Contains some spoilers for the aired episode
Regeneration stories are always atypical Doctor Who outings, so it’s not really until the second or third episode of a run that the audience really starts to get a proper sense of how a new Doctor is going to play the role and what the shape of the series around him is going to be. Last week’s “Deep Breath” was a nice feature-length treat, but this week’s “Into the Dalek” is where series 8 really starts to take shape.
In which case, I’m more than delighted with the way things are going. This episode delivered pretty much everything that I had on my pre-season ‘wish list’ for the show, being a fast-paced action-orientated thriller with real characters, peril and jeopardy for everyone involved. Jenna Coleman continued to get some strong material as Clara, and Peter Capaldi’s journey into the darkness of the Doctor’s psyche continued with compelling and at times genuinely surprising results.
What really struck me was the first pre-titles scene, when young rebel soldier Journey Blue (an excellent performance from Zawe Ashton) is saved from her exploding spaceship and finds herself in the Tardis console room with the Doctor. This is no longer the regeneration-scrambled version of the character but the Time Lord completely in control of himself and the situation, and Capaldi is riveting as he shows how he intends to play the part going forward. He’s calm and still but utterly remorseless as he breaks down Journey’s defensive antagonism, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Second episode in to his tenure in the part and already Capaldi owns it; not since Tom Baker has an actor so quickly settled into the role (David Tennant came close, but it still took until “School Reunion” before he really nailed it; Matt Smith, brilliant through he was later on, look the better part of a season to settle in and arrange the furniture as he wanted it; and for me at least Christopher Eccleston never quite managed to iron out the rough edges before he moved on.)
From that gripping opening, the rest of the episode benefits from having a very simple and clear premise – the Doctor and Clara getting miniaturised and inserted into a damaged Dalek. It lifts this idea from the film Fantastic Voyage – a particular favourite of mine from the 1960s, do check it out – and has the good grace to nod to this inspiration in the dialogue. The fact that the idea isn’t entirely original is fine, because Doctor Who is always best when it’s giving its own unique spin to existing concepts (such as Hammer Horror in Baker’s era) and that’s still true here. Older fans will even recall that it’s not even the first time that the show has appropriated this idea – see also 1977’s “The Invisible Enemy” – but that’s fine too because here the key piece of new invention is that they go inside a Dalek’s casing rather than a living being.
The other inspiration for the show seems to be a more recent instalment of Doctor Who in the form of the Eccleston episode “Dalek” written by Robert Shearman: “Into the Dalek” shares some of the imagery, notably the moment that the Doctor first comes face-to-eyestalk with the Dalek and then later when it breaks out and starts to go on a solo rampage through the beseiged hospital ship. Most of all, conceptually “Dalek” was the episode that first presented a single Dalek as having an individual character, with its own fears and doubts and ability to make surprising decisions when faced with reality. In the latest episode we have something of a reprise of that, a possibility that there can be a good Dalek with a conscience and accessible feelings.
Or can there? When the Doctor discovers that this aberration is down to a mechanical issue which once fixed sends the Dalek back to hate-filled factory default settings, he concludes that this proves once and for all that there can never be any such thing as a good Dalek. I’m sure that everyone watching would have jumped to the same conclusion at this point (I know I did), and certainly the 26 years of the classic serial would have been content to leave it there and dedicate the rest of the episode to fighting and explosions with the Doctor and his team trying to escape before the Dalek is blown up. But that’s not what happens in this story, co-scripted by Phil Ford and showrunner Steven Moffat, because Clara steps up and challenges the Doctor and show him that what this has actually proved is quite the opposite, that there can be a good Dalek – if he and we are willing to see it.
In this moment, Clara comes close to fulfilling the same story function as one of my all time favourite companions, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who continually stood up to the Doctor and made him think deeper and try harder. Clara also gets to head off on her own to save the day crawling through service access vents that recall the halcyon days when Doctor Who spent half its time crawling through air ducts, and on top of that engages in some light comedy banter with new recurring character Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) back at Coal Hill School – all of which is wonderful and a long overdue proper development for the character.
There’s plenty of running around within the Dalek, but happily there’s also an attack by a Dalek battalion in the regular sized world to take care of as well, and the cutting between micro and macro helps inject energy and excitement to the entire story as a result, not to mention some good practical FX spectacle as Daleks storm the human stronghold and blow things up – and get blown up in return. For anyone with an inner eight-year-old, this is all tremendously good fun and very satisfying.
But this being 21st century Who, things wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a whole extra layer of character development. Here is comes in the form of the Doctor as he grapples with the question “Am I a good man?” and finds no one able to answer it for him – except, finally, the damaged Dalek that he’s been on intimate terms with and who has even been allowed a peek inside the Time Lord’s mind. And the verdict that this Dalek gives on the Doctor’s nature is not the one he wants to hear; in fact, it’s the worst one anyone could ever hand down, but it’s also one that we instinctively know is profoundly true.
