Opening a new season with the Daleks—pitting the Doctor against his oldest and most famous adversaries—has always been a temptation for the producers of Doctor Who. The audience-grabbing potential is so obvious that this is actually the fourth time it's been done in the show's history. “Asylum of the Daleks” also gives showrunner Steven Moffat his first chance to write a Dalek story, having deliberately rested the creatures last year—the first season since the show was revived in 2005 that the Daleks were not used (except for a one-scene cameo in the finale). Without the additional pressure of introducing a new Doctor or companion, or setting up a season-spanning arc plot, Moffat's season opener is a successful standalone adventure with several touches of horror that call to mind his earlier efforts during the Russell T Davies era.
A sombre mood is set from the outset as the episode opens on Skaro, the blasted, ruined homeworld of the Daleks. Inside a giant statue of a Dalek (“Hell of a choice of meeting place.” “They said I'd have to intrigue you”), the Doctor (Matt Smith) has come to meet a woman, Darla (Anamaria Marinca), who wants him to rescue her daughter from a Dalek prison camp. As we saw in last year's Christmas special, the Doctor is now determined to keep a low profile following his escape from the Silence's attempt to kill him, and so he is not pleased that this woman has somehow managed to get a message to him.
Darla: “They say you can help.”
The Doctor: “Do they? I wish they'd stop.”
But he soon discovers that the whole thing is a trap—the woman is a Dalek agent, sent to capture him. Her human personality vanishes as a Dalek eye-stalk erupts from her forehead and a Dalek gun from her hand. The idea of the Daleks employing controlled humans as slaves is certainly not new (it goes back as far as the 'Robomen' in 1964's “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”), but it's never before been shown in such a creepy and graphic fashion.
On board a huge Dalek ship, the Doctor is reunited with his erstwhile companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), who have been collected from their lives on Earth by other Dalek agents. They find themselves in the “Parliament of the Daleks”—a massive amphitheatre filled with hundreds of the creatures, all chanting the last thing the Doctor expected to hear—“Save us! Save the Daleks!”
It was rather amusing to see that, after the poor reception given to the “new paradigm” Daleks introduced in 2010's “Victory of the Daleks”, they are very much in the minority here. The Parliament chamber is populated almost exclusively with the older bronze models, although the few representatives of the new design we see appear to have been given a face-saving officer status. In any case, the setup for the main story follows, as we learn of the Daleks' legendary Asylum—a planet where the Daleks dump all their failures: “the battle-scarred, the insane…the ones even you can't control.”
The Daleks have gone to the trouble of kidnapping the Doctor because the supposedly impenetrable Asylum has been breached. In a deliberately disjointed scene (typical of Moffat) after the opening titles, we see a young woman named Oswin, apparently alone and under siege in the Asylum, who identifies herself as a crew member of a spaceship that crashed on this planet. She has been hacking into the Asylum's systems and disrupting them. Realizing that this could open a way for all of the inmates to escape, the Daleks intend to beam the Doctor, Amy and Rory down to the Asylum, where they will be trapped until the Doctor can turn off the planet's protective force field, allowing the Daleks to vaporize it.
I enjoyed the confrontation between the Doctor and the Dalek “prime minister”—a wizened creature in a glass tank very similar to the one seen as the “Emperor Dalek” in 2005's “The Parting of the Ways”—in particular, the designation of the Doctor as “the Predator of the Daleks,” and the following exchange:
The Doctor: “You think hatred is beautiful.”
Dalek Prime Minister: “Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.”
It's also worth taking a moment to give credit to the contribution of Nicholas Briggs, who has single-handedly provided the voices for all of the Daleks (as well as the Cybermen, and various other aliens) since the series was revived in 2005. His ability to create different characters for the various different types of Daleks is, I think, a very significant factor in the success the creatures have had in the new series.
As they are beamed down to the planet, Rory gets separated from the others, falling down a deep hole into a large underground chamber, while Amy and the Doctor encounter Harvey (David Gyasi), apparently another survivor from the crashed spaceship. At this point Moffat rolls out an effective string of horror movie ideas, as Harvey takes the Doctor and Amy back to his escape pod, only for them to realize that his fellow crewmates are long dead…whereupon Harvey realizes that he's actually dead and has become “Dalek-ised” (just like the woman Darla) by the Asylum's “nano-cloud” which transforms all intruding organic matter into Dalek material. Then, no sooner have the Doctor and Amy fought Harvey off than his zombie crewmates rise up and threaten them in the same way.
