Saturday, 1 September 2012

Television - Doctor Who 'Asylum Of The Daleks' review

UPDATE: Now with an extra serving of Jenna Louise Coleman after the jump!

The sixth season of new Who steadily fell apart under the weight of showrunner Steven Moffat's convoluted plotting. For its seventh year, the season is being divided - five episodes in 2012, a Christmas special, then the last eight in 2013 - and the promise is for a greater number of spectacular stand-alones. Judging by 'Asylum Of The Daleks', the strategy already seems to be paying dividends: Moffat's work during Russell T. Davies' tenure, and his ongoing success with Sherlock, shows his expert ability at handling complicated short-term narratives, where over full seasons he tends to tie himself up in the myriad loose plot strands.

'Asylum', though, was a return to the effortlessly confident Moffat of old, deftly spinning an engaging yarn with plenty of ideas to hold the attention, but never losing track of them. Two climactic twists showed a writer having as much fun offering tantalising hints for the future - and they don't get much more tantalising than Jenna Louise Coleman - as rewriting the past of television's longest running science-fiction series.
Opening with a pan across wartorn Skaro is a brave move, immediately effective at communicating the gravity of the situation. It might create a slight continuity problem with what we know of how the Doctor ended the Time War, since Skaro would surely be locked in the same 'Moment' as Gallifrey, but even if Moffat opts to leave that discrepancy hanging, I don't imagine many fans will (for once) complain. Moffat has often used compelling ideas to hide a slight lack of internal logic behind them, and while that strategy is too easily exposed over a full season, it can work well within the rapid pacing of a single episode. 'Asylum' wasn't short of ideas, and while not all of them necessarily added anything on a narrative level, it certainly enriched the texture of the episode and the series to have a greater insight into the Daleks' twisted concept of beauty and political hierarchy.

Those number of dramatic locations within the first fifteen minutes set the tone for an episode which generally looked fantastic, moving from the crumbling cities of Skaro to the Dalek parliament and snow-capped surface of the Asylum planet. If the lowered number of episodes per year means a higher budget for each, and I'm inclined to believe that's the case since we're getting 'Dinosaurs On A Spaceship' next week, it's a move I'm all in favour of. Modern Who can tend to look a bit boxed-in, and while a great deal of 'Asylum' took place indoors, the variety of locations made it feel more expansive.

Also excellent was the unexpected debut of Jenna-Louise Coleman's future companion, Oswin. Being a Who companion, she's naturally a dream girl writ large: a cheeky super-genius with occasionally lesbian tendencies and a love of very short, bright red dresses. It's a continuation of Moffat's strategy of creating affinity for new companions through the time-tested means of funny lines and skimpy clothing - remember the outcry at Karen Gillan's miniskirts? - and not something you'll find me complaining about. While Oswin wasn't particularly well developed as a character, beyond her inability to cook and those legs, oh my, there were enough hints to suggest she'll have an interesting story to tell once the Ponds have taken their bow. For one, how did she end up on the Asylum planet? If the forcefield is impenetrable (and only able to be activated from the inside, which was one of those pieces of illogic you just have to gloss over), how did her ship crash onto the surface? Secondly, where did those maestro-level hacking skills come from?

Her fate since arriving on the planet might have had something to do with her ability to easily break into every Dalek security system, but even so, there are clearly some extraordinary skills at work there. It should be fun to have a companion who isn't over-awed by the Doctor's brilliance and already au-fait with such concepts as Daleks and space travel, but hopefully she'll prove more than a renamed River Song. Several of her lines were clearly reminiscent of the good Dr. Song, particularly her flirtatious manner and reference to the Doctor as 'clever boy', not to mention that the Doctor will have to live with the knowledge of her terrible fate, so work will need to be done to establish her as an individual in her own right beyond burnt souffl├ęs, slight cynicism and rose behind her ear. Still, Jenna-Louise Coleman's beaming smile and immediately winning performance and legs will do just fine for now. Remembering certainly won't be a problem.

Once the Doctor and Ponds landed on the Asylum planet, the episode dipped slightly, slipping into the series' long-held habit of having its main characters run away from shooty things until bringing the plot to an easy resolution. Fortunately, between revealing the reason for the Ponds' separation and the truth behind Oswin's survival, enough intriguing questions were kept open to distract from the familiar structure. It's a shame the episode marked another failed attempt to make the Daleks scary, with none of them making a single attempt on the Doctor's life and those firing on Rory proving the worst shots in the history of the Dalek race, which is saying something. The idea of Daleks even more insane than usual had a world of promise, but was abandoned immediately after being used as an excuse for sending the Doctor down to the planet.

'Asylum Of The Daleks' had potential to be a more original story than it was, and while infinitely superior to any of Moffat's stories last year, it was second tier compared to 'The Empty Child',  'Blink' or 'Eleventh Hour'. Nevertheless, returning into the company of the Doctor and the Ponds (with Amy in particularly good form: 'Hasn't she ever been to Scotland?') is a welcome pleasure, while the gorgeous cinematography, vivid ideas and strong performances from leads present and future made for an excellent start to the long-delayed new season. The milk-related foreshadowing was particularly neat, and the series' ultimate question was given a striking justification, drastically revising the dynamic between the Doctor and his most iconic foes, at least until Oswin gets saved and her species-wide hack undone.

And did I mention those legs? Oh my.


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