From DWM #452, and here I was embarking on my third run of Matt Smith reviews, something I was very happy about. I think I prefer reviewing the new series rather than the DVD releases. While coming up with something fresh to say about – I dunno – The Claws of Axos presents it own challenges, I like the churn of covering weekly episodes, and the delicacy required (at least I think so) in positing criticism about the show within the pages of its official magazine.
My reviewing regimen, should you care, is to have my stuff submitted to DWM before the episode airs (BBC Previews site allowing). That means I can’t be influenced by the zillions of reviews that will then appear on a Saturday night. Although, truth be told, I actually rarely read those, in case they skew my thinking on the next episode.
Anyway – here are the Daleks.
At last, the whole world gets to witness it. This is the Doctor Who we’ve always seen. You know, in our mind’s eye, where it’s got the scope and sweep of an epic. It’s always had that. Remember when Jon Pertwee parted that hatch on Spiridon in 1973 to reveal a hibernating Dalek army? Some thought he was peeping through at an unconvincing clutch of toys. But what we saw was something very much like… well, very much like Asylum of the Daleks.
Drawn from the path-web of all our imaginings, this year’s series opener is an absolutely majestic, mad, towering triumph. It feels like the point in the programme’s history where, at last, the production is truly equal to the ideas. Actually, that’s probably nonsense – Doctor Who in concept will always be out of reach. However, the scale of this thing is incredible, not just in height (a towering Dalek statue, the gigantic Parliament of the Daleks), but also breadth (flitting from Skaro, to modern-day Earth, to the snowy Asylum planet, to the Bedlam below). Doctor Who has never been built so big.
Yes, it’s every Dalek ever. Although, sort of not. The collection of old props, for the most part, remain just that; props, unanimated in the half-light. Which is a bit of a shame. When we hear of their defeats on Spiridon, Kembel, Aridius, Vulcan and Exxilon, it would have been great to see those old boys shuffling in discomfort. Likewise, the 2010 models (and I’m on record as being one of the few who adores them) – it’s a pity they’ve been relegated to spear-carriers. But, it was lovely to see them. All of them. Even the Special Weapons Dalek, who would have thought? It’s deeply fannish, but there’s something thrilling about having all ages of the show assembled together. A bit like laying out your Target books on the floor. It’s every era of Doctor Who and it’s all brilliant.
Nonetheless, this story is more than just an exercise in lathering up on Doctor Who loveliness. Yes, it’s the most Dalek-y adventure ever, in what we’re told will be the most monster-y run yet – Steven Moffat has gone on record saying: “The first line of the 2012 series document reads: ‘This year is Doctor Who and the monsters’”. But also, against our expectations, it’s a defiant step into the show’s future.
She’s right there, immediately after the opening credits! It’s Christmas come early! It’s Jenna-Louise Coleman! What? We’ve perhaps become used to Moffat playing games with the programme’s fiction, but now he’s diddling with the fact. When Jenna-Louise was announced to the press back in March, she mentioned she’d start filming on Doctor Who for the Christmas story. “Which will be her first episode,” added Mr Moffat unambiguously. Unambiguously! Oh yes, this has been a BBC compliance-mangling gambit, where even publicity has become supplicant to his plans. It’s audacious and a pleasing affirmation of the show-runner’s faith in the importance of, and the ability to maintain, surprises in Doctor Who, boldly defying those internet scuttlebutts.
Aside from the sheer pleasure of being scammed in this way, Jenna-Louise’s arrival is also a masterful piece of misdirection. Upon clocking her, who could help but ruminate on what would be her route through the story – the path she’d take to becoming a Doctor Who companion? With those preconceptions snapped firmly in place, I’m willing to bet few guessed at that final, tragic twist. Perhaps we would if Oswin had simply been Oswin. We’ll never know.
This has been a coup for Moffat. A true having-your-cake moment, because it’s a surprise that works, even when it doesn’t. You see, my mum thinks Doctor Who is brill, but she has no conception of Jenna-Louise’s purported arrival date. I’m not even sure she’s aware a new companion is on the way. To her, this is just the poor old Soufflé Girl. It’ll be when she returns – in whatever form – on December 25th (assuming we’re still working to that schedule) that dear old Mum will get her shock. Jenna-Louise has even cued up that moment with her last invocation straight into camera: “Remember”. A revelation that can also reveal itself in reverse – it’s quite something.
