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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Who’s running the Asylum (of the Daleks)?

As foreshadowed, thoughts on Doctor Who! I’ve been very excited for the new season (aren’t I always), especially because I get to watch it properly on the BBC. (SPACE in Canada has been pretty good, to be fair, but they still get the BBC America cut.) After the Doctor’s “death” at the end of the last season, I was interested to see what kind of trouble he would get into next.

Oh, spoiler alert for “Asylum of the Daleks”. And, I guess, all of last season. Sorry.

I find myself, once again, ambivalent about Doctor Who. In the pacing department, “Asylum of the Daleks” works well. I also think it was a good choice of story for the season premiere, and I probably would have liked it less if it had been anywhere else in the season. It’s very similar to “The Eleventh Hour”, with the Doctor racing against time to find a solution that lets him and the Ponds live. The in media res opening and subsequent dearth of time for exposition about the shambles of Amy and Rory’s marriage would have annoyed me if this weren’t the season opener (and if we hadn’t seen the wonderful Pond Life). But it emphasizes the nature of the Ponds’ relationship with the Doctor: he drops in when they least expect him, completely oblivious to how they have tried to get on with their lives meanwhile. They love to see him, and love the adventures with him, but the fact that he skips the boring parts can be downright awkward at times.

There are two interesting developments with regards to the Doctor’s “death” in this episode. The Daleks sussed out that he is alive (not surprising) and capture him rather easily. Oswin manages to delete all information about the Doctor from the Dalek pathweb, the telepathic field linking together their minds. As a result, the entire Dalek species has forgotten who the Doctor is—and he thinks this is marvelous. The second development relates to the Doctor’s ego and how he shows it—there weren’t all that many moments in this episode when the Doctor preens. They are there, but they are fewer, and seldom accompanied by his triumphant leitmotif. I don’t know how much of that is a consequence of faking his own death and how much is the result of being in such close proximity to so many Daleks. But it’s interesting.

The Dalek amnesia obviously feels a little bit like a cheat and a reboot. But I’ve long ago given up hoping that Doctor Who will conform to any kind of sense, logic, or continuity (it is a show about time travel, after all). With no explanation for why there are coloured Daleks and classic Daleks working together again, or why they have a prime minister this time instead of an emperor, or why they are suddenly converting humans into Dalek puppets instead of EXTERMINATING them … you kind of have to go with it. Because the other option is to get really mad and nerd rage, and no one wants that!

For an episode with a lot of explosions and massive Dalek-related carnage, “Asylum of the Daleks” is, at its core, all about relationships: between the Doctor and the Daleks, between Amy and Rory, between the Doctor and his companions (and everyone else who runs across him). Overlook these interactions, and you have an episode with a lot of action that appears to have very little in the way of substance—and that’s not the case at all.

I’ve been remiss in my classic Who watching, so I don’t have the same knowledge of Dalek–Doctor lore that many older fans have. Ever since “Dalek” back in 2005, though, the relationship between the Doctor and the Daleks has been one of the most vehement parts of the Time Lord’s character: he hates them. He will give anyone else in the universe one warning, one chance to stop, turn around, and leave. Not so for the Daleks. It is, as the lone Dalek remarks to the Ninth Doctor, probably true that it and the Doctor are not so different after all. Time and again, the Doctor has shown he is willing to wipe out all of the Daleks (when possible), whereas he will go to great lengths to prevent the genocide of any other species.

The Daleks bring out the worst in the Doctor much in the same way that humans bring out the best in him. I won’t pretend to understand why the insane Daleks converted Oswin, but by forcing the Doctor into that conflict between saving someone internally human who has nevertheless become a Dalek, Moffat reaches right down into the core of his relationship with both these species. He’s the saviour of humanity so many times over, and the predator of the Daleks just as much.

