Doctor Who–Season 8, Episode 2–Into the Dalek

“Clara, be a pal and tell me – am I a good man?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s flawed but mostly satisfying season opener, this week Doctor Who followed up with the return of the show’s arch villains in a story that was flawed but, for me, less satisfying. If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that if I don’t enjoy a story, I usually break down the reasons why. The trouble is that this time, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why I felt that way.

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Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of potential in this story idea, and a lot to like. The Doctor’s been miniaturised and injected into a body before, of course – his own, in fact, in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s none-too-well-regarded The Invisible Enemy. It wasn’t a very original idea then, having been done in 1966’s classic movie Fantastic Voyage, though Doctor Who has never been shy about ‘borrowing’ ideas. Dalekanium, and Dalek duplicate spies, also cropped up, the latter for the first time since Resurrection of the Daleks.

In fact, Phil Ford and Steven Moffat’s script was a treasure trove of continuity references for fanboys (though I wonder if those with a less than encyclopaedic knowledge of the show might have found them irritating). Besides The Invisible Enemy, the most obvious callback was to Rob Shearman’s clever 2005 reboot of the tin pepperpots, Dalek. We had a lone Dalek, kept in chains, and both the script and Ben Wheatley’s direction of the creature’s introduction deliberately recalled the way that Dalek was introduced – the novel twist being that, this time, when it began to shout “Doc-tor!”, it was actually crying out for help rather than revenge. And that this time, its opinion of the Doctor was, “you are a good Dalek”.

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That was a clever line (perhaps too knowing?) in a script that, yet again, seemed intent on deconstructing the character of the hero. Much was made of the Doctor’s antipathy for soldiers, even to the extent that he refused to take Journey Blue away in the TARDIS with him – actually a shame, as she was a well-written character engagingly played by Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton. I think I might even have preferred her to Clara.

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But however much the Doctor may hold soldiers in contempt, this script seemed intent on hammering home the point that (particularly in his new incarnation) he may not have much room to stand on the moral high ground where killing is concerned. We still don’t know for sure whether he… helped the Half-Faced Man out of that balloon last week; but we certainly know he didn’t put in much effort here to save Ross from being disintegrated by Dalek antibodies (a shame not to have seen more of Ben Crompton, better known as Game of Thrones’ Dolorous Edd Tollett).

Even with the knowledge that this new Doctor is darker than ever before, that moment came as something of a shock – albeit a well-orchestrated one. When the Doctor asked Ross to “swallow this”, I, like the characters onscreen, assumed whatever it was would keep him safe. His immediate death may actually have been less shocking than the Doctor’s dismissive, “he was dead anyway”.

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The Doctor’s pragmatically ruthless side is nothing new of course, all the way from trying to stove in a caveman’s head in his very first story to (apparently) blowing up his own home planet when the series returned. But it’s usually balanced out by his warm, caring side. Having settled down after his manic post-regeneration confusion last week, Peter Capaldi displayed precious little of that, leaving you in no doubt that this is a very different Doctor to his more recent predecessors.

In fact, to my mind the previous Doctor he’s beginning to remind me of is actually Colin Baker – minus the terrible dress sense and the bombast, of course. It’s a far more understated performance, but the often unthinking cruelty is unavoidably reminiscent; although there are already hints that he’s possessed of enough self-awareness to wonder if he’s really “a good man”.

One notable side effect of his reminding me of Colin Baker is that his changed relationship with Clara is beginning to remind me of Baker’s with Peri Brown. If you somehow doubted the new Doctor’s romantic unavailability after last week’s emphatic, “I’m not your boyfriend”, this week’s amusing, “you’re not a young woman any more”, and “well, at least you’re still making the effort” should have convinced you. And yet, amusing though the lines were in context, they also came across as (perhaps unintentionally) cruel, in the way that Colin often was to Peri. At least this time, Clara got to slap him – though not for that.

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Shorn of a romantic interest in our hero, Clara continues to improve as a character. She seems to be carrying on Moffat’s no longer novel but still interesting take on the companion – someone who has a normal life into which the Doctor occasionally pops to drag her off to adrenaline junkie-pleasing peril. To this end, we got some focus on her new career as a schoolteacher this week, something she’s plainly quite good at – good enough, in fact, to teach the Doctor himself a lesson, albeit in a too-obvious ham-fisted way.

