This is the oddest of oddities. Never has there been an episode of Doctor Who that traded more on knowledge external to what we see on screen. Without that knowledge it is distinctly average while being bizarrely frenetic. With the foreknowledge it takes on an entirely different significance and then predictably fails to live up to a mountain of hype.
When will I love you?
Good Lord, I don’t know,
Maybe never, maybe tomorrow.
But not today, that’s for sure.
There are three pieces of knowledge the informed viewer brings to this episode, which have varying degrees of significance. The least important is the fifth in a series of prequels Pond Life, which shows the marriage of Amy and Rory breaking down. It should have been a more important component but is not in the end because the Pond Life series suffers from the same melting-pot approach as Asylum of the Daleks. Surely this was conceived as a way to provide some useful background to the divorce? If not, it should have been, because that’s shoved into the fifth minisode in favour of some (admittedly fun) comedy, so as a build up it doesn’t provide much context. Whether you have seen the prequels or not, the divorce still feels like it is completely out-of-the-blue. At least it all makes sense in terms of Amy’s horrendous mistreatment of Rory that has been in evidence since day one. Not content with trying to sleep with another man on the eve of her wedding, she has now unilaterally decided to end the marriage for his own good, without even telling him why, as if that will be a better thing for him to live with and will ultimately make him happier. He’s not a child, and never was a companion more deserving of the description of “imbecile” that the Doctor once threw out at another of his friends. Making the viewers feel like that about the companion is a dangerous approach in an episode which previews a new companion who is apparently far more likeable. It feels like we are marking out time now until we get shot of Amy and get Clara in her place.
Love is a rebellious bird
that none can tame,
and you can call him, although it is, quite in vain,
because it suits him not to come.
Our second bit of pre-knowledge is where the hyper-hyping of the episode comes in because, wow, this episode is going to show us EVERY DALEK EVER squee! And if you tell the fans that, and let Doctor Who Magazine go to press with the most beautiful cover art ever showing all the different Daleks we have seen over the years, then you had better deliver on that.
You can see where I am going with this. If you lack that foreknowledge then the appearance of a few different Daleks in passing might be something you happen to spot and then it’s a little bonus. However, if you don’t have the foreknowledge then you’re probably not interested. As for the fans, the only reaction you are going to get is “was that it?” A big, hyped moment that requires the use of the pause button – well, I suppose you could say that’s a clever adaptation of televisual techniques to the modern audience, but that would be very charitable. At least when we were shown the survivors of previous battles with the Doctor they could have been something other than the new series gold ones.
Having said that the whole notion of the Dalek asylum is a very scary one and works well visually. It’s an obvious thought process: what’s scarier than a Dalek? A crazy Dalek. It worked with the Cybermen in The Invasion, and it works with the Daleks here. Playing into this is the actual concept of an “asylum”, which is obsolete and (not generally fairly if you study them) has overtones of cruelty and torture, as portrayed in several horror movies. It is a successful expansion of the Dalek myth, whereas the Parliament of Daleks is not. The overtones of democracy diminish them, as does their obvious fear.
The bird you hoped to catch
Beat its wings and flew away.
Love is far, you can wait for it.
Our final, and most important piece of foreknowledge is the new companion. Jenna Coleman had been announced as the next companion actor with great fanfare as usual, but her appearance in this episode was successfully kept secret. The episode will function perfectly well without that knowledge, but it is completely elevated by our expectations of meeting the new companion for the first time, as soon as we see Jenna on the screen. She is utterly fabulous here. And then Oswin dies. That leaves us assuming the same trick has been pulled as River Song, retreading the same ground by introducing an ongoing character with her final story. Luckily there is a lot more to it than that…
You no longer await it, there it is
All around you, swift, swift,
It comes, goes, then it returns.
You think to hold it fast, it flees you
You think to flee it, it holds you.
(Selected words translated from the Habanera by Bizet, which Oswin transmits to the Parliament of Daleks) RP
Scroll below the video for another review…
The view from across the pond:
2012 saw the start of Matt Smith’s final season as the Doctor. It would also mark the end of the Ponds. To start the season, we had a series of Pond Life mini-episodes culminating with the hint that all was not “sunshine and rainbows” in Amy and Rory’s relationship. When Asylum of the Daleks began, we learn that the Ponds want a divorce. We knew they’d be leaving, but surely not like this! We also knew Clara Oswald would be joining the cast, played by Jenna Coleman. Was this going to be a well-kept surprise, allowing her to enter the TARDIS early? Or was Oswin Oswald someone else entirely?
