Sunday, 31 August 2014

Doctor Who - Into the Dalek


After fifty years of stories, it's difficult to do something new with the Daleks. They don't get reinvented the way the Doctor himself does, meaning they can start to seem stale and old. “Into the Dalek”, Peter Capaldi's second story as the Doctor, is a clear attempt to do something new with them. Intriguingly, its concept is really not all that new. It borrows heavily from other sources, including previous Doctor Who (Christopher Eccleston's “Dalek”, Tom Baker's “The Invisible Enemy”, Patrick Troughton's “The Evil of the Daleks” and so on) and completely different programmes like Fantastic Voyage and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “I, Borg”. But originality of concept is not really the important thing. In truth, there's no such thing as an original concept any more. What does matter, though, is what one does with the concepts, and “Into the Dalek” manages to take its various sources and swirl them together into a compelling and exciting episode of television that feels new. It takes the tired old concept of the Daleks and successfully makes them terrifying once more, while simultaneously examining the very question of what makes a person or Dalek good or evil. It doesn't offer easy answers either.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Clara, be my pal. Tell me, am I a good man?”

This question forms the basis for the entirety of “Into the Dalek”. While Rusty, the good Dalek who turns back evil and then turns again, may be the McGuffin through which the story unfolds, this is very much a story about the Doctor. To be honest, I've felt that making the show too much about the Doctor has been a failing of Steven Moffat's time as showrunner. However, previously it's mostly been about how amazing the Doctor is and how the Doctor can do virtually no wrong. Here, the tables are turned somewhat, as this story looks specifically at who the Doctor is. It gets into his head (at one point, somewhat literally) and reveals both his love and his hatred. It then juxtaposes the Doctor's beliefs with those of the Daleks and dares to suggest that perhaps the Doctor and the Daleks are not all that different after all.

Of course, this is not the first episode to ever do this sort of thing. It happened quite a bit during Russell T Davies's time as showrunner—in just about every Dalek story, as it happens. In “Journey's End”, Davros accuses the Doctor of turning his companions into weapons to do his dirty work for him, and in “The Parting of the Ways”, the Dalek Emperor refers to the Doctor as “the Great Exterminator”. But as I said before, “Into the Dalek” isn't truly doing anything new, but it is doing it effectively. The Doctor hates the Daleks, and through a horrible twist of fate, it is that very hatred which makes it impossible for him to successfully turn a Dalek good. Even when Rusty turns against the other Daleks and begins exterminating every Dalek in sight, it's not because Rusty is “good”. Rusty is just turning its hatred against a different target, but that hatred is still very much there—hatred gained from the Doctor. Rusty now fights for the good guys, but Rusty is in no way good. Both Rusty and the Doctor are very much aware of this, and this is just the latest in a long line of events that make the Doctor question his own morality.

There's a wonderful play on the two meanings of the word good in this episode: good meaning effective and good meaning non-evil. “I am not a good Dalek,” Rusty says to the Doctor. “You are a good Dalek.” I'm fairly certain Rusty intends both meanings here. The Doctor is a good Dalek in the sense that he's what a Dalek would be if it weren't evil, but he's also a good Dalek in the sense that he makes an effective Dalek. He wins, which is what the Daleks want in the end. The line, “You are a good Dalek,” also draws attention to the almost identical line in the Christopher Eccleston story, “Dalek”. The Dalek in that story tells the Doctor, “You would make a good Dalek.” The subjunctive of the earlier story has become the indicative of the current story. It's no longer a possibility; it's become a fact. However, despite Rusty's use of language, in many ways, the reality is the opposite way around. In the earlier story, the Doctor was reacting out of pure hatred and not aware of what he was doing. It took Rose's intervention to bring him back from being just like a Dalek. This time, the Doctor is fully aware of himself and questioning himself. Yes, he still needs Clara to stop him from going too far (though I really could have done without the slap; there's too much slapping on Doctor Who these days), but he's well aware that he's capable of it, and in many ways, that makes him a less effective Dalek.

