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Doctor Who: “Into The Dalek”

Rusty, Peter Capaldi (BBC)
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Second adventures are tricky. A Doctor’s debut episode presents its own challenges, but the very fact that the show has a new incarnation to introduce eases the narrative burden. A compelling story is a nice thing to have, but audiences are really there to get to know this new face, and the expected post-regenerative mania means there’s some leeway in establishing precisely who this particular Doctor is going to be. But the second story can’t be about the new Doctor in quite so direct a way, as it’s now time to get back to the business of adventuring through time and space. Indeed, the show can take its shiny new Doctor to literally anywhere and anywhen, so, when presenting a Doctor with the infinite for the first time, the simple act of making a decision and sending him somewhere specific can feel vaguely disappointing. After all, what makes this time and this place so special? Perhaps that’s why the new series’ previous second adventures—“The End Of The World,” “New Earth,” and “The Beast Below”—were content to send the Doctor off into the far future and be done with it. Each has its charms, but none is even close to a classic: The 9th Doctor one barely remembers to have a story, the 10th Doctor entry packs some serious tonal whiplash, and the 11th Doctor story has some strong ideas but then spends its final five minutes just repeating them over and over.


“Into The Dalek” continues those previous stories’ pattern of taking the Doctor into the future for his first truly post-regenerative adventure, but the presence of the Time Lord’s oldest, most hated foes means that it can’t be the same kind of throwaway adventure that its spiritual predecessors were. And that, I fear, ties into the episode’s central problem. Appropriately for an episode all about literally getting into a Dalek’s head, this story works best when it is introspective, when the story can identify the Doctor’s heartless moments and faulty assumptions and then deconstruct his reasoning behind such actions. As “Into The Dalek” ponders at both its beginning and its end, is the Doctor still a good man? Yes, it’s a question that flows directly from his questionable, possibly murderous actions in “Deep Breath,” and the episode does a solid job presenting the evidence necessary for Clara’s eventual answer to make sense. But it’s hard to analyze this new Doctor when the show still has to establish who he is. The most obvious echo for this story is the Christopher Eccleston-starring “Dalek,” and it’s hard not to think that this episode could have landed its arguments so much more forcefully if it too were the sixth episode of the season, not the second.

The upshot of all this is that “Into The Dalek” plays more as the beginning of a season-long exploration of this new Doctor’s moral compass than as a fully realized, self-contained examination of the same, so this is an episode that will likely look a bit better or a bit worse depending on how the subsequent 10 episodes build on the groundwork it lays here. The script, credited to Steven Moffat and Phil Ford—who previously co-wrote the all-time classic “The Waters Of Mars” with Russell T. Davies—fits firmly into the Doctor Who tradition of stories in which the Doctor is forced to team up people whom he swears to protect but who somehow always end up sacrificing their lives for him; think of previous Moffat entries like “Silence In The Library”/“Forest Of The Dead” or “The Time Of Angels”/“Flesh And Stone.” The difference here, in keeping with last week’s pivot toward a more brutally honest Doctor, is that this new Time Lord never pretends the soldiers are anything other than cannon fodder. He makes no pretense of saving Ross when the Dalek antibodies come for him, even giving the doomed fool a moment’s false hope when he uses the man’s impending death to ensure everyone else’s survival.

Gretchen’s later sacrifice is particularly telling. The bargain that she makes with the Doctor—her life in exchange for an honored memory, for the tribute of the Doctor’s future good deeds—is one that countless characters have implicitly made with the Doctor over the course of the new series; this is simply the first time in which this narratively convenient sacrifice is undertaken with a minimum of the Doctor’s usual anguish or self-recrimination. The 10th Doctor was particularly fond of this, as the show turned “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” into a kind of catchphrase, slowly robbing it of its impact with each repetition. Perhaps that earlier Doctor did make an effort to feel the weight of each individual death, but if neither his nor his successor ever actually changed their ways to prevent such collateral damage, then what really is the point? The current Doctor can be more honest in admitting the dark side of his nature and his existence, and in so doing he can more readily look people like Gretchen in the eye as they prepare to give up everything to give his mission a chance at success. The Doctor can appear heart(s)less several times in “Into The Dalek,” but his tactics here only differ from those of his predecessors in style, not substance.

