It’s been a long eight months since the Doctor helped that terribly British lady save her terribly British children from a certain terribly British children’s story-inspired doom at Christmas, and Who related questions have been dangling in the air like so much forgotten tinsel ever since: What are the Fields Of Trenzalore? Have we heard the last of River? How will Amy and Rory’s (much publicized) departure go down? And just what is the deal with the Doctor’s new Companion?
While some questions remain very much unanswered, on that last one we got some tidbits, if not ones that were paradoxical and ultimately tragic. But first, a recap…
When last we left the Doctor he’d said his goodbyes to Amy and Rory, leaving them to live a happy life of marital bliss – not that that lasted – where Amy becomes a model and Rory hopefully at some point remembers that he’s a nurse. The Doctor’s off on his own lonesome and… is that it? That seems all that’s relevant.
And now on to the titular asylum.
I’ve never cared for the Daleks. As someone whose first interaction with Who was in the Russell T Davies years (in fact, in the Donna season and then retroactively worked my way through RTD’s tenure) I don’t have the nostalgia of the Daleks being the Big Bad of old. They’ve always seemed cumbersome, outdated and – from a writer’s point of view, a cardinal sin – always talked about as being terrifying while never actually being so. When you stack them up against enemies like The Weeping Angels or The Silence, whose presence alone was enough to terrify young ‘uns and older ‘uns alike, they don’t really match up.
Has Asylum Of The Daleks done much to change this opinion? Well, yes and no.
By opening the story with the Doctor, Amy and Rory being kidnapped by Dalek Skinjobs (to borrow a term from Battlestar Galactica) it opens the door for Daleks hiding in plain sight and pretending to be human. The episode also alludes to the idea that some people may well be Skinjobs without even knowing it (to borrow a… major plot point from Battlestar Galactica) and that opens up a whole Pandorica of issues around identity and morality.
Post-kidnap, the Doctor and his darling-but-going-to-get-divorced duo are asked for help from the Dalek Parliament and sent to a planet where insane Daleks are kept – though what Rorschach Test is being used to diagnose them is anybody’s guess. A crack has opened up in the Asylum’s shield, you see, and the Doctor has been tasked to fix it. So far, all fine, nothing too strange.
That is, until they come upon a young woman named Oswin. Anyone who’s kept even a cursory eye on news websites will have known that (possible but not likely SPOILER) Jenna-Louise Coleman will be taking over from Amy and Rory as Companion later this year, so it was a little shocking to see her arrive six episodes early and at the heart of a Dalek prison. What was even more shocking was how the episode ended.
But first, the trio arrived on the Dalek planet, encountered some more Skinjobs – living and dead – and eventually found themselves in a position where Rory and Amy could start really talking about why they were getting themselves a divorce.
If I’ve skipped over some things along the way, then it’s with good reason. For an ingenue, this episode had some thrilling moments as Amy and Rory tried to run from the zombie Daleks and Amy became infected and hallucinated Daleks as humans (which was, granted, filmed in a beautifully David Lynch way). The problem for me was that so many of the ideas in this episode – penned by show-runner Stephen Moffatt – are ones we’ve seen before. Amy infected and slowly fading away? See “Flesh And Stone”. Zombies infected by nanogenes? See “The Empty Child”. Love as a cure for evil? See “Closing Time”, “The Last Of The Time Lords” and many others. Crazed and delirious Daleks? See… every Dalek episode.
Even the concept of the asylum was never really brought to fruition, as a planet entirely populated by rogue Daleks is one you’d expect to have some form of pecking order, inter-Dalek fighting, and more specific set pieces instead of generic room after generic room with Daleks to fight.
This isn’t to say that the episode was bad, not by a long shot, but if you look at the wealth of ideas that last season’s opener “The Impossible Astronaut” brought to the table it felt overly simplistic. You could argue that the complexity of that opener lead to the messy finale that was “The Wedding Of River Song”, but either way it’s hard to argue that a Dalek is in any way more unsettling than a Silent.
What brought the episode back into its own was the climax of two particular stories. Rory and Amy’s relationship was patched up a little too quickly, but the conversation that got us there was effective. Rory bluntly said what the audience have been thinking for years: that he loves Amy more than she loves him. Amy then retorted by revealing that she’d kicked him out because she was unable to have kids after whatever was done to her at Demon’s Run (though we know from all that “Push” talk from Madame Kovarian that it wasn’t Cesarean anyway). It’s not the most logical reason in the world, especially from a character like Amy, but Darvill and Gillan sold it well.
The second, and truly heart-breaking, revelation was the fate of Oswin. Jenna-Louise Coleman managed throughout the episode to toe the line between intelligence and arrogance, her wit bouncing off the Doctor, Rory and Amy throughout. She was likeable, witty, and – unlike most Companions – had the brains and technological know-how to back it up. Which made the reveal all the more painful. Oswin had not survived her ship’s crash after all, and instead had been turned into a full-blown Dalek shortly after arrival. The Doctor discovered her in her pepper pot state, broke the news, and all of a sudden the new Companion’s arrival was looking a lot less straight-forward.
So a strong opening episode this season, which leaves many questions about both our future Companion and our current ones (Rory and Amy did return home after the events of Asylum). The question that must never be answered – “Doctor Who?” – still hangs in the air, our protagonist has been wiped from the collective Dalek memory thanks to Oswin’s help, and next week we can look forward to dinosaurs on a spaceship.
Par for the course, then.
– Not much was made of how the Doctor should be in hiding so that The Silence and Madame Kovarian don’t realise he survived last season’s events. Though the Dalek memory wipe thematically fits into that.
– A bit wary of next week’s historical figures vs. big idea gimmickry, but it could work if Rory’s Dad is handled well.
– I love when characters are summed up not just in facts but in rebus’ – the souffle and the music from Carmen are charming ones for Oswin.
– I did suspect something was up with Oswin, mainly that she either wasn’t on the planet at all or that she was time-shifted out. Not this, though.
– That lady is Oswin’s mother, right? It seemed odd to open the episode with references to her daughter lost on the planet, have the Doctor confirm that it’s true, then show a young woman about the right age trapped on the planet. Would give the Skinjobs more empathy.
– Still, though, can we get through the rest of the season without much Dalek-ness? Or if so can they all be quieter emotional stories like this one’s denouement?
– Each time the Doctor calls Rory “Mr. Pond” I’m reminded how ridiculous it is that women feel obliged to change their names after getting married.
– “First guy I ever fancied was called Rory. Actually, no, she was called Nina. I was going through a phase.”
– It’s interesting how the Doctor addressed Oswin in Dalek form, with strong hatred in his voice. It shows the bias he still has against them, no matter how innocent their victim may be.
– Unsettling how many reviews felt obliged to mention the sexiness or cuteness of Coleman. Everyone from The Guardian to AV Club can’t seem to escape this reduction.