Doctor Who: Asylum Of The Daleks

September 3rd, 2012

Does Steven Moffat not want to be writing for the Daleks?

It would make sense that he doesn’t — the Daleks are fundamentally uninteresting antagonists from a story point of view. They’re an incredible visual and aural design, of course, but as far as stories go, there aren’t really very many that you can do with them.

But there appears to be an obligation for the makers of the current series to include at least one Dalek story in every series of Doctor Who, no matter what — in the seven years since the show came back, we’ve had eight Dalek stories, and only one of them (Dalek) has been what a dispassionate observer might call “any good at all”. For comparison, in the seven years that Tom Baker was the Doctor, there were only two Dalek stories (only one of which was any good at all).

So we get stories like this, in which Moffat tries desperately to make the metal pepperpots interesting by throwing everything he has at them.

Dalek stories in what is now apparently called the ‘classic’ series followed a formula to a quite ridiculous extent. A bunch of peaceful humans, or humanoid aliens, with names like Terren and Ashun would be being enslaved on a jungle planet, forced to mine the rarest metal in the world, Terrynatium, by beings referred to only as “…them!”. The Doctor and his assistant would turn up on a spaceship containing a landing party of Space Marines, armed with Space Guns, who would be Space concerned by the Doctor’s sudden Space appearance before deciding to let him be their Space Leader. There would then be a cliffhanger reveal that the baddies in the story, called “Mining Operation Of The Daleks”, were the Daleks, followed by two episodes of the Doctor and his assistant getting captured and escaping (and the Doctor’s assistant spraining her ankle), before the Doctor gives a rousing speech to the mine slaves about how pacifism is wrong and you should fight oppression, at which they say “Oh, we never realised you could fight back!” and beat the Daleks. The end.

There’s a similar formula to even the best of the post-2005 series — each episode has the A-B-C format familiar to fans of soap operas or superhero comics (but I repeat myself) — in the A plot, wrapped up in the single episode, we have an attack by some ‘monsters’ who get beaten by the Doctor doing something clever (or, more often, by the Doctor zapping something with the sonic screwdriver) with the aid of a guest star. Then in the B plot some supporting characters learn a valuable lesson about their emotions (this will usually be a lesson they’ve learned before, because of the way ‘story arcs’ have been grafted badly onto a format that was never really designed for them — hence the “Oh my God, they killed Rory! You bastards!” of the first two Moffat series), which in some way ties in thematically with the A plot (usually weakly — this has tended to be the weakest thing about the post-2005 series). And finally, in the C plot, we get a hint as to a big picture series ‘arc’ that is meant to keep us watching next week.

Onto this standard template — which can work, and has done several times in the past — Moffat has here grafted on so many bits of his own previous writing that this might as well have been put together by Moffatbot 6000 (like the Moffatbot 9000, but with fewer features). We have a story that’s set in one big ‘spooky’ environment — in this case an ‘asylum’ but in previous stories he’s done libraries and museums — but where the ostensible purpose of the environment isn’t really anything to do with the adventure. Here it’s an ‘asylum’ but the Daleks in it don’t seem any more mentally ill than any other Daleks — and after having worked for several years in mental health I can’t help but criticise the lazy “ooh aren’t asylums scary?”, which is almost as annoying as the lazy “just a phase” stereotyped bisexual — but he’s also done a library where books aren’t important. We have ‘nanites’ taking over people’s bodies. We have the appearance of a mysterious woman who is going to be important to the Doctor’s future. We have a female character in a virtual reality who doesn’t realise it. We have that character communicating with the Doctor entirely through the medium of public address systems and the TV. If you added in a little girl who had the Doctor as her imaginary friend, you’d have a complete line in Moffat Bingo.

As an isolated episode, it works well enough — there are plot holes through which you could drive a fleet of Dalek spaceships, but when haven’t there been? — but in the context of the way the series has been going it’s worrying.

