Sunday, 2 September 2012
If I have understood the internet's endlessly fascinating argot correctly, I believe the apposite term here is "meh." Taken entirely on its own terms, "Asylum of the Daleks" probably wouldn't have struck me as worth writing anything about, which as a Moffat season opener would be more than a little surprising. The whole thing had an air of the perfunctory, which again isn't great news. The latest iteration of the Robomen was suitably creepy, and the dust-buried Daleks within the asylum itself were tremendously atmospheric, but creepy and arresting images are what Moffat does in his sleep.
Maybe I'm just spoiled after two seasons of Who which stand up as among the best in the show's history, but watching the seventh season opener, suddenly finding the quick-fire quirk of Moffat dialogue wearying in its familiarity, I couldn't shake the question: "Is this it?"
OK, in fairness, the Doctor's confrontation with Oswin was legitimately brilliant. It wasn't remotely difficult to work out roughly what was going on, but the specifics were certainly still affecting. And Jenna-Louise Coleman's first foray into the show (following in the footsteps of Eva Myles, Freema Agyeman and Naoko Mori as having a trial turn before joining as regulars) is entirely reassuring. The brief section of Doctor/Dalek Bingo was a nice nod to long-serving fans, as well. So it's not as though I actively disliked it, so much as I couldn't work up much in the way of enthusiasm about it.
Mind you, it certainly didn't help that this was a Dalek story. How, one wonders, has it come to this, when learning of the involvement of the shows most iconic adversaries leads one to cringe. I was deliriously excited when I learned season 25 was kicking off with "Remembrance of the Daleks", and whilst admittedly I was eight at the time, I was pretty damn keen to see "Dalek" at the age of 25, too.
Perhaps some of it is merely over-familiarity. "Remembrance..." was the only Dalek story I actually remember watching at transmission from the original series (though both "Resurrection of the Daleks" and "Revelation..." were broadcast during periods in which I know I was watching Who at least sporadically). Under RTD the new series doled out Daleks like angry candy. That might not have been so big a problem (though "monster creep" was always going to set in with such a high rate of use) had the Time War angle constantly forced the show to obliterate the Daleks every time they showed up, only to come up with a new reason why some of them escaped a few weeks later. Once you've had your hero exterminate (no pun intended) his entire race and culture in order to stop something from happening, it's not a particularly good idea to have it happen in any case.
The show just about managed to make a decent escape from that pattern, by using "Victory of the Daleks" to finally end the cycle of obliteration and resurrection, and using "The End of Time" to suggest that the Time Lords had it coming in any case. It wasn't an ideal solution - and as mentioned at the time, the newly re-designed Daleks were fucking awful - but it did at least draw a line under the problems of Dalek use under RTD. The Daleks are back, and they're not going anywhere.
So it's a little strange that their first appearance as a resurgent force is to have them beg the Doctor for help. This doesn't really work purely in terms of the story - there's nothing we see in the asylum that makes the Dalek's terror of the place comprehensible, nor indeed which explains why they didn't just send in a few teams of Robomen to flick the switch. More generally, though, I can't understand why, having finally cast aside the millstone that was causing so many problems and reducing the time-spanning war against the Daleks to a game of intergalactic Whac-A-Mole - and quietly sweeping away their disastrous redesign - you'd immediately want to hobble them this way. 
It would be interesting enough to consider the long-term implications of all this in any case, but the final moments of the episode immediately makes all the above seem pretty small-fry. The Daleks not knowing who the Doctor is? That's so gigantic a change to the series that complaining the actual act makes absolutely no sense (and who walks out of a TARDIS into the firing line of thousands of Daleks to yell "Suckers!"?) seems beside the point. It's worth noting that this resolution was probably inevitable following the Doctor faking his own death at the end of last season - though that doesn't justify the ending so much as offer further proof that the whole idea was never liable to work, and certainly would require a break from the past that Moffat clearly has no intention of making - but how we got here is less interesting to me than where we go next.
