Well played, Moffat, well played. Even with a hotly anticipated premiere, advanced screenings, and a trailer that appeared to give it all away, the Doctor Who showrunner managed to keep one very big secret about “Asylum of the Daleks,” and that secret is Jenna-Louise Coleman.
If you read our series 7 primer, you knew that Coleman had been announced as the Doctor’s next companion and that she would be joining him in this year’s Christmas episode. So what a wickedly satisfying surprise to see her appear onscreen in the premiere as Oswin (not Clara!), an integral part of the episode, giving us a hopeful, if mysterious beginning to a new chapter of Who.
This series has been touted as a cinematic one, a series of blockbusters with a focus on “compressed storytelling” as opposed to overarching themes, and “Asylum of the Daleks” definitely lived up to that claim. A theatre-worthy opening, combined with a glimpse of Amy Pond’s glam modelling career and the realization that the Ponds, as hinted in “Pond Life,” really are on the rocks, set the tone. The Doctor, in his first appearance of the series, is my favourite kind of Doctor – the one that scares you. Dark, mistrusting, and reminding us that he is indeed still undercover, Matt Smith stepped up in his opening scene to remind us that yes, he can do the Oncoming Storm just as well as Tennant or Eccelston did.
The “compressed storytelling” came through in the hastily explained plot: the Daleks have brought the Doctor and his former companions Amy and Rory to their very dangerous asylum planet in order to have him shut off the power so they can blow it – and the unstable Daleks within – to kingdom come. We learn, very suddenly, that the Daleks now have the ability to transform humans and other life forms into Dalek puppets. We learn, in one emotional and well-acted conversation, the cause of Amy and Rory’s estrangement (which does not last much longer than this conversation, to the relief of shippers everywhere). A lot takes place in these forty-five minutes, but most importantly we meet Oswin.
My first impression? I love her. How refreshing to be introduced to a companion who can go toe to toe with the Doctor, who’s no stranger to space travel, who’s capable of hacking Dalek technology and keeping tongue firmly in cheek all the while. How intriguing to be shown her ending before her beginning – yes, Moffat has the unfortunate habit of recycling storylines and has done this before with River Song, but given the mess that’s been made of her story, somehow the knowledge that Oswin will become a full-time companion and likely not a love interest for the Doctor makes this similar direction seem all the more promising this time around.
The episode concluded with a chorus of enraged Daleks shouting out “Doctor who?” – a not-so-subtle callback to the reveal of the question that would cause silence to fall at the end of the sixth series. As for theories, I’ve got my own and they’re all about Oswin. Did we really see the end of her? I have to think that there’d be no easy way of getting out of the situation she found herself in by the end of the episode. If so, she must have traveled with the Doctor earlier in her life – so why doesn’t she appear to remember him? Was she really as smart and capable as she seemed (please, please, please) or was that the Dalek technology talking? And just how will they find themselves meeting up again?
“Asylum of the Daleks,” with its hurried plot and lack of much of anything for Amy and Rory to do, was far from a perfect episode, but holds a lot of promise for the series ahead. Doctor Who is at its best when it’s making you ask questions – and I’m looking forward to watching the answers unfold.