Doctor Who reviews: Asylum of the Daleks

Dalek Prime Minister: What do you know of the Dalek Asylum?
The Doctor: According to legend you have a dumping ground. A planet where you lock up all the Daleks that go wrong. The battle-scarred, the insane, the ones even you can’t control. Which never made any sense to me.
Dalek Prime Minister: Why not?
The Doctor: Because you’d just kill them.
Dalek Prime Minister: It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred.
The Doctor: Offensive?
Dalek Prime Minister: Does it surprise you to know that Daleks have a concept of beauty?
The Doctor: I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. But hello again. You think hatred is beautiful?
Dalek Prime Minister: Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.

“Asylum of the Daleks” is the premier episode of Doctor Who Series Seven, featuring Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams.  I have to say, it’s great that here in the States we are now getting to see brand  new episodes of Doctor Who so soon after their first airing in the UK.  For a long time, there would be a wait of two or three years for the shows to make it across the Atlantic.  But now they are aired on BBC America within a matter of a couple of days.

In any case, “Asylum of the Daleks” was a pretty good opening episode for the new season.  The Parliament of the Daleks has discovered that the human spaceship Alaska has crash-landed on their Asylum world, breaching a supposedly-impenetrable force field.  And if something can get in, then it follows that something could likewise get out.  Fearful that the insane inmates of the Asylum will break loose and attack their captors, the Parliament forcibly recruits the Doctor and his companions to travel to the planet and shut down the force shields, which will thereby enable the Dalek fleet to then obliterate the planet.

The Daleks have always been experts at manipulating other beings into doing their dirty work, often using deception, fear, or mind control as incentives.  All of these tools are on display in “Asylum of the Daleks,” taken up several notches.  They manipulate the Doctor, their arch-nemesis, into aiding them, something they already did once before in “Victory of the Daleks.”  More insidiously, we see the Daleks using nanogenes to convert innocent people into Dalek/human hybrids, twisted creatures that can be used as sleeper agents or weapons.  Even dead, these mutant beings are still useful, becoming zombies armed with Dalek technology.  There is some unsettling material in “Asylum of the Daleks,” as the Daleks casually twist and pervert humanity into tools they can use.  Writer Steven Moffat very much restores the Daleks’ stature as beings of almost pure evil in this story, and Nick Hurran’s excellent direction imbues them with a real sense of menace.

I did think it was rather clever that at least some of the inmates of the Asylum were Daleks who had survived encounters with the Doctor during their past campaigns.  The Doctor has the unique ability to wear down the patience of even his closest friends.  So for a species such as the Daleks, who are obsessed with overcoming him, being defeated by him would no doubt be enough to drive them insane.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

One of the reasons why the Doctor agrees to go along with the Dalek Parliament’s plans is because at least one member of the Alaska’s crew survived the crash, a computer genius named Oswin, portrayed by Jenna-Louise Coleman.  Oswin has been stranded on Asylum for a year now, wrecking havoc with the planet’s infrastructure and baking soufflés while zinging witty bon mots.  At first, with her unnatural grace under fire and her quick-witted repartee, I had almost written off Oswin as yet another of Moffat’s uber-competent heroines along the lines of Amy and River Song.  But right from the start, there are hints that all is not what it seems with Oswin, and the Doctor picks up on these right away.  When he finally discovers the truth about her, it is a truly horrifying, tragic revelation.  I don’t know if other viewers saw it coming, but I certainly did not.

There is also a subplot concerning the impending dissolution of Amy and Rory’s marriage.  Amy has become a high fashion model and is seemingly ready to chuck her relationship with Rory in the rubbish, casually signing divorce papers right before the two of them are kidnapped by the Daleks to join up with the Doctor.  Towards the end of the episode, we finally learn why Amy is so ready to throw in the towel.  It does seem incredulous that this is a topic that she never even attempted to discuss with Rory before, putting up a false appearance of indifference.  That said, the actual scene where Rory forces Amy to admit what is going on is in and of itself well written, and both Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan play in marvelously.

I mentioned before Oswin’s flair for witticisms.  If there is one overriding criticism that I’ve had with Doctor Who since its revival, first under Russell T Davies and now with Steven Moffat, it is that both of them have often made too much of an effort at penning this sort of rapid-fire, clever, ultra-self aware dialogue.  I much prefer it when the scripting goes more low-key.  Some of the best scenes in “Asylum of the Daleks” are the more restrained ones.  Matt Smith is especially good at taking these very big, emotional moments of anger, excitement, or sadness, and underplaying them.  It is much more effective than playing it loud and broadly.

The music by Murray Gold was, for the most part, effective.  However, it did seem a bit too whimsical at times for what was such a dark story.  On more than one occasion, I wondered to myself how much different the mood of show would have been if it had been composed by Peter Howell or Roger Limb, both of whom were composers on Doctor Who in the 1980s.  I think it would be interesting to have either one of them contribute to the revived series, especially on one of the more atmospheric episodes such as this one.

So, though not perfect, “Asylum of the Daleks” is a decent episode.  It’s good to have Doctor Who back on our television screens, and this opening episode leaves me anticipating the rest of the forthcoming season.

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