"Doctor Who" — "Asylum of the Daleks”: Sympathy For The Daleks
The Doctor is back! Noting my anticipation, my wife wondered why she does not enjoy the show more when so many of her friends enjoy it so much. As she describes it, the story almost always starts out with an abundance of goofiness and then takes a jarring tonal shift into over-the-top drama. I would agree that with many of the weaker episodes, it is exactly that shift that can derail the show, but when that shift works, no other television program can do it better.
The case for Doctor Who is one based on science-fiction, nerdiness, and optimism. The "triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism" - as Craig Ferguson described it - is an appealing and rare theme. I venture that a montage of genuinely cynical sayings uttered by The Doctor mined from almost fifty years of programming would not be a relatively long one. "Don't worry," The Doctor might say with a silly grin. "Have a Jelly Baby." (And "run," of course!)
That is, it is not simply a case of the former intellectual spirit supplanting that latter cynicism. The Doctor is special in his reliance on the methods of the former and avoidance of the latter. Star Trek has a similar mission statement in the world of science-fiction, but it still often falls back on phasers, photon torpedoes, and wrestling duels with giant humanoid reptiles for its entertainment and its resolutions. Don't get me wrong; I love Star Trek too. Doctor Who just hits me in that nostalgic childhood sweet spot that saw me staying up late alone on Saturday nights to watch syndicated PBS airings of this odd British show that did not seem to have any mainstream American equivalent in its daring creativity. My entertainment tastes during adulthood tend toward the realms of cynical reality and grounded drama, but Doctor Who still provides a rare escape from all that.
That said, the season-opener "Asylum of the Daleks" joins our heroes in life's progress with a somewhat adult development compared to our usual predicaments: Amy and Rory are on the verge of signing divorce papers. "It's life - just life. That thing that goes on when you're not there," Amy tells The Doctor. This isn't a problem he can solve the way that he adjusts his bowtie. That's surprise number one.
Surprise number two: Jenna-Louise Coleman, the newly announced companion who is scheduled to replace the Ponds as The Doctor's companion in this year's Christmas special, makes an early appearance in this adventure as Oswin Oswald. Is she playing a character related to the one she will be playing later? That's not clear, but this genius and crashed spaceship survivor stranded on a Dalek prison planet certainly showed off a flair for rapidly spouting that Moffat-ian sly banter and Who-tech-speak.
The Daleks have a couple surprises of their own. Kidnapping The Doctor, Amy, and Rory is not done with the aim of extermination. Rather, they are recruiting "The Predator" (as they have come to call The Doctor) to save them from their own deranged and uncontrollable kind, who are contained behind a force field on a Dalek prison planet. A vast hall of Daleks full of them entreats, "Save the Daleks!" before sending The Doctor, Amy, and Rory down to the surface of the planet through a sort of space elevator. (I was a little unclear on the immediacy of the danger to the Daleks, but in a show that has a very fluid treatment of time, I can forgive that.)
The other Dalek surprise is a new method of converting victims into human-Dalek hybrids, which gives us a creepy new villain: people (living and undead) with Dalek eyestalks that emerge from their foreheads. The asylum atmosphere is filled with a nanotechnology that gradually performs this transformation, so the Daleks provide The Doctor, Amy, and Rory, with bracelets that counteract the effect. Amy's lost bracelet drives much of the ensuing action.
In this Whovian's humble opinion, Steven Moffat delivers with this story as an excellent return from hiatus, as this season premiere is the most original and fun Dalek adventure of the new Who era. I know that many of you have Dalek fatigue, but I can never get enough of them. Maybe it's The Doctor's unique attitude toward them in contrast with all the other beings that he encounters - an attitude that gains some new perspective in this episode. Then again, maybe it's just that voice.
The Dalek prison planet has more than its share of unsettling atmosphere, and overcoming those dangers pays off with Oswin's tragic secret and the reconciliation of Amy and Rory. Why didn't Amy and Rory have that same conversation rendered under the duress of the threat of being turned into Daleks prior to drawing up the divorce papers? That's a fair question, but - as I mentioned earlier - this is still a show accessible for the kids, so sometimes the adult themes receive shortcut solutions. Plus, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill sell it with perhaps the most skillfully acted scene yet on the show for both of them.
