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“Asylum of the Daleks” Review (SPOILERS APLENTY)

by on September 2, 2012

Come hither, ye Whovians, and rejoice! Doctor Who has, after a 9-month hiatus, returned to our screens and has done so in style. “Asylum of the Daleks” was exactly what you could want from a (relatively) stand-alone episode: It was exciting, scary, heartfelt, twisty, triumphant, and shocking. Steven Moffat’s script and Nick Hurran’s direction blended together exceedingly well and, go figure, the cast did a great job, too. After the somewhat disappointing finale last year and the syrupy Christmas special, it was time we had a true rip-snorter of an adventure. It can never be said that the Moff doesn’t know how to open a season with a bang… a planet-destroying bang.

Now, especially for this episode, it’s going to be very difficult for me to discuss what I need to and remain spoiler-free. So, before I dive into the hope-you’ve-seen-it-already territory, I’d like to say this episode did not disappoint at all. To say I loved it would be pretty accurate. As much as I dislike the word, “Asylum” felt epic and massive and yet, as Moffat’s best scripts are, it was a very intimate story at its heart, one of reconciliation and discovery. I’m most pleased that the show was finally able to deliver a Dalek story that gave the Daleks some depth and actually made them scary again. With the exception of “Dalek” all the way back in Series 1, in every other story featuring the surly salt-shakers, they’ve felt like little more than Snidely Whiplash-esque melodrama villains, with plans too grand and sweeping to truly menace. Here, though, the Daleks become, as they should be, terrifying in their own right and not entirely based on universal subjugation. The Daleks as a warring entity still aren’t that scary, but individual ones are again.

Now, beware, we’re heading into SPOILER territory. You’re being amply warned.

I’ll start out with minor spoilers and go on from there.

I absolutely adored the idea of the human meat-puppet Dalek zombies. It isn’t the first time the Daleks have used human slaves as acolytes, but having them be sleeper agents with creepy eyestalk heads was a particularly creepy touch. They, and especially the mummified ones in the Alaska cockpit, evoked other creations like the Vashta Nerada. Moffat loves his undead. Anyone else get a Weeping Angels vibe when Rory was walking through what he believed to be a corridor of dead Daleks? This stuff was reminiscent of his other work, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I loved the idea of the Parliament of the Daleks, and of course the Prime Minister would just be a mutant and not need a tank to sit in. The conversation in the beginning between the Doctor and PM was creepy and very telling. Finding out the Daleks find hate beautiful and hence would rather not destroy it was a whopper of a great revelation only bettered by the notion that the Doctor’s hate for them is the only reason they haven’t killed him. Chilling. The millions of Daleks were really cool to see, though I was disappointed we didn’t see as many older-style Daleks as they perhaps promised. I definitely didn’t see the Special Weapons Dalek from “Remembrance of the Daleks.”

Throughout, Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs did maybe his best work to date, making the insane, scared, and sad Daleks all sound different. His work at the climax of the episode, when the Doctor finds Oswin, is particularly great. I also loved beginning the episode on the long-desolate Skaro. Really nice touch.

Matt Smith is amazing. I don’t need to say any more than that at this point. He is MY Doctor.

I enjoyed a lot of the Amy and Rory stuff. It was nice to see them not 100% perfect, like they apparently had been for too long. Introducing an element of dissent between them was interesting and Gillan and Darvill have really fantastic performances throughout, but especially in their emotional breakdown scene. I think I would have enjoyed this aspect a little more if it didn’t seem to come out of nowhere. As cute as the “Pond Life” segments were, they probably should have been a bit more real and established the problem in their lives. I think I’d have had a better time believing they’d been on the rocks, to the point of divorce, if we hadn’t just seen them living in harmony with an Ood. Also, does this mean Amy’s part Dalek, or are we to believe she hadn’t been physically changed yet?