Moffat is far from a bad writer — in fact, other than Rob Shearman he’s by far the best writer the post-2005 series has had (yes, that includes Gaiman), but he’s a particular *kind* of writer. He can do two things well. The first is a kind of sitcomish dialogue — well, ‘dialogue’ is the wrong word, really — banter. That’s the word. he can write sitcom banter very well. Not in a way that’s to my taste, necessarily, but in a way that a lot of people do like. He’s no good on character — all his characters have much the same voice, when he doesn’t have a very strong actor defining the part for him — but he can come up with witty and memorable phrases.

So that’s not too bad — granted, the emotional character moments are going to be weak, but they always have been since 2005.

More problematic is his plotting style. Moffat is very, very good at coming up with Twilight Zone style plots, with genuinely surprising twists and an intricate construction that allows for some exciting and spooky moments.

But these plots only work if you don’t have any time to think about them. The Big Bang, for example — the 2010 series finale episode — makes absolutely no kind of coherent or logical sense on any level. That’s not a criticism — very far from it. It’s a magic trick, and all magic tricks work by misdirection, making you create a coherent story in your head from a bunch of signifiers, while in reality something totally different was going on. You can like or dislike that kind of plot — it’s not to my personal taste, as it happens — but it’s a perfectly valid way of telling a story, and very suited to Doctor Who.

The problem is that last year Moffat applied this kind of thinking to the series as a whole, for the ‘story arc’, and from the evidence of this story (where the only bits where Moffat’s writing seems inspired, rather than just going through the motions, are the bits hinting at future developments) he’s going to do the same again. The ‘story arc’ (I hate that phrase, but it seems to be the one to use for this kind of thing) seems to be more important, certainly, than the story for this individual episode.

And the problem is that Moffat’s kind of plotting just doesn’t work well over an extended period, precisely because of the magic trick nature. A good close-up magician can force a card, substitute it for another one while distracting you with her other hand, fake shuffling it back into the pack, and drop it into your drink for you to find there. She can do that because the trick takes place in a space of minutes, and she has control of the room and the rhythms of the performance.

Trying to extend Moffat’s plotting style over a thirteen-episode ‘story arc’ is like the magician taking a week between each step of the trick, and allowing you to watch repeats of each step, in slow-motion if you choose, while discussing every aspect of it with an international community of millions of magic-lovers. No magic trick could survive that, and neither could Moffat’s story arc last year.

Moffat has, of course, been talking about how there is much less of an overall storyline to this year’s series, with everything conceived as single-episode stories, but Moffat also happily lies about the show to preserve suspense (as he should). From the look of this episode, we’re in for another series where the series arc matters more than the individual stories.

Still, maybe he’ll surprise us. If he can come up with a series-spanning arc that works as well as his best individual episodes, then this could be as good a series as any we’ve seen.

On the other hand, next week’s episode is by Chris Chibnall…

24 Responses to “Doctor Who: Asylum Of The Daleks”

  1. Me On The Mindless Ones « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] I wasn’t hugely impressed with Asylum Of The Daleks. Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Anonymous Says:

    “If you added in a little girl who had the Doctor as her imaginary friend, you’d have a complete line in Moffat Bingo.”
    This is so true that it hurts.
    And I definitely didn’t realize that you were spot on with the location not moving the story at all. The Asylum definitely had some old dusty Daleks, as well as some strange looking ones, but you’d think if the Daleks were afraid enough to lock them away, there’d be crazy amazing Daleks killing other Daleks. There were no irrational Daleks. Just dusty broken ones.
    The magic-trick effect of his standalone episodes work so well. The Girl in the Fireplace, though formulaic (a la Moffatbot 6000) even had a spooky environment that worked towards progressing the plot! His story arcs get convoluted and the tricks just don’t seem as fun anymore.
    In any case, I thought this episode was fantastic in terms of entertainment value. Anything with an exploding planet is good.

  3. Papers Says:

    I also don’t really understand the need to split Amy and Rory up (soap operatics!) if the mending of their marriage was going to be resolved in five minutes rather than being, yes, an arc of character development for the season. Another magic trick–emotional stakes! That dissolve on contact with water.

