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Doctor Who Recap: A Hammer House of Dalek Horrors

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Two types of Doctor Who episodes Steven Moffat has excelled at envisioning are Christmas episodes and season premieres. Once again, in the latter area, he has not failed. “Asylum of the Daleks” is a deliriously intense dramatic trip — a Hammer House of Dalek Horrors — that delivers on just about every count and expectation one could have from a 50-minute installment of this series. It’s probably Moffat’s finest season opener yet. (The list of requests I wrote earlier this week? Let’s just say I’m presently a satisfied Whovian.) After the bad taste left by so much of season six, this felt very much like a series getting itself back on track. Perhaps we shouldn’t get prematurely excited, though, lest we end up let down later? It is, after all, only the first installment of a season of 14 that’s going to stretch well into next year. Still, this was most reassuring. 

Many aspects are worthy of discussion, but the one that was the most startling was the early appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman, here playing a character named Oswin Oswald, revealed in the climax to be a human converted into a Dalek. Moffat has insisted for months that Coleman’s new companion would be introduced at Christmas, to the point where this was an accepted fact; obviously a massive deception. Why keep it a secret, and is the “surprise” a surprise to the average viewer who doesn’t keep track of behind-the-scenes stuff such as casting? Even over in the U.K., where the public actually knows who Coleman is, won’t most viewers just shrug and say, “Oh yeah, I heard she was coming onto the show.” It’s a long way to go to keep a secret that didn’t necessarily need to be kept.

The fact that she was a Dalek, however? Now that was a secret worth keeping, and a reveal worth waiting for. (Perhaps in Moffat’s head it was all tied together?) Make no mistake — for the hardcore fan that pays attention to minutiae, it all made for a grand reveal on a few levels. It begs the question, however: Is this a series now made for hardcore nerd fans, or for British families gathered around their tellys on Saturday nights? It’s starting to seem like the former.

Puzzling, but certainly no more so than the mysteries surrounding Oswin ... or is it Clara? Again, we’ve been told for a while now the companion’s name would be Clara, but here it’s Oswin, which is an anagram of winos, though that probably won’t ever come into play. She was part of the crew of the Alaska, a ship which seemingly ran into trouble (How can you not when crashing onto a planet swarming with insane Daleks?), and she ended up transforming into a fascinating specimen of pepperpot: one that enjoys making imaginary soufflés.  

Is what we’re seeing the end of her life with the Doctor, or does it predate her time with him? Is her Dalek fate what the Doctor will race to prevent as the season moves forward? The Doctor never even sees her, so when he does meet her again, the audience will be in on a big something that he’s not. Is it even the same character who’ll eventually become his companion? More questions than answers surround her at this stage, and all of them worth pondering. What an unexpected introduction! Coleman’s a spunky doll, and looks like she’s going to fit in splendidly.

It was well publicized ahead of time that “Asylum” would feature “every kind of Dalek,” and while that may have been a slight exaggeration, it featured quite the array. Finding something new to do with Daleks after 50 years is no small task, but Moffat, penning his first Dalek tale, rose to the challenge and delivered the goods. “Asylum” is easily the most innovative use of the Doctor’s most famous enemies since Rob Shearman’s “Dalek” back in 2005. Building on the idea of Dalek insanity, which was first explored through Dalek Sec back in the fourth season two-part finale, Moffat created a thoroughly engaging hour of Dalek mayhem, and even brought to the table something entirely new: the concept of Dalek puppets, which, from the opening scene, chilled in a way that the Daleks haven’t in some time. It’s anyone’s guess where the Daleks will go from here, but the playing field feels ripe with possibility.

Matt Smith was on fire from the word "go," commanding the screen in ways that were frequently attempted last year, but too often fizzled. This was a Doctor on a mission, taking charge and leading the way. It was too easy to fall in love with Doctor #11 all over again, thanks to Smith’s dazzling work here, and yet it felt like we were getting just the tip of the iceberg — that Smith has many more unexpected cards to play as the season moves forward. Even the final moments, when actor and head writer delivered what’s destined to be thought of as one of the most amusingly meta moments on the entire series — the Doctor dancing around the TARDIS asking the question “Doctor who?” repeatedly — didn’t feel even remotely indulgent, and instead just right, especially given the setup of the season six finale. Welcome back, Eleven!  

From an emotional standpoint, however, the hour quite rightly belonged to the Ponds, who were, shockingly, in the midst of initiating a divorce at the top of the episode. Once the trio was reunited, Moffat split them up again, giving the Doctor and Amy some much needed one-on-one Time Lord/companion time, and giving Rory a classic scene involving the word "eggs" and a Dalek coming back to life. (That the eggs came back into play later on with the soufflés was gravy.) The Doctor turned out to know the Ponds better than they know themselves, and the bracelet moment, as well as everything that led up to it, was soulful and gut-wrenching, and yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that maybe this five-episode arc will end with the Ponds splitting up once again and for good — as though this was preparing viewers for the inevitable. There remains something uneven about the way this couple deals with one another. Could Moffat play it unsafe and end the Pond storyline with them going separate ways?

Odds & Ends

  • The repeated use of “L'amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Bizet’s Carmen throughout the episode was lovely and inspired.
  • Welcome back, director Nick Hurran! He did a fine job last season helming “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex,” and he’ll be handling the Pond’s upcoming exit in “The Angels Take Manhattan.” (Nice to know “Angels” is in safe hands!)
  • Amy’s hallucination was a serious episode highlight, coming across as something between a dream sequence from Twin Peaks, and one of those movies that plays up on the giant screen behind the band at a Pink Floyd concert.
  • Amy can’t have children!? What was up with that? She already had one, and we spent far too much of last season exploring it in detail. A viewing companion shouted out, “Maybe [Moffat’s] trying to make us forget that ever happened!”
  • It was nice to see the return of the nanogenes, from Moffat’s first script, for the new series, “The Empty Child” two-parter from the first season.
  • “The subtraction of love and the addition of anger” was another fine Dalek flourish. Again, Moffat put work and thought into this.
  • The snatching of our heroic trio at the top of the episode was reminiscent of the time-scoop scenes from “The Five Doctors.”
  • The glimpse of Skaro was squee-inducing, yet all too short.
  • “The Predator,” as a new Dalek nickname for the Doctor, felt limp, but another viewing companion remarked that he’d like to see Chris Hansen host a show called “To Catch a Dalek Predator.” 
Photo: ADRIAN ROGERS/BBC