Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Asylum of the Daleks written by Steven Moffat and directed by Nick Hurran

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor is enlisted by the Daleks to destroy the insane…

Nutty Professor: Asylum of the Daleks is as much about the character of the Doctor as The Impossible Astronaut was a year before and in both cases it concerns wiping him from existence. I'm not entirely sure the purpose of trying to obscure the history of the Doctor was all about when by the end of the year Moffat was (understandably) choosing to celebrate it as much as he humanly could. I've come to expect that level of inconsistency from the current administration. Something I do object to slightly is the way the directors continually trying and make Smith look all shadowy and moody – it was done in A Good Man Goes to War when he was framed in the light of the TARDIS doorway and it's done again here, a slow motion shadow caressing the wall before he is seen in shot. It wouldn’t be so bad but in the very last story we saw him offering lollipops to kids (figuratively speaking) and making all their Christmas dreams come true and if I’m honest he’s far more convincing in that light than he is as a portent of doom. I'm not saying he should only be one thing or the other but the contrast in two back to back stories couldn't be more diverse. And he's hardly convincing as the ominous bearer of doom, is he? However Matt Smith is on top form throughout this episode and it feels as though he has been practising many of Troughton’s mannerisms and facial tics because the engaging similarities between them is more prominent by the episode. The way he scrunches his face up and prepares for death and comically opens one eye is pure, blissful Troughton. He marches on with explanations that reveal the danger he is in but he cannot quite fathom what that is half the time because he’s so busy being clever. Another Troughton trick is to show real fear as if your very life depended on it and Smith has tapped into that brilliantly here when he is faced with three psychotic Daleks and no way of escaping. It's really dramatic and totally destabilising for kids who have bought into his Doctor. Smith manages to make emoting with a Dalek prop a genuinely heartbreaking experience. When he is given a chance to stand back from the verbal diarrhoea and timey wimey quirks and simply act he is magnificent. He’s back dancing around the console at the end of the episode screaming out the title of the show. He’s just a joy to be around. Like Tennant in his third series I was sure that Smith had really started to nail it in spite of the material. Little did I know that he would descend into clichéd mannerisms, gabbled explanations, arm waving and sonicking by the end of the season. A shame. 
Cute Genius: How? How did they manage to keep Jenna Louise Coleman’s appearance a secret? I was one of those people who was completely unaware and I literally grabbed Simon’s arm and started shaking him with excitement. I was blown away by the audacity of introducing a companion in such an unusual way and what’s even better is that Oswin is instantly likable, smoulderingly sexy in a cute little red number and handles humour and tragedy with equal aplomb throughout the course of the episode. Sign me up for more please. There's not a sign of bland as barbie Clara that would pop up later in the season. After three years with a companion I had struggled to like it looked as though I might be able to enjoy the show on all levels again. Sigh. The second Smith and Coleman start talking to each other I was suddenly very alert, there was a real spark of something new and very likeable happening. What happened? I genuinely believe that Oswin (or bold as brass Clara from The Snowmen) would have been an infinitely preferable option to the walking wallpaper version we ended up with. I loved the way we cut to her casually lounging on the chair being smart as hell as everybody else rushes about in a craze. Coleman makes for a convincing whizzkid, what a shame we lost that. Enough with the instinctively clever kids, lets have a companion who can match up to the Doctor in the brains department. I could have seen the Doctor and Oswin tapping into that hilarious Doctor/Zoe rivalry. Whatever the future brought it was still a fascinating way to introduce a new companion and it brought with it a great many questions. For the first time in ages I was intrigued by the show again. 