It's this ambiguity (continuing the ambiguous themes started in “Deep Breath”) over the precise meaning of good that is the greatest strength of “Into the Dalek”. Is the Doctor a good man? “I don't know,” Clara says. “But I think you try to be and I think that's probably the point.” In the end, we all have our own definition of good. Most of us will strive for it as does the Doctor, but none of us is perfect and we may not quite achieve that definition. The Doctor doesn't achieve his own definition of good—but that doesn't necessarily mean he's not good.

It's not just the Doctor's hatred of the Daleks that is examined in this episode though. He has his other issues too, and these are brought to the fore, and questioned. It's nice to see the Doctor's actions questioned again. Matt Smith's Doctor tended to get a free pass on everything and was rarely called out when he stepped across the line (like when he sexually assaulted one of his allies). I like that Capaldi's Doctor is a darker Doctor and somewhat callous at times, but it's also good that other characters are reproaching him for his lack of empathy over the death of others or taking pride in being right even though it means they're all going to die (although, again, Clara's shown she can talk the Doctor down; she doesn't need to slap him).

Then there's the Doctor's hypocrisy involving soldiers. He refuses to allow Journey to travel with him because she's a soldier, yet he's journeyed with soldiers before and worked with them. One of his greatest friends ever, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart, is a soldier. The Doctor's always had this hypocrisy, talking down about the military (even in the Brigadier's presence) while simultaneously using them for his own ends. The hypocrisy isn't directly addressed in this episode, but there is clear signposting (through the character of Danny Pink) that this is going to show up again—probably sometime soon.

Moving beyond the philosophical, however, there's still so much else in this episode to enjoy. “Into the Dalek” works on many levels—as a character piece and as an action/adventure. It's evocatively shot and the pacing is excellent. In my review of “Deep Breath”, I worried that the better pacing of that story might not continue once the programme returned to 45-minute episodes, that it would return to the frantic pace of the Matt Smith stories. Oddly enough, this episode is kind of frantic at points as the crew of the Aristotle fight for their lives, but it's the atmosphere and general sense of dread that give it this feeling, not rapid cuts and scene changes. It's genuinely frantic. Yet the story has time to develop as well. As in “Deep Breath”, the individual scenes run longer on average and there are genuine character moments throughout.

The Daleks, too, are incredibly effective here. They are truly menacing again. They actually exterminate people on screen. People actually die! That may seem a strange thing to praise and be excited about. However, the Daleks are meant to be villains; they are meant to frighten. Yet they can never truly frighten if they aren't seen to do anything evil. It's been quite a while since we last saw a Dalek exterminate someone on screen (I think the last time was in “Victory of the Daleks”). Even when we see the end of the Time War in “The Day of the Doctor”, the Daleks don't actually kill anyone. It's difficult to accept the Daleks as terrible menaces and destroyers of worlds if we never see them actually being menaces. Yet here they are just that. We can understand the fear the crew of the Aristotle have of them. The Daleks explode onto the scene (rather literally) and begin slaughtering everyone, and there's nothing the crew can do to stop them. The Daleks really have not been this effective or frightening since “Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways”.

It's great to see Clara continuing to be her own person and having things to do. She works far better as a person than as a mystery. I also like that we're finally getting a consistent view of her life, particularly the people in it who aren't the Doctor. Admittedly, the signposting of a future romance between her and Danny Pink is a little in-your-face and it makes her yet another female character who needs to be paired off with a love interest, but at the very least, it's character development. Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson (who plays Danny) have a good on-screen rapport with one another, and Anderson brings a wonderful charisma to his role. Alas, some rather clunky dialogue makes these scenes not work as well as they might. This episode is credited to both Phil Ford and Steven Moffat, and I suspect Moffat wrote most (if not all) of the scenes in Coal Hill School (and the scene with Missy), while Ford wrote the most of the scenes on the Aristotle and inside Rusty. This is because Moffat's sitcom roots really show in the Coal Hill scenes (and not really in a good way), particularly the scene with the secretary (“I bet you did”) and later when he bangs his head repeatedly on his desk. Still, Danny gets more characterization and development in these few scenes than Clara generally got before this season, and I do look forward to seeing more of Danny and how his soldiering past will affect his relationship with the Doctor (it seems pretty obvious to me that he will meet the Doctor eventually).

