Thursday, 20 September 2012

Doctor Who Asylum of the Daleks

"Well come on then.  You've got me.  At long last.  It's Christmas!  Here I am!"
The Doctor announces his return.

After the longest gap that we've had to wait since the relaunch of Doctor Who in 2005, the Doctor has returned, for a five-episode run, and then a Christmas special.  I'll try to review each episode in turn, and I will not feature spoilers of future episodes, and I won't even trail the next episode in my reviews.  I will also not refer to any of the other speculation, news and comment about Doctor Who that features in the media.  I won't talk about expected character deaths or new companions - or anything else.  I'll take each episode at face value and comment on the 50 minutes of television.

And so series seven of Doctor Who begins, and it opens with the Daleks.  Cue the sighing and cheering in equal measure - an entire episode devoted almost entirely to the one-eyed exterminators.

However, I have to say that this episode is one of the very best Dalek episodes - in my opinion.

The episode begins on the Dalek's home planet of Skaro, which is probably a more exciting event for long-time viewers of the earlier series than it was for me. Nevertheless, the scene is a derelict and declining planet, and a strange woman who claims that her daughter, Hannah, has been kidnapped by the Daleks.  She's been able to summon the Doctor to ask his assistance.  Does something seem amiss?

"If Hannah's in a Dalek prison camp, tell me: why aren't you?"
"I escaped."
[laughs]  "No.  Nobody escapes the Dalek camps."

As the Doctor points out, few people are able to avoid the Daleks, and even fewer are able to send him a message.  Sure enough, the strange woman grows a Dalek eye stalk from her forehead, and a Dalek weapon from her arm, and zaps the Doctor with a stun ray.

Similarly, the soon-to-be-divorced Ponds are stunned by human-Dalek-pretenders and captured by the Daleks.  I don't know if it was intentional, or it was just the make-up that Amy Pond was wearing, but she looked much older and very tired during the opening scenes.

What did I make of the human-Dalek-pretenders?  I'm really not sure.  A clever way of snaring the Doctor and his companions, for sure, and for giving the Daleks human hands - and, let's be fair, a much better way than the mutant pigs which the Daleks used when they were in Manhattan.  Overall, I think they were a reasonable addition to the Dalek repertoire... up to this point.

The Doctor and his companions are whisked off to a ship orbiting the Daleks' asylum planet, where their maddest and baddest Dalek comrades are sent to die.  The insane, battle-scarred and the uncontrollable are sent there, as it transpires that killing a Dalek contravenes the Daleks' own perception of 'divine hatred' or a concept of beauty... not a pretty thought.  The Doctor and the Ponds are summoned to appear in front of a Dalek parliament, which is populated with the latest Steven Moffat Daleks (red, white, yellow, blue etc), alongside some of the gold/brown "new series Daleks" from the Russell T Davies era.

Now hang on a minute:  when we were introduced to the new Steven Moffat Daleks, they unilaterally decided that the previous incarnation were genetically impure and proceeded to exterminate them on the spot (see Victory of the Daleks).  And yet here they are, side by side?  Hmm, I was none to impressed by this decision.  I thought the red version of the new Daleks would be the drones/troops/cannon fodder...  I was not totally convinced by this decision.  But still, nice to see lots of Daleks all waggling their eye stalks around at anything and everything that looked exterminatable.  My guess is that Mr Moffat is either responding to fans' criticism of his 'Power Ranger Daleks' or 'Crayola Daleks', or the BBC have spotted a merchandising opportunity and asked him to keep the old guard in.  Having said that, the new Daleks do look a lot better with their colour schemes toned down - the red Daleks, for instance, are more maroon than post-box red, and this definitely helps.

The central guest character in this episode is Oswin Oswald, a survivor from a ship that crash-landed on the asylum and who has avoided capture for almost a year.  She's surviving capture despite frequent, almost-nightly attacks by the Daleks, and is staying sane by listening to opera music (featuring a performance by the Doctor on the triangle that 'got buried in the mix') and by making souffles (although the Doctor wonders where she's getting the milk).  She's a genius who has hacked into the Dalek defences and security cameras - helping to keep them out.

There is a protective shield around the planet, but the discovery of Oswin's spacecraft, crashed on the surface, shows the impenetrable shield is not as impenetrable as they Daleks thought.  And, if something can get through it and get in, then it is possible that something can get out... including a tsunami of uncontrollable and crazy Daleks; that's why the Daleks have summoned the Doctor - to help destroy the asylum (before the inmates escape).  The shield can only be lowered from within the asylum, and t
he Doctor suggests sending a small task force, before realising that he's actually volunteering himself, known to the Daleks as the "Predator of the Daleks", and his companions.  It seems the Daleks are too afraid to go for themselves.  

