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