'Doctor Who' Watch

Recapping "Asylum of the Daleks"

Doctor Who returned to TV last night with a bang. Is it unsporting to wish it had been with more of a whisper?

There was never any question season 7 opener “Asylum of the Daleks” was going to go big. But that meant the show rushed through two of its most intriguing twists: 1) That following the Doctor’s season-6-ending faked death, he had shaken the giant target on his back and could now go adventuring incognito again; and 2) that, as the season 7 opening revealed, his squabbling but besotted companions Rory and Amy are getting a divorce.

Record scratch goes here.

The opening immediately dispatches with point no. 1: Apparently the Daleks – those nasty mutants armored in tin cans and the Doctor’s age-old enemies – were never convinced he was a goner. Opening scene, the Doctor walks into a trap and boom: Incognito no more.

Meanwhile on Earth: Amy’s gigging as a model. (In one of the shoots, she has “love” and “hate” stenciled on her knuckles, Night of the Hunter-style, a foreshadowing of plot points to come.) Rory drops by with divorce papers. Surliness ensues. Both of them captured by Daleks. Surliness continues.

(A note here: Did Steven Moffat – showrunner and this episode’s scripter – really have to make Amy a model? It’s not that she isn’t stunning enough for the job – Karen Gillan got her start as a model, after all – but Amy’s always been defined by her intelligence, her gumption, her gameness, a quick wit. An ordinary girl who excelled in extraordinary circumstances. I’m betting the gazillion little girls watching Doctor Who could imagine themselves in her shoes. But turning those shoes into stilettos, putting on the character the unattainable otherness of a model... meh.)

So: Doctor and companions unhappily reunited. On the Dalek parliament floor, the prime minister issues the Doctor an uncharacteristic request: They need a savior. Which is sorta like the NRA asking Michael Moore for help pamphleting.

Turns out the Daleks have an “asylum” – more like a penitentiary planet – where they exile the criminally insane of their race. After a human-piloted spaceship crashed-landed on the planet, the Asylum’s internal forcefield – the thing keeping all those wacko Daleks safely shackled – has been compromised.

They’ve received a curious transmission from the planet – a recording of the opera Carmen. (The Doctor pricks his ears: “It’s me playing the triangle.” Purses lips. “It got buried in the mix.”) The Doctor makes contact with the source of that sound: the crashed ship’s sole survivor, a sparky genius-hacker named Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman) who’s been squatting on the planet for a year, dodging Daleks and making a soufflé a day, trying not to go mad.

Oswin the Soufflé Maker

The Daleks’ order to the Doctor and co.: Infiltrate the Asylum and deactivate the forcefield completely so that central command can blow the whole planet sky high.

When the three beam down to the planet, Rory gets separated from them for a while, mostly to allow the Doctor to noodge Amy about the breakup, but she’s not talking. Oswin at her computer helps them negotiate underground passages and incoming Daleks. Amy loses her special wristband that keeps her safe from being corrupted by the Daleks: Their technology allows them to empty a human brain and take over the body, a process that is hastened by anger – that “divine hatred” the Daleks value above all. So, Amy, inching toward Dalekization, has to keep her feelings of anger in check. Sounds like a good time for the Doctor to leave her alone with her estranged husband, yes?

We get the reveal here of why they broke up, and it’s a doozy: After the season 6’s abduction and medical experimentation on Amy (“A Good Man Goes To War”), she’s infertile. Rory always thought he loved Amy more, but she counters: She let him go because she couldn’t give him any (more) children, and she knew that would break his heart. It’s gutting stuff, beautifully performed by Gillan and Darvill, but it’s a lot to compact into one episode, and it seems like a wasted opportunity to introduce a split between them and then resolve it by the end of the hour. When Doctor Who brings the emotion, it really brings it, but here, it got a little lost amid all the whiz-bang actioning.

Meanwhile the Doctor’s off to save Oswin, but he’s the one who needs saving when a dozen Daleks with a special axe to grind with him surround the Doctor, shrieking their catchphrase “EX-TERRR-MI-NATE!” Oswin hacks into the collective Dalek brain and erases their memories of the Doctor. These two do good word together... which makes the next reveal especially painful: Oswin’s just a brain now. A brain trapped in a Dalek, her human form a figment of her still-fighting imagination.

Rocked by the news, but still a fighter, Oswin disables the forcefield, allowing the Doctor and his companions to escape while knowing full well she’s signed her own death warrant. Her parting gift to the Doctor? When he beams pack to Dalek homebase, they have no idea who he is (“Doctor Who????”). She didn’t just wipe a dozen Daleks’ memory – she wiped the entire race’s memory of their most loathed enemy. So maybe the Doctor can go back to incognito after all.

Clever girl, that Oswin, and a good fit for the Doctor, too, sharing in spades two of his most winning qualities: self-sacrifice and a zest for verbal sparring. It was awfully sad to see her go, but we’re guessing she’s coming back in some form or another: Coleman’s already been announced as playing the Doctor’s new companion, after Rory and Amy’s season ending exit.

As for next week’s episode, I share the Doctor’s wide-eyed enthusiasm: “Dinosaurs... on a spaceship!

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Doctor Who, Asylum of the Daleks, Daleks, Matt Smith, Steven Moffat, Jenna-Louise Coleman

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