• 16th August 2012 • Review by Alex Newsome •
This is a spoiler-free review of “Asylum of the Daleks” from the exclusive BFI pre-broadcast screening. Our regular-style review of the episode will follow after broadcast!
‘Every episode should be like a movie..’
Such is the pitch that Steven Moffat apparently put forward for this new series of Doctor Who. In many ways it is a logical progression that acts as a reaction to the more experimental nature of Series 6. Where that series aimed for an over-arching story that was weaved into all episodes no matter how far removed from the larger plot, this time Moffat has tried to create a compendium of stories that are tonally removed from one another. The advantages to doing this are two fold. On one hand it stops the show from becoming stale, with the team prepared to shake up the format whenever they feel that it is required. Secondly though, and perhaps most importantly for the production team, it can create more publicity for the show. Moffat has been quite open about this, and his justification of the the splitting of this and the last series has been similar. His suggestion is that by having no two parters and a massive shift in genre every episode you allow yourself to to have a greater number of ‘opening nights’, and in turn a greater number of opportunities to get magazine covers and sell the series to the public. How this will actually pan out remains to be seen, but kudos to the production team for trying something different.
Right from the off, this episode seems to adhere to this new formula. It starts at a surprisingly breakneck speed with an element that will prove to be surprising to most readers of this website, and it doesn’t let go of the audience’s attention until the end. So much information and action is packed into the opening, in fact, that it takes us some considerable time to reach the brand new title sequence: one that will feature a change to the Doctor Who logo every week to fit the style and subject matter of episode. The movie analogy quickly proves to be apt as the episode rushes though and leaves you with the feeling that, having fit everything in, it must surely have had a far longer running time than it actually did. While this works well for an opener, judgement has to be reserved on how this will hold up through the rest of the series. There is every chance that for some episodes, this could result in a lack of time to really dwell on events before moving on to the next scene; and the fact that this will be a series entirely without two-parters does come with that risk. That said, on the basis of this episode, it is just as possible that it will succeed – as the strong moments of pathos from the middle onwards prove. The hope is that this can be maintained with the other writers, some of whose previous work has been a mixed big in terms of quality. Naming no names obviously, Chris Chibnall.
Ignoring the future for now, though, the scope of this episode is to be applauded. The filming done in the Spanish mountains is a perfect example of this, and it really helps the believability of the world in a way that it would have been difficult to achieve in the studio alone. Most importantly though, this feels like a genuinely good Dalek story. Such is perhaps to be expected when the episode marks Steven Moffat’s first proper foray into writing the metal monsters, but in its DNA it seems to be a general improvement on what we have seen recently. For the first time since 2005’s “Dalek” we are presented with a story where the villains of the title are presented as a relentless threat. Even when they aren’t on screen their influence is never far away, and indeed one of the most horror filled scenes (which bears such a strong similarity to one from Red Dwarf II that you can’t help but feel it must have influenced Moffat) features none of Skaro’s finest at all. When they are present though, Moffat is unafraid to use the opportunity of having so many Daleks to play with and alter the Dalek mythos. He seems to acknowledge in this story that it has, in part, become unwieldy – in the same way he addressed the Doctor’s fame at the end of the last series. Indeed, were I to speculate on the nature of this series, I would say it’s a fair bet that the themes from the last two episodes of Series 6 will be present throughout the run this year and next.
Perhaps the largest criticism that can be levelled at the episode is that while it has gone to great efforts to include as many designs of Dalek as possible, you’d often be hard pressed to spot any of pre-RTD design. Occasionally you might catch a glimpse of the Special Weapons Dalek in the background, but never are the older designs prominent or indeed essential to the story. Indeed, those expecting this to be a core element of the story will doubtless be surprised by the direction that it instead takes. The actual drive of the plot proves to be a deeply surprising element, and is sure to be something that will be discussed as much as the ending of “Day of the Moon” was last year.
At no point, though, do either the presence of the Daleks or the intriguing plot eclipse the characters and the interplay between them. Series 6 and the Christmas special have played upon the idea of the Doctor dropping in and out of the lives of Amy and Rory, and this series continues on with that theme in an interesting way. It’s certainly an area that has only really ever been briefly examined in the past with the likes of Sarah Jane, but by allowing a couple of series to work through the ideas we really get to see the effects as they take place, rather then have them recounted to us at the end. Moffat has clearly planned out a satisfying way of concluding Amy and Rory’s story and it will doubtless be fascinating to see what route it takes.
Overall, the episode is highly successful in mapping out the new look for the series, providing us with an exciting and puzzling entrance, though it is perhaps done in a manner that will surprise people. While it is a shame that the older models of Daleks are heavily underused, it’s made clear that that story is not the one Moffat wants to tell. In all honesty, his is probably the more interesting story anyway, and this is a perfect example of surprising the fans rather than giving them something that they think they want but would likely find dissatisfying. After a long wait, the show is back – and it’s in rude health.