And that, I think, is part of what I disliked about this episode. It was trying very hard to say something Big and Significant about morality, stacking the Doctor up against the Daleks for comparative purposes and finding him wanting. All well and good, had it been more subtly handled; but it’s not exactly a new theme, having been introduced in Genesis of the Daleks and arguably reaching its zenith with the Time War. There probably is more mileage in the idea, but it seems a little soon to be pushing the Doctor back to amorality after having spent a large part of Matt Smith’s run challenging that and apparently resolving it with Day of the Doctor.

Even then, I might have found the theme more interesting even though well-worn, had it been less clumsily handled. The scene with the Doctor going eye to eye with ‘Rusty’ and trying to remind it of the universe’s inherent beauty was well-played by Capaldi; but his dismay at turning the creature’s loyalties by means of hate rather than inspiration was telegraphed a mile off. When Shearman’s increasingly human antagonist informed the Doctor, “you would make a good Dalek”, it was a subtle resolution that caused the Doctor to think about himself. When this one informed the Doctor that he is a good Dalek, it just felt like a repeat of the same thing.

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There was also something of a lack of motivational clarity in the dialogue. Having shown themselves to be so risk-averse as to initially want to kill the Doctor in case he was a Dalek duplicate, just why were the military so keen to use him to help their patient? It seemed logical to assume that they wanted to potentially replicate what was wrong with it to use as a weapon; but why then ask the Doctor to try and fix it? Despite Clara’s optimism, the result was fairly predictable.

Just as in the early Matt Smith episodes, the actual resolution here was chiefly down to the Doctor’s companion, which given the show’s often cursory treatment of its female characters, is a good thing. It also served to reinforce the new Doctor’s faith in Clara. But I found it difficult to believe that he would so easily trust her to “do something clever” with a piece of technology presumably well beyond her experience. And when she did, I initially couldn’t tell how she was doing it, which I guess may be a fault of the direction as much as the dialogue. When I did figure it out, though, it didn’t help much; why would the Dalek memory bank have little physical reboot buttons in it? Who would normally operate them?

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I had my issues with the episode’s pacing, too. Yes, it had a slower pace than the often frenetic Matt Smith ones frequently did, and that’s not a bad thing. But it was a bit all over the place, building up tension that seemed to go nowhere. This was probably best exemplified in the lengthy sequence at Coal Hill School, which I’m guessing was Steven Moffat’s most significant input to the script. Yes, Clara’s newly introduced love interest Danny Pink may be quite interesting, and his hinted at past as a war veteran played into the episode’s theme of soldiery. But it seemed a very odd place to put it in the episode, where the languidly paced soap opera feel very much defused the tension built up in the space opera-like opening.

We did at least get another look at what’s plainly going to be the story arc for the foreseeable future – though that might well displease those who are less than fond of Moffat’s arc-heavy narratives. Gretchen, having effectively sacrificed herself for the Doctor, found herself waking up in the same ‘Heaven’ as the Half-Faced Man last week, greeted by Michelle Gomez’s mysterious ‘Missy’.

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So, is this some kind of afterlife for those killed because of, or by, the Doctor? The show’s not usually been kind to religion, but has found afterlives of a sort before, notably for the computer-stored River Song. However much Moffat shifts the style from ‘science’ to ‘fantasy’, I doubt we’re looking at the traditional Heaven here.

And the internet is teeming with theories as to ‘Missy’, to whom Moffat refers as “the Gatekeeper of the Nethersphere” (at least her epithet doesn’t include the word “girl”, I suppose). Is she the Rani? Is she a female incarnation of the Master, preparing the ground for a future female incarnation of the Doctor? There was a time when I didn’t think Moffat would do anything quite so obvious. But then he had the Doctor cheat death by using the Teselecta robot to duplicate himself, which had seemed so obvious it felt like an anticlimax. Perhaps it was a double bluff?

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I really wanted to like this episode – and perhaps that was the trouble. A lot of my objections are purely down to personal taste, of course; I know many people who really enjoyed it (and quite a few who disliked it far more intensely than I did). But even with the excellent Capaldi in the role, I’m still not sure what to make of this new Doctor – or whether I even like him all that much. Clumsily retreading old ground in his and the Daleks’ morality struggles doesn’t really help. Yes, there was a fair bit to like about this episode, and it was certainly better than Matt Smith’s introduction to the show’s arch-baddies, the execrable Victory of the Daleks. It’s just that, given the potential inherent in its premise, it felt like this should have been rather better.

