Oswin, the Dead Dalek (Future) Companion
“Tell me I’m cool, chin-boy.”
Oh Moffat, you sly devil. Proclaiming such poppycock as ‘you won’t meet the new companion until the Christmas Special.’ I’ll have to remember this next time you promise us story details.
In all seriousness, how crazy is it that the Doctor Who team kept this massive spoiler under wraps until the episode aired? Jenna Louise-Coleman was announced to play the Doctor’s new companion months and months ago, around the same time we learned Gillan and Darvill would be departing the show, and ever since then, it’s been said she would first appear in the Christmas Special, after Amy and Rory had gone.
I was pretty damn surprised, therefore, to see Coleman in the first post-credits scene, and for a major role in the episode to boot. Casting surprises like this are so rare today that the revelation felt truly refreshing, and since we had no expectations for the character going in, that made it much easier to accept Coleman’s Oswin as a new, unique part of the Who universe.
For if Oswin is to be the Doctor’s companion come December, she’s a very different character than modern Who has had up to now. She will be the first companion who does not hail from contemporary England, the first who will share in the Doctor’s knowledge of interstellar technology and geography, and from the looks of it, the first who can go toe-to-toe with the Doctor intellectually.
Though they shared no face-to-face interactions, it’s clear Coleman and Matt Smith share a pretty remarkable rapport. Coleman can handle Moffat’s complexly playful banter on the same level Smith can, and Smith, in turn, clearly displayed a different dynamic talking to Oswin than he does speaking to Amy or Rory. That’s the benefit of introducing a new companion, of course; it gives the Doctor new notes to play, ones that are unique to the person he acts against. If he and Coleman can have this much fun throwing dialogue back and forth over communicators, I am very eager to see what they can do in person.
Separating the Doctor or knowledge of prior companions from the equation, Oswin herself is a very fun character. I loved her introductory scene, watching this strange new figure listen to classical music, bake soufflés, record messages for her mother, and be completely optimistic as Daleks, the most deadly creatures in the Universe, tried kicking down her door. That’s a fun and efficient way to establish the character’s personality, and from there, I was hooked. As the episode went along, I simply wanted to see more of what Coleman had to offer, to see how her cheerful disposition would play against various situations or to learn what sorts of feats she could accomplish with her impressive intellect.
And then Moffat throws us a powerful, intensely painful curveball, revealing that Oswin, beautiful, cheery, remarkable Oswin, was never actually communicating from her spaceship, or even in her own body. She had been turned into a Dalek, her human figure destroyed, and was imagining the whole scenario.
That is one of the single most terrifying, unsettling moments in recent Doctor Who history. Even with the hints about the milk for the soufflé, I never for a second expected Moffat would create a twist so cruel, so viscerally, horrifyingly painful. Largely thanks to the grief etched into every line of Matt Smith’s face, the revelation is just agonizingly uncomfortable, played for every ounce of psychological torment inherent in the idea.
It also, of course, plays against audience expectations. Most Who fans tend to be up on casting news and such, so even if one did not know Coleman would appear in tonight’s episode, one would expect her to stick around. Instead, it turns out Oswin’s life has been thoroughly, irreparably destroyed, and to hold on to her humanity, she must sacrifice all she has left. How Moffat will get out of this when Coleman returns at Christmas is beyond me. All I know is that in the moment it works beautifully, adding incredible emotional weight to the episode while solidifying the Daleks as truly terrifying creatures once more.
I wonder if this will, in the long run, turn out to be a bit like River Song’s backstory, where the Doctor initially met her shortly before her demise and later travelled with a ‘past’ version. Perhaps once Amy and Rory have left, the Doctor’s guilt will compel him to visit a younger Oswin and, if possible, change the course of history. Is that something the Doctor would ever consider doing? Probably not, but it would be an interesting arc if we eventually arrive back at the events of Asylum of the Daleks, this time from a different perspective with a different chronology.
While we’re discussing the Doctor, I must give Matt Smith his inevitable, well-earned shout-out for the episode. This premiere was not necessarily a Doctor showcase, as nothing much has changed in the Time Lord’s life, but Smith was, as always, brilliant, commanding the screen with authority, nuance, and large quantities of humor. Asylum plays with a lot of different tones and styles, and Smith’s ability to ride such massive tonal shifts is the key reason Moffat can write such material. He’s like no other actor on television, and the various emotions the Doctor experiences over the course of Asylum creates a master class in grounding and enhancing sci-fi mayhem. I cannot wait to see where the character goes from here.
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