Briefly: Now, I get paid to watch Doctor Who. Suck it, real work! Also, check out my musical tributes to the Daleks.
It's been almost a full year since the season finale of series 6, and having watched the entirety of the rebooted series on Netflix over the last several months, even these last few weeks having to wait for Matt Smith's return were sheer agony. That's even taking into account that while series 6 had some of the best Doctor Who work of all, such as "the Doctor's Wife," it also had some of the worst.
Still, it's the Doctor, and the show wasted no time dropping us right into an amazing adventure that sees the Doctor, Rory and Amy Pond gunned down by a new type of Dalek that disguises itself as humans. In general that's kind of a science fiction cop-out, merely a means of saving the budget on more creature effects by using regular actors. Here, though, it's an utterly necessary stroke of genius and you certainly can't blame the budget because...whoa.
We open on Skaro, the legendary original planet where Davros first created the Daleks and where they met their defeat at the hands of the First Doctor along with Ian, Barbara and his granddaughter Susan. (Be sure to pick up the re-released novelization of this adventure, Doctor Who and the Daleks, by David Whitaker and with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, for maximum enjoyment.)
We only get the briefest look at the planet, and it actually eerily resembles the ruined Earth the Daleks inhabited in the Eternity Clock, but the landscape is dominated by a massive statue of a Dalek where a human/Dalek posing as a mother searching for her daughter in a Dalek prison camp manages to contact the Doctor to ask his help. He realizes it's a trap, but not in time to avoid capture.
Meanwhile, in present-day England, Amy Pond is now a model, and is served divorce papers by Rory on a shoot. No explanation is initially given, but both are kidnapped by the Daleks to meet with the Doctor.
What follows is one of the greatest scenes in all of Doctor Who history, and perhaps the best interaction between the Doctor and his longtime enemies since the Ninth Doctor confronted the last survivor of the Time War Daleks and came dangerously close to becoming one, psychologically if not physically, himself.
The Daleks explain that they need the Doctor. A spaceship has crashed into the prison planet that the Daleks use to house the most criminally deranged members of their race, Daleks so full of violent hatred or so mentally damaged that they are of no use. The Dalek Prime Minister fears that the spaceship might be used as a way to escape, and no Dalek is brave enough to travel to the planet himself and turn off the force field that surrounds it. That's why they turn to the only other thing they fear.
What makes this scene so incredible, so mind-numbingly brilliant, is the way it drops subtle clues about the place the Doctor now holds in the minds of the Daleks. He has for all intents and purposes become their Satan, their Ragnarok, their Antichrist. He has a mythology all his own, whispered names and bizarre rituals. (The constant presence of companions is why the Daleks kidnap Amy and Rory. It's part of the legend.)
Imagine for an instant that here in America, where most people are culturally Christian if not religiously so, not only was Lucifer real, but he had regularly defeated the finest forces the United States could muster from the lowest foot soldier to the president himself. Imagine that he is both legend and as real as any person you met on the street. What on God's Earth could possibly be so bad that you would enlist this person, even if you thought you had a fool-proof plan to kill him in doing so?
What is waiting on the planet is literally an insane asylum for Daleks, and for the first time I can remember since "The Time of Angels," I was honestly frightened by an episode. Watching the trio navigate rundown tunnels full of screaming-mad killers with access to deadly technology made me think, "Man, Stephen Moffat would direct the hell out of a BioShock film." It was oppressive, terrifying and managed to show nuance in the old staple foes by the worst means possible. We get to see a Dalek defined by being broken.
The BioShock allusion isn't far off. We even get a disembodied voice leading the Doctor and companions through the maze. Jenna-Louise Coleman, who is supposed to become a companion upon the planned departure of Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill later this series, plays Oswin Oswald, a member of the crashed spaceship crew who has supposedly managed to both elude the Daleks for a year and more or less gain complete control of the complex.
Oswin is a quick-talking flirt whose enthusiasm and intellect put her almost on the level of the Doctor himself. It's her guidance that enables the Doctor to locate a teleport off planet in time to save Amy, who is slowly being rewritten as a hybrid by the nanogene field that surrounds the planet and ensures nothing exists on it but Daleks (See "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances"). All that's left is for the Doctor to come collect her, turn off the forcefield so everyone can get to the TARDIS, let the Daleks nuke the planet, and everyone goes home.
But that's not quite what happens. First, Amy explains to Rory that the reason she left him was because she knew he wanted kids, and the events of last series meant she wasn't able to. They reconcile, but the Doctor has a harder road.
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After traveling through the intensive care ward of the asylum and seeing the last survivors of all his previous encounters, he comes face to face with Oswin...not the plucky, vivacious girl we've already all fallen in love with since she burned a soufflé in her first scene, but the insane mind of a girl that the Daleks fully converted into one of them.
It's absolutely heartbreaking to watch her come to this realization, and we see her small and sad through the eyestem in her mental escape apartment where she tortures her Dalek guards with her computer genius hacking skills. At first she refuses to believe it, but eventually she realizes what has been done to her. Still in control, she lowers the forcefield and welcomes the planet's destruction as the Doctor, Amy and Rory beam off.
Back on the Dalek ship, the Doctor takes a final moment to gloat from the safety of the TARDIS, only to find that the Daleks do not know who he is. Oswin used the hivemind system she had hacked to erase the Doctor's existence from the Dalek collective...and perhaps has made their steady march to more and more terrifying forms a little slower now that their personal devil has been forgotten.
All in all a great way to begin the series, and easily the finest look into the Dalek culture ever done. Just give us 12 more episodes like that and series 7 will be the best ever.