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Wednesday, 30 of September of 2020

Doctor Who – “Asylum of the Daleks”

“Well this is new!”

Rory and Amy behind bars on the Dalek spaceship

Mummy and Daddy are fighting.

There’s an interesting discussion to be had with regard to Doctor Who‘s seventh season opener about the relevance of external stories to the main narrative of a show. So many shows today are utilizing the Internet as a tool to draw in new viewers and keep old viewers interested. From behind-the-scenes videos to website-exclusive mini-stories, shows use the Internet to create an extension of the worlds their audience loves, extensions that promise to fill in the gaps that 45-minute-long stories always leave behind.

Yesterday, I happened across BBC America’s Doctor Who marathon and was able to refresh my memory of season six in preparation for the seventh season opener. I also watched “Pond Life”, a five-part series of short webisodes focused on the life of the Ponds while away from the Doctor.

“Pond Life” was clearly meant to stir up interest about the new season and it starts off fun and easy. The Ponds listen to the rambling, run-on messages the Doctor leaves on their answering machine. The Doctor pays them a surprise visit in the middle of the night. An Ood winds up at their house and thinks he’s their butler. All the sorts of shenanigans you’d expect the Doctor’s favorite couple to get into.

After the quirky start, the fifth segment is just as startling as it is confusing. In slo-mo and without dialogue, Rory storms from his and Amy’s house, carrying bags. Amy follows close behind, clearly yelling at him. And that’s it. There’s no explanation, no resolution, just a completely unexpected shift in tone and turn of events.

Though the segment doesn’t explain anything, it is a jumping off point for the premiere episode. Any viewers who had not seen “Pond Life” would have been even more surprised by the sudden rift between Amy and Rory at the beginning of season seven. When last we saw the Ponds, they were happy and very much married; the premiere begins with Rory having Amy sign their divorce papers. The only sort of precursor to the break-up that we get is from “Pond Life”, which not everyone may have watched.

I don’t particularly like the break-up but I liked the way it was handled even less. The lack of a build-up for the split combined with the structure of the resolution weakened the impact of what could have been a very strong and emotional story point for Amy and Rory’s relationship. There was too little “before” and not enough time devoted to the “after” to really give it maximum power. Even when an audience is already invested in a relationship, they have to be able to get invested in the deterioration of that relationship, too. Without the background on how and why Amy and Rory split up, I spent most of the show confused about why they were angry with one another instead of wondering how (or even if) their relationship would be repaired. That is not how you want your audience to be, especially not during a premiere.

While the handling of the break-up bothered me, the nature of it did make sense. It was established in “The Doctor’s Wife” that Amy’s greatest fear is failing Rory (which makes his “I waited for you!” argument during their confrontation all the more powerful and painful). It’s therefore possible that she would “give up” Rory if she felt should couldn’t give him what he really wanted. But, after all they’ve been through together, I find it a little difficult to believe that she wouldn’t just talk to him about it instead of kicking him out under the belief that he could have what he wanted with someone else.

The catalyst for their split – Amy’s inability to have children – is such a huge, huge thing for both of them, but the episode barely spends a few minutes on it. The show has never explored what Amy went through at Demon’s Run and how that experience affected her. She went from thinking she was with Rory and the Doctor to finding out she was a prisoner, giving birth, and having her child taken away from her twice. To find out that she also can’t have any more children because of what was done to her – especially given that she knows Rory wants children – makes what happened to her an even greater tragedy. Yet a lot of the potential impact of her revelation is lost, and not just because of the lack of backstory to her split with Rory. Her tale had to share the stage with another.

The premiere had two big stories and neither had enough room to breathe.

Amy and Rory’s break-up was combined with the Dalek storyline – in particular, the story of Oswin, which will no doubt play a huge role in the rest of the series. The problem here is that the stories battled for space in the episode that was really to small for them to share. The Amy/Rory side needed to have more to the backstory to make it truly effective – something “Pond Life” could have done, had the show really wanted to keep the “how” of their break-up out of the full season. And the Oswin/Dalek side needed to be able to be explored without having to share the stage with Amy and Rory’s break-up, which – truth be told – really stayed on the back burner until near the climax of the episode – the point where the Oswin/Dalek story most needed to be able to run without the interruption of the Ponds working out their marital woes.

Structure issues aside, I did like both of the stories very much and even appreciated them as a season opener. I also felt like the performances helped hold together the weaker structure and even sold me on some points I had reservations about.

For example, whatever concerns I had over the handling of Amy and Rory’s split, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill completely sell it in their confrontation on the Asylum planet. Rory doing what does (putting Amy’s life before his own) and finally giving voice to what so many think (Rory loves Amy more than she loves him). Amy breaking down and revealing the secret that made her give him up. The raw emotion in that scene is very real and very true to the characters and the moment. Again, this particular storyline needed more room.

Then we have Oswin and the Daleks. It must be said, this may be the first Dalek story that didn’t bore me at all. The whole concept of the Asylum was interesting, and the fact that the Daleks would basically kidnap the Doctor so that he would help save them (and snatch up Rory and Amy as well, because it’s a well-known fact that the Doctor requires companions) is fascinating.

But the real humdinger of this story is Oswin’s reality and actions, and how both with ripple through the rest of the season.

I have to thank the Internet, my friends, and the gods of fate for not spoiling the twist at the end of this episode. I almost wonder what it would have been like to go into this episode knowing nothing about the rest of the season. The knowledge that Oswin will soon be part of the show on a permanent basis definitely made me complacent (“Of course she’ll get out with them”), which made the reveal all the more shocking.

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman do a magnificent job with the reveal that Oswin’s a Dalek. The look on the Doctor’s face as he asks Oswin whether where she is feels real or not, knowing as he stares at her Dalek form that it very much isn’t, is absolutely amazing. He goes through shock and pity and sorrow and fear and that deep, centuries old sadness that only the Doctor can carry. Matt Smith has the ability to make himself seem very old, to bring a depth into his eyes that sells that he’s seen more than 1000 birthdays. And Oswin’s reaction is terrific as well: disbelief, shock, horror, anger, despair, and finally a calm resolution.

It is going to be very interesting to see how Oswin comes back into the Doctor’s life, and what impact her mind-wipe of the Daleks will have on the Doctor’s future encounters with them. The Daleks no longer know the Doctor, which means they can no longer fear the Doctor. He isn’t The Oncoming Storm or the Predator anymore. He’s just a mad man in a blue box who seems far too delighted that his mortal enemy has no idea who he is.

Also: nanogenes and Dalek puppets.

Overall, I really enjoyed this premiere. I liked the stories it told and appreciate where its events may lead in the future. Despite what I feel were some issues with narrative structure and pacing, the story was fun and inventive. I’m excited to see where we go next.

Next week: dinosaurs… IN SPACE. Also, Inspector Lestrade! Arthur Weasley! And did I mention the dinosaurs?

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