Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New Who Reviews - "Asylum of the Daleks"

Though I know it's been quite a while since I did an "Old Who Review" and I do intend to get back into that as soon as I stop finding other things that steal my attention away, that hasn't stopped me from watching the return of "Doctor Who" in the present day. The newest series of "Doctor Who" -- which, depending on who you ask, is either the seventh series, the third series, or the thirty-third series, but I prefer calling it the seventh series since I consider Moffat's run to be connected to Davies' run, but I consider them both separate from the original run oh god this sentence is still going I'm sorry I'll shut up now -- has a lot of expectations surrounding it.

Since Steven Moffat took over as show-runner in 2010, it's difficult to deny that the show has gotten quite a bit better overall. While I'm sure that many still love David Tennant's Tenth Doctor over Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, I for one was quite glad that the Tenth Doctor ended his run when he did. To be perfectly honest, I was getting rather bored with him.

It felt like Russell T. Davies was circling the drain with his character development and was always returning to the same points again and again without actually doing anything with them. To make matters worse, Davies had no idea how to actually deliver on a narrative climax either due to an over-dependence on deus ex machina (i.e. TIME MAGIC) or through simply copping out on whatever implications he had explored (i.e. the long-awaited return of the Time Lords which lasted a whole five minutes).

Steven Moffat, on the other hand, has a tendency to turn every single episode he does into wall-to-wall climax. Every time the audience thinks they know what's going on, he throws in a surprise like a horse on a spaceship or a Sontaran nurse. More often than not, this approach works really well. It keeps the audience guessing and no matter what else you might say about one of his episodes, they are rarely boring. The problem is that it only really works when he actually ties everything back together so that it all makes sense in the end. If he fails to do this, then it becomes rather frustrating and disappointing.

For example, at the beginning of the last series, he showed us what was believed to be the Doctor's final, permanent death. While I don't want to spoil anything for people who haven't seen that series, just the fact that another series exists should suggest that Moffat had to cop out on this to some degree.

In any case, while I generally liked that series, I concede that it showed that Moffat is by no means infallible. While his mistakes are still miles better than some of Russell T. Davies better days, they are still mistakes and he still failed to live up to the standard he himself set.

Anyway, like I was saying, this series is surrounded by expectations. This series has to find a way to make up for the cop out of the end of the last series. This series has to deliver on the promise of "the question that must never be answered", and now that we know what that question is, most are skeptical that it ever actually will be answered, let alone that it will be answered in a satisfying capacity. This series is leading up to the 50th anniversary of "Doctor Who", so something big has to happen. This series will see the departure of Amy and Rory, who have probably been the best companions since the reboot first occurred, and it will introduce a new companion that will invariably be resented by fans who first got into Doctor Who with Amy as the companion (the same thing happened when Rose was replaced by Martha).

As if that wasn't enough to live up to already, the episode that opened the previous series, "The Impossible Astronaut", was one of the greatest series premieres in television history, at least in my opinion.

So this episode, "Asylum of the Daleks", which continues the long-lived "Doctor Who" tradition of titling an episode "   (noun)   of the Daleks", has a high bar to reach.

And, while it is a very good episode, it doesn't quite get there.

I think it is a very good episode and gets me excited for the rest of the series, but it also has a number of faults, some of which will negatively impact the next few episodes.

OK, SPOILERS beyond this point.

This is the first time we've seen the Daleks since the fifth series where they were essentially reborn. The series that followed didn't include the Daleks at all, which I personally thought was a very wise move. Russell T. Davies over-exposed the Daleks, making them the big bad guys nearly every series, the only exception being the third series which still had a two-parter about the Daleks in Manhattan. But the sixth series? Not a Dalek to be found. Interesting move.

Moffat has also done well to keep the Daleks changing. In their rebirth in "Victory of the Daleks", he did a redesign of them, but due to inevitable nerd backlash, he decided to keep the old models around as drones, rather than use the red ones, which were originally intended to be the new drones. I personally like this newly established hierarchy since I was always bored seeing a parade of identical Daleks. It felt like the guys developing the visual effects just copy-pasted a few times and called it a day. Now, at the very beginning of "Asylum of the Daleks", we see the newly reformed Dalek empire asking the Doctor for help, something they've never done before. They've also started using humans as tools of subterfuge, something they hinted at in "Victory of the Daleks", but it has reached a whole new level in this episode.

I don't want to mince words here. This is the most interesting the Daleks have been since the episode in the first series, "Dalek". Not only is their community evolving in order to ensure their continued survival, but it feels like they actually do things while the Doctor is not around. In Russel T. Davies time, it felt like they just sat around, waiting for the Doctor to show up before they actually attempted to do anything. In this episode, it feels like their absence in the sixth series was spent building an empire and conquering galactic civilizations.

