Saturday, 16 November 2013

Asylum of the Daleks

Doctor Who has never been more popular, or sat so prominently in the national (or global) consciousness as it does now in the run up to The Day of the Doctor. But there's no accounting for fanxiety. There were, surely, very sensible reasons behind the decision to split Series Seven into two halves - but such a shuffle of the schedules as this made me feel a tiny bit insecure, if only because of the problems the show had experienced in the Eighties. It was irrational, even paranoid, of me to worry (I'm usually able to block out such crazy thoughts, promise), but the fact was that the 2012 season was being spread out over two years, and that meant less Doctor Who than had been expected.

It's just a television show, so I coped. But I wanted to know that this was only a temporary rarefaction, to accommodate the anniversary, or to move the show to an Autumn slot, or for any other countless possible sound logistical reasons. I wanted to know that there would be a full season in 2014 and that things would get back to normal for a few more years.

Now, as far as we know, that is what's going to happen, so hooray, and stupid me for entertaining doubts. But then the promotional engines started to fire up for Series Seven and I had another irrational moment. No two-parters? Each episode a movie in its own right, condensed into forty-five minutes, complete with poster art and tag lines? And then, when they appeared, these five stories each had their own weird, personalised titles. What was going on?

All that was going on was that a dedicated team of extremely hard-working people were slaving away to try and make superlative television, and to make it as exciting and as fresh and as desirable as they could for the widest possible audience. Where does the doubt, the madness and insecurity come from? I really don't know, but some of it is entitlement, an erroneous sense of ownership of the programme, and some of it is the ravenous desire for information that exists today. Graham Williams didn't have to put up with Twitter, or online newspapers hungry for clicks, or even silly blogs like mine, all clamouring for content, production plans, casting announcements, spoilers, on-set pics, next years transmission dates, anything, everything, demanding to know how the sausage is being made right now, rather than patiently waiting for the final dish to be served.

The episode itself, when it eventually arrives, is the only content that matters, something I'm sure I mentioned to myself when, after the massive great big gap since Christmas, Asylum of the Daleks rocked up - and was really, really good.

How do you make the Daleks surprising after all this time? How do you keep them scary? How do you use this story to inject new life into the Doctor's number one antagonists, into the show itself? Like this.

Give us Secret Daleks. The human slaves, their eyestalks hidden inside their presumably hollowed out skulls, feature prominently in this story, descendents of the Robomen of the Sixties and of the Duplicates of the Eighties. They carry with them now the threat of conversion, of being taken over, which is sort of stepping on the poor Cybermen's toes (as if they didn't have enough to worry about lately), but which, nonetheless, allows this episode to dwell on ideas of the boundary between human and Dalek: when do we become like them, what do we have to lose to make us like them? What would a Dalek have to have to make it human?

Give the Daleks a Parliament! This is new, and fun, and looks marvellous. But actually is there anything less Dalek-y than a parliament, or a prime minister? I am a keen fan of Daleks conversing in stories, perhaps even arguing with each other - but debate and compromise? Legislation? Elections!? Hmm, I'm not so sure. I think a Dalek Council might work (a small, unaccountable one) but, really, a Politburo is much nearer the mark? Surely the Daleks operate a totalitarian system and brook no dissent. Still, moving on...

Zombie Daleks! Human corpses, infected by the Dalek nanocloud, sprout eyestalks and start lumbering around. All in all, rather more terrifying than poor old Sec.

Make them really slow and rubbish. Yes, it's counter-intuitive, but goodness me is it effective. Rory hasn't really seen a Dalek before, not properly properly, so the scene where he wanders amongst their dusty shells carries a real menace: we're not convinced he knows what danger he's in. Then he clumsily wakes one up. It's an electric moment: an enfeebled, ancient Dalek trying to remember how to kill - and Rory being terribly polite and British at it, trying to understand, trying to help... "I don't, I don't know what you want. Those things? Are those things eggs? This? You want this?" Brilliant. It's terribly rare that we get to anticipate an "Exterminate!"; having this one build slowly from gibberish is wonderful.

Daleks are people too. Ah, Amy's hallucination. Or is it just a change of perspective? Either way it is the spookiest, trippiest, most Twin Peaks-y thing we have seen in the show for many a year. As the nanowhatnots begin to deconstruct Amy's humanity, she sees the roomful of musty old catatonic Daleks as a rather intriguing ensemble of dapper sepia-hued people. It raises the fascinating question, is this an interpretation of how they look to each other? Diverse, cultured individuals?

Blow them up! An old favourite this, but none the worse for that. Having tricked a Dalek into starting up a self-destruct sequence, the Doctor then slips it into reverse, sending it rocketing backwards into a cluster of its fellow inmates. The resulting explosion is very satisfying, as is the slightly bitter exchange between Rory and the Doctor that follows as they meet up through the smoke.

Make them completely insane. We've had insane Daleks before of course - except Caan behaved more like a drunk uncle at Christmas, sat in his corner, chortling nonsense to himself. These Daleks, patients in the Intensive Care wing of an asylum, are properly, terrifyingly psychotic and waste no time in ripping themselves free of their restraints and aiming their murderous plungers at the Doctor's face. It could have been ridiculous but it is a very scary moment, thanks in part to Smith who manages to make the Doctor looks convincingly petrified.

Make one human. Oswin's a Dalek. What a great twist that is, and a truly horrible one too. Lovely, flirty Oswin, with her witty banter and her souffl├ęs, was not barricaded in a little room with one round window, she was a human personality that had somehow survived her body being converted and encased in dalekanium. (And what a brilliant bit of set design is that room?) Where did she get the milk? That stupid irrelevant question of the Doctor's turned out to be the nub of the matter and Oswin's souffl├ęs were nothing less than her suppressing the most poisonous teachings of the Daleks and trying to remember her mum. Nothing demonstrates Oswin's indomitable humanity like her eventual acceptance of her dreadful reality.

Make them all forget. "DOK-TOR WHHOOOOOOO?" cries the Dalek parliament, as the unknown human escapes in his mysterious blue box, thanks to Oswin and her super-duper hacking abilities. It's a big moment, and one that I hope won't be ignored in years to come: following on from Series Six's slip-away-quietly finale, and just in time for the anniversary, the Doctor's relationship with his nemeses has been restored to where it was in 1963 - isn't that liberating? The Doctor himself certainly seems to think so.

Overall, this is a very good story, a wonderful Dalek episode, and definitely a shot in the arm for Doctor Who. I haven't even mentioned my favourite moment of all though: it was the Doctor straightening his tie, having surreptitiously meddled the Ponds back together. That man is impossible and brilliant - and I'm so glad he's on our side.


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