"...save the daleks...save the daleks..."
Kidnapped by his oldest foe, the Doctor is forced on an impossible mission - to a place even the Daleks are too terrified to enter... the Asylum. A planetary prison confining the most terrifying and insane of their kind, the Doctor and the Ponds must find an escape route.
But with Amy and Rory’s relationship in meltdown, and an army of mad Daleks closing in, it is up to the Doctor to save their lives, as well as the Pond’s marriage.
“First there were the daleks…”
Since DOCTOR WHO – THE WATERS OF MARS, I have patiently been waiting, quietly, subserviently for an episode to demand from me a wholehearted, passionate, roller-coaster ride of emotions, and with Steven Moffat’s debut story for SERIES 7 the hiatus has been unceremoniously broken with aplomb.
Probably, when considered alongside the previous 28 Eleventh Doctor episodes, DOCTOR WHO – ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS is a rare beast as its recipe is truly historically-based upon the DNA of Terry Nation’s creations yet it, like culinary magician Heston Blumenthal who takes basic ingredients then apply science to create the next generation of food, raises the series’ storytelling to a genuinely new level.
It was impressive, yet disappointingly flawed but you have look closely.
So, overall, yes, it was impressive with the graded tone throughout being ‘subdued’ – even the official prequel to the episode sees a solitary Doctor partaking in afternoon tea & scones in a demeanour that channels the late (and iconic) Quentin Crisp - rather than ‘darker’ as other reviewers may attribute to the episode. From the foreboding landscape of a battle-scarred landscape of Skaro (why choose this era of dalek history if the aliens are at their zenith – new and paradigm daleks reconciled, it would seem – enslaving humanoids, holding them in prison camps across the galaxy? Surely, a technologically gleaming, stable planet of the daleks would have portrayed the warrior race as more of a threat, consolidated and building an ‘Empire of Fear’ [see BIG FINISH audioplay series]? The series’ producers have missed a trick there, but with a time travel drama that could be revisited at a later date. Why rush?) to depths of despair within the confines of the Asylum, the episode, yes, has the cinematic canvas stretched taut that has been initially flagged-up in the media.
Which other drama series could audaciously – and skilfully – abuse its title sequence with a six-minute ‘mini-episode’ that regales the viewer with threat, heartbreak (the Pond’s divorcing? No!) and unalloyed joy? Probably, not many. Perhaps, WALLANDER. It’s highly intelligent storytelling but enforces that fact that DOCTOR WHO mechanically works at its best with a ‘cliffhanger’ and, how with the confined 45-minute (thereabouts) formatting, this mini-cliffhanger is unchallengeable essential. The introduction of the 2005 NEW SERIES the storytelling format was wilfully broken, eschewing the cliffhanger format, but ever since it has tried to fix (with a pre-titles sequence) its removal.
Before discussing the plot content credit must be levelled to the those contributors who are rarely acknowledged in critic’s reviews; the production crew-team.
Making his DOCTOR WHO debut in DOCTOR WHO – A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Production (Set) Designer Michael Pickwoad (with Set Decorator, Adrian Anscombe) has exceeded all the expectations vaulted upon his fine-nibed Rotring Pen after the work formerly expertly undertaken by Edward Thomas for the previous series (and Specials). Pickwoad’s vision (still working with Bryan Hitch in developing series’ concepts?) in rationalising both the writer’s tone and vision has provided a greater depth of style consistency building a unique portfolio – or ‘visual language’, you could say - that cannot be confused for similar science fiction/fantasy production whether television or motion picture.
Equally key to the success of ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS (and, hopefully, the remaining episodes of SERIES 7) in complimenting Pickwoad’s production designs is the art of lighting, whether challenging the variable environmental conditions on location or within the confines of a studio. Working symbiotically, Director of Photography, Neville Kid (and working with the series’ Colourist, Mick Vincent) is the equivalent of a ‘visual magician’ manipulating and deceiving the eye allowing it to see what he only wants you to see and other more. Restriction and reduction is an art form in itself; a craft that is essential on DOCTOR WHO to add a dimension, a change of pace to the storytelling. Re-watch ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS and acknowledge the variation in natural (Earthly) lighting tones of Amy Pond’s interior photoshoot to the non-natural (dalek) lighting tone within the ‘abduction chamber’. Neither are ‘flatly’ lit as you could have expected but are subtly different.