Before we get to the Daleks, let’s step out of universe for a moment. The core team of “Deep Breath”—stars Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, (co)writer Steven Moffat, and director Ben Wheatley—all return for this entry, and all build nicely on last week’s premiere. With far less slapstick comedy to film this time around, Wheatley is in fine form, presenting sequences of casual Dalek slaughter to rival those of Joe Ahearne’s work in the first season; the heavy emphasis on the Dalek’s gun and its fast gliding motion highlights just how damn effortless wanton destruction is to the creature. Capaldi continues to be a massive asset for the show as it rediscovers his identity—he just about pulls off a climax in which he talks to a giant Dalek by directly addressing the camera, which is no small feat—and his Doctor is even more drily confident here than he was in “Deep Breath,” showing a continued flair for sardonic one-liners that are always on the verge of crossing over into outright threat. My favorite moment from the Doctor, however, comes right at the beginning, as a coffee-holding Doctor nonchalantly explains to Journey Blue that he has just saved her life; the show is still working to differentiate how it writes this Doctor from his predecessors in ways that transcend the simple fact that Peter Capaldi and Matt Smith are really different actors, and that entire sequence runs on a quiet, measured calm that is the antithesis of the 11th Doctor. Jenna Coleman isn’t given the depth of material to play that she got in “Deep Breath,” but she’s charming in her interactions with Sam Anderson’s Danny Pink—a far more natural outlet for her flirtatious side than the 11th Doctor ever was—and it’s nice that “Into The Dalek” once again anchors her usefulness in her life as a teacher, albeit less concretely than “Deep Breath” did.


I said before that second adventures are tricky, though I should say that that rule of thumb only holds true for the new series. Indeed, the show’s second story ever was also perhaps the most important in its 50-year history, and it’s an adventure directly referenced here: “The Daleks.” William Hartnell’s first of several battles with the Daleks is what instantly established the show as a cultural phenomenon, and it was crucial in driving the 1st Doctor’s journey from amoral wanderer to cosmic crusader, a point that this Doctor makes during his mental confrontation with Rusty. As he explains, “the Doctor” was once just some name he adopted when he decided to run away from life on Gallifrey, but it was his encounter with the Daleks on Skaro that taught him what evil is and, by extension, how he must become the opposite of everything that the Daleks represent. The wording there is crucial, as the Doctor indicates he discovered good not but by it presence but by his absence, that the ironclad sense of right and wrong that has saved the universe on countless occasions grew in reaction to the ultimate evil.

“Into The Dalek” suggests that such a morality is inherently compromised, for at its root is the most terrible hatred; worse than that, if all the Doctor is, as he puts it, ”is not the Daleks,” then what is he if even one Dalek suddenly turns good? Not for the first time, the companion—or carer, as Clara suggests to the Doctor’s approval—challenges the Doctor on his apparent prejudice against the Daleks. Rose and Amy both made similar arguments in “Dalek” and “Victory Of The Daleks,” respectively, but those stories more or less affirmed the Doctor’s position: The Daleks truly are irredeemable, and all the Doctor can do is not allow the hatred they engender in him to warp him too badly. “Into The Dalek” tells a somewhat different story, as Clara—again, not given as much to do here as in “Deep Breath,” but it’s hard to come up with a more active move than literally slapping sense into the Doctor, so at least that’s something—actually gets the Doctor to change his mind. She recognizes that some small, sick part of the Doctor is pleased to learn that he and everyone else is going to die inside the newly fixed, once again evil Dalek, if only because it confirms his worldview, and she refuses to let him have such a lazy, destructive indulgence. She forces him to see a better way, and she can’t know that that’s just pushing the Doctor to still greater heart(s)break. Rusty’s final line to the Doctor about how he is a good Dalek directly recalls an almost identical line from “Dalek,” though here there is more time for the wound to work its way into the Doctor’s psyche.


