Monday, September 3, 2012

"Asylum of the Daleks"

"Lunatics running the asylum" has always been an apt description of Doctor Who's 21st Century revival given that it has been written and produced by, mostly, embittered Classic Series fans who never really liked the show they were brought up on in the first place. Never has it been more evident than in the observable deterioration of Steven Moffat's writing quality over the period from 2010 to now, in which a fresh start to a shallow reboot regressed back to different, but ultimately comparable, forms of shallowness and simplicity. "Asylum of the Daleks" is, in my view, not a very good episode at all. To put it simply, very little happens, it takes itself far too seriously, the plot is rather contrived and its characters are extremely wearisome. My key word for this review is "unnecessary" because it describes huge amounts of the action.
"This whole episode was a trap."
We begin on Skaro with a clumsy voiceover setting up the Daleks and the Doctor and the Doctor's apparent death at the end of the previous series. The Doctor meets a strangely-accented woman inside a giant Dalek-shaped building that the Daleks apparently have. Putting aside the fact that Skaro's been blown up about three times now, including Remembrance of the Daleks and the Time War, it looks pretty good in my opinion. Shame the episode couldn't have been set there because it looks quite nice. It's also a relief to see the Doctor so early because Matt Smith is as usual one of the most watchable elements of the show. Strangely-accented woman tells him her daughter has been captured by the Daleks but she escaped; given that no one escapes the Dalek camps ("concentration camps" could have been used to effect here), the Doctor deduces that it's a trap. Oh really? He just got summoned by a complete stranger to Skaro and he wasn't previously aware that it was a trap? An eyestalk pops out of the woman's head and a Dalek gun from her oustretched palm, to represent that she's under the control of the Daleks, a rather bizarre and unsubtle piece of imagery. He gets zapped and our plot begins.
A surprise appearance by the late Peter Cushing?
No wait, now we need to have Amy in sultry model makeup in a fashion shoot; turns out Amy and Rory are getting divorced and we're meant to care. There was a set of one-minute shorts settng up this plot released online before this episode but I'm not reviewing them because they were too short and too crap. I guess there's an element of mystery in that we don't know why they're getting divorced? Other than that it's pretty forced. Amy and Rory both get sprung individually (which is unnecessary) by more eyestalk-in-head Dalek puppets. This is the start of the time-wasting; we just didn't need to see this beyond setting up Amy and Rory's divorce, which besides being a tiresome soapy plot point could have been established more subtly later when the Doctor notices how far apart they are. My objection is because of how many utterly contrived reasons we've seen in the last series' worth of episodes in order to reunite Amy and Rory with the Doctor. It wastes so much time; why not have them already with him?
The Daleks aren't completely inhospitable.
Amy and Rory wake up in a completely bare, stark, glowing white utilitarian Dalek Prison which for some reason has a nice little convenient and completely incongruous barred window staring out into space for some typical footage of CGI ships whizzing around while music heavy with bombast assaults our ears. Rory wonders how much trouble they're in and the Doctor walks in suggesting that in true Spinal Tap fashion the amount of trouble registers as an eleven, which is to say an extra 'one' above ten on the trouble scale.
"They got me a long time ago."
This would have been a good, albeit somewhat cheesy time, to cut to the titles but we're not there yet. Frankly I think this whole bit of the Doctor walking in was a bit wasted: it could have been cool in some kind of Amy-and-Rory-in-the-dark situation where it appears that the Doctor has teamed up with the Daleks; he does look very much the "amoral intellectual" in that scene with his bow tie and tweed and dour expression and little joke. If everything suddenly went very "Mindwarp" (that's a Sixth Doctor story from The Trial of a Time Lord, you moron) I could see it working.
The roof opens up and they're raised into a huge chamber full of Daleks. The gold RTD Daleks are suddenly back in full force, and it's a shame seeing Moffat caving to fan pressure against the New Paradigm Daleks which, beyond being in a few too many toy-friendly colours, were something upon which he should have stuck to his guns. The Doctor reveals that this is the "Parliament of the Daleks" and we're obviously meant to be very impressed. He goes into "eager Jesus" mode as his prior incarnation once did, arms oustretched to be exterminated, but the Daleks actually want him to save them. I thought the whole point of Moffat giving the Daleks a rest for a whole series (besides a small cameo) last year was to restore their menace, but now they look more inept than ever. Incidentally, what the hell do they need a Parliament for? Aren't they a totalitarian one-will one-way species? It's just an excuse for wide CGI-laden shots of lots of Daleks which doesn't look particularly impressive given that we've seen them in enormous quantities before.
