Saturday, 1 September 2012

DOCTOR WHO: 'ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS'



“The Daleks are mad. That's what makes them unique among the Doctor's enemies... A Dalek is a robot with anger problems, a tank that hates you.”

So wrote Stephen Moffat in this weeks 'Radio Times'. He's right of course. Even when we first met them, they had already been driven insane by ceaseless war, literally unable to live in anything that wasn't battle armour.

But I was skeptical of making this into a theme. Jumping from the general observation that the Daleks are mad to writing an episode about mad Daleks, that seems to exhibit the fixatedness of fan writing. It sounds a little like that 'Spitfires Versus Daleks' stuff we've already sat through - the sort of thing you'd draw in felt pens as a child, a cool-sounding notion. But a cool-sounding notion is an idle fancy, not a story in the making.

Worse, New Who has already hinted heavily that perpetually battling the Doctor has pushed their gooey green noggins over the edge. They have come to epitomise the death wish, planning to take the whole universe down, including themselves, as the only sure way to take the Doctor with them. (Of course this isn't stated openly anywhere, and may well itself be a fannish extrapolation. But their behaviour in a story such as 'Journey's End' makes sense in no other way, so I'm sticking with it.)

But actually it worked strangely well. To see those pitiable, broken creatures slumped in the shadows, activated only by hatred. Baudrillard once said the purpose of Disneyland so there could be a border between Disneyland and the rest of the world, because of course there is no longer any difference between Disneyland and the rest of the world. Similarly, the Daleks need the Asylum so they can tell themselves that is where the broken Daleks go. Yet they will all eventually go there, even if they're not in effect there already. The heavy reliance on old models in the Asylum isn't just a fannish indulgence, it's a sign that the only gap between the Parliament and that planet is time. (They should probably have found some story device to make the Asylum Skaro itself, the parental home, where they had to abandon and wall in their forebears.)

As I must have said many times by now, I'm not a fan of all this bigging up of the Doctor. Every time some of that Great One stuff gets uttered, I expect him to add “so you really should be watching my show” and pull a thumbs-up to the camera. But since both 'Dalek' and 'A Good Man Goes to War' the show has developed a counter-theme, where this new bigger, badder Doctor ran the risk of becoming dangerous. 'Dalek' in particular held that his particular anathema to them could blind him to all else, with less-than-hilarious consequences. Hitler once said that the greatest victory for the Nazis would not be their defeating their enemies, but that in fighting them their enemies would become like them. The show's great Nazi stand-ins have seem to have been having this effect on the Doctor.

But would this counter theme lead to the show self-innoculating, or would these objections be duly noted and genre rules reassert themselves? Though it's a smart Asylum setting which leads to some decent set-pieces, it has to be said that plot-wise it's predictable and repetitious – basically a mash-up of the afore-mentioned 'Dalek' and 'Silence in the Library,' with a dash of 'Source Code'. (Plus Moffat still seems to be turning into the writerly equivalent of those decrepit Daleks, endlessly reiterating a few phrases – the dead reanimate and attack us, people get memory lapses and so on.) It carries absurd plot holes. Why do the Daleks even need the Tardis on board when they've already captured the Doctor by separate means?

But let's cut to the chase - did it lead anywhere? Arguably it takes what was before (the incognito Doctor, something no-one ever imagined would last) and inverts it. Instead of an anonymised hero we now have amnesiac enemies. Which runs the risk of making the Daleks epitomise all the Doctor's enemies. And in making humans into Daleks, they already seem to be stealing the schtick of the Cybermen. As the Daleks are already the Doctor's default foe, this seems a slippery slope to step on.

But amnesia... right now, the prospect seems pretty appealing. The revived show has always been careful about it's references to Old Who, carefully dropping them in for fans who choose to look but in places where new viewers will skip past them. (This very episode referenced 'Genesis of the Daleks' a few times, suggesting the Daleks' fate was inherent in their birth.) But, alas, it seems it could not do the same for it's own history. The last series in particular became hopelessly convoluted and self-referential, to the point where it was fast putting me off – let alone the casual viewer. (Remember that the old show got to a point where it was chiefly being written by fans for fans? Wasn't that shortly before it got cancelled?)

