Asylum of the Daleks
A dalek's a dalek, for 'a that:
The moral vaccuum at the heart of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who
There's no getting around it: Steven Moffat just doesn't know how to tell a story any more. As evidence, we have in hand not only two full series of Doctor Who, but the confused mediocrity that was Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and now, "Asylum of the Daleks", the Who series-opener for 2012/13. (Full-disclosure: I have not seen a single episode of Sherlock. Nor will I.)
It may be that my reaction is intensified for having on the same day watched the latest episode of Vince Gilligan's singular creation, Breaking Bad. The eighth episode of that program's final season was about as long as Doctor Who and (atypically) featured its small cast of characters only talking with one another. No shouting, no fighting, no robots and nothing blowing up. Yet it was a riveting "hour" of television, without a plot hole or inconsistent bit of characterization in sight.
Moffat's tale, by contrast, features little dialogue but lots of exposition and Dramatic Posing. There are portentous threats, the return of a favourite villain, some fighting and many explosions and even the apparent dissolution of Amy and Rory's marriage.
Throw in a mysterious genius in a red miniskirt who can, apparently, fend off a whole planet-ful of daleks while making souffles in her crashed spaceship and one can only ask: What could possibly go wrong?
Smoke rises over a ruined city. A voice, with a rhythm that reminds one of a female William Shatner, intones,
"First, there were the daleks.
And then, there was a man, who fought them.
And then, in time, he died.
There are a few, of course,
who believe, this man,
and that one day,
he will return.
For both our sakes,
we must hope,
these stories, are true."
Dear lord — and Gentle Readers — please forgive me.)
The Doctor as mythical demi-god has been done to death, but Moffat seems no more able to shake the idea than was his predecessor. In any case, the speaker turns out to be a woman cloaked and hooded and — for no apparent reason — sporting a dominatrix''s stiletto heels in a war zone.
The Doctor — no surprise — arrives to interrupt her expository monologue. "I got your message," he says, "Not many people can do that."
Too slowly, the Doctor realizes she is in fact a dalek in disguise. (The big clue is when the eye-stock pushes out of her forehead.) But (spoiler alert!) never fear! The Doctor isn't dead! He is, as a spinning dalek ship hovering outside the ruined edifice screams in triumph, only "acquired".
Cut to: a fashion shoot. Back on Earth, Amy has put her talents to use — as a fashion model, posing with the knuckles of one hand (most originally) sporting the word love, the other, hate. (Whether this career choice is meant by Moffat to be a comment on Amy or should be taken as further evidence of Moffat's own misogynistic tendencies is a question I leave for the reader to ponder.)
Also, she and Rory are putting the finishing touches on their divorce. This ought to produce in the viewer some kind of emotional reaction, but since we have no context with which to judge the situation, and since we never really got to really know either of them anyway, we can only yawn and idly wonder how Moffat will play the inevitable resolution.
Anyway, Amy is "acquired" by her assistant and Rory by a bus driver and the next thing we know, they are both in a roundish white room on a spaceship. Coming to, and looking up at a pouting Amy, Rory wonders, "So, how much trouble are we in?"
Enter the Doctor, striding like a bow-tie-clad Darth Vader and apparently gifted with the ability to hear through thick metal doors. "How much trouble, Mr. Pond?" He is escorted by a pair of daleks. "Out of 10?" Pause. Smirk. Raise the eyebrows. "Eleven."
(Geddit? Huh? Do ya geddit? Matt Smith is the eleventh Doctor! And he says, "eleven"! O! that clever Steven Moffat, handing off off winks and nudges for the fans like so many bits of penny candy.)
Doctor and companions are taken to the "Parliament of the daleks", where the pepper-pots inform them that Doctor that he must "save us". Turns out the daleks have an asylum planet holding their own victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, which — for reasons already lost to my fevered brain — they need to destroy.
But there's an "impenetrable" force-field around said planet and the daleks can't get through it.
Well actually, they can. But only through a hole small enough for a person to get through.
