The Doctor and the Daleks are sort of like Batman and the Joker. They've been fighting each other so long, they practically define each other. And tonight's Doctor Who season opener made a strong case that the Doctor's relationship with the Daleks has gotten unhealthy, on both sides. Can counseling help?
Back in season five, the Daleks concocted an elaborate scheme to get the Doctor's validation. Literally. They needed the Doctor to "recognize" them as the Daleks so that some Dalek replicator would activate, so they pretended to be World War II fighting robots and went around serving tea. All just so the Doctor would shout "You are the Daleks" into their microphone.
This time around, the Daleks have concocted another elaborate scheme to capture the Doctor, so they can send him on a mission on their behalf. "Save the Daleks, Save the Daleks," they clamor in, a totally abject display of neediness.
The Daleks have a planet called the Asylum, where they've dumped all the Daleks who are too insane or freaky, and now a human starliner has crashed there. The Daleks are concerned that if humans can get in, then all the crazy Daleks can get out, so they just want to nuke the planet and have done with it. Unfortunately, there's a forcefield around the planet that can only be turned off from the surface, and the forcefield will let in starliners and teleport beams, but not any weapons of mass destruction. (You couldn't just teleport down a big bomb, because plotty wotty.) The Daleks are too scared to meet their own insane relatives, so they send the Doctor and his two most recent companions, instead.
(Side note: It's pretty clever of the Daleks to figure out that Amy and Rory are the exact right companions to send along with this Doctor. It would have been sort of hilarious if they'd randomly kidnapped Ace and Victoria, instead.)
The plot, though, is mostly just an excuse to explore the Doctor's ongoing relationship with the Daleks, and to show how sad it's gotten. The story starts with a big monologue about how the Doctor is the one man who's fought the Daleks all these years, and then the speaker of that monologue later tells the Doctor that the Daleks call him the Predator. When she tells the Doctor that "they say" he can stop the Daleks, he responds, "I wish they'd stop" (saying that.)
The Dalek Prime Minister — is anybody else a bit weirded out by the notion of the Daleks having parliamentary democracy rather than an authoritarian regime? — explains the reason why the Daleks have never been able to destroy the Doctor. They hate the Doctor so much, and they think hate is the most beautiful thing in the universe. This is also why they haven't been able to bring themselves to destroy the Asylum, which is full of Daleks who are wracked with "divine" hatred.
So then the Doctor is beamed down to the Asylum planet, where he's surrounded by broken Daleks that he (in some cases personally) drove insane. It's almost too bad the Daleks in the Asylum are largely out of commission and kind of messed up, because the notion of the Doctor trapped on a planet full of insane Daleks at full strength would have been pretty intense. As it is, the Daleks are sort of dormant and/or lacking full-power weaponry, so they're sort of intermittently dangerous.
Meanwhile, the biggest threat on the planet comes from humans who've been turned into kind of Dalek-people by a swarm of "nanogenes" that transforms any organic material on the surface. Living or dead. You get a kind of Dalek eyestalk coming out of your forehead, and sometimes also a Dalek gun coming out of your hand — we witness this early on with the woman who lures the Doctor into the Dalek trap, and then again with most of the survivors of the starliner crash. And then Amy is in danger of being Dalekified as well — providing another way to look at what makes a Dalek a Dalek. (You subtract love and add hate, basically. More on this in a second.)
Finally, we come to the crux of the story: the Doctor has made the Daleks stronger. Just like some recent Batman stories have explored the notion that Batman makes the Joker the Joker, now we're getting the idea that the Daleks wouldn't have been nearly so bad if they hadn't been driven by fear and hatred of the Doctor. It's true that the Daleks aren't terribly formidable in their first story, trapped in a tiny city they can't leave, and then suddenly the next time we see them they've invaded Earth. In any case, the Doctor has been trying to stop fighting the Daleks, because he's only making them more powerful by fighting them.
This all goes back to the notion that the Doctor "got too big" and needs to step back — and the notion that he makes his enemies worse and creates bigger problems than he solves was also brought up back in "A Good Man Goes to War."
We also see the nastiest version of Matt Smith's Doctor that we've seen thus far, with him being downright mean to the woman who calls for his help saving her daughter from a Dalek slave camp. (She's not real and it's a trap, of course.) Later, encountering a ship full of corpses, the Doctor practically chortles. Matt Smith is bringing a wonderfully sardonic tone to the Doctor, as if the 200 years he spent running away from the Silence have left him a lot more rough around the edges.