One more quick note before I open up all the spoiler gates: Nick Hurran’s direction was top-to-bottom fantastic. He directed “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” in Series 6, which were two of the most stylistically different episodes in the whole season, and here he directs the most grungy, creepy, atmospheric story we’ve seen in quite awhile. He also directed episode 5, “The Angels Take Manhattan,” and I really can’t wait to see what he does there. He’s established himself as being up there with Toby Haynes, Adam Smith, Euros Lyn, and the great Graeme Harper as one of the very best directors of the new series.

And now, for what you’ve all been waiting for – ALL THE SPOILERS THERE ARE

HOLY SHIT! Jenna-Louise Coleman was in this episode! How did we not know this? I am incredibly impressed with the Twitter-verse and the like for not spoiling this for me or most people. (I realize several UK feeds started tweeting in depth about the episode before it had aired in the US and Canada. If this happened to you, I’m sorry; that sucks. In the future, I encourage you to do what I do – steer clear of all social media on Doctor Who Saturdays until you’ve seen the episode.) I was utterly shocked when she showed up in the first post-titles scene, and was even more utterly shocked when she stayed in the episode throughout, becoming basically the other main character. On top of that, she did a fantastic job. Really, really great. Working essentially in a vacuum, she seemed to be able to play opposite the other actors like they shared the screen. Having never seen her act (with the exception of the tiny part in Captain America I didn’t know she had until I watched that movie again last week), it was very refreshing and exciting to be able to know she’s so great this early.

And this is why Steven Moffat’s a genius: The whole twist of the episode (that Oswin is not only a girl trapped in a Dalek asylum, but trapped in a Dalek) and its effectiveness on the audience is contingent on our knowing that she’s going to be the new companion come Christmas. I’m sure some viewers didn’t know this, and it may or may not have affected them, but for me it was paramount. Because we knew the actress is going to be the new companion, and that we didn’t know she was going to appear in this episode, we (or I) assumed that the inevitable twist with her character wasn’t going to be what it ended up being. We all assumed that this character is the same character that will be the companion and hence weren’t paying attention to the fairly obvious, or at least brushing it off.

Moffat used the audience’s preconceptions to aid his storytelling. I always thought it was odd the way they announced Coleman as the new companion. It seemed to come a bit early and out of nowhere. Also, aside from a few leaked photos, we didn’t know the name of the companion. He wanted to make sure the fact that she’s joining the show was known well in advance so that her appearance in this episode already had meaning to the audience and he could properly pull the rug out from under us. To coin a Moffat-esque phrase: it was “Meta Weta.” And because she was by herself for the whole story, they could show a ton of clips of the Doctor, Amy, and Rory and never once see that JLC was involved. So brilliant.

Here is the theory I have about Oswin Oswald and how she will fit in to the eventual story. In her final shot, she tells the Doctor to remember her name. He doesn’t know what she looks like; again, only we do. She looks into the camera as she says “remember” for the final time. I think that the character Jenna-Louise will play come Christmas is an ancestor of this character. It’s been somewhat rumored/known that the companion will be named “Clara Oswin,” so I’m guessing she’ll be the great-great-great-great grandmother of the girl in the Dalek. Just speculation of course, but the only thing the Doctor has is the name and “Oswin” is an interesting enough name to stick out in someone’s brain. I’m hoping she’ll be not from the present day, but we’ll see. Just my theory, take from it what you will.

And I loved, loved, LOVED that she was able to make the Daleks forget the Doctor. This is integral to Moffat’s proposed plan of making the Doctor a cipher again and not the universe-famous “Predator of the Daleks” that he has been for decades. If the Daleks can’t remember him, other people won’t, too. I mean, who’s going to believe Cybermen? Random thought: I’d really love an “Almost Got ‘im”-style episode where a Dalek, a Cyberman, a Sontaran, and the Master all sit around playing cards talking about how they nearly defeated the Doctor. Copyright: Kanderson.

To sum up: “Asylum of the Daleks” was a big, enormous mark in the WIN column. Loved it to bits. Next week’s episode is Chris Chibnall’s “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be back to review that sucker. With likely fewer theories and spoiler warnings. I leave you now with the BBC America trailer:

-Kanderson will never look at eggs and milk the same way again. Follow him on TWITTER