Thursday, March 13, 2014

Speaking For: The Asylum of the Daleks

Man, I’ve been dealing in weighty, dismal topics lately. Time to downshift and have a little fun again—fun in this case being rallying in favor of a Doctor Who episode. And the episode in this case is “The Asylum of the Daleks,” the premiere of the revived show’s 7th season, or its 2012 season, however you want to measure it. Not the boldest choice, same might say. “Asylum” is pretty well regarded, after all. Well, I say it’s the third best Dalek episode of the revived series, despite some issues. How’s that for bold? Not really? Well, whatever, it’s the case.

            As his most iconic, deadliest, most fearsome, most hated adversaries, the Daleks are only one story younger than the Doctor himself, when they first appeared essentially as an allegory for the Nazis. Today, they serve as a pretty good encapsulation of the dichotomous experience of watching the show. With the eye-stalk, vented and rounded cap, and their heavily distorted voices shouting the catchphrase “Exterminate!” they are defiantly, shockingly retro, and at first glance, more than a bit silly. Ludicrous, really. That is, unmistakably, a plunger they’re using for a hand. And yet, as often as they can border on camp, they can also be as terrifying as the stories make them out to be. They move with an eerie, sliding grace, their bizarre cadences and shrieked threats are chilling, and they look utterly inscrutable and utterly alien, both in their armor and when they are exposed as little more than a wad of tendrils around one baleful dead eye. Silly and frightening at once.
            However, despite their iconic status…well, to be frank, most of the modern Dalek stories aren’t particularly good, so saying “Asylum” is the third best Dalek story isn’t exactly the highest hurdle to clear. The 2005 stories “Dalek” and “The Parting of the Ways” doubtless remain the best, owing to how strongly tied they are to the 9th Doctor’s overall story. While much more a Cyberman story the Daleks intrude upon, “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday” would be ok, but the story uses a very cheap, dumb trick that really bugs me. If you want to know where my own line between appealingly fanciful and fucking stupid gets drawn, you can find the answer in “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks” and that answer is “pathos for a pig man.” “Journey’s End” and its first part “The Stolen Earth” are overstuffed messes, which I usually don’t mind, but the ending, which sees companion Donna disgustingly fridged, pisses me off so much they might be some of my most hated episodes. “Victory of the Daleks” is a bit sloppy, but I’m enough of an anglophile and historian to see the appeal in Spitfires attacking flying saucers. All told, though, it’s not exactly august company.
            All of that, however, is not to say I think “Asylum” is mediocre—I would, in fact, easily rank it among my favorites. It’s the sort of rollicking adventure I adore, by turns creepy, thrilling, atmospheric, and surprising before it finally…eh, we’ll get to what it finally does. The setup: newly revealed infiltrators kidnap the Doctor, as well as Amy and Rory (whose relationship has hit some terminal rocks). The three are brought before the parliament of the Daleks, but rather than exterminating the lot, they make a most baffling request:

