Doctor Who: Asylum Of The Daleks review

Review Simon Brew 1 Sep 2012 - 20:10

Doctor Who series 7 kicks off with Asylum Of The Daleks. Here's our spoiler-packed review...

Warning: this review contains spoilers. The spoiler-free one is here.

7.1 Asylum Of The Daleks

"Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you".

At some point, once the dust has settled around Asylum Of The Daleks, it might be worth us all having a big old chat about what's an 'acceptable spoiler'. Because, as you probably worked out, a quite massive one managed to get to the transmission of the episode fully intact. At the advanced screening we were lucky enough to attend, Steven Moffat specifically requested it be kept under wraps, and fortunately, everyone complied. But we’ve seen the very fact that he requested a big surprise be kept reported. Is that, in itself, taking things too far? We’re genuinely interested.

Back to the surprise in question itself, though. We'd been told, after all, that we wouldn't be seeing Jenna-Louise Coleman, the incoming Doctor Who companion, until the Christmas special. But not for the first time, a little bit of fibbing has taken place, and there she was: not just appearing five episodes early, not just taking everyone by surprise, but also, er, seemingly doomed.

Companions have wriggled out of corners before, but it'll be interesting to see how Coleman's character - going by the name of Oswin here - manages to get out of being a Dalek. That's been a bit of a dead end for a character in Doctor Who past, so it sets up something intriguing for us to speculate over until the year’s end. While we’re there, we might want to ponder how the Doctor heard her voice so clearly as human rather than Dalek, too, until the penny finally dropped. Also, why not throw in that the planet she was apparently on has blown up. Er, small hurdles, there...

Looking at Asylum Of The Daleks specifically, then, and we suspected when we first saw it that it might be a bit of a divisive episode. After all, Steven Moffat’s first full-length Dalek story is as interested in the marriage of Amy and Rory as it is the Time Lord’s most infamous foes. That’s certainly not going to be to the liking of everybody.

But it’s to the liking of us. There are but a few stories left with Amy and Rory, and what Asylum Of The Daleks has done is shift the mechanic once again in their relationship. In the past, it’s been Rory that’s waited, Rory that’s done the chasing, and Rory who was seemingly the most committed to their marriage. Heck, he’s died enough times for them.

This time, though, in an episode that sees them on the cusp of divorce and, in a nice twist, seeing the Doctor capable of fixing things he’s not expected to, we learn that Amy needs Rory just as much. We also learn that it’s now her inability to have children that’s seemingly done fatal damage to their relationship, and the reason why she's not fought for them. Rory doesn’t see fertility issues as the be all and end all, though, and they end up back together.

Crucially, both Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan are on top form, delivering scenes of the ilk we’ve never seen between Doctor Who companions before. They sell the fact that the horrors that Rory and Amy have been through have both torn them apart, and left them paradoxically inseparable. They’ve both actually needed each other as much all along, and only on the precipice of them splitting once and for all can Amy finally admit that to him. All this in the middle of a Saturday night family show.

It’s not the end of their story, though, and Asylum Of The Daleks leaves them poised, arguably at their most even and happy, and no doubt set to be put through the wringer again. That's for the next few weeks, though.

The Daleks, meanwhile, get a bit of an evolution here (and while their name may be in the title, they hardly dominate the episode). Moffat isn’t interested in a traditional tale of Daleks being on the edge of winning, and then snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead, when we meet them – after being introduced to an evolved version that sees Dalek apparatus protruding from human beings (which is better than the Dalek hybrid of old, certainly, and something that opens up a new way for them to be used in the future) - they’re as good as defeated. And that’s why, this time, they send for the Doctor.

They seem to find him very easily, as it happens, which begs the question as to why they’ve faffed around with him so much in the past. But then Moffat pops in a line to deal with that early in the episode. Anyway, the Daleks need him to take on a suicide mission – after he’s had a quick pre-credits journey to Skaro (which was destroyed back in the excellent Remembrance Of The Daleks) – to head down to a particularly dangerous planet on their behalf.

The planet in question is the Dalek’s asylum, the place where all the broken, damaged and scarred Daleks go. A smashing idea, that. The vast majority seem dormant, and that means the tone of this part of the episode is more along the lines of a tense horror than any kind of action spectacular. The big screen parallel might just be John Carpenter's take on The Thing, although the foes here are often in plain sight, just not functioning properly.

We were told that every variant of Dalek ever would be on display, but ultimately we don’t really get to see that much of too many of them (although the broad Dalek Parliament scenes are impressive for sheer scale alone). It’s a bit of a shame, as we’d have loved to have seen some of the older models back at work. Not to be on this occasion, though.

Instead, what we get, and what makes the Daleks here really work, is something a bit smaller. Consequently, it's also something that injects tension back into the Daleks. Director Nick Hurran delivers excellent work here, embracing the also-strong production and sound work on display (in fact, the sound design rarely gets enough credit), to wring the most of out Daleks slowly stirring from their slumber. It recalls the 2005 episode Dalek in some respects, in the fact that Asylum Of The Daleks does its damnedest to get across that just one of the infernal pepperpots is a lethal beast in its own regard. They feel like a threat again, and that’s no mean feat.

Also, it’s interesting that Moffat continues the reset work he undertook at the end of the last series. Theoretically, everyone believed The Doctor was dead come the end credits, although the Daleks (and presumably others) obviously didn’t buy that. But now, Oswin has found a way to wipe the Doctor from the Daleks’ collective memory. The Doctor’s mortal enemies not recognising him anymore? That leaves their ongoing battle in an intriguing position, for the first time in a long while.

So then: does this all make for the best Dalek episode of Doctor Who? No, but it’s a very good one. Take the ingredients it injects above and beyond battling the Daleks, and it’s better still. With an added sprinkling of Moffat’s witty dialogue, it’s a confident, ambitious start to a big series for Doctor Who. It packs a lot in, and you can sense that there’s been a real effort to deliver the kind of one-off weekly blockbuster that we’ve been teased with. It certainly gets series seven of the revived show off to a strong start, even if it doesn't seem to introduce threads quite as teasing as those from The Impossible Astronaut and Day Of The Moon. It's not short on dark edges of its own, though.

An impressive opener, then. But still, we have to end with the Oswin questions. Amy, at one point in the episode, has her mind clouded, and sees people where there are actually Daleks. Has the Doctor fallen prey to that, too? Is that why he can hear Oswin’s voice, rather than the sound of a Dalek? How is she going to get from the inside of a Dalek to the Christmas special intact? And was she really there, or is someone messing with our heads again (because if she was, she seems a bit, er, dead)? We're looking at you, Mr Moffat...

We look forward to finding out, and thanks to a confident performance from Jenna-Louise Coleman, we look forward to meeting her character again, too. Before that, though, there are more episodes to enjoy, starting with the small matter of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship next week. Here's hoping it keeps the standard up to that of Asylum Of The Daleks.

Isn't it good to have Doctor Who back?

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