Image courtesy the BBC.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to Twitter yesterday. My folks were taking the kids and I home from the Paris Fair and I was checking out my account when I realized that the seventh season premier of Doctor Who was about to come on in the United Kingdom.
This episode, entitled Asylum of the Daleks, has been eagerly anticipated by fans and public alike. As the title suggests, it has Daleks in it, and it’s written by Steven Moffat. A press viewing a couple of weeks back suggested that it was something special — though, frustratingly, those lucky few who attended the press preview were sworn to secrecy. Showrunner Moffat seemed quite adamant about that.
So, I was coming into Asylum of the Daleks relatively unspoiled, which is a new experience for me. And, realizing that the story was about to go live in the United Kingdom, I decided it would be wise to take a break from Twitter to keep the spoilers to a minimum.
I’ve found, however, that looking back at the Twitter account, the usual reaction to the latest episode of Doctor Who was surprisingly muted. And not because people were disappointed. As I watched the episode itself, I came to understand. Steven Moffat has changed the game. More than that, he’s pulled a quite unexpected twist out of this season, and it really should be experienced live on television by most viewers.
Of course, avoiding spoilers would put a crimp on this review. So I’m warning you here that you should see the episode first before reading this review. If you’ve done that, or if you really don’t mind being spoiled, then click through and read the rest of the review after this break.
After some funny preamble offered up on the BBC’s website showing married life with the Ponds going as you’d expect, before abruptly ending in a cliffhanger, the Doctor gets a message that brings him to Skaro. The very fact that the message asks him to come to Skaro intrigues him enough that he knows he has to go.
The Doctor comments that Skaro looks terrible but, really, I think it’s not looking that bad. I mean, you go through a supernova and let’s see you keep enough of your atmosphere to maintain rainy weather. But the Doctor gets down to business quickly. He’s met by the mysterious Darla Von Karlsen (played by Anamaria Marinca) who tells him that she has a daughter trapped in a Dalek prison camp. She’s heard that the Doctor can help.
The Doctor’s not sure how he feels about this. If you recall from last year’s The Wedding of River Song, he’d taken a conscious decision to slip away from the universe’s notice. He may still feel himself compelled to help anybody who needs him, but calling him out? He’s not happy about that.
But, of course, Darla’s request raises more questions than it asks, with the big one being, if Darla’s daughter is trapped in a Dalek prison camp, how is Darla herself not? The Doctor scoffs at Darla’s assertion that she escaped, but then he clues in: it’s a trap. Probably to the surprise of no-one, least of all himself. But Moffat does give us a nice twist. You remember the Robomen (from The Dalek Invasion of Earth)? The entirely creepy idea of Daleks using mind-controlled human slaves is updated, with the Robomen’s helmets being replaced by an eyestalk that pops out in the middle of Darla’s forehead.
Similar incidents show the kidnappings of Amy Pond and Rory Williams interrupting their divorce proceedings back on Earth. Though, in hindsight, it does lead me to ask why the Daleks had to lure the Doctor to Skaro to trap him. This might have been a missed opportunity for the web series Pond Life, to show some influence trying to trap the Doctor during his many visits to Amy and Rory, but this is quickly and easily glossed over. We’re still in the pre-title teaser at this point, and we’ve seen some cool Robomen effects.
And it’s about to get even cooler. Rory and Amy wake up in the bowels of a Dalek ship, and are joined by the Doctor who delivers a line which, under normal circumstances, would have ended the pre-title teaser right there and shoved us into theme music. However, writer Steven Moffat isn’t done. We’re introduced to the Parliament of the Daleks (Darla’s probably the Dalek PM’s personal assistant) who are — get this — not interested in exterminating the Doctor just yet, or even bringing him aboard for some personal entertainment. No, the Daleks have a special request to ask of their ancient enemy: “SAVE THE DALEKS!”
Some of you may be raising your hands at this point, asking such questions of, “how did so many Daleks get to live?” and “What about the Time War?” Well, it may be time to let the Time War go. Clearly Moffat thinks so. And with a show with as long a history as Doctor Who has, it’s probably too much to expect a 100% coherent narrative throughout its entire length — or even within the seven year history of the revival. Really, the only thing most viewers will care about at this point is if the story itself is internally consistent, and perhaps if it meshes well with what happened a year or so ago. And I think it works on both counts. More on the latter later.
So the Daleks have a mental asylum. Wrap that around your head. This is the place where the Daleks send Daleks who are too mad, even for the Daleks. But something’s gone wrong. Somebody (a girl named Oswin, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman — more on THAT later, too) has crashed and is clearly doing things the Daleks find infuriating. Like play Carmen over the transmission lines at top volume. She threatens the security of the asylum and, the Daleks imply, threatens to unleash a tsunami of insane Daleks on the Universe, something the Dalek parliament cannot control.
