Doctor Who series 7: Asylum Of The Daleks spoiler-free review

Review Simon Brew 14 Aug 2012 - 21:57

Doctor Who series 7 kicks off with the return of the Daleks. Here's our spoiler-free review of Asylum Of The Daleks...

7.1 Asylum Of The Daleks

It’s no mean feat, Asylum Of The Daleks. The last series of Doctor Who kicked off with a two-part story, that gave the room to set up threads that would run right the way through the sixth series of the show (since it was revived). Here, it’s a standard-length standalone instalment instead, in the spirit of the series ahead of us. That means there’s less obvious longer-term seeds being sown, but instead an intense focus on delivering a cracking 50 minutes of television.

After all, there are no two-parters this time around. Each episode of the new series of Doctor Who is intended to be big. It’s intended to be a single blockbuster, a “first night”, to quote Steven Moffat. And for the first of the new run, Moffat has brought back the Daleks. No pressure there, then.

Before we go further, just a quick, regular house rule. This is a spoiler-free review. That means it’s going to be very. very light on story detail, and just give an opinion of the episode. You can read whatever you like into the words that follow, but we’ve been very careful in how we chose them. Read this page backwards, and you will not get extra clues or anything. If anyone attempts to spoil the episode for you, appropriate action should be taken.

So then.

Asylum Of The Daleks is a surprising start in one or two ways. After all, from the title, and the trailer, you might be thinking this is an all-out action blockbuster of an episode. It isn’t. It’s got more in common with a good, thinking survival horror movie, such as The Thing, than it has a rampaging Dalek war. That's aided by the fact that the excellent production design and effects work continues to close the gap on what you can see at your local Odeon on a Saturday night.

That’s not to say there aren’t Daleks, though. There are tons upon tons of the things, of varying vintages. What's more, Steven Moffat has found ways here to cleverly evolve them, and also pay tribute to their heritage. Even before the credits have rolled, there’s something that might just make long-term fans sit up with added interest. Just a little touch, to give further evidence that it's a long-term Who fan at the helm of the show.

That said, Moffat has described the Daleks as the most easily defeatable villains in the past, and perhaps that’s one reason why he’s never penned a full episode around them himself before. Predictably, though, he’s unpredictable in his approach, and he makes some very rewarding choices with how he chooses to involve the Doctor’s most infamous nemeses.

What’s particularly impressive is that he brings tension back to the Daleks – with the help of some excellent direction from Nick Hurran – for the first time since Robert Shearman’s terrific Dalek, way back in 2005. He also manages to play with them a little, and find interesting new things to do with a foe that’s been around for nearly 50 years. Asylum might not be your favourite Dalek story of all time (there is stiff competition in that regard), but it’s a very good one, and there’s a very clear effort that’s been made to shake things up a little.

It’s not just Daleks that Moffat’s concerned with in this episode, though. Picking up from the end of series six (albeit not directly), with people believing the Doctor is dead and Amy and Rory not travelling with him, Moffat spends some quality time with his lead characters. Particularly Amy and Rory, and how their relationship has developed since Christmas.

Which is as good a time as any to salute Karen Gillan, who gets better and better, and the underappreciated Arthur Darvill. Darvill is brilliant, whether as a generous comedic actor or as a core of emotion, and he’s on top form here. It perhaps goes without saying, too, but we’ll say it anyway, that Matt Smith utterly owns his role, and his ability to shift emotions in a split second remains a cherishable, rare talent.

The sum total of all of this is a really, really good slice of Saturday night fun, that puts a good Dalek story at the heart of an episode that’s impressive for reasons beyond its foes. It’s frequently funny – Moffat hasn’t lost his touch with excellent one-liners – and emotionally involving too. It also takes the Daleks to some quite dark places, with a fresh, unpleasant edge. And, as with many of Moffat’s episodes, it’ll ignite the Internet within seconds of it finishing.

Bottom line, and we'd better stop for fear of giving anything away, Doctor Who remains in tip-top condition, that much is clear. And as a kickstarter to what looks like a pivotal and massively ambitious series ahead, Asylum Of The Daleks is a very impressive way to begin. Congratulations to all concerned: it really is possible to continually evolve and subtlely change a show with such a long pedigree to it.

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