Scots Tart & Loyal Roman: Amy has had more screen time than any of the new series companions at this point and has pretty much been explored to death and yet not really explored in the slightest. If you not really keen on the Scots tart then this might have the unfortunate issue of souring your opinion of the past two years of Doctor Who. It felt as though their story had come to a natural end last year when the Doctor dropped them at a home of their own in The God Complex, or even when they were seen toasting the Doctor’s sleight of hand concerning his death in The Wedding of River Song or even when they invited the Doctor in for Christmas dinner at the end of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. That’s more endings than Lord of the Rings! Just leave already. But no we're off on a jaunt with Amy and Rory for five more adventures to make sure that everybody is well truly ready for them to go when they eventually leave. Moffat now has to include unseen complications to justify their return and given the pains he took to explore (although not really explore) their pre wedding jitters, their marriage and their first born it seems really peculiar that they have reached divorce between seasons. It feels as though we’ve missed a season that explored their marriage breaking up. To go from domestic bliss in the previous Christmas special to the two of them having parted in the very next story feels premature and unnatural.  And no I shouldn't be expected to watch those online snippets of story to explain away what is going on - the show never felt the need to exclude information in its actual stories before. When Amy so effortlessly psychoanalyses every movement the Doctor makes you can take it one of two ways – that they know each other so well now that they don’t even have to talk to communicate or that that relationship is tired and has run out of surprises. Amy is no longer scared of anything and it's another reason for her to go. Sarah Jane would have made the sequence with the animated Dalek zombies terrifying just by having a naturally terrified reaction to the nasties and I’m afraid that Amy’s ‘is it bad that I’ve really missed this?’ just doesn’t cut the mustard. Where has our audience identification figure gone? Note Coleman’s performance at the climax where she is surrounded by Daleks and terrified as we witness the flashback to what happened to her. That’s the way to do it. Amy is back to being her cold, bad ass self (‘just life – that thing that goes on when you’re not there’) after Moffat went to such lengths to make her a little more gentle last year (making us feel for her by putting her through hell). Amy being turned into a Dalek is in no way as effective as Amy being turned into an Angel in Flesh and Stone – when you start recycling dangers for the same character they need to be shown the door. There is one scene where Gillan and Darvill nail it so perfectly that it proves to be almost as potent as the climax to The Girl Who Waited even I didn’t buy why they had split up for a second. It is the actors salvaging this stuttering, inconsistent mess of a character arc. I adore the idea of the Doctor making Amy think she is going to be converted so it forces the two of them to talk through their problems. However…sorting out their entire marital difficulties (which was on the verge of collapse) with one conversation? This is definitely a relationship that plays out in broad strokes. I would hate for kids of broken homes to be watching this and thinking that their mummies and daddies could sort out their differences over one chat. Dropping Rory and Amy off again is just bizarre...just have them enjoy a spell in the TARDIS uninterrupted by Amy's crack and ganger duplicates. They feel even more like hangers on when they aren’t full time crewmembers.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick…but hello again. You think hatred is beautiful?
‘How long do we wait?’ ‘The rest of our lives.’

The Good:
  • They made a fair old attempt to visualise Skaro in the very first Dalek story but I don’t think anybody would have foreseen a day where we would witness such an impressive CGI swoop through the wastelands of the planet. I love the little details (like the flock of birds) and the sight of the encrusted Dalek effigy is unforgettable. This is the way to get the attention of a 21st Century viewer using state of the art digital effects.
  • Mythologizing the Doctor at the beginning of the episode is very clever because given the events that transpire at the climax it is the last time that can ever take place. Until he’s defeated them another thousand or so times…
  • How creepy are the bone crunching Dalek eye stalks coming out of their slaves foreheads? The way they judder like puppets before converting reminded me of the Waters of Mars and it's just as spine chilling. Not sure about the guns coming out of their hands though. Later we experience marching zombies that pleasingly reminded me of Silence in the Library (raiding your own creative cupboard is an old Terrance Dicks trick and one I much approve of!) and the eyestalks bursting from the desiccated heads was deliciously gruesome. This version of the walking dead was exactly what they were trying to visualise with the Robomen in The Dalek Invasion of Earth but they never would have gotten away with anything this macabre at the time.
  • Some people have wept over the new title sequence. It’s a bit darker. I don’t see any issue. Wait until season 7b and then you can complain. 
  • An entire planet of insane Daleks, that’s freaking brilliant! Has Doctor Who location work ever looked as stunning as it does these days? The stunning snowy vistas filmed abroad really help to sell that this is a desolate alien world. And how quirky is the Dalek eyestalk that sticks its head out of the snow to find the Doctor? The opening sequence inside the Asylum shows Daleks from various classic and new series Doctor Who stories in various states of disrepair, moodily lit and with water dripping down across the location. It is effortlessly atmospheric and enough to get any fanboys heart racing.
  • The way Moffat stacks up the clues, building up to the truth about Oswin is very effectively achieved without making it obvious. Finding the Alaska and the crew that has been dead a year, the step ladder, her scanner resembling a Dalek eye…all leading to that tragic twist. ‘Why hasn’t the nanocloud converted you?’ – Simon wasn’t fooled for a second that there was something wrong about Oswin’s apparent safety but he thought the show was leading up to a twist that she was somewhere else entirely. The way the camera swings around to reveal the Dalek is one of the best visual twists we have seen since Wilf was knocking on the glass four times at the end of The End of Time. The horror of a human being trapped inside a Dalek is right up there with the chilling Stengos scenes from Revelation of the Daleks. Seeing Oswin wired up inside that claustrophobic shell and trying to hold onto her humanity is genuinely nightmarish. If it was Moffat’s desire to make the Daleks scary again he doesn’t need to drop us in their equivalent of a mental hospital – this form of identity rape is far more insidious and terrifying.
  • Love the Dalek attempting to self destruct to kill the Doctor. Devious bastards. Especially love the way we are informed before the Doctor is with a cheeky POV shot.
  • Intensive care was creepy as hell and I could have spent much more time in there seeing how the Daleks treat their insane. 
  • Did any of you fanboys not experience a tingle when Oswin mentioned Spiridon, Kembel, Aridius, Vulcan and Exillon?

