TV Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Doctor who? Doctor Who? Doctor WHO? Having the memory of a dusty Dalek I can’t quite remember how long some of the gaps between seasons were in the olden days but I imagine the sense of anticipation was just as high as the during the eight months we’ve been waiting for series seven. The only vivid memory I have is of sitting down to watch The Trial of a Timelord after eighteen months, being wowed by the budget busting opening sequence of the TARDIS being grabbed from time and space, the intrigue of the darkened tube station then a sinking feeling as I realised that this was not going to have been worth the wait as Col and Mike grimaced at each other across a 2D courtroom and the woman from the Carry On films shiftily flounced about. I’m far kinder about Joan Sims’s performance now but I still have at the back of my mind the bitter disappointment of falling out of love with a show I’d been following for years.
Surprisingly that memory’s stuck with me and bizarrely despite every bit of evidence the contrary always wonder if the first episode of each season will indeed be worth the wait. Hello, you. Hello, Asylum of the Daleks. Hello, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Hello, Doctor who? Hello, Doctor Who? Hello, Doctor WHO? Hello to putting my carrot juice drinking demons to bed, or more precisely trapping them in a heat-sealed lead lined coffin and dropping them to the bottom of the sea. Like Trial, this also began with a budget busting opening sequence, our first glance at Skaro on screen since the show came back (and as promised long ago the same version from the City of the Daleks) and with the TARDIS and its inhabitants being grabbed from time and space, but unlike Trial this was well worth the wait as the Matt and the Dalek Supreme grimaced at each other across a parliament in three dimensions with the girl from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (there’s posh) shiftily flounces about.
My goodness. Just where do we begin? The Daleks? In this week’s party newsletter, the Prior Mordrin indicates that he’s been trying to write a “proper” Dalek story for the series since it began. Under the prior Prior Mordrin, he nearly wrote Daleks in Manhattan but was so busy he ended up writing Blink instead (which is a fair trade off I suppose) and after his inauguration farmed out Victory of the Daleks to one of the other knights of God and despite peppering his work with the um, pepperpots this is indeed the first time he’s had them say much more than their catchphrases. Quite rightly he decides to have as many as he can, hundreds upon thousands, which is bit of a group growth spurt from the reconstitution of the new paradigm (a new paradigm which spent much of this episode hiding at the back which suggests that they really have got the hump), enough to look sexy in the clips, the trailers and the posters. Doctor Who and the Daleks. Always has been. Always will be.
Unless Terry Nation estate pulls the rights but given the acknowledgement of his input within Moffat’s script through back references to his scripts, not to mention the merchandising possibilities of the episode (head attachable stalks for Christmas), that doesn’t seem likely. As is the run of things lately, these Daleks don’t have some grand master plan, “simply” the destruction of their technological race history in the form of the machines, which have failed them in the past. There are questions to be asked about just how this asylum exists given that we’ve been told countless times in the past seven years that since the time war the Daleks have been an endangered species when in reality there was a planet full of dodgy examples. Perhaps having had the race reconstituted they bumped into the thing on their travels rather like the rotting plum I found in the middle of my laundry basket the other week. I knew I hadn’t eaten it but convinced myself as much only realising later that it’d fallen off the shelf above.
But it does offer Moffat the chance to bring in every Dalek from the show’s history as promised by the fold out computer generated cover of Doctor Who Magazine a few months back. Except, and welcome to small criticism number one, because of the spooky lighting we can’t really see them. One of the Battle Daleks from Remembrance is clearly visible when Rory first turns up on the planet and one of the I think Resurrection versions is obvious in the later scene when the examples the Doctor's defeated wake up. Other than that mostly it's the golden model with a few of the paradigms oddly strewn about the place (despite the fact they’d apparently had a Victory) (unless they were in some unseen spin-off story) (one of Justin Richards’s graphic novels?). Somewhere in suburbia, Mat Irvine throws his hands in the air and shouts: “Now you turn the lights down?” Did he build any of the Dalek props? He must have reconditioned one surely? For the purposes of this reference?
Anyway, Moffat decides to write a story as Daleky as he can right through to the creation of some new robo-people. Anamaria Marinca with a Dalek stalk pointing out of her forehead is not something which I've ever expected to see, but that’s presumably because I missed all of her three appearances in Holby City such are the vagaries of an actors career once they’ve been nominated for the likes of the London Film Critics Circle Award for starring in one of the last decade’s greatest world films. During a frankly barmy but brilliant #leveson style enquiry into the JNT era in this month’s DWM (thanks, Graham), the topic of his “celebrity” casting is given rigorous discussion and Moffat says he’d also cast Ken Dodd if the part was right. But clearly his casting ambitions are rather more ambiguous. Who else can we expect by series end? Mathieu Amalric playing a Draconian? Udo Kier? Either way, this is quality casting which lifts a tiny part in a way which makes one wonder what might have happened and JNT had got his way with casting Sir Larry Olivier as the mutant in Revelation.
But such is the detailing in Asylum (as it will be forever abbreviated) an episode which also manages to bring other revelations like the marital status of the Ponds. The final chunk of their spin-off series suggested all was not well between Amy and Rory and here they are given some grown up problems. I’d be interested to know what viewers who were insulted by “fridging” of Amy in the previous series think of her “new” infertility as a result of that. Frankly, I’m not sure myself. Which I suppose you could take as small criticism number two, or at least pencil it in as such until I can decide exactly what that criticism is. Nevertheless it does lead to another gob-smacking piece of acting between Karen and Arthur who having underscored they can do comedy during Pond Life, demonstrate their facility for tragedy and annunciating human irrationality. She kicked him out because she couldn’t have kids and he wanted some to do him a favour? Still pencilling it in.
