A key reason why I’m such a stalwart fan of the Moffat era of Doctor Who (and do, in fact, prefer it to the Davies era, though David Tennant is still my Doctor) is its ability to constantly upset any sense of a comfort zone we might get as viewers. We’re now in our third year of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor and his companions, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and despite the fact that we’re now watching the longest continuous pairing of Doctor and Companion(s) in the history of the revived series, nothing about this show ever feels safe. The balance is constantly upset, and that element of uncertainty is even more prevalent now that we know the Ponds are about to make their exit in an as-yet-unknown way. With “Asylum of the Daleks,” Steven Moffat kicked off his third series as Doctor Who showrunner up to all his tricks, throwing plenty of curves into the story, putting the Ponds on already-shaky ground and introducing us to a new face (sort of).
NOTE: I will keep the first portion of this review as spoiler-free as possible, but near the end I’ll want to talk a bit about some major plot points, so there will be a SPOILER ALERT hitting you later on. Watch for it if you don’t want to know about something you haven’t seen.
A message from a mysterious woman ends in a trap for The Doctor, and he suddenly finds himself surrounded by the Parliament of the Daleks alongside Amy and Rory (who aren’t having the best time as man and wife at the moment). But this time, it’s not about the Daleks fighting to exterminate their old enemy (at least, no yet). This time, the Daleks have a mission for The Doctor: visit a legendary planet-sized asylum filled with crazy Daleks (yes, there are things even the Daleks consider to be unreasonable) and deactivate a force field so the Dalek parliament can purge the asylum of all those crazy exterminators. Of course, if he succeeds, The Doctor will probably be killed too, but at the moment he doesn’t have much of a choice.
On the asylum planet, the Doctor finds his two friends squabbling, a problem that seems nearly impossible to solve, and a mysterious woman stranded in a crashed spaceship communicating with him through the Dalek security system (because, apparently, she’s a genius). Oh, and the Daleks have a new trick: they can put themselves in human bodies.
Despite often inventing his own new adversaries for the Doctor, Moffat has said more than once that the Daleks have always been his favorite. But, as with the last Dalek stories he showed us, he’s not interested in exhibiting them in the form we’re used to. Odd as it might seem, there’s an element of raw, painful emotion to these creatures, and here it’s put front and center. Moffat shows us a world where Daleks, a species dominated by a searing hate for things that aren’t like them, can in fact become some overwhelmed by that emotion that even they go crazy. That’s intriguing in itself, but by the end of this episode Moffat has taken the mentally unstable Dalek conceit much, much further, and the result is a deep new layer in Who mythology that’s likely to keep resonating for a long time.
Moffat also shows us a new layer of Amy and Rory that few people could have expected: the unhappy one. Yes, we’ve seen them bicker for two years, but it’s not the same this time. It’s a deeper wound, one that could have big implications for their exit later, and that’s not even taking into account how this affects The Doctor. When these two elements – Amy and Rory and the crazy Daleks – combine, we get an episode that’s equal parts breakneck, plot-heavy joyride and deep-cutting, mythos-altering storytelling.
For me, “Asylum of the Daleks” actually managed to be a better season premiere than last year’s “The Impossible Astronaut” (an episode I really loved), not just because it returned the Daleks to the forefront, but because it set up something bigger than “Will the Doctor die?” which is a question that has a very obvious answer. Something big is happening here that, though we only have a few episodes to explore, could dig into the Doctor’s inner darkness more than Moffat ever has before, and that’s saying something.
Now comes the part where we talk SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen the episode yet, look away now.
Seriously, I’m not holding anything back past this point, so if you don’t want to know things….
Still here? OK
So, obviously the first thing we have to talk about is the appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman, the Doctor’s new Companion, a good while before most people expected her to show (a lot of people, including me, were guessing Christmas special). And not only did she show up, but she had a big role to play in this story. It’s interesting for several reasons, but the thing that occurred to me first is that we usually don’t see the new Companion until the old one(s) has gone. Usually the Doctor simply happens upon his new friends in the midst of an adventure, but Moffat promised us something different here, and we definitely got it. And then the big bombshell came: Oswin (Coleman’s character) is only formerly human. She’s been converted into a Dalek, but she’s still holding on to her human identity. So, as it turns out, she’s the craziest Dalek of them all. But she made an impression on The Doctor. Unlike some previous companions, she’s not intimidated by him or blown away by his power (she’s a bit like Donna in that respect). She can hang with him verbally, she’s sassy and smart and funny and she’s definitely got some kind of edge going on. But how will Moffat work around the whole Dalek thing? Time will tell.
Then, there’s the news that Amy and Rory are on the verge of divorce when we first rejoin them, only to be reunited after a very poignant resolution of their issues by episode’s end. That’s all well and good, but really look at what happened there. The big implication is that they probably would never have reconciled had it not been for The Doctor. Last season was all about how The Doctor hurts the ones he loves, even if he doesn’t mean to. Will this year be about the tragedy of Amy and Rory’s dependence on The Doctor? It certainly seems to be skewing that way, and if that’s really the case it could be the seed of their downfall.
Next week: “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”