What is Doctor Who about?
I don’t mean what are its themes, its preoccupations. The answer to that is simple – whatever it likes. I mean what is constructed out of? What do its various writers and, in the modern era, it’s “showrunner”, need enough of to make an episode?
Classic Doctor Who is about incidents (and, on a good day, dialogue), from the early 1960s to the late 1980s with very few exceptions, it’s just about setting up a situation and then stringing together enough incidents to get through the allotted number of episodes. The Daleks, the second-ever story contrives to strand the TARDIS crew on the planet Skaro, introduces malevolent aliens and fills the remaining time with incidents until the Doctor and his companions can finally depart (or almost fills, at any rate). The need for radiation drugs, navigating a deep chasm by rope, the final attack on the Dalek city – incident follows incident with only enough character development to get to the next the next incident. There is a theme of some kind – pacifism can’t defeat totalitarianism – but it’s scarcely what viewers are tuning in for.
Survival, the last story of the classic run, works in exactly the same way. The Doctor and his companion are wrenched away from contemporary Earth and the safety of the TARDIS and transmitted to an alien world, complete with malevolent foe and the script now fills the remaining time with incidents until the Doctor and Ace are returned to the TARDIS (over-fills, if anything). Even the very best stories of the classic series, such as The Talons of Weng-Chiang or Inferno, conform to this model.
But the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who wasn’t made out of the same stuff. Sure, there still were exciting incidents – the astonishing motorway chase in the The Runaway Bride, the showdown with Mr Finch in School Reunion, the Ood going rogue in The Impossible Planet – but the episodes now existed to put the characters through the wringer emotionally, in a way much more akin to most narrative fiction from soap to Shakespeare. The point of Doomsday is not that the Cybermen and Daleks are banished to the void, the point of Doomsday is what it feels like to lose a loved one. The point of Midnight is not watching David Tennant and Lesley Sharp lip-sync, it’s how small groups of people can make very bad moral choices. Russell T Davies Doctor Who is about emotions.
But there’s another strand to this era of the programme, which began back in the early 1980s. Contemporary Doctor Who is also about moments. The point of Earthshock isn’t the death of Adric – insofar as that is dealt with at all, it’s handled in the following story – the point of Earthshock is the reveal of the Cybermen at the end of part one. The point of Rembrance of the Daleks is the Dalek going up the stairs, and Davros popping up at the end, and that spaceship landing in the school playground. And so, at least part of the point of Doomsday is actually the Cybermen fighting the Daleks, as they have in playground after playground since 1966. You only have to look at some of the episode titles to see this – The Doctor’s Daughter, Let’s Kill Hitler and so on.
Since taking over as showrunner, Moffat has embraced this wholeheartedly. But these moments, untethered from emotion, don’t always work. Rory, facing an army of Cybermen , asking “shall I repeat the question” as the entire Cyberfleet immolates behind him, is either punch-the-air glorious or hideously smug, depending completely on your mood as you watch it. And it’s a far bigger problem for Moffatt than it ever was for Rusty, since Moffat isn’t nearly as interested in emotions as he is in concepts. His model for Doctor Who isn’t the whirl and sacrifice of The Caves of Androzani (probably the nearest the classic series gets to the RTD style), it’s the wit and dash of City of Death, with its multiple time zones, endless copies of the Mona Lisa, constant quipping and preposterously high stakes.
This can let him down badly, as it did at the end of the last series, where dozens of complex ideas furiously orbited a hollow centre, and ultimately didn’t even make any narrative sense, let alone have any emotional resonance. Whether as part of a long-held plan, or in response to negative feedback on the last series, Moffat has promised to “throw the lever back the other way” this time and give us 14 stand-alone stories instead of attempting a single series arc. Asylum of the Daleks is the first of these movie-of-the-week episodes. Was it any good?
