DOCTOR WHO SERIES 7: EPISODE 1 - ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS
Air Date: Saturday 1 September **
Channel: BBC One (UK), BBC America (US)
Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Reviewed by Helen Henderson
The Doctor, Amy and Rory are surrounded by Daleks but is everything what it seems?
With the previous Doctor Who episode, Christmas special The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, coming off as a tad disappointing, all eyes were on Steven Moffat and the team to bring something epic to the table for the start of this new series of Who. Thankfully with season opener Asylum of the Daleks they have done exactly that. With the recent release of movie-style posters for each of the episodes by the BBC it seems clear the mantra behind this series is to be big, bold, Hollywood-esque. Asylum was a sprawling tale that was concise without coming across as rushed, featuring the Doctor’s greatest and most prolific foes, Daleks, and the reintroduction of the Ponds for whom this is the beginning of the end – and not just because the episode began by introducing us to their getting divorced.
The episode began with the Doctor being summoned from his self-imposed exile (as everyone believed him to be dead after the events of season 6 closer The Wedding of River Song) by a damsel in distress to Skaro, which the original home of the Daleks (a nice spot of intrigue for long time fans). Sadly this action led to the kidnap of the Doctor and then the kidnap of Amy and Rory in the same way. For avid fans, if you have been watching Pond Life, the tiny vignettes of drama or the amuse bouche before the main event, you will have seen Amy and Rory’s relationship in genuine trouble, continued at the start of this episode with Amy spitefully signing divorce papers with a clearly saddened Rory. Being a stunning girl, it was unsurprising to see Amy at first modelling, with the idea that the job perhaps provides some of the adventure and spectacle that she craves after spending time with the Doctor. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill have been such assets to the show and it will be a shame to see them depart, lending these final episodes of theirs an extra emotional clout.
On waking in unfamiliar surroundings and surrounded by a series of spaceships, Amy and Rory barely had time to think before the Doctor was ushered in, flanked by Daleks and telling them to be afraid. Remarkably, extermination was not immediately on the cards; rather the Daleks had a proposition for the Doctor that would lead to a journey to an unusual place, the transformation of a character, a startling change in the Doctor’s battle with the Daleks and a truly astonishing new friend for the Doctor.
Steven Moffat threw revelations and surprises at the viewer left right and centre without compromising the integrity of the plot and this is something that previous episodes of Doctor Who have struggled with (particularly the more discombobulated River Song arc of Series 6). With Asylum of the Daleks, the pacing of the story was well measured and nothing within the tale seemed shoe horned in. The only weak point of the plot was the explanation and execution of why the Ponds had split up and while the reason may be valid in a ‘if you love someone set them free’ sort of way, the fact that they didn’t talk through their fears and problems speaks volumes about the state of their relationship in the first place. If the only place they could talk about their split was on a strange planet when they were in mortal danger then they probably need to take a long hard look at themselves. Amy’s trademark stubbornness was ever present and there were a few brilliant moments where the glint in her eyes showed that she truly had missed the adventure that life with the Doctor brought to their lives.
It’s neat character touches like this that give the shows its spark, and Moffat was even clever enough to play around with the character of the Dalek’s - realising they were actually afraid of something was quite the unexpected twist and a new spin on the creatures for fans. The word asylum itself carries several connotations but the main definition is to shelter or protect someone or something, and as mentioned it’s an unusual and fresh approach to take for the Dalek’s. It also established a key dilemma for the characters and plot - with the Dalek’s essentially needing protection from their own kind, how do you save a series of angry, hissy fitting, death machines from another set of even angrier and more criminally insane, hissy fitting, death machines?
Despite this new perspective, the Daleks, as always, are the quintessential, hide-behind-the-sofa monsters that not only inhabited the youth of many of the viewers but of the darkest recesses of the human brain – a part where even nightmares fear to tread. When Terry Nation and Raymond Cusick created these cold, heartless, metal killing machines in the 1960’s they could scarcely have known how much they would pervade the public consciousness. The Daleks attitudes to unknown species or any species other than Dalek really, are nothing short of terrifying. Possibly the most disturbing thing about a Dalek seems to be the fact that they are impossible to reason with or talk around; their only quest is to destroy everything else and despite their apparent lack of emotion – the one thing they do seem to feel is extreme anger. There have been developments in Dalek intelligence over the years but essentially they are and always will be ruthless in their objectives. It was a knowing wink to this unified approach to the species that the initial Dalek parliament saw samples of Dalek kind from every iteration of the series that the Doctor has encountered.
Elsewhere, there were some perfect little quotes and jokes buried within the episode and a valid question on something that seemed inconsequential became vitally important to the plot in the end and in the eventual aftermath, viewers were left wondering how the situation would be resolved in future episodes. It’s a perfect plug for a major shift in the show that we know is coming within the next few episodes time.
Matt Smith was on top form as always, whirling around excitedly as the high-spirited Doctor with his floppy hair and jaunty bow tie. Although the episode didn’t seem to give him a lot of focus, he did receive generous screen time and came face to face with his future which was honestly a surprise for most people. It’s also befitting that a great deal of the emotional weight behind the episode focused on the Ponds and it wouldn’t be surprising for this to be the normal until their coming departure. Considering that the episode had been viewed by many people beforehand, much praise should be extended to the members of the press and public that managed to keep the episode contents suppressed and in the spirit of fair play, that twist won’t be mentioned in this review either although much speculation is taking place as to what the secret means for the show.
When it really comes down to it, this was an episode was full of suspense, shock, action and adventure and as an enjoyable Doctor Who episode, it was a great kickstart to the new series and stood proudly amongst the more entertaining and engrossing of the Matt Smith run. With so much still to come and the fate of the Ponds hanging in the balance, there is so much to look forward to in this firm science fiction favourite.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - 8 out of 10
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** Asylum of the Daleks is available for repeat viewing on BBC iPlayer.