            There is a problem on the Dalek Asylum, the planet where the Daleks imprison their most deranged, insane, and uncontrollable ilk—and for a species of mutants bred to only hate and destroy everything not themselves, that’s quite the level of derangement. Somehow, a human spaceliner breached the shielding around the planet to crash there, so the Daleks intend to lower the shield and destroy the planet before it well and truly fails and all the mad Daleks escape. But for some reason they are all too afraid to go down to the surface and lower the shield themselves, so they intend to send the Doctor down to do it for them, with Amy and Rory sent along for some additional motivation.
            Before they are unceremoniously dropped down the gravity well, the Doctor quickly establishes what has the Daleks confused and concerned—Carmen, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” specifically, being broadcast from the heart of the Asylum. It’s broadcast by Oswin Oswald, Junior Entertainment Manager of the Starship Alaska, and, she believes, its only survivor. For the past year, she’s survived alone, hidden in the wreckage, hacking into various systems, baking soufflés, and drowning out the screeches of the crazed Daleks just outside her door with opera. “In no particular order,” the Doctor says later when asked for a plan, “we need to neutralize all the Daleks in this asylum, rescue Oswin from the wreckage, escape from this planet, and fix Amy and Rory’s marriage.” And that is, basically, the plot, with the Doctor, Amy, and Rory running about darkened corridors narrowly evading sundry dangers while Oswin tries to keep them alive long enough to reach her.
            Like I said, the Daleks can be quite frightening, and I certainly think they are in “Asylum.” Their mad chant of “Save the Daleks!” delivered in the same manner they usually threaten to “Exterminate!” is genuinely unnerving. Soon, we are introduced to the Dalek Prime Minister, and where previous Dalek heavies like the Emperor, the Cult of Skaro, and the Supreme Dalek were heavy on bluster and intimidation, the Prime Minister speaks softer, more insinuatingly, and even like a Dalek’s idea of seductive, which is equally disquieting. The creepiest, however, are the newly introduced puppets, more or less intelligent zombies controlled by the Daleks. As sleeper agents, the memories of their lives and deaths can be switched on and off at will. When the Doctor reminds the puppet that trapped him the she had a daughter once, the indifferent and neutral way she says “I know. I read my file,” is a pretty chilling and effective moment in showing just what the Daleks have done to these people. We further learn that a cloud of nanomachines surrounds the Asylum, making puppets of any unprotected organic things unfortunate enough to find themselves on the surface. When the Doctor, Amy, and Rory are all fitted with bracelets to shield them from the nanocloud, it’s clear that where they’re going, dangers will even be in the air they breathe.
            As noted, the Doctor intends to neutralize all the Daleks in the Asylum, rescue Oswin, escape the planet, and fix Amy and Rory’s marriage. The way he blithely folds the marital strife along with the problems of planetary destruction is a part of the character and the show I find so very charming—there are no big or little problems to the Doctor, only problems, so he might spend an episode restarting the whole of creation, or helping one person stuck in time. And it’s a good thing the Doctor gives Amy and Rory’s problems that weight, because taking care of an entire planet of mad alien killing machines seems quite simple by comparison. My stance on the Ponds is no secret—they are my favorite companions of the revived show, and their relationship is one of the most important. Which is why it’s a bit of a bummer that my two minor criticisms of the episode happen here, in their story.
            Simply put, I think Rory is a little too mean a few times, and I wish the source of their strife were a little different. I see all of the thinking behind the strife between the Ponds. It was well known that the Ponds would be departing midway through the season, and while the definitive statement on the pair was made in the previous season’s excellent “The Girl Who Waited,” as they began their final run, a reaffirmation of the couple before their final (great) reaffirmation in “The Angels Take Manhattan” was probably not only a good idea but a necessary one. Both would have to be blameless, but it would be pretty hard to drive the two apart—Rory once guarded Amy for 2000 years, and Amy once declared to Rory “I’m going to pull time apart for you,” which she meant literally, given the show.
            While I’m not the hugest fan of rationalizing, Rory’s bitterness can be rationalized. His continual devotion to Amy had been major trait of the character for a good long time, so to get him to give up on their relationship, Amy would have had to have been pretty mean herself. It’s also easy to see their acrimony as a consequence of not having each other. Mean is just not a good look for the character, though.
            As for the source of their strife, it’s a fertility issue—due to events of the previous season, Amy can’t conceive anymore, and since Rory has long wanted kids (something first mentioned here, but, whatever, it’s not like we’ve ever been privy to the Ponds’ family planning discussions), she made herself give him up. My issue with this is, well, it’s a bit of a vexingly common trope for female characters to have fertility issues due to villainous experiments. It happened to Scully, and I’m pretty sure it happened to Starbuck, among others. Feels a bit hacky.
            Such minor quibbles can’t prevent the Ponds from being the fun characters who are my favs, however. Amy gets to be a hot-tempered, heedless daredevil. Rory gets to be luckless and caregiving. Their conflict being the sort of thing that could be cleared up if they just talked openly doesn’t bother me much, because that’s exactly what happens. The Doctor contrives a seemingly high stakes life-and-death situation to force the Ponds to talk things out, so they do, quickly fixing their issues just in time to pull off one of my favorite recurring gags—the Doctor is irritated by Amy and Rory making out with indifference to aliens and explosions. “Asylum” isn’t a flawless first outing for the Ponds’ finale, but it’s good enough at reminding us where they’ve come from and what made us like them.
            While Amy and Rory are fixing their marriage at a teleporter they’ve discovered, the Doctor strikes off to retrieve Oswin—she’s understandably a bit reluctant to leave the safety of her shelter and her hammock on the assurance that these total strangers won’t leave her behind. Over the course of the episode, Oswin has made a strong impression—she’s smart, clever, confident, helpful, informative, skilled, and given her predicament, a bit stir-crazy, and a bit sexually frustrated. She talks of how she wanted to see the galaxy, so she’s a bit annoyed her first trip ended with the crash, and she’s eager for rescue. Oswin’s also managed to impress the Doctor a few times as she deftly hacks the Dalek systems, saying they’re quite easy, despite the Doctor’s claims otherwise. To get him safely through Intensive Care (“These are the Daleks who survived me,” the Doctor says), she even hacks into the collective memories of the creatures and deletes all references to him, which the Doctor says should be impossible. In short, she’s a very vibrant human being, which is why what the Doctor finds past Intensive Care’s last door is so devastating.
