Steven Moffat has gone for a dazzling blockbuster of an opener to kick off Series 7 featuring the Daleks as we’ve never seen them before. This was the first of the “movie poster” run of Series 7a, i.e. the first five episodes of the series, and it totally looks it. There are imposing scenes of the “Parliament of the Daleks”, spectacular views of the Dalek asylum planet, and every Dalek ever. It was as if the fanboys were put in charge of the show (Oh, wait…). But one of this episode’s main triumphs was its portrayal of the Daleks. We hadn’t seen the Daleks for a full season, and Steven Moffat, in his first Dalek script, was determined not only to do something different with them, but to attempt that elusive feat of making the Daleks scary again. Given that the Daleks had progressively become less fearful a villain since Robert Shearman’s Dalek, having appeared more or less every year since the revival (sometimes twice), that was always going to be a daunting challenge, but I think Moffat pulled it off.
The “asylum of the Daleks”, where all the most insane Daleks are imprisoned, was a compellingly brilliant concept, and allowed Moffat to show the Daleks at their most terrifying. There were some genuinely scary moments in the asylum, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory encountered damaged and deranged Daleks, all that was left of some of which was their most fundamental, primal instincts: hatred and the urge to kill. I’m thinking of the wonderfully suspenseful “eggs…” moment where Rory clumsily awakens a long-dormant Dalek whose first urge is to “ex…ex…ex…ter…min…ate!” The concept of the planet’s nanogene cloud converting all organisms, living and dead, into Dalek puppets also gave the Daleks another terrifying weapon in their armoury, the sight of a Dalek eyestalk emerging from a human head was particularly gruesome.
It seems we can’t have a story about the Daleks these days that doesn’t also compare the Doctor to the Daleks, and the comparisons came thick and fast here. Well, perhaps not thick, but they were pretty obvious and heavy-handed. I’m not necessarily criticising, I generally find it exhilarating and compelling when the Doctor’s character is questioned by the show, or at least I do when it’s done well. The Dalek Prime Minister (*splutter* Prime Minister !?!) speculates that the Daleks’ adoration of hatred is why they have never been able to kill the Doctor. Thinking about it, that’s actually a very clever way to patch over that particular continuity hole, while also making a profound point about the Doctor’s character. They refer to him as the “Predator of the Daleks”, another cool title to add to the Doctor’s increasingly long list of cool titles, but which builds on a theme first established in Bad Wolf, i.e. that the Daleks, given their collective history with the Doctor, probably fear the Doctor now far more than he fears them. “We have grown stronger in fear of you,” Dalek Oswin pronounces.
Some might scorn the idea that the “mad man with a box” could have had such an intense impact on “the most advanced warrior race the universe has ever seen”, but certainly the Doctor’s triumphs over the Daleks have been so devastating and so traumatising for the Daleks collectively, that it should come as no surprise that the Daleks have developed this primal race memory identifying the Doctor as their eternal enemy and “predator”, and prompting them to instinctively fear the Doctor. It was very telling, after all, that the most “damaged” Daleks were the ones who’d survived the Doctor in previous battles. Who, honestly, seeing the Doctor murder a room full of Daleks without as much as a flinch of mercy, could say they doubt that the Daleks have reason to fear the Doctor, or that the Doctor really does hate the Daleks as much as they think he does.
This episode also boasted a strong character element, both with the melodrama around Amy and Rory’s deteriorating relationship, as well as Oswin’s shocking and confusing appearance. When I first saw this episode, I was genuinely worried that Amy and Rory were going to be separated permanently. I loved their coupling and couldn’t bear to see them apart. Watching Amy and Rory sniping cruelly at each other I just couldn’t stand. I found it excruciating. I should have known, that’s not how it works—Moffat would have had to contend with a lynch mob of angry fans (including this one) if he’d actually ended Amy and Rory that way. In any case, my reaction at least shows that the episode achieved what it set out to in this respect in making the audience care deeply about what happened to Amy and Rory on a personal level. Watching Amy forcefully repudiating Rory’s claim the he loves her more than she does him was really heartwrenching viewing, and simply sublime, powerful acting by Karen Gillan.
Oswin was a captivating, yet suspiciously enigmatic, presence onscreen while we thought she was a human. I was immediately enchanted by her as a potential companion, a girl-genius, with delectable sass and looks. Not to mention she was delightfully wacky enough to give even the Doctor a run for his money. Kind of like a modern Zoe. That made it all the more shocking when the bluff was uncovered and Oswin was revealed to be a Dalek with delusions of humanity. Her story was heartbreaking, and her final words, what would become her eternal words, “Run you clever boy, and remember…” truly make the hair stand on end.