Written by Stephen Moffat & Phil Ford
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Zawe Ashton (Journey Blue); Michael Smiley (Col. Morgan Blue); Lauren dos Santos (Gretchen); Ben Crompton (Ross); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink); Nicholas Briggs (The Voice of The Daleks) & Michelle Gomez (Missy)
Here There Be Spoilers.
Well, it didn’t take long for the new Doctor to face a major threat. Some reviewers have questioned the return of the Daleks in the Doctor’s first post-regeneration episode, saying that this proves that Moffat and company may have felt that the audience would be quicker to accept Capaldi in the TARDIS if they showed him squaring off against his greatest foes. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but it reveals an almost fatal degree of cynicism on the part of some reviewers. Every Doctor has to face the Daleks sooner or later and I can definitely say that Into The Dalek is a much better episode than Matt Smith’s first Dalek episode Victory Of The Daleks (2010), where the Daleks spent the first half of the episode serving tea before morphing into a fatter, rainbow-colored gang (a design that went over like a lead balloon and that was quietly dispensed with). Deep Breath‘s plot was good and entertaining, but it was hardly world-shattering; any episodes with the Daleks immediately raises the stakes and, while this is great for audience anticipation, it also puts more pressure on the episode. “This better be good,” I muttered just before the episode began, acknowledging that simply pitting the Doctor against the Daleks is not simply “half the battle.” Classic creatures make everything twice as hard: how is this episode going to measure up against all the other Dalek episodes?
Into The Dalek begins with the Doctor saving the life of a woman soldier, Lt. Journey Blue, who immediately points a gun at him and demands to be taken back to her ship. The Doctor blithely insists that she asks politely, which she eventually does. This is an important moment: the Doctor (like all of his previous incarnation) is not a man who can be bossed around and it says something about the character of Journey Blue (Where do they come up with these names? Is she another of Amy and Rory’s kidnapped kids?). Her identity as a war-torn soldier is going to be important later on. Anyway, The Doctor arrives at Journey’s ship; she is a member of a force that is resisting the scourge of the Daleks and they want the Doctor to take a look at a rather specific patient: a war-battered dalek so damaged that it has developed a sense of morality – it wants to destroy all the other daleks. After a quick trip to collect Clara from the Coal Hill School, our heroes allow themselves to be miniaturized so that they can enter the dalek to find out what makes a good dalek tick.
It should be mentioned that not only is the idea of miniaturizing people to enter a body nothing new (the Doctor himself says it would make a great movie, referencing the science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage (1966)) it isn’t even an original premise for Doctor Who (the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jamison) having been shrunk down and inserted into a body to fight an infection in The Invisible Enemy (1977)). It’s the concept that the TARDIS team is going into a dalek that makes the premise special. With a trio of armed guards (red shirts, anyone?) poised to kill the Doctor in case he tries any funny stuff, the quintet get shrunk and dive into the fluid of the Dalek’s eyestalk, one of the episode’s many imaginative moments, in order to get to its brain so that they can… what? One of the few problems with Into The Dalek is that the Doctor’s mission inside the dalek is never completely clear; is he supposed to study it or repair it? The act of repairing it only makes the dalek revert to its former psychopathic personality, which everyone should have suspected was at least a possibility (I was certainly expecting it). It’s only after the newly-repaired dalek starts running amuck that the real mission begins: force the dalek to remember that it is capable of good. But does the Doctor succeed?
There’s so much in this episode that is worth praise that it is difficult to get your head around it. There’s the way the Doctor faces off with soldiers pointing guns at him and the type of loopy dialog that we’ve become accustomed to since Tennant was playing the role (“Imagine the worst thing in the universe… now forget it because here it is”). There’s that wonderful moment when the Doctor says to Journey that her soldier’s solution – blowing up the dalek from within – isn’t the way; the Daleks will always be deadlier soldiers than the humans are and a better way must be found. Let’s not forget Clara slapping some sense into the Doctor (one of the more realistic-looking slaps I’ve seen in the series, right up there with River’s in The Impossible Astronaut) and Gretchen’s moment of self-sacrifice (“Do something wonderful and name it after me,” she tells the Doctor.) And let’s face it, the Daleks are still frightening and Into The Dalek has some great, suspenseful battle scenes in its final act: we can be assured that the Doctor will somehow stop the Daleks, but will there be anyone left to save by the time he does?
In the end, the day is indeed saved when the dalek (whom the Doctor refers to as “Rusty”) sees the Doctor’s hatred for the Daleks in his mind and, finding it beautiful, decides to fulfill the Doctor’s subconscious will to destroy all the other daleks. It’s an exciting moment (punctuated by the genuinely funny dalek exclamation, “We are under attack… by a dalek!”), but while the rebels have been saved, the Doctor cannot take any pleasure in the results. His plan was to make Rusty a truly good creature, to understand the beauty of life and the universe, only to have his worst fears realized. The man who began the episode by asking Clara if he was a good man has just gotten his answer, and it wasn’t the one he wanted. “I am not a good dalek,” says Rusty. “You are a good dalek.” This recalls the moment in 2005 when the ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) spewed verbal bile at what he thought was the last dalek in the universe, only to be told “You would make a good dalek.” It’s taken nine years (in our time, not the Doctor’s) for him to reach this point and he must find it shattering. This is why Clara’s final pronouncement of his character, that he tries, is so important: the Doctor is a good dalek who is trying to be a good man. He can reign down far more destruction on the universe that any fleet of daleks could, but he’s trying to do what’s right.
At this point, I’d like to admit that I haven’t said much about the introduction of Danny Pink, the former soldier and maths teacher at the Coal Hill School who is evidently haunted by the killing of a civilian (or possibly many) during the war and who is slated to be Clara’s love-interest. Samuel Anderson does well with the character – Danny certainly seems to be a nice and sensitive guy – but as he isn’t involved in the main story, there isn’t much to go on and he isn’t even going to be featured in next week’s episode. No doubt his status as a former soldier will come into play when he finally meets the Doctor, which brings us to the soldier who would not be a companion, Journey Blue. When introduced, Journey has just lost her beloved brother in battle and is no doubt battle-scarred from the rebels’ long war with the daleks. Sure she’s going to react to every circumstance like a soldier, pointing her gun and barking orders. She’s under a lot of pressure and the Doctor’s cavalier attitude to Ross’s death doesn’t help, but you can understand why the Doctor refuses her request to travel with him. Yes, she did resist her orders and her urge to blow the dalek up, but breaking her training is something that the Doctor is not willing to undertake, no matter how willing she might be to permanently holster her gun. The Doctor himself is a soldier and you don’t have to be a long-time Doctor Who fan to have gleaned that the Doctor’s aversion to soldiers is motivated by a desire to divorce himself from memories of the Time War. More than ever, he wants to be a good man instead of a good Dalek (i.e. a soldier) and I believe that Into The Dalek has given us a theme that will be explored as the series matures: is a soldier only one step away from a dalek and is this new Doctor a good man? Only eleven more episodes will tell.
But forget about all that: we’re going to Sherwood Forest next week! Tally-Ho!