Oh my dear, sweet baby Jesus, Steven Moffat. How is it that you managed to find something new to do with the Daleks, the most overplayed and overhyped (IMHO. Sorry!) alien in the show’s history? I’ll admit it, when I heard that the first episode of the seventh season was called “Asylum of the Daleks,” I rolled my eyes. Daleks?! I thought. Again? Can’t we be done with Daleks for a while? It’s a big universe! Surely there are other threats and other potential nemeses?
But then you go and do this and it’s the most brilliant thing you’ve done on Doctor Who since creating Reinette and inventing the Weeping Angels.
Not that this episode was perfect, mind you. There were a couple of things that niggled at me.
But on the whole? BRILLIANT.
Note: Abandon this post, ye who fear spoilers. For this post shall be spoiler-tastic. Spoiler-iffic, even.
We’ve jumped ahead to a point in time when the Ponds (or the Williamses) are having marital trouble and getting a divorce. Meanwhile, the Doctor (Matt Smith) has been called to Skaro by a mysterious woman who claims to have a daughter in a Dalek prison camp that she wants him to save. The Doctor quickly realizes that he’s been lured into a trap, but not before he, as well as Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), are transported into the Parliament of the Daleks.
Yet, they haven’t been brought there for extermination, as one might expect, but because the Daleks need the Doctor’s help. They want him to assist them in destroying a planet they call the Asylum, the place where the malfunctioning, insane, or otherwise imperfect Daleks are sent to rot. The Doctor discovers that there’s a human trapped on the Asylum, a young woman named Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman) who’s crash landed on the planet and has been trapped for a year, fending for herself in her ship while ingeniously keeping the Daleks at bay with her brilliant hacking skills.
The Doctor is determined to save Oswin before destroying the Asylum, but runs into trouble along the way. Specifically, a ward full of Daleks that he has personally driven mad. Oswin can’t get the Doctor to safety, but she can hack into the Daleks’ collective memory, their telepathically shared knowledge, and delete all knowledge of the Doctor. With the Daleks now unaware of who he is, the Doctor pulls off the hat trick of destroying the Asylum, saving Amy and Rory’s marriage, and getting to Oswin. However, when he arrives at Oswin’s space he discovers a horrifying truth.
Oswin is a human who’s been converted into a Dalek, and the homey ship she thought she’d been inhabiting was actually all in her mind, a defense mechanism against the fact that she was actually now trapped in a Dalek body. (Oswin is a genius and the Daleks need geniuses.) In an assertion of her lingering humanity, she cannot bring herself to kill the Doctor when her Dalek nature starts to take over. She allows the Doctor, Amy, and Rory to escape by disengaging the forcefield, which would also allow the Asylum to be destroyed, and asks the Doctor to remember her in her humanity.
New Ideas About Daleks
One of the best things about “Asylum of the Daleks” was the introduction of what are essentially Dalek skin-jobs. Giving the Daleks the technology to escape their clunky metal casings and infiltrate as people adds an entirely new element of horror to them. One of the things I always thought the Cybermen had on the Daleks, despite them being “better at dying,” was the fact that they (like the Borg after them), assimilated human beings, cutting them up and attaching metal bits in an attempt to make them “better.” The Daleks, of course, aren’t interested in making humanity better. What they need are vessels, pure and simple, which makes their use of human bodies that much colder. Colder still is that these human vessels get to retain just enough of their memories and personalities as is deemed useful. Moffat has said that he wanted to make the Daleks “scary again,” and he succeeded.
There was also a moment of insight into Dalek philosophy which I thought was interesting. The Dalek Prime Minister explains that the reason why the Daleks don’t just destroy the damaged/inferior Daleks right off the bat is because they believe hatred is too beautiful to extinguish. When the Doctor vents his disgust at the concept of hatred being beautiful, the Prime Minister retorts with “Are you surprised that the Daleks have a concept of beauty?” then says that it’s this concept of hatred-as-beauty that might be responsible for the Doctor still being alive after all these years. It made me think of the Batman/Joker relationship in the comics, and how the two are considered such perfect enemies that neither can do without the other. I think the same goes for the Doctor and the Daleks, and the Prime Minister acknowledging this was pretty amazing. It’s interesting to think that the Doctor might be alive not because of his cleverness, but because the Daleks hate him so much they deem him too beautiful to exterminate.
