Daleks haven’t been scary for a while now; 2005’s Dalek was a new-generation introduction of the classic monster in as dark a story as most of the first season’s episodes, but later appearances cemented them as the Doctor’s most consistently defeated enemies. The seventh season opens with Asylum of the Daleks, and the same does not hold true here. For one, the Doctor isn’t under attack, but instead coerced into assisting the alien race by manually disabling the protective forcefield on their eponymous “asylum”, a planet which plays host to disabled and insane Daleks.
It’s not only the setting but the tone that really makes this distinct from previous Dalek encounters, though. This is as close as Doctor Who has come to horror since Blink, and it’s of little surprise that showrunner Steven Moffat wrote both. While Amy and the Doctor investigate on the surface, Rory is separated and finds himself in a dimly-lit Dalek graveyard that’s nothing short of harrowing. Here lingers not only the threat of extermination but also that of airborne nanomachines that slowly convert them, against which watch-shaped devices are our threesome’s only defence.
There are also a couple of surprises in this episode, including certain Dalek stealth units called “puppets” which I don’t imagine would have been tolerated in past seasons, particularly not in the aforementioned Dalek. They bring in a couple of inconsistencies in this episode alone, but their relatively small role suggests we might see them again later. There’s a Moffat-esque twist involved as you may have come to expect, with a handful of widely distributed clues leading to a perfectly orchestrated denouement, and the Ponds even tackle some mature themes tackled for legitimate emotional challenge.
A couple of cheesy moments, a few inconsistencies, and blunt fan-service on the part of Rory’s dazzling Dalek escape aside, this is a fantastic opening to a series of “blockbuster episodes”. The focus on one-offs rather than two-parters and wide arcs this season is actually more exciting to me than the Hollywoodification, mostly because Moffat’s brain-bending arcs were starting to detract from what makes the “monster of the week” formula so enjoyable. With Dinosaurs on a Spaceship next on the agenda, I say: grab some popcorn and settle down for what will surely be good fun.