This story flows incredibly and starts an intriguing mystery but the climax hinges on a surprise that fails on a massive level if any thought is given to it. And the worst part is, it could have been avoided with very little dialog. But first, let’s address the things that made this episode amazing.
- Rory finds himself next to a broken Dalek; some of its um… orbs… are on the ground. It begins to speak: “Eggs…” Rory, confused picks one up and offers it to the injured Dalek. But the Dalek continues… “Eggs….Eggs…Ex… ter… min… ate!!” For such a subtle play on words, it’s genius and creepy!
- The Parliament of Daleks: an awesome concept that allows the viewer to see that all versions of the Daleks are still around! I don’t know that they’d call themselves a parliament, but why not; I can accept that!
- The fact that Amy and Rory really do love each other; the sap in me cheers as the Doctor adjusts his bow tie and helps them save their relationship! (Albeit at the end of Capaldi’s era, Moffat did say that Doctor Who is about hope and has heart and he’s right. It shows brilliantly here! I swear, if you don’t cheer, you’re probably a Dalek agent!)
- There’s something wonderful about the idea of an asylum planet complete with intensive care unit for Daleks that have survived the Doctor. (Not very believable, but wonderfully Doctor Who; again, I accept!)
- Clara (Aka Oswin). Our first introduction to Jenna Coleman can only be described with one word: wow. By my reckoning, Clara is unequivocally the prettiest companion the Doctor ever had (and coming from the likes of Billie, Freema and Karen, that’s a bold statement). But she looks amazing in this story.
What fails in the episode is, by contrast, pretty insignificant with one major exception.
- Dalek buildings in the shape of Daleks. Why would they make a building to look like one of themselves? Since when have they been prideful? It’s idiotic.
- Dalek eye stalks that bust out of the forehead is just ridiculous. If that tech exists, why ever go back to looking like Daleks? But it’s also appallingly ill-conceived. Give it some nanotech explanation, but that doesn’t make it make sense! And like the DC universe, it’s making them nearly God-like for an effect that will never be used again. They’ve hit an all-time power height, only to ignore it forever. Come on, Moffat!
- The idea that Clara erases all references to the Doctor in the Dalek databanks is marvelous. Sadly, the effects amount to nothing. This is the “travesty of multiple writers”: this could have rebooted the Daleks and instead gets ignored in future stories. Moffat should have known better, or forced future writers to acknowledge this in their plots! Instead, it ends up as a chance for the Daleks to ask “Doctor who?” over and over, to Matt Smiths (admittedly addictive) delight.
- The biggest flaw of the episode is that the whole thing hinges on us having the Doctor locate Oswin where he makes a horrifying discovery. He talks to her throughout the episode as we, the audience, are given glimpses into her soufflé-making life. The problem is that when we finally see her, we see that she is a Dalek and has been the whole time. Even as the camera cuts back and forth to inside her head (where we see and hear Oswin) and outside (where we see and hear the Dalek), the illusion is horrifying. But that means the whole time, she’s been speaking with a Dalek’s voice which is not what we’ve been lead to believe. The moment we realize this, should have been a major red dress. Um… I mean red flag! And a piece of dialog could have avoided such an embarrassing mistake. Indulge me:
Doctor: “I’m not listening to a Dalek!”
Oswin: “I’m not a Dalek!”
Doctor: “Well, you sure sound like one. I’ve been fighting them long enough to know what they sound like!”
Oswin: “I did hack into their equipment! Maybe it’s voice modulation because of that…”
The cuts to her speaking would have let the audience think she’s human, hacking into Dalek tech but it would be a double bluff for both Doctor and audience. We would still be lured into caring about her and since we saw both sides of it, we’d be as surprised as the Doctor but a major oversight could have been avoided. The need for the surprise should not have to rely on the audiences stupidity or lack of thought! (Because if that’s what you want as the lead writer, you don’t know your show!)
With all that said, it’s still a great outfit. Um… outing. Asylum is an incredibly strong episode and I recommend it highly.
And welcome to the Whoniverse Jenna – you’re at the top of your game here! ML
PS:During Amy’s photo shoot there’s one brief image, that was brilliant because it gave credence to Amy being River’s mom. Tell me you can’t see it – it’s in the hair entirely, but it works!
Read next in the Junkyard… Dinosaurs on a Spaceship