Lastly, the Doctor being erased from Dalek memory was a brilliant decision. I’m surprised that hasn’t been done before. How long before he earns the name Predator again? Or is this why the question “Doctor Who?” must never be answered? Because if it is, it means the Daleks have gotten stronger?
Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill stole the episode, and each did their most brilliant acting to date. This was Gillan’s finest performance since “The Girl Who Waited,” and it was amazing to watch her throughout the entire episode, because no matter what was happening with the Doctor or the Daleks, there was always the underlying current of her split from Rory. Darvill gave his most mature performance as Rory as he wrestled with the complexities of his crumbling marriage. Their chemistry together in this episode was breathtaking.
However, they had a difficult time completely stealing the episode, because Jenna-Louise Coleman nearly did that herself. Her performance broke my heart, because even as she’s verbally sparring with the Doctor or hacking Dalek technology, there was this underlying current of her desperately trying to go home, even after she realized she was a Dalek. Coleman has already proven to be a wonderful addition to the show.
The best part about the disintegration and subsequent salvaging of Amy and Rory’s marriage is the fact that Moffat touched upon the mistaken notion that Rory loves Amy more than Amy loves Rory, which is of course nonsense, and I was glad that the script (and Amy) called that out. Fans love Rory (rightfully so, he’s a great character), and his guarding the Pandorica for 2,000 years is always held up as the pinnacle of what a man in love should do.
Here’s the thing: 1) The number of years means less when you’re made of plastic. Granted, Rory probably would have waited the “rest of his life” to guard Amy...but I think we can all agree that waiting around is a lot easier when you don’t have to do silly things like eat or go to the bathroom. 2) Love isn’t something for which there is a standard unit of measure. Different people show love in different ways, and the thing that’s a sacrifice for one person is an easy thing for someone else to do. What matters is someone caring about someone else more than they care about themselves. That’s love.
Rory deserved getting slapped for holding up his 2,000 year stint as a security guard as a sign that he loved Amy “more,” because it cheapened what he did. You don’t do something out of love for someone only to hold it over their head later as proof that you’re an awesome person. That stops being love and starts being about ego. Rory has been blinded by his own insecurity for so long, and since viewers love him, so have many of them, and this often manifests itself as an irrational dislike of Amy. “Look at how she treats him! She’s so mean, and he’s so good!”
So many times, Rory’s insecurity told him that she wanted the Doctor, when really, whenever she talked about the hero that would save her, she was talking about him. She trusted and believed in Rory utterly. Amy has saved him as often as he’s saved her, and she has consistently chosen Rory over and over again even when, as in “Amy’s Choice” or “The Girl Who Waited,” choosing Rory meant sacrificing a version of her own existence. How do you measure which is more meaningful: waiting for someone for 2,000 years, or choosing the reality with Rory in it even if it means you’d be killing yourself in the process? You can’t. Amy and Rory’s relationship was never as black and white as “Rory Good, Amy Harpy,” and “Asylum of the Daleks” took a mature step forward in the handling of their relationship by examining these complexities.
However, one of the things that niggled at me was the fact that, once again, it was Amy who was dealt the “Alien Thing Is Inhabiting Me” card. It’s funny, I have less trouble with the “mystical pregnancy” thing, and Amy being River’s mother and all that than I do with Amy continually being a vessel for other things. Since women are the only ones who can be pregnant, if you want a storyline with a newborn child in it, it’s going to have to be a female character at the center of that. But things like having a Weeping Angel in one’s head, or actually being a Ganger double, or being in danger of becoming converted by the Daleks are none of them gender-specific. So, to have these different types of “impregnations” also continually befall Amy in addition to the pregnancy, keeping her inactive while the Doctor and Rory have to save her, is troubling.
All of the above relationship issues could have been examined had Rory been the one who was in danger of Dalek conversion. It would have been as simple as him denying Amy’s nano-field bracelet for the same reason he currently gives in the episode: “I don’t need your bracelet, Amy, because I love you more, so conversion will take longer.” Everything would’ve worked out exactly the same, and we wouldn’t have yet another example of Amy being taken over by an alien being. That’s three times that’s happened to Rory’s one. It is now officially Rory’s turn to be inhabited by the next alien that inhabits things.
The Doctor is always at his most irrational around the Daleks, and I both love and hate this. Love, because it makes the Doctor less than perfect, which is important. It is more powerful and satisfying when an imperfect hero makes the right decisions in the end. However, I hate it, because in his irrationality, the Doctor often chooses to do things that are generally “un-Doctor-like.” In the case of “Asylum of the Daleks” it was the Doctor talking a deranged Dalek into killing itself by activating its self-destruct command, then programming it to go backwards into a room full of other deranged Daleks so they could all go explode-y.
Was this clever? Sure. Was it understandable? Of course. But was it Doctor-like? Was it the way the Doctor typically handles, and counsels others to handle problems? Was he listening to his better angels? Here is where things get grey. I watched the episode with a friend, and afterwards I likened this act of the Doctor’s to someone giving a developmentally challenged person a bomb and then sending them into a hospital room full of other developmentally challenged people so that the bomb could kill them all. My friend said, “Well, yes. But in this case, it would be as if all those developmentally challenged people were also Nazis.” That may be, but I don’t think that makes the act of giving that developmentally challenged person the bomb any more noble. It would be a cheap shot.
The Doctor had a choice. Once he knew that the Dalek didn’t have the firepower to kill him, he could have run away. He didn’t. Instead, he used it as a weapon against its own kind, not out of self-defense, but out of anger. That room full of Daleks wasn’t about to attack anyone, and yet the Doctor took it upon himself to preemptively stop them in a move that did nothing to stop the larger Dalek threat. It was a cheap shot. What I think is interesting about the tone of the episode is that it’s unclear whether the Doctor should be praised or reprimanded for this act. The way it was presented, as a simple fact, I think it’s supposed to be up to the viewer to decide whether or not this particular act of the Doctor’s was a shining moment or not. To me, it was not. I don’t see this as a flaw in the episode, however; merely a flaw in the Doctor.
I am so in love with Oswin it hurts. She is an amazing character from top to bottom. Her fierce intelligence (and the fact that she’s tech-savvy), her wit and banter, the idealism bubbling up from underneath her snark, and the horrifying discovery of her true condition are all wonderful and brilliantly original.
Now here’s the thing. Oswin is played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, who’s widely been reported to be the Doctor’s new companion...named Clara...whom the Doctor will meet in the Christmas Special later this year...in Victorian England. Also, Oswin was on the Asylum planet which gets destroyed. While it is unlikely that Oswin survived that, it’s also very strange that Moffat would select one actress to play multiple parts, particularly in the same season. After all, Karen Gillan played a soothsayer on the show years before being cast as Amy Pond, and it’s not as if the soothsayer was as prominent a role as Oswin was. So they have to be related somehow.
Either Moffat is going “River Song” on us again, and giving us another female character that the Doctor meets out of order (who also happened to be named Clara before she was named Oswin), or the Clara name was a red herring in the first place (or else has been changed), and this Oswin person we’ve just met survives somehow and becomes the Doctor’s companion. I’m not sure which I would prefer. What I do know is that I am absolutely thrilled by the possibility of a Dalek companion for the Doctor, especially one so brilliant that she’d be capable of being more help to the Doctor than any of his other companions with legs who run around after him all the time. What would it mean for the Doctor to work alongside the kind of alien he’s been fighting for centuries? What would it mean for the Doctor to suddenly have a Dalek (and all the “exterminating” power therein) on his side in the TARDIS?
I really hope that, whatever or whoever the Doctor’s companion turns out to be, that we don’t lose Oswin. She’s wonderful.
“Asylum of the Daleks,” was a perfect start for the new season of Doctor Who, and accomplished so much story-wise without being a puzzle-box two-parter. I think (and hope) that Moffat is stepping away from the bloatedness of season six and getting back to basics. If this episode is anything to go on, it looks like Moffat is on track to do just that!
Doctor Who airs on BBC America Saturdays at 9PM ET.
Teresa Jusino is so happy that Doctor Who is back. Her Feminist Brown Person take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, PopMatters.com, and she’s recently joined Al Día, the #1 Spanish-language newspaper in Philadelphia, as a pop culture columnist. 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming non-fiction anthologies, and she is also a writer/producer on Miley Yamamoto’s upcoming sci-fi web series, RETCON, which is set to debut in 2013. For more on her writing, get Twitterpated with Teresa, “like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.