Contains spoilers for the two aired shows.
Doctor Who has been back on TV for nearly two weeks now, and I’m a little tardy in getting around to writing any reviews of the latest episodes. Does this mean I’ve fallen out of love with it? No, not at all; but the first episode of the new series aired on a particularly busy weekend for me, and while I watched it I was aware that I was preoccupied and distracted by real life events. The second episode was better timed, but was very much aimed at the younger audience demographic and I was wary about wading in too critically on an instalment not aimed at someone of my advanced years in the first place.
But finally it seems that a few words on the first two episodes are overdue, and I should prevaricate no longer. Be warned, there lie spoilers ahead…
Asylum of the Daleks
In the days of the classic Doctor Who series, it used to be standard operating procedure to start off a new series with the return of the Doctor’s most famous adversaries, since it assured lots of press coverage and a big first night audience. Things have changed since the 70s and 80s and the show doesn’t need to rely on Daleks to grab attention any more like it once did, so it’s rather a surprise to see the metal menaces restored to this ‘tentpole’ position in 2012.
That’s especially because showrunner Steven Moffat has tended to rather sideline the Daleks in recent years. He has impeccable logic for doing so: as the Doctor’s most-returned adversaries, the Daleks have also become the enemy that he has beaten the most. They are, in a sense, the least successful foes in the series. For that reason, Moffat is making a point not just of using them sparingly, but also ensuring that when they do return, they win. The Doctor might escape with his life and those of his companions, but on the whole the Daleks are successful. There’s nothing more chilling or terrifying than an evil arch enemy who actually has a habit of beating the hero and coming out on top.
The Daleks win again in “Asylum of the Daleks”, after they track down the Doctor (or ‘the predator of the Daleks’ as he’s known to them – a nice touch) for a mission too terrifying even for them to undertake themselves. There’s a slight continuity issue here in that the Daleks can find him at all, given that season 6 ended with the Doctor being declared ‘dead’ across the universe – but that thread is certainly not forgotten about and becomes a key element later in both this episode and the next.
What follows is a hugely successful fanboi instalment in which there are lots and lots of Daleks making any number of references to the past of the show, with old model Dalek casings from years of the original series mixing with the modern bronze versions and then raised to the level of nearly infinity by CGI to produce both the Parliament of the Daleks and the titular asylum. Interestingly, the one model of Daleks to apparently get purposefully sidelined in the background is the most recent, the ‘new paradigm’ multi-coloured iDaleks introduced in “Victory of the Daleks” a couple of years ago which to be frank no one liked. Is this an admission that they flopped and that the Russell T Davies-era models are back in pole position? If so – good.
Once the Doctor, Rory and Amy are transported onto the planet of the Dalek asylum, it becomes something of a gothic horror ‘haunted house’ story in which all the ghosts are Daleks (even the ones that don’t look like it.) It should prove pretty scary for the younger audience and even manage to send chills down the spines of older viewers too: the moment when an unsuspecting, unarmed Rory is facing a derelict Dalek and it starts saying “Eggs …. eggs …” and the familiar Dalek ‘throb’ picks up on the soundtrack certainly did it for me. As well as the physical terrors, there’s also a hefty dose of quite disturbing existential horror awaiting us at the end of the episode.
It looks terrific and feels like a feature film – even little details such as the snow-covered surface of the asylum planet made this feel like it had a budget 10x what it really has. It’s also interesting that Moffat has dialled back his complex ‘series arc’ plotting of last year that left the brilliant standlone episodes being dismissed by many as ‘filler’ when in fact they were the best stories of the year. Instead, this year Moffat has gone for five stand alone mini-features reminiscent of the specials that saw out David Tennant’s final days in the role; while there might not be an overarching story this time, there’s certainly a couple of themes and an overall feel linking the stories.
The first is the continuation of the ‘Doctor Who?‘ direction that started as a shouted question from the disembodied head of Dorium Maldovar in the final scene of season 6, and which signalled Moffat’s intention to roll the Doctor back from being intergalactic myth and legend and return him to being just a daft madman in a box, unnoticed and unknown as he travels the universe. While the Doctor starts “Asylum” as the feared ‘predator of the Daleks’, by the end his existence has been erased and the Daleks are left puzzling, chanting the same demand of him: ‘Doctor Who?‘ The delighted Doctor himself dances around the Tardis console room repeating the question to himself – all a little too obvious, overdone and achingly post-modern breaking of the fourth wall for my taste.
