For those of you not already aware, it’s a new season of ‘Doctor Who’…and before I do the jump-cut that separates out the spoilers for those who haven’t seen the season premiere yet, let me just say how utterly strange it is to be a fan of ‘Doctor Who’ in an era where that series is enjoying such tremendous popularity. This year at DragonCon, Doctor Who cosplayers outnumbered Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek, and any three Joss Whedon series you’d care to name. Full Daleks, TARDIS dresses, and Elevens too numerous to count. It’s a good feeling, don’t get me wrong; this isn’t one of those, “If you weren’t reading ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’, man, you can’t really understand what it’s like to be a fan!” rants that you occasionally see when something cult becomes mainstream. But I’ve spent the vast majority of my life as a Doctor Who fan, probably since I was two or three years old, and for the vast majority of that vast majority I could expect to meet another fan (outside of the Internet fora specifically designed to assist Who fans in congregating) perhaps once, twice a year. It was an obscure British import with laughable production values (especially compared to ST:TNG, which slightly overlapped the classic series in its dying days) and black-and-white repeats. To see it now rise from the ashes as a world-conquering juggernaut, right around the time that Star Wars and Star Trek (the Big Two when I was a kid) are fading to some extent, it’s…surreal. I keep expecting people to change their minds.
But since they’re not doing that, let’s talk ‘Asylum’, shall we?
For those of you who a) haven’t seen the episode, and b) don’t care about spoilers, the Doctor and his companions are kidnapped by the Daleks, who actually need the Doctor’s help for once. They’ve got a planet where they keep all the “broken” Daleks, the ones that are too crazy or damaged to be of use, but that they nonetheless keep around for sentimental reasons. (The whirring noise you hear is Doctor Who author John Peel spinning in his grave.) (He’s not dead, but he had himself buried alive when he found out that there would be episodes of Doctor Who that portrayed the Daleks as having compassion for their own kind and a culture, just so that he wouldn’t have to see it.) Said planet has been “contaminated” in the wake of a spaceship crash, and the Daleks believe that there’s a possibility that the insane Daleks could escape. They want the Doctor to go in and lower the planet’s defenses so that they can blow it to tiny bits, because the Daleks might be evil megalomaniac xenophobic unversicidal killers, but even they’re too smart to go to a planet full of crazy Daleks. The Doctor is forced down to the planet and told he can’t come back until it’s ready to blow up.
When he gets down there, he finds there was one survivor of the crash, a woman named Oswin who has “hacked” the Dalek network and is happy to assist him in exchange for a ticket off-planet. He finally finds her in the lowest bowels of the planet, the maximum security ward, and…really, if you read this, don’t blame me at this point…she’s been turned into a Dalek. Her “insanity” is that she refuses to accept the fact, and has retained all her humanity. The Doctor forces her to confront what’s been done to her, and she sacrifices herself to get the Doctor and his friends back off the planet before the Daleks destroy it. (Oh, and erase the Doctor’s existence from the Dalek collective consciousness.)
It’s not bad. Not Moffat’s best, but not bad. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this was a really, really great one that Moffat was forced to “tone down” after getting notes from the BBC. Because my suspicion is that the Dalek that was Oswin wasn’t originally intended to be Oswin.
I think that as originally scripted, this was the Dalek that killed Oswin. It tortured her to death, slowly and painfully, while she begged it for mercy. She poured out all the stories of her life to her killer, trying to touch some human feeling in an inhuman monster…and against all odds, she succeeded. The Dalek developed the one thing that no other Dalek has, something that terrified the rest of its species to the point where they locked it in the deepest, darkest corner of their inescapable prison planet and then chained it down and then decided that maybe they should blow up the planet, too, just to be on the safe side…this Dalek developed a conscience. It felt guilty about what it had done. And in order to cope with that guilt, it decided it was Oswin, because if it was Oswin then Oswin wasn’t dead and it hadn’t done…what it knew it had done.
That’s what the Doctor originally found. Not a Dalek that had been human, but a Dalek that wished it was. I think that was what Moffat wanted to write, but they deemed it just a little too intense for family television, so he notched it back a bit. To what was still a good episode, but maybe not as good as the one I imagine in my head with that one tiny scene changed.