And then we have the Doctor’s relationship to his companions. This alone is worth a blog post (or maybe an entire blog of its own), but one ongoing theme is how the Doctor transforms his companions. He doesn’t use weapons; he uses people, changes them. Rose ended up living in a different universe, her mother married with children to an alternative version of her dad. Martha Jones went from doctor in training to a dutiful member of UNIT. Amy Pond was a kissogram, and now she has a modelling career and her own line of perfume. The Doctor has a massive gravitational field that perturbs the life of anyone who travels with him. Pond Life was an interesting attempt to capture that (and I think it succeeded).

Amy and Rory’s love story was a big part of the previous two seasons of Doctor Who. Now, at the beginning of “Asylum of the Daleks”, we find out that their marriage is on the brink of dissolution. How did they get this way? And can the Doctor fix it, all while trying to escape from a shielded planet full of insane Daleks?

This is where “Asylum of the Daleks” starts to run aground. Amy, Rory, and the Doctor get stuck on the asylum world, and what does Amy do for the entire episode? Start getting delirious as nanogenes transform her into a Dalek puppet. Does she kick Dalek ass? No. Does she help the Doctor bring down the force field, fix the teleporter, or evade the Dalek fleet? No. Does she so much as engage in witty banter with the Doctor and Rory? Not enough, by far.

Amy is entirely too passive in this episode, and that’s a huge problem. I watch Doctor Who primarily for the Doctor, for those moments in every episode when the chips are down and suddenly the situation goes from hopelessness to triumph as we realize the Doctor has a handle on it and knows what to do. But I also watch it for the companions and how they contribute to the Doctor’s greatness. And for too much of her time on Doctor Who, Amy Pond has played the role of the Girl Who Waited, a damsel in distress.

We know the writers can do better than this. Just today, the second part of the Silurian two-parter (“Cold Blood”) from season 5 was on TV. Amy is brilliant in this episode! Not only does she help another person escape captivity at the hands of Silurian scientist and explore the underground Silurian city, arming herself and dropping mad technobabble beats in the process, but later the Doctor puts her in charge of negotiating on behalf of the entire human race. And she was doing a good job at it!

Speaking of the Girl Who Waited, the episode of the same name is one of my two favourites from season 6 (the other being “The Doctor’s Wife”, of course). It’s another dose of how much the Doctor has warped Amy’s life, perhaps the most out of any of his companions from the new series. And it showed an Amy who was strong, independent—and very bitter about how she felt her Raggedy Doctor abandoned her in her hour of need.

So we know there is a strong, active Amy Pond out there. It’s worth noting neither of those episodes were written by Steven Moffat. Indeed, every episode he has contributed during his tenure as showrunner has focused on the River Song story arc—and most of them have sidelined Amy into a passive role. She spent most of “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone” with her eyes closed, literally not moving much while the Doctor and River worked out how to save the day. She was killed in “The Pandorica Opens” only to be brought back at the beginning of “The Big Bang” and spend the rest of the episode worrying over the spectre of the Doctor’s death. (To be fair, she kind of saves the Doctor at the end of the episode by remembering him.) Don’t get me started about her role in “A Good Man Goes to War”….

On a related note, however, I’m glad we finally get to see some of the cracks in Amy as she lives with the fact that her daughter was taken from her and raised away from her. That’s the kind of trauma that leaves deep impressions. I’m not sure, however, about the added complication of her infertility. Isn’t it enough that her daughter was taken from her? Why do we have an additional, biological complication now? Let’s process our feelings about Melody’s abduction and indoctrination first, mmkay?

“Asylum of the Daleks” is neither a very strong example of great writing nor a strong example of great storytelling on Doctor Who. But its use of the iconic enemies of the Doctor, and the forgetful outcome of his confrontation with them, is an effective way to anchor this new season. I could have done without the incessant repetition of “Doctor who” at the close of the show. And I really hope we get to see more of the amazing Amelia Pond—the damaged, broken, strong Amelia Pond—rather than this watered-down version that faints at the sight of a nanogene.

I’m pumped for dinosaurs on a spaceship though. How can that not be awesome?