The mission plan is simple:  the Predator of the Daleks is to be fired down to the planet, he then lowers the impenetrable shields so that the Dalek's spacecraft can destroy it with missiles.  This seems like a good idea to Rory, until he gets included in the plan as well:

Doctor:  "You're going to fire me at a planet.  That's your plan?  I get fired at a planet and expected to fix it?"
Rory:  "To be honest, that is slightly your MO."

Doctor:  "Don't be fair to the Daleks when they're firing me at a planet.  "What do you want with them [Amy and Rory]?"
Dalek:  "It is known that the Doctor requires companions."
Rory:  "Ohhh brilliant."

The Doctor and his companions are given a wristband to protect them from 'the nanocloud' - a Dalek invention which enables them to assimilate all life forms -  living or dead - and turn them into the Dalek Pretender life forms.  I'm sorry, but for me this was just a bit too much Vashta Nerada for me, especially when the skeletons of dead astronauts (still wearing their white coats, no less) became Dalek Pretenders.  No, this was a bit of a recycled story idea and I was not too impressed with this new usage of the Dalek humanoid zombies.  However, while Amy and the Doctor escape from the roomful of Vashta Nerada - I mean Dalek drones - Amy loses the wristband which protects her from the nanocloud, and must now work to avoid being slowly converted into a Dalek drone.

Rory becomes separated from Amy and the Doctor as they are fired onto the asylum planet, and has to find his own way around:  in fact, he lands in a room full of Daleks.  And here, the Daleks were particulary good in some suspenseful moments, as they start to re-energise as Rory walked among them.  I couldn't help think that Rory was a bit dim in not working out what the Daleks were trying to say when he started, "Eggs. Eggs..." Hmm... I wonder.  Exx--- ter-- min--- ate!

There are some very good action scenes, one of which involves a Dalek trying to take out the Doctor by self-destructing.  An unusual kamikaze tactic from the Daleks, and perhaps a brief comment on suicide bombers?  Probably not, but a good way of taking out a room filled with Daleks in one go, with a wave of the sonic screwdriver and a good shove!

The rest of the story features lots of running around, looking to deactivate the shields, avoid the Daleks and rescue Oswin.  There's some extremely well written development around the soon-to-be-divorced Ponds: it turns out that Rory wants to have children, and Amy certainly doesn't (River was too traumatic for her).  By clever manipulation, the Doctor is able to maneouvre them both into admitting their true feelings for each other... he walks past a security camera, screen visible to the Ponds, and straightens his bow-tie, "Situation fixed."  Although the main characters still suffer from narrative immunity (they must survive to the end of the episode because the story says they must) and there isn't much suspense around them, there is a very clever twist.  In fact, it is an extremely good twist - and it concerns the character of Oswin Oswald.

The Doctor has had his suspicions about her true nature since the beginning - how does she survive, how is she making all the souffles and how is she able to hack the Dalek network?  In a shocking reveal, it turns out that the Dalek inmates captured her and, recognising her genius, transformed her into one of them.  Oswin is a Dalek.  She doesn't know that, and certainly doesn't acknowledge it, and the revelation is as much a shock to her as it is it to us (well, me, anyway).  In twist upon twist, Oswin is able to wipe the Doctor's file from the Daleks' memory, so that they no longer have any recollection of him (and those which are on the planet cease trying to exterminate him).

To wrap up:  Oswin lowers the shields around the asylum planet, and the Dalek spaceship sends in enough missiles to destroy an entire planetary system.  The Doctor is able to overclock a site-to-site teleporter sufficiently to beam himself and the Ponds back to the Dalek spacecraft, just before the planet blows up.

And, as the Doctor points out, he is very good at teleporters, and he beams the heroic trio back, directly inside the Tardis on the Dalek spaceship.  Poking his head around the door, he greets the Daleks with a broad smile.  But the effect of Oswin's actions is felt across the whole Dalek race:  none of the Daleks know who the Doctor is.  There he is, showboating in front of the Dalek parliament, and they demand to know who he is.

"Titles are not meaningful.  Doctor who?"
"Doc-tor who?  Doc-tor who?"

And with that, the Doctor takes Rory and Amy back to their house, where they will be resuming their marriage (much to Rory's delight), and then departs, smiling to himself about "Doctor who...?"

There are clearly big plans to move the Doctor's arc forward considerably, based on this episode.  The Daleks are no longer a direct threat to the Doctor, and the question... sorry, I mean The Question has now been asked.  I wish I could recall the rest of the blurb at the end of the last series, about The Question, but it was big and meaningful.

This episode gets five stars from me - for intelligent use of the Daleks alone, and for the story twist.  More to follow!

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