...a blog by Richard Flowers

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.



Andrew Hickey said...

I strongly suspect that the various story hints you've come up with there as far as the Daleks go are far more interesting than whatever ends up happening, sadly...

Alex Wilcock said...

I love your idea of what “Asylum” means… Makes for a far better story than the one Mr Moffat wrote, I suspect!

What mystifies me about “Every Dalek ever” isn’t that he does nothing with them (just a publicity stunt, obviously, even ignoring which Daleks would have been in intensive care, which jars so much that even your brilliant explanation of how they survived the Time War doesn’t cover them). It’s that he misses the opportunity to have one of the most famous Daleks, as written by David Whitaker and finally put on screen through an Eric Saward script in 1985: in the original Doctor Who novel, Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With the Daleks, the leader of the Dalek council is a glass Dalek, with a mutant visibly jumping up and down inside it.

It’s impossible to believe Mr Moffat doesn’t know about this, so having the Prime Minister of the Dalek Parliament in just a clear plastic tube in a story with “Every Dalek ever” looks so… Cheap.

Andrew Hickey said...

Yeah, there were no glass Daleks, and I also didn't notice any Daleks with satellite dishes on their backs either.

(I'd have actually liked to have seen a spider-Dalek like in the unmade drafts of the McGann thing, as well, just for us real obsessives, but that was never going to happen).

Matthew Kilburn said...

Oswin, I'd assumed, was the real target of the Daleks, as you say. Otherwise the fact the forcefield can only be turned off ... and given the way the episode deals with perceptions of reality, can we even be sure the Asylum planet was destroyed?

Oswin has echoes of Steven Taylor, though without the panda, and of course in a short dress.