Stars: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Anamaria Marinca, Naomi Ryan, David Gyasi, Zac Fox, Nicholas Briggs, Barnaby Edwards, Nicholas Pegg, Jenna-Louise Coleman 
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director:  Nick Hurran 
Network: BBC America, airs Saturday night 
Original Telecast: September 1, 2012

In the first episode of DOCTOR WHO Series 7, “Asylum of the Daleks,” things are not well with Amy and Rory Williams (Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill) since they last saw the Doctor (Matt Smith). Divorce papers are signed and the two are about to go their separate ways. But when creepy human agents of the Daleks abduct them and throw them back into danger with their Time Lord friend, it’s just like old times. The pepperpots are in trouble; they have an asylum planet filled with insane Daleks that might escape and threaten even their brethren, and only the Doctor himself can save his most hated foes. Can he also save a marriage along the way? And somewhere deep underground, a young woman (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is waiting to be rescued…

That’s right, future companion Coleman makes a surprise debut here as a girl named Oswin Oswald, a plucky genius capable of helping the Doctor navigate through a truly atmospheric and disturbing facility for Daleks that have gone around the bend. Although pre-episode publicity touted the appearance of Daleks from every era in the series’ history, you barely see any of them at all apart from a fleeting glimpse of 1988’s Special Weapons Dalek (“Remembrance of the Daleks”). While that’s a bit disappointing given how much attention this stunt received through magazine coverage, it’s at least nice to see the stout, sturdy bronze Daleks of 2005-2010 are back in numbers, with the awkwardly redesigned New Paradigm (from Series 5’s “Victory of the Daleks”) given a more metallic paint job and kept well at the back. The Daleks are powerful again, scary again, and by episode’s end, somewhat…forgetful.

A nice glimpse of their hellish home world Skaro, ravaged by the Time War and nuclear battles from long ago, kicks off a strong debut for this new series of episodes, which also has a well-paced, straight-forward story, snappy dialogue and excellent performances all around, and even some nicely judged emotional touches that have been lacking in the show of late but are very welcome in their return.

For one thing, it’s almost time to say farewell to Amy and Rory Williams. As we watch them struggle through a potential break-up only to reaffirm their love for one another, both actors knock it out of the park with a tearful scene that reveals something else that happened to Amy at Demon’s Run, helping to balance out the badly handled “baby” arc from last year and confirming that this is a couple in pain. Seeing them rise above it and find strength in their bond of love is one of the episode’s high points.

Another is the shocking twist concerning Oswin, which may be telegraphed a bit but still packs a punch. Her involvement also sets up an intriguing and – yes – genuinely game-changing alteration in the basic mythos of Doctor Who that not only finally delivers on that oft-used hypey phrase but makes one long for future Dalek stories in which they deal with the unknown menace of that mystery man in his blue box. Speaking of which, Matt Smith is excellent as usual, but he’s also darker here, perhaps playing off everything that has happened to his incarnation so far and offering a slightly weightier version of his pirouetting persona.

For continuity buffs – who might appreciate the return of the Dalek ‘heartbeat’ and an homage shot to the very first appearance of the Daleks in 1963 – worried that “Remembrance of the Daleks” showed Skaro destroyed, remember that the Time War saw everything coming back again and again in frightening, endless loops of time, from the Master to Rassilon himself. So why not Skaro too? As for the basic plot – Daleks capture the Doctor, put him in a big room and ask for assistance in dealing with a threat on a planet with insane Daleks; the Time Lord meets a woman who crashed there a year before while his companion works through emotional issues; everyone escapes amid explosions, transmatting back to the Dalek ship and into the TARDIS – well, one can only assume that Moffat has heard the 2005 Big Finish audio drama “The Juggernauts” and the royalty check will soon be in the mail.

I kid. From the new Dalek power structure of the Prime Minister and Parliament (whither the Emperors of old?) to the cute “eggs-term-i-nate” gag, and from the very creepy Dalek human agents (especially the zombie ones!) and a scene straight out of Twin Peaks to the visually stunning icy surface of the asylum planet, this is a premiere packed with very pleasantly surprising delights. Coleman’s character may be just a tad too over-the-top – and what is with the constant use of physical insults against certain characters as a means of making another character seem strong or sexy – but we don’t know exactly how she’ll settle in once she genuinely joins the TARDIS team, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Here, all of her behavior makes sense in context, especially when that devastating revelation arrives.

Next week, there are dinosaurs on a spaceship and quite a few familiar guest stars. Let the mayhem ensue!

Related: First Look Images of DOCTOR WHO Season 7 episode posters

Related: TV Review: DOCTOR WHO – Series 7 – “Asylum of the Daleks” – Review #2

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ArticleTV Review: DOCTOR WHO – Series 7 – “Asylum of the Daleks”

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