Doctor Who season 7 episode 1 review: Asylum of the Daleks

The Doctor's in trouble. Again (Image courtesy of BBC)

** SPOILERS (naturally) **

[Alternatively: Doctor Who Does the A-Team]

The Doctor and the divorcing Ponds/Williamses – as foreshadowed in the online ‘Pond Life’ prequel – are acquired by the Daleks to save them from a foe even they are terrified of: an asylum planet for Daleks scarred by their encounters with the last of the Time Lords. They are tasked with taking down the force-field which protects the planet while also unravelling the secret of a human crash survivor who has managed to remain alive for a year. Oh, and they need to save Amy and Rory’s marriage. However, the whip-smart, soufflé-burning Oswin Oswald is not all she appears to be.

The Doctor’s in trouble. Again (Image courtesy of BBC)

Setting a new direction

Well, this is new.

Much of the episode moves us subtly into unfamiliar – or at least less familiar – territory, the groundwork for which has been laid over the past two years as Steven Moffat has gradually remoulded the show in a different direction from predecessor Russell T Davies.

Of course, we have the rewriting of the series’ mission statement, resetting the lead character as a shadowy lone adventurer and do-gooder – “Doctor who?” – rather than a mythical, proto-deity feared by all: ‘The Oncoming Storm’ or, as he is described by the Dalek Parliament, the ‘Predator of the Daleks’. (And wouldn’t that make a great episode title?) Oswin’s wiping of all references to the Doctor from the Dalek hive mind not only serves to reinforce the series’ new parameters, but also conveniently resets the Doctor’s relationship with his most well-known nemesis, which opens up a whole new set of story-telling opportunities. A smart move.

Also obvious here is the fact that Moffat’s predilection for dialling up the visceral horror – as opposed to Davies’ preference for the whimsical – is taken up a notch, with the script forcing the Doctor to exhibit genuine fear at times. The horror elements are more psychological than visual but are deftly executed, and the episode certainly pushes the boundaries for a show with a family audience going out at 7:20pm.

Familiarity breeds contentment

How much trouble? Out of ten: 11.

In other respects, though, the story is in many ways comfortingly familiar. The Doctor and his companions are in big trouble and facing a familiar foe. We have lots of running up and down corridors. A one-off character rises above herself at the Doctor’s bidding to save the day.

And, as ever, Moffat delights in delivering his signature flourishes.

He injects horror into the most mundane of objects to give younger – and indeed older – viewers the screaming heebie-jeebies. We have seen him do this time and again: gas masks (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), clockwork (The Girl in the Fireplace), statues (Blink), shadows in the dark (Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead), a crack in the wall (the whole of season five), tally marks (The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon). This time around he takes the Dalek eyestalk which has, over the years, become the target of gentle mockery rather than genuine fear. But I defy anyone to claim that they did not at least shudder a bit at the sight of the eyestalk emerging from human foreheads.

Then we have another Moffat trademark: planting a conundrum in the opening episode, to be resolved over the course of a season arc (or, in this case, a half-season arc). He hits the viewer with a double whammy here. First there is the apparent introduction – a well-kept surprise – of new companion Clara Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman). But here she appears in the form of Oswin Oswald, a junior entertainment officer on the crashed space liner Alaska, who mysteriously has hacking skills which make Matthew Broderick in War Games look like an octogenarian trying to use Google for the first time. And secondly there is the small matter of her having been converted into a Dalek who is blown up, along with the entire asylum, at episode’s end. How and in what form will she return? A twin? Some timey-wimey trickery? We’ll have to wait until the Christmas special to find out …

And then there is the subtle twisting of familiar words. The Doctor’s repeated musing over Oswin’s soufflés – “But where do you get the milk?” – and Rory’s terrifying encounter with a room full of awakening Daleks become key markers for the revelation of Oswin-as-Dalek. Eggs … stir … minate. Okay, it’s a bit clunky and not a patch on his previous casting of the TARDIS as ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’, but it’s still a laugh-out-loud moment where the viewer (or, at least, this viewer) realises that the answer has been hidden in plain sight and poked at playfully and repeatedly all along.

Doctor Who Does the A-Team

Finally, let me explain my alternative title for this episode. The Doctor and his ‘A-Team’ are hired by the Daleks to solve a problem where no one else can help, much in the manner of the 1980s show of the same name. The TV version of The A-Team was, of course, led by John Smith (more often referred to as ‘Hannibal’), an alias often adopted by the Doctor himself. And then there is the fact that they must break into an asylum, something the A-Team frequently had to do to liberate one of their own, Murdoch, so that he could join them on missions. And let’s not forget that Murdoch – like the Daleks here – was in ‘hospital’ because of the traumatising effects of warfare.

I’m not sure whether the allegorical link between the Daleks’ asylum and the US’s treatment of veterans of conflicts such as Vietnam – disown the mentally-scarred and throw them into an ‘asylum’ to be conveniently forgotten – was deliberate or not, but let’s not drag this review down.

Overall, this was a fine return for the series. After a cracking opening, the episode takes a while to get into its stride and I’m not overly convinced that Moffat totally succeeded in his ambition to make the Daleks properly scary again – let’s face it, the Daleks in the asylum were a bit rusty and still can’t shoot straight – but that’s a relatively minor quibble compared to a thoughtful, exciting and at times properly scary reintroduction to our favourite alien with two hearts.  It’s a mighty fine romp which crams an awful lot of story into its only slightly extended 49-minute running time. Are there really only five episodes in this pre-Christmas run? Bring on the dinosaurs …

Rating: 8/10