In Australia, we have “big things”. These are oversized monuments which serve as cut price tourist traps for towns all around the country. They’re usually giant sculptures or buildings retrofitted into the shape of something indicative of the local area. Often, but not always, produce related. The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour. The Big Merino Ram at Goulburn. The Big Boxing Crocodile in Darwin. They are kitsch colossuses and squirm-worthy expressions of Australian culture. (Bemused non-Australians can consult the full list of Big Things for further clarification. You have been warned.)
So imagine my delight when Asylum of the Daleks opens and shows that Skaro, has its very own big thing, the Big Dalek. Like many Big Things, there are hardly any visitors inside. Just the Doctor (a cagey Matt Smith) and the suspiciously named Darla (Anamaria Marinca) and like most Big Thing attendees, they look tremendously underwhelmed. If only they were eating terrible fast food and browsing half heartedly through overpriced souvenirs, the grim picture would be complete.
The Doctor’s visit to the Big Dalek, highlights one of showrunner Steven Moffat’s recurring motifs about the Daleks – an obsession with what’s inside them. This opening scene’s just a precursor to the episode’s major revelation that crash survivor Oswin (Jenna Louise Coleman) is, in fact, the cognitive remnants of a converted human, living inside a Dalek. The recently randomed Into the Dalek takes a more literal trip to the interior, but there’s also The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar which, for the third time, put Jenna inside a Dalek. Consider also Moffat’s interior adventures inside robots (Let’s Kill Hitler), the TARDIS (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) and space whales (The Beast Below) and we can see that he’s really into internalising.
Why, I don’t know. But in the case of the Daleks, it does highlight for the viewer they are vehicles, not robots. There are Kaled mutants, and sometimes converted people, inside them. There’s also a classic Moffat inversion on display in this Asylum too. Because as well as people inside Daleks, there are Daleks hiding inside people. Duplicate humans and reanimated corpses sprout eyestalks from their forehead and gunsticks from their palms. Moffat’s Daleks are monsters which both encase you and fester inside you.
Worse than that, they infect you. The Dalek nanocloud is an all pervading smog of tiny robots. They get inside you (that again) and turn you into a Dalek from the inside out. The physical changes come after the mental ones. The mental battle for control is enough to force Oswin to create an elaborate fantasy about being under siege from the Daleks, in order to protect her own identity. We see the start of this process effecting Amy (Karen Gillan) and in a beautifully shot sequence, we see her slipping into madness, and hallucinating that she’s in a ballroom full of dancers, when in fact, she’s in a pit packed with deranged Daleks. Around her, ballerinas pirouette. Add a dancing dwarf and we’re almost at Twin Peaks.
The ballerina, also glimpsed in Oswin’s hideout, is an important symbol here. Dalek creator Terry Nation claimed inspiration for his creatures from the Russian ballet dancers in enormous skirts, gliding across stage. We’re prompted to recall the Daleks’ origins, because this is a story steeped in their history. There are other hints scattered about – Oswin carries an egg whisk about, the better to prepare her soufflés with. Like a young Doctor Who fan creating his own Dalek army out of a miscellany of toys from throughout the show’s history, so Moffat populates Asylum with Daleks of all different colours and designs. Loads of old Dalek stories get shoutouts. This is about mashing up the show’s past and present, as well as discovering whether Daleks are bigger on the inside.
But I digress. I reckon the idea of a Big Dalek has legs, although it wouldn’t actually have legs. It could tower over Cardiff Bay (“Look at the state of it,” could become this century’s “Bye Bye Duggan!”) Exit would be, of course, via the gift shop and if it needs fresh merchandise to sell to hapless visitors, Asylum again shows us the way. Plastic rotating ballerinas. Egg whisks. Eye stalk headbands. And in the cafe, soufflé for all.
But now I must bring up the difficult topic of divorce. Specifically, the Ponds’.
I suppose that one of the problems about having a married couple on any TV program is that marital bliss can’t last forever. Whether it’s likely or not, it’s not very dramatically satisfying. Trouble must eventually set in. Or in the case of the Ponds, suddenly and implausibly set in.
Asylum implies that it has been some time since Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have seen the Doctor, and since then, their relationship has broken down to the point where divorce is the only option. Only a quick montage in the online extra Pond Life would have indicated to dedicated viewers that anything was wrong with our otherwise loved up comPondians.
Problem is, this relationship breakdown feels inherently artificial, engineered to add a sub plot to this otherwise Daleky tale. The antidote to the nanocloud turning you into a human with Dalek appendages, is love, apparently. So when Amy is threatened with Dalekisation, getting her to reignite her love for Rory is crucial to saving her life.
Thing is, though, I never really believed they fell out of love. The reason proffered for the break up is that Amy staged a pre-emptive eviction of Rory because he wanted kids she couldn’t biologically produce. This just doesn’t seem like something which would break them up. Surely, the Amy and Rory we know would talk it through. Rory, you’d think, would support Amy, not reject her. Besides, it’s not like the only way to have kids is the old fashioned way. My impression is that couples fray when one partner doesn’t want kids, not when one can’t have kids.
Maybe the problem is we didn’t see Amy and Rory gradually slide into marital discord. We only saw them being perfectly happy together, then divorced, then perfectly happy again. And while it’s interesting to see Doctor Who try its hand at interpersonal drama, the Ponds’ separation seems inherently false. It’s like the Ponds’ grief over losing their baby daughter; it’s just too big a problem to fit into the show’s format, where the adventures must roll inevitably along, pausing not to dwell on emotional distress.
“It’s not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow tie. Don’t give me those big wet eyes, Raggedy Man,” says Amy. “It’s life. Just life.” Except it’s not, is it? Because if it was, it would be long and protracted and painful, and it wouldn’t necessarily end cleanly and happily in time for the next episode. And the ultimate irony? The Doctor does actually fix it, with a twiddle of his bow tie. Pah.
But… having not so long ago catalogued Doctor Who‘s post-coital scenes, I was delighted to spot a pre-coital one. When the repaired Ponds get dropped off at home at story’s end, Amy shoots Rory a loaded look and heads into a house. Rory’s clearly got the message and has the very pleased look of a man whose drought has broken. Ah, marriage.
RANDOM QUESTION: Why does the Doctor tell Amy that they need to make the Daleks remember her? I must be missing something. Answers in the comments, please.
LINK TO Knock Knock: humans turning into monsters.
NEXT TIME: let’s end on a cliffhanger. It’s one of the stories I’ve referred to above.