Like so many scripts with Steven Moffat’s name on it, “Into The Dalek” has its grand thematic points to make about the Doctor and his oldest foes. I already mentioned the episode’s direct link back to “The Daleks,” but the central takeaway of that line works independently of one’s knowledge of the continuity reference; the important point is that the Doctor knows good and evil from his experiences with these creatures. Also good is Rusty’s observation that “Resistance is futile, life returns, life prevails,” as the horrified Doctor realizes that the broken Dalek uses precisely the same vocabulary to describe the Daleks’ relationship with all life as he would his own conflict with them. If last season’s “Asylum Of The Daleks” was Moffat’s deep dive into the essential madness of the Dalek mythos, then “Into The Dalek” attempts the more tightly focused task of teasing out who the Doctor when his very identity is so tied up with the universe’s ultimate monsters. His and Phil Ford’s script teems with ideas, and they are far more cohesively executed than, say, “Nightmare In Silver,” which also the Doctor, Clara, and a bunch of far-future soldiers take on some of the Time Lord’s ancient enemies.

If anything, “Into The Dalek” could have taken a lesson from “The Beast Below.” That story has the subtlety of a sledgehammer in how it draws parallels between the Doctor and the star whale; generally, that counts among the story’s multiple faults, but the story does at least recognize that the one time to be so unsubtle is when the show is still trying to define who the Doctor is. The subtext of “Into The Dalek” is rich with thoughts on who the Doctor is and how he relates to his enemies, but more of this material could have been brought into the text. Ultimately, the one big idea we’re left with is the notion of what it means to be a good man; as Clara astutely argues, the Doctor tries to be a good man, and that’s what really matters. Go back to “A Good Man Goes To War,” in which a furious Doctor observed, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.” The implication is that there are people who are, for lack of a better term, “naturally” good, people whose virtue comes from within: Rory in that earlier story, and Clara here.


But other people have stared into the darkness for too long, so that whatever good they extract is tainted by its formation in response to evil; those are the kind of good people that need rules. That’s the Doctor, but it’s also every other major character in this story who isn’t Clara. That’s why “Into The Dalek” spends so much of its time in the present day introducing us to Danny Pink, a veteran of Afghanistan who cannot yet shake the horrors of his past. The Doctor’s antipathy for soldiers is mentioned several times, and it’s likely that Danny’s future appearances will see the show explore that territory further; once again, “Into The Dalek” is the start of something bigger, not an end in and of itself. But the sad story of Journey Blue does hint at a larger point. It’s not hard to sympathize with her, even as she roundly rebuffs both the Doctor and Clara’s attempts to bond with her; after all, her brother and her comrades have died all around her, so the time-travelers’ levity can be hard to take. That’s entirely justified, and I’m always in favor of the show lending weight to the death of its cannon fodder. But the trouble with soldiers, at least as far as this episode is concerned, is that they can only respond to evil in kind, and that level of compromise is too much for the Doctor, or indeed for Clara; as she puts it when Danny mentions the moral dimension of modern soldiering, “Ah, you shoot people and then cry about it afterwards.” A Dalek hits them, and so they hit back, but the Doctor points out to Journey that she will never win by out-soldiering a Dalek. The Doctor may sometimes need people like Journey to save his life, but he needs people like Clara to keep that life worth saving, and the latter is far more difficult to find. It’s a harsh lesson, but the Daleks do tend to bring that out in the Doctor.

Stray observations:

  • The very essence of Doctor Who can be found in the amazing plan that the Doctor comes up with to defeat Rusty, as it hinges on Clara doing something brilliant but completely unspecified to unlock the memory, and then the Doctor will show Rusty something so beautiful that it will turn him good forever, but he has absolutely no idea what that thing might be. Yeah, the Doctor hasn’t changed that much.
  • “Do I pay you? I should give you a raise.” “You’re not my boss. You’re one of my hobbies.”
  • “He’ll get us out of here. The difficult bit is not killing him before he can.” “Bolthole! Actually a hole for a bolt! Does nobody get that?” “Also, there’s the puns.”

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