Moffat could be accused of recycling his previous concepts here—the nano-cloud is basically the same as the nanogenes from “The Empty Child,” and the idea of the walking corpse, unaware of its own death, harks back to the skeletons in spacesuits from “Silence in the Library”. But it's certainly a nicely macabre idea that anyone attacking the Asylum gets absorbed into its own security system. In order to protect against the effects of the nano-cloud, the Doctor and his friends are given special protective wristbands. These represent a rare failure in the design department—they are so large and bulky that Amy is left looking incredibly stupid on two occasions, when she fails to immediately notice that the attacking zombies have taken her wristband off her arm, and again later when the Doctor sneaks his own wristband onto her.
The direction by Nick Hurran lives up to the high standard he showed on his debut last year with “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex”. From the impressive CGI of the Parliament chamber, to the contrast between the vast snowy expanses of the planet exterior and the cramped, dingy underground tunnels infested with Daleks, the episode is full of memorable visuals. In particular, there's a lovely bit of dreamlike imagery when Amy, falling under the influence of the nano-cloud, sees a roomful of people, including a twirling ballerina, which then becomes a roomful of Daleks, with the ballerina replaced by a Dalek spinning serenely in place.
Once the Doctor and the others are all underground, they have the problem of finding each other in the maze of corridors and chambers while avoiding getting killed by the mostly dormant but still dangerous Daleks. It was lovely to see many of the older Dalek designs from the classic series in these chambers (although some of them were a little difficult to make out under the layers of grime). I also particularly enjoyed the neat trick the Doctor employed to use one Dalek's self-destruct impulse to take out the others.
Meanwhile, Rory is doing his best to keep out of the Daleks' way, although eventually he has to be rescued by the watching Oswin. Which brings me to the big surprise of the episode… It didn't take long before I realized that Oswin was being played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, who (as was announced months ago) will be portraying the Doctor's new companion Clara, starting from this year's Christmas special. I can only congratulate Moffat on managing to pull off this surprise, which required the co-operation of the press and preview audiences in several different countries. Particularly ingenious is that the trick succeeds regardless of whether the viewer is aware of Coleman's significance—for those who don't know that she is scheduled to become the next companion, the surprise will come at Christmas when the Doctor meets someone who reminds him so much of the woman he encountered in this episode.
It remains to be seen whether there is any real connection between Oswin and the new companion, or whether they are simply being played by the same actress (as happened with Karen Gillan, who played a soothsayer in “The Fires of Pompeii” two years before she appeared as Amy). It's worth noting that, unlike Gillan's case (and earlier, with Freema Agyeman), Coleman's role in this episode would only have come about after she was cast as the new companion. So despite Moffat's stated intention to move away from last season's complex arc plotting, there are clearly still some connections being established between episodes. As if to remove all doubt on this point, Coleman gives a coy little glance directly into the camera as she delivers her final line: “Run, you clever boy. And remember…”
As for her actual performance, I was very impressed. She's a natural at handling Moffat's comic dialogue, and her flirting with Rory and fast-talking banter with the Doctor was a delight. At the same time, she managed to project enough confidence and intelligence to make Oswin's labeling of herself as a “genius” believable. And when given the chance to emote more deeply, as Oswin's ultimate fate is revealed, she was well up to the task. I've never seen any of her work before, but based on this episode, I'm very much looking forward to her joining the show permanently later on.
But enough about the companion-in-waiting; the relationship between the Doctor's current companions is the second major focus of this episode. The first five episodes of this season, leading up to a hiatus before the Christmas special, will bring the story of Amy and Rory to a close. In fact they are already partly out of the Doctor's life—their days as permanent travelers aboard the TARDIS ended in last year's “The God Complex,” and each episode since has faced the challenge of finding a way to involve them in the story. Here, they are collected by the Daleks to accompany the Doctor on the frankly flimsy justification that “it is known that the Doctor requires companions.”