The highest point, of course, is the introduction of the companion that will replace Amy and Rory in a few episodes, Oswin Oswald, who is a human-turned-Dalek. Not only does this raise all sorts of fascinating implications regarding the Daleks and just how desperate they have become, but it makes her an extraordinarily unique companion. I absolutely can't wait for her to join the series as a companion proper.

And that brings us to the first big problem with this episode: the inclusion of Amy and Rory.

Don't get me wrong, I love Amy and Rory. But now that I've met Oswin and I know that I'm going to have to sit through five more episodes before Amy and Rory finally depart for good and Oswin comes back, it almost feels like a mistake to be giving Amy and Rory so many episodes before they leave. I kind of want them gone now. Especially since the only way Moffat could think to give them any additional drama in this episode was to throw in a random divorce sparked by Amy feeling sad that she couldn't give Rory any children even though they already had probably the coolest daughter possible. Yeah, I know, they didn't TECHNICALLY get to raise her (even though they kinda sorta did), but still, there's no way they could top that. Regardless, it feels like they've run out of character arcs. I feel like the decision to put off their departure is really going to hinder my enjoyment of the next few episodes.

On top of that, it seems like they're planning to make Amy and Rory's departure into a big THING, which I really think is a bad idea. This was one of my biggest complaints about Russell T. Davies. I mean, Rose was a fine companion, but then he had to make her THE companion. He had basically established that she would never want to leave and that the Doctor would never ask her to leave. So the only way they could get rid of her was to shuck her into another dimension. Similarly, Donna wasn't interested in moving on with her life, so Davies had her mind wiped. The only companion who had a decent exit was Martha, but even then it was ruined by making her pine after the Doctor for the rest of Davies' run.

Do we really need to give every companion a big send-off? Does it always have to end with either absolute finality or a "to be continued"? Frankly, I would have been happy with the way Amy and Rory ended up last series. They could come back if they really wanted to, but it wasn't absolutely necessary. There wasn't some unfinished story arc. But now it seems like Moffat feels the need to drive a stake through their hearts and make it absolutely impossible for them to join the Doctor ever again. I really just think it's unnecessary and kind of asking for trouble. Maybe he won't go that way, but I am a bit concerned.

Additionally, I'm not really sure how they're going to get Oswin to come back once Amy and Rory leave, and I'm worried that they'll cop out of the whole human-turned-Dalek thing. I mean, she presumably died when the Daleks blew up the Asylum, so it would stand to reason that the Doctor will be picking up Oswin BEFORE she gets turned into a Dalek, but that would be SO much less interesting. I really hope they find a way to keep her as a Dalek. I know they probably won't, but I can dream. More than likely the companion won't ACTUALLY be Oswin but rather it will be her mother, which she talked about in this episode. I mean, I don't think it's ever been said that Oswin herself will be the new companion, just that the actress portraying her will play the new companion. That would also be quite an annoying cop out. I want my Dalek companion, dammit!

Back on the positive side of things, though, this episode DID deliver on continuing the plot-thread about the Doctor's journey back into anonymity, with Oswin wiping the Daleks' memory of him, prompting them to echo the Question, "Doctor who?" This was a really great moment and I hope it's a sign of more to come. It is possible that Moffat can turn his lackluster ending of the sixth series into a win by really paying off on the Question thing and giving a satisfying explanation for why history would actually believe he was truly dead, and this episode is a step in the right direction. It's still a tall order to fill, and if they ever would finally give an answer about the Doctor's name, there's certainly no better time than the 50th anniversary, which, depending on how they pace it, will either be the end of this series or the beginning of the eighth series. I for one really hope we don't have to wait until Summer 2013 to get the latter half of this series, but if that's what they have planned, then I can't really do anything about it.

So all in all, this episode was great, but I really hope I don't end up resenting Amy and Rory over the next few episodes and I really hope Moffat doesn't mark the 50th anniversary with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations.

I know it may be unfair to set the bar so high, but I'm not the one who did that. Moffat did. If he didn't have a plan, he shouldn't have written himself in a corner.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great review and it echoes a lot of my own feelings. I totally agree that having Amy and Rory around for a last hurrah is unnecessary. Now that I know how much I like Jenna-Louise Coleman, I’m just going to be sitting around waiting for them to leave so she can take over as main companion. I am really glad Doctor Who is back, though. Unfortunately, I work late on Saturday nights, so I won’t be able to watch any of the show live this fall. That’s why I’m glad I can count on my Hopper to have every new episode ready and waiting for me to enjoy as soon as I get home. I would hate to be out of the loop with any of my Dish co-workers who love the show as much as I do. I’m already looking forward to next week; I am super ready for some dinosaurs on a spaceship!