The fourth companion… yes, there is another constant companion within the series that is as important as the perennial question, “What is it, Doctor?” or a look of horror on a Time Traveller’s face. The incidental music.
Composed by Murray Gold, it would seem, is subject to a seismic change. Or it could be just my ears. There have been a number of episodes I had wishes to have a so technically advanced television that I could ‘rebalanced’ the final mix of the episode’s sound to reduce the music level-volume and lift-up the vocal track. The score had become annoyingly obtrusive but with ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS it acted as an undercurrent or foundation to the on-screen action as opposed to being intimidating or as precocious. And whilst appreciating the aural track, Tim Ricketts continues to delivery an exquisite suite of special sound (CLASSIC SERIES’ Brian Hodgson and Dick Mills would be equally generous with their praise, I am sure) throughout, from the iconic dalek control room throbbing to a ravaged Skaro wasteland to the simplest of rust-riddled dome of a dalek as it tortuously swivels to focus on its prey (read: the hapless Rory Williams). Clever stuff.
So, to the main event; the story, the writing and the direction.
Well, firstly, what a title? A licence to create a new legend, a new fear and new dynamic for this most of enduring DOCTOR WHO plot device. The concept is, in its potential, truly cinematic; a planet upon which the dregs (ironically, lauded by the unaffected daleks) of their society/race are exiled (as opposed to being obliterated for being different or inferior – unlike the summary justice served by the new paradigm versions in DOCTOR WHO - VICTORY OF THE DALEKS) to deteriorate within the confines of its impenetrable force field (although a gravity tunnel can transmit through the said defence. Possibly, an explosive device could have been implanted into a dalek-hybrid – see DOCTOR WHO - VICTORY OF THE DALEKS – and disposed of it down the gravity tunnel). How on Earth the ALASKA’s escape pods breached the said ‘impenetrable force field’ was unexplained, or if it was I must have missed it.
Whilst it was dark, dank and oppressive like the heart of David Cameron, the actual (read: set design) Asylum was bland. With self-generating power (refer to THE DALEK HANDBOOK), why are the condemned daleks pitifully weak and, therefore, dormant? If they are ‘beautifully insane’ they have they not exterminated each other? Why was the Oswin Oswald Dalek isolated within its own cell (is Earth-based humanity more dangerous than pure dalek?)? If, like the Borg in STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, the dalek race has a ‘hive brain’ (known as a Path Web) based upon telepathy, then surely Oswin Oswald Dalek’s unnatural dreaming (read: pleasure) would have been collectively quashed as subversive?
And why is the Asylum so important for the daleks to obliterate in the full scale of things? Why not let it be especially if it is technically ‘locked’? Surely, building and consolidating a Dalek Empire across galaxies is “number one tick box” to complete?
In the run up to this episode, much as made of the fact that dalek props from the CLASSIC SERIES were to be used in the filming. However, it was either a stroke of genius or a miscalculation that these historical units were not distinctly shown and were merely ‘set dressing’. A missed opportunity, I feel, especially as BBC WALES could have liased with official BBC Licence manufacturer, THIS PLANET EARTH, could have supplied a complete range of dalek versions to demonstrate the true extent of the alien’s historical context.
In a continuity error – and this is personal opinion – the collaboration of the paradigm dalek and the ‘standard’ dalek race is blatantly wrong. I thought that the paradigm considered the original version to be ‘inferior’? With the paradigm annihilating the ‘standard’ dalek at their first encounter in the patronising belief that they were not true dalek, I cannot accept that counselling between the two versions has resolved their basic differences. But then again, within in the dalek timeline, this episode could be taking place millennia in the future.
Owing more to THE EMPTY CHILD/THE DOCTOR DANCES (with a hint of SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY), the conceit that the planet’s atmosphere is saturated with a Nano-Cloud, holding the ability to ‘convert organic matter both living and dead’ into dalek, is not offensive, leading to the ‘behind the sofa’ moment of Parka-lad cadavers (definitely, not a case of ‘hug a hoodie’) being revived and forcing the Time Travellers into retreat (sans one anti-Nano-Cloud defence wrist device).
