Don't read on unless you've seen "Asylum of the Daleks," the Season 7 premiere of "Doctor Who."
"Doctor Who" showrunner Steven Moffat is a very smart man, and even though this episode was bristling with clever ideas (human Daleks! zombie human Daleks! A Dalek Azkaban!), one of "Asylum's" smartest ideas had to do with what you might call a procedural matter.
Most "Doctor Who" fans have known for months that Amy and Rory are leaving the show this season, and I'm betting quite a few of you knew that Jenna-Louise Coleman (who played Oswin in this episode) was announced some time ago as the Doctor's new companion.
Introducing new companions is always a tricky business; I don't know if I'm typical of the audience, but I'm usually pretty wary of new TARDIS passengers until they prove themselves in any number of ways. And following up the one-two punch of Amy and Rory is going to be particularly challenging.
My family and I have been doing a re-watch of all the modern "Doctor Who" seasons, and we're just about done with the first season that had Moffat as showrunner, Matt Smith as the Doctor and Amy and Rory as his companions. I've been reminded anew of how well Amy fit in from the start and what a terrific job the show did in turning Rory from a vaguely inessential and nebbishy comic relief character into a romantic figure and pretty heroic guy.
Amy's a great companion, Rory is too, and their relationships with each other and with the Doctor have taken the show to some pretty compelling places. So right from the start, any new companion is going to have an uphill battle in gaining fans' affection.
It was a very savvy idea to introduce Oswin well before Amy and Rory leave. That move takes the pressure of Oswin's first appearance; if she had turned up after their departure, it could well have taken us a long time to warm up to her. But her plucky appearance in "Asylum" quickly turns her into someone we have a lot of sympathy for. Well played, Mr. Moffat, well played.
The question is, will she return as Oswin? Obviously the character died on the asylum planet, but could the Doctor grab her from of an earlier point in her timestream? Or -- and this is my somewhat fantastical theory for down the line -- what if the Doctor's enemies somehow preserve her DNA or an earlier version of Oswin, and use her as a lure to get him to the Fields of Trenzelor, which is where (as we learned in last season's finale) there will be a final and possibly fatal showdown?
I'm partly basing that theory on the number of times the question "Doctor Who?" was repeated at the end of the episode. That's the query that figured prominently in the closing minutes of "The Wedding of River Song," and it will probably crop up again as the season comes to a close; Moffat does like to bookend these kinds of things. Jenna-Louise Coleman will likely be on board by that point, and I think there's a strong possibility that she figures prominently into what goes down at the end of Season 7 (which won't arrive until next year, the show's 50th anniversary).
Speaking of "The Wedding of River Song," that episode wasn't Moffat's finest hour, in my opinion: It was so jammed with moving parts, bells and whistles and showoffy ideas that it was far too hyperactive for the emotional moments to land (most mishandled; the actual wedding of the River and the Doctor, which ended up being a cold, clinical trick). Though this episode had its share of smart ideas, that aspect of the show wasn't overdone in "Asylum," and I've read that Moffat plans to make the new season -- at least the five episodes we're getting this fall -- much less dense with an overarching story.
I wouldn't want "Doctor Who" to overcorrect too much and go too far in the standalone direction -- Moffat's sense of overall structure and purpose is one of the best things about his era as Whovian in chief -- but there's no arguing that solidly entertaining adventure, mostly one-off hours like "Asylum" are a whole lot of fun.
One of my favorite sci-fi tropes is the lost survivor who's been stuck on a planet or space station by themselves for far too long (a variation of this old chesnut was used for the Season 1 finale of "The Walking Dead"). Done right, this kind of story gives you an emotional hook into the character right away: The sole survivor usually has been fighting off loneliness and fear for a long time, and it's that battle to stay sane and human that makes them so appealing -- they cling more tightly to the things we take for granted.
Jenna-Louise did a fine job of portraying Oswin's courage, sass and techy creativity, which made her final scene that much more poignant. And she did get to hang on to her humanity at the end; her noble sacrifice, which allowed the Doctor and his companions to get away, put the cherry on top of the creation of an admirable and enjoyable character. I won't call her a Dalek, because through it all (sniff), she'd managed to hang on to love.
That idea brings me to one of the best things of the episode: The emotional confrontation between Amy and Rory. Clearly when the season began, the Doctor had left them alone for quite some time, and they had broken up in the interim. I'll go into my problem with this construct upfront, before I get to the way that the actors sold the scene, which could not have been better.
