As season premieres go, out of 10, “Asylum of the Daleks” gets an 11. I’m not prepared to anoint it the best of the revived series yet, but it’s certainly a contender. By turns creepy, breathless, fun, resonant, sad, scary, hopeful, nostalgic and even informative, I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the opener. It reflected on the Doctor’s amazingly long history with the Daleks (He first met them in the second story of the series, waaay back in 1963!) and still managed to reveal new facets of the Daleks, proving that they are still evolving after all these years.
The story, in a nutshell, is a simple quest. The Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are kidnapped by the Daleks who dispatch them to their legendary prison planet, the Asylum, which is packed with insane, damaged and battle-scarred Daleks. The planetary containment field was damaged by the crashing starliner Alaska, and the thought of the force field collapsing and allowing a planet of insane Daleks to ravage the universe frightens even ruling Parliament of the Daleks. Too scared to do the job themselves, the Dalek send the Doctor and his companions to turn off the shield from inside, so the Daleks can bombard the planet and destroy it. But there’s one more problem: The Doctor makes contact with a human survivor aboard Alaska: Oswin Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman).
The first thing that struck me about this story was the resonance with the 1979 classic “Genesis of the Daleks,” in with the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions Sarah (Lis Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) were plucked out of time by the Time Lords and brought to Skaro and tasked with destroying the Daleks before Davros can finish creating them. “Asylum was like a funhouse mirror version of that story. Here, the Doctor and his pals are given wristbands to ward off the effects of a “nanocloud” that converts all tissue into Dalek agents. In “Genesis,” the Doctor was given a Time Band that would return him when the mission was completed.
The ravaged Dalek homeworld, Skaro, was haunting, with its ruins and rain – all the more so because the Doctor is responsible for its current state, either as a result of the Time War, or the effects of deployment of the Hand of Omega (“Remembrance of the Daleks”). You could tell it was Skaro because the set designer did not forget the trademark curved doorways of Kaled and Thal architecture from “The Mutants.” And then there was the fact that the Doctor met his contact, Darla (Anamaria Marinca), inside a massive statue of a Dalek. (A foreshadowing of the Big Reveal at the end, eh?)
Similarly, all the other references to history were fun, like calling out the survivors of Spiridon, Kembell, Exxillon, Irridius, Vulcan – Daleks who had survived battles with the Doctor himself. This is, however, the first time I’ve heard the Daleks refer to the Doctor as the “Predator.” When he tried to jog their memories at the end by calling himself “The Oncoming Storm,” it meant nothing to them. Heck, Amy even called the Doctor “Raggedy Man” again!
Speaking of Amy and Rory, it was heartbreaking to see their marriage in tatters. I’m glad Amy was finally smart enough to tell Rory why she was pushing him away: “I didn’t kick you out, I gave you up.” I’ve seen way too many soap operas in my career in which way too much heartbreak could have been avoided with one sentence of dialogue. The Amy/Rory reconciliation was truly moving. Of course Rory, the Boy Who Waited, who not let the fact that Amy can’t have any more children sway his l love for her. And the fact that letting love back into her heart held back the Dalek conversion was just a bonus (and a callback to “Victory of the Daleks,” no?)
The climax of the story, when “Oswin” turned out to be the lingering human personality in a full Dalek conversion, reinforced the idea of how much the Doctor hates the Daleks. He despises them above all others. Daleks are the only things in the universe that the Doctor insists be killed on sight! (Remember in the story “Dalek,” when the Ninth Doctor realized van Statten had a Dalek in his lab? He instantly began screaming “Kill it! Kill it!”) And the Doctor is absolutely terrified of the Daleks more than anything else. Just look at the way the Doctor found himself cowering against walls as they advanced on him! It didn’t matter that this particular “humanized” Dalek, Oswin, had helped him; the Doctor would not help it in return. “You are a Dalek!” the Doctor hissed when it asked for help in return for helping him. That sort of selective compassion is the Doctor’s alien side kicking in.
How wonderful was Oswin, anyway? She was smart, sassy, sexy, flirty and fun; the kind of person worth rescuing! And that led to the biggest shock of the story, by far: Coleman as Oswin. We all know she has been cast as the new companion who joins the Doctor in this year’s Christmas special (as a character reportedly named “Clara”), yet here is the very same actress playing a (presumably) different character! It is a puzzlement. It’s hard to believe that Oswin and Clara will turn out to be the same character, meaning that she dies the first time the Doctor meets her and then their relationship is later filled in backward, because that’s already the story of River Song. Speculation could go in any direction, so it’s probably best for me to just wait for more information. But I will say it definitely seems significant that the Doctor never saw Oswin’s human form, so he won’t recognize her if he encounters her again. Also, at the end, Oswin said, “Remember me.” Coleman was particularly good if you consider that all her scenes were performed alone; she had no one to play off. Oswin spent the episode looking at and speaking to a scanner.
On the downside, the idea of Amy being co-opted by the nanocloud and turned into a Dalek weapon was just too similar to her problem in “The Time of Angels.” It also seemed a bit unlikely that a Dalek teleport beam could enter the sealed TARDIS, but if anyone could do it, the Doctor can.
The story ended on an almost uncharacteristic giddy note, with the Doctor dancing through the console room, joyfully reciting “Doctor Who?” over and over. It’s not hard to see why he’s so happy: The universe at large believes the Doctor to be dead, and now the entire Dalek race has had its memories of the Doctor erased. That’s exactly what he wanted at the end of “The Wedding of River Song,” because he realized he’d become too big a name and too well-known. Now he’s a sort of “urban myth” of the universe. “Doctor… who?”
Lines of the Week:
“Well, this is new” – The Doctor, in response to the Parliament of the Daleks chanting “Save the Daleks!”
“I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. You think hatred is beautiful.” – The Doctor, to the Dalek Prime Minister, after he revealed that the Daleks did not kill the mutations because they consider “divine hatred” to be beautiful
“Don’t be fair to the Daleks when they’re firing me at a planet!” – the Doctor, to Rory
“We have grown stronger in fear of you.” – Oswin the Dalek, explaining how the threat of the Doctor made the Daleks more and more dangerous