Long before this moment, the new Doctor has been proving what was only hinted at in “Deep Breath” – that this is not your user-friendly, reliable ‘pal’ anymore but a much more difficult personality. He might still do the right thing in the end but the way he does it can leave you with some of the biggest chills of the entire episode: his treatment of Ross, the soldier escort who is targeted by the Dalek’s antibodies early in the mission, is particularly chilling. Reasoning that there is nothing he can do to save him, the Doctor instead coldly uses his death to further the objective; subsequently oblivious to the shock and grief of his companions he offhandedly tells them that Ross’s atomised particles “will be the top layer if you want to say a few words” before moving quickly on.
We’ve already come a long way since Doctor Who seemed to be allergic to killing people off in the course of an adventure. Ross (Ben Crompton) might not be in it for long, but his death has a real impact; and then the exit of Gretchen (Laura Dos Santos) is even more of an emotional show-stopper as well. There’s a real sense of loss in both cases despite their relative lack of screen time. We could also have done with more of guest star Michael Smiley, but he’s still such a warm and commanding presence even in just a few scenes that when he’s left in charge of the Aristotle’s defence against the full-size onslaught he quickly becomes our main point of audience identification and the person for whose safety we fear in every scene. In other words, along with Journey and the damaged Dalek (nicknamed Rusty by the Doctor) we have five new one-off characters here who feel real and for whom we equally really feel, which is five more than a lot of stories the show has put out in the last 18 months.
It’s done so well that the late sequence in which Journey begs the Doctor and Clara to take her with them has real power. She’s genuinely been up to companion-grade material and for a moment it really looks as though she might be joining the cast; but the Doctor cuts her dead and says no. Why? Because she’s a soldier. This is rather a jolt to Journey, and to Clara – and to us. We’re not used to the Doctor being bigoted, judging people by the labels forced upon them by circumstance rather than by who they actually prove themselves to be by their actions and personality. The Doctor has been fine with soldiers before: he might have butted heads with the Brigadier but the pair always had a warm affection for each other, and the Doctor didn’t seem to mind all that much billeting with Benton, Yates and the rest of UNIT for a few years in the 1970s (or 1980s depending on your view on the Great UNIT Dating Controversy) so why the sudden anti-military discrimination now?
It just serves to remind us that this Doctor is different and not the nice, cosy one we used to know in the past. He’s no longer inclined to putting on a pleasant face for the purposes of political correctness, and if he shocks or offends then too bad. Perhaps it’s the experiences he’s been through in the Time War that have hardened his views on solider and guns. But most of all, this bald statement about not allowing a soldier to join him is almost certainly a set-up for conflict between himself and Clara down the line when he learns that her budding new boyfriend Danny used to be a solider himself and obviously has killed people in the past. The Doctor will not be happy.
This was all set-up with not exactly a great amount of subtlety by the Coal Hill School scenes in “Into the Dalek” and presumably somewhere down the line the Doctor will be forced to confront his anti-military prejudice and start to judge people on their own individual merits once again. In the meantime you can expect the UK tabloid papers to take offence at the Doctor’s current attitude and try and twist it into an unpatriotic anti-armed forces stance by the show (and the BBC); I confess, the moment didn’t actually sit well with me either, and I suspect that wasn’t meant to by Steven Moffat; however there’s clearly a bigger plan here and I’m content to wait and see how it plays out before coming to any judgement on the matter.
In the meantime, let’s summarise: “Into the Dalek” was a terrific episode, among the best and most enjoyable of the Moffat-helmed era but at the same time not at the cost of deeper stories and character development. It even manages to do the difficult task of introducing a new regular character without too much fuss or annoyance, while also keeping the Big Bad threat of Missy (Michelle Gomez) alive – and did anyone notice that the way Gretchen is transported to Missy’s heavenly domain is handled visually in exactly the same way as Journey’s transfer to the Tardis at the start of the show? Maybe a clue there; or maybe misdirection.
Talking of direction, a final word for Ben Wheatley taking the helm for a second time and coming up with some wonderful ways to make the episode feel big and cinematic (even if the budget at times was inevitably found a little wanting.) Faced with such an iconic and overly-familiar threat as the Daleks, he found genuinely new ways of shooting them to bring them to a new exhilarating life; and there’s the one true moment of director-as-auteur, the gorgeous sequence when the Doctor and Clara transition from their miniaturisation pod into the Dalek itself that’s filmed in a floating slow-motion. It’s really a quite unnecessary touch of slightly odd self-indulgence, and it’s also the moment that sings and truly marks the episode as one of rare quality and confidence.
After the darkness of the Half-Face ClockWork Man last week and now the Daleks, next week seems to offer a rare change of pace to the light-hearted with the Doctor apparently set to meet up with Robin Hood – which considering that Robin isn’t a real historical character could be a little tricky to explain. Mark Gatiss takes up writing duties which mean that the episode could be very good; or could be rather a clunker. I admit, I’m a little anxious waiting for Saturday to see how it goes…
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Fridays on BBC Three and available on BBC iPlayer. A ten minutes ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer on on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and “Deep Breath” will be available as a standalone release on September 8 2014.