Both Series 5 and Series 6 of Doctor Who have had really strong opening episodes – The Eleventh Hour and The Impossible Astronaut actually stand out as some of the best episodes in the show’s history to me, and I feel that Asylum of the Daleks manages to continue that trend of quality (with a few notable hiccups).
At this point, we knew that this was the last series for the Ponds and that Jenna-Louise Coleman was going to be stepping up as the new companion, so you may remember the surprise everybody felt when she appeared in this episode.
Oswin Oswald was just a brilliant character, I loved how intelligent and witty she was, as well as the mystery that her character set up. How could the companion who isn’t even in the show yet appear, reveal herself to actually be a Dalek, and then die before we’ve even seen her? This, of course, would be answered in The Name of the Doctor, but that’ll be covered in its own post. Overall, I thought Oswin was really well written with some great lines of dialogue and her story ended with me getting quite emotional.
What I really love about Moffat’s run with the show is how he uses the Daleks minimally (as opposed to them showing up for major stories in every series from 1-4), but when he does use them there’s always something different being done with them. Not once has their ambition been some convoluted ‘destroy all of reality’ in the last few years – in Victory of the Daleks, it was about reinventing and repopulating themselves, in The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang they were working to prevent the universe’s destruction, and there was only the briefest of cameos for the Daleks in Series 6 where we see the Doctor talking to one who’s dying. Asylum of the Daleks further expands on the Daleks by having them recruit the Doctor, their greatest enemy, to save them and also adds a horrifying new element to their character – their concept of beauty.
Doctor: “Just when I’d thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick, but hello again… You think hatred is beautiful?!”
Prime Minister: “Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you?”
I think that this is the most sinister and, indeed, scary portrayal that we’ve had of the Daleks since Series 1 back in 2005. Another thing that was new was how the Daleks used human sleeper agents, such as Darla von Karlsen who brings the Doctor to Skaro to ask for his help before a Dalek eyestalk breaks through her forehead and a laser through her hand. This was definitely something that had me on-edge, especially when Amy and the Doctor encountered Harvey and the crew of Starship Alaska who were hideously transformed by the nanocloud into Dalek puppets. I was actually quite surprised by how realistic the corpses looked, and how cringe-inducing the sound of their bones cracking was, as the skeletons in previous Who episodes have generally appeared to look rather comically fake.
The last time that these nanogenes were seen was in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, a two-parter that Moffat also wrote which featured the nightmare inducing gas mask zombies. I think it’s safe to say that the reintroduction of this particular aspect of Who’s lore was pulled off incredibly well. The scene where Amy is hallucinating and sees the people dancing, only for the Doctor to reveal that they’re Daleks, was absolutely amazing.
Another thing we see quite prominently is Eleven’s darker side. Following the end of Series 6’s The Wedding of River Song, the Doctor is now working on slipping back into the shadows – this episode, rather fittingly, continues that. The reaction to Oswin’s erasure of the Daleks’ knowledge of the Doctor has been somewhat mixed from the fanbase, but I think it’s something that has a lot of potential and allows Moffat (and future showrunners) to continue to build on reinventing the Daleks.
I love how Eleven treats the Daleks compared to the Tenth Doctor. Eleven has grown bitter and even hateful towards the Daleks, he was even prepared to finally wipe them out in Victory of the Daleks before he chose to save the Earth instead. Not only is he willing to kill Daleks when necessary, but he actually delights in it. I think that this is the defining moment of Eleven’s darker side for this series, and it’s built on beautifully through the following 2 episodes.
“I’m not looking for a countermand, dear. I’m looking for reverse.”
The way he coldly manipulates the Dalek into taking its own life, as well as a number of others behind it, shows just how deadly and terrifying the Doctor is as an enemy. He’s managed to hold off in the past few years when it comes to killing, but he has so much to blame the Daleks for now and it really shows. Matt, as ever, did a phenomenal job in this episode conveying that sense of emotion and hatred.
One thing that I do get tired of hearing is people questioning how the Doctor can actually be on Skaro since it was apparently destroyed by the Hand of Omega in the Seventh Doctor story Remembrance of the Daleks (a really great Dalek serial that you should watch). Are these people unaware of the fact that this is a show about time travel? Exactly when Skaro was destroyed in its history is unknown, it’s clear that the Doctor is there before that event.
Now onto some of the negative aspects of the episode. I know that I’m not alone in feeling that the whole divorce sub-plot felt a bit out of the blue, almost like an excuse for Amy and Rory to have something to do in the episode. It feels a bit out of place and certainly could’ve been built up better, having said that I am not going to lie, I did get pretty misty eyed when Amy told Rory that Madame Kovarian made her sterile at Demon’s Run. It added a lot to that moment where she kills Kovarian at the end of Series 6, and Frances Barber has allegedly said that she played Kovarian as a woman who was unable to have children – so to think that this woman was so bitter that she took any future chance of motherhood away from Amy is something I find completely repulsive and Amy was perfectly justified in her actions (especially after what she already did to River).
This sub-plot also gives us some worthwhile character development for both Amy and Rory too. Amy, having been unsure of whether or not she loved Rory in Series 5, has progressed to loving him so selflessly that she is prepared to put his happiness ahead of her own. To protect her vulnerable emotional core, she acts hard and angry when she’s around Rory, but shows a great deal of concern for him when they are separated during the course of the episode. It’s an effective means of establishing pathos, especially when Rory shatters her armour and we see the vulnerable woman underneath. It was an excellent deconstruction of Amy’s character and showed just how far she’s come in the 2/3 years we’d followed her journey.
My only other criticism of the episode is the whole ‘every Dalek ever!’ advertisement that went with the episode. Unfortunately, the focus was primarily on the Time War-era Daleks and the episode became more of a distracting game of ‘who can spot the classic Dalek?’ which I was quite disappointed by. If this hadn’t been so massively built up before the episode aired, I don’t think that people would have made quite as big of a deal about it, but it seemed that fans (including myself) had a rather different idea of the role that the Classic Daleks would play. Nice as it was to see the Special Weapons Dalek for the first time since Remembrance of the Daleks, it’s there for about 10 seconds and does nothing.
The revelation at the end that Oswin is a Dalek was so well done. My jaw was on the floor for the entirety of that scene because it was so unexpected, despite the clues hidden in plain sight throughout the episode – the room that Oswin is in is dome-shaped, like a Dalek’s head, and the viewscreen is circular like the eyestalk. Props to the set designers for such an ingenious use of setting here.
Overall then, I have to say that my feelings for this episode are overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I think it’s the best Dalek episode of New Who and certainly stacks up against some of the Dalek serials of the Classic Series. I loved the darker, more mature atmosphere and tone set throughout the episode with a greater emphasis on adult themes. There are some missteps along the way, there are aspects that could certainly have been done better, but I still find myself rewatching this episode for its brilliant and witty dialogue, stellar acting performances and excellent concepts that were executed very well. Need I even mention the brilliance of the scene that is Rory asking the Dalek if it wants its eggs back?