“Spoilers!” – Dr. River Song
This may be the best Dalek story since the relaunch of Doctor Who. Don’t get me wrong: there are things I didn’t like about it. Amy divorcing Rory because she can’t conceive a child for him? Ehwhat? Rory harping on Amy to have more kids, given what happened with Melody/River? Rory waiting two thousand years and then letting her go? Good heavens. Not to mention that the whole divorce subplot sort of makes you wonder what all those amusing “Pond Life” shorts were about. Did Amy draw up the divorce paperwork inside of, what, a week? Is that how fast no-fault divorces go now? None of this made much sense. As much as I love Amy and Rory as a couple, the fact that Moffat is now reduced to splitting them up and reunited them within a single episode testifies that there’s not much more material to be mined there. I’ll be sad to see them go, but it’s about time. The one cool thing that came out of the Pond divorce is the bit where the Doctor places the anti-nano cloud wristband on Amy before she even realizes it. Earlier, she’d told him that he can’t fix her marriage the same way he fixes his bow tie. Then, he puts them in a situation where he knows they’ll sort themselves out, and we get a shot of him pausing to adjust his tie in front of a camera. That’s one of the reasons that this is sort of a great episode, even with its flaws: it resurrects the ambiguous nature of the Doctor’s do-gooderism and puts it on trial.
You’ll recall that in Amy’s Choice, the emotional throughline of the double-blind dream was that Amy was forced to acknowledge how much she loved Rory and how much she’d miss him if he were gone. Since the entire scenario was yanked from the Doctor’s subconscious, the episode essentially qualifies as the most nightmarish couple’s therapy ever. Even if he has their best interests at heart(s), the Doctor can’t help pushing his companions around like pawns when he’s trying to help them. The same thing was on display in Asylum: the Doctor knows Rory. He knows that Rory put everything on the line and force a confession from Amy. He ratchets up the stakes, puts his pieces on the board, and lets the game play out. Kind of sweet? Sure. Kind of creepy? Yep. Is it more sweet than creepy? That’s a parallel question to the one Moffat poses about the Doctor’s oldest enemies, the Daleks: does the Doctor fight for justice, or does he exact vengeance?
I don’t think that Moffat is aiming for a moral equivalence, mind you. The Daleks are evil. That’s their thing. What he’s exploring is whether the Doctor can behave in a moral fashion when he’s doing the right thing. In most cases, that’s not such a dilemma. And with the Daleks, you’d think that it would be a no-brainer. But it’s not. Unlike some of the scripts from the RTD era, Moffat doesn’t seem to question the necessity of destroying Daleks. What is far more problematic is the Doctor’s emotional motivation for doing so and the methods by which he accomplishes his lethal goal.
In the show-stopping sequence showcased in the season trailer, the Doctor blows up a roomful of Daleks. When Rory stumbles into the steaming wreckage, he asks, “Who killed all the Daleks?” The Doctor’s response, with an eerie smile: “Who do you think?” It’s actually quite brilliant. Fitting neatly into a tradition of tricking Daleks into killing themselves, the Doctor is cornered by a Dalek whose gun is malfunctioning. He talks the Dalek into remembering that it’s supposed to destroy the Doctor at all costs, so the Dalek activates its self-destruct sequence — which is precisely what the Doctor wanted. The Doctor then sonics the creature into running backwards into the crowd of Daleks, at which point it blows, taking its brethren with it. Apart from the Dalek’s pitiful cries as it zooms toward its doom, the most frightening thing about the sequence is the Doctor’s grim satisfaction in having managed to take out so many enemies at once with virtually nothing but his wits. He might not think of himself as a predator, but he knows that the appellation fits. That’s why, when he finally solves the mystery of Oswin’s eggs, his dialogue with her is a startling mixture of pity and disgust: disgust with the Daleks, disgust with having to interact sympathetically with a Dalek, and disgust, probably, at his own disgust. She asks him why he hasn’t simply stopped fighting the Daleks, when he knows that they’ll just continue to grow stronger every time, in fear of him. Defeated and tired (oh, so tired), he admits, “I’ve tried.” The implication here is that fighting Daleks is something like an addiction for him, an impulse he can’t control. In return, Oswin gives him liberation. Having deleted all trace of the Doctor from the Daleks’ Internet database, he can now run without fear that they will chase him or evolve in direct response to him.
This development is terrifying. (Which is awesome, by the way.)
You want to be happy for the Doctor. In a way, he’s free of the responsibility of having to tangle with his oldest, deadliest foes. He doesn’t have to fight, to destroy, to give into his darkest inclinations. This should be a good thing. But it’s not. Not really. The Doctor mentioned in “A Good Man Goes to War” something to the effect that “Good men don’t need rules. Now is not the time to find out why I have so many.” Both RTD and Moffat have posited that one reason the Doctor needs companions is that they act as restraints. With the Time Lords gone, there is literally no one left in the universe with the power to stand up to the Doctor… except, perhaps, the Daleks. Here is a man with all of time and space at his beckoning, whose wit and intelligence make him as near a god as exists in the atheistic cosmos of Who. He has an incurable penchant for meddling, a rigid moral compass, and some serious anger issues. Is this really the kind of guy you want to be totally liberated from his responsibilities?
The relationship the Doctor has with the Daleks is indeed very twisted, as Charlie Jane Anders points out. But it has a Manichaean logic to it. If the Doctor can direct his darkest impulses into fighting the Daleks, he can perhaps restrain himself more easily in contrast with other foes. On the other hand, his fear of becoming too Dalek-like is only kept fresh by his encounters with them. They remind him of what he could become, and of what real evil looks like. But by running away, the Doctor not only shirks his responsibilities as a crusader against true evil, he runs the risk of shirking restraints of all kinds. In that respect, the Doctor’s own reputation has always kept him in check. He was known as the enemy of the Daleks. If he’s not the good guy — in opposition to their bad guys — then what is he? Freedom is a double-edged sword. He may ultimately be better than he was, but also maybe worse. The price of not fighting the Daleks may be a war for his own soul. He’s just too arrogant and confident in his ability to control the world around him to see the conflict brewing within him.
Besides all that good, thematic grist, there were lots of other cool, creepy parts to this episode. I loved the Xenomorphesque quality of the eyestack popping out of the puppets’ foreheads, as well as the irony of the Daleks functioning as a republic. Then there was Amy’s vision of the Daleks after she began her transformation. I was also impressed with Jenna-Louise Coleman. She’ll be fun. Just, please, Moffat — don’t make her into another River Song. If “Asylum of the Daleks” is how Oswin ends her life with the Doctor… that just sucks.☕