Why not just blow up the planet? Well, it has an uber-strong Dalek forcefield that can be turned off on the inside (yes, strangely enough, close to where the insane Daleks the Dalek parliamentarians want to keep ON the planet are, but never mind). Why not send a task force of Daleks to deal with the problem? Well, the Daleks are too chicken.
Seriously. The Doctor wisely doesn’t belabour the point, but it’s true. The Daleks hold the insane Daleks in awe, and are afraid to go down. At least, that’s the impression we have at first. I think the reality is, they’re afraid of the girl who has managed to do so much damage to the Asylum’s systems in the year she’s been on board.
So, who do you turn to if you’re a Dalek too afraid to send a Dalek to do the dirty work? What, in the mind of the Daleks would be a worse thing to send? Why, the Predator of the Daleks, of course: the Doctor himself.
It’s an elegant plan, glossed over well enough that we the audience don’t start asking questions until well after the fact. After slapping on wristbands on the Doctor, Amy and Rory, “to protect you from the nano-cloud”, they’re shoved into a gravity beam and shot at the icy asylum world.
And here is where Steven Moffat really triumphs. Reading between the lines of his interviews, I’ve gotten the sense that he’s rather frustrated with the Daleks. They’re far and away the most popular monster in the long history of the series but, to paraphrase the Doctor, they have the personality of “a tricycle with a roof”. What does a Dalek do when it sees you? It shouts “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!!” and opens fire. Is that scary? No. The audience has very little time to get scared.
I get the impression that Moffat knew the Daleks were a mainstay of the program — something he couldn’t ignore. But because of the dramatic flaws inherent in the Daleks’ character (or lack thereof), he had to use them sparingly lest they become boring. Or, he had to find a way to use them to make them scary. And, brilliantly, he realized that the Daleks were scarier if they had a reason not to shoot you on sight. Because then the Daleks could shoot you on sight at any time. You just didn’t know when.
The Doctor and Amy explore the crashed ship (known as “the Alaska”) and find its crew long-dead and turned into Robomen. Rory, through his well-known luck of the damned, drops further, and lands in the Asylum itself. There, he encounters a mess. Most of the Daleks are catatonic, damaged, covered in dust, but giving every indication that they might wake up at any second.
These are some of the best scenes involving Daleks in the revival since the first season’s Dalek. I especially loved one Dalek waking up and stuttering “Eg-Eg-Eg-Eg-Egg!”, making Rory complexly misunderstand what the Dalek was trying to tell him. And Moffat is brilliant when he brings this up later, at the climax.
Through it all, the young woman Oswin (played by Jenna-Louise Coulman) watches from her hideyhole where, over the past year, she’s apparently managed to avoid being converted into a roboman by the nano-cloud, and managed to hold off the horde of insane Daleks using nails and a bunch of two-by-fours. And she’s managed to hack into the Daleks’ complex machinery to command all of the security cameras at will (albeit not without malfunction), and muck-about with the asylum’s automation (this is probably the real reason the Daleks were afraid of going down to the planet, incidentally. Oswin is clearly more powerful than she looks, and could probably mess any task force up if they went after her).
Despite being linked only by radio communication (and the Doctor never sees Oswin until the end), Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coulman strike a good rapport. She laughs at his pointy chin, and the Doctor is clearly impressed by the girl’s skills as she navigates the Doctor and Amy to Rory and gives them access to a teleport that can get them to safety. Relatively speaking, anyway, since the only thing off-planet they can teleport to happens to be the Dalek Parliamentarians’ spaceship. Oswin has only one condition before she drops the asylum’s force shield and beams them up: find her and bring her along.
Okay, let me pause here and say that some really big spoilers are ahead. If you haven’t seen this story yet, you should. Download it from iTunes or whathaveyou and watch it. You’ll be glad you did. Once you do that, come back here and read the rest of the review.
Back already? Okay, here we go.
In looking for Oswin, the Doctor encounters the maddest of all of the mad Daleks to ever have put on a mad suit: Daleks who have survived encounters with the Doctor. Even though these Daleks are absolutely catatonic, they of course wake up at the first smell of the Doctor and come for him. Their gun barrels have been ripped out of their sockets, but that doesn’t matter one bit. Those plungers will do the job just nicely and, as an extra benefit, probably a lot more slowly and painfully as well. The Doctor begs Oswin for help and she comes up with something extra brilliant: she manages to erase their memories of the Doctor from their databases. The Daleks, no longer recognizing their quarry, trundle back to their stalls to resume their catatonic state. The Doctor gets through the last door and finds where Oswin is hidden.
If you’ve been wondering how a smart young woman could hold out against not only a bunch of insane Daleks, but a nano-cloud designed to turn her into a servant of the Daleks, while at the same time hacking in and compromising the asylum’s systems, you may have got the answer already. But the reveal is no less heartbreaking: Oswin was so smart, the nano-cloud decided she was too useful to the Daleks to be just a robotic servant. Standing before the Doctor, talking about soufflés, is a Dalek, with Oswin somewhere inside.
