“Is it bad that I’ve really missed this?” Amy Pond asks The Doctor (Matt Smith) at a moment of peril in the season-seven première of Doctor Who. She’s no doubt speaking for a lot of fans with the “really missed this part.” And, just in case anyone had forgotten, “Asylum Of The Daleks” provided plenty of reminders of what makes this show so easy to miss when it’s not around. Prior to the première, showrunner Stephen Moffat promised an “epic Dalek adventure” and the episode, written by Moffat, delivers on that promise in a big way, not only including, as promised, every sort of Dalek featured on the show but some new permutations of The Doctor’s most persistent antagonists as well. (Including a particularly heartbreaking one, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) Beyond simply throwing in Dalek after Dalek, the episode also addresses the fallout from last season, the toll it’s taken on Rory and Amy’s marriage, and introduces us to the Doctor’s new companion… oh wait. It’s actually a huge fake-out on that front, a wrenching twist I, at least, didn’t see coming.
I probably should have, though, or something like it. Moffat’s made wrenching twists a trademark of his run on the show. It’s best not to get too comfortable in any given episode since what’s real could change at any given moment. That’s true from the first scene of “Asylum Of The Daleks,” which finds a woman earnestly talking about The Doctor in messianic terms in voiceover as she looks over the ruins of Skaro, the Daleks’ original home planet. She means it, too. To paraphrase the tagline for A.I., her hope is real, but she is not. She’s a trap, an unwitting sleeper agent designed to lure The Doctor into the clutches of the Daleks.
That’s not all he has to save, either. Turns out the Ponds aren’t doing so well, either. Well, Amy’s doing fine professionally as a model (and Rory’s apparently developed a fondness for hair product.) But Amy and Rory have grown apart for reasons yet to be revealed, so apart that they’ve decided to divorce. But when they too are abducted and taken to the Dalek mothership to join the Doctor, it would seem that their time together isn’t quite over yet. When they meet The Doctor and ask how much trouble their in, he gives them a simple reply: “Out of 10? 11.”
If ever there was a line that screamed “roll credits,” it’s that one. But it’s yet another fake-out in an episode filled with them. Next there’s the matter of watching the Daleks reveal their evil designs on The Doctor. But they don’t want to kill him. They want him to save them, begging for his help in those familiar, scratchy electronic voices. It’s pathetic. And kind of sad. And like everything else so far, surprising. The season’s off to a good start before we even get to the theme song.
Now to the particulars: The Daleks need The Doctor—whom they’ve dubbed “The Predator Of The Daleks”—to infiltrate the planet where the bungled, botched, uncontrollable Daleks have been dumped for safekeeping in order to prevent a “tsunami of insane Daleks” from swarming up from the planet following the wreck of a spaceship on its surface. The Doctor really has no choice but to help them, but it’s unlikely he would have said “no” anyway given that the planet’s home to at least one other entity: a sweet-sounding woman named Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman, seen briefly in Captain America but familiar to U.K. viewers for her role on the long-running soap Emmerdale) who’s survived by barring the door against the Daleks, blasting Bizet, and cooking soufflés. But “where,” the Doctor asks, “does she get the milk?”
That’s not a silly question. But before we can get to the answer “Asylum Of The Daleks” has to send The Doctor, Rory, and Amy through a lot of dark, Dalek-filled corridors. Over the course of the journey everyone gets to know, and like, Oswin. She teases The Doctor about his chin (which impresses Amy), flirts with Rory, and guides them past one hazard after another. She’s clever, resourceful, and witty (and, though the characters can’t know this, easy on the eyes). She is, in other words, the perfect replacement companion for the departing Amy and Rory. It’s almost as if she knows it. Steering the Doctor to her hideout she almost seems to recognize this. “Rescue me, chin boy, and show me the stars,” she says just before it’s revealed that she’s not a woman at all. At least not anymore.
The woman from the beginning of the episode had fallen victim to nanotechnology that turned her into a flesh-wearing Dalek and Oswin’s shipmates had succumbed to a variation on the same, becoming Dalek walking dead. But Oswin has fallen to an even worse fate: She’s been transformed into a full-on Dalek without realizing, cursed to be forever an unholy hybrid of flesh and metal but the soul of free-spirited young woman who just wanted to see the stars. Moffat, in other words, has set up a companion who’s not to be. It’s a cruel, clever twist. Or is it? The show has played its cards close to the vest as to who will be taking over Amy and Rory’s companion slots. But the IMDB lists Coleman as appearing in every episode this season from the sixth onward. (Though, curiously, not this episode.) If Coleman does return—which, hey, this is a show with time travel and weird science so reverse-engineering her out of her Dalek state doesn’t seem that far-fetched—everything about her work here suggests she’d be a great addition to the show.
As for those who are leaving, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill get some fine moments as they patch together their marriage with the Doctor’s help, emergency therapy conducted partly while Amy believes she’s about to become a Dalek. It’s nicely acted by both, but I found the strife itself pretty contrived. There’s no doubt the events of last season, and Amy’s subsequent discovery that she can’t have any more children, would leave a mark on their marriage, but we haven’t seen anything to suggest that damage last season, in the Christmas special, or in any but the last of the “Pond Life” prequel shorts leading up to this première. (Which, by the way, were really fun.) It’s well played, but the whole crisis feels like it comes more from a writer’s pen than the heart.
That’s ultimately a quibble, however. Like Amy, I’ve missed the adventure and “Asylum Of The Daleks” gets the season off to a great start while creating a sense that anything could happen. The Daleks don’t even know The Doctor anymore. What other ways can Moffat find to upset the universe this year?
- For all the heavy stuff with Oswin and the Pond marriage, Smith’s performance emphasized the lighter elements of The Doctor’s personality. That made for an effective contrast and helped steer the tone away from last season, which after a point got pretty dark—especially in its portrayal of The Doctor—and just stayed dark.
- In the online screener I watched, there was a segment bleeped out: The Doctor’s lines after “What can I do?” I have no idea why, though I’ve been filling that blank with every sort of obscenity ever since.
- Zombie Daleks: Scary.
- I really like Arthur Darvill but they should not let him attempt even the simplest stuntwork. It just does not work.
- Did anyone else think the music cue that started up when Amy began hallucinating owed a bit to Twin Peaks?
- The bracelet business didn’t come as much of a surprise. I was only surprised The Doctor didn’t make the switch earlier.