    I also find Moffat’s approach to female characters worrying on the whole.

  4. Prankster Says:

    Rather surprisingly–since I pretty much despised the RTD era to the point that my positive feelings for Moffat’s stewardship may be partly by default–I actually liked the ongoing Dalek “story arc” that ran throughout his tenure, ON PAPER.

    First, the Cult of Skaaro business with the idea that some Daleks might have survived the Time War via the un-Dalek means of disobeying orders and running away–because they’d been tasked with trying to understand humanity and had gotten “too deep” into their roles. This then continuing with the “Daleks in Manhattan” storyline where Dalek Sec has pursued the idea of creating half-breed Dalek-humans, because he’s convinced that this is the future of Dalek-hood, and this idea being too blasphemous for the other remaining Daleks. With the overall idea that, by setting out with the worst of intentions, the Daleks nevertheless found themselves infected by empathy and a desire to co-exist, even if it was in a hostile, Dalek-y way.

    Summarized like that, I think this is a *very good* overarching storyline–so good that it retains a lot of its power even with the lousy execution that we got. (So yeah: I guess I’m the guy who doesn’t hate Daleks in Manhattan.) You complain about the overuse of the Daleks, Andrew (Overuse Of The Daleks, coming in 2014) but I feel like most of their appearances in the RTD era did actually contribute to a logical progression, with each new episode following more or less logically and each being a significant part of the ongoing story. Indeed, while Davies often seemed to be throwing random words at a wall to come up with plot resolutions, this was one story aspect that actually did seem to have been planned out properly in advance, or which at least was developed in an intelligent manner.

    Even Davros being rescued from the Time War, which would seem to be a prime example of Davies’ annoying habit of proclaiming “X can never happen!” and then having X happen anyway, worked for me on a narrative level because they at least established an incredible cost for doing so (Dalek Caan physically and mentally destroyed himself to cross the barrier), thus explaining why they can’t do that all the time. (The events of The End of Time are another story, of course…)

    To be fair to Moffat, he’s mostly shuffled the Daleks offscreen–their appearances in The Big Bang and The Wedding of River Song were both essentially cameos (I’m assuming there’s a BBC mandate that they have to appear every season?) There are actually some elements to this latest episode that have me interested in where he might be going with the Daleks; I mean, Oswin as the latest companion may be a fakeout at this point, but assuming she’s on tap to join the cast, this actually raises the interesting possibility of the Doctor having a Dalek *as a Companion*. Given that there seemed to be some subtle hints in this episode that the Doctor hates Daleks rather more than is healthy, this could be the groundwork for some interesting character development. I’m probably reading too much into it as usual…

  5. Hal Says:

    Nice job, Andrew and thank you the Cosmos that this wasn’t another of those
    “OhmigodthatwasthebestthinkevahSteven MoffatisaGENIUS!” reviews stinking up the internet (winks). You are spot-on about the Moffatbot6000isms, they surely don’t count as “tropes”, and about the rigid formulaic approach which goes somehow unremarked upon by many fans/reviewers possibly because they are so invested in the notion of Moffat as “great writer”, I don’t know if that’s correct but it seems that way. I would suggest that you are too lenient on the plotting and logic flaws, merely because Moffat is the subject of almost orgasmic praise for his “plotting brilliance” so it does no harm to point out its myriad inadequacies. The observation that Moffat’s plotting bearing kinship to a magic trick is a good one, and that is, I think, key to why some people don’t notice the *obvious* problems, it’s sleight of hand thus all the ecstasy over Jenna -Louise Coleman’s appearance, people were so shocked by that that they ignore all things that don’t make sense; if she *wasn’t* hyped as the new companion would people have been as stunned by her fate? After all if one has paid *any proper attention at all* (I am NOT shouting!;)) to the episode and – as you point out so eloquently above – to Moffat’s writing’s hallmarks/tics then it isn’t hard to work out (more or less) what the twist concerning Oswin will be. However, I don’t have much faith in people so they’d probably still eat the story up, crappy eggs and all (oh, the Eggs scene and the Souffle revelation. Gah!).
    On Moffat’s dialogue: Comparing it to sitcom does the great sitcoms past and present a disservice. Moffat’s dialogue is at worst the Shitcom variant. Pseudo-wit easily imitable by the uninventive. Why do so many of the characters speak in this naff catchphrase friendly way? “Chin Boy”etc, if that’s considered witty and appropriate dialogue for a genius I’d hate to see dialogue for a moron! As you say, the “asylum” concept just *lay there*, a curious decision, set something Cont

