...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 18, 2012



Jokes we wish we'd thought of a fortnight ago: a PARLIAMENT of the Daleks could also be a DIET of the Daleks, and THAT is why those New Paradigm bottoms have gotten smaller!

Oh, never mind.

Here's Daddy Richard's review of Doctor Woo and the Gunfighter. Note: Singular.

There will be spoilers.

If you'd stopped me halfway through watching this episode and asked me what I thought of it... I'd have refused to answer. But what I'd have been thinking was that it was good. Really good. Sadly, for me, the ending rather let it down with pat cliché.

There are two scenes in particular which are absolutely electric: the first where the Doctor loses it, tosses Kahler-Jex over the town boundary, leaving him at the mercy of the cyborg Gunslinger, and pulls a gun on him to keep him there, where Amy gets to deliver the possibly-series-defining line "This is what happens when you travel alone too long"; and the second was the "look me in the eye; end my life" talking down of bravo Dockery (Sean Benedict) by the Doctor, using only his words to persuade the young man that violence was never the way.

It's just a shame that the two scenes were so closely juxtaposed because they were completely at odds with each other. In the former, the Doctor is at his most wrathful, furious at what Jex has made him confront about himself and the consequences of his actions; in the second he's at his most Doctor-ish, doing the right thing even though it's the hard thing, determined to make people better. It's not that both of these personae are not contained within the Doctor's complex character. What was missing was a sense of why the Doctor has performed this emotional volte face.

It isn't what Amy says to him that turns him around. It ought to be, but – and actually I think it's a nice touch – his response is much more "Yeah, yeah, okay mom". It could have been the death of the Marshal, Isaac (Ben Browder, excellent but underused), but that comes across more as him being dumbfounded, lost for once for words. It could even have been one of those so-interesting conversations between Jex and the Doctor where the clever Kahler forces the Doctor to consider himself and his own questionable moral statue.

There needed to be a transformative moment when the Doctor admits, if only to himself, that Amy is right this time. And it's missing.

In a similar way, there seemed to be a missing scene where the Doctor explained why painting Jex's facemark on other people was a good idea. Bearing in mind, at this point the Gunslinger has declared his intention to come into the town and slaughter everyone until he gets Jex, why then provide him with plenty of potentially valid targets? Isn't this asking him to shoot first and not care that he's killed the wrong person again later? Of course, we later discover that the Gunslinger's compassion actually won't let him kill innocent people even to get his revenge. But at the point he's doling out the facepaint, the Doctor can't know that.

Like on several occasions this season, it seems that something has survived from an earlier draft when the necessary exposition has been pruned to fit the blockbuster to the forty-five minute slot.

But, to return to the point, there are, of course, three wars we are talking about here, and they're all metaphors for each other: the American Civil War; the Kahler Civil War; and the Time War.

Superficially, you can see why Dr Kahler-Jex, an affecting multi-faceted performance from Adrian Scarborough, would get the Doctor's back up: he's a scientist who has experimented on his own kind to create cyborg war machines with the aim of bringing a terrible war to an end. If that's not screaming Davros at you then you need to review your "Genesis of the Daleks". But, of course, he also gets under the Doctor's skin by being a (another) dark reflection of the Doctor himself – he ended the war but at terrible cost, and is now "the only survivor" trying to make a difference to the lives of others.

It's an ambiguity that the episode dances down nicely for a long time, but it falls off with the conclusion where Jex does "the only honourable thing" and blows himself up. As with the Doctor's moral handbrake turn, this isn't so much out of character as a reversal missing a necessary explanation. And if you're going to paint a character so closely as an analogue of the Doctor, do you really want to suggest that the only moral action he can take is suicide? Even if you do believe that some crimes are too big to be forgiven, where does that leave the Doctor after double-genocide?

And there's actually a better answer to be found in the episode.

Jex recounts the Kahler belief that the afterlife is a Sisyphean climb bearing the burden of the souls you've harmed.

The interesting point of this philosophy, of course, is that it directly refutes what the Doctor says about victims – the Daleks' victims, the Master's victims, all the rest. The burden of all the people who died because of the Doctor's mercy is not the Doctor's to bear; that weight falls upon the perpetrators of those actions, on the Daleks, on the Master, on Jex himself. What the Doctor is actually doing is trying to lay off his true burden, which is the weight of all those Daleks that he did kill.

But surely the opportunity was there for the Doctor to reply to Jex that after you're dead is no good; no, justice demands that you bear those souls while you are still alive.

Assuming that there can even be justice after war.

In a subtle and world-weary performance from Ben Browder, he manages to suggest that the Marshal has a secret past of his own, and that he's putting everyone's past behind them because it is charity not justice which is necessary if you're going to reconstruct after a war like the US Civil War.

I suppose it's inevitable that a Western would be another episode to laud the "noble warrior".

Jex, you'll notice, is a doctor, a healer, and so he perverted his gifts by using them to create the cyborg warriors. Obviously he has to die.

(And look! He keeps recordings of his victims screaming as he operates – because clearly he knows how to cure cholera but hasn't heard of anaesthesia. Really, that's a cheap trick to make him look "evil".)

Kahler-Tek of course was a soldier (and presumably made the choice to kill people before becoming a controlled cyborg, as well as doing so again after breaking his control programming). As a cyborg his "gifts" are "greater powers to kill". But since that's what he uses his powers for, that means his killing spree should be measured against "honour".

This can't be right, and even the gunslinger himself admits at the end that he's probably been a bit of a dick about this whole revenge thing.

It's supposed to be a "twist" that it's the naughty doctor who's the monster and the cyborg is the victim. But you know what, that guy who's a murderous vigilante – actually, he is a monster too.

The "cyborg as victim" trope has a long history as a metaphor for "war changes you". Everyone who comes back from war bears the scars, on the inside, if not the outside, and the cyborg externalises that in a very literal way, saying "look, they turned me into a weapon". It preys on our ancient fears of bodily violation while at the same time being a walking symbol of mutilation. (Doctor Who has a long and ignoble tradition of equating bodily imperfection with moral evil, from Magnus Greel to Sharaz Jek, and starting with the Daleks themselves, of course – coming so soon after the Paralympics this all might be in slightly poor taste.)

Oh, and if we're in the business of saying that it's wrong, evil even, taking away someone's self-will, turning them into a weapon, sending them out to destroy the enemy (even if it's to save your friends)... didn't the Doctor do that to a Dalek two weeks ago? The difference being, of course, the Dalek didn't volunteer. And the Dalek died. Er...

To me, the differences between Jex and the gunslinger are ones of scale, not of kind. But no one even suggests this, that going round killing people for the personal pleasure of revenge might be a bad thing to do, and the episode presents his fate as reward rather than penance.

Basically, he's got what he wanted – Jex and all the others dead – and it's left him unsatisfied. For which the Doctor gives him a pat on the head and a shiny star.

Really, the ending of this story should not have allowed the Gunslinger to get away with it. If Jex had to die, it would have been more honest for the story to have let Kahler-Tek take his final revenge, and then for the Doctor to have told him: "All those souls that Jex had to bear... they're you're burden now. See if you can figure out a way to earn their forgiveness. "

The biggest crime of disconnection, though, is that "A Town Called Mercy" does not feel as though it resolves the situation regarding the murder of Solomon that occurred in the previous episode (whether or not caused by the Dalek nanoswarm in the episode before that). Without actually alluding to it, it makes the series appear to say "Putting someone in the path of missiles is fine, but putting them in the path of a vigilante cyborg is a bit off". That's contradictory at best.

(Not that that's really writer Toby Whitehouse's fault, and on the whole I find his take on Doctor Who vastly more acceptable than the "Carry On Assassinating" version we got from School of Saward last week. No, the flaw is that we have to put the pieces together ourselves because the script editor, sorry "head writer", has chosen to make everything stand alone. I have to say, Chibnall may have an alarmingly different ethical stance, but at least he appear to have one; Moffat seems not to have even noticed that this episode needs to be stood up as a rebuke to the preceding one.)

Alex, insightfully, spots another, more worrying parallel: with the West's current preference for peppering enemy states with indiscriminate drone missiles rather than risking the lives of our soldiers. An old-fashioned kind of morality would see the Gunslinger as more noble because he can at least look his victims in the eyes before killing them. In a reversal of this, the difference between "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" and "A Town Called Mercy" is that that while the latter sees the Doctor getting his hands dirty and so raises its moral outrage, the former doesn't even notice that a crime has occurred. Blowing someone up with missiles "doesn't count"; it's the video-game-isation of death.

Visually, "A Town Called Mercy" had a near dream-like quality. Westerns have almost always existed on the fringes of reality anyway, but somehow the bright sunlight – more alien to Doctor Who than any Dalek – gave this a feeling of the unreal. With the town boundary marked by a literal line in the sand, a line that the Doctor steps over – something he'll do so many more ways this episode – it was a surprise that this didn't turn out to be a realm of the Dream Lord, out to teach the Doctor a lesson about going too far.

(It would even have been a creditable excuse for the presence yet again of Amy and Rory, if they're "just a dream" too. Especially with them "on the way to the Day of the Dead" foreshadow, foreshadow!)

The Guardian seems thoroughly delighted that this was all really, really real, but to me naming the town "Mercy" for a story about the quality of mercy was a bit on the sledgehammer side.

The Gunslinger was an okay piece of design, possibly a little familiar to anyone whose seen any Red Dwarf or The Terminator or read any Judge Dredd, though his teleporting walk was inspired, not so much jumping from place to place as carrying his own heat haze with him to walk out of.

The direction, all Spaghetti Western by way of Back to the Future Three – yes, we saw that lightning bolt strike the clock tower, although the over-keen undertaker measuring Matt up for a pinewood suit made me think "Carry on Cowboy" instead – made excellent use of the location, and made Matt look great in all the clichés of the genre. And though they might be clichés, they're good clichés.

Nice use of the running joke about the Doctor speaking every language in the Universe, with his temporary equine companion. And isn't "A Horse Called Susan" good enough to be an episode title on its own?

Oh, and can anyone explain why an episode that otherwise looks this good appears to open with the world's clunkiest robot? (Yes, we're later told the Kahler are ingenious and can cobble together anything from anything, and that is clearly what has happened, but...) Is it just so we can have the Gunslinger hunting down and killing the BBC One ident?

Next Time...The World's been invaded by little black boxes. Rory's in his pants and Chibnall is back in the driving seat. Anticipate the villain to be Dusty Bin in "The Power of Three, Two, One". Or, you know, not.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Day 4269: DOCTOR WHO: One Million Years P.C.


On the shiny new DVD of "Vengeance on Varos" there's an (unbroadcast) French and Saunders sketch, using the "Trial of a Time Lord" set, in which the duo appear in costume as aliens from Planet Siluria. Oh, how fans laughed at the ignorance of the Not-We not getting that the Silurians come, not from "Siluria", but the alien planet... Earth!

So, the Doctor's postcard from "Siluria" at the end of "Dinosaur Writes a Space Script" is a gag about another gag, itself a gag about "Trial" which, in turn, makes Mr Chibnall gag. And the wheel turns full circle...

A teenage Mr Chibnall dreams of the day he can write Doctor Who PROPERLY.

With Big Guns.

And Knob Jokes.

Mr Christopher Chibnall first made a name for himself by appearing on the telly being quite rude about "The Trial of a Time Lord" to the then current writers of Doctor Who.

And some might argue that his entire subsequent career has been a case of "Well, if you think that you can do any better..." and largely demonstrating that he can't. Given that the writers he was berating were Pip and Jane Baker, you can see where in my esteem league Le Chibnall usually resides. Two diabolical seasons of Torchwood, one dreadful one of Camelot and the unspeakable "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" have all contrived to place him there. "42", I will concede, was a brighter spot amid the gloom.

So, you can imagine my quandary when assessing this episode.

On the one hand, he does appear to have actually constructed it well: given a shopping list by Moffat of "dinosaurs" and "spaceship" he's made the fact that this is a spaceship that has dinosaurs on it central to the plot: it motivates the villainous Solomon and drives the conflict with the Doctor. And he's actually got a very good in-series reason for combining those elements by making this the Silurians' very own Ark in Space (and always good for sucking up to the boss, as it's said to be Mr Moffat's favourite story).

But on the other hand we get a series of crude innuendos – the Doctor's psychic paper getting a honk-honk ringtone when Nefertiti (yes, that Nefertiti) presses her advances; the big game hunter flourishing a stun rifle and boasting of the size of his weapon; and Mark Williams as Rory's dad, Brian, mustering all the dignity he can to respond to the question "What have you got in your trousers" with "only my balls". I swear, at that point I very nearly began to implode with embarrassment.

It's not that the jokes aren't funny – though they aren't – or even the generally disparaging attitude to women – because Chibnall tossing in an aside about gender politics isn't funny either – it's the cringing inappropriateness, like your dad suddenly making knob jokes. At a children's party.

Jenny seems to have had similar difficulty with the episode's ambiguities, labelling it "passable", while Simon was much more willing to give it credit as a comedy romp.

And I'm reluctant to mark it down for the cringe-worthy moments, because there is much here to enjoy, not least the eponymous dinosaurs, finally redeeming "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" with some lovely CG renderings and excellent models – bonus marks for Ankylosaurs, Alex's favourite dino. The fight with the raptors was exciting and well-staged – and let's say they're Utahraptors which really are person-sized, rather than the infamously turkey-size veloceraptors. The pterosaur attack was nicely done, too; lovely moment where the Doctor tells the Williamses that "they're not kestrels" just after I'd remarked that "that pterodactyl's getting a bit close", even if it was yet another return to Bad Wolf Bay, a location that is becoming as ubiquitous as the Temple of Peace in Cardiff.

I do like the idea of powering the ship with waves. It might even work, if the water is somehow collecting the kinetic energy from planets as the ship orbits and releasing it for use it in flight. Although the idea of a basically tidal power system being constructed by the Silurians ought to be unlikely if you remember that their reason for launching the ship in the first place is that in their time the Earth has no moon, and so no tides.

On the subject of technology, though, I'm afraid Solomon's robot sidekicks didn't do it for me. Their bickering dialogue was, I felt, neither clever enough nor funny enough to be worthy of the talents of Mitchell and Webb. And the fact they suddenly couldn't shot the broad side of a triceratops was enough to break the suspension of disbelief. (They should have made a joke of it and had them miss Brian when ordered to shoot him at point blank range.)

But I liked the rest of the guest cast. Riann Steele as the Egyptian Queen, once we got past Chibnall's cack-handed reprise of Moffat's equally cack-handed "Amy throws herself at the Doctor" scene, demonstrated steely competence (pardon my pun) while Rupert Graves as big game hunter Riddell (does Chibnall not know that Allan Quatermain is well out of copyright?) gave the role both barrels and was clearly having a whale of a time playing what M would no doubt call a sexist misogynist dinosaur (pardon my pun again). Personally I'd have thrown in a world-weary "Oh, all right" on being made to use stun guns on the dinosaurs, and I'd rather have reversed the positioning in the final shot of Riddell and Nefertiti so that she is the Queen of the African veldt and he is her nubile tent-slave, but if you can't have all the gender politics you want I'll settle for Amy demonstrating that she's the equal of the Doctor and then saying she's worth two men.

The scenes where Amy gets to be Doctor with Nefertiti and Riddell as her companions gave something back to the character that had been taken away last week. It was good to make use of her history with the Silurians too to help her figure out what's going on (although, as Alex said at the time, those carefully sculpted-to-fit masks make it painfully clear that they've only got two actors who can "do" Homo Reptilia). The "show me the difference between then and now" was a reasonable shorthand for a proper Doctor-ish investigation (better, actually, than Mr Sonic-Waver manages these days) though it did leave me feeling "Yeah, but in the sixty-five plus million years this things been up there, there may have been more than one thing that's changed...". Also, it doesn't half make it obvious how the mobile phone would have short-circuited a lot of "classic" era Doctor Who.

And to be fair, there were lovely moments for Rory and for his dad too: the Williams boys bonding over the things they keep in their pockets; Rory getting to be a nurse; and the moment of Brian sitting with a sandwich gazing out at the Earth. Brian's postcards from all over the world, having overcome his fear of travel, were a happy return to the idea that the Doctor makes people better.

Although the whole business of the Silurians programming their ship with "from the same genetic path" rather than "is Silurian" that meant Rory and his dad could between them fly the spaceship raised "contrived" to new levels. Sure, you can post-facto justify by saying the TARDIS recognised the ship and worked out what would be needed, and hence chose to pick up the Ponds from a time when they had a parent and child to hand, but really... wouldn't you choose to pick up Amy and River in that case, at least one of whom actually can fly a spaceship?

There's also the question of Rory's age – apparently he's thirty-one now (and too old for a Christmas list).

However, his (misprinted) hospital I.D. back in "The Eleventh Hour" was dated 1990 which many take to be his year of birth, so if he's thirty-one "now" then the year is 2021, and the Ponds are just back from waving to themselves in "The Hungry Earth". (Presumably this is the 2021 where both of them still exist.)

Given that "The Big Bang" firmly establishes Amy's wedding day as 20 June 2010, and hence the events of "The Eleventh Hour" as 2008 for grown-up Amy and 1996 for seven-year-old Amelia then, by reversing the calculation, Amy is twenty-one in season five/thirty. Rory's been at school with Amy since childhood, as seen in "Let's Kill Hitler", and can't be more than a year older or younger than her. (A birthday in 1990 would see him six when she is seven, which is consistent.)

But even if Rory's two years older, so twenty-three when not dead in season five, it's difficult to see how eight years could have elapsed for the Ponds (and if he's younger, it's even more). Particularly given Amy's complaint that "it's been ten months this time". Of course there could have been many, many unseen visits in the meantime, but still.

Having said that, the ten months could be indicative of the Doctor's feelings towards the Ponds having cooled – a possible connection to the Daleks "deducting love" last week.

And, in that vein, I do find interesting the Doctor's current choice of companions. He denies to Amy that Nefertiti and Riddell are "the new Ponds", and in a way this is true, because he's clearly picked new travelling companions who have a moral compass somewhat South of "Twenty-First Century".

Does the Doctor have a problem with mercy now, following his decision to give Amy his protection from the Daleks' nanoswarm?

There's been a lot of comment on the Doctor's treatment of Solomon. (Though I notice that no one at all seems concerned that he murdered the Mitchell-and-Webb-bots almost in passing. Honestly, does no one watch "The Measure of a Man" any more? They clearly pass the Turing Test, so they're alive. It's as bad his dismal treatment of Drathro – never mind the monkey-racism; the Doctor never seems to give a fig for synthetic lifeforms!)

I did quite like what we saw of David Bradley's Solomon, his scenes with Mat Smith crackling with energy. Alex particularly liked the first time we saw him standing, weirdly gaunt between the two hulking robots – he looked (appropriately enough) like a drawing of an evil old wizard come to life. But I don't think he was given enough time to develop into a truly memorable villain. You kind of need a reason to secretly root for a really good baddy, but all Solomon's moments were unlovely, whether shooting the Trike or threatening Nefertiti with his bladed crutch, and it rendered him rather shallow, which in turn made the Doctor's despatching him seem somewhat over the top.

A deal of the speculation has suggested that there'll be a Moffat "everyone lives" moment later in the series when it is revealed that the Doctor got Solomon off the ship before the missiles hit. In just that way that he couldn't when it was Adric.

I've also wondered if the Doctor's rather heavy emphasis on the missiles locking on to the Silurians' signalling device wasn't supposed to be giving him a chance of the "Just chuck this out the window, mate" variety.

But mostly, it seems, the Doctor just murders him.

What happened to "The Man Who Never Would?" Regeneration aside, this is the guy who wanted to take the Master off for cuddles and counselling after slaughtering half the Earth. This is the guy who couldn't bring himself to execute Davros, or to destroy the Daleks at their creation.

The case that seems to keep being brought up is the Graff Vynda-K, who is exploded by his own bomb after the Doctor slips it into his pocket at the climax of "The Ribos Operation". Well, the thing is, that's poetic justice there – the Graff left the Doctor with the bomb because of a prophecy that "All but one would die", so giving the bomb back to him is in-story apt. It's fairy-tale logic – do as you would be done by, or be exploded as you would explode. There's no such aptness to Solomon's execution. The Doctor could, quite easily, have offered him the choice to get off his ship and face the consequences or stay on it and try to avoid the missiles – and that would have been very Doctorish.

Nor does he seem exceptionally wrathful. The Doctor's not beyond meting out punishment when he's really pissed off.

The massacre of the Silurians (about whom the Doctor has deep-seated and on-going guilt issues) and the slaughter of an innocent Triceratops right in front of him, added to the objectification and abuse of his friend Nefertiti, might all combine to put him into one of his "good men don't need rules" moods, much as the Family of Blood push him too far in, well, "The Family of Blood".

But we need to see that on screen. We know that Matt is as capable as Davy T of delivering the towering rage of the Time Lord, so someone between the script writer and the director forgot to tell him to turn it on.

And nobody calls him on it either. Ever since he contemplated a wounded caveman and a rock back in "The Forest of Fear", it's been implied that the Doctor, as a Time Lord, needs human companionship to help him with "human-scale" morality. Tom Baker's Doctor contrasted walking in eternity with Sarah's human (read "mortal") concerns. When the fifth Doctor used the Movellans' virus to destroy a force of Daleks, it took Tegan's departure to show him the error of his ways. It featured strongly in the seventh Doctor's era, particularly once they got into the New Adventures. And even more recently, when he destroyed the Racnoss and again when he was going to leave Pompeii to its fate, Donna was there to remind him that that's a bit off. This week: nothing.

So the episode appears to say that it's okay to kill people just for being "bad". And I accept that some people, many people, do think that that is true. It's just that the Doctor is unequivocally not one of them.

Given who is writing this, and added to all the inappropriate humour, it reminds me all too much of the morality of Torchwood. Particularly (ironically) its humourless first season, which equated "adult" with sex, violence and swearing.

If this were a one-off (yes, I know what Moffat says), then I'd put it down to Chibnall having all the moral sensitivity of Eric Saward on a bad day. But given the events on the Asylum last week and given that I know that next week's episode is called "A Town Called Mercy", I wonder, I speculate, is Moffat trying to do a character-based arc – possibly to demonstrate that he can - where the Doctor is shown to be lacking and needs to go find himself a companion. (Again.)

Next Time...The Doctor's brain has crashed and he's dreaming he's in the Wild West with Farscape's Ben Browder. Sigh, Ben Browder. Or possibly Mr Pritchard from Upstairs Downstairs. Can Kryten compile a dove virus in time to cure him in "Gunmen of the Apocalypse"... hang on, I think I'm getting confused...

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Day 4262: DOCTOR WHO: Daleks versus Predator


After watching Dr Woo in my luxury London flat – the "Asylum of the Daddies", I call it. "It's a Madhouse! A Madhouse!" – we put AVP in the DVD.

Under the icy surface, our heroes penetrate the alien ziggurat, with its diagonal walls and secret doors and, surrounded by the skeletal remains of the last people who got in there, they soon discover the shocking secret of the alien life form and its "eggs". But worse is to come when they realise that the Predator has been locked in there with them. And he's wearing a bow tie...

More spoilers follow...

What makes a "good Dalek story"? There are good stories that have Daleks in them, and there are stories that good for the Daleks.

"Dalek", for example, I would – controversially – suggest is not that good a story. With even a Cyberman or a Sontaran marching up through that base, it's just not that interesting. But it is a really good story for the Daleks.

"Day of the Daleks", on the other hand, it would possibly be less contentious to say is considered quite a good story about time travel that happens to have Daleks in it for no good reason, and would, arguably, be just as good with "ordinary" fascists in the twenty-second century.

Stories like "Genesis of the Daleks" and "Remembrance of the Daleks" manage to be both; they are good stories themselves and manage to be about the Daleks.

