It’s ironic given that Asylum is described by Moffat as a “blockbuster film” of an episode, but what really makes this an excellent “Who” ep is not what it includes, but what it leaves out. At his best Moffat is a terrific writer (his body of work should silence any doubters of that) and he’s certainly better at “Who” than Russell Davies. But he has an annoying tendency to include too much plot, too much intrigue, too much existential despair, too much River Song, and too much reinvention. This was plainly evident last season up to an including the finale, The Wedding of River Song, which basically took all off the unfinished business that Moffat couldn’t resolve in Season 32 (that is to say, most of it) and kicked it to the curb.
Well here we are, a full year later – and Moffat doesn’t really tie up any of those loose ends in this premiere. But you know, Jimmy crack corn, and I don’t care (and The Master’s gone away, to boot). This episode is so many things that “Who” has too rarely been since the reboot. It’s a hard sci-fi story. It’s set in space, not on the Earth. Bless its heart, it’s a stand-alone story – sure, there are threads that lead to Rory and Amy’s marriage and the issue of the Doctor’s “death” but the episode can stand perfectly well on its own, blissfully unconnected to some overcomplicated season-long running plot. There’s a real sense of adventure here that harkens back to the classic series, in a way not many episodes of the new “Who” have (though of the few exceptions, most were in fact written by Moffat).
The premise here is that the Daleks have an asylum – a planet where they send all the rejects, the PTSD victims, any Dalek that’s so far gone that it can no longer be controlled. And it’s totally secure, beneath an impenetrable force field – except that the force field has been breached, and the Daleks are too scared to go down there among the loonies and fix it themselves. So who do they turn to but the man they call “The Predator” – The Doctor himself?
Let me just warn you that from this point on, this post is going to be spoiler-heavy…
There are some nice moments on the Dalek ship, especially a conversation between The Doctor and the Dalek Prime Minister about beauty, and why the Daleks don’t just kill their rejects – and have never been able to kill their greatest enemy. The Daleks, in recruiting The Doctor for help, kidnap Amy and Rory as well – because “It is well known that the Doctor needs companions.” This gets a little spicy, since Amy and Rory have split up (rather abruptly, truth be told), something The Doctor picks up on immediately. But first things first – they need to survive being beamed down to the Dalek Asylum, an icy planet where one of the “survivors” of the ship that breached the force field is there to greet them.
It’s an interesting time down there, what with “nano clouds” that convert any living being into a Dalek puppet unless they’re protected by a special bracelet, which Amy promptly loses. The real kicker her is Oswin Oswald (Jenna Louise-Coleman), a sharp-tongued young woman who’s apparently survived the crash of her starship and managed to hack all the Dalek systems, and wiles away the days making soufflés. What’s really interesting here is that Louise-Coleman is joining the cast as the Doctor’s new companion at some point this season – and since Oswin doesn’t survive the episode and her character name is “Clara Oswald”, I think we can assume she’s some sort of distant relative. But Moffat has been known to liberally make use of creative license, so I’m not making any assumptions. The early returns on Louise-Coleman are mixed for me – she’s definitely charismatic, but there’s something a little too affected and self-important in her performance that worries me.
Of more interest to me is the fate of Amy and Rory, always a whole greater than the sum of their parts. I like Amy, but for my money Rory emerged from an afterthought to become the most interesting companion since the reboot – he’s funny, ruthlessly honest and human to the core, with all the fallibility that implies. His greatest strengths are quiet courage and persistence – no flash, just substance. I thought the development with Rory and Amy was a bit rushed, but I did like the explanation for their breakup – that Amy pushed Rory away because she knew he’d never leave her, and after her ordeals last season she could never give them to him. I think, no matter how strong her denials, Rory as usual hit the nail on the head – he loves her more than she loves him, and always has. That’s the case in almost every relationship, truth be told, and while it doesn’t preclude a happy one it certainly complicates matters.
There’s some nice stuff here regarding the nature of self and free-will, including some excellent work by long-time Dalek voice Nicholas Briggs. Also an excellent pun or three regarding the pronunciation of the Dalek’s catch phrase, and an ingenious twist ending that fundamentally changes the relationship between The Doctor and The Daleks. As for Matt Smith himself, he is as he always is – an intriguing blend of youthful innocence and the pain only someone extremely old can know, a gangly force of nature just a little too quick to hug or reveal too-human emotions for my tastes, but never out of touch with the loneliness at the core of his existence. Smith has grown into the role nicely, and I find myself hoping he’ll stick around for another season or two.