  6. Prankster Says:

    See, I’m assuming the idea of this being a Dalek asylum was to lead to the revelation that Oswin was an insane Dalek who thought she was a human and had been committed for that reason, and I suspect when the episode was conceived that was the whole point. I think Moffat may have a tendency to rewrite his ideas so heavily that key points get lost.

  7. Hal Says:

    Cont’d (I’m afraid!)

  8. Hal Says:

    Cont’d (I’m afraid!)
    - up (entirely in dialogue) then don’t pay off, veering off into another Moffat story based around pesky nanogenes, Amy being a somewhat dim emotional cripple, Rory being a fundamentally nice guy often portrayed as an imbecile (the excruciating draggy “Eggs” scene. God forbid Moffat maintain suspense or pass up the opportunity for lame “comedy” that makes Rory look like he has a pea for a brain!), a superintelligent “feisty” and *special* woman with a secret, and an ending that recycles the climax of Wedding of River Song. Ack.
    Although you are of course right about many earlier Dalek stories, I would suggest that a sufficiently engaged and clever writer can make them work but Moffat simply isn’t from this evidence one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I have quite liked some of his work but as you observe there are plenty of stories and ideas to which he’s unsuited. He couldn’t go all the way with the creepiness and scariness this kind of story demanded, so instead the (hive-minded? Huh?!) Daleks are made to look like chumps again while the Doctor shouts “You Beauty!” (oh, spare me). As much as Moffat’s attenuated “story arcs” (ah hayut that term) are praised they weigh the series down , swamping the individual stories and encouraging his worst and clumsiest excesses but as this is the stuff that people are primed (prime themselves?) to go gaga over there’s *no way* that any other method will be used any time soon because we are being programmed to believe that’s how it *has* to be. Well, rant’s over! I liked some of the effects, Ms Coleman was charming, and the Sierra Nevada shots were great. I so wanted to like it, really. Next Week: Chris Chibnall with Dinosaurs On A Mother-Effing Spaceship (guest star: Nefertitti. Is this a reworking of Four to Doomsday with mighty lizards?!), now *that* sounds atrocious! I may be wrong… The Doctor should lay off the sherbet.

  9. Oliver Says:

    Well I thought it was a passable episode, with no emotional resonance (except marital problems which sort of echo my life, but I’m sure that was inadvertent). The main mystery was what exactly Oswin was actually. My wife’s theory that she represented the Force Field was better than anything I came up with (dead – which I suppose she was). As much fun as the Parliament of Daleks was, it made no sense – I think the episode would have been much better without it, because the mystery would have been stronger, and we could have skipped the doctor mocking daleks – seemingly the new “can’t go up chairs” schtick.

  10. Papers Says:

    I’m also perplexed when people rave about Moffat’s plotting, because he’s typically very good at dramatic, flashy first acts that capture your attention–although, of course, magic tricks–followed by an eventual third act where everything falls apart. I consider the Irene Adler episode of SHERLOCK to be one of the better examples of Moffat-writing simply because he made it all the way to the last fifteen minutes before everything collapsed, which strikes me as a personal best.

  11. Gavin Burrows Says:

    ”The problem is that last year Moffat applied this kind of thinking to the series as a whole, for the ‘story arc’”

    Could we all leave the room, then come in again and pretend I said that?