I know that it's not unknown for couples to break up over infertility, but I don't think that I buy that this couple would break up over that. Certainly the episode didn't attempt to set that up in any way (and if the breakup is going to continue to be a theme, even if they reconcile, we should get a lot more information on exactly what went down and why).
Amy and Rory have been through a lot together; in some ways, more than any other couple on Earth. I can't imagine that the man who waited 2,000 years for his one true love and who helped rescue her countless times would not do everything in his considerable power to stay with Amy and get through even the rockiest patch of their marriage.
As for Amy, I can imagine her being heartbroken over the situation and her mistakenly thinking that she'd let down Rory, but we've seen how resilient and strong she is. Surely she'd try to stick with the man who accepted her completely for who she was, and surely she would not become as bitter, cold and dismissive as she was at the start of the episode that quickly? It's not just that I have a hard time believing in the breakup of Amy and Rory, I have a hard time believing they entered "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" territory that quickly. The Doctor didn't leave them alone for decades, after all. If the show was going to go in this direction, it needed to do more work to make me believe that this particular couple would break up -- for any reason.
Having said all that, in the moment, that fight was incredible. Karen Gillan has grown tremendously as an actress since she's been on the show, and I think that was hands-down her finest work. I loved how the show finally brought into the open something that's been burbling in the "Mr. Amy Pond" subtext for years now: Rory has always assumed he loved Amy more (he was probably right for a long time), but now that fact could actually kill his ex-wife. All in all, it was extremely powerful work from both Gillan and Arthur Darvill. And by the way, Darvill doesn't get nearly enough credit for often carrying the emotional weight of the show. The Doctor gets to skitter about being nutty, Amy gets to be forthright and angry and funny and brave and awesome, and Rory gets to be, well, Rory. If you've been watching the show long enough, you know that's not only a good thing, it's a very necessary thing.
As for the episode as a whole? It was a well-paced, exciting, scary and funny hour. Truthfully I've thought for a while now that the Daleks were a little played out. They're not my favorite villains, and Season 5's "Victory of the Daleks" is one of the weakest entries in the Moffat era, in my opinion. But I liked how the episode breathed some new life into the old pepper-pots: It was fun to see the Doctor abducted by a new style of human Dalek, and it was a kick to see the "Encounter at Farpoint" scene with the Dalek parliament go in a different direction. I can't say I wasn't expecting that twist, but I love when my favorite sci-fi shows take the old chestnuts and execute them with style, wit and flair, which is what happened here.
This episode didn't just have the Doctor once again confronting his reputation as an intergalactic predator, it had him essentially rebooting himself with the entire Dalek race, which is a pretty neat trick (but doesn't erase his own knowledge of what he's done). The creepy Island of Lost Toys vibe in the scenes set on the planet were terrifically directed (all in all, the production values on this episode were top-notch), and it was both a fine sole-survivor-gone-half-mad story and a solid haunted-planet mystery.
A ripping start to the season, wouldn't you say?
A few final notes and favorite lines:
- Plot hole alert: Presumably the Doctor de-Daleked Amy once they arrived in the TARDIS, but the show was in triumphal mode at that point and didn't stop to tell us that.
- Rory's new hairstyle is very cool. I approve.
- An example of good Moffat-style clever-clever: The extended references to eggs and that morphing into "eggs-terminate." Hah!
- Good job of making us feel sorry for the Daleks by making them so abandoned and damaged and sad. The scenes of the Daleks slowly coming to life -- and Amy seeing them as people -- were especially compelling in that regard.
- I love how the Doctor morphed into the ultimate Internet commenter-as-nitpicker as he harped on about where Oswin got the eggs for her souffle (Correction: He kept asking about where she got the milk. Sorry about that! All the references to eggs replicated in my brain when I wrote this post). Hey, I'm not hating on the Doctor's well-founded nitpicking -- nitpicking is fun! See parts of the above post!
- The episode was a fine example of what the show does when it focuses on individuals, rather than races. Another episode with Daleks and their latest enemies blowing each other out of the sky? Meh. An episode in which the Doctor meets a bunch of damaged Daleks, including a sparky one who was vivacious and helpful -- just before she died? Heartbreaking.
- "The chin and the nose. You two could fence!"
- What are your predictions about how Jenna-Louise Coleman will figure into the season and how we'll meet her? Do you think she'll be Oswin again or someone else? Think she might overlap with Amy and Rory in the TARDIS? If so, that's going to be one crowded control deck.
- I won't be doing weekly "Doctor Who" reviews, but I may chime in after the fifth episode of this half-season arrives. We'll see.