When I last rewatched “Asylum”, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. But it’s a visible step up from Moffat’s preceding three scripts, as he manages to put together an efficient and skilfully constructed episode, after the hot messes of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, “The Wedding of River Song”, and “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”. “Asylum” isn’t quite Moffat back to his best, but it is a strong episode that dares to try something new, confidently setting out the new style for its season.
But first up, it seems worth addressing the episode’s biggest weakness, as it is a significant one. Amy and Rory’s divorce subplot doesn’t quite work, not being set up enough for the viewer to be prepared for what’s coming, and not getting enough focus for the resolution to feel satisfying. Trying to explore the lingering hurt Amy feels from Demon’s run is commendable, and her and Rory’s failure to communicate is true to the trouble Amy has opening up to people to discuss her hurt. But there’s a lingering sense that this storyline could have been done better, and with more sensitivity.
However, Amy and Rory’s subplot does have some benefits, as we see a return of the everyday to Doctor Who’s aesthetic, which has disappeared from the show over the course of series six. Everyday life being sidelined in Doctor Who is not an inherently bad thing, but is nice to see back after an absence. The pre credits scenes at Amy’s workplace, with Top 40 chart music playing over Amy’s photoshoot, feel grounded in the contemporary in a way that Doctor Who hasn’t in the whole Moffat Era up to this point. While the “everyday life” aspects of the episode don’t quite work here, they will do good things for Doctor Who over the course of this season, and will be the source of some of the show’s high points come the Capaldi era.
And there is stuff genuinely good stuff going on with Amy in this episode, it’s just not related to her and Rory’s marital issues. The subplot surrounding the nanogenes taking over Amy and nearly converting her into a Dalek slave produce a threat that is very specific to the things that are important to Amy. Amy has been established as a character whose identity and sense of self are structured around fairy tales and stories, and the threat posed by the nanogenes is that she will be “unwritten”, as the Daleks hijack her memories and stories, rewriting her to become their puppet. The Daleks pose a direct threat to her identity as a storyteller, threatening to take away her ability to care about the stories that make Amy who she is, just like Darla, who is able to consult files and gain academic knowledge about the person she was, but is unable to feel loss for the Daughter she once knew, unless the Daleks choose to reactivate those feelings. For all the complaints about the Daleks not exterminating anybody in this story, I think they are as unsettling here as they’ve ever been. Between the threat they pose to Amy, and the fates of Darla and Oswin, the Daleks pose an existential threat they don’t get just by shooting extras and secondary characters (who, on the whole, are the only kind of characters the Daleks ever exterminate anyway).
One of the episode’s biggest strengths comes in the form of Nick Hurran’s direction: “The God Complex” and “The Day of the Doctor” are better episodes, and are also tremendously accomplished pieces of visual storytelling, but this might be his best achievement directing Doctor Who, as he takes a packed script and gives it clarity through clearly conveyed visual information, and gives us some wonderfully striking shots and visual sequences. We get a focus on bright and primary colours: a vast white snowscape, the brightly lit expanse of the Dalek Parliament, and Oswin’s bright red dress standing out as as the immediate images that come to mind, all held in contrast to the grimy underbelly of the Asylum, with its dank corridors and broken, dying inhabitants. We get sweeping pans across the wreckage of Skaro, that capture the sheer scale of the Dalek shaped towers, and a moving overhead shot as the Doctor, Amy, and Rory ascend on a platform from their cell into the Dalek Parliament. The episode has a wonderful variety of visuals that still cohere neatly, establishing “blockbuster” visual tone for the season with aplomb.
Particularly striking are the dream-like visuals when Amy hallucinates, seeing Daleks as people. There are seven people in the room: a woman in a dark dress, kissing a man on the cheek, a man who makes a gesture of welcome to Amy, a man and a woman talking and laughing, a man swaying unsteadily on the spot, and a ballerina, much younger than the other people, who the sequence dwells on. The ballerina is positioned at the centre of the shot, where all the other people are positioned to the left or the right, and wearing a white costume where they wear dark clothes. The sequence slowly focuses in on her, as she starts in the distance, at the back of the shot, but the camera continues to move towards her, pushing the other characters out of the shot or to its margins, until we cut to a closer, overhead shot of her spinning on the spot. Her vibrant red hair, which the viewer is led to focus on as she spins in slow motion, links her to Amy, but she is also linked to Oswin, whose voice we first hear while we look at a shot of a model ballerina spinning on a music box, and who is wearing a red dress, which we see her wearing seconds after cutting away from the ballerina. As a result, Amy and Oswin are tacitly linked by their connection to the Daleks. But what is this link? This sequence is a piece of foreshadowing: we know Amy is being converted by the Daleks, and by tacitly linking her to Oswin, the sequence prepares the viewer for Oswin being subject to a similar fate. This sequence is perhaps the best example of the way Hurran’s packed visual symbolism is perfectly tailored to the ton of information packed into Moffat’s script.
And then we get to thing giving the script much needed focus: the surprise of Jenna Coleman’s appearance. It’s a great way to showcase her talent ahead of her proper first appearance in “The Snowmen”, and she’s very good here, hinting at a deeper character beneath Oswin’s wisecracking nature that is presented over the course of the episode, and taking any opportunity to hint at Oswin’s subconscious awareness of her conversion such the scene where she deflects the Doctor’s question about
Which leads us to the character Coleman plays in this story. Oswin’s character arc centres around the divide between dreams and reality. The first thing she asks the Doctor is “are you real? Are you really real?”, hinting at just how deep she has buried herself in her dream world of soufflé baking and messages to her mother: she can no longer be certain of what is real and what is not. This dream breaks down when the Doctor reveals the truth to her, but her death sees her reclaim her own reality, and identity: “I fought the Daleks, and I am human”, she tells the Doctor. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she sacrifices herself to save the Doctor, beat the Daleks, and reclaim the self she had lost, ascending to a higher narrative plane as she looks into the camera and, for the first time, starts the meme that is tied to her character this season, in and out of universe: “Run you clever boy, and remember me”.
And here, I want to address a common criticism of the episode: the claim that the regulars hear Oswin’s human voice over the intercom even though she has been converted to being a dalek is accused of cheating the viewer for the sake of a twist. It’s a criticism I agreed with, until I realised on this rewatch that there’s actually a perfectly reasonable explanation. As Jane Campbell points out in the comments for Phil Sandifer’s essay on this episode:
“There’s no microphone in the white room [where Oswin is imprisoned]. Oswin’s patched directly into the pathweb and presumably any communications servers. She can dial up the opera Carmen – it’s not like she’s really got an iPhone to play it. It’s not actually a stretch that if she can fill the comm lines with music that only exists in her head, she can fill it with the voice in her head as well.”
What is often cited as major plot hole actually isn’t, for my money. This isn’t to suggest that the episode doesn’t have its flaws, but its plot holds together better, and is less superficial, than its detractors would suggest.
We end the story with the Daleks forgetting the Doctor, erased by Oswin, who reclaims her reality and caps it off by altering the Daleks’. This also neatly continues the “stepping into the shadows” arc, as the Doctor has now disappeared from all of the universe, including the memories of his greatest enemies. And it hints at the true nature of the “Question” arc: “Doctor Who?” Isn’t a question about the Doctor’s true name, but his identity, his true nature. The real answer to the arc is hidden in plain sight from the very beginning.