Asylum of the Daleks

7th September 2012 • Review by Seb Patrick •

i.

It’s 1989. Or possibly 1990. I’m at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, with my dad and my cousin. We’ve heard that there’s a Doctor Who convention on in the hotel, and although we’re not actually paying to properly attend or anything, we seem to have turned up on the off-chance of seeing something vaguely cool and Who-related. Almost exactly a year ago (or two, if it is in fact 1990), my about-to-turn-seven-year-old eyes had watched something called a Dalek chase a man called The Doctor up some stairs that looked almost entirely exactly like the stairs that led out of the boys’ toilets at my primary school. It was the first time I’d ever watched an episode of Doctor Who. It was the most gripping thing I’d ever seen.

Right now, in this hotel, we’re milling around in the foyer. We can see and hear, through a doorway, that a man is sitting at a table answering questions from an assembled audience. It might be Sylvester McCoy. It might be Peter Davison. We’re not sure (or – if we were sure then, I can’t remember now), and as we’re not convention guests, we can’t go in. But what we can see, in front of us in the foyer, is a Dalek. It’s just sitting there. It may or may not have red rope preventing people from walking up and touching it. It definitely is a hollow prop sitting in a hotel in Liverpool. Nevertheless, to my eyes: it’s a Dalek. I’m frozen in terror. My cousin dares me to touch it. I refuse. He leans over and pokes it with his finger, and again, dares me to do the same. Still, I refuse. It’s a Dalek. Sure, it might be stationary now. It might be “dormant”. It might be in a hotel in Liverpool, separated from the rest of its Dalek fleet by thousands of light years. But it’s still a Dalek. It’s still the most deadly and terrifying thing in the universe. It might wake up the moment I touch it. And then we’d be in trouble.

As we leave the hotel, I still haven’t plucked up the nerve to touch the Dalek. Later that night, I replay events in my head, and regret that I didn’t get to do so. Of course it wouldn’t have woken up. Of course it was just a fibre-glass prop. In retrospect, it wasn’t even particularly screen-accurate. I was just being stupid, wasn’t I?

It’s 2012. My about-to-turn-thirty-year-old eyes are watching Rory Williams nervously approach a dusty, stationary Dalek. He pushes it. It rolls backwards. Like my cousin, he knows it’s just a hollow, empty prop. Emboldened, he takes hold of the Dalek’s eye-stalk, and slowly rotates its head around to examine it. As he lets go, a terrible thing happens. Slowly, terrifyingly… the head rotates back. And the Dalek looks at him.

In that instant, 1989 (or 1990) Seb and 2012 Seb share a moment. See. I was right. That’s what they do.

ii.

Moffat gets it, you see.

The Daleks have a power matched by very few modern-day fictional creatures – and certainly not by any other in Who (no, not even the Cybermen). We all (apart, apparently, from Rory Williams) know what they are, what they’re capable of doing, what they’re about to say. Yet with this fame comes a price: they’ve sacrificed most of their ability to scare. They’d spent decades not being frightening, although “Remembrance…” did at least do something to redress the balance with the aforementioned moment of masterful stair-climbing terror. A further decade or so as little more than nostalgia meant that when 2005 rolled around, a Dalek simply wasn’t an object of terror.

For a fleeting, brilliant moment, “Dalek” restored that – but it couldn’t ever last. The new audience thrilled and terrified by that magnificent first exposure quickly grew too comfortable with the tinpot terrors. Where Russell had to fight against a decade of old BBC props being used in comedy sketches (and succeeded, for a while), so too Moffat has to fight against four years’ worth of stories that gradually put the Daleks back in their 1980s default mode of “Turn up with a wacky plot, litter a few token soldier models around the place for set dressing, have wacky plot foiled”. And against the fact that, to a greater extent than at any time since the 1960s, you can see Daleks everywhere. As toys, on lunchboxes, as childrens’ fancy-dress outfits, as Easter eggs.

But Moffat does this thing. You may have noticed it before. He turns ordinary everyday things into monsters, by turning our safe, cosy expectations that we take for granted against us. So in that one, glorious scene, he turns our safe, cosy expectations about Daleks – those colourful metal creatures the kids love so much – against us. He even makes their saying “Exterminate” sound scary. Daleks saying “Exterminate” hasn’t sounded scary since about 1964. But here, it’s as chilling as the first time a Weeping Angel moves in the dark.

It’s a shame that this effect only lasts for a total length of no more than about four or five minutes, rather than a more significant percentage of the story’s fifty-minute running time. But it’s a start.

iii.

Daleks don’t just have to be scary, of course. There is still something inherently silly about them, and to ignore the great swathes of their history in which that has been exploited is a massive waste. The TV21 comic strips are just as valid a part of Dalek lore as the TV stories – many would argue a far richer part, even. This was something else that RTD understood – and so, after their careful and considered introduction, we were treated to Emperors, and red Supremes, and elite Councils, and Daleks with names. And so Moffat, meanwhile, gives us multi-coloured Daleks (albeit quietly shunted into the background here, of which more later), and a “Prime Minister” in a glass case, and a “Parliament”, and for the first time since 1988, reintroduces the idea of Daleks having the capacity to fight and destroy one-another. We’re a long way off a full-on Civil War storyline, of course, but it’s nice to see that we’ve already gone beyond their simply being a uniform antagonist. More of this sort of thing, please.

iv.