Except when an entire starship can manage to penetrate the impenetrable and crash-land on the planet below.
But this is a Steven Moffat "story", so things like internal logic matter no more than a character's character.
Speaking of the space ship able to breach the impenetrable force field ...
Excuse me. I feel a song coming on ...
To breach, the impenetrable field
to crash, on the unreachable planet —
Right. Never mind. Always moving on ...
... it seems there's a survivor, the aforementioned genius in the miniskirt (but not stilettos). She not only bakes souffles, she likes to broadcast Bizet's Carmen into the aether. And since the daleks don't have fingers, they can't change the channel on their radios. After a year of Toreador interrupting their Parliamentary debates, they're getting understandably tetchy.
Thus do they cross time and space to kidnap the Doctor, a feat they manage with remarkable ease, considering how unlucky they have been when they've tried to kill our eternally un-armed hero.
Anyway, while the daleks "invite" the Doctor and company to pay a visit to the asylum planet and, er, shut off the force field or something, the Doctor himself ominously wonders where the mystery woman is getting her eggs and milk, since in the future there's no such thing as powdered milk or frozen eggs.
And so, fully 14 minutes into the 48 minute story, the adventure (such as it is) begins.
And begins by making no sense at all. Amy wakes up in the snow with a black man hovering over her, asking concerned questions. Either she's been addled by exposure to much make-up and hair products or she's suddenly become a racist, for she leaps to her feet, calls for Rory and the Doctor and then runs off in a random direction.
Because Amy is awesome like that, I guess.
Or maybe she is that awesome, since her random run seems to take her right to the Doctor, who has made contact with the genius in miniskirt.
To make a long story short, much running and shouting and occasional pushing ensues. The black guy turns out to be (a) dead and (b) a dalek in disguise. The genius in the miniskirt, Oswin, opens doors at last minutes. Amy and Rory are reunited and reconcile their marriage as they face imminent death, using that situation to, y'know, actually talk to one another for once. (I suppose marriage counsellors should all have a few daleks on hand to put the fear of death into their clients. Or maybe just brandish high-powered handguns during couples' therapy. I digress.)
Rory says he loves her more than she does, she says how dare you, I gave you up! It seems Amy decided to end the marriage because Rory wanted kids and she couldn't have any, since whatever it was that was done to her at Demon's Run left her barren (see Trial of the Show-Runners). Hugs and kisses, and their marriage is as rock-solid as it ever was. Hooray!
To be fair, that could have been a reasonably strong emotional story-line. But the divorce came out of nowhere and was resolved in a puff of emoting. It was not a story or even a part of a story, but a concept, an idea for a story.
Similarly, what was meant to be the episode's primary emotional climax, Oswin's self-sacrifice, was just nonsensical — and so, without emotional power.
Lessons in exobiology: A dalek's a dalek for a' that
Nonsensical? you ask? Well yes (spoiler alert!). It turns out the Doctor was right. There is no powdered milk and there are no frozen eggs in the future and so Oswin wasn't a survivor after all. She'd been dalekified — which is kind of like being turned into a Cyberman, only with nanobots doing the work in silence instead of gruesome buzz-saws amid blood and screaming.
|Who chained the dalek? And why did they bother?|
Nonsensical, and a little nauseating. The only scary thing about this season's inaugural episode is the fundamental racism at the heart of its climax. Although Oswin turns out to be a dalek, she not only does not kill the Doctor when she has the chance, she saves him. "I am Oswin Oswald. I fought the daleks and I ... am ... human."
Not only does she save him, but she has has just as much of a chance of escape with him as she did when she (thought she) was human.
But I guess exobiology is destiny and so the only good dalek is a dead dalek, no matter what they actually do. Or maybe Moffat (qu'elle surprise!) just didn't think things through, so determined was he to send jerk from the viewer a few tears for the fate yet another one-off companion's heroic, self-sacrificing doom.
Next week's Concept: Dinosaurs on a spaceship! It is to weep ...