The Bad:
  • There will always be sad fanboy questions but I think you can answer most of them with the casual explanation that the Time War changed everything. I thought Skaro was wiped out at the end of Remembrance of the Daleks and that the places where the Time War was staged were locked out of existence. Or is this not the case?
  • I wasn’t that keen on the Parliament of the Daleks because it feels like the sort of CGI spectacular that is custom made for trailers rather than a necessary part of the story. It's another example of the show becoming more Hollywood and whilst the visuals are generally superb (although the Prime Minister is a gloriously bad rubber prop that reminded me we were still watching Doctor Who) I’m not sure that the show needs to be bigger and bolder simply because. That’s the point where it becomes Star Trek: Voyager. ‘SAVE THE DALEKS!’ is their mantra but it's another trailer inspired indulgence rather than an actual indication of what lies ahead. ‘RID THE DALEKS OF A MILD IRRITANT!’ would be more accurate but I guess it isn’t quite as catchy. If this had taken place during the RTD era I could have seen him dispensing with all of the Parliament nonsense and had the first scene take place with the Doctor landing on the Asylum planet. It would have been more of a classic Who adventure, not concerned so much with the nuts and bolts of explaining everything but getting straight down into the bowels of that planet and revelling in the sinister atmosphere of the location. I would have preferred that version because all the best scenes take place in the Asylum. Does the Parliament sit around the rest of the time and think up all of the Daleks’ convoluted schemes? 
  • Why did they make the Asylum with an impenetrable forcefield if there was the possibility that they might change their minds and no long want to preserve their insane? Another reason to skip straight to the Asylum is to avoid silly questions like that.
  • Again there is too much set up – Amy and the Doctor should have come across the Alaska and the zombies sans the speaking member that leads them there. It's much more atmospheric without explanation. Old school Who didn’t feel the need to pre-empt every scare.
  • ‘Eggs stir (one) minute’ – clever or daft? Both but I'm erring towards the latter. It's another pointer towards the Oswin/Dalek twist but it also feels like a writer has stared at the word for too long waiting for something new to emerge concerning the Daleks. And the best he could come up with was omelettes.
  • Amy’s dream state is beautifully directed and will wrap you in a blanket of surrealism for a minute but it is another distraction. Moffat needs to trust that the audience will stick around if they aren’t pulled in a new direction and distracted every minute. 
  • How could they destroy the Asylum?
  • With the emphasis on the RTD Daleks are we to assume this as an acknowledgement that the Fatleks from Victory were an abject failiure?
The Shallow Bit: Jenna Louise Coleman. Just gorgeous.

Result: A mixed opener that whilst weighed down slightly by some unwieldy elements that have creeped into the show of late (over explanation, too much set up) still manages to achieve the impossible – it turns the Daleks into a truly frightening opponent again. Steven Moffat is trying all sorts of new things with the Daleks (or is at least re-imagining old ideas in a very fresh way) and the episode is packed full of memorable moments involving these Doctor Who icons. Nick Hurran deserves massive credit for his imaginative, atmospheric direction and there was simply too many creative choices to keep track of (effective POV shots, breaking the fourth wall and stunning Ariel vistas amongst them). He makes the Asylum a shuddersome location and it broke my heart to see it blown up at the end because I was hoping for subsequent visits. I could have happily have snipped Amy and Rory out of the story and focussed solely on the engaging Doctor/Oswin relationship because as characters they have long outstayed their welcome. Jenna Louise Coleman on the other hand makes a stunning debut and just about everything to do with Oswin was perfectly realised especially that shocking twist at the climax. However it is Matt Smith that deserves the highest praise, three years in and he has nailed the role – providing some really dramatic moments and even some scares (the Doctor is far more frightened of the Daleks than Amy is!). I thought this was going to be the episode that deftly recaptured my insane passion for this show but it didn't achieve that lofty status. For whetting my appetite for the return of Coleman it was invaluable but for convincing me that the Pond's need to depart it was essential. Moffat is on the verge of telling a half decent story here (he has the ideas for it) but it appears that he has forgotten how to construct a script and so snaps into his default mode to overcomplicate everything. Asylum of the Daleks could have been a simple, effective chiller but instead it tears me in two troubling directions, great moments and dodgy moments bound together in a flawed script. Any story were I would happily excise the first 15 minutes (when it is 45 minutes long) isn't firing on all cylinders: 6/10

1 comment:

David Pirtle said...

When you're rooting for the Daleks to kill off the Doctor's companions, something has gone horribly wrong.