What are the Daleks without the Doctor? With the important exception of the season 4 finale, the new show has gone out of its way to remove as much of the Dalek's long and convoluted history as possible. It's not the way I'd have gone (at least in part because "Revelation..." and particularly "Remembrance..." actually did perfectly well in re-jigging Skaro's scariest alumni), but I can certainly understand why bringing the Daleks as far back to basics as possible would be tempting, and even perhaps wise.
Here's the thing, though. How much can you remove from what the Daleks are and still have any reason to want to use them, or to expect your audience to want to see them? Over at his quite wonderful TARDIS Eruditorum blog, Philip Sandifer spent quite some time discussing the problem with simply assuming reusing creations from the series' past would be enough to sustain new stories (a problem particularly evident during Davison's tenure, but I'll let Sandifer tell that story). During the Hartnell era, just having the Daleks show up and shout at people was enough to get the job done. Starting with Troughton's very first story, though, various writers began to tinker with the formula. "Power of the Daleks" was an obvious forerunner to "Victory of the Daleks" more than four decades later, involving as it did a group of Daleks pretending to be nothing more than robotic servants. "Evil of the Daleks" was a time-jump story involving swapping bits of Dalek and human around and seeing what happened. "Day of the Daleks" hardly had any Daleks in it (more "Day Off of the Daleks", really). Even the somewhat more traditional "Planet of the Daleks" and "Death to the Daleks", both of which were expected to be "traditional" Dalek stories, involved invisible Daleks and Daleks with machine-guns respectively, and crammed in a whole bunch of stuff entirely unrelated to their eponymous villains.
After that comes "Genesis of the Daleks", and the point where the poster-blobs for genetic stasis are forced to change with the times. Following "Genesis...", in which we learn how and why the Daleks were first slapped together by Davros - a fascistic lunatic in a bunker - we see the Daleks embroiled in a massive interstellar war ("Destiny of the Daleks"), emerge battered and exhausted from that war ("Resurrection..."), attempt to destroy a second strain of Daleks created by a disguised Davros ("Revelation...") and fail to the point where that second strain becomes the dominant Dalek force amid a calamitous civil war "Remembrance...".
What I'm getting at here is that it's been at least 38 years and more like 46 since the Daleks were appealing simply because of how they looked and sounded. There was more to them than just that for fifteen years at least whilst the original series was still going, and rolling all that back and hoping a design at this point only a hair under five decades old will still carry the day seems an extraordinarily risky roll of the dice. Davies may have seemed to do something similar when he first jump-started the series back in 2005, but whatever else I may have taken him to task for, he did three very smart things. He had the Daleks redesigned in a way that was visually arresting on its own terms, rather than the Peter Cushing nostalgia-fest of the most recent abominations. He linked the Daleks to the destruction of the Doctor's home, giving them an emotional weight in the new series entirely independent of their role from 1963 to 1988.
And he still had them loathe the Doctor.
With the Time War more or less played out following "The End of Time", and the new Dalek design having kicked off a storm of derision (though maybe plenty of people loved it, and I'm just hanging out in the wrong places online), the mutual loathing between the Daleks and the Doctor was the last link to the idea that anything needs to be done with the Daleks than just have them show up and shout "Exterminate!". And now that's gone too. The Daleks no longer recognise their mortal enemy, and the last thing they did when they still had that knowledge was to ask if he could sort something out for them because they were too scared to get the job done. This would be a ridiculous choice for a Dalek swansong, but I'm honestly baffled as to why anyone would pull this stunt and then plan to use them ever again. I'm not so much a fool as to rule out the possibility that Moffat is working up to something exceptionally awesome, but "Victory..." was proof enough that the Daleks are far from the concept that brings out the best in his instincts, and last night's episode most definitely struck me as further evidence for that idea.
 Also: "The Predator of the Daleks" is, at the very least, seventy-two times less cool a name than "The Oncoming Storm" - rewriting Paul Cornell is rarely wise.