    ”…and from the evidence of this story (where the only bits where Moffat’s writing seems inspired, rather than just going through the motions, are the bits hinting at future developments) he’s going to do the same again.”

    Oddly enough, compared to you I saw the half-full side of this episode, a reasonably self-contained storyline with only occasional and more-or-less incidental forays into backstory. The opening scene with Amy and Rory, for example, would clue in any new viewers fairly effortlessly.

    Where I’d like to see it all going now… more self-contained episodes, containing a succession of spooky and slightly surreal images. Less of the pretence that the dots will one day join up, more of an effort on making the dots whizzy and colourful. In short, more England-as-a-spaceship stuff. Does it make any sense for England to now be a spaceship? Not the question! The question is, does it matter?

    ”There were no irrational Daleks. Just dusty broken ones.”

    Perhaps it should have been called ‘Old Folks Home of the Daleks.’ I might have liked to see some Daleks go differently mad, but never mind…

    ”Summarized like that, I think this is a *very good* overarching storyline”

    Yeah, but summarized like that is a lot better than actually watching those episodes.

  12. Andrew Hickey Says:

    “more self-contained episodes, containing a succession of spooky and slightly surreal images. Less of the pretence that the dots will one day join up, more of an effort on making the dots whizzy and colourful.”

    Quite. The Doctor should be a disruptive force who wanders into other people’s stories and makes them into something else, then wanders off again, not the centre of a gigantic, complex, web of entangled plotlines. He should be a chaotic force who shakes everything up and lets things fall into new patterns, not an organising principle for everything else.

    “I think Moffat may have a tendency to rewrite his ideas so heavily that key points get lost.”
    VERY interesting observation. If true it would explain a great deal.

    Sorry I’m not great at replying to comments right now, but I’m reading them all.

  13. Hollistic Tendancies Says:

    What really bothered me about this one is that I did not think much of the inconsistencies (“where did all these Daleks come from post-Time War” or the other plot holes you could drive an inside-out Tardis through) because I’ve come to expect Moffat Who to be like that: just jumping from one punchline or set-piece to another with little concern for how you get from one to the next.

    It is infuriating to have the plot hinge on such a plot hole (“where did she get the milk?”) when I’m used to thinking of and having to dismiss such things all the time because if I so much as mention them to my friends I get shouted down :) To have one matter when others don’t seems unfair.

    When I said this elsewhere I got what I thought an incredibly damning, but deserved, reply: “I’m being asked as a member of the audience to skip over plot holes like the – off button for force-shield is inside the force-shield – plot hole because it’s Doctor Who and it’s cool. In a few years I’m going to start watching it with my young son. At some point he’s going to spot one of the plot holes. I wonder what I’m going to say to him. I don’t want to spend my hard earned for not fudging when I don’t know by fudging the plot hole on Moffat’s behalf and I’m not sure I’m happy with the alternative response which is – when I was your age this programme meant such a lot to me that I’m prepared to tolerate nonsense like X because I want to love this programme now as much as I loved it when I was a boy and I want you to love it too, so please don’t pay much attention, and, um Look, a Dalek.”

  14. Caleb Woodbridge Says:

    Great article. I agree with the comments about plot holes – when a seeming plot hole turns out to be significant, it feels like a cheat because there are often plot holes that are meaningless. Another example of this is the “cold star” in “Amy’s Choice” – it becomes a plot point that it’s impossible, but “Doctor Who” has featured many more scientifically implausible ideas.

    Speaking of Moffat Bingo, me and some friends made Moffat Bingo cards for series 6: http://www.impossiblepodcasts.com/2011/08/doctor-who-moffat-bingo-play-along-at.html I’m not sure you can quite get a line with our grid on Asylum of the Daleks, but its pretty close!

  15. Gavin Burrows Says:

    “He should be a chaotic force who shakes everything up and lets things fall into new patterns, not an organising principle for everything else.”

    If we are going to keep agreeing like this, people will start to talk.