Daleks aren’t Cybermen. The fear that surrounds them isn’t “they might turn me into one”. It’s “they will not stop until we are all destroyed”. And I don’t like the idea that they can now conjure up brand new Daleks via nanogene technology. Daleks grow, the Dalek is the creature, the continuation of the Dalek race, and then when they’re ready, they’re placed in metal “travel machines”. That said, the episode is (perhaps deliberately) vague about whether the one full transformation actually involves Oswin’s biological matter being malformed and put into a waiting machine, or if it’s just the ultimate consequence of the nano-transforming technology. I’d hope the former, but even if the latter, it’s worth letting them getting away with it just this once for the superb twist reveal (and if you “figured it out in advance”, well done you, but next time you might have more fun just watching a programme instead of constantly trying to second-guess it).

The zombie-Dalek-slaves, growing eye-stalks in their heads and guns in their hands, I have far less of a problem with. Because really, they’re just a continuation of the line that goes from Roboman to the ridiculous helmets of the Dalek Troopers in “Resurrection…” So it might instinctively seem “un-Dalek-ish”, but really, it’s part of a legacy that goes all the way back to the ’60s. And it improves it.

v.

Where Dalek = GLaDOS, Oswin = Caroline. Yes?

vi.

I’m unconvinced by just how Amy and Rory’s divorce is ever meant to have happened in the first place (never heard of adoption, guys?), but we’ll allow it for just how good that briefest of scenes, pre-titles, in which two people who have to profess to hate each other try to hide the fact that they still love each other is. As has been pointed out elsewhere, this is hardly new territory for Moffat, either as a writer or as a man, and it’s something he understands so innately that he can, with the aid of a pair of actors with terrific chemistry, express it so briefly and perfectly. The first legacy Joking Apart offered his Who was “nature’s way of keeping meat fresh”. Here’s the second.

And, yeah. That chemistry. Last year wasn’t really a great one for Amy and Rory in terms of establishing themselves in the “all-time great companion” stakes. This year it took about thirty seconds to realise how much we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

vii.

“Somebody’s never been to Scotland.” “There’s a nose joke going, if anyone wants to pick that one off.” “Okay, I’m counting three lost causes.” Can we have moodygrumpyAmy a few more times between now and October? Thanks.

viii.

Any time you try to second-guess Moffat, he delights in sticking two fingers up at your so-called “assumptions” or “predictions”. So let’s not even speculate about Oswin herself, and instead – taking the writer’s promise that this year’s stories are each individual and self-contained far more at face value than his previous form has earned – judge her as a single-episode character, performed by a single-episode guest turn.

In which case: she’s very good, that Jenna-Louise Coleman, isn’t she? Wouldn’t mind seeing her show up in Who again.

ix.

Oh, alright. One remark about Oswin: if she is in any way an indicator of what the next companion is going to be like, then Moffat has finally steered the show away from the last vestiges of Russell’s “accessible, earth-bound, human” era. The revived show would never have succeeded if it had opened series with stories set entirely on alien planets, and it positively demanded that primary companions be drawn from contemporary Earth. They had to be our “way in”, after all.

But that was then. Doctor Who doesn’t require a “way in” any more. Even the Americans don’t need one. If anything, the Doctor is now our entry-point character, and his future companions will be the interesting people we’re looking forward to his meeting. And so it looks increasingly likely that Oswin, or Clara, or whatever the heck the name of the young lady who’ll get her own coat-hook in the TARDIS come Christmas is, will be more along the lines of a Zoe, or a Nyssa, or an Adric. Well, maybe not an Adric.

x.

In much the same way as we never really needed the explanation for why the new Paradigm showed up, we don’t really need an explanation for why what I’ve suddenly decided I’m going to call the Golden Wonders are now the norm again. Daleks change, and we didn’t need an explanation for the 2005 redress, after all. It’s for the same reason that although I’m the sort of Dalek fanboy who wishes the Special Weapons Dalek had got more screentime, I don’t really mind that the Daleks of all those previously-seen-or-heard-about campaigns were also Golden Wonders (alright, I’ll stop calling them that now). It’s a change in the aesthetic of the show, as far as I’m concerned, not a plot-based change that needs an explanation. Which, again, is why spending almost an entire episode coming up with one back in 2010 felt like such a waste of time.

Just give us Daleks. Make them look cool. Mix them up a bit. Don’t bother explaining it. If the first we’d seen of the new Paradigm had been their lurking appearances in this episode, they’d just feel like “special” extra Daleks. And people would like them.

(Although, yeah. I really do wish the Special Weapons Dalek had got more screentime.)

xi.

Was it the Daleks’ plan all along to stick the Doctor on a planet and have him give them the means to destroy it, and him with it – rather than taking the simpler method of simply destroying him straight up when they had the chance? If so, was this all an elaborate revenge for the time he followed them to a planet, gave them the means to destroy themselves and tricked them into using it – rather than taking the simply method of simply destroying them straight up with the deadly weapon he had at his command?

They play some games, those two, don’t they? It’s nice to see someone finally acknowledge the fundamentally Batman-Joker nature of their relationship. They can’t wipe each other out: what would they do without one-another?

xii.

Oh, alright. One second remark about Oswin: what had she actually been put there to do?

And who put her there?

And why were the Daleks so scared of the Asylum?

And why couldn’t they just send in a couple of foot-soldiers and destroy it themselves?

And why did I enjoy the episode so much despite these huge, glaring unanswered plot questions?

xiii.

Are the KLF getting royalties for the karaoke performances of “Doctorin’ The TARDIS” at the end of episodes?

Seb Patrick once met Paul McGann, who immediately pretended to be Mark McGann. He writes for Den of Geek, BBC America, Film4 and the official Red Dwarf website, among others. He owns over thirty toy Daleks and wishes the Dapol factory tour was still open.

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One Response

  1. George Sheppard

    I couldn’t help but be slightly miffed about the Dalek ‘ressurection’. I know they’ve come back time and time again but this was pretty full blown. A parliament, a fleet and an asylum. Did I miss a beat where the daleks returned in all their glory? Still, really enjoyed this episode and your review!

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