episode.
The Question and Other Matters
Whatever Asylum of the Daleks was, it was not the action packed episode we were anticipating. So, what was it? Looking at it thematically, it may or may not surprise you that of all of Moffat’s past contributions to the Whoniverse, it most resembles 2005’s The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, a story heavily reliant on traditional horror. From that perspective, it was a stroke of genius to bring back the cause of all the trouble in those episodes; the Nanogenes. Given what happened in said episode was due to an unfortunate coincidence, it made me ponder what could be done with them were they to end up in the wrong hands. Now I know, and it’s not pretty. Both stories feature some rather unpleasant body horror and their transformation scenes bear more than a few similarities, right down to the ghastly crack as the gas mask and Dalek eyestalk force their way out of your face and forehead respectively. Brrr. Thanks sound effects team, really needed that.
Oswin’s fate is also psychological horror in both her callous conversion by the insane Daleks, and her awakening from her dream world to discover the gruesome reality; as are the Dalek Puppets’ memory of their time alive but total disassociation from it. Asylum’s aforementioned spiritual predecessor also employs psychological horror through the ‘Are you my mummy?’ line and the scenes where the Doctor and companions are cornered. Both stories also add an unhealthy dose of adult fear to round off; parallels can be drawn between Amy’s infertility and divorce with Rory and Nancy’s fear of having to bring Jamie up on her own out of wedlock. The Nanogenes also considerably refined the concept of converting humans into Daleks introduced in Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks in that DNA alteration actually makes sense by causing biological changes; rather than humans who were almost 100% Dalek but still looked like humans, which was patently absurd.
A returning concept from Series 6 was the First Question, ‘Doctor Who?’ As someone who loves myths and legends, the opening lines from Darla that make the Doctor sound like little more than a myth are a fitting continuation of the themes introduced in The Wedding of River Song. Reaction to Oswin’s erasure of the Daleks’ knowledge of the Doctor has been mixed, but I think it is something that has a lot of potential and makes a fair amount of sense. Those who say it would have been more fitting for the Doctor to have done it have missed that he tried and failed to do so. The Doctor says to Oswin that he tried to hack the Pathweb and was unsuccessful. Think about that for a moment. Considering it was established in The Angels Take Manhattan that the Doctor was going round erasing himself from various databases, the reason for doing so should now be obvious. I await the payoff (perhaps in the 50th anniversary special?) with interest.
Another continuing theme from Series 6 is that of Eleven’s darker side, which Asylum gave considerable development to. One of the many things I like about the Eleventh Doctor as opposed to the Tenth is his attitude towards the Daleks. He has a lot to blame them for; in the revived series alone they’re partly responsible for a loss of a close friend and a lover in Donna Noble and Rose Tyler respectively, as well as having caused the decline of the Time Lords to the point where they became the race of homicidal maniacs depicted in The End of Time and necessitated their annihilation at the hands of the Doctor. As opposed to Ten, who was furious when the Metacrisis Doctor committed genocide against the Daleks even when the universe would have been destroyed had he not done so (Okay, if we’re being pedantic; Donna made them spin around, but that would not have lasted forever, and also it was a contrivance to have him end up with Rose. It’s also hypocritical because Ten committed genocide on the Daleks in Doomsday), Eleven is not only willing to kill Daleks when necessary, but delights in it. For this reason, forget whatever happened with Solomon and Kahler-Jex later in the series, the defining moment of Eleven’s darker side this series is ‘I’m not looking for a countermand, dear. I’m looking for reverse.’ This is partly because the way he coldly manipulates the Dalek into taking its own life and those of its comrades has more than a few shades of the Seventh Doctor about it.
The Bigger Picture
It takes more than just one aspect to make a Doctor Who episode great, and there are certainly a few areas where the episode excels. Moffat’s writing is much improved from the heavily criticised The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe, and his dialogue is laudable. Something evident in both this episode and the The Snowmen is that Moffat is unafraid to take the Mickey (Smith) out of himself, with jokes such as ‘What colour?’ wryly poking fun at the decision not to have the Paradigm Daleks be the dominant design in this outing. The line ‘It’s Christmas!’ could also be considered to be a nudge at the audience, who were informed that they wouldn’t learn anything about the character Jenna-Louise Coleman would be playing until said holiday (Though, it could be argued that Moffat wasn’t lying, as he didn’t clarify which character. Troll.). There are also a few great continuity references and mythology gags, my favourite being the spinning Dalek, who presumably was one of those on which the Thal anti-rad medication was tested upon way back in The Daleks, but the references to several Dalek battles came close.
On the negative side, I didn’t actually have any problem with how Oswin’s voice was disguised (a non-starter) or the Daleks being scared and the later apparent contradiction, because it seemed to me that the Doctor was trying to goad the Daleks into revealing more of their plans in the first instance anyway. I was also not worried about how Skaro was intact, given Moffat’s not the first writer to be vague about this. I was more concerned about how Dalek Sec’s casing ended up in the Asylum with an apparent new inhabitant.
A well-written episode is nothing without the acting to back it up, and Asylum features four stellar performances from its lead and soon to be lead actors. It is Matt Smith and Jenna Louise Coleman who steal the show however, while credit must also go to Nick Briggs for his Dalek voices. Whether the sinister growl of David Cameron-sorry, the Dalek Prime Minister, the demented scream of ‘intruder’ from an insane Dalek, or Dalek Oswin’s despairing cries, he pulls them off with aplomb. The episode is complemented by an unusually subtle score from Murray Gold, though two key motifs are present: a slowed down and distorted version of the rooftop music in The Angels Take Manhattan in scenes involving Amy and Rory, and the beautiful melody we now know as Clara’s theme.
On reflection, those initial reviews would appear to be right. It may not have been what we expected, and it may not be perfect, but it is very good.