So what about "Asylum of the Daleks", the first time Steven Moffat has written just for them (as opposed to their presence in the mixed bag of the Pandorica)?

On the face of it, there are a lot of Daleks in it. Not quite the every Dalek ever – unless you're playing with the freeze-frame and the Dalek bingo card – but substantial numbers of the blighters, and most especially in the Russell T Dalek model that appears to have substantially outdone the New Paradigm in the popularity stakes. (The revised paint jobs on the Drone and Strategist – i.e. Red and Blue Daleks – plus what looks like a remodelling of their unfortunate rear-ends has also gone some way towards assuaging the hate that the "Victory" brand Daleks picked up.)

We did manage to spot the old Special Weapons Dalek from "Remembrance of..." and the spinning Dalek perceived by Amy as a ballerina (referencing the ballerina in Oswin's music box) looked to be a black-domed Imperial Guard/Supreme from "Evil of...". We also noticed a black Dalek Sec casing, making us wonder just how many Dalek Secs there have been, each leader of the Cult of Skaro in turn being deemed potty and sent to the Asylum.

There was also a rather sad-looking Paradigm model hanging about at the back, making us think of this page from Mechmaster's highly-recommended and totally unofficial Dalek comic strip.

But do those Daleks actually do anything? Or are they, as Alex points out, a McGuffin to get the Doctor into this week's haunted funhouse? (Andrew correctly identifies one of Moffat's tropes is his habit of establishing a memorable setting and then just using it as "spooky backdrop" rather than a meaningful part of his story-telling. But I'll come back to some thoughts about the "Asylum" in a bit.)

The true horror moments of the episode fall to the Dalek Puppets, particularly the sight of eyestalks bursting from people's foreheads: reminiscent of the Alien Chestburster; though also, I thought, a callback to the "door in the forehead" technology seen in "The Long Game", which turned out to be of Dalek origin in the end too. The Puppets seem to be the latest iteration in the Roboman/Dalek Duplicate series, though with added Auton in the Dalek gun sticking through the palm.

Meanwhile the emotional beats of the story focus, on the one hand, on the mysterious girl-from-the-future in her virtual-reality bubble (that's another Moffat trope, of course), and, on the other hand, on some "serious" stuff about the Pond's abrupt marriage breakdown and repair.

The situation with the Ponds is Moffat playing emotional "Duck Amok"; he can repaint the characters and their landscape any way he likes, so what does it matter if they're suddenly totally out of character? Amy seems to have thrown out all of the positive developments of last season that saw her evolve into an actually likeable person, and is behaving selfishly and manipulatively. She punishes Rory for a blow to her own self-image and how she assumes he'll react without even telling him why or giving him the opportunity to prove her wrong. (And of course the blow had to be gynaecological or it wouldn't be Moffat playing; in the Moffat-verse woman = womb + sarcasm.) Rory (except when pouting sarcastically into mirrors) has turned into the victim of an abusive relationship, complete with "comedy" violence (because actually it's not funny to repeatedly have one person slap another person).

(You would have thought that, given a five-part mini-episode mini-series leading up to "Asylum of the Daleks" aka "Pond Life" – geddit! – that they could have established in a series of increasingly painful vignettes the growing estrangement as Rory senses something is wrong and Amy won't or can't open up to him. But no, we get Ood-on-the-loo hilarity and Mata Hari hijinks – assuming you find lobotomising and brainwashing an alien to be a slave hilarious and reducing a complex historical figure to a sexual stereotype and a willy gag hijinksy – and everything is fine around the breakfast table until a sudden swerve in the final minute. Maybe Chibnall didn't get the memo. If only there were someone to take the lead role in the writing, some writer who could lead the others, someone... oh, you get the picture...)

And yet this all feels contrived, bolted on, an excuse to tug at the heart-strings and arrive at a reconciliation. Surely it would make more sense that, as the nanogenes "deduct love and add hate", that this story should actually cause the Pond's relationship difficulties, not resolve them. Rory's clumsy suggestion that he loves Amy more than she loves him could – given her past – hit her in a vulnerable point that precipitates a rift. Of course that runs entirely counter to what I suppose we must call the "sit-com" side of Moffat's (multifaceted) writing, which starts from misunderstanding but seeks to resolve it, often through the medium of embarrassment. Although a big snog will do. (And witness the Doctor's embarrassment at Amy and Rory's big snog.)

So if the "emotional core" of the story is actually surplus to requirements, then what is really really going on underneath? Well, aside from the usual Moffat ponderings on memory and reality and how the former informs, even creates, the latter, what we have is an exploration of Dalek culture. Starting with the revelation that they have one.

We see the Parliament of the Daleks. We hear of the Daleks' idea of beauty. And their idea of madness. And the things that scare them.

All in all it treats them seriously as an alien culture, admittedly one that represents everything the Doctor and by extension ourselves would be disgusted by.

It addresses the Daleks' response to the Doctor; how they keep running up against him and how, like germs becoming anti-biotic resistant, they're becoming stronger as a result – a better consideration of their "evolution" than "Evolution of the Daleks" (and with better "human-Daleks" too, albeit ones in fetish-wear for some reason No wait, she's a women, it’s the Moffat-verse, so…). And it addresses his response to them: "I've tried to stop".

The Parliament of the Daleks is not, as far too many people have leapt to assume, a sign that they are democratic now, any more than the Roman Senate or the English Parliament under King Charles the First made Rome or pre-Commonwealth England democracies. Nor does the presence of a Dalek Prime Minister imply the absence of a Dalek Emperor. Rather the contrary, actually, as ministers serve monarchs, usually. Both "City of the Daleks" and "The Eternity Clock" assert that the New Paradigm Empire does have an Emperor, if you'll take computer games as evidence. And it's a nice retcon of John Peel's use of "Dalek Prime", if we absolutely have to hold our noses and take the existence of Skaro as acceptance of "War of the Daleks".

(Nice-looking Skaro, in passing. The Dalek City was not quite as good as the Citadel on CGI Gallifrey, trying slightly too hard to look like the 'Sixties models from "The Dead Planet" and "The Evil of the Daleks", and all the red dust made ruined Skaro look like ruined Gallifrey which was ironic. And possibly the point. Nice giant Dalek statue, though.)

The Daleks are shown to be clever in this story. Not just setting traps for the Doctor, but also manipulating and deceiving him, arriving at a lateral-thinking solution to their problem of the Asylum and also getting the Doctor to solve their real problem by fooling him into thinking he's solving a shared (and completely different) threat.

Because the idea that this Empire, the thousands of Daleks that we see and that's just the Parliament, and there are a dozen other ships in just this fleet, the idea that they are threatened by the dusty, damaged, deranged dustbins that we see when we get inside the Asylum is simply not credible. So there must be something else. The most obvious candidate for that something else – there is another which I will come back to – is of course Oswin: a Dalek that thinks it's a human being. And/or a Dalek that thinks it's a human being that is close to taking complete control over the Asylum's systems.

The so-called twist with Oswin – that is to say the in-episode "twist", that reveals she's a Dalek (as opposed to the "But isn't she Jenna-Louise Coleman?" meta-twist) – seemed pretty obvious to me. And to the Doctor too. He's already homing in on the key question – where do you get the milk – while still on the Daleks' Parliamentary Saucer. (I like that the Supreme comes rushing in to cut off that line of questioning before the Doctor gets too close to the truth; another sign that the Daleks are double-dealing here, and another pointer to their cunning.) It does make you wonder how much of this is seventh-Doctor-style plans within plans. In fact, going back to Skaro – which, of course, the Seventh Doctor did reduce to a vaporised cinder, no matter what "War of the Daleks" might think; though since both Daleks and Doctor have time travel, they can still visit it in its post-"The Evil of the Daleks" ruined state – but if it was that easy to catch the Doctor in a trap then they'd have got him long, long ago. Which means he knew it was a trap and sprang it anyway to find out what they were after this time.

But the Daleks win. More even than "Victory of the Daleks" (which was more "Scraping an Escape of the Daleks"), here they absolutely, definitely win. The Dalek Empire survives and prospers. Even if you take their statements at face value, they get exactly what they wanted, an end to the threat of the Asylum, however it threatened them. And if you are convinced that they are lying, then the Doctor – apparently – does not see through them and gives them what they really wanted too.


Because if what they wanted was the death of Oswin, all, even more than I've already suggested, may not be as it seems.

Now, of course, not recognising Jenna-Louise Coleman from Eve, but having read all the press announcements a few months back, it wasn't until the closing credits that I "got" the "surprise". And I must confess it left me feeling perplexed, derailing the episode. This is backwards story-telling, where we are presented with an ending before we can understand it, breaking the fourth wall not just with a sly shy glance to camera, but by foregrounding the serial nature of the series and putting the emphasis on the fact that we won't get an explanation until Christmas.

I guess we need to add a new line to the Lawrence Miles' "Moffat Times Table":

"The Girl Who Waited"


"My Reality is Just a Dream"


"The Girl Who Waited in a Virtual Reality Dream!"

I suppose the most obvious unanswered question must be: after the Doctor gave his protection from the nanoswarm to Amy, did Oswin use the nanogenes, with their ability to alter remembrance and perception, permanently to graft herself onto his memory?

Because, for all his other faults, Steven Moffat is not the kind of writer who sets up a peril of that kind and then forgets the pay-off. (A proper explanation in series five of who exploded the TARDIS and why seems to have eluded him, but normally he can be relied upon to tie off his plot points. If not necessarily in the right order.) If the Daleks, who really aren't stupid, thought that the Doctor needed protection, then he needed protection. If he could have avoided the nanoswarm with a Time Lord handwave, then he would have given Amy the wrist device straight away as soon as she lost hers, not slipped it to her later, so he thinks he needs it too.

