Throughout this series/season (whatever your preferred designation is) of Doctor Who, three buddies (Myc Wiatrowski, Tony Nagel and Travis Limbert) and I will chat about each new episode. These conversations are light and fun, but do feature a few Who super-fans, so don’t expect criticism-devoid entries either. Here’s the first one on last week’s “Asylum of the Daleks.”
Cory: Welcome gents, to the first Doctor Who roundtable discussion of season seven. We’ve all had time to watch the premiere episode, “Asylum of the Daleks” and hopefully are reading to chat about it. This episode was more standalone than I would have guessed, but there are certainly some important elements here that will mean bigger things later in the season.
But before we get into specifics about this episode, I wanted to check in with you on how you’re feeling about the show coming into this season. Tony and Myc have been fans of the show for longer, while Travis and I caught up on Netflix, so there are likely some different perspectives on watching the show weekly or even different investments into certain stories or characters. Last season ended with a slew of timey-wimey stuff that I found to be a little off-putting and convoluted for convoluted’s sake, which leaves me less intrigued or interested in the series as a whole. How did you guys feel about S6 or anything that happened in it, and how might that color your perceptions of this new season?
Travis: Well, for me personally I am intrigued how Doctor Who in the Matt Smith era has largely wrestled with ideas of identity. This theme involves the characters is some crisis about who they are. This is done through alternative realities, cloning, memories loss, and other methods. This includes the characters forgetting who they are (“The God Complex,” “The Doctor’s Wife”), conversion (“Closing Time”), clones (“The Rebel Flesh,” “The Almost People,” “Let’s Kill Hitler”), false realities (“Amy’s Choice,” “The Girl Who Waited,” “The Wedding of River Song”). The list goes on and on. These are all examples from the last two seasons where it seems the philosophical crux of the narrative was based around some memory/identity issue.
With “Asylum of the Daleks” it seems this theme continues. This is a Dalek planet that is the home to insane and broken Daleks. This planet also has the ability to alter anything that lands there into a defensive weapon. This includes turning dead space pilots in weapons who forget they are actually dead. This idea is further compounded with the damsel in distress The Doctor is needs to rescue. She is not a charming, super smart hacker with a soft spot for soufflé, but a Dalek. She does not realize she has been turned into a Dalek, clinging onto her humanity, which ultimately allows her to save The Doctor, Amy and Rory.
You can even argue that the loss of the Dalek’s collective memory of The Doctor further illustrates this point, about the messing and mixing with memories. What should be made of all this memory and identity play? I think it partly has to do with the nature of a television show like Doctor Who. Continuity can be difficult for any show reaching a 50 year anniversary, let alone one about moving freely between space and time. Now you can argue some change due to the reboot, but it seems that the show is will to mess and alter what the audience knows. Maybe you guys have so ideas because I feel there is some significance to this trend.
Tony: How were you not excited for season six after season five was so well done? Steven Moffat has an incredible ability to write for Doctor Who (among other programming) and Neil Gaiman joined up, adding his writing prowess to, what was surely going to be, another bang-up season for the series. Then the second half of the season aired, and threw out everything that was established in the season’s first half.
The Silence was mitigated to a cosplay Star Wars troupe, Amy turned into a samurai Joan of Arc, the “Flesh” episodes became throw-away material, and Rory died enough times to become a South Park joke. It felt like Doctor Who was, at times, written by lucky fans who scoured the internet for moments (not story) that would be “cool” to see on TV. This was a shame coming from a writer that gave us episodes like “The Empty Child” and “Blink,” and crafted the fifth season, establishing quality that helped Doctor Who transition from low-budget sci-fi that was difficult to find fellow fans of, to a phenomenon that I couldn’t avoid finding fellow fans to geek out with.
That baggage and let down from season six certainly follows me into this season. I remain optimistic that the Silence will become part of a season-long story (reminiscent of Bad Wolf, Torchwood, etc…) and that Who can find a good story by centering it on the most recognizable enemy of the Doctor, the Daleks. Although, I would shoot a man in Reno just to watch some good Cybermen episodes.
Myc: I’ve had extensive conversations with each of you individually about Who, and I know Cory and I talked in great detail about S6, and I was critical of it to a degree. Though ultimately my fanboyishness won out in the end, I still recognize the flaws. Moffat has done some excellent things with Who since becoming the showrunner and primary cog behind the overarching narrative, but he has huge problems with pacing over the course of a season. If we look back at S6 we see, as Tony mentioned, there was lots of wasted potential. Not that any of the episodes he mentioned were bad, but that many of those episodes failed to contribute the grand narrative that Moffat was so clearly trying to tell. This inevitably led to rushed storytelling, particularly at the end of the season that led to the convoluted feeling Cory mentioned, which is a damn shame.
I feel like Who would benefit from a US style season schedule of 22ish episodes. 13 or so just doesn’t give the writers the room necessary to play in the Whoniverse sandbox and build a great overarching season narrative that feels both organic and complete. Generally Moffat has been at his best as a writer in stories that don’t necessarily build an elaborate mythos (“Blink” as Tony mentioned and “The Girl in the Fireplace” spring to mind). Though he has been enormously successful in world building as well, particularly in the narrative he built for River Song, though in some ways that was shortchanged a little last season too. Ultimately S6 had absolutely brilliant moments, and I wasn’t disappointed with it, though I do recognize some problems. Ultimately S6 never really answered any if the questions it raises; it only continues to raise more questions. Though perhaps that’s the point.
Getting to this episode and S7: After one episode there are definitely thematic and narrative trends that Moffat is continuing here from his previous seasons, notably S6. Travis has rightly hit on the issue of identity as a thematic element. And of course we get the endlessly repeated (and at this point seemingly self-congratulatory in its perceived cleverness) “First Question,” so obviously we’re still working from last season’s playbook here. In some ways (based on the gigantic sample size of exactly one episode) this seems more like S6.5 than it does S7. This isn’t necessarily problematic, but I worry that we may get too much Grand Narrative stuff that relies in last season and that’s going to make Who too mythology heavy (which sounds slightly ridiculous given the series’ history, I know). If we work from that assumption, and pepper this season with what are essentially “throw-away” episodes (and don’t get me wrong, those are some if my favorite episodes), we’re going to find ourselves at a another season finale that is overly convoluted and rushed that tries to answer the questions raised last season. And that, gentlemen, worries me.
I’m not hoping for Lost 2.0 here. It feels as though Moffat’s brand of storytelling (in the context of complete seasons) is reaching a point where we can’t help but expect overly wrought, convoluted, and somewhat rushed Grand Narratives type storytelling. Which is fine given adequate space, but Who runs on a shorter season that American television. But I also feel like the overly complex and interconnected style of storytelling can be bit of a waste of the fantastic setting and actors in Who. Some of the very best episodes of S6 barely connected the overarching narrative of the season (hello “The Doctor’s Wife” – give Gaiman all the Hugo) and to get where Moffat wants to go, and to not feel like everything is getting packed into one grand finale episode like last season, we may miss out on those special moments. Or we’ll wind up with another “The Wedding of River Song” – which while not bad, just left me feeling like we were given the short shrift.
That being said, I absolutely loved the S7 premiere episode, though I am somewhat disappointed at the use of Jenna-Louise Coleman (she was absolutely brilliant in what they asked her to do). I feel like a large driving force of this season will be the Doctor trying to save her, and somewhere along the way we’ll stumble upon the questions raised last season.
Cory: A lot of great things to unpack there. Travis’ point about identity is a wonderful one. So many shows with ongoing characters and stories raise general questions like “who are these people, really?” but Moffat does seem particularly interested in engaging with that Q in a more complicated and again, perhaps, convoluted, terms. The Final Question is, and will forever be, silly to me, but if Moffat actually used it to examine The Doctor’s psychology and choices (like he did in the second half of S6 in the mostly standalone episodes about what it is like to be his companion) instead of sly posturing, the show might actually get somewhere deep with its lead character.
Moreover, both Amy and Rory have faced identity crises of their own over the past few seasons. But just like The Doctor, I feel like too often, the resolution or catharsis of those crises is washed away by the next episode. As Myc addressed, Who faces this tension between its grand ambition and its episodic design. Under Moffat’s eye, the show regularly produces fantastic individual episodes with very powerful moments or stories that suggest even bigger things coming down the road. However, by the next week, the slate is mostly wiped clean (unless it’s a designed two-parter) and anything left over for continuity is mostly on plot-based. The characters aren’t as consistently well-shaped as they could be, which is a shame because the three leads are really wonderful together.
Case in point from the premiere: Rory and Amy are broken up, for little to no reason, only so they can scoff at one another in an opening scene, squabble a bit and then kiss. The episode treats that reconciliation as an IMPORTANT moment, but it didn’t establish any logic for why they broke up in the first place or why we at home should care that they were. It would have made more sense to keep them apart and explore those issues (something the show could certainly still do). Instead, their story here is entirely based on false drama that we had no investment in past a surface connection to the characters.
How did you guys feel about that “story?” And do you agree with the assertion that the show struggles to balance its ambition with industrial reality (i.e. shorter seasons, the necessity of standalone efforts)?
Travis: I feel the story does a bit of what Myc had mentioned earlier. It continues to add to where the last season left off, pushing for the answer of “Doctor Who?” But I also feel the story reveals how redundant (consistent? expected?) Rory and Amy have become. Like you noted Cory there whole fight and reconciliation feels a bit empty. We have seen this before and we have been down this road many times with those two. This is part of the show’s transition from Amy and Rory, which feels a bit awkward. These two are the longest running companions since the reboot besides Rose, who met an ill fate to remove her from The Doctor. I don’t think that Rory and Amy will leave in such a grand fashion as an alternative universe, but it seems that they show isn’t contempt with The Doctor just saying goodbye either. This episode does feel very connected to the previous two seasons, which makes it feel comfortable in a way.
The show seems to be building towards the Grand Narrative of who exactly is The Doctor. Is he a raggedy friend of a lost girl? Is he the predator of the Daleks? Is he the scourge that so many feared that he needed to be locked up in the Pandorica? Is he so dangerous that a young girl needed to be brainwashed to stop him? We ‘really’ don’t know much about The Doctor, but we do know he lives in the dualities of dangerous/friendly, friend/foe and hero/destroyer. Maybe this is what Moffat is building towards? There are issues with the formatting of BBC programing, as well as changing the scheduling due to the upcoming 50th anniversary. If the show progresses and it turns out to be all about who The Doctor is, than maybe the format will seem less awkward.
I would also like to say I really enjoyed the visuals of this episode. I felt is really shows that Doctor Who has hit a certain level of popularity/success. This for me is reflected is more grandiose shots and bigger investments in CG for various scenes. The Dalek senate was nice to see, plus some of the shots of the asylum I felt were nice. These felt like the BBC was investing more money into the look of Doctor Who than it has in the past.
Myc: The Amy/Rory “breakup” story was an interesting choice (interesting is a way of being nice here, by the way). It feels as though it’s entirely meant to draw on the emotion that the audience has for the Amy/Rory relationship, and on some level it speaks to the ever pervasive perception that Amy is more in love with the Doctor than Rory.
It was a bit on the nose with the “everyone knows that I love you more” conversation, and of course we get reminded again that Rory waited 2000 years for Amy. But it seems like Moffat wanted to give Amy a chance to show how much she really cares for Rory because the greatest sacrifice in she can imagine is giving Rory up (interesting that he has died repeatedly and we’ve heard Amy say how worthless life would be without Rory). Treacle is how I want to describe this. We’ve seen this before with Amy, and I don’t think it really added anything to the characters or the story. So was the breakup narrative pointless? It kind of feels like it to me. Maybe one of you would be interested in convincing me otherwise?
Also, was I the only one who noticed the whole “You want kids I can’t have” thing seemed a little weird given how important River has been to their lives? Granted, they didn’t get to raise her from birth, but she is still their child… just seemed a little strange.
Travis is completely right in pointing out the once again increased production values for Who. S5 and S6 have seen incredible leaps in visual effects, and S7 seems like it will continue that trend. I’m excited to see where we go from here visually. Stunning is how I would describe the aesthetics of the premiere.
As for the industrial reality stuffs, I think I’ve made my opinion clear. The standalone episodes are generally fantastic (and are usually some of my very favorite), but under the constraints Who operates I feel they tend to diminish the overall grand narrative that Moffat is shooting for. I like the very ambitious nature of this sort of storytelling, but I feel like the reality of the way BBC operates really hamstrings the writers a bit and shortchanges the audience.
Tony: The breakup story felt rushed. I’m in agreement that it didn’t seem to have a place within the season opener, and yet, it also fit with the episode sort of touching on loose ends from S6. That doesn’t exactly make me excited to see what other stories are rushed this season. In regards to balancing the ambition of the story and the industrial realities of short seasons: I’m not sure if the formula that worked for longer seasons (head writer does the main story episodes with other writers filing in with standalone episodes) still works for shorter schedule. While the standalone episodes always give a moment or two of tie-in to the main story, there is no longer enough of them, or enough spacing, to provide a cohesive narrative that doesn’t feel rushed or thrown together.
I agree with you, Myc (re: kids). River is clearly their child, alive, and they have had a large presence in her adult/teenage life. But Amy’s motivation is to ignore that and leave Rory??
I think Travis has hit the nail on the head with identity becoming the larger (largest?) focus. In previous seasons, the joke was when characters spoke the phrase “Doctor Who?”, but the season opener has actually made that a plot focus. Deleting the Doctor from the memory banks of the Daleks seems like a gigantic change in time that he normally wouldn’t stand for. Does the Doctor now travel through space/time redoing every moment that defined him to the Daleks? Do we finally get to see the Nightmare Child? I could really get behind an episode or two that takes place during the Last Great Time War, especially with the new budget for visual effects (by the way, I love them).
Am I alone in feeling that the self-destruct scene was WAAAAAAAAY out of character for the Doctor? It felt really out of the place when transposed against the later scene of the Doctor traveling through the ward to rescue Jenna-Louise Coleman (I really, really hope she is in every episode moving forward as she stole the show here). Why not just blow them all up and forget about it? Oh, because it would involve killing things and the Doctor doesn’t kill things – except in that one scene where he does and brags about it to Rory).
Myc: Tony, I now want to see the Could’ve Been King and his Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres on screen. That would be awesome. Or disappointing. Though this would be a huge divergence from the story Moffat seems to want to tell, which is essentially “Who is the Doctor?” aggravatingly inverted into the endlessly repeated in the wants-to-be-clever Doctor Who?”
Deleting the Doctor from the memory of the Daleks seems like it has to be a big deal. Like a huge deal that could alter the entire universe and it’s played as a novelty. What do you all think about that development?
You’re totally not alone in thinking that it was out of character for the Doctor to kill the Daleks. And for him to beg Oswin to open the door—like literally begging for his life—seemed completely out of character to me.
Travis: A quick comment. One thing that seems to be very important to The Doctor is his reputation. There have been multiple times where they go “who are you?” and he just says “you know who I am.” He is feared around the universe, tales and legends are told about him. This was the huge crux of “A Good Man Goes to War.” The Doctor seems to work off his reputation, which is how it gets people to love him, fear him and fight for him. I wonder what will happen to The Doctor if people forget him. His biggest enemy, the Daleks, don’t even know who he is and I find that to be a big deal.
Myc: Agreed Travis. In the beginning of “Asylum of the Daleks” there is the voice-over talking about the Doctor as a legend as if he didn’t exist. And the end of S6 tells us that the Doctor is interested in people thinking he is actually dead. So if the universe thinks he’s dead and the Daleks no longer remember him what does that mean for the Doctor as a character and a hero? I think it fundamentally changes who he is in the Whoniverse, which is a very big deal.
Tony: Is forgetting the Doctor this season’s identity issue? We’ve seen that the Doctor is quite proud of his history and all the foiling he has done. While the Doctor is always “alone,” what happens when he truly is alone? Do we get to see a view of the Doctor that is more in line with how his enemies see him? I assume the Doctor will not like the universe forgetting him and will seek to re-establish his history.
Myc: I’m wondering if this isn’t Moffat’s ultimate plan though – sort of a massive universal amnesia that relieves the Doctor of the weight of the past both diegetically and in terms of production. We’ve already seen a massive universe reset (“The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang”) that took a bunch of stuff and made it almost inconsequential while simultaneously feeling weighty. Maybe what he is shooting for is the death of the Doctor.
He has established time and time again that the Doctor is not necessarily a good person. He has annihilated entire species, can assemble an army at the drop of a hat, and rewritten the meaning of the word “doctor” throughout the universe. He really is a madman with a box, and that is maybe a little problematic.
Even if his “death” last season wasn’t “real” it functioned to the same end, and erasing the memory of the Doctor this season could work toward achieving the goal of freeing the Doctor from his narrative confines (and his diegetic guilt). Remember in “The God Complex” we heard the Doctor described as “An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocents. Drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift. Maybe that’s where Moffat is going with all of this? If that is where we’re heading it fundamentally alters the character of the Doctor, and brings us back to that oft-repeated question: Who is the Doctor? If he’s not the “Oncoming Storm”—or as Davros called him “The Destroyer of Worlds”—then who is he? Is his entire internal identity tied up in his relationship with the Daleks and the Time Lords? Maybe that’s where all of this is going. But now we’re getting entirely into conjecture. Who wants to bring us back to this episode?
I want to talk about Oswin. As Tony said she completely stole the show. I simply cannot wait to see more of her!
Travis: Oswin is awesome. I want to quickly jump to your point Myc because I can see some of this as what the show is building towards, but it has me worried. If The Doctor is able to be freed like you discussed, shown to be this madman, what does this mean for Doctor Who? If this is the show’s new direction, it seems be a hard direction to come back from. How do you have a Doctor Who show 10 years from now if you erase and destroy the character?
Myc: That’s part of my problem with where Who has been taking us over the past few years Travis. At the end of one season we needed a massive universe reset just to keep moving forward. At the end of last season we needed a super timey-wimey and convoluted ending that brought us no closure narratively. I honestly can’t be sure where we’re going from here, but you are right to say that if this is the direction we’re heading in that it is a difficult space to work in and difficult to come back from. How do you continue the show is the exact question to be asking. At this point the overall narrative is less an arc that we can come back from and begin a new one than it is an ever building narrative that seeks to build narrative tension exponentially never fully reaching that asymptote of narrative fulfillment. That’s why I mentioned Lost earlier. Lots of people loved Lost, but there was also lots of criticism of its endless unanswered questions and the show writers painting themselves into corners. Is that what’s happening with Who? I don’t want to say it is, but I certainly think the possibility exists. Also, I hope not that’s not what’s going on because I love Doctor Who.
I hope Moffat has a plan, but since he took over with S5 there have been a lot of unanswered questions and cornered narratives. Though, to be completely fair there have also been incredible moments and times where the storytelling and timey-wimey stuff has been excellently crafted. However we as an audience need these things to pay off. And not in three years. Moffat is risking alienating segments of his audience. We need this arc to have some closure so we can begin to build a new one. That’s how the best stories work. They build on one another, but they are in some ways contained. It’s always nice to tie in narrative elements from last season or five seasons ago, but that should probably not be the main plot of an entire season arc. Again though we’ve only seen the one episode, so it’s a little early to judge all of S7 like this, however S6 felt so incomplete that those issues will have to be addressed here in S7 (and we’ve seen that so far they certainly are at the forefront), and with the limited number of episodes I’m not sure there’s much else the writers can accomplish this season. I suppose we’ll have to have a bit of a “wait-and-see” mentality for a few more episodes.
Tony: Timey Wimey death sequence? Or just a change in Doctor from Matt Smith can typically start an entirely new storyline without having to wrap anything up (different regeneration = new person, kind of…). Although I do enjoy conjecture on the subject, I am never right when it pertains to Doctor Who.
Yes, more about Oswin! A Dalek companion?! This makes River’s end seem quite the picnic kept inside a virtual world. From what I’ve projected into the first episode, Oswin seems like a mix between the personalities of Donna and Martha but with the helpful characteristic of not being from “modern” times (or at least not from Earth as we know it).
Cory: From all indications, Moffat really wants to push the basic concepts of Doctor Who, both the character and the show, as far as he can. Not only is Moffat’s version of the show intensely focused on the varying, distinct meanings of who The Doctor is and what he represents to all lifeforms, but it is also concerned with how to tie the narrative, continuity, world-building and more all into an intense not, then double not it, so that Moffat can put on a blindfold and subsequently try to figure out how to undo everything as quickly and as cutely as possible. Much more than Russell T. Davies, Moffat revels in the fact that he gets to write a show about a mostly-immortal time traveling alien. Why not screw everything up and just see what happens, right?
Unfortunately, what has happened is that the analysis and deconstruction of The Doctor, hero, has far surpassed the timey-wimey nonsense that so consistently defined last season, but Moffat appears to be more interested in the later than the former. While I mentioned this before, it bears repeating: Almost all of last season’s standalone efforts were better than the “mythology” episodes, almost entirely because they all took a little piece of that macro character story and broke it down in a simple, but powerful manner. Is The Doctor a good “person”? Does he ruin the lives of those he brings along for the ride? What’s his relationship with the TARDIS?
In the mythology-centric episodes, that kind of character analysis wasn’t present, mostly because the show didn’t have time to get to it because every second had to be dedicated to being smart and layering the plot with red herrings and misdirects. I’m all for purposefully convoluted storytelling, but make it matter to the characters. Recently, the show has struggled to do that.
Myc, you keep beating the Lost drum and we’ve had this discussion before, and I don’t think the comparison is fair for a number of reasons, but the most important one is that the Lost writer-producers made their narrative more complicated almost solely because economics dictated it: The show was unbelievably popular, they didn’t know where it was really going in the middle of the first season and there was no end in sight, so it had to keep throwing balls in the air because the fear was that it could last 10 years. Now, that approach doesn’t absolve them from how they caught some of those balls, but the point mains.
With Who, however, Moffat PURPOSEFULLY did all this. The show could and still can be as procedural and standalone as it wants (as we saw this week). The overheated mythology and convoluted storytelling doesn’t have to be a factor. He’s just chosen to make it so. I think that’s a key difference, just as it’s important to note that he can reset it all at any time. By episode five of this season, he could in 20 minutes: Kill The Doctor, let Amy and Rory go (or kill them) and quickly explore the thematic territory with The Doctor as a predator or what have you. After the Christmas Special bridge, cut to the second half of S7 where the show is back to fun escapades, only with a new companion. It’s really that easy, which is what makes the way Moffat approaches the show both frustrating and fascinating.
And on the Oswin front: Really? REALLY? You guys are all charmed by her fast-talking quippy nerd lingo and short dresses. While I liked the final act reveal that she was, in fact, a Dalek, I’m already dreading having the character serve as a companion. She talks almost exactly like The Doctor, it’s all about the fast-paced banter that might suggest sexual tension and yawn. Haven’t we been here before? While I appreciate that she’s apparently competent, unlike Amy, who has turned into the greatest damsel in the greatest distress of forever, she still needs to be saved. I’m withholding judgment for now, but this wasn’t the best start.
Travis: It seems we have some theories about what is going on with the show and it is a ‘wait and see’ how it progresses. Overall I found the episode to be decent, maybe not on par with other season openers.
Myc: Cory, I agree that that it’s unfair to compare Lost and Who as to why they do the things they do, but in the end the product for the two shows could be the same – namely a confused and frustrated fan base based on overly convoluted narratives that eventually paint the writers into a corner. But I’ll stop beating that drum for the time being. I completely agree that Moffat uses Who as a vehicle to show off how clever he thinks he is.
I was completely won over by Oswin in that first episode. You are right in your criticism of her character and the potential relationship between her and the Doctor. I acknowledge that. I agree. I don’t care. She is, based on this one episode, fantastic. She reminds me of Martha Jones a little, but with big and noticeable differences (first and foremost not being completely in love with the Doctor – something I actually really loved about Donna).
As for her need to be saved – it seems that she is far better able to handle herself than any of the other companions thus far with maybe the exception of Jack (again – this analysis based on one whole episode, so take it with a grain of salt). I like her. I feel like she’ll be a strong addition to the show, and even though she and the Doctor were never actually on screen together, they had amazing chemistry.
Be pessimistic all you like. I greatly look forward to her next appearances (although this may be simply because I’ve grown weary of Amy to a degree).
I agree with Travis that this was a decent episode. Not great. Very much a continuation of the cramped storytelling and thematic issues that we saw at the end of S6. Until further notice I will be referring to this season as S6.5.