On top of which: in that annoying way that Radio Times often does, during its preview of Asylum said “and stay alert for a major, top-secret surprise just after the title sequence…” which means I’ve spent the past four days trying to work out what that might be. By Thursday afternoon I’d decided it was the return of the Doctor’s daughter Jenny and despite its hokey similarity to the Mels/Melody “surprise” that she’d later regenerate into Clara or whatever the name of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character is ultimately going to be by the Christmas special, the twist being that neither she or the Doctor will recognise each other, that being the “surprising” way the character’s introduced. Friday was a very RTDish kind of a day as I oscillated through various nuish Who companions then Sally Sparrow. By halfway through the credits I was convinced Carole Ann Ford had been brought out of retirement for a 50th anniversary preview.
Well, no. Magnificently no. Bless the reviewers. Bless the fans who attended the various preview screenings. Bless even the papers, despite the Mirror’s bizarre headline today about Matt leaving, a weird attempt to top The Scum’s post-Rose front page deduction. None of them spoiled this. You can detect Steven’s raised eyebrows at the fact in his quotes from this official website story about same. Having spent all that time indicating somberly that this would be Karen and Rory’s final five occasions to shine, there’s the new girl beaming at us. It’s not the first time a companion’s appeared on screen as a different character before making their introduction as a regular. It is the first time they’ve been given quite so much up-front up-staging narrative agency ahead of the current regulars in an attempt to charm us before she makes her proper entrance so much so that at one point I wondered if Moffat was going take the Whedonesque route of killing Amy and having Oswin take her place early (all the trailer footage we've seen having been filmed specially). But only for a few seconds. Oswin by the way is usually a boy's name. It's old English for "God's friend".
Oh Jenna-Louise Coleman. Look at you. You’re, to quote an old friend, brilliant, catching the rhythm of Moffat’s writing, instant chemistry with Matt and understanding completely the tone that this show requires, the sideways skips between micro-genres. Feels strange writing about your performance now before you’re actually playing the companion but for all we know you already are playing the companion. On the one hand its possible you were cast just for this episode and were so incredibly good that Steven spoke to Andy from casting and you were offered a permanent job but given everything we know about the production timescales, you have to have been playing Oswin for a reason and despite these five episodes apparently being vaguely stand alone in structure, your appearance is going to create just the kind of speculation that has been this show’s stock in trade of late (especially since your name was even left off the credits on the programme page for this story) (at time of writing). This is also an example of the show taking advantage of its own buzz/hype/press releases because if the viewer didn't know that this actress was playing the new companion (which might just be the case in some international sales territories) how they perceive the episode changes. There's no great surprise after the credits, just curiosity as to who this character is and at the end, no expectation that she would be returning.
Cue speculation. Will JLC be turning up in all of the next four episodes too playing different characters, will that be the “surprising” thing? Or is this another of Moffat’s pre-destination paradoxes and she’ll be travelling with the Doctor until such time that she leaves him only to find herself crash landed on the Asylum planet and assimilated the “surprising” thing being the Doctor doesn’t know her fate because he hasn’t met her. Or will he pop back in his TARDIS to the seconds before the planet explodes and give her a lift, the twist will be his new companion is a human trapped within a Dalek casing, perhaps with a handy perception filter showing the real her to deflect unnecessary questions when they’re charging through Splot on the trail of a marooned Monoid or convincing Edgar Allen Poe that it’s not the gentle rapping, rapping ravens he needs to be worried about. Certainly the conspiratorial glance to camera suggests she’s not one to fear death. Not since the Valeyard’s maniacal laugh in Trial has the fourth wall been broken quite this shamelessly and not since The Face of Evil for reasons to do with the plot. Potentially.
Small criticism number three (or two) might be that the revelation of Oswin’s status is a rerun of Charlotte Abigail Lux’s fate in Forest of the Dead, albeit with a difference sense of reality or geography and guessable as soon as the Doctor entered through the door to that chamber, at least for me. Are we to perhaps assume that Amy’s visions earlier are because the Daleks in that chamber are also transformed humans,
Finally (because frankly this has gone on long enough) there’s Matt. It’s easy in this role to become complacent, fall back on habits and ticks, not exactly phone it in but work within certain limits. We’ve seen it happen. We’ve made it happen. But Matt’s performance has grown in stature across the years. Never before have we seen him play the character as penetratingly logical as in the teaser or so subtly change the tone of his behaviour in the presence of the Ponds increasing his sense of purpose then again with Oswin as the Doctor detects a soul as quick-witted but whimsical as his own. However proficient some of the readers of the spin-off audiobooks have been across the years or intricate the characterisation of the writers, none can really capture this man when he’s fully engaged in his vocation, both the actor and his character and the character because of the actor.
None of which has left much room for me to talk about Nick Hurran’s direction (prodigious use of wide angle lenses), Murray’s music (does JLC’s character have her own theme yet?) or Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg given proper actorly credits (was that as a result of their piece in the 450th DWM?) but these two and a half thousand words have been a bit of an incoherent fangasm and perfect demonstration of why I really should decide what point I’m making before I begin writing. Perhaps the point is that we’re still watching a show at the top of its game and if the gaps in seasons and pauses are one of the reasons for that, so be it. I’d much rather that than the sense of churn which leads to something like The Curse of the Black Spot or The Trial of a Timelord for that matter, where creativity’s compromised because of the need to create something called Doctor Who no matter what it’s like. This is a show which has to be worth waiting for.