Thursday, May 16, 2013

Asylum of the Daleks 7.1 (cont)

Terrence Dicks used to say that the point of a Dalek was that it was pure evil with no redeeming features, but that you wished you could be a Dalek and exterminate bully or teacher or policeman or whoever was being rotten to you that week. Yeah. But that's just as true of the Cyberpeople and the Icepeople and every other damn creature ever to appear on Doctor Who and there wasn't Icewarriormania in the 1960s and there was arguably Dalekmania, which was a bit like Beatlemania. I don't remember that, but I do remember Womblemania. Then we decided we'd had enough manias. 

The point of the Daleks is that the actual physical nuts and bolts look and feel of the design is incredibly cool. I don't know why "thing which glides", "thing which has no legs", "thing with hidden wheels" is such a great idea, particularly. But when the Daleks are being well operated, gliding around in formation in Planet of the Daleks or the bits that are left of Masterplan, it never fails to make me smile. 

R.I.P, Ray Cusick. The nicest, most modest, most deserving Gold Blue Peter Badge Winner I ever saw from some distance on a panel at the National Film Theatre. 

If I told you that there was an axe murderer in the next room and you believed me, you would be scared. If I told you that there was a ghost in the next room and you believed me, you would also be scared. You would be scared of the axe murderer because he might kill you; but you would be afraid of the ghost just because he was a ghost. 

I suppose that most of who hid behind the sofa during Doctor Who were experiencing the second kind of fear. We were afraid of the idea of monsters -- strange weird funny looking things. We weren't following closely enough to know that what was actually frightening about them was that they are a metaphor for anti-Semitism or that they were going to put a neutron bomb in earth's magnetic crust. 

Sofas generally have their backs to the wall. It is more or less impossible to hide behind them.

But there is probably not much point in talking about why, or if, the Daleks are scary. Fifty years of pop cultural history says that these rather old fashioned outer space robot people are the most evil creatures ever invented. 

Nothing wrong with a baddie who is pretty much just a symbol for evil. That's what we have baddies for. 

Evil. Cool. Metaphorical. 

When we first met them, rather before my time, they were intolerant, inflexible, bigoted people in general, and the Nazis in particular, although they were also pathetic, little school bullies hitting back at the Thals because the Thals hit them first. By the time I arrived, they were a nasty fascist technological empire, which was a metaphor nasty, fascist, technological empires. This week it turns out that they are all about the-evil-that-we-carry-within-us, or part of a discourse about what-it-means-to-be-human and, in particular what-it-means-to-be-the-doctor and what-it-means-to-be-a-human-asking-what-it-means-to-be-the doctor. Which is what Doctor Who is now about, and the only thing it can be about it. And I think that it very nearly almost works. 

Daleks hate; humans love; when humans are turned into Daleks, all the love is taken out of them; which is why we have a lady who likes soufflĂ© who who has been turned into a Dalek, except she still loves, so she hasn't. 

And the Daleks admire the Doctor, because of the purity of his hate for them. Which, of course, was a big, big, clever, clever twist in 2003, when the only-Dalek-in-the-universe turns round and says to the just-turned-out-to-be-the-only-Time-Lord-in-the-Universe "You. Would. Make. A. Good. Dalek." But now it's just one of the things which is taken for granted and has to be re said in every episode. 

I preferred the model in those Big Finish Dalek Empire plays, which argued that the Daleks understand love very well: love is not that much different from hate. It's friendship they find completely impossible to understand.

If you were following the plot, then part of what made the Daleks frightening was the idea that the creature inside the machine was so terrifying and disgusting that you could hardly bare to look at it. The dying Dalek's claw coming out from under the cloak in episode 2 of Dead Planet caused more nightmares than a hundred extras going into negative and falling down. 

Season 1 of New Who gave us a single Dalek that could threaten a big military installation and wipe out a whole city of it escaped, and finished on a pretty convincing Dalekageddon; Season 2 reduced them to silly robots trading camp insults with Cybermen; by the end of Season 3 they were back to their accustomed roles as canon fodder who can't shoot straight and can be picked off by any amateur with a zap gun. I suppose this is part of the process: figures of horror in Dead Planet, mocked in Dalek Invasion of Earth, comic relief in the Chase; evil fascists in Genesis, hopeless slaves of logic who can't go upstairs in Destiny. 

But it is really really odd that Asylum of the Daleks, the nineteenth  story whose stated aim is to make the Daleks scary again, has so little confidence in the creatures that it treats them mostly as figures of fun and offers us completely different things to be scared of. 

The "fear" element comes from a space ship full of undead humans; a sort of combination of the spacesuit zombies from Silence in the Library and the Are You My Mummy zombie from the Empty Child. It's not actually scary, of course but it uses images which are "coded" a frightening. The "fear" element comes from the use of images which are "coded" as frightening. 

Children are told from an early age that ghosts are scary, which means, I think, that they play a game in which when one of their friends puts a sheets over their head they have permission to scream. (I have literally no idea what a sheet-ghost is meant to represent, by the way: a corpse in a burial shroud?) TV shows like Scooby Doo and Rentaghost are based on the idea that ghosts are frightening, but treats them as funny. If they actually thought about what a ghost represented, they might find it sad or upsetting, but they wouldn't necessarily be scared. A lot of people felt that the movie version of Caspar the Friendly Ghost-- in which Caspar is the ghost of a specific boy who has died -- took all the fun out of Caspar. My sister was inexplicably annoyed when I referred to the cartoon that my nephew and niece were enjoying as "Caspar the Dead Baby". 

The one bit which is actually "scary" in the sense of possibly catching us an making us think "that's a nasty idea" is the conceptual, mind control twist: the idea that Amy might be turning into a Dalek without realizing it, the idea that you could be losing your memory and not knowing. This is scary. But that has nothing particularly to do with Daleks. The idea of the Daleks sucking out people's emotions so they become Daleks is not really the Daleks usual schtick. It's much more a Cyberman thing. 

So maybe I'm actually misreading this. Maybe I am assuming that because there is so much talk about Amy and Rory, that the episode is about Amy and Rory. But perhaps it isn't. Perhaps Steven Moffat is one of us, and is really interested in the Daleks because they are scary-cool, and perhaps the object of the exercise is to show us as many Daleks and as many types of Daleks as he possibly can. Perhaps he is putting in the human back story to misdirect grown ups in the expectation that is target audience (eight years olds and geeks) will identify it as mushy stuff and ignore it. 

Fans always ask "Will there be any old monsters". John Nathan-Turner, in the olden days, took this to mean that fans liked the idea of old monsters and started to put lots of old monsters into Doctor Who. If the new race of snarling fibreglass fascist stormtroopers had the label "cybermen" on them, then this was fantastically exciting. Never mind that they had nothing to do with any previous version of the monster. They were Cybermen. The show was Honouring Its Past.

So: can we tune in, sit back, geek out, and love Asylum of the Daleks because there are mad Daleks, emperor Daleks, a whole parliament of Daleks, references to previous Dalek stories and a really, really silly joke about eggs. A thousand Daleks are a thousand time more exciting than one Dalek, yes? No?

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