Yes, I know I’m a little late for a review of Asylum of the Daleks with the next episode of Season 7 going out tomorrow, but it’s taken me this long to get my thoughts in order. However, I’m a massive Doctor Who fan and a science fiction blogger, so I can hardly let it pass without comment.
I should probably begin by saying that my hopes were not high for this episode. I have been a big supporter of the revamped Doctor Who right up until the end of Season 5. Unfortunately last year really disagreed with me. I found Season 6 to be high on spectacle and melodrama, but beneath the surface there was no real substance to it. As we were pulled along what must be TV’s most convoluted story arc in recent years, all the sense of adventure and exploration that made to show what it was seemed to be left behind. Since 2005 Doctor Who has had its ups and downs, there have been decisions I didn’t like and developments I thought were poor, but I always firmly believed it was a fundamentally good show. For me, and I know I’m at odds with fandom here, last year’s run sacrificed solid foundations in favour of short term spectacle, and I don’t think it paid off.
All is not lost, however. While fandom might shout the loudest, clearly there are deeper concerns within the BBC about the direction the show is travelling in. Showrunner Steven Moffat announced that Season 7 would not be driven by a running story arc. This can only be an improvement, but it did not put my mind at ease. The damage caused last year springs from a fundamental misunderstanding in why people watch the show, and while soap opera style drama elicits a powerful response from fandom, it loses the general audience. This goes beyond the story arc to the way that the show’s writers view both the show and the audience.
Aslyum of the Daleks went some way to easing my concerns, though not all the way. Spoilers following.
Opening the episode with my least favourite trope of the current era, the bizarre idolatry of the Doctor, wasn’t a good sign, but things did get better. Soon we were treated to the knowledge that the least believable marriage in screen history has come to an end (though not for long, I’m guessing) and a hit and miss story about a giant Dalek nuthouse. Credit to Moffat for opening with a Dalek story because the sooner we get them out of the way, the sooner we can stop worrying about them coming along and ruining the fun. The Daleks can be great villains, but they haven’t been since the Tom Baker years, so it’s hard to get the enthusiasm up. Asylum is a fairly original story at least, in which the Daleks are discovered to keep all the Daleks that had gone insane. Trouble is brewing, however, and the Daleks are too scared to visit the planet themselves. They recruit the Doctor and his part-time companions, the Ponds, to form a strike team that will beam down to the planet and shut if it’s defences so the Daleks can nuke the planet from orbit.
It’s not a bad story, there are good ideas throughout, but the plot itself is little more than a monster movie chase piece as soon as they land on the planet. There’s a few twists, some small and one big, and by the time we get to the end there’s a nice little conclusion that bodes well for the future. At the same time, it’s one of those mundane filler scripts that seems better suited for a videogame tie in than a full episode. It’s like Curse of the Black Spot or Vampires in Venice without the period charm on either. It’s certainly the least interesting series opener we’ve seen for a while, despite the feeling that it’s trying very hard. Moffat seems to be toning back the aggressive overuse of “clever” character banter that cursed last year, but nobody really seems to do anything. Bit by bit, things happen and the characters just sort of react. The Doctor never actually contributes much to the story and there are few moments where he does anything that only he could do. His purpose just seems to be to explain things that the audience aren’t trusted to work out for themselves, and of course he’s seen it all before.
So what about the positives? Right of that bat I have to say how nice it was to watch an episode that began, had a bit in the middle and then ended. The problem with overly complicated story arcs is not, as Moffat seems to believe, that people can’t follow them, but that they lack satisfaction. Becoming invested in 45 minutes of television only to find out that the majority of plotlines aren’t going to be resolved for months does not provide narrative satisfaction. This is particularly bad when the story is not, strictly speaking, a serial as the supposedly self contained elements of the plot become sidelined and devalued. This is why Curse of the Black Spot fails so completely, the entire episode reeks of a sort of condescending gesture. A half-assed bone thrown to those old biddies who can’t follow the arc. Asylum of the Daleks wins so many brownie points from me simply because it’s the first Doctor Who story in over a year that really feels like it’s trying to entertain me on its own merits.
Also, the Doctor is better here than he has been for a while. Despite his general uselessness in the plot, they’ve toned down the corny gags a lot. Part of the problem with Matt Smith’s Doctor has been that he plays the role with a ramped up eccentricity. This worked in Season 5 because nobody knew how Matt Smith would play the Doctor and so the scripts will have been written for “The Doctor” rather than “Matt’s Doctor.” Chances are, whenever you watch Season 5, you’re seeing dialogue written with David Tennant in mind, being performed by a very different actor. The results are wonderful. By the time of Season 6 however, everyone starts writing for the more eccentric Doctor, and presumably, Matt Smith continues to put his eccentric spin on the character and he becomes completely unbearable. That combined with the show’s tendency to clown the Doctor up now, and you get a character who is being played solely for laughs. The climax of this was surely last year’s Christmas Special, in which the Doctor rigs up a kitchen with a tap that pours lemonade and enters wearing a spacesuit backwards. This is toned down dramatically in Asylum and you get the sense of the Doctor as a believable explorer for a bit.
Asylum isn’t great. It’s not the worst Dalek story in recent years, that still goes to Victory of the Daleks, which is probably the most awful episode of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen. If it had arrived in the middle of Season 5, I’d probably be looking on it very differently, but the truth is that despite its many, many flaws it represents a step in the right direction for the series as a whole and that’s so reassuring, I can’t bring myself to dislike it.