Finally we get to the titles. We've moved to a rather simple lettering which I find looks a bit cheap. I noticed that the DW-TARDIS symbol only appears for about half a second. Did it not catch on as well as they wanted?
"But I'm too perky to die, Doctor."
Now we're introduced to a new girl played by the actress who's playing the new companion, although we don't yet know the connection. We're obviously meant to consider her to be very perky and likeable as she makes soufflé and records a journal in a crashed space ship. Her 60s-style space clothes are an interesting design choice; I think she needed gogo boots though. We get a rare "good" moment in this episode where she turns her classical music up to deafening levels to block out the sounds of mad Daleks trying to break into the room; it's fairly horrifying and it's the kind of tone we needed more. Now we go back to the "Parliament" and Amy gives a tiresome "now an expert on the Doctor" account to Rory of the Doctor's thought processes. The Dalek puppet strange accent lady whose potential plot is now set up to be completely abandoned is questioned briefly by the Doctor as to her memories before he is introduced to the "Dalek Prime Minister". What do they need a Prime Minister for? The "Prime Minister" or blob in a jar explains to the Doctor that they're above the "Dalek Asylum", a prison planet of legend where all the craziest and most battle-scarred of Daleks are kept. The Doctor claims it makes no sense because the Daleks would just kill them. The Dalek Prime Minister (I can't believe I'm writing that) the blob in a jar tells him that "It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred" and that the Daleks have a concept of beauty, which is why they've been preserved. This has got to be one of the lamest and most contrived excuses in the whole episode, because the Doctor's absolutely right - the Daleks would just kill Daleks they couldn't control no matter how hateful they are, and we've seen them destroy their own kind countless times. It could have been a planet where Daleks captured by other species in some kind of galactic alliance dumped the Daleks they couldn't destroy or something and thus we could have done without the whole Parliament and the "helping the Daleks" plot because this only compounds the image of the Daleks as complete morons who pose no threat whatsoever. Rory asks "what colour" the Daleks down on the Asylum are, in one of the only genuinely funny jokes in the episode, but then he immediately has to explain the joke.
"Welcome to the Giant Blank CD of the Daleks."
They now get a transmission from the girl down on the planet and the Doctor asks the Daleks if they've tried talking to her but of course they haven't. "...he asked the Daleks," the Doctor qualifies, and a joke or bit of irony gets explained again. He couldn't have just said "Of course not," or something, could he? Is it because more Americans watch the show now and Moffat thinks they're completely incapable of understanding humour if it's not spelled out for them or something? He gets all sentimental that this girl on the planet has apparently been making "soufflés against the Daleks" oh isn't that so sweet and chipper. Aren't humans so indomitable? How tiresome. Stop telling us everything Moffat and be content to show it! Honestly, an enormous amount of this episode would have been bearable without the constant efforts to lampshade every single event in words. So this ship this girl is on has crashed into the Dalek Asylum; there's too much of a risk of the crazy Daleks escaping, so they need the Doctor to go in, deactivate the impenetrable forcefield and let them blow up the planet. Wait - they weren't willing to kill the crazy Daleks before but now that there's a risk of them escaping they are? This kind of contradiction just doesn't fit the Daleks. Hang on - the forcefield is impenetrable. So how could a ship crash there? What the hell? If the shield can be penetrated by a crashing ship why can't it be by the big horrible Dalek nukes we see later that blow the planet up with about ten of them in a second?
A weak parody of Cameron's Tory government?
The Doctor gets an unnecessary extra appellation as the "Predator of the Daleks." "'Predator' is the Daleks' word for you!" explains the strange accent Puppet lady completely needlessly. Why is everything being explained when it's completely obvious, and not being explained when it makes no sense or seems to contradict itself? We're obviously meant to just be gasping at how horrible this makes the Doctor look or something. They're given wristbands to avoid being harmed by their descent to the planet. "It is known that the Doctor requires companions," apparently, and that's all the reason we get for Amy and Rory being there. These kinds of self-referential winks to the show's structure are incredibly tiresome. They may as well have had them say "it is known that Doctor Who is a long-running British science-fiction programme first broadcast in 1963 featuring an alien Time Lord known as the Doctor who travels..."