And so to Jenna-Louise. Let’s welcome her to Doctor Who in the official manner – let’s scrutinise. Although, at this stage we don’t really know what we have to scrutinise. Is the character she’s portrayed here representative of the TARDIS traveller she’s still to become? Dunno. She seems to fit the show very well, though. Somehow she conforms to the Doctor Who archetype, a naughty wholesomeness that – to this reviewer anyway – kind of brings to mind Sophie Aldred. She also has a firm handle on the meter of Moffat’s dialogue, winningly rattling out his smart one-liners. Maybe one one-liner too many though? Because we’re at an odd point in the show’s history where very funny, very clever, very flirty rat-a-tat banter is becoming a little bit like Doctor Who 101. The “Chin Boy” and “Pop your shirt off as quick as you like” stuff feels like it’s also the mode of address for Amy, River, sometimes even the Doctor. One hopes Jenna-Louise’s obvious adeptness for this stuff doesn’t mean she’ll become overburdened with it, particularly when she proves so brilliant at playing out Oswin’s final, heart-breaking realisation.
So it’s a warm welcome to the new girl. Things are looking very good indeed.
But that doesn’t mean Amy and Rory are yesterday’s news. Finding them in the final stages of divorce proceedings is a nasty, very un-Doctor Who turn of the knife. It’s the sort of bleak domestic heartbreak the programme has previously never had time for (Amy tells the Doctor life is “that thing that goes on when you’re not there”), and proof – should it be required – the characters still have plenty to give.
Mind you, poor, poor Amy who is now unable to have children. The gynaecological horrors of Demon’s Run persist. For this reviewer, who always had misgivings about her abduction by Madame Kovarian and that Rosemary’s Baby storyline, it feels like a further, very bitter twist. I guess my feeling is that intimate tragedies don’t play out so well in the Doctor Who world, where jokes and chases and laser beams and evil robots also have to be bundled into a 45-minute story. That’s not to say there isn’t real heart in the scenes between the Ponds. Rory’s summation that “the basic fact of our relationship is I love you more than you love me” is very moving, transmuting the joke that’s underpinned their romance into something of great pathos. We have a long way to go with these two yet…
Asylum of the Daleks comes with the remit to make its eponymous meanies scary again. It succeeds, in part, by tapping into what terrifies them. Their relationship with the Doctor is key, of course. His towering goodness defines their bottomless evil – they’re almost modelled in his image. At one point, our hero counsels Amy to stay scared, because “scared isn’t Dalek”. He’s wrong. “We have grown stronger in fear of you,” says the Oswin-Dalek. And fear has also made them reactionary. Too frightened to enter the asylum, they instead go to enormous lengths to attain the Time Lord and his friends (personal experience lends credence to the notion there’s a fleet of Dalek agent bus drivers out there, all waiting for the swipe of Rory’s travel card). More than that, this lot are utterly obsessive when it comes to the Time Lord. That moment towards the end of the episode when a ward full of Daleks advance on the Doctor, as if desperate just to touch him, is very telling.
Nick Hurran’s exemplary direction helps too. Nervy, twitchy camerawork, often winding down from upon high; the creeping shadows and the surrealism of Amy’s vision of happy humans cavorting in the basement (what’s with the recurring motif of the ballerina, though?) all seed in a sense of discomfort. And just to help things along still further, Moffat throws in some good old fashioned body horror – eyepieces emerging from human foreheads, cadavers press-ganged back into life, the notion of Amy gradually becoming Dalek-ised and Oswin’s entire loss of self. If given the opportunity, the Daleks will take everything we are.
It’s interesting, then, that the final reveal is that the Daleks no longer know who the Doctor is. He says to them earlier on in the episode that “without a gun you’re a tricycle with a roof”. But without the Doctor in their lives – tormenting them, besting them, tartly referring to them as “Dear” – what are they then? Well… let’s not ruminate too long on that. I don’t think Asylum of the Daleks is setting up the Doctor’s best enemies on a path to redemption. He’ll be back in their lives before long, and once again they’ll be fixating upon him, unleashing mad, evil schemes in his name.
In the meantime, we’re left with Matt Smith dancing alone around the TARDIS, chuckling, “Doctor who?” Who indeed? Asylum of the Daleks has been a fabulous, thrilling series opener. Possibly the best yet. But, by throwing us onto the back foot with the early arrival of Jenna-Louise Coleman, it gives us few clues about what’s next. We didn’t expect so many surprises this year – well guess what? We’ve been suckered again. All we can say with any real confidence is between here and The Angels Take Manhattan, it’s gonna be epic.