02 September 2012

TV Review | Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks by Steven Moffat

After its longest viewing break in seven years, Doctor Who returned to BBC One last night with executive producer Steven Moffat’s own Asylum of the Daleks. The episode sees Matt Smith’s Doctor and the two bickering Ponds (Karen Gillan’s Amy and Arthur Darvill’s Rory) captured by the Daleks and press-ganged into helping them to destroy their asylum, the integrity of which has been breached by the wreck of a starship, before the insane Daleks within can escape to the detriment of all.

The episode’s epic pre-title sequence is amongst the series’ most striking. Grand narration rolls over the broiling remains of colossal, Dalek-shaped structures as the Daleks’ new stooges prepare to draw the Doctor and his estranged companions into their masters’ trap. Scenes of our heroes’ capture then quickly segue into a stunning portrait of a Dalek empire at its height, Moffat turning to the bronze grunts of Russell T Davies’ tenure to form the ranks of the New Dalek Paradigm’s army, and the political system of the United Kingdom for its hierarchy. It’s perhaps quite telling that Doctor Who’s last two showrunners have used the governments of the United States and United Kingdom respectively as the templates for those of the two chief antagonists in the most destructive war creation has ever seen.

Naturally, much of the hype surrounding Asylum of the Daleks centred on the Daleks’ return – all of them. Moffat promised that this episode would feature every type of Dalek that television viewers had ever seen, and it certainly delivers on that promise. Between them, the Dalek Parliament’s ship and the eponymous Asylum boast just about every physical variation of a Dalek that I can recall seeing - and in just about every colour too. Even the more exotic Special Weapons Dalek, seen only once on television some twenty-four years ago, makes a particularly fitting appearance. Those fortunate enough to have read Ben Aaronovitch’s breathtaking novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks will be able to attest as to how the wretched creature – dubbed ‘The Abomination’ by its peers - was slowly driven mad by a backwash of radiation each and every time it fired its oversized weapon. The Asylum even features an intensive care section populated with Daleks that have survived an encounter with the Doctor; veterans of heyday campaigns as sundry as Aridius, Kembel, Vulcan, Spiridon and Exxilon that somehow lived long enough to christen the Time Lord ‘The Predator of the Daleks’.

Moffat also pays homage to the Dalek Replicants of the 1980s by going back to the nub of the idea and then re-extrapolating it to its full potential. Instead of a stuttering Likely Lad, Asylum of the Daleks presents its viewers with nanogene-borne Replicants so convincing that sometimes they don’t even know they’re Replicants; Replicants that don’t whip out a sidearm, but have eye-stalks sprout from their foreheads and gunsticks from their limbs; Replicants that remain animate even when there’s nothing left of them but decaying bone. Comparing these Replicants to those of old is like comparing The Dark Knight’s Harvey ‘Two Face’ Dent to Batman Forever’s.

However, such fan-pleasing nostalgia belies Asylum of the Daleks’ true purpose, which is to shift the Dalek paradigm even further still. Building upon the renaissance of the Daleks spearheaded by the likes of Nicholas Briggs, Robert Shearman and Russell T Davies, here Moffat imbues the Doctor’s archenemies with a twisted sense of aesthetics that sees them lock away their most-deranged units so that they may safely admire their beauty from afar. He hints at a hive mind, or collective consciousness, that pervades each and every Dalek despite their evident disparity. He reveals a race that has been forced to raise its game above that of all others through fear of a temporal predator – and then he robs them of their memories of that predator, and suddenly we’re looking at a brand new ballpark.  “Doc-tor… Who?

For me though, the real success of Asylum rests with Jenna-Louise Coleman’s unfortunately-named Oswin Oswald – the poor soul whose ship has crashed into the Daleks’ asylum. Strong but fundamentally vulnerable, promiscuous yet restrained, the viewer can’t help but fall in love with the marooned genius within just moments. This is a woman who seems to be fending off the nightly advances of psychotic Daleks with nothing but opera and wood, and the slow corrosion of her courage with brûlée soufflé. In reality, of course, she’s trying to defend against something far more insidious and abhorrent, and therein lies the story’s exquisitely-executed heartbreak.

The chemistry between Smith and Coleman in this episode is perhaps better described as physics – they don’t mix, they align. If the pair of them can hold an audience rapt despite a sheath of impenetrable polycarbide between them, just imagine what they’ll do when they can truly share the stage. I have no idea how similar Coleman’s upcoming companion character will be to her near-namesake’s here, but if the scripts continue to provide Smith and Coleman with material such as this, then we’re in for a real treat when they team up again come Christmas.

Nonetheless, it’s a testament to both Moffat’s skill as a scriptwriter and Gillan and Darvill’s as performers that, despite having to compete with a tremendous turn from their alluring replacement; a Time Lord who’s on the verge of summoning silence; not to mention every Dalek that ever there was, Amy and Rory feel like they’re at the heart of this story throughout - if not the heart of it. The marital strife alluded to in the final Pond Life webisode that trailed the new season is every bit as agonising for the viewer as any of the Daleks’ Machiavellian machinations. Rory’s two-millennium Pandorica vigil is suddenly brought into sharp focus here as circumstances force Amy to bare her soul to her discarded husband, and in doing so blurt out a silent sacrifice that many will find even more stirring.

Chilling, poignant, and shamelessly fan-pleasing, Asylum of the Daleks completes a hat-trick of incredible season-openers for Steven Moffat. The whole production exudes flair and refinement, right down to the bespoke Dalek bumps on the opening titles’ logo. We might have had to wait longer than usual for Series 7, but it’s been well worth it. Bring on the dinosaurs.

Doctor Who continues on Saturday at 7.35pm on BBC One.

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