Director Nick Hurran does a fantastic job throughout this story drawing out the creepy and ramping up the tension. Looking at the story a second time, you’ll also notice that he and his set designers have pulled off a triumph of little clues about this revelation that have been hiding in plain sight all along. Did you notice how the door Oswin nailed two-by-fours against looks suspiciously like the inside of a Dalek eyestalk? And after the reveal, Hurran gives us some fantastic frames highlighting how tragically Oswin is trapped inside her new form. We see her as though looking back through the Dalek eyestalk into the Dalek itself. We see the Doctor talking to her through the Dalek’s grill.
And Jenna-Louise Coulman really shows her acting chops as she finally faces the horror of her predicament, and then almost loses the remaining hold she has on her humanity. It’s terrifying watching her face as she turns the line “Eggs?” to “Egg-xter-min-ATE!” and goes for the Doctor.
But let’s not forget Matt Smith, here. When Oswin-Dalek stops herself and asks the Doctor why the Daleks hate him so much, he looks unbelievably sad and guilty when he explains that it’s because he fought the Daleks and couldn’t bring himself to stop. And, harkening back to last season’s theme of the Doctor’s reputation becoming too big for the universe to stay at peace, Oswin-Dalek notes, “we have grown stronger in fear of you.” It’s a heartbreaking moment. The Doctor doesn’t want to be the champion of the universe, but he can’t bring himself to stop. And, we realize, his prominence is making the monsters around him stronger in response.
There’s triumph and tragedy at the same time as Oswin tells the Doctor to remember her, and run. The Doctor reluctantly leaves her behind and runs back to Amy and Rory, using the teleport to get himself and his companions back into his TARDIS on the Dalek parliamentarians’ ship. And here we learn of the extent of Oswin’s gift: she didn’t’ just erase the memories of the Doctor from the hard-core insane Daleks, but from every Dalek in the vicinity. They react to the Doctor’s appearance and disappearance in confusion, chanting “Doctor who? Doctor who?! Doctor WHO?!” The Doctor is understandably delighted to see that his conflict with the Daleks has essentially been reset, and a major pillar of the Daleks’ purpose has been kicked out from under them. The implication is, they’ll be a lot easier to manage.
It’s telling that Oswin’s appearance in this story essentially overshadows Amy and Rory’s sub plot, but Moffat deals with things effectively there. Oswin supplies — with a disturbing insight that becomes more understandable though no less tragic when we watch things a second time — that the nano-cloud turns people into servants of the Daleks by removing love and amplifying hate. With Amy having lost her wristband protecting her from the nano-cloud, Rory demands that she take his wristband instead because the truth behind their relationship has always been that he loves her more than she loves him. This leads to the cathartic release of their issues that have been leading up to their divorce, and the revelation that Amy is a lot more scarred than we’ve been led to believe by her experiences at Demon’s Run (see A Good Man Goes to War). Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan put in their usual sterling performances in this episode, and Arthur has some good chemistry with Jenna-Louise Coulman as she flirts shamelessly with him (catch his half-smile, followed by his guilty glance at his almost ex-wife).
All in all, it would be a shame not to see Jenna-Louise Coulman as Oswin again — except that, this is possibly the biggest twist in the episode. Fans who have been following the behind-the-scenes shaping of the coming season will remember that Jenna-Louise Coulman has already been announced for upcoming episodes of the show — as the companion that replaces Rory and Amy in the Christmas special! It remains to be seen if she plays a different character, but I expect that it’s Oswin. Whether the Doctor rescues her, or takes her on earlier in her timeline to show her the universe before her tragic end, it’s clear to me that the Doctor won’t be forgetting her anytime soon.
And it’s probably significant that the Daleks started chanting “Doctor WHO?!” just two episodes after that was revealed as the question that would be asked just before the silence fell. And I find it interesting that, after a (rather muddled) season which implied that the Doctor’s growing reputation is at the heart of the fears of the Silence and their motivation for trying to stop him, it’s when the Doctor convinces his oldest enemies to forget him that the question starts to ask. Does this mean that silence falls when the Doctor is forgotten by the universe? Does he need to find instead a happy medium between being a godlike figure of hope and a nobody? The gulf between these points might appear to be wide, but this Doctor may have a lot of trouble finding the right balance.
My hat goes off to Steven Moffat. Asylum of the Daleks is, in my opinion, the strongest Dalek story in the revival since the first season’s Dalek. He hit all the right notes and made an episode that stood out in terms of suspense and tragedy. And it’s unbelievably cool to see all those Dalek designs in one place. The Daleks are beautiful machines, and I am immensely grateful that, thanks to Moffat, they have one more beautiful story to add to their canon.