            The Dalek need for inventive thinkers not bound by their hegemonic supremacist orthodoxy was established in “Doomsday” with the Cult of Skaro. In “The Parting of the Ways,” the Emperor claims to have made Daleks from humans. This is the horrifying, heart-crushing place those threads meet. While there have been plenty of scenes dedicated to Dalek atrocities, this is perhaps the first time in the modern series where it feels like they’ve done something genuinely horrific, and committed a profound crime worthy of their stature. They made a brilliant and lovely person into their twisted, hate-filled image, something so awful Oswin would do anything to prevent it, including divorce herself from reality. Clearly, the Doctor was sent to the Asylum to deal with this creation gone wrong, not some crashed ship.
            Long before the Emperor and the Cult of Skaro there was the 2nd Doctor, who allowed others to think he was a clown and buffoon while he subtly and cleverly took control of whatever situation he happened to be in. A lot of the 2nd Doctor ended up in the scatterbrained, manic, and frequently duplicitous 11th Doctor. He’s often a secret keeper, opaque regarding his feelings, and withholding regarding his insights, all concealed behind energetic gesticulations and sonic-speed digressions. Finally, we see the game he’s been playing, and it augments the devastation—he either has known, or strongly suspected what he’d find behind that last door, and has been trying to get Oswin to realize what happened to her by pushing her dissonance. It’s impossible to hack Dalek systems. Can’t she come meet the gang at the teleporter? But mostly it was “The milk, Oswin. The milk and the eggs for the soufflés, where did it all come from?”  
I nearly called this a moment of “body horror,” but that phrase doesn’t quite encompass what has been done to Oswin. The Daleks are ugly in body and soul. They don’t appreciate opera, or burn soufflés, or match their sneakers to their dresses, or journal, or try to trick boys into taking their shirts off, or think of their mums, or put origami flowers in their luminous hair—all they do is hate, plot, and kill, forever trapped in their self-made metal prisons. Earlier, she talks about how making a Dalek requires subtracting love and adding anger with what sounded like dread, but we now see it was subconscious experience. What I find most chilling, however, is that Oswin, like me, is a fidgeter, quite unable to sit still. She imagines herself sitting in just about every position possible with a chair when she isn’t fiddling with things in the background of her imaginary shelter. But Daleks don’t fidget, their armored casings wouldn’t let them move even if their mangled lumps of bodies could (they might be able to move in “Evolution,” but it’s terrible enough we should just forget it). It would be hellish.
            The Doctor has long despised the Daleks, and after this, so did I.
            I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention on particular element that played a big role in hiding this twist: the internet. Doctor Who has never lacked for innocent single-episode characters who suffer tragic fates, but most if not all viewers didn’t think Oswin would be a single-episode character. The great tension of modern cult shows is that the internet lets fandom pour over all sorts of news well in advance (just today, I saw a story about the release date for a movie that’s a sequel to one not yet released). Coming into “Asylum,” we knew a lot—we knew that Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill would be leaving about mid-season, taking the Ponds with them, so we knew the Doctor would be getting a new companion. And we knew that new companion would be played by Jenna Coleman (Jenna-Louise at the time), from promo shots we knew what she looked like, and if memory serves there were conflicting reports that her name was to be “Clara” or “Oswin.” So it was a pretty big surprise when Mz. Coleman showed up in the very first episode as Oswin, but it was an even bigger surprise when it was revealed what had happened to Oswin. In my estimation, removed from this fairly recent context, the emotional weight of the twist is enough to make it work without any outside knowledge, but in that recent context, it was a masterful trick. As for the larger story of Clara “Oswin” Oswald, the third best modern companion, she’ll have to wait for some other day.
            Horror quickly give way to sadness, as Oswin has to face what has become of her and breaks down. In the revived series, most of the monster voices are provided by Nicholas Briggs, which generally means he gets to repeatedly shout “Exterminate!” or “Upgrade in progress!” or grunt and snarl (though he did once get the awesome “My world is dead, but now there will be a second red planet, burned with the blood of humanity!”), but here he delivers the sound of a Dalek sobbing. It’s a sad, pathetic noise, shocking coming from such an infamous creature of murder. But the show’s gentle humanism doesn’t leave Oswin in that sad, mangled state. Notably, even when confronted with reality, she still imagines herself as she once was. She struggles with being Dalek (you can hear her straining to comprehend the Dalek capacity for malice in the plaintive way she asks “Why do they hate you so much? They hate you so much. Why?”) but her core humanity is too strong. They desecrated her shape, locked it in tiny box, and infected her mind, tried to make her think like them, but she resisted and made them cower with enough fear they had to turn to their greatest enemy to save them, and as she lowers the shield so the planet can be destroyed, the only thing she wants is for the Doctor to remember that. Some other day.
            So the Doctor hurries to the teleporter, where Amy and Rory are going at it like the planet is exploding, which it is, and the three make good on their escape. Once again among the Dalek Parliament, the Doctor makes a new discovery—when Oswin said she had deleted all references to the Doctor, she meant it. None of them know who he is. The Doctor once more flies away, leaving the uncomprehending Daleks asks themselves the oldest question behind.
            Without the twist, I’d think I’d still think “Asylum of the Daleks” was great, and would rank it quite high. But even many moons later, even knowing how this story turns out, and how the rest of the season turns out, still, the Oswin’s fate is crushing and moving. Dalek episodes may be hit or miss, but it’s going to take one that hits pretty hard to unseat “Asylum” in my estimation.

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