Reminding us that there is still an overarching thread in The Doctor's upcoming adventures and that The Doctor is still a Time Lord presumed dead, Moffat concludes this episode with a callback to the mystery that ended last season. All knowledge of The Doctor has been erased from the minds of the Daleks thanks to the tech tricks of Oswin, and thus as The Doctor makes his escape with Rory and Amy, that Dalek parliament is left shouting that question that must never be answered lest silence fall: "Doctor Who?"
Back in the TARDIS, The Doctor exults over this development and yet another display of his ingenuity in pulling himself and his friends from the fire. He answers them repeatedly, but with an exclamation point: "Doctor Who! Doctor Who! Doctor Who!"
Indeed, Doctor Who! I'm glad it's back.
"What do you want with them?"
"It is known The Doctor requires companions."
"[Is] there a word for total screaming genius that sounds modest and a tiny bit sexy?"
"'Doctor.' They call me The Doctor."
"I'm not looking for a countermand, dear. I'm looking for 'reverse.'"
"In no particular order, we need to neutralize all the Daleks in this asylum, rescue Oswin from the wreckage, escape from this planet, and fix Amy and Rory's marriage."
"This is the kind of escape plan where you survive about four seconds longer."
"What's wrong with four seconds? You can do loads in four seconds."
"He's a Time Lord. He doesn't even need it."
"Then why didn't he just tell us?"
(The Doctor straightens his bow tie.)
"Doctor Who? Doctor Who? Doctor Who?"
Classic Doctor Who Bonus:
As an accompaniment to this week's episode and a planned recurring feature for my columns, I revisited 1975's "Genesis Of The Daleks," widely acknowledged as one of the best serials in the program's history.
The Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah Jane, and Harry are sent by the Time Lords to Skaro to research the origins of the Daleks so that the Daleks might be battled more easily in the future. If The Doctor deems it necessary, he is given permission to erase the Daleks from existence altogether by destroying them before they can proliferate.
It had been a while since I have watched classic Who, and things certainly were paced more slowly back in the old days. Thals and Kaleds are engaged in an interminable war on the planet Skaro, and the top Kaled scientist, Davros (in his earliest Doctor Who appearance) has exceeded the original intent of his experiments by genetically manipulating the creation of the Daleks. The Nazi parallels that run through the episode are not subtle, and overall this adventure offers much heaviness and very little levity. (Jelly Babies are not proffered.)
The highlight scene for me was the verbal showdown between The Doctor and Davros. (It parallels nicely with The Doctor's conversation with the Dalek parliament leader in "Asylum of the Daleks," as we are still delving into Dalek psychology thirty-seven years later.) While The Doctor aims to discover Dalek weaknesses to use in the future and even implores Davros to give Daleks a conscience, Davros - after learning the origin of The Doctor - wants to know future causes of Dalek defeats so that he can preempt them in the original design of his creation.
I mention above that The Doctor is not frequently given to physical altercations. Thus, I was amused that "Genesis of the Daleks" gives us an instance of The Doctor knocking two guards' heads together to render them unconscious. We also see The Doctor restrain Davros and threaten to cut off his life support system if he does not destroy his creation. The Doctor even must grapple with an unarmored Dalek in Alien facehugger attack mode! Yes, altercations with the Daleks always have brought out an enhanced enthusiasm in The Doctor...or beautiful hatred, as "Asylum of the Daleks" points out. In spite of that, when ultimately confronted with the decision, The Doctor still has qualms about genocide of the Daleks, and he recognizes that unification against an ultimate evil has had good effects throughout the universe.
"Genesis of the Daleks" also shares some commonality with "Asylum of the Daleks" in that it depends upon the recovery of a bracelet. In this case, it's the device that can transport The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry away from Skaro and back to the Time Lords.
Overall, it's an entertaining episode that is required viewing for any Whovian Dalek fans that want to revisit the classic days.
C. Robert Dimitri attended a Rolling Stone themed party on Saturday night after watching the new episode, so the column title seemed particularly appropriate. Also, one of his fantasy football teams this season is the Skaro Daleks.