Doctor Who is back and Asylum of the Daleks is its best season opener in a long, long time. This might even be the best opener since the series returned in 2005. Not only was it 50 minutes of exciting, thrilling, scary, stylish, tense, colourful and utterly brilliant television, this was Doctor Who looking mythic and shameless, expensive and bold, confident and cocky.
So has that sequence of cascading dominoes begun to fall? Let’s see…
The Daleks are back, bringing with them all kinds of fannish thrills and new continuity that include a visit to Skaro, a Dalek shaped building, a parliament with a prime minister (!), ‘duplicates’ with eye-stalks and that eponymous asylum. The parliament sequences were impressive in terms of sheer scale and design – how many Daleks? How many flashing lights? But then the planet sequences and the asylum itself were tremendously pleasing on the eye (if a little cold on the spine…). The production design and colour palette seems to have leapt on somewhat since last season, and the flashes of bright burnt orange, red and green lifted the images right out of the screen.
Following a very poor Christmas special and now the delightful comedy high jinks of Pond Life, this new story was a complete and powerfully told slice of sci-fi drama; quintessential Doctor Who, I would suggest. It moved at a cracking pace using multiple environs, it had meaty dialogue (notably in the sequences of the Doctor pouring out his disgust at the Dalek love of hatred and their response that this love has thus far prevented them from killing him), atmospheric and genuinely spooky, nay, downright scary sequences (see the zombie ‘duplicates’ in the claustrophobic shipwreck or the mad Daleks that Rory makes the mistake of getting chummy with); utterly magical moments (the Doctor’s first appearance in shadow, the dancing ballerina or Oswin alone in her mind cage); wonderful special effects; perfect lighting and stellar performances from regulars and guest cast alike.
Matt Smith is always brilliant, but he may not have been very well served by his stories. This story didn’t let him down at all. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill were also quite splendid, especially the latter in his asylum sequences. The biggest surprise was the earlier-than-anticipated arrival of Jenna Louise-Coleman as Oswin. Almost instantly one is thinking the best thing would be for her to turn out to be a nano-machined dupe who doesn’t know she’s a Dalek agent. The reason we don’t get too carried away with this notion is that we know she’s going to be the new companion, so what transpires is jaw-droppingly wonderful but also a shocking tragedy that brings a tear to the eye. A real tear, mind, brought on by a good story and a human moment, not a tear you’re sledge-hammered into having because the music’s nice and the script is yelling ‘Cry now! Cry now, you buggers! Cry, I tell you! Cry!’, as has been the norm in Doctor Who of late.
Oswin-Dalek’s involvement leads of course to questions of whether or not the Doctor will meet her earlier in her time-stream come the Christmas special and prevent this future from happening and also to questions regarding his removal from the Dalek memory systems (and the consequences of altering that too). ‘Doctor who?’ ask the Daleks. ‘Doctor who,’ laughs the Doctor. Doctor … who? Hang on. Wasn’t there some foreshadowing last season about the ancient question that will lead to the Time Lord’s ultimate fall? The question is being asked. So has that sequence of cascading dominoes begun to fall? Let’s see…
I feel like an old curmudgeon (and I ought to because I am one), but it’s been a long time since there wasn’t something to criticise about an episode of Doctor Who – usually a minor niggle here, a lost opportunity there or a bloomin’ great reset button all across space and time – but Asylum of the Daleks was probably without fault. I – and many others like me – grinned the whole way through (except perhaps for the occasional thrill of dread or terror). A lot of the time I found myself saying to myself that this was proper, proper Doctor Who, and I’m not the kind to make that sort of ‘distinction’, but this felt so like the ‘classic’ series (or a dream of the ‘classic’ series) in terms of atmosphere and plotting that such a moment of thrilled joy was probably unavoidable.
That said, I know that this is but an illusion created by a production team at the top of its game. Sometimes you can watch this show and feel like you’re watching the best Doctor Who episode ever, even if you know it’s not really, but the journey is so thrilling it can’t feel like anything else. It may not be true that this is the best ever story, but boy did it feel it was – all the way through – and this hasn’t really happened for a long time. This was definitely Steven Moffat’s best story, certainly as a producer and possibly even as a writer. He does Daleks very, very well; so well that they are without doubt once again Doctor Who’s premier villains. Big thanks to him and director Nick Hurran.