“Asylum of the Daleks” – Spoiler-laced review of explodey-wodey awesome

Definitely scary, huge in scale, a surprise around every corner – “Asylum of the Daleks” is a brilliant “Who” adventure.

I don’t know how to begin to review “Asylum of the Daleks”, the first episode of season seven of Doctor Who”.  The ‘Too Long/Didn’t Read’ version is ‘awesome ep/big reveals/cool story bro’.

If you divulge too many of the events which transpired in the story, you run the risk of really spoiling some fairly major surprises for the very fans who will most affected by learning them ahead of time.  If you don’t say enough about the episode, you may as well just skim the BBC press release and talk in generalities, which satisfies nobody.  A quandary, then, and one which I intend to tackle by stating for the record – herein be BIG HONKING SPOILERS.  Approach at your peril.

Spoiler-averse U.S. Whovians look away…now!

So, remember how we were going to meet the Doctor’s new companion, apparently named Clara, in the Christmas special?  There was this whole intricate plan about how she was going to be introduced?

Aren’t you showing up a bit early, Jenna? I mean, it’s only September…

Yeah, so that didn’t happen – Moffat pulled one of the bigger surprises of recent years by introducing actress Jenna Louise Coleman in this opening episode and somehow, in the era of constant internet spoilers and social media leak campaigns, managed to keep that humdinger of a storytelling gambit completely under wraps.

Mrs Rolling Eyeballs and I were genuinely surprised by the reveal, but it was but one surprise in an episode full of “Wait now – what?!” moments.  We had been told ahead of time by Moffat to expect a seventh series which was the stuff of blockbuster cinema, with a larger canvas and more self-contained storytelling which didn’t rely as heavily on the ongoing continuity which has been a staple of the Moffat era of “Who”.  

I think what we got was a mix of old and new – continuity was there, but not to such an extent that it would have put off a viewer who was only casually familiar with the show.  Spectacle was there but didn’t swamp the story and characters and the scale of the episode was compellingly different – this really isn’t the studio-bound “Who” of yore, where budgetary and technical constraints conspired to hobble what could be achieved by the show and gave it an unfair reputation of being a kiddie, kitschy kids’s show and certainly not one to be taken seriously by adults.

I’m not sure how much I should spoil of the story – Skaro! – but I found it really compelling and oddly reminiscent of some of the John Carpenter directed 1980’s genre movies which I grew up watching, with the likes of “Escape from New York“, “The Thing”, and even the tense horror of “Halloween” woven into the fabric of the episode.

Mysterious Dalek asylum, crashed spacecraft, weird signals, strange survivors – fun for all the family…

This was a ‘men on a mission’-type tale, with the Doctor, Amy and Rory tasked with teleporting onto a Dalek asylum/prison planet and switching off a force-field guarding the world, so that the Galaxy’s most genocidal pepper-pot warrior race could destroy the facility which housed the most deranged of their kind.   And woven into that framework, we saw that Amy & Rory’s relationship had suffered  a little fall-out in the wake of the events on Demon’s Run last season.  As in, the Doctor’s favourite young marrieds being separated and signing divorce papers.

It was this latter aspect of plot which was the most gripping element of “Asylum of the Daleks” – more so than the sci-fi adventure A-plot or the introduction of Jenna Louise Coleman.  Seeing Rory and Amy sniping at one another in the manner of all torn-asunder couples was really distressing and high point of the episode  – more so than the locations, big effects sequences and high concept sequences, the scene where Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill confronted each other over the fall-out from their relationship was utterly riveting TV and a nice riposte to those who might dismiss “Who” as that nerdy thing that kiddies and families watch on a Saturday night.

Obviously, that family friendly promise is something which “Doctor Who” should have – there’s no sense at all in turning this much-beloved fantasy drama into “Boardwalk Empire” just to please chin-stroking TV critics and self-appointed taste makers, but the way that Moffat can sprinkle moments of simple, real world drama amidst the explosions, Dalek attacks and grotesque thriller tropes elsewhere in the story is quite something.  Focussing on the married companion’s relationship for a few minutes doesn’t draw attention away from the main plot – it, in fact, integrates beautifully into the whole and makes the experience that bit richer than it might otherwise be.

The final reveal – of who Jenna Louise Coleman’s character is and what that means for the series as it continues – was brilliantly done, wrong-footing me entirely and leaving with it a raft of as-yet unanswered questions which hopefully the keen Moffat mind will resolve in a timely and satisfying fashion.  What we’re left with now is the knowledge that Coleman is a sparky, delightful counterpoint to Smith, carrying herself in a manner which is so confident, quick-witted and full of minor-key eccentricity that she somehow manages t0 make the Eleventh Doctor look like a buttoned-down, low-key wallflower.

Whether she continues to play that kind of character, or a derivation thereof, is a question which will be answered when we know a little more about who Clara is – because Clara isn’t the protagonist of the episode we saw yesterday, if I read things correctly (and after a good few hours interrogating forums, Twitter and blogs on Saturday evening, I’d like to think that I’ve derived the appropriate conclusion).  Of course, as Mrs Rolling Eyeballs has pointed out to me, perspective and residual self-image are devious things at the best of times and how Jenna Louise Coleman’s character saw herself is quite different to how she was eventually revealed to us when the Doctor eventually met her/it.

Confusing?  Count on it – it’s a Moffat story.

Watching this first episode – and the trailer for next week’s gloriously titled “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” – I was reminded of how confidently and expertly the current architect of “Who” has steered the series after Russell T. Davies‘ undervalued tenure on the show.  Not everybody loves what he’s doing – and the Internet community frequently isn’t happy unless it can find something to whine about in over-entitled fashion – but I find his stories never less than exciting, his use of incidental detail and throwaway asides a delight and his wit without peer.

“Asylum of the Daleks” was fantastic telly, brilliantly performed, expertly staged and great entertainment from beginning to end.

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2 Comments

Filed under Films, Geekery, TV

2 responses to ““Asylum of the Daleks” – Spoiler-laced review of explodey-wodey awesome

  1. I caught the episode and it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, although enjoyable none the less. I’m not at all sure how Coleman’s character can be integrated into a future companion, but since it’s a done deal, I hope it’s done in a way that makes me admire the cleverness of the writing, instead of throwing a beer at the TV screen in anger.

    • I read a news story on SFX’s website today which has some choice Moffat evasion and obfuscation on the whole ‘Clara/Oswin’ issue which does promise the resolution you seek as to how the hell a Dalek consciousness is going to become the new companion.

      I, too, eagerly await the reveal and where this season is going.

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