The episode’s denouement is, I hope that you agree, controversial. The mass-deletion from the dalek PathWeb of all data pertaining to the Doctor. A complete system-wipe. Surely, this would make the Doctor more dangerous having ‘insider’ knowledge of their inherent weakness? This re-boot is brave on behalf of the DOCTOR WHO production team (though, doesn’t this ‘re-boot’ mirror the “…the Doctor is dead” plotting from the previous series 6?), and, as the series heads towards its milestone anniversary it could give it the second impetus (the first being its 2005 re-launch). Good luck.
Naturally, in a reveal that would not have registered with casual viewers but one that would have some fans wetting their sound-chipped dalek underpants. If you, like me, had to do a double take on the appearance of the ‘lady in red’, then this segment of the story took ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS to a new direction, and not a misjudged direction when viewed with hindsight. However, I wonder if all the “Oswin Oswald” inserts were filmed by another actress and then filmed later by Jenna-Louise Coleman following her casting? If Amy Pond’s character was not leave this series, who knows it could have been written for her? And to retain this spoiler following a number of public screenings (UK and USA) and, probably, Press Screenings, was stunningly achieved.
If only every episode has an exquisite surprise only to revealed on a Saturday evening.
It goes without saying that this has to be asked; if the Doctor and Oswin Oswald (sounds like a character from TWIN PEAKS) are to meet in a future episode, how is time going to be re-written to have the character employed on-board the Starship, ALASKA, and its inevitable crash (or forced landing) on the Asylum’s planet? Intriguing.
On her first DOCTOR WHO outing, Coleman certainly is highly competent, engaging with an adept ability to handle the excesses of Moffat’s frequently madcap and convoluted script. Why do I get the feeling that Oswin Oswald (anyone completed an anagram of that yet?) be more Sarah-Jane Smith rather than Victoria Waterfield? And that’s a good thing, and I have to say after the over-bearing, comfortable relationship between the Doctor and Amy Pond I am eager to see a new dynamic, fresh approach from 2013.
With that said, Matt Smith continues to excel as the disparate character without a home and without a time, like a flat-stone skimming across still water he aerodynamically transforms from brooding & suspicious to gleeful & joyous to heartfelt & comforting with a skill that a more experienced actor would have difficulty with.
The Doctor (to a dalek): “… a tricycle with a roof.”
But, with the benefit of regeneration, why was the Doctor wearing a First Aid sticking plaster (or Band-Aid) on his index finger (review: the dalek-zombie scene)? Is he channelling Michael Jackson now?
In other reviews, I have labelled Rory’s character as ‘hapless’ and it would seem that whilst the character has developed significantly, across the previous two series, he seems to even more ‘incompetent’ and cartoon-like (think of the Roadrunner character running off a cliff edge, fall for five seconds and then pick himself up without a scratch). On the surface, it would seem that the bravery of Centurion Rory being abandoned in favour of tediousness (read: Adric).
By now I am confident to say that Karen Gillan has perfected Amy Pond, and in any given situation we know what facial expression will be used. Therein lies the problem, the character is predictable whose story has run its course (well, it was completed by the end of series 6), and I am pleased that she will written out by the close of this month.
Amy Pond (to the Doctor): It is bad that I really miss this.
Overall, DOCTOR WHO – ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS is an accomplished, story that impresses throughout and certainly has the cinematic ‘blockbuster’ ambition that BBC WALES has flagging-up for several months now. Honestly, it’s hard to fault it (except that both the companions contribution is meaningless) as a series opener and a continuation of the Doctor’s story.
A mention of the tweaked title sequence. Certainly, tinted green/grey presents a darker tone to the series (but even on our SONY HDTV it looks too murky) but the attempt to 'episode-theme' the main logo is truly incomprehensible, and it looks 'naff'. The Gill Sans typographic style is too small and will a secondary treatment its clarity is lost against the substantially vibrant background. Yes, it looks like a rejected 'fan-made' title sequence. Terrible, and a waste of time and money (unless they - BBC WALES - have cash to flitter away?).
Cynically, of course, not every episode will be like this but one can but hope.