Asylum of The Daleks (Review)

An advantage of having a themed blog is that it challenges you to find suitable topics to talk about each week. A drawback is that you can’t talk about whatever you like. In some ways that defeats the point of blogging as the form is so conducive to a diary-like outpouring of what you want to say as it comes to you. So readers looking for a connection between my review of ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, the opener to the new season of Doctor Who, and this blog will have to be content with the knowledge that I watched it…in America.

The anticipation for ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ couldn’t have been higher. Not only had viewers waited 5 months longer than usual for the new season of Doctor Who to begin but the episode heralded the return (albeit from a bogus publicity-stunt hiatus) of the Daleks, the show’s lynchpin villains and one-time Beatlemania-emulating pop culture phenomena. Also, since the annual run of episodes has been cut in half for 2012, viewers watched the episode in trepidation of it constituting 1/6th of their Doctor Who fix this year. The close-season publicity for the series had also tantalized long-term fans of the show with staged, Abbey Road-style photographs of Dalek models stretching back to the 1960s, luring people into thinking that the episode would be a Dalek retrospective reflecting on how these Dyson sink-unblockers had figured in the series (or even British art and culture) in the past 49 years.

The Fab Four!

It all started very promisingly. Writer-producer Steven Moffat’s scripts for Doctor Who are often deeply flawed but he is adept at cold opens, as seen in the pre-title sequence of the 2011 Christmas Special which would have graced any Bond film. The teaser in which The Doctor and his companions are kidnapped from their times by Daleks and taken to their Parliament with a cryptic agenda was mouth-watering. But it also demonstrated a conspicuous whittling-down of extraneous dialogue (Moffat’s greatest weakness as a writer) in favour of imagistic storytelling, making the first 5 minutes of this effort eminently satisfying. The dialogue that remained was sparse and terrifying, especially in The Doctor’s opening exchange with an emptied-out, human-style Dalek on the mysteriously resurrected home planet Skaro, which effortlessly captured-and yet did not aggrandise-the cynicism and deep-seated resentment at the heart of Matt Smith’s portrayal of the central character.

Tough room!

As soon as the re-vamped credits-which managed in true digital-era BBC style to be simultaneously utilitarian and gaudy-ended, the problems began. Moffat seems to believe that to over-complicate something is to improve it, and the shock introduction of-and premature farewell to-The Doctor’s future companion (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was an ill-advised overegging of the narrative pudding, appropriately for an episode with a dairy-based leitmotif. It also completed unbalanced the episode, like Faustino Asprilla did to Newcastle (Google it, young’ns!). And here lies the problem with all the stories featuring classic villains since Moffat took over in 2010. The Daleks play second fiddle to the characters and their emotional dilemmas and all the potential of the set-up, in this case a planet inhabited by disturbed Daleks, is wasted. Contrary to the promo pictures, the episode had no respect for the Daleks or what they have meant to the show.

Hello new companion-Goodbye new companion!

The spectre hanging over the forthcoming departure of Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill) loomed larger after the first look at their replacement. It’s a dispiriting thought, especially as the most compelling moments of this episode revolved around Rory. Darvill has the alchemy to turn Moffat’s entry-level humour into comedy gold, exemplified in this episode as Rory attempts to make peace with a Dalek by returning what he assumes is its egg spawn. Without this kind of performance polish, Moffat’s half-witticisms are going to look pretty pointless in the future. And it’s not long before the terse force of the minimal dialogue gives way to the excruciating baby-talk that Moffat increasingly takes as his signature meter. Moffat even seems to have lost the knack of writing the domestic life of the Ponds, throwing a red-herring divorce in their way reminiscent of the water-treading ‘marriage trouble’ storylines given to couples in soap operas.

Those aren’t chickens!

But worse was to come. Now I’m well aware that Doctor Who has leant heavily on popular culture over the years to inform its storylines. In fact, some of the best stories-like Victorian-lit romp ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’-are pure pastiche. I’m also entirely cogniscent of the dearth of new ideas in Moffat’s scripts for the show since his first in 2005. There are, for example, none between ‘Blink’in 2007 and ‘The Wedding of River Song’in 2011. But the Martin Bashir-meets-Johan Hari level of plagiarism in this episode is just inexcusable. Inexcusable because it brazenly lifts the plot twist and visual imagery from Duncan Jones’ Source Code without acknowledgement, adaptation or play. And inexcusable because an intriguing original idea had been abandoned to make way for a wholly derivative one. We saw nothing of the implicitly terrifying concept of a planet ruled by rogue and maddened Daleks. Instead we got a few broken plungers.

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