12 thoughts on “Doctor Who–Season 8, Episode 2–Into the Dalek”

  1. Great reviews and enjoy reading them. I also concur with your lines regarding Missy – “some kind of afterlife for those killed because of, or by, the Doctor?”. Having watched the first two episodes I’ve been left wondering why have the two characters shown been the only ones saved when others have died in the same episodes. My unsubstantiated conclusion is that they are saved because they chose to sacrifice themselves – easily proven for Gretchen but not for the Robot-guy? Well maybe….in Deep Breath we were left with the “did he jump or was he pushed” conundrum. If Missy is saving those who sacrifice themselves then can we not conclude that Robot-guy jumped, against the stated will of his programming?

    Also, at the start of Into the Dalek the Doctor states to a confused Journey Blue that he extended the “time capsule” around her and that’s what brought her to the TARDIS. Now, he never said TARDIS but something like “time capsule” – is this a new function of the TARDIS or a new device. As Missy seems (to me) to be a reflection of the Doctor, is she too using a time capsule to pick up these folks just before the moment of their death….and (possibly) by extension, also bringing them into a separate room within the TARDIS.

    If so, could Missy be the TARDIS (like Idris ), acting as a conscience for the Doctor. A balance for his apparent directness with limited empathy?

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    1. Ooh, now that’s an interesting theory – way more interesting than the Rani or the Master! We shall see, I guess…

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  2. “Clumsily retreading old ground in his and the Daleks’ morality struggles doesn’t really help.”

    Actually, I thought this story covered new ground for the Doctor.

    The key to what’s happening can be found in the Doctor’s belief that a Dalek that wants to destroy the Daleks is, by definition, good. However, you can’t have a good Dalek, because the Dalek idea of “good” is to exterminate something which is “bad”. Consequently, if the Doctor has also split the universe into “good” and “evil,” then he can’t be a good man. This new take on the Doctor makes perfect sense, and also explains why he spent centuries fighting a war on Trenzalore in defence of Gallifrey. Ultimately, the only thing sustaining the Doctor in his belief that he is a good and moral hero, are the Daleks. In reality his morality is situational. The Doctor believed Gallifrey was evil and needed to be destroyed, and now he believes Gallifrey is good, and needs to be saved. And what’s this based on? A whim!

    “Having shown themselves to be so risk-averse as to initially want to kill the Doctor in case he was a Dalek duplicate, just why were the military so keen to use him to help their patient?”

    Because the idea that a Dalek would want to kill other Daleks is something they like, and they didn’t have anyone else to send in his place. However, like the Doctor, they are also ruthlessly pragmatic, hence why two soldiers accompany the Time Lord with instructions to kill him at the first sign of treachery. And why are they this way? The answer is very nasty, in that, contrary to what the Doctor tells us in “Genesis of the Daleks,” fighting the Daleks doesn’t unite people for a greater good, but instead turns them into evil Fascists.

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    1. “The answer is very nasty, in that, contrary to what the Doctor tells us in “Genesis of the Daleks,” fighting the Daleks doesn’t unite people for a greater good, but instead turns them into evil Fascists.”

      Interesting point, which shows a much more nihilistic viewpoint in Nu-Who. Mind you, I always thought the Doctor was just making excuses for failing in Genesis 🙂

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      1. “Interesting point, which shows a much more nihilistic viewpoint in Nu-Who.”

        I’m not sure about it being nihilistic. Indeed, the appearance of Heaven would suggest otherwise. Also, nihilism concerns the idea that life is without objective meaning, however, ‘Inside the Dalek’ is arguing that there is an objective moral truth, otherwise the actions of the soldiers, the Doctor, the Daleks and Clara could not be judged.

        “Mind you, I always thought the Doctor was just making excuses for failing in Genesis”.

        ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is about groups teaming up against groups. The Doctor and members of the Elite team up with Kaled politicians against Davros; Sarah forms an alliance of Kaled and Muto prisoners against the Thals; Davros creates a temporary alliance with the Thals; Gharman constructs an alliance against Davros; the Thals and Mutos team up against the Daleks. Finally, the ‘good’ the Doctor thinks the Daleks will generate, is that species will forget their differences, band together and form alliances out of their fear of the Daleks. ‘Inside the Dalek” turns this on its head, but that doesn’t mean that Nation’s story was wrong, just that the Doctor failed to comprehend the true horror of what was happening.

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      2. But even Destiny Of The Daleks proves that wrong by showing the Movellans to be just as bad. For every ‘setting aside differences to fight the Daleks’ there will be quislings like Mavic Chen or those that think they can *benefit* from the Daleks.

        I think it was a fine idea to juxtapose the Doctor once again against his greatest foes, especially in his second episode before he’s fully settled down and found himself. The Daleks bring out the worst in him; now he’s been confronted with that head-on, that he hates the Daleks as much as they hate *everything* it will surely effect his character (in the opposite way that none of Doctor 11’s failings had any effect on his character).

        And it’s quite clear that this Doctor’s rudeness is nowhere near the bullying that the 6th Doctor and Peri’s relationship had; for a start Clara isn’t cowed by him; for seconds, Capaldi plays the barbs softer – the bombast of Colin Baker’s performance lacked any subtlety or warmth.

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      3. “But even Destiny Of The Daleks proves that wrong by showing the Movellans to be just as bad. For every ‘setting aside differences to fight the Daleks’ there will be quislings like Mavic Chen or those that think they can *benefit* from the Daleks.”

        I agree totally. It isn’t so much the Daleks themselves that are interesting, but rather the way the various human/humanoid characters react to them, either in opposition or alliance. “Inside the Dalek” follows a classic Dalek story pattern; a figure or group is offered something by the Dalek(s) which they desire or need, they agrees to form an alliance, but are then corrupted by that association.

        “the bombast of Colin Baker’s performance lacked any subtlety or warmth.”

        I agree. Colin Baker’s Doctor was a charmless thug. Capaldi’s Doctor has boundless charm, but seems to lack compassion, which is a pretty dangerous combination, if you ask me.

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    1. I was somewhat under the impression that the minute electrical feild of the human body was “shocking” them into life, hence the reason Clara seemed to be receiving an electrical shock in return.

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  3. “Capaldi’s Doctor has boundless charm, but seems to lack compassion, which is a pretty dangerous combination, if you ask me.”

    But we’re quite clearly shown that he’s effected by this, that he’s called out on it, that he’s *questioning* himself.

    By contrast, the 11th Doctor was responsible for many *horrible* things but was never called out on them, never faced any consequences for them – the writing let him off. He was responsible for his best friends’ child being kidnapped and brainwashed and yet his behaviour is not effected at all. He’s playing the fool as always and Amy and Rory show no psychological pain or problem with it – had he never involved himself in their lives they would have been able to raise their child – heck Amy is even left barren as a result! And yet the 11th Doctor is not effected.

    It’s impossible to imagine the 10th Doctor or the 9th Doctor remaining so glib after such events – just look how the 10th Doctor is called out by Queen Victoria or Joan Redfern. And then again you have the 11th Doctor who’s carelessness leads to Amy spending 30 years alone; but its okay because he gets his *young* Amy back and old Amy ceases to exist. And back to glibness again…

    And Rory; whose death leads to… nothing. The episode immediately after Rory dying is The Lodger a sitcom of an episode in which the 11th Doctor’s clowning is turned up to the max. He doesn’t mourn Rory at all or show any sense of responsibility for his death while Amy forgets him.

    He’s never critcised for any of this; never shows any emotional connection to the events he’s involved in or their aftermath, never gets called out on it. Even Rory’s occasional chastisements fall on deaf ears.

    At least it seems to be a very clear point that the 12th Doctor is *developing*; he’s horrified to realise that his hatred makes him like a Dalek. We’ve not heard the last of this. Had it been an 11th Doctor episode we would never hear another word about it…

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    1. We’re only two episodes into season 8, but I am getting the distinct impression that more thought has gone into the consequences of the Doctor’s actions, something I don’t think we’ve seen done with any real conviction since Eccleston left. As for Matt Smith’s Doctor being emotionally impervious to all the horrible events that took place around him, some of which he caused himself, do you think that was intended, or just bad writing? The fact that Amy and Rory also seems unaffected, would appear to suggest the latter.

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