Now we're beamed down to a snowy planet for a nice change of pace. There's an unnecessary guy in a snow suit and we discover that the girl on the planet has a zany space name to go with her zany space clothes: "Oswin Oswald." Rory's disappeared; he's been separated from the Doctor and Amy because as usual the writers for New Who don't know how to handle more than one companion. He's been beamed down to a Dalek dungeon where the story is going to be trapped for the remaining half an hour of viewing. There are a bunch of dusty old Daleks down here; I guess they're meant to be scary. One thing that was bigged up about this story was that it was meant to have Daleks from "every era of the show" but these just look like RTD Daleks covered in dust to me.
"But I was only gone two minutes!"
The Doctor and Amy go down to the snow-suit man's spaceship, where his silent travelling companions are obviously dead. I think we're meant to be surprised about that, or surprised when he turns into yet another Dalek puppet. The Doctor reveals that there's a cloud of nano-machines in the air which converts anyone not wearing one of those wristbands into a Dalek puppet, so apparently the Daleks are also high-tech Cybermen now. The dead crew all get up as puppets and we see the march of the Dalek zombies for a yawn-worthy non-scare which is overcome in about five seconds through the power of closed doors.
Oswin Oswald starts making jokes about the Doctor having a big chin, because apparently everyone thinks the same way in Moffat-verse and comes up with the same remarks about people. She claims to be a complete genius and also quite sexy, to explain how she's able to communicate with the Doctor via all this hacked Dalek technology. So basically she's another cookie-cutter Steven Moffat "empowered woman" full of witty quips and flirty dialogue. The Dalek zombies took Amy's wristband so now she's being converted by nano-robots in a way awfully similar to her control by the Weeping Angels back in Series 5. Really it's just every Moffat trope jammed together.
There he is! On the left! How nostalgic!
Back in the Dalek dungeon Rory wanders around having no purpose. He wakes up the Daleks and thinks they are saying "eggs." Surely he knows that Daleks say "exterminate"? He claims to not know what they want, and despite originally being conceived of as an intelligent character he gets to act in an incredibly, arbitrarily stupid fashion. Oswin Oswald opens a door for him to escape through and we get a very brief shot of a Special Weapons Dalek from "Remembrance of the Daleks" and maybe one other but that's it. We also get an absurd slow-motion action shot where Rory, running a moment ago, is now sliding like he's on rollers under the door. Oswin calls him Nina in reference to an old crush just so we can hammer home the cringe-worthiness by having a bit of bisexuality. It's this kind of characterisation, where everything's really self-consciously cheeky and risqué and thinks it's so clever that makes me want to put my fist through the television.
"Doctor there's... there's a good episode in here!"
"Come away from there Pond, it's dangerous."
The Doctor and Amy arrive in the Dalek dungeon and we get more of Moffat's obsession with memory and the loss of memory as the Doctor states that he's had to explain the conversion process to Amy four times. He tells her to "hold on to scared" or whatever emotions she's having as if, y'know, emotions are something tangible that can fight tiny machines rebuilding your body. So Amy and the Doctor have finally caught up to where Rory was; why didn't they all just come down here at once? We're re-treading the same turf and it really adds to the sense that the episode is going nowhere. Amy has a bunch of time-wasting delusions. Another one of the rare "genuinely clever" moments in the episode occurs when one of the nutty Daleks, due to its nonfunctional gun, self-destructs as a weapon. The Doctor of course waves the sonic screwdriver at it and it flies backwards and blows up all of its buddies. Y'know, for an episode called "Asylum of the Daleks" we see very little that distinguishes these "mad" Daleks from your average run of the mill Daleks. Maybe the episode should have been called "Junkyard of the Daleks" or "Creepy Old Disused Repair Shop of the Daleks." Maybe if the Doctor had suggested that Daleks were all a bit mad due to their totalitarian beliefs and excessive hatred and that the "Parliament" was the real Asylum it would have been a bit more effective. Maybe that was implied, and Moffat's just trying really hard to hide some keen-edged subtext underneath loads of heavy-handed explanations and tiresome dialogue.
"No, I don't know why he wrote it this way either."