The second theme is the wrapping up of the Amy and Rory story. Moffat’s chosen an interesting approach here: the Doctor ended their full time travels on the Tardis in season 6, so here he get to see him ‘pop in’ for one-off adventures with them at increasingly spaced-apart intervals. That means the adventures are becoming more and more inconvenient for Amy and Rory, who have their own lives and problems away from the Doctor; they’re clearly growing up, growing older, changing, while the Doctor remains the same. It’s a fascinating new take on the Doctor/companion dynamic that only Moffat could have come up with. If the sketching-in of the Pond’s martial crisis in this episode feels too brief and too quickly/neatly wrapped up, then perhaps that’s just as well if Doctor Who is not to become just another interminable domestic drama soap opera on TV.
But the main theme is the sense that the Ponds’ time with the Doctor is running out: it’s like the friendships you have with the flatmates you used to live with in your youth. When you move out, you pledge to remain in touch and stay friends forever; but as the years go by, the links break and the friendships are consigned to the past, until you’re left trying to remember exactly who the name in a faded address book belongs to. The Doctor and the Ponds are fast approaching that final point of severance. I for one will miss them – especially Rory, whose playing by Arthur Darvill simply gets better with every passing week. Karen Gillan also gets stronger as she plays out the older, wiser version of the girl who waited.
Who will replace them? Without entirely giving away the biggest surprise of the episode, let’s just say that there’s a deliciously vibrant character here who would be flat-out perfect for the situation vacant, from the very first moment that they appear on screen. It’s a shame that the character in question, the survivor of a spaceship wreck on the asylum planet, doesn’t survive the end of the episode because they would have been perfect. Instead we’ll have to wait and see how Moffat tops it when the new companion played by Jenna-Louise Coleman makes her début, which has been widely announced in advance as coming in the Christmas special in December.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
By contrast with the grown-up ‘one for the fanbois that the kids will be scared silly by’ series opener, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is quite determinedly one for the youngest part of the show’s demographic. As well as the child-pleasing titular dinosaurs, there’s a ‘comedy’ robot double act (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb, so we absolutely know this is flat-out comedy) and the appearance of Queen Nefertiti as a companion who falls for a fearless but not exactly enlightened 19th century big game hunter by the name of Riddell (played by Rupert Graves, no less.) Add to that another member of the Doctor’s new gang (“I’ve never had a gang before!” he squeals with delight) in the form of Rory’s decidedly non-adventurous father Brian (Harry Potter’s Mark Williams) and we have the makings of a flat out comedy caper.
Now, I don’t mind a little light-hearted fun; I actually hate those shows which are po-faced solemnity from beginning to end without any leavening of humour in them at all. And I totally accept and support the idea that Doctor Who is a show for the family which means for the children as well. That’s fine. It’s just that the show usually does a much better job in blending all those elements for all ages into one mix, rather than stopping for a week to completely change gear and say “right, here’s the comedy cartoon kids dosage for this season.” It leaves the adults rather rolling their eyes and thinking it’s all a bit silly, and with too much time on their hands to pick unfair holes in the CGI dinosaurs.
Take away the dinosaurs and the one-off new members of the Doctor’s ‘gang’ and there’s not much to this story, to be honest. That’s because the ‘frills’ are the point of it and if you remove them then it’s just a rather dull skeleton underneath. There are some nice science fiction moments – the propulsion system of the spaceship on which the dinosaurs are being freighted for example, and the identity of the ship’s original builders which makes sublime sense in the context of the story – but by and large this is a story that takes only about 15 minutes to tell once shorn of its amusing (or not-so amusing, depending on your taste) add-ons.
Moreover, it’s a strangely uneven episode in tone. In amongst the child-pleasing moments such as the Doctor and his friends riding on the back of a stegosaurus there’s some disconcerting innuendo jokes on the size of weapons and about balls (golf balls, it turns out) that feel most un-Who-like and feel borderline crass in the context.
And then there are a couple of moments with the trader Soloman, played by the ever deliciously evil David Bradley (also from the Harry Potter franchise.) Amidst all the fun and games, the scene where he tells the Doctor what he did with the ship’s previous occupants is shockingly nasty: he doesn’t just say “I killed them all” but gives a chilling account of just how he’s done it. It’s as black as anything we’ve seen in the show, perhaps made darker because of the cartoon colours on display elsewhere. Of course, it’s at this moment that we know Soloman isn’t going to fare well in this episode.