    <i."I’m assuming the idea of this being a Dalek asylum was to lead to the revelation that Oswin was an insane Dalek who thought she was a human and had been committed for that reason, and I suspect when the episode was conceived that was the whole point. I think Moffat may have a tendency to rewrite his ideas so heavily that key points get lost."

    I would kind of like you to be wrong, just because I’d like to imagine Moffat wouldn’t centre everything around so transparent a plot ‘twist’. What you say stings like the truth, however.

    “me and some friends made Moffat Bingo cards for series 6″

    Awesome!

  16. Genetically Modified Me Says:

    “magic-lovers”

    I’m feeling it!

  17. David Golding Says:

    It took me a few days after I watched ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, but I finally realised that it contained a joke on a similar level to those by Dennis Spooner and Ben Aaronovitch. I thought I’d share it with you…

    So at the same time we’re introduced to the Asylum of the Daleks, we’re also introduced to the Parliament of the Daleks. What does such a chamber sound like, you ask? Well, you can imagine…

    Speaker of the Daleks: The right hon-our-a-ble mem-ber for Spir-i-don so moves that the Spir-i-don Ex-ter-min-a-tion Act be a-mend-ed to state that each ‘AND EV-ER-Y’ life-form on Spir-i-don that is not a Da-lek be ex-ter-min-a-ted. All those in fa-vour, say Aye.

    All Daleks: AYE! AYE! AYE!

    Speaker of the Daleks: All those a-gainst, say Nay.

    silence

    Speaker of the Daleks: The ayes have it. The mo-tion is car-ried. Car-ried! CAR-RIED!

    And so on, until…

    Speaker of the Daleks: The right hon-our-a-ble mem-ber for Ti-gel-la so moves that the Ti-gel-la Ex-ter-min-a-tion Act be a-mend-ed to state that all life-forms on Ti-gel-la ‘IN-CLU-DING SUCH AS THAT ARE VI-SIT-ING’ that are not Da-leks be ex-ter-min-a-ted. All those in fa-vour, say Aye.

    All Daleks (but one): AYE! AYE! AYE!

    Speaker of the Daleks: All those a-gainst, say Nay.

    One Dalek: NAY!

    Speaker of the Daleks: SEND HIM TO THE A-SY-LUM OF THE DA-LEKS!

    And that’s how the Democracy of the Daleks works!

  18. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Love it!

  19. Mercy Says:

    “There are actually some elements to this latest episode that have me interested in where he might be going with the Daleks; I mean, Oswin as the latest companion may be a fakeout at this point, but assuming she’s on tap to join the cast, this actually raises the interesting possibility of the Doctor having a Dalek *as a Companion*. Given that there seemed to be some subtle hints in this episode that the Doctor hates Daleks rather more than is healthy, this could be the groundwork for some interesting character development. I’m probably reading too much into it as usual…”

    I’ll be quite upset if this isn’t the way it goes, because the Doctor never in a million years have left another converted human – a cyberman say- to die if they retained their memories and free will to the extent that Oswin did. I actually think the line about him hating Dalek’s too much was meant as foreshadowing for abandoning her, and that there will be some kind of character development later that makes him realise his mistake and go rescue her.

    And that “originally she was meant to be a Dalek who was so mad she thought she was human” idea makes a lot of sense and explains the other problem: why were the Daleks afraid of the asylum? A convert gone wrong wouldn’t shake their society as much as a perfect being mistaking itself for a human.

  20. Mercy Says:

    Incidentally the other no-prize theory I heard for this episode is that the Dalek’s adopted a parliament because of being defeated by various democracies in recent stories. They don’t actually vote or anthing, “parliament” is just what they call the room where they all go to shout at each other.

  21. geoff c Says:

    David Goldman, I blame you for the choking fit that just woke up my son….

  22. Positronic Says:

    There actually IS a contract that requires Doctor Who to use the Daleks once a series, or else they can never be used again.

    Shame about this episode, oh well.

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