Now that Amy, Rory and the Doctor are reunited it's time to wrap up the plot very quickly. They've found a teleporter to let them escape; Oswin just has to deactivate somehow the planet's nigh-impenetrable forcefield and they can go home. They have to stop Amy being converted; she slaps Rory in a case of "acceptable female-on-male" violence suggestive of more of Moffat's really quite disturbing "holy dread" attitude towards women as worshipful and dangerous creatures. The Doctor after a lot of stuffing around with the sonic screwdriver wanders off to rescue Oswin and Rory offers his wristband to Amy suggesting that he loves her more so there'll be more love for the nano-robots to extract and therefore he'll take longer to convert. My old friend magic thinking returns with a triumphant flourish, as Moffat as usual depicts willpower as something tangible and equivalent to psychokinesis: you can stop little robots from stealing all your love-energy through sheer force of will. Amy gives Rory another slap which should have been directed at Moffat and the explanation comes pouring out. We have some forced character development where Amy claims to have given Rory up because she can't have kids anymore. Well that just explains everything? With the air cleared they get back together. May as well have not written them as having broken up in the first place, huh?
The Doctor's approaching Odlaw's position but first he has to go through "intensive care" where the survivors of Classic Series Dalek operations in places like Kembel and so on are kept; if there are indeed Classic Daleks present in these scenes (as allegedly there are) they are barely recognisable under enormous layers of dust. What was the point of having them, then, except maybe an effort to encourage militant Classic Series fans to watch the episode by bigging them up in pre-show publicity?
I sympathise, Doctor. I really do.
The third genuinely good moment occurs when the crazy Dalek survivors wake up and start approaching the Doctor. As he screams in fear and desperation to be let into Oswin's area it's perhaps the single moment of genuine, believable, non-overdone, context-appropriate emotion in the episode. Oswin erases the Daleks' collective memory of the Doctor, which apparently stops them from killing him even though they kill anybody. The Doctor finally enters Oswin's chamber and, surprise surprise, she's a Dalek. I guess it seemed more likely that she'd just be a puppet given that everyone else in the episode was, but it's still not very surprising. In another Moffat re-hash she's very similar to the little girl computer from the Library two-parter back in New Who series 4 in that she's living out a fantasy to hide from her true identity. Apparently she underwent "full conversion" to preserve her genius, another element which makes the Daleks seem too much like the Cybermen. What isn't explained is: how she kept her original personality, even if her "life" was a dream, and why she's chained up in a dungeon if the Daleks need her genius.
This is how I felt.
I guess she was chained up because she kept her original personality but that's another case of something important not being explained. It seems her whole body is inside the Dalek machine so I guess the Doctor can pop back in just before the planet blows up in a later story and rescue her given that she at least has some connection with the new companion. It's not explained how she didn't erase her own memory when she wiped the "pathweb" knowledge of the Doctor but I guess it goes back to the question of how her original personality was maintained. Why was this not explained? Some people have complained about how her human voice was heard over the intercoms when she had a Dalek voice in person but this was the least important issue in my mind; clearly the long-range communication had some telepathic element or something which expressed her true personality. I can see that being the Moff's bogus explanation. She tells the Doctor to remember her and gives a fourth-wall-breaking look at the camera. Seriously? Again, all this self-referential stuff is really quite unnecessary.
"Deal with it, bitches."
As usual everything is blowing up and Amy and Rory kiss and make up with a vast sense of laboured gravitas and immense self-congratulation about how clever this episode apparently is. The Doctor and chums teleport straight back into the TARDIS and it turns out that all the Daleks have forgotten who he is. How can they be his arch-enemies if they don't remember who he is? I'm sure it'll all be retconned. Why didn't the Doctor reassure Rory earlier that they could teleport straight back into the TARDIS? Indeed, why was he even worried about going back to the "Parliament" ship when they knew the TARDIS was there? Again, more of Rory being depicted as stupid for no reason. Amy and Rory get dropped off again for some reason so they can be reintroduced in an even more contrived fashion next episode and we close on the Doctor prancing around the TARDIS asking "Doctor who?" Good grief. At least we didn't have an arc set up in this episode, unless the "Doctor who?" thing constitutes an arc which I really hope it doesn't.
So that's my recap-review of "Asylum of the Daleks": it's badly-paced because nothing happens for ages, the plot is full of contradictions and it's obviously meant to wow us with impressive images and bombast rather than making sense or expressing something particularly intelligent. It has been suggested elsewhere that the show is (or has gone back to) being written for fat girls on tumblr and I really can't help but agree; it's cynical and shallow, full of grandiosity and laboured emotional drama at the expense of coherent storytelling. The lunatics are definitely running the asylum.

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