It's soon apparent that Amy and Rory's marriage is more than in trouble; when we first see them, they're actually signing divorce papers while exchanging barbed insults. Once on board the Dalek ship, Amy is annoyed at the realization that the Doctor will inevitably notice the distance between her and Rory and try to do something about it. In a stark contrast to her dreams of her magic Doctor when we first met her two years ago, she now dismisses his desire to help:
Amy: “Don't give me those big wet eyes, raggedy man. It's life. Just life. That thing that goes on when you're not there.”
When Rory realizes that Amy has lost her protective wristband and decides to give her his to buy her some time, they finally confront the cause of their split. We find out that thanks to her experiences on Demon's Run, Amy can't have the children that she knows Rory desires, which has led to her pushing him away. Both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are excellent throughout the episode—having played these characters for so long now, they really know how they tick—and this scene is very emotional, thanks in particular to Gillan giving it absolutely everything. Unfortunately, it loses some of its effectiveness simply because there has been no hint whatever of this plot thread before now.
I'll admit it was a nice touch to show nothing more than a quick, wordless shot of the Doctor simply straightening his bow tie when Amy discovers he has put his wristband on her—a callback to her earlier annoyance on board the Dalek ship; nothing more is needed to get across the point that he has maneuvered them into confronting the problem. I really hope that this isn't the last we hear of Amy and Rory's marital difficulties, though; such a quick solution to a dispute that went all the way to a formal divorce would be far too glib.
At any rate, while Amy and Rory are working through the repairs to their relationship, the Doctor continues making his way towards Oswin's refuge. Moffat's inventiveness continues with the idea of the “Intensive Care” area containing the Daleks which have personally survived previous battles with the Doctor, which allows him to have Oswin name-check various planets from the classic series (Spiridon, Kembel, Aridius, Vulcan, Exxilon) for the enjoyment of long-term fans.
In a lovely bit of plotting, the Doctor's repeated “Where do you get the milk?” question to Oswin's mentions of making soufflés turns out to be more than just a bit of whimsy—it signposts the solution to the mystery of Oswin's true nature. (On the other hand, I found the several “Eggs-terminate” puns to be painfully corny.) When the Doctor finally enters her chamber, he discovers not the woman we have been watching, but a chained up Dalek that still dreams of her human life. Matt Smith is especially good here, showing the pain in the Doctor's face as he gently explains to her what has happened.
The potent image of a Dalek breaking free from chains (first used in the memorable 2005 episode simply titled “Dalek”) is used as the story reaches its climax, with Oswin managing to help the Doctor achieve a victory despite her own fate. Earlier, she had saved the Doctor from the Daleks in the Intensive Care area by hacking into the Daleks' database and deleting their knowledge of him. Now, she drops the Asylum's forcefield and the Daleks above wipe out the planet as planned, but the Doctor and his friends are teleported back up to the ship, into the TARDIS. The Doctor emerges, and discovers to his delight that the Daleks no longer recognize him—Oswin's deletions have reached even here (and possibly to all Daleks everywhere).
Oswin-Dalek: “We have grown stronger, in fear of you.”
The Doctor: “I know—I tried to stop.”
Realizing that the endless conflict with the Doctor was actually helping the Daleks, Oswin has managed to break the cycle. It's an unexpectedly happy ending, in keeping with the now reconciled Amy and Rory cheerfully waving goodbye as the Doctor drops them off back on Earth—not only is the Doctor given the chance to extend his newly-desired anonymity, he doesn't have to keep re-fighting the great Time War which has loomed over him for so long. No doubt there will be more clashes with the Daleks in the future, but for the moment the Doctor no longer has to be “the Oncoming Storm,” the “Predator of the Daleks.” No wonder that the final shot is of him giddily dancing around the TARDIS console, on the way to all-new adventures.
Next Week: In keeping with Moffat's declared preference for stand-alone, “movie of the week” episodes this year, we have the Doctor Who version of Snakes on a Plane: it's time for “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Remembrance of the Daleks,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, kicked off the twenty-fifth season of the classic series in 1988. The Special Weapons Dalek which made a very memorable impression in this story can actually be seen in “Asylum of the Daleks,” among the group of Daleks which wake up and attack Rory. It's a fast-paced, densely plotted story which shows the classic series attempting something different with the Daleks, and is well worth checking out.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.