Asylum of the Daleks: The Doctor as Risen Healer

N.B. The following written text in this blog-post Asylum of the Daleks: The Doctor as Risen Healer is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Image source:

Series 7 of Doctor Who starring Matt Smith is now underway with the first story having been broadcast, Asylum of the Daleks.

It kick-starts Series 7 which will have 5 episodes broadcast in coming weeks, with the remainder in 2013 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the TV series. A “Jubilee Year” for The Doctor. The year of jubilee in the Bible was one of rest for all from work, rest for the land and nature, and time to forgive debts, free slaves, and have life reinvigorated and renewed.

A theme of forgiveness and renewal in a jubilee year is there in Asylum of the Daleks.

The plot-line involves a female character having sent a message that brings the Doctor to the planet Skaro, the home-planet of the Daleks. The woman pleads for the rescue of her daughter held captive by the Daleks. The message is a ruse as the woman turns out to be a puppet of the Daleks. The Doctor is kidnapped and rematerialises on a space-craft containing the Parliament of the Daleks. He is joined by his companions Amy and Rory, both of whom have also been abducted.

Image Source:

The Parliament of the Daleks sets an assignment for the Doctor and his companions. The Daleks’ plea to the Doctor is “save us”. The Daleks feel threatened by their own kind, Daleks that have been isolated in an asylum because they are insane and too dangerous to be let loose.

The Daleks are unwilling to exterminate their own kind because in their eyes it would be horrible to destroy something that is beautiful. That is, the Daleks regard themselves as a thing of beauty, and in their morality it is wrong to destroy what is beautiful. The Doctor regards this as twisted reasoning given the perverse disposition of the Daleks to destroy and subjugate everything else that is non-Dalek. As the Doctor regards the Daleks as lacking pity and being a cosmic force of destruction, their unwillingness to destroy fellow Daleks who are insane is ironic! The Daleks in a piece of irony also say that maybe this is one reason why they have not killed The Doctor because he too is an object of their “beauty” (The Doctor’s “soul” was ostensibly revealed in Journey’s End suggesting he fashions people to do violence on his behalf).

A planetary asylum for insane Daleks exists but it is apparent that the security system that imprisons them is in danger of bursting apart. As the Daleks are unwilling to send their own, it is the Doctor and his companions who are given the task of dealing with the problem.

The plot-line unveils that there is a woman named Oswin Oswald (played by Jenna-Louise Coleman; she is the next actress who will assume the part of the Doctor’s travelling companion during Series 7). She is trapped in the asylum and she must be rescued. However, the surface appearances are not all that they seem, and the Doctor poses questions again and again as to how Oswin has succeeded in surviving unscathed for a whole year in this asylum. The Doctor’s scepticism about Oswin is validated as the story reaches its climax.

As part of the plot-line the story in its earliest sequences shows that Amy and Rory, who have been a married couple, now live apart. Just before they are abducted, Amy signs divorce papers thus finalising the end of their marriage.

A few theological threads may be discerned in Asylum of the Daleks, and with obvious links to the past. The first thread is a brief allusion to the motifs of the Doctor’s death and resurrection. The pre-credit involves the woman summoning the Doctor to Skaro. Before he appears the woman recites words about the Daleks and their destructive legacy, and of a man who is believed to have died fighting them. The woman nevertheless expresses the hope that this man who may yet still be alive can help her. In previous posts I have discussed some of the resurrection analogies in Doctor Who.

The true name and identity of The Doctor has been the TV series’ great and deliberately unanswered cypher: “who is The Doctor?” (hence Doctor Who).

The title of “the Doctor” evokes the role of one who is a healer, and this is acknowledged in other stories that the Doctor brings healing. For example, with scathing cynicism The Master mocks this self-chosen title — The Doctor — of the one who heals in The Sound of Drums. The Doctor as the one who heals offers a messianic analogy to the Christ who healed people of ailments and brought about healing of the relational bonds between God, humanity and the rest of the creation.

In Asylum of the Daleks, Amy has rejected her relationship with Rory, and Rory has reluctantly acquiesed. When The Doctor encounters them he is disturbed to learn that their relationship has been sundered. Amy insists that this is just “life” and is adamant that this is something beyond even The Doctor to set right. However, through a chain of events, The Doctor sets in motion the pathway for reconciliation premised on the power and goodness of love, which are opposite to the ontological status of the Daleks as creatures that glory in evil and destruction. By the end of this story, Amy and Rory are living in a restored relationship (although their imminent departure from the series in the forthcoming fifth episode is evidently ominous). Healing and reconciliation are sub-threads in the plot of this story.

The character Oswin Oswald plays a subversive part in undermining the Daleks’ asylum, which has led to the crisis of The Doctor being kidnapped to deal with the problem. As the plot discloses Oswin was a human. She has been metamorphosed though into a Dalek, yet her human consciousness has successfully survived in a state of psychic shock and denial (“I am not a Dalek” is her insistent remark to The Doctor).

Before the Dalek asylum is vaporised, Oswin manages to erase from all the Daleks both in the asylum and on the space-craft their individual and collective memories of The Doctor. As The Doctor rematerialises before the Dalek’s Parliament they do not recognise him as they insist on him identifying who he is. The Daleks fail to recognise the Doctor as a healer, saviour and messiah. Their “spiritual darkness” lets them dwell in delusions as their deeds are so evil. The playful dialogue is posing the perennial question “Doctor Who?” “Who is The Doctor?” The story closes with The Doctor in flight alone on the Tardis and chuckling as he repeats the words “Doctor Who”.

While the universe of Doctor Who has retained the mystery of his name across 50 years of the series, one can find a theological analogy in the gospels about Jesus. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) carry forward the question: who is Jesus really? Jesus poses the question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Biblical scholarship has long contended that in Mark’s Gospel there is a “Messianic secret” associated with the sayings and actions of Jesus.

While Doctor Who is not the work of theologians, the mystery of who is The Doctor invites viewers to ponder why does The Doctor do these healing and redemptive acts? In a similar way, readers of the gospels are invited to ponder on who is Jesus? He seems to be a Rabbi, yet is not just a teacher. He seems to be a prophet and yet his work breaks out of that category of just being a prophet. He is a healer and yet is more than just a healer. Who recognises Jesus? Who recognises The Doctor?

The Doctor can bring healing even to post-modern fractured marriages, and he dies and rises again from the dead. With the Asylum of the Daleks it is an opportune time once again to ponder and reflect on the theological mirror images that Doctor Who brings to the surface.