The stand-out character in this story, however, is Journey Blue. She is an instantly identifiable character and wonderfully portrayed by Zawe Ashton. We learn a huge amount about her as a person just in her reactions to her brother's death and to the Doctor. “Who makes you smile or is nobody up for the job?” Clara asks her. She replies, “My brother, but he burned to death a couple hours ago so he's really letting me down today.” I really would have like to see her as a companion and was saddened when the Doctor turned her away.

I am curious about Danny's and Journey's last names. Steven Moffat's character names often carry clues in them and the fact that their last names are both colours (colours that are not also commonly names) makes me wonder if there's something more there. I've no idea what they might mean though.

The one part of the episode that I really don't like, though, is the scene with Missy. It interrupts the flow of the episode—which, I suppose, is intentional—but worse, it cheapens Gretchen's sacrifice. I've complained numerous times in the past about the way Moffat cheapens death by bringing everyone back to life, and this is no different. On top of that, it's building up an entire storyline about people coming back from the dead: the Half-Face Man last episode, Gretchen this episode...presumably someone else next episode. I also worry that this scene implies that Gretchen wasn't the only one to survive, that maybe Missy saved every single person the Daleks exterminated. I'm hoping that's not the case, but the worry is there. But the cheapening of death aside, I don't feel this scene added anything to the mystery plot of Missy. She was effectively introduced at the end of “Deep Breath”, and I'm not sure that repeating a virtually identical scene so soon is really necessary. But oh well. The scene is mercifully brief.

The scene does draw attention, though, to another theme that seems to be developing in the last two episodes: the concept of divinity and faith. Missy tells her new arrivals that they are in heaven, and Rusty directly refers to seeing perfect divinity in the Doctor's memories. This is a direction the show has never taken before and it's a risky one to take now. It could turn out really well or really badly. Now, Rusty seeing perfect divinity doesn't necessarily mean the Doctor believes in some sort of divine being. This could simply be Rusty's interpretation of the majesty of the universe (we have encountered Dalek versions of the divine in the past, like Daleks worshipping their own emperor in “The Parting of the Ways” or Dalek concepts of beauty and divine hatred in “Asylum of the Daleks”), but it is nonetheless setting things up for Missy and the Doctor confronting one another in her version of “heaven”. Note that I don't for one minute believe that Missy's heaven will turn out to actually be heaven. It'll be some place else. Indeed, given the visual similarities between how she rescues Gretchen and Journey's arrival in the TARDIS, I have to wonder whether Missy is saving people exactly the same way the Doctor saved Journey—by materialising a TARDIS around them, thus making heaven the interior of her TARDIS.

A couple minor points: First, turning on Rusty's memories is strangely easy, but I'm willing to let that go, as spending too much time having Clara figure out a more complicated method would likely drag the episode. Second, did no one on the Aristotle ever think to disarm their Dalek prisoner? Sure, it was behaving good, but they were already shown to not be a very trusting group (wanting to kill the Doctor in case he turned out to be a duplicate—a great continuity nod to “Resurrection of the Daleks”, by the way). Why did they leave its weapon attached so that it could start mercilessly killing them the moment it turned evil again? Similarly, considering how paranoid they were of the Doctor, why did they allow him to leave to pick up Clara? But like I said, minor points.

Am I a good man?”

I love the complexity this episode is trying to inject into Doctor Who. It's been a while since the series tried something like this. It's not entirely new ground, for sure (Christopher Eccleston's “Dalek” is a very heavy influence on this story, for example). However, it's a fitting direction for Peter Capaldi's darker twelfth Doctor. I thoroughly love this episode. I felt a thrill watching it the first time that I haven't felt regularly for some time, and I really hope that thrill sticks around. “Into the Dalek” has gotten me truly excited for Doctor Who again and I can't wait for the next episode. Please don't let me down!

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