Ex...Ex...Exterminate! Steven Moffat's spellbinding season opener offered an explosive encounter between the Doctor and his greatest foe, and also provided us with some heartbreaking scenes involving companions old and new.
A blockbuster opener
It was always going to be almost impossible to scale the heights of last season's opener, 'The Impossible Astronaut', which featured location shooting in the USA, the Doctor's death, and an absolutely petrifying new enemy in the Silence. Moffat tried his hardest with 'Asylum of the Daleks', an episode that in many ways was his attempt to make the Daleks frightening once more. Moffat declared: "I did start to worry - were they still scary? Are we remembering these are driven by mad slugs?"
Having the doctor's deadliest enemies in the first episode gave the opener a true sense of scale, as did the impressive location shooting in the mountains of Spain. The snowscape of the asylum planet portrays the world as a desolate wasteland, a place where all life forms that stay their too long turn to Dalek, a terrifying prospect! The Daleks ingenious plan is to send the Doctor onto the planet, with Amy and Rory in tow, and bring down the force field so that the evil pepper-pots can obliterate the planet (and the Time Lord residing on it) once and for all.
And that's not all the Doctor has to deal with, as the season returned to find the Pond marriage is on the rocks. Those who have been following 'Pond Life', the series of webisodes building up to the new season, would have known that since last we saw them Amy and Rory have mysteriously split up. The incident in Demon's Run, where the Silence trapped Amy until she gave birth to a Time Lord, means that Amy now can no longer have children. This being the reason for the Ponds to break up may seem flimsy after all they've been through, but perhaps away from travelling in the TARDIS, the fact the two of them couldn't go through the adventure of bringing up a child together was too much to bear.
As Amy explains to the Doctor, "It's not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow-tie." It seems that the two have permanently split, and that Amy has returned to her 'modelling' career (an aspect of her character fantastically critiqued here by Sarah Ditum). This contrived break up aside, watching the two inevitably realise they still love each other and get back together makes the episode a lot more emotionally-involving than your regular Dalek tale. As the Doctor mentions of his enemies, "They remove love and replace it with hatred." It's a simple premise, love conquers all, but against the malevolence of the Daleks on Doctor Who human emotion will always prevail. This is shown most of all in the real hero of the piece, Oswin.
Moffat, the loveable scamp, once again wrong foots us by introducing the Doctor's next companion ahead of schedule à la River Song. Dazzlingly funny, charming and offbeat, she is strikingly similar to the alien otherworldliness of the Doctor, though due to the rustiness of her first performance it doesn't come quite as naturally as it does for Matt Smith. Surviving off soufflés in a spaceship crash-landed in the middle of the planet, her flirty asides and comical put downs make her instantly endearing and intriguing. The episode is built up around the Doctor and the master hacker meeting face to face until that shocking twist...
One of the elements that highlights the intelligence with which Moffat writes for Doctor Who is his ability to make a show about travelling through time and space actually utilise our conceptions of TIME and SPACE. To explain, when watching Oswin in her apparently cosy spaceship communicate with the Doctor outside in the snow, we naturally assume that both world's we see are real and form part of the same universe. All of Oswin's actions come through the planet's technology, but we never question that she wouldn't be 'real'. The Doctor realises straight away that something is wrong, questioning her about making soufflés and asking, "Where do you get the milk?"
Upon the reveal that Oswin was killed long ago and has been transformed into a Dalek, and that her cosy home-cooking lifestyle on board the spaceship is a fabrication is a total shock. The fact she claimed to have survived from the Daleks for a year, the rudimentary protection through nailing planks of wood to the doors, the perfectly polished but completely impractical Carmen red dress, all expose what we've watched as an elaborate illusion in her mind, because as the Doctor says, "You dreamed it for yourself because the truth was too terrible." Through sheer force of will to remain human she conquers her 'Dalek-ification' and the Doctor escapes the planet. How Oswin can be saved remains to be seen, but as a taster for what the Doctor's next companion will be I eagerly await the main course.
"Who killed all the Daleks?"
With companions of future and present taking centre stage, perhaps the one weakness of the episode was the lack of emphasis on the antagonists. In the build up to the episode we were promised every single kind of Dalek ever made, a true treasure trove of the Doctor's enemies from throughout the show's history. That never happened, and despite the scariness of the human Daleks, they ultimately felt like a sideshow to the Doctor and friends. That's a shame, because even if it appears Moffat isn't too keen on them, there is plenty of space left to explore the Daleks. Their inordinate hatred for anything non-Dalek can still surprise as the Doctor says, "I thought you had run out of ways of making me sick." Nevertheless for an opener the episode was a resounding success. Now prepare for the likely comedown in next week's much more silly affair, 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship'.