On BBC America’s “Asylum of the Daleks” Screening

Yes, I scored tickets to BBC America’s “Asylum of the Daleks” Doctor Who screening in New York yesterday. You may have heard horror stories about acquiring tickets. My luck may be lousy in everything else, but the one time it counted the luck came through. :)

I made two “immediate reaction” tweets. The first: “Holy fucking god, what a stunning episode.” The second, a reply to Steven Moffat himself: “‘Asylum’ was amazing — and it will break the Internet in half seven days hence.”

I can’t talk about the episode yet — Matt Smith, who was at the screening last night, basically pinky-swore the audience not to spoil its plot surprises — so I’ll talk a little bit about the experience and some non-spoilery, non-critical stuff about the episode.

I was not a fan of the sixth season. I compared Steven Moffat to Brannon Braga, and not in a good way. (I still stand by that assessment, by the way.) To me, season six points to the difference between “Steven Moffat, the writer of ‘Girl in the Fireplace'” (Freelancer, one script) and “Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who” (Producer, multiple scripts, herding cats), and I thought that with the sixth season he flailed in the same way that writers do with second novels and bands do with second albums — they’ve used up all their good material (in Moffat’s case, the fifth season) and either recycle old ideas or generate weak new ideas. I thought the resulting was self-indulgent and poorly paced, a season where there were some individual moments but whose whole was far less than the sum of its parts, and the 2011 Christmas special didn’t instill me with confidence.

“Asylum of the Daleks” bodes well. I’d even call it one of Moffat’s best scripts in years; at least his best since “A Study in Pink” for Sherlock, and as far back as “The Girl in the Fireplace” for Doctor Who. (“Blink,” I think, is clever, but it’s marred by an ontological Gordian Knot that cannot be cut.) It’s not perfect — it has some typical Moffat-y problems, which I’ll mention — but it is hugely enjoyable and genuinely moving (I spouted waterworks on three occasions). The opening scene on Skaro feels epic and portentious, the episode doesn’t let up, and it does something genuinely new and unexpected with the Daleks.

It’s not flawless. There’s a narrative thread early on that gets dropped, I didn’t quite buy some of the character work (though “Pond Life,” the five-part web series on the BBC’s website this week, should address that issue), the story isn’t set at a concrete point in Dalek history (except that it’s at some point after “The Daleks’ Master-Plan” and War of the Daleks), I’m not clear on why the Daleks needed the Doctor to solve their problem in the first place (or even what their problem was), and there’s a bit with a piece of tech that makes no sense whatsoever. However, “Asylum of the Daleks” also rewards the attentive viewer, not unlike an Encyclopedia Brown story.

I’m curious at the reception the story will receive, because it’s a story that will play differently to the Doctor Who Magazine-reading, internet forum-follow fan and to the casual viewer in ways that I simply cannot discuss at the moment.

As for BBC America’s event, I am seriously glad I went. American Doctor Who fandom has become Beatlemania-for-nerds. That’s the only way to describe it. It’s something that Matt Smith himself remarked upon in the Q&A after the screening; he’d love it if Doctor Who filmed in New York permanently simply because of the reaction Doctor Who gets over here.

As a corollary to the that, in my completely unscientific opinion, I’m pretty sure that I was at least two standard deviations above the mean age of the audience. At least two. Possibly even three. :)

I arrived at the Ziegfeld Theater about 12:15, and when I arrived there was already an extensive line, and I suspect that some people had camped out overnight. There was also a line on the opposite side of the street; these were people who didn’t have tickets, wouldn’t get into the screening, but simply wanted to be there and possibly see Matt Smith and Karen Gillan.

In the course of the three hours waiting in line, camera crews came down the line, pumping up the crowd and getting us cheering on camera. I wondered if Matt and Karen would arrive before seating for the screening began (the doors for the 6 o’clock screening were to open at four), or if the line would be cleared and then they would arrive. Unsurprisingly, it was the latter. They arrived in DeLoreans much closer to six o’clock; by that time, the audience was ensconced in the auditorium. I’m curious to see how the line footage is used by BBC America; I suspect that the footage of screaming fans will be matched to footage of Matt and Karen arriving, giving the impression that these happened simultaneously, accompanied with narration by this generation’s Howard Da Silva, Mark Sheppard himself.

The theater itself was awesome, except for the traffic flow. To get from the lobby to the theater one had to walk through the souvenir line, the concession lines, and the line to the women’s restroom.

The Q&A was fun. It was hosted by Chris Hardwick (a.k.a., the Nerdist), and some questions from the audience were taken for Matt, Karen, and producer Caroline Skinner. Matt was asked who should be the next Doctor (a question he admitted was difficult — “I’m trying to talk myself out of work here!” he said). Karen was asked what traveling with the Doctor had done to Amy (a question that “Pond Life,” the five-part web series this week, and “The Power of Three” will answer). They were asked if they would do a Shakespeare film together, and when Karen suggested Macbeth, calling it by name, she was made to run off the stage, turn circles, and run back to ward off the evil spirits. There were shout-outs to Matt and Karen’s agent, Matt’s mother, and Murray Gold, all of whom were in the audience. And Karen Gillan was wearing an absolutely gorgeous dress.

BBC America has pictures from the screening on their Anglophenia blog.

A better season opener than “The Impossible Astronaut,” “Asylum of the Daleks” doesn’t reach the heights of “The Eleventh Hour.” That said, Doctor Who fans, you’re in for a treat next week. And if you’re not in the UK, you really need to stay the hell away from Twitter, Facebook, and the forums next Saturday afternoon, because “Asylum” will do what Mark Millar never did — break the Internet in half. You’re best if you come to this episode cold.

5 thoughts on “On BBC America’s “Asylum of the Daleks” Screening

  1. Oh, and to claim the writer of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Blink, Silence In The Library/Forest of the Dead, The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon and A Good Man Goes To War’ s BEST episode is The Girl in the Fireplace is complete BS.

  2. Wait, Michael. If my opinion is invalid, and I thought that “Asylum of the Daleks” was very good, then wouldn’t that mean that “Asylum” is actually rubbish? ;)

    As for the rest, I obviously disagree. In my opinion, Moffat’s recent work requires a certain amount of narrative spackle from the audience to be complete. Further, episodes like “A Good Man Goes to War,” “The Wedding of River Song,” and “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” are little more than Star Trek: Voyager-level popcorn episodes, meant to be watched in the moment with the brain turned off because they fall to pieces when you actually stop to think about them.

    On second thought, I might venture that “Asylum” is Moffat’s best script since “A Christmas Carol.”

  3. I thought the sixth season had some pacing issues, but overall I liked it a lot. Unlike most of the seasons since the relaunch in 2005, I thought it succeeded more on the merits of its individual episodes than on the strength of the story arc… but with “The Doctor’s Wife”, “The Rebel Flesh” two-parter, “The Girl Who Waited”, “Closing Time”, and even “The Wedding of River Song”, that’s plenty. It wasn’t as good as season four, but it was on about the same level as seasons one and five, and better than both season three (urgh) and the year-of-specials (only “The Waters of Mars” to really recommend it).

    That said, I didn’t care for “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” at all. I asked, I’d say it’s the weakest script Moffat had ever contributed to the show. That gave me some concerns going in to the new season, but it sounds like “Asylum of the Daleks” is back onto more solid ground.

  4. I suppose I take the long view but when I compare the show we have now to what was happening in the mid-80s, I pretty happy. Still think the 8th Doctor first two audio seasons are the gold standard though.

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