Warning: this review contains spoilers. The spoiler-free one is here.
7.1 Asylum Of The Daleks
“Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you“.
At some point, once the dust has settled around Asylum Of The Daleks, it might be worth us all having a big old chat about the definition of an ‘acceptable spoiler’. Because, as you probably figured out, a pretty enormous one managed to get to the transmission of the episode fully intact. At the advanced screening we were lucky enough to attend, Steven Moffat specifically requested said spoiler be kept under wraps, and fortunately, everyone complied. But we’ve seen the very fact that Moffat even requested that we keep a big surprise reported. So does that, in itself, constitute a spoiler? We’re genuinely interested.
But back to the surprise in question itself. After all, we were told that we wouldn’t be seeing Doctor Who’s incoming companion, Jenna-Louise Coleman, until the Christmas special. But not for the first time, there was a little bit of fibbing. Because there she was! Not just appearing five episodes early, not just taking everyone by surprise, but also, uh seemingly doomed.
Companions have wriggled out of tight spots before, but it will be interesting to see how Coleman’s character – going by the name of Oswin here – manages to get out of being a Dalek. That’s been a bit of a dead end, historically, for a character in Doctor Who. So this sets up something intriguing for us to speculate over until year end. While we’re speculating, we might want to consider how the Doctor heard her voice so clearly as human rather than Dalek, too, until the other shoe finally dropped. Also, why not throw in that the planet she was apparently on BLEW UP. But these are just little concerns . . .
Looking at Asylum Of The Daleks specifically, we suspected when we first saw it that it might be a bit of a divisive episode. After all, Steven Moffat’s first full-length Dalek story is as interested in the marriage of Amy and Rory as it is in the Time Lord’s most infamous foes. That’s certainly not going to excite everyone.
But we like it. There are only a few stories left with Amy and Rory, and what Asylum Of The Daleks has done is shift the focus back to their relationship. In the past, it was Rory who waited, Rory who did the chasing, and Rory who appeared to be the one most committed to their marriage. I mean seriously, he’s died enough times for them.
This time, though, in an episode that puts them on the cusp of divorce and, in a nice twist, sees the Doctor capable of fixing things he’s not expected to, we learn that guess what? Amy needs Rory just as much as he needs her. We also learn that it’s Amy’s inability to have children that apparently fatally damaged the relationship, and the reason she hasn’t fought for them. Rory doesn’t see fertility issues as the be all and end all, though, and they end up back together.
Crucially, both Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan are in top form, delivering scenes the like of which we’ve never seen between Doctor Who companions before. They sell the idea that the horrors Rory and Amy have been through torn them both apart and, paradoxically, left them inseparable. They both actually needed each other as much all along, and only on the precipice of splitting once and for all can Amy finally admit that to him. And all this in the middle of a Saturday night family show.
This is not the end of Amy and Rory’s story though, and Asylum Of The Daleks leaves them, arguably, at their most even keeled and happy, and no doubt set to be put through the wringer again. That’s for the next few weeks, though.
The Daleks, meanwhile, get a bit of an evolution here (and while their name may be in the title, they hardly dominate the episode). Moffat isn’t interested in a traditional tale of Daleks being on the edge of winning, and then, yet again, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead, when we meet them – after being introduced to an evolved version that has Dalek apparatus protruding from human beings (which is certainly better than the Dalek hybrid of yore and something that leaves open a new way for them to be used in the future) – they’re as good as defeated. And that’s why, this time, they send for the Doctor.
They seem to find him very easily, as it happens, which begs the question as to why they’ve screwed around with him so much in the past. But Moffat sticks a line in, early in the episode to deal with that little glitch. Anyway, the Daleks need him to take on a suicide mission – after he’s had a quick pre-credits journey to Skaro (which, as you may recall, was destroyed back in the excellent Remembrance Of The Daleks) – to head down to a particularly dangerous planet on their behalf.
The planet in question is the Dalek’s asylum, the place where all the broken, damaged and scarred Daleks go. Genius! The vast majority appear to be dormant, and that means the tone of this section of the episode is more along the lines of a tense horror flick than any kind of action spectacular. The big screen parallel could very well be John Carpenter’s take on The Thing, although the enemy here is often in plain sight, just not functioning properly.
We were told that every variant of Dalek ever conceived of would be on display. But ultimately we didn’t really get to see that much of too many of them (although the broad Dalek Parliament scenes are impressive for sheer scale alone). It’s a bit of a shame, as we would have loved to see some of the older models back at work. That was simply not to be on this occasion, though.
Instead, what we get, and what makes the Daleks here really work, is something a bit smaller. And as a result, it’s also something that injects tension back into the Daleks. Director Nick Hurran delivers excellent work, embracing the also-strong production and sound work on display (frankly, the sound design rarely gets enough credit), to wring the most out of Daleks slowly stirring from their slumber. It all recalls the 2005 episode Dalek in some respects, in the fact that Asylum Of The Daleks does its damnedest to communicate that even just one of the infernal things is a lethal beast in its own regard. They feel like a threat again, and that’s no mean feat.
Also, it’s interesting that Moffat continues the reset work he began at the end of the last series. Theoretically, everyone believed The Doctor was dead when the end credits ran, although the Daleks (and presumably others) obviously didn’t buy that. But now, Oswin has found a way to wipe the Doctor from the Daleks’ collective memory. The Doctor’s mortal enemies not recognizing him anymore? That leaves their ongoing battle in a quasi-fascinating position, for the first time in a long while.
So then: does this all make for the best Dalek episode of Doctor Who? No, but it’s a really good one. Take the ingredients it injects above and beyond battling the Daleks, and that makes this episode even better. With an additional sprinkling of Moffat’s witty dialogue, it’s a confident and ambitious start to a big series for Doctor Who. This opener packs a lot in, and you can feel that there’s been a real effort to deliver the kind of one-off weekly blockbuster that we’ve been teased with. It certainly gets series seven of the revived show off to a strong start, even if it doesn’t seem to introduce threads quite as tempting as those from The Impossible Astronaut and Day Of The Moon. However, there’s no shortage of dark edges here.
So, an impressive opener. But we still have to end with the Oswin questions. At one point in the episode, Amy has her mind clouded and sees people where there are actually Daleks. Has the Doctor fallen prey to that, too? Is that why he can hear Oswin’s voice, rather than the sound of a Dalek? How is Oswin going to get from the inside of a Dalek to the Christmas special intact? And was she really there, or is someone messing with our heads again (because if she was, she seems a bit, uh, DEAD)? That’s right Mr. Moffat we’re looking at you…
We look forward to finding out the answers to all our questions and, thanks to a confident performance from Jenna-Louise Coleman, we also look forward to meeting her character again. Before that, though, there are more episodes to enjoy, starting with the small matter of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship next week. Here’s hoping it maintains the level set by Asylum Of The Daleks.
Isn’t it good to have Doctor Who back?