So is this how Jenna-Louise will, in the future, become his companion? Will he perceive her presence like a techno-ghost? That would be awkward for splitting up the team, a staple of all Doctor Who adventures. Perhaps she'll alter his perception of someone already present, a kind of cross between a "Faction Paradox"-type Shift and "Quantum Leap".

Probably not; that would all be far too interesting.

Alex was cultivating the happy illusion that it was all a massive bluff, launching the "perfect" companion for the Doctor as yet another perky "spunky" white girl-of-a-certain-age and then pulling a "but she's a Dalek" switch on us.

Alas, I fear that that would be too bold too, and that, by the pricking of my thumbs, something timey-wimey this way comes. The commonest suggestions being (a) the "Charley Pollard" option: the Doctor rescues Oswin from inevitable destiny resulting in cosmic temporal shenanigans; (b) the "River Song" option: this is Oswin's end but the Doctor's beginning (the fact that she says "we've never met" being got over by a "River Song lies" gambit); (c) the "Martha Jones" option; they're identical cousins; (d) the "reverse Gwen Cooper" option: Oswin comes from an "old Cardiff family" or equivalent and the Doctor travels with an ancestor (also works for "Scottish descendent of Pompeian soothsayer").

A lot of the contradictions about the Asylum can be resolved if we assume the Daleks are lying. Yes, unreliable narrator tropes in a Steven Moffat story, what will he think of next? In fact, the Daleks don't even need to lie that much; they just let the Doctor supply the exposition and don't correct him.

"What do you know of the Dalek Asylum?" he's asked.

"Legend speaks of..." he starts. Of course, "legend" also described the Doctor as a goblin trickster who a good wizard trapped in the Pandorica. For that matter, "legend" says that the Doctor died at Lake Silencio. So "legend" is up there with Moffat when it comes to "Rule 1".

An "asylum" was a place of safety before it was a mental institution. What if it still is? What if the Asylum is not where Daleks are sent, but the place to which they escape? The Asylum is where Daleks go when they want to escape from the War. The Dalek War of Daleks versus everything. The idea of a protective forcefield controlled from the planet, one that the Dalek fleet can neither penetrate nor shut off, then makes rather more sense. It's not there to keep the inmates in; it's there to keep the Dalek Empire out!

You could even explain how these Daleks survived the Time War and the Bad Wolf: they survived because they'd opted out. Rose ended the Time War, but these guys weren't in the Time War anymore.

If we take Amy's altered perceptions in the Asylum as being representative then the Daleks in there think of themselves as people.

Of course, they're still Daleks. They react to the presence of other lifeforms by panicking and trying to shoot them. But they've withdrawn from war.

Notice how the most extreme examples – in what Oswin describes as "intensive care" – have all had their gunsticks removed. But there aren't any warders in this Asylum, so the only people who could have removed the weapons are themselves. These are the Daleks who've met the Doctor... and become pacifists. That's about as mad as you can go if you're a Dalek. They press about the Doctor reaching out with their sucker arms, and he thinks that they're trying to squish him "Dalek"-style, but does it not strike you that they're not so much making half-hearted efforts to kill him as trying to "touch his robe"?

That would make the Asylum the most dangerous thing to the Dalek Empire ever. It would make it Peace.

Of course, it would also make the whole story a great deal more tragic if that were the case. It would mean that the Doctor provoked one Dalek into self-destruction so he could murder ten to twenty more Daleks and eventually allow the really evil Daleks to blow up a whole planet-full of not-quite-so-evil-verging-on-the-might-stand-a-chance-of-redemption Daleks.

So, really, who "suckered" who?

It would seem that the power of the Daleks is that, as icons, they are able to harness Moffat's strengths as a writer and rise above his shortcomings.

The devious plots-within-plots style that is the Grand Moff's signature serves them well, giving them a depth of deviousness not seen since the Whittaker serials of the 'Sixties.

That need to throw in idea after idea after idea that makes Moffat such a creative goldmine but so unfocussed sometimes, here sketches in a broader more vivid Empire without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. It's not quite Robert Holmes, but its closer to having a big picture view of them than anyone else has.

And you can't undermine the Daleks with sit-com characterisation that demands everyone be constantly barbed and witty because the Daleks don't have characterisation. (Kudos again to Nick Briggs for what he can do with inflection and a ring modulator, though.)

So this is a good story for the Daleks. It may even be a good Dalek story.

Next Time...News that the Doctor's new companions are actually an Egyptian Queen and Allan Quatermain has both Big Finish Productions and Alan Moore going "But...!" News that Mitchell and Webb are voicing the Robots has viewers assuming one is a PC and the other is a Peach. And Samuel L Jackson was distinctly heard to say: "Get these Mother****ing Chibnalls off this Mother****ing Series!" Or something like that.