Derivative and repetitive though it was, this episode moved along briskly, managed a few decent moments along the way and... hurrah!.. was reasonably self-contained. We can only hope that's a sign for the future...

Coming soon! Well, probably less of this sort of thing. Though I'll doubtless be sad and fannish enough to watch the Toby Whithouse and Chris Chibnall episodes, I doubt I'll be motivated to write about them. After which we get one more serving of Moffat...

6 comments:

  1. Didn't care for this one. Still waiting for your review of the Hartnell era. I'd accept a two or three word review of the whole era even.

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  2. "Didn't care for this one."

    I'd ask "the review or the episode?", but I expect that would trigger a common cry of "both"! The review's scarcely the greatest thing I ever wrote, but then the episode's scarcely the greatest thing I ever saw. I definitely thought more of this episode due to where it came, had it been two or three years ago it would have seemed more like filler. As it was it seemed a bit of an upswing in a general downward spiral.

    I said to myself I would post the Hartnell episodes as a block rather than in bits and pieces, and haven't yet written enough to justify starting doing that. I've no idea when it will be, to be honest. Right now I'm behind on my art exhibition posts, so mostly thinking about that. On the plus side, I am being decreasingly distracted from Old Who by New Who.

    A two or three word review? "Forgets the lines?" Give me one more words and I'd say "both good and bad." In an era when TV shows are packaged, formularised and focused-grouped before they even start, I kind of like the crazy way they build the show while it's in flight. Sometimes that takes them to places they would probably have never got to any other way, but at other times it can be truly dire. The bad episodes just sit there on the screen, I'm not even sure they're moving...

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  3. Just the episode.

    There are certainly some stories here and there which I agree are really bad (though I even like The Web Planet, which is usually the one everyone points to as being unwatchable). Watch enough other BBC television shows of the era though, and you're amazed at how good even a lot of the bad stuff is by comparison. Production values definitely go up massively when Barry Letts takes over and they cut back to 25 or 26 episodes a year instead of the brutal pace they kept up in the '60s.

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  4. It's an interesting question whether you should try and watch Sixties TV by the standards of the day or ask how well it stands up now. As is usual, people usually go running for one extreme or the other, despite the fact that neither is likely to work very well. To watch it by the standard of the day, I'd need some old Bakelite set I could plug in every time I was watching one. But constantly complaining about the so-called "wobbly sets" seems equally pointless. In the main, you need to squint past what's there on the screen to what's intended. This may be easier for my generation, as that's more or less what we were still doing growing up in the Seventies.

    To me 'The Web Planet' is the walking, talking epitome of "both good and bad." I will say more whenever it is I finally get round to finishing these posts, though I may be stirring up more expectation than I can deal with by saying that.

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  5. You're right about that. Most people don't understand that what we see on the DVDs for the '60s stuff is much, much better quality than even the production team saw on their monitors. So we might look at a bit of set or something now and say "That looks horrible," but they probably let it go through because they knew they could get away with it at the time.

    By the standards of the day, I think the Hartnell era is stunningly good television. I also believe it stands up very well today, but obviously my opinion on that must be taken with a grain of salt since it's certainly not the conventional wisdom. Clearly most people believe it doesn't hold up that well.

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  6. I think the main thing, though, isn't to fixate on how well they did or didn't do with the production values of the time, but to look past all that. In the one review of Old Who I've actually posted, one thing I said was you needed to see what's on screen "as signifiers rather than the signified, triggers for your imagination. The petrified forest on the screen is just a peg to hang the petrified forest of my mind." What's more, I think they recognised that and went in that direction. They weren't building a petrified forest thinking it would look so convincing, they knew their limitations and were working round them.

    (Sorry for the slow reply, I've been away.)

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