Even so, his fate is startling and disturbing. Ever since Doctor Who returned in 2005 it’s made a fetish of the Doctor being a truly moral and ethical hero for whom carrying and using a gun or intentionally causing harm to others is anathema. (The classic series had fewer scruples – the Doctor’s old selves would cheerfully have shot someone if the situation required it.) The Doctor does not kill, and if someone has to die because other circumstances demand it he is invariably wracked by guilt and does what he can to save them, to offer them a chance, or else to send them on their way with a “I’m sorry … I’m so sorry …” expression of regret.
Not so here. The Doctor sets up Soloman’s ship to be destroyed by incoming missiles, and then … Shuts and locks the airlock door and sends it on its way, with Soloman inside howling for mercy. The Doctor gives none and does not even look remotely concerned about it, as he cold bloodedly sends Soloman to his death. It’s not quite the same as shooting someone stone dead, but it’s uncomfortably close. Did Soloman deserve it, for what he told the Doctor of his earlier act of mini-genocide? Yes, of course. But the Doctor is the true hero, the one who sees that two wrongs never make a right, that redemption and mercy are always better than vengeance and murder. In this scene, without a flicker of remorse, the Doctor stumbles.
The last time that the Doctor became this dark and stepped toward the anti-hero corner, his come-uppance was quick to follow and a regeneration was just around the corner. Is the show setting up such an arc and hinting that Matt Smith’s time in the Tardis is coming to a close? Or perhaps it’s a hint that the Doctor without regular companions soon becomes unstuck and loses his moral compass, setting up the scenario for the need for the Doctor to take on board a new travelling companion at Christmas? To be honest, the way the scene was played – not a flicker of conflicted emotions, no dramatic underscoring from the direction or the music – it simply seemed like a terrible misstep in the episode rather than a sign or portent or what’s to some, but time will tell.
There were a few such portents elsewhere: a significant conversation between the Doctor and Amy about how infrequent his return visits are becoming, for example. And in the continuing development of the new ‘Doctor Who?’ series premise, Solomon at one point scans the Doctor for his net worth in a universal time-and-space trader’s database and finds no matches for anyone of the Doctor’s name and description: further confirmation that the Time Lord, once the most known and valuable commodity in the existence, has been erased and is once more just a mysterious travelling stranger. A galactic superhero legend no more.
Other than Soloman, everyone lives happily every after: Nefertiti never does return to Ancient Egypt, while Brian “I am not a Pond!” Williams has his eyes opened and the man who previously never travelled further afield than the papershop and the local golf course is now seen sending postcards from every corner of the Earth as a result of his brief exposure to the Doctor. That sense of the Doctor being ‘life changing’ is a familiar one in the modern Who and frankly it’s been done better, from Sarah Jane Smith to Donna Noble, Rose Tyler to Rory Williams, “Love & Monsters”‘ Elton Pope to Mickey Smith. Here it felt just a little bit undercooked, popped in at the last minute to fill up a couple of minutes dead space in the script at the end – although it’s actually more likely to be a necessary set-up for Brian’s inevitable return in a few weeks’ time.
Overall, it’s a fun episode that succeeds on its own terms when it’s just trying to be light and fluffy. If I didn’t take to it completely myself, then that’s just because I’m not the target demographic for it, and that’s fine too. It’s still a whole heap better than season 6’s ‘fun romp’ instalment, the pirate episode “The Curse of the Black Spot.” But then, I don’t like pirate stories for the most part so it’s possible that I was prejudiced against that one from the start.
Coming next week …
My worry is that I’m not really into Western stories either (at least, not outside a few of the indisputable classics of the genre such as The Searchers) and this weekend’s instalment is just such a story. “A Town Called Mercy” was shot on the same Spanish sets as Sergio Leone used for his 70s Westerns with Henry Fonda and Clint Eastwood, and looks from a distance like another quirky ‘romp’ for the Doctor and his friends against a non sequitur cyborg gunslinger (Holy Westworld, Batman!) I hope it’s better than the concept makes it sound – it does at least boast Being Human show-runner Toby Whithouse as the writer, so that’s encouraging news.
I guess we’ll see on Saturday. Unless anyone has a time machine handy for us to nip forward 48 hours to have an advance preview … ?
Doctor Who continues on Saturday nights on BBC1 for the next three weeks. The DVD and Blu-ray editions of the first five episodes of series 7 are released on November 12, 2012