As River Song would say, “Spoilers.”
It’s a new season. We know it will be a season of change and of remembrance. We already know that the Ponds are headed for the fate of all of the Doctor’s companions. Everybody leaves. We’re still a few episodes away from what Arthur Darvill promises to be a tear-jerking yet satisfying separation, but the bridge is being built as the Doctor’s new companion is apparently introduced.
Also, the season thread is confirmed. Doctor who? It’s THE question that has been in front of all Whovians since William Hartnell was first dottering around the TARDIS. As with other season threads, the answer is not given here in episode one of the season….but the intrigue of learning “the answer” is a tantalizing possibility here as we approach the 50th anniversary.
This seems like a good time for me to toss out my Doctor Who “street cred” as a Cool Ship Doctor Who reviewer. I’ve been watching the Doctor since the early 80’s starting with PBS reruns on WUNC-TV in North Carolina. I’ll own up to not having seen every episode of Docs One and Two but I doubt there’s an episode from Three onward I haven’t seen. I helped run a Doctor Who viewing club in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for a few years, and I’ve treasured Doctor Who as one of my favorite TV shows ever. I’ve made it my mission to point out, to anyone who makes the mistake, that his name is NOT “Who”. He should never be referred to as such and also, for that matter, never as “Dr. Who.” He’s the definite article, as he’s been known to point out himself.
Which brings me to my assessment of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor up to this point. In the big scheme of Doctors, he’s probably in my top 5. He blends some of the clownish charm that I loved about the Second Doctor together with youthful energy that David Tennant so successfully brought to the table. We also see flashes of the dark side of the Doctor that Sylvester McCoy began to introduce in the final seasons of the classic Doctor era. He opens the series with a continuation of his strong characterization.
“Ah, Daleks”….or “Again?, Daleks”. I must confess to being somewhat conflicted about yet another Dalek episode. However, I think [Steven] Moffat has managed to find an unexplored idea when it comes to the Doctor’s career nemesis.
As the story begins, we find that the Doctor and the Ponds have apparently stopped travelling together for some time. It’s certainly been long enough for marital strife to have Amy and Rory on the brink of divorce. However, the Doctor and the Ponds quickly find themselves reunited: each of them abducted by strange human/Dalek hybrids and brought to the Parliament of Daleks with an unexpected request: “Save us!”
The Daleks demand that the crew go to the planetary Asylum of the Daleks and deactivate a damaged force field. This will allow the Daleks to destroy this massive collection of insane relatives, they had previously been reluctant to exterminate, before a mass escape floods the universe with millions of truly mad one-eyed cyborgs.
Before being sent to the planet, the crew is introduced to Oswin Oswalt (Jenna-Louise Coleman) through a broadcast from a crashed starship. Oswin has been fighting off Daleks (and baking soufflés) on the asylum-planet for about a year, apparently safely sealed off in the ship wreckage. The Doctor and the Ponds are given bracelets that will protect them from nanites that can turn any organic matter into what are essentially Dalek zombies.
The TARDIS crew is sent to the planet. Rory gets split off from the Doctor and Amy. Amy loses her protective bracelet and begins to turn Dalek. Oswin continually helps the Doctor and his companions remotely since she’s managed to hack into the Dalek systems.
I’ll allow you to view the details of how things get resolved for yourself, but in order to properly review this seventh season premier there are a couple of major details I need to report. So if you want things to remain spoiler free, from an episode resolution standpoint, stop reading now.
Still with me? Well first of all Rory and Amy resolve their marital problems happily. We learn that Amy’s inability to have any more children was what split them up and, of course, there’s nothing like the stress of being turned into a Dalek-human hybrid to force you to get real about your relationship.
The Doctor tries to rescue Oswin before they escape from the asylum planet but makes a heartbreaking and horrifying discovery. Oswin has been fully converted into a Dalek. Everything we “saw” of her in the episode was a fantasy world she had created for herself as she resisted the Dalek programming. The Doctor is forced to leave her behind. However, Oswin’s access to the Daleks lets her make one last strike on her captors before the asylum planet is destroyed. She removes all knowledge of the Doctor from the Dalek collective memory. Thus, we’re back to the season theme of “Doctor who?”
So, now that we’ve taken a look at the basic plot of Asylum of the Daleks, let’s consider how this episode ranks as a contribution to the Doctor Who mythos. I’m inclined to see this as a solid episode, but not a truly great one. Here’s what I liked.
Jenna-Louise Coleman has a charisma that promises she will be a worthy addition to the pantheon of companions. How she will be incorporated is still up in the air. Her early appearance in season seven leaves a lot of questions as to how she will actually take the screen. We seem to see her sad demise as a Dalek so obviously we will have to wait and see if the Doctor will be able to divert her apparent fate.
I love Amy and Rory. Rory has developed into one of the best male companions ever, in my opinion (not meaning to damn with faint praise). I hope that the apparent happy restoration of their relationship isn’t just leading us toward a tragic exit. However, their quick inclusion and dismissal of their marital problems seems a bit forced. The concept of what happens in the relationship between former Doctor companions is something that has been neglected for the most part, and obviously the Ponds have a few more episodes to develop their story before they exit, but on first glance this seems a bit abrupt.
Also striking a little blow against the episode, mostly just for cheap drama, is the much used promo scene of the Doctor carrying Amy’s lifeless body. This turned out to be a hugely disappointing red-herring when one considers how much prominence that scene has had in trailers.
As for other elements of this story that, to me, take a away from this episode: Frankly, I’m hoping that some of the things that I’d identify as plot holes will be cleared up in future episodes. The whole premise that the Daleks need the Doctor to turn off the shield in order to destroy the asylum planet seems a bit contrived. If a starship can crash on the surface it seems like there would be some way for the Daleks to deliver a death blow. Daleks being afraid to send a squad of their own to the planet seems farfetched as well. The Dalek-zombie idea is a nice new twist, but I’m a little unsure as to why they’d release nanites of this type on the Dalek asylum planet.
I suppose what bothers me is that the whole episode seems like a bit of what Alfred Hitchcock called a “McGuffin“. The Doctor being put in this position seems to just be a plot device to remove his name from the Dalek collective conscience. I rather thought that’s what the events in “The Wedding of River Song” was supposed to do anyway. The Daleks seem to be a bit dim in thinking that bringing the Doctor, aka the “Predator” or “The Oncoming Storm,” into their plan could end in anything other than disaster. At this point it seems like a weakness of the episode, though I’m fully prepared for Moffat to prove me wrong if it turns out that something bigger was going on here that we simply don’t yet understand.
So, overall, I thought it was a worthy episode that does add some new twists to the Dalek mythos. Character development was welcome, if a little rushed, and Coleman gives us reason to look forward to her stint as the next companion. There are plenty of reasons to look forward to good things ahead in this season.