I’ve just finished rewatching Asylum of the Daleks, the first in the new Doctor Who series which aired on BBC HD on 1 September. After a previous series which can best be described as patchy, and an earlier outing for Daleks in Victory of the Daleks which was widely seen as lamentable, I was fearing the worst.
What I actually got was approaching the best.
The problem with Daleks — as I think Stephen Moffatt pointed out — is that over the years they have become British cultural icons and are, in the Doctor Who world, the most dangerous enemies, but in the viewers’ world the most reliably defeatable creatures in the universe.
As a child I hid behind the sofa when the Day of the Daleks came on. When I watched it again, on UK Gold, years later, it was just as sinister, just as scary. Back in those days the producers had the trick of introducing us to a heroic and noble character who we could get attached to in the first episode of a four parter, who would then be killed somewhere in the second episode. Even when defeated, they still managed to scorch the earth of whichever planet they happened to be on. Victories against the Daleks were always partial, and bitter.
Daleks in the 21st century Doctor Whos have just never been that scary. Even when they moveed the Earth and threatened to destroy the universe, it all got fixed in the end and no-one seemed (a couple of series later) to have actually noticed. Time got rewritten, the Stolen Earth never happened, and it was all a bit like a cross between the Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (on Buffy’s gravestone at the end of series six it read ‘she saved the world, a lot’).
In the mean time, some much meaner monsters emerged. The nastiest of all were the Time Lords of the final David Tennant episode. When the good guys turn bad, it’s very bad. When the Daleks pitch up with yet another master plan, it’s a bit like the clowns turning up with a very large black sphere marked ‘bomb’.
So, to expunge the Daleks serving tea to Winston Churchill and then reappearing as if they had been designed by the same chap who did the new Mini, in Victory of the Daleks, Moffatt has come back with a genuinely passionate and scary piece of science-fiction which goes right back to the gothic horrors of the Jon Pertwee years.
I don’t want to give the plot away, but the story turns on two really strong ideas: that Amy and/or Rory and/or the Doctor are threatened with becoming Daleks, and an extraordinary plot twist at the end which is no less shocking for being prefigured throughout the episode. IIt’s still shocking on the second viewing.
Moffatt has played the same trick which worked so well in Death to the Daleks: the Daleks are actually scarier when weakened.
The other really great thing about this episode is that it expunges the horribly embarrassing reputation which the Doctor has picked up with the Daleks, which never seems to turn into anything. In the original series the Doctor was largely unknown to the Daleks (despite having knocked around the universe for six hundred years), and it was only after Genesis of the Daleks and the emergence of Davros that they started taking a real interest in him.
By the start of the new series, the Daleks have a name for him — the oncoming storm — and, rather like The Comic Strip Presents version of the Famous Five, seem on the point of giving in whenever he tells them who he is. Asylum of the Daleks faces this embarrassing situation head on, giving us at the start for once a plausible reason why they don’t just shoot first and ask questions afterwards. By the end of the episodes,we know we’ll never have to face the embarrassment of ‘A-Team firing’, as TVtropes calls it, again. Now the Daleks no longer know who he is, we get a chance to start again, and all bets are off.
And —and I wouldn’t have believed this could happen — they’ve even redeemed the final ill-conceived question from the last minute of the previous series.
Let’s hope the whole season is this good.