Well, actually, yes it was. Especially as a season-opener, it worked very, very well. It doesn’t have the scope or ambition of A Good Man Goes To War or Doomsday, but neither is it groaning under the weight of a year or more’s worth of ferociously complicated plot. The opening, complete with portentous voice-over and atmospherically shadowy figures, tells even the newest viewer everything they need to know about these tinplated gravel-voiced foes and then we’re plunged into the story proper, pausing only briefly to scoop up Rory and Amy along the way.
The three of them are then inserted into the titular Asylum on the flimsiest of pretexts, but the place looks gorgeous, from the amazing snowy exteriors to the gloomy caverns beneath. A bit of shame though that “every Dalek ever” have all been lit with the same orangey glow, rendering them all looking the same as the bronze 2005 model, which now apparently is the default. (Part of this of course, is to excuse the hideous redesign from last year, and pass it off as just another variation.)
One of the benefits of Moffat’s concept-first approach is that he is very, very thorough at mining each of those concepts for everything they’re worth. The Weeping Angels from Blink (still possibly the finest episode the new series has produced) seemed to fit the confines of that Swiss watch of a script perfectly, and yet when they reappear in The Time of Angels he wrings fresh nuances out of the same basic idea. Asylum of the Daleks is likewise full of ideas we’ve seen before, but each is given a lick of paint, a new angle or simply a placing in the narrative which manages to make them seem brand spanking new.
We’ve seen dalek-controlled humans before, from the second-ever Dalek story in fact, but we’ve never seen them presented quite so viscerally, with eyestalks and gunsticks protruding from their very flesh. And we’ve been confronted with the horror of being converted into a Dalek before – most shockingly in the form of Arthur Stengos in Revelation of the Daleks. But here, just when it seems as if Amy’s fate is to lose her humanity and turn on her friends, it transpires that the author (and the Doctor) had another agenda entirely. Thus we are (at least I was) totally unprepared for the horrible fate of the other guest artist of the week.
Okay, now hang on a minute. Wait one goddamn moment here.
Steven Moffat has been perfectly clear in interview after interview that these five episodes are his goodbye to the Ponds, and that we will meet Jenna-Louise Coleman playing “Clara” (probably) in the Christmas special. And yet I’m pretty sure, no I’m very sure, actually I’m positive, in fact there’s her name is in the credits – that’s bloody Jenna-Louise Coleman right there on my telly, right now, playing someone called “Oswin” and now she’s a Dalek and now she’s been blown up! Just what the hell is going on here? No doubt, in five episodes’ time, some monstrously convoluted timey-wimey backstory will explain, but for the moment her presence in this story was just confusing, and an unnecessary distraction from what was by, and large, a rather artful balancing of the demands of incident, emotion and concept.
Anyway, whoever she turns out to be, Coleman gave a very good account of herself, and the regular cast were also on very good form, with Matt Smith in particular finding a slightly firmer, stabler reading of the Doctor which I thought was very effective. Possibly the Asylum itself wasn’t quite as Dalek-y as it might have been, but that’s the inevitable problem with Doctor Who vs the Daleks – have him surrounded by swarms of them on a regular basis and their failure to pull the trigger becomes a bit awkward for everyone. In fact, various Dalek “puppets” had ample opportunity to swiftly and suddenly exterminate all three regulars, but they were generally too busy pretending to be human and/or dead – apparently only for our benefit. The set design was wonderfully Dalek-y, though and I did like the shot of Rory and Amy peering out through the mesh surrounding the prison in which they first find themselves, in exactly the manner that Dalek operators do to this day.
And while I like, I very much like, the notion that any memory of the Doctor has been erased from the collective Dalek consciousness, I am also acutely aware that this was exactly what all that screwing around faking his own death was supposed to have achieved at the end of the last series.
So, if not scaling the very heights of what the series can achieve, then this was certainly an effective relaunch of the show for 2012, thoroughly entertaining and exciting, more-or-less making sense most of the time and neatly avoiding the worst excesses of the previous series. I’m still not quite sure why the Doctor keeps feeling the need to return the Ponds to their suburban home at the end of each adventure though. Does he want them as travelling companions or not?
This article was first posted on September 1, 2012