Saturday, September 1, 2012

Asylum of the Daleks

The Moffat era has one systemic flaw that just won't go away: it won't expand its episodes worthy of 90 minutes into that length, instead making its stories abrupt and cramped to make way for all those filler episodes.  Which, in the case of Asylum, is really too bad, because at 90 minutes, this would be up there with Genesis, Remembrance, Power, Master Plan, Parting of the Ways, and Doomsday as among the all-time great Dalek stories and one of the best Doctor Who stories ever, period.

Of course, even with that, it's still damn good.

It opens with the Doctor walking into a Dalek trap on Skaro, which... why... does Skaro exist?  The Doctor blew it up four regenerations ago.  It's not like this is some obscure point of arcana; this is one of the centerpiece stories of the series.  I guess if you go to the novels, there was some way Skaro came back, but then I think (I could be wrong; I've only read a couple of the novels) it was destroyed again, and I'm pretty sure it was destroyed a third time in the Time War.  I'm pretty sure it's more destroyed than the Earth at the end of Mostly Harmless.
Admittedly, it looks cool.

And it's not even necessary to be there.  It's just... a slap in the face to knock you off-guard for a much, much bigger one: apparently, Amy and Rory are getting divorced.

I've gotta be honest, even with Chris Chibnoll's Pond Life series, that doesn't fly.  There have been undercurrents of tension between them in the past, but for all the complexity in their relationship, they've been happy.  Emotionally, all the last few times we've seen them, they were really happy together.  It's an incredibly jarring way to open the story even without the Up Continuity line. (which I'm convinced Moffat put in for precisely that reason.)

It's a real problem because one of the two emotional cores of the episode is the Amy/Rory relationship.  Their actual scene where they discuss their breakup and get back together is nicely written, and the already brilliant Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill always bring their performances to a whole other level with director Nick Hurran, so it hangs together, but only by its fingernails.  It really needed time at the beginning of the story to properly set up the emotions.  As it is, it isn't unconvincing, but it's nowhere near as moving as it should be.  The six-minute pretitle sequence needed to be about 20 minutes.

The end of that sequence is a knockout, with the Daleks demanding the Doctor "Save us!"  But it would have been an even bigger punch with more build-up.

But enough complaining.  Outside of the Ponds, it's more a minor problem.  Moffat and Hurran could have done more with the concept, but it's an absolutely fantastic concept - the Daleks who are too insane for the regular Daleks.  It would have been nice to see more variations of insane in amidst all the ones who are just low on power, but it's still brilliant.  It's framed in a twisty plot, and there are lots of great set-pieces - Moffat wisely gives Hurran suspense and character pieces rather than action ones, and Hurran knocks those out of the ballpark.

And while Hurran may be a bit clumsy in the few bits of actiony stuff (check out the too-obvious camera and editing tricks for the "rising" platform), he gets sterling performances out of the cast and he might be the greatest visual stylist the series has ever had.  This has some of the most dazzling and iconic imagery in any Doctor Who story - the giant Dalek statue, the cramped Dalek corridors, and Oswin's spacecraft interior. (I'm not certain he's the best - Graeme Harper certainly gives him a run for his money, and if Camfield and Maloney had made anything with modern technology, they might have outshone him.  But that's good company to be in, even in only one category)

The real genius of the episode, though, is the aforementioned Oswin, played by the endlessly charming Jenna-Louise Coleman, who takes Moffat's already witty dialogue and makes it shine like a Blue Star.  The character is a work of art, and the character's climactic moment is a brilliant sequence that packs an  emotional wallop.  The finale is tremendous.

And, of course, there's all the things that are always wonderful about Who these days.  Matt Smith has that extraordinary ability to move from funny to threatening to philosophical, all while being accessible yet delightfully alien.  (Seriously, I think he's from whatever planet Tom Baker beamed down from.  Or at least the same solar system.  That chin is about as human as Baker's ears.)  Moffat's dialogue sparkles with wit and character, his stories are whimsical, scary, deeply dramatic, and dripping with imagination.  The visual effects are as good as TV effects get, and the cinematography is gorgeous.

And Moffat is the best writer the show has ever had at one thing in particular (even better than Robert Holmes): the shows relation between dialogue and action.  See, unlike many sci-fi shows - even really great ones - the dialogue isn't a way of stringing together the action scenes.  The action scenes are a way of stringing together the dialogue.  The great part of Dalek Invasion of Earth isn't where the Doctor destroys the Daleks by creating a volcano in Southern England, it's the part where he tells them they will never be masters of the Earth.  Asylum has all kinds of tense showdowns and a couple of beautiful explosions, but its climactic scene is a quiet, character-driven conversation.  Involving a Dalek.  That shouldn't work.  But it does.  It's one of the best Dalek scenes the show has ever had.

 As I say, at 90 minutes, it's a contender for best Dalek story ever.  And even at 45, it's an absolute blast.

"Rescue me, Chin-Boy, and show me the stars!"


* * * ½

  • Best Dalek line: "Eg-eg-eg-eg-eg... Eggs....  Eggggggsss..."
  • Blue stars (O-Class) have the brightest luminosity of any star.  I was going to make a pun about her having "Sirius luminosity", but I realized that A) Sirius is actually an A-class star, and B) I don't make puns.  At any rate, I am so terribly, awfully sorry.
  • The advertising made a big deal out of this having every Dalek ever, and I was overjoyed that the Special Weapons Dalek was finally, finally returning... and it shows up in the background of a couple shots.  What a waste, man.  On second thought, I'm actually convinced Moffat hasn't even seen Remembrance of the Daleks, because no one would intentionally waste the Special Weapons Dalek.  Right?
Left of center, between the Centurian and the Dalek actually doing something.
  • Seriously, though, what in the Unholy Living Void was Skaro doing still existing?!

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