You may remember that I wasn’t a big fan of Doctor Who‘s sixth season. “Not a big fan” might be an understatement, actually. I thought the whole thing was a mess, featuring a nonsensical season-long arc, an unrelenting focus on all the life-story minutia of a secondary character whose every strength lay in not knowing her story, and Amy and Rory as new parents who inexplicably stop looking for their kidnapped newborn baby — stop even caring enough to look — once they find out who their baby grows up to be. Looking back, calling it “a mess” might be an understatement, too.
So, while I was excited for the seventh season to start on September 1, I was also nervous. Would showrunner Steven Moffat fumble the ball again? Would the new series devolve into the equivalent of the mid-1980s Doctor Who, with the stories getting more and more ridiculous and unwatchable? Well, the good news is, “Asylum of the Daleks,” the first episode of the seventh season, isn’t all that bad. In fact, it has quite a lot going for it as an adventure story. It’s just…well, don’t look too closely at the details.
SPOILERS FOLLOW! ALSO, A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF DOCTOR WHO NEEPERY!
Of course, I’m one for looking at the details quite a bit when it comes to Doctor Who, because it’s been one of my favorite TV shows since childhood. And when I look closely at the details of “Asylum of the Daleks,” I can’t help but pick it apart.
First, the story in a nutshell. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory are kidnapped by the Daleks and forced to beam down (yes, beam down) to the never-before-mentioned Asylum of the Daleks, a prison planet where all the most messed up and insane Daleks are relegated, because plot. There, they find Oswin, the sole survivor of a downed spacecraft, who helps them perform their plot duties while evading the completely insane and thankfully mostly-dormant Daleks. Oh, and Amy and Rory’s marriage is on the rocks because
plot stupid, but by the end everything’s okay again. Also, Oswin taps some keys on her keyboard and makes all the Daleks in the universe forget the Doctor. Um, yeah. More on that later.
The story actually starts with the Doctor being lured to Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks, despite the fact that he already destroyed Skaro in the 1988 serial “Remembrance of the Daleks,” and the fact that it was retconned back into existence, apparently, and destroyed again, or at least time-locked, in the Time War. But yeah, okay, Skaro. It’s a trap, and the trap works, only instead of finally killing the Doctor like they’ve been trying to do for the past 900 years, they just knock him out and take him to one of their ships. Way to go, Daleks. No wonder you always lose.
Unfortunately, when we first see Amy this episode it is an immediate reminder of the worst decision Moffat and crew made last year. Namely, that Amy is now a fashion model. So we first see her at a fashion shoot, and every moment of that scene is like a slap in the face to anyone who gives a shit about Amy, because, as I’ve said before, the writers apparently can’t think of anything else to do with this fierce, loyal, brave, intelligent character except have her make a living off her looks. But then, I may be asking too much of the people who decided from the start that her job would be kiss-o-gram girl. (Seriously, even back in the 1960s the female companions went on to do things that actually mattered.) Rory shows up to get her to sign divorce papers, and then they’re both kidnapped by the Daleks, too. Later in the episode we learn Amy and Rory still love each other, but she discovered she can’t have kids anymore after whatever they did to her at Demon’s Run (“A Good Man Goes to War”) and Rory always wanted kids, so she decided to “let him go.” Without explaining why. She just kicks him out of the house one day. I’m sorry, what? How fucked up is she? Rory, dude, walk away! As for the rest of us, time to stop caring about Amy. Though perhaps it was time to stop caring about her last season, when she gave up looking for her kidnapped infant daughter for no reason.
Apparently, there’s a never-before-mentioned Parliament of the Daleks, with a prime minister and everything. Dalek democracy? I wonder how the Emperor Dalek feels about that! (Also, there sure are a lot of Daleks left after the Time War! Weren’t they all supposed to have been destroyed or taken out of time or something?) What do the Daleks need a parliament for? They exist for a single purpose: to dominate the universe. What is there for the parliament vote on, then? Taxes? The allocation of funds to Skaro roads and schools? How high their squealing mechanical voices should go when they’re agitated?
We also get to see the never-before-mentioned Dalek puppets, which are essentially people who have Dalek eyestalks that burst out of their foreheads and Dalek guns that come out of their palms. Something something nanotechnology. It looks ridiculous and makes no biological or tactical sense. Given the nature of the Daleks, it would also be an abomination to them. You’re either a Dalek or you’re not, and if you’re not, it’s extermination time. This whole thing is more akin to something the Cybermen would do, really. But the scene with the Dalek puppet corpses coming to life was aces and well worth the ridiculousness that got us there, so I can accept it.
What I cannot accept as easily is the concept of the Daleks having a never-before-mentioned Internet-like hive-mind that Oswin can simply hack into and remove all references and memories of the Doctor from, so that when he beams (yes, beams) back to the Parliament of the Daleks space ship when the mission is over they don’t recognize him and all start chanting “Doctor who? Doctor who?” like we didn’t hear enough of that at the end of season six. The hive-mind, too, is far more of a Cybermen idea than a Dalek one. The Daleks don’t require a telepathic Internet. Daleks aren’t cyborgs. They’re mutated Kaleds from Skaro who live inside mobile battle tanks. Sometimes they’re mutated other life forms, like humans. That’s it. There’s no telepathy to them, and no shared cyborg database. They’re organic. It’s the Cybermen who aren’t. Get it straight, Moffat.
But despite all my nitpicking, as an adventure it works, basically. The asylum is creepy, thanks to Nick Hurran’s direction, and at one point Amy has a hallucinatory moment that is worthy of The Shining. Also, the story pulls a fantastic bait-and-switch with Oswin at the end. When the Doctor goes through the door to where Oswin is supposedly living, the look on his face tells us something is wrong. I expected to see her skeleton and learn there was some sort of time differential happening. Instead, they did something even cooler. (I won’t spoil it here, but it’s bound to come up in comments, as is the appearance of someone I’m very surprised they were able to keep secret before the episode aired, so consider yourself warned.)
There were also some wonderful callbacks to classic Who, namely in the scene where the Doctor learns the names of the planets where some of the battle-scarred, PTSD Daleks came from, and realizes they were all places where he fought and defeated them: Spiridon (1973′s “Planet of the Daleks”), Kembel (1965′s “The Daleks’ Master Plan”), Exxilon (1974′s “Death to the Daleks”), Aridius (1965′s “The Chase”), and Vulcan (1966′s “Power of the Daleks”). “They’re the Daleks who survived me,” the Doctor realizes.
Also appearing for a brief cameo is the Special Weapons Dalek, also from “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but unfortunately it seemed to be among the dormant Daleks in the asylum. Too bad. It would have been cool to see it in action again.
So, overall, “Asylum of the Daleks” is an enjoyable adventure, but full of sloppy continuity and character moments that don’t gibe. Its worst sin, though, is that it’s not scary. Daleks are supposed to be scary. When Daleks show up, it means half a planet will be destroyed. It means lots and lots of people will die. In this episode, it means none of those things. Steven Moffat once said the Daleks were becoming the most easily defeated villains in the series because of how often they appear. If only he’d listened to himself and written an episode that makes Daleks scary again. Instead, he turned them into fools.