To a large extent, the story of "Asylum of the Daleks" is about showing that the Doctor's relationship with the Daleks is unhealthy — and then showing him getting a divorce. At the end of the story, the Daleks have magically forgotten all about the Doctor, and they don't have any clue who this man is, and why his blue box is sitting in the middle of their Parliament, and so on. They're off chasing a different cat toy instead. (And the Doctor is content to escape from the Parliament — I couldn't help feeling that Tennant's Doctor would have blown them all up somehow.)
The agent of all this is Oswin, who's basically the little girl from "Silence in the Library" with a dash of Miss Evangelista and one or two other characters. She was the junior entertainment manager on that crashed starliner, but she's also a super-genius — so instead of just turning her into a Dalek-person, the nanogenes did a "full conversion" and turned her into a proper Dalek. She couldn't handle the truth, so she retreated into a virtual fantasy dreamworld, where she's wearing a sassy red dress, listening to opera, and making souffles. (And I guess the souffles are made with eggs, and as Rory reminds us early on, "eggs" is the first syllable of "Exterminate." So the souffles represent her repressed Dalek nature, all burnt and nasty.)
Although you might notice that Oswin is played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, who is going to be the Doctor's new companion this Christmas. So there may be something more to her than meets the eye, actually. (According to various sites, the new companion is named "Clara Oswin," turning Oswin's first name into a last name.)
And the Daleks are basically the Borg now. They use nanotech to turn people into Daleky troopers. And they have a hive mind, which can be hacked by someone who's become one of them. (It's not a hive mind, we're told, it's a telepathic "path web." But it's powerful enough to be able to erase the knowledge of the Daleks' ultimate enemy from every single Dalek's consciousness. Everywhere.)
So if the Doctor getting "too big" is responsible for the Daleks getting so evil, what are we to make of this? Is heroism a bad thing? Should we not bother to fight evil, lest we indirectly cause it to become more powerful in response? Is apathy the new heroics? In real life, if we see evil happening, should we turn a blind eye, lest we just provoke it to become nastier? I want to link back to the rant that John Ostrander wrote after "A Good Man Goes to War" aired, in which he basically said that the Doctor shouldn't ever apologize for fighting evil, and we shouldn't ever stop celebrating heroism.
Meanwhile, Amy and Rory are having a relationship meltdown of their own, and their relationship is revealed to be just as dysfunctional as that of the Doctor and the Daleks. Rory finally comes out and says it: he loves Amy more than she loves him. This has been sort of the point of their relationship all along, but now it's out in the open. And if you have that as the mythology of your relationship, that's probably not terribly healthy, actually. Rory points out that he waited 2,000 years outside a box for Amy, back when he was an Auton. (One wonders if Auton consciousness processes time the way humans do.)
But it turns out that Amy was actually being terribly noble and loving by divorcing Rory — she can't have children, because of whatever they did to her when she was giving birth to River Song. And she knows that Rory has always wanted children, so she wanted to set him free and let him have kids with someone else.
(So what exactly did they do to her at Demon's Run? Was this not a normal delivery? And why isn't Amy a nervous wreck by now?) Basically, Amy was listening to too much Sting.
Amy and Rory's relationship gets sorted out, largely because Amy's becoming a Dalek-ette, and the only cure for this is to hold on to your love and not let the Daleks take it away. (And yes, that was the same thing that saved Craig from becoming a Cyberman, last season. Wonderful thing, love.) Amy has to remember her love for Rory, or she'll risk being Dalek identified — something that's dramatized in a really beautiful way when we see from Amy's point of view, and she sees a roomfull of Daleks as people, dancing. That's the best scene in the episode, for my money: the Daleks-as-dancing-people sequence.
It all gets back to the theme of remembering, which is one of Moffat's go-to themes on the show. Early on, the Doctor tells Amy and Rory the only thing they can do is "make them remember you." And then, instead, they make the Daleks forget them. The people who've been Dalek-ized have fake memories, or have repressed their real memories except when they need them for "deep cover." And Amy has to hold on to her memories of Rory, to stay Amy. And Oswin's memories, along with her sense of reality, are completely borked and fake.
In the end, the Doctor is seen reveling in his newfound anonymity, dancing around the TARDIS while shouting the show's title. (In imitation of the way that Dorium shouted it at the end of "The Wedding of River Song.") So where is all this heading? It looks like we're still in the middle of an arc, where the Doctor is in the process of getting less "big" — but then is he going to confront the consequences of stepping back into the shadows? Is he going to leave a Doctor-sized vacuum behind? Or will he be more effective at fighting monsters like the Daleks, now that they have no clue who he is and he can be all stealthy about it?
I guess we'll find out, probably mostly in 2013. But chances are, the Daleks will be back this season, since the new companion seems to be linked intimately with them. I'm betting on a Dalek-y season finale.