Monday, 1 September 2014

Dark Night Of The Soul (Of The Daleks)

Doctor Who
Into The Dalek
Series Eight, Episode Two

"Where are we going?"  "Into darkness."  Yeah, he's not kidding.  Into The Dalek is some seriously gloomy Doctor Who.

This is a good thing, of course.  We've collectively followed the show for fifty years, and it's important that it finds ways to surprise us.  Steven Moffat said we'd begin to wonder how well we know the Doctor, and to my surprise, he's delivering on it.  (As is Phil Ford, who once again shares a writing credit.)  Peter Capaldi is fascinating to watch, gripping, funny, everything you'd want from the Doctor, but he's not necessarily your friend.  When he asks Clara if he's a good man, he requests that her answer be "Honest, cold and considered, without kindness or restraint."  Never mind Scottish: that's how he is now.  I'm not sure if I like it, which is the point.

INT. TARDIS: "Clara, tell me.  Am I a good man?"
"Yes.  I've met your previous selves, and they were good men.
They're you, so you're empirically good as well."
"Oh, right you are, silly me." END TITLES.
He's rude, and without any social niceties.  When he rescues a woman from an exploding spaceship, her already-dead brother is left behind.  He looks at her with utter detachment.  "He's dead.  You're not.  By all means, keep crying."  But that's just a lack of tact, and that's not new, it's just out of fashion.  Tom Baker, Colin Baker and Christopher Eccleston were all tactless sometimes; the Doctor is an alien, after all.

The big talking point is the death of one of the rebels, Ross.  Once he triggers a Dalek's antibodies, there's nothing that can be done to stop it.  The Doctor shows no remorse – he told him not to do it, he did it anyway, so he's "dead already".  But he seemingly offers hope, which turns out to be a way of tracking his remains to a safe location, thus saving the rest of them.  No magic solutions, no agonising about it afterwards, he just does what he can to save who he can.  Fair enough, but false hope is pretty grim, even for a darker Doctor.

And yet, as unpleasant as he can be, he's still the Doctor.  Remember William Hartnell?  There was a Doctor with a character arc: a dangerous misanthrope, he kidnapped his companions to stop them telling anyone about the TARDIS.  In Episode #3, he tried to kill a caveman to save the bother of carrying him.  But he learned from his companions and became the Doctor we know, as much about saving individual lives as the worlds they live on.  Capaldi is the start of a new set of regenerations.  Perhaps that's why he's a bit of a bastard again.

It's a process and we'll have to see where it goes, but some of it already doesn't add up.  His dislike of soldiers is seeded through the episode, just as it was in The Sontaran Stratagem.  It didn't convince me back then, either: the Doctor's been around long enough to know you don't need a gun to kill people, and that guns don't make you a soldier.  His total disregard for the death of Ross takes the moral high-ground away, but he's still stomping on it when he refuses to take on a new companion, Journey Blue, citing her job description.  I can't help feeling they're making an issue out of this just so it can be overcome later.

Which brings us to Danny Pink, the new teacher at Clara's school, who is an ex-soldier.  Clara and Danny's scenes provide much needed light in an episode that's all shade.  Some fans will automatically cry "Soap opera!", but they're nuts.  Danny is immediately likeable, and funny without making a big thing about it.  The bit where Clara asks him out is brilliantly-edited and (relax, let it happen) hilarious.  Best of all, Clara feels more grounded just for taking an interest in him, which is something her character needed.  It's disappointing that the TARDIS is merely "one of her hobbies", but at least that disconnect makes more sense this series.  Clara was just an accessory to Matt's Doctor, a pretty girl who wasn't Amy Pond; with Peter, she is a necessary moral counterpoint, and isn't just along for the trip of a lifetime.  Obviously she'll need the occasional breather.  Danny, who offends the Doctor's sensibilities without having met him, adds an interesting ingredient to the mix.

A wibbly effect, eerie noises, moving slowly and pretending it's slo-mo...
Sniff!  It's just like the good old days!  (The sad thing is, I mean it.)
Not so good, though, Danny's Post Traumatic Stress stuff.  Time is an issue, so they dive right in: asked if he ever killed a civilian, he cries silent tears.  It's clearly an important part of who he is, they need to communicate it visually, and Samuel Anderson does it well, but it's no less wince-inducing.  Tears, straight away?  Really?

The plot is equally direct, though there are niggles, some bordering on... the word for big niggles, whatever that is.  (Biggles?)  The Doctor rescues Journey and returns her to the rebel base – this is a future where the Daleks are on the rampage, there isn't time to go into specifics, and that's fine by me.  It feels like Classic Who, just having a Dalek war going on somewhere.  The rebels are about to kill the Doctor to ensure their base stays a secret, when it's suggested he help their patient instead.  A Dalek, damaged and no longer wishing to kill everything in the universe.  It just wants to kill Daleks.  The Doctor agrees to help it (hold that thought), and rushes to collect Clara.

Plot niggle #1: why do they let him go?  They were going to kill him just to keep the base under wraps, and they still don't trust him afterwards, as they keep him under armed guard.  Why did they trust him not to summon the Daleks?  Scene missing.  Hmm.  With Clara in tow, the Doctor and three guards are miniaturised and put in the Dalek, because they have miniaturising equipment on board, so why not.  Plot niggle #2: actually, why not?  Is this really their first resort?  Have they tried X-Rays and monkey wrenches?  They never really say what's wrong with it, so it's a bit "Huh?" that they immediately opt for the crazy sci-fi solution instead of a mechanic.

Straight onto plot niggle #3 then, which is a biggle: what are they trying to achieve?  "A Dalek so damaged it's turned good.  Morality as malfunction.  How do I resist?"  Er, I would think not wanting to do anything that might turn it the other way would be a pretty good deterrent.  Sure enough, they discover the reason for the malfunction (a radiation leak), and the Doctor fixes it without pausing to consider the consequences.  The Dalek reboots, of course.  What were they expecting it to do?

Best just to go with it.  The stuff inside the Dalek is creepy, if familiar; movies like Fantastic Voyage and InnerSpace are dutifully referenced, the journey through the eyepiece is weirdly reminiscent of cheap old Who effects (which I love), the rubbish chute is unavoidably a bit Star Wars, and the robot antibodies are on loan from Let's Kill Hitler – but this is an unimaginably better episode than Let's Kill Hitler, so I'm not complaining.  What this stuff is really here for is to juxtapose the new Doctor against a Dalek.  It's a time-honoured way to set his moral compass, and he's never needed it more.  So, how do they get on?

As it happens, I recently saw Victory Of The Daleks (urgh), and one of things it tried to do was pit the Doctor against "good" Daleks and see how he'd cope.  Of course, that episode couldn't examine an idea if it was printed in luminous paint on a billboard.  This one gives the Doctor genuine hope, which is thrown heart-rendingly out the window when the Dalek reboots.  (Capaldi is brilliant here.)  It then pushes him to admit he thinks a "good Dalek" is impossible.  Clara is horrified, forcing him to give it further thought.  He concludes that there is still, and always is, hope.  That's a great mix of Doctor/Dalek prejudice and the power of the trusty, ever-optimistic companion.  It's Doctor Who to a tee.

"Welcome to the most dangerous place in the universe."  What, inside a Dalek?
Is that really worse than, say, stood in front of a Dalek?
For all his darker moments, this Doctor makes perfect sense when he goes one-to-one with (urgh) Rusty.  Their conversation is a great reminder of the positive way he sees the universe (which is all part of the plan, of course), but the highlight is this note-perfect summary of their relationship, and his character: "I went to Skaro, and then I met you lot, and I understood who I was.  The Doctor was not the Daleks."  Yes!  Hole in one.

Of course, it doesn't end well.  The Doctor is convincing at first, but the Dalek just zeroes in on his hatred for all things pepperpot-shaped.  And this is a fair point.  He's never made it a secret that he hates their guts, and for all this Dalek's new Jeff Goldblumy ideas about life being indomitable, it's obviously going to gravitate towards the angry bit of the Doctor's psyche.  Quite right.  I was concerned we'd get a thoroughly friendly Dalek at the end of it, which is where 2005's Dalek went, and that's an episode they've obviously watched again for research.  Don't panic: Ford and Moffat manage to change a Dalek without betraying what a Dalek is.

And yeah, on the subject of Daleks, when they finally arrive: ho-lee-crap, they are terrifying.  These are the Daleks of old, doing nothing whimsical, no zooming around, no Murray Gold choirs.  They just show up and kill everything.  There's a sheer hopelessness to the attack scenes, a crushing, saddening doom.  And then Rusty The Not Exactly Friendly Dalek trundles in to blast them to kingdom come – which he somehow manages to do without bringing the scariness of Daleks down around him.  Their deaths are equally horrifying, and tragic because it's not what the Doctor wanted, and might be the Doctor's fault.  Daleks who want to kill us and Daleks who don't; they're equally scary, as they should be.

With the "bad" Daleks dealt with and the Doctor's faith almost in tatters, Rusty can't resist a parting shot.  "I am not a good Dalek.  You are a good Dalek."  The aforementioned Dalek episode from 2005 made the same assessment, and sorry to say, it was balderdash then as well.  Does the Doctor destroy heaps of things, sometimes without pity?  Yes.  Does he also do a bunch of other stuff and act in loads of ways that have nothing to do with Daleks?  Again, yes.  It's just too simple to label him like that – and it's eye-crossingly bizarre to do it when they so perfectly summed him up as the opposite earlier.  The Doctor thinks, he feels, he loves, he regrets, he also happens to kill things.  He's still not a ruddy Dalek.

A couple of moments don't ring true, and a couple of plot points don't add up.  Is all of that annoying?  Yes.  Is that enough to make Into The Dalek a bad episode?  No, silly!  This is a relentless look into the Doctor's soul, and that of the Daleks, and you won't like everything you see, but the Doctor, the Daleks and Clara are more interesting for having looked.  It's quite something.


  1. Great review... nailed it. I think this might be the best Dalek episode of the new series - uncomfortable visuals and sound design, lots of killing, an old-school sci-fi narrative, some nice philosophical back and forth and a resolution that neither destroys all the Daleks nor perverts what they actually ARE. I loved it, but I have friends who were put off by how little it looks, sounds and feels like a Tennant/Smith episode. This, for me, felt like the first actual Doctor Who story since The Girl Who Waited.

    1. Not feeling like a Smith/Tennant episode ought to be a plus, even if you don't like it. Change and all that.

      Glad you enjoyed the review! It's a rare experience, having to wrestle with what an episode *means*. All eyes turn to next week, lol.

  2. Very nice review. We think you liked this one better than we did, but considering your blog title that's hardly a surprise. We remained unmoved by the Dalek slaughter because we weren't involved with the people dying -that's the downside of throwing you into a situation without explanation. And because we were still reeling from Hugh The Friendly Dalek, even if he reverted. We do take your point, though, that they're shorn of the choral accompaniment et al. We must have repressed that stuff.

    Re the false hope, what we took away was that although that was the impression the humans (including us) received, we didn't think it was what the Doctor intentionally conveyed. He's so not on a human wavelength any more, which is awesome. However, we still don't think he's as dark as all that. Oblivious, selfish, yes, very much in the manner of earlier Doctors, but we can't see much tension in the question he's asking himself. He's not the bloody Valeyard, after all: they're just not going to take him that far down the track.

    We agree that the soldier thing must surely be leading up to something. Hopefully that something isn't as hamfisted as the trickling tear (which we hope against hope has more to it than the bleeding obvious).

    Plot niggle 1: despite watching this twice, we missed this completely. Kudos.
    Plot niggle 2: they seemed to be implying shrinkage was business as usual surgery-wise, although how this fits into their not having any doctors we have no idea. Given that it was a stupid idea anyway, this didn't seem to make it much stupider.
    Plot niggle 3: This we had no problem with, as we assumed they wanted to make 'em all like that, which seems like a perfectly decent cunning plan to us.

    As for the Doctor fixing it without considering the consequences, we think it's a bit more nuanced than that: he doesn't *care* about the consequences. All he cares about is testing his hypothesis. Rather like Adric plunging planetwards, actually.

    Re the Doctor's prejudice: Clara labels it as this as well, but we think it's a bit unfair. Prejudice equals prejudging, and the Doctor's basing his views on bitter experience.

    We couldn't help wondering if the Rusty thing was a backhanded slam at RTD, but decided we were reading too much into it.

    Overall, we love that they're hauling the Doctor back from simpering do-gooder deity. What we've been discussing is how much more interested we are now in DW than we have been for a long time.

    1. I'm honestly a bit itchy about the new, darker Doctor, but that's just change for you: Capaldi's made me realise how nice the Doctor has been for ages. Dumb thing to say, but it's strange how incredibly sweet and friendly PC is in interview, contrasted with the dark individual he's created on screen.

      Despite all the darkness, I've been bemused by "Am I a good man?" since it came up in trailers. (I assume you avoided them?) I took the mickey in a picture caption, but yeah, how much mileage can there be in this? He's the 12th/13th/14th/whateverth Doctor, and they've all been "good men" up to now. Even the "bad" one. I don't get why he's so worried all of a sudden, or why Clara is either. There's a ton of evidence to say: yep, next question?

      The bit about the Doctor not caring re the consequences honestly didn't occur to me! I'll have to watch the bloody thing again now.

      The trouble with the Doctor's army hate is he has good reason not to like them, but it seems to come and go. Famously (and justifiably) couldn't stand 'em as Pertwee, seemed keen to avoid them up to Eccleston, hated their guts again as Tennant (despite signing Martha up as one / relying on them when it suits), and Smith didn't seem to care, even saluting people in The Time Of Angels. Sometimes he seems to ignore the Just Trying To Stay Alive side of soldiering, though he's intimately familiar with it.

      Fair point about the who-really-cares Dalek fodder. I still enjoyed the grim atmosphere surrounding them. I really got a nostalgic kick out of the (arguably generic!) Dalek war.

    2. Capaldi's made me realise how nice the Doctor has been for ages.

      Yes! We realised that too when we fell into the trap of thinking they'd made the Doctor too stupid to realise what would happen if he fixed the Dalek. We weren't expecting indifference, because Nice Doctor wouldn't have done that, and we've come to take Nice Doctor for granted. Having said that, the hint of darkness in recent times (as opposed to the earlier Doctors' flaws) has also been there, if more sporadic and muted, ever since the Moff's ascendance. The question is raised specifically in the Good Man Goