DOCTOR WHO: Who Brought the Milk to the ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS?

“ASYLUM OF THE DAKES” – Series 7, Episode 1, Story 225 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Nick Hurran – Series 7 kicks off with the return of the Daleks and the introduction of promised future Companion Oswin Oswald. (Or, at least, the first appearance of the actress who’ll be playing the new Companion.) There’s trouble in Pond Paradise as Amy and Rory are getting a divorce, and there’s trouble in the Doctor’s life as he’s kidnapped by the Daleks and brought to their Dalek Asylum, a planet where they keep all the Daleks too insane even for them. The Daleks are too afraid to go down to the planet and shut off the force field which they need to destroy the Asylum, so they send the Predator down to do it for them. And by Predator they mean the Doctor. Because It Would Be Weird (Though Awesome) If They Meant, You Know, The Actual Predator. Or Ice Cube.

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Well, now, this is a new way for Steven Moffat to start a Series.

In both Series 5 and Series 6, Moffat opened with a high-octane adventure ride. Both THE ELEVENTH HOUR and the IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT / DAY OF THE MOON two-parter moved hard and fast, relying on Matt Smith’s hyper personality to ride the wave of the fan’s excitement of the new season.

ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS sets a different course. Instead of the fast-talking Doctor, we get a darker approach in ASYLUM. Some of Moffat’s trademarked inventiveness is here, but ASYLUM kicks the season off with neither HOUR’s zip nor ASTRONAUT’s grandeur. Instead, we get a self-contained story that plays like something from inside a season instead of launching one. ASYLUM is one of the most unique of all Moffat-penned episodes, as it seems less like an attempt to do something spectacular and more an opportunity to tell a simpler story as well as possible.

The biggest change this time around is that most of the fast-talking, cheeky dialogue has been given to Jenna-Louise Coleman to deliver. Her appearance in ASYLUM as Oswin Oswald was not something I was expecting; it’s been widely reported that Oswin will be the new Companion once the Ponds take their final bow, but everything I’ve read had her debut pegged for the Christmas special. Yet, here she is, appearing a guest star before she officially signs on to journey in the TARDIS.

Not that anyone actually, you know, signs official paperwork to travel in the TARDIS. There’s no medical form, no liability waiver, no-

Look, the point is, Jenna-Louise Coleman makes her unexpected debut in ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS and she is all sorts of brilliant. (One can only hope Oswin is the character she’ll be playing when she comes back full-time.) Fast-talking, super-intelligent, sexy, cheeky, and a terrible cook, Jenna/Oswin is a wonderful breath of fresh air for the program. While the Ponds largely suffer through the episode, their personal problems brought to a head by the episode’s plot, Oswin positively crackles. She already takes delight in ribbing the Doctor (continually referring to him as “Chin Boy” throughout ASYLUM) and operates on an intellectual level above his own, as she’s able to hack into the Daleks’ mindweb. When I look back at how Moffat has written the Ponds versus how he wrote Captain Jack, Reinette, Sally Sparrow, and River Song there’s a decided difference in intelligence. It’s not that the Ponds are stupid, but they are conceived as stand-ins for us, as average people getting to go on these extraordinary adventures. They’re Moffat’s version of Rose and Donna, and that’s perfectly fine, but Moffat seems to enjoy writing intelligent characters more than normal folk.

Of course, those intelligent characters (with the exception of River) are typically one-off characters in Moffat’s typewriter, so it remains to be seen if Oswin will be an actual upgrade over the Ponds, of if this appearance in ASYLUM is another bit of one-off brilliance.

The Ponds have had a weird existence in the TARDIS. In Series 5, they were starting to rival Martha Jones as my favorite relaunch Companion, but in Series 6 they were decidedly less fun and focused. (And before you say it – I love Donna. I love her. Unfortunately, I love her more than Davies did, as he struggled through her run to keep finding interesting things to do with her.) Several times during Series 6, I questioned whether Moffat had a real plan for them in between the season’s signature moments. Taken as a whole, I think Moffat had a personal plan for the Ponds in his episodes, but there was either a lack of communication or execution on the part of his writing team as to what to do with them.

Simply looking at the writing line-up for Series 7, it looks like Moffat has developed a tighter overall plan. The first-half of Series 5 (the promised final run of the Ponds) contains five episodes. He’s writing 1 and 5, Chris Chibnall is writing 2 and 4 (and the Series 7 prologue, POND LIFE), and Toby Whithouse is writing episode 3. This has to lead to a more cohesive season in tone and, one hopes, purpose for the Ponds.

Moffat has introduced a new problem into their lives as they are on the verge of divorce. Before they are kidnapped by the Daleks, Rory pops by Amy’s photo shoot to get her to sign their divorce papers. It seems like a trumped up plot because it comes from the POND LIFE prologue, but it’s a showrunner’s prerogative to reset the characters as much as he likes between seasons. I’m less concerned about the Pond plots that set this up as I am concerned with what Moffat and Co. do with it going forward, and unfortunately, it seems like the conflict was introduced just to be solved by the end of this episode. I wouldn’t be crazy about watching Amy and Rory fight all year long, but they go from divorced (Amy signed the papers) to declaring their love to moving back in together in one episode. Over and over again, it seems like all Moffat has in mind for the Ponds is for them to be on the verge of breaking up or dying.

I do give Moffat credit for addressing one of the unspoken attributes of Rory and Amy’s relationship in ASYLUM when he has Rory come straight out and say, “The truth of our relationship is that I love you more than you love me.” The set-up for this exchange is that when the Daleks beam the TARDIS 3 down to the Asylum planet, each of them has to wear a bracelet that protects them from the Daleks’ nano-field; without the bracelets, they’ll be turned into humanistic Dalek zombies. Amy loses her bracelet and she’s starting to lose her mind as the conversion process moves through her body. Rory finds his spine and tells her that he’s going to give his bracelet to her because it will slow the process down.

Now, he’s right simply because the presence of the bracelet will either slow down Amy’s conversion or outright save her, so theoretically, they could just keep swapping the bracelet back and forth and, at worst, double their survival time. Rory ups the stakes, however. Oswin has told them that the way to create a Dalek is to remove love and add anger, and Rory unloads on Amy that because his love for her is greater so he can last longer against the nano-field. He throws the “I waited 2,000 years for you outside the Pandorica” back in her face, which seems a bit childish, to be honest. As much as Rory is making a stand here, he’s also trying to get affirmation of his worst fear – that Amy really doesn’t love him all that much.

The Doctor senses that something is wrong with the Ponds and he wants to fix it. In a sense, the Doctor has never fully let go of little Amelia Pond that he first encountered back in ELEVENTH HOUR. The Eleventh Doctor does not want any problems with the Ponds’ relationship and he breaches the subject several times over the episode. Instead of offering his services as a marriage counselor, however, the Doctor lets the Ponds work it out on their own, knowing the tension created by the current conflict, and by Amy’s deteriorating health, will likely bring things to a boil. The central issue here is that Rory wants children and Amy can no longer have children given what was done to her throughout Series 6.

Eh, really?

What’s more confusing is that this is apparently a conflict they had not discussed. Rory claims Amy tossed him out, while Amy claims that she let him go, and that her letting him go is somehow greater than him standing outside a box from the time of Christ until the time of Steve Jobs.

Hey, Ponds, do you know what’s never good for a relationship? Arguing which one of you is the better person.

Luckily, the Pond drama is minimized. Oswin has better chemistry with both the Doctor and Rory than Amy does in this episode. She cheekily refers to the Doctor as “the Chin” and Rory as “the Nose,” and suggests they could fence one another. She’s sitting in a secure location and is helping guide the three visitors through the Dalek-infested Asylum and easily flirts with both men. When she’s brought Rory to safe, she tells Rory, “Now take off your shirt.” Rory starts to follow her orders and then asks why. “Does there need to be a reason?” she asks back.

I love the way she delivers her dialogue; it comes out so quickly that it’s easy to miss a line here or there but Coleman always feels in complete control of the words she’s delivering.

Matt Smith is in top form again, as he continues to impress as the Doctor. I love how this episode has the Doctor operating on multiple levels. He’s concerned with the Parliament of the Daleks, the insane Daleks, and he’s also trying to figure out how this one young woman has managed to survive for a year fighting the Daleks all by her lonesome. When she tells him she makes souffles to pass the time, he wants to know where she gets the milk. “Souffle Girl” laughs but he brings it up later, too, as he’s already wondering how making a souffle is possible if you’ve locked yourself inside a planet full of insane Daleks.

Oswin apparently gets blown up with the rest of the planet, but not before she gives the Doctor a parting gift – she’s erased all references to him inside the Dalek hive mind, meaning they don’t know who he is. When he beams back aboard the ship containing the Parliament of the Daleks (and it’s interesting that their supreme leader does not live inside a machine, but rather as an organic being contained in a case of glass – very Supreme Intelligence like) they want to know who he is. When he lists off various names the Daleks know him by (the Doctor, the Oncoming Storm, the Predator), they don’t know what those terms mean.

“Doctor … who?” they ask. “Doc-tor-who?” Combine this with their earlier pleas of, “Save us. Save us,” and Moffat manages to get them to say two things this episode that are equally as cool and chilling as, “Ex-ter-min-ate.”

ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS is a very good episode. No, it doesn’t contain the fireworks of earlier season openers, and it almost seems like cheating to start the season off with the copper teapots, but ASYLUM works as a very solid story with a really nice twist. Turns out that no one is bringing Oswin milk because she’s living a lie – she’s actually a Dalek who refuses to believe she’s been converted. It’s a very nice twist and Coleman proves herself just as capable with the heavier stuff as she does the flirtatious interplay. Director Nick Hurran does a fantastic job all episode, but especially here at the end. Oswin helps the Doctor escape, but tells him not to forget about her.

And when she says this, she turns and looks right into the camera, breaking the fourth wall.

ASYLUM is Moffat’s first attempt at writing the Daleks and he does a solid job. I’ve watched the episode three times now, and it’s just as good on the third watch as it was on the first. My problems with the Ponds notwithstanding, ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS manages to be both creepy and fun and marks a very promising start to Series 7.

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7 thoughts on “DOCTOR WHO: Who Brought the Milk to the ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS?

  1. And interestingly, if Oswin – this Oswin – is to be the new companion, that makes her the same as River Song, who the Doctor also meets for the first time on day she dies.

    It’s easy to explain why she forgot the Doctor, it was the Dalek nano-virus thingie that erased a lot of her memories. But still, thats two companions (or whatever River is) who have the same method of meeting the Doctor for their last time and his first.

    Running out of ideas Moffat?

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  2. Good point about this being more introspective and less high-octane. There was a lot to like about Moffat’s subtle tweaks to the show’s style. Great use of horror elements (and fantastic use of unsettling angles by director Nick Hurran) which I was amazed were allowed in a pre-watershed slot. Loved the fact that Smith was required to play the Doctor scared at times and not always flippant and in control – very Troughton-esque.

    And J-LC was perfect. Indeed, let’s hope this level of characterisation is not a one-off. We’re all hoping for something like a Mark I Romana, no? I’m not sure yet just how much repetition is involved in terms of Oswin vs River – let’s wait and see how Moff brings her back before passing judgement – but I wonder if she somehow managed to back-up her consciousness to somewhere as she was busy deleting the Doctor from the Dalek hive-mind? (Warning: I’m rubbish at theories!)

    I’m hoping the five-episode structure for season 7a will give us a tighter arc to send the Ponds off in style. I’ve often thought the problem with them arises from having two companions rather than one. When you have the Doctor dominating airtime in every episode and then a friend and/or foe of the week (often both), that doesn’t leave much for two companions to do, let alone one. It was the same for that brief run of adventures in season 2 which featured both Mickey and Rose as companions – too often one or both were sidelined with little or nothing to do.

    And last season – particularly the second half – it effectively felt like there were three companions, with River so central to the arc, which exacerbated the problem further as it was all about the mystery of the arc rather than the characters themselves.

    Either way, we know the Ponds’ time in the TARDIS is almost up. Having a married couple on board was an interesting twist, but I’m glad we’re heading back towards the single companion model. Especially one who has made such a promising debut as this.

    My thoughts – including my Doctor as The A-Team riff – below:

    http://slouchingtowardsthatcham.com/2012/09/02/doctor-who-season-7-episode-1-review-asylum-of-the-daleks/

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  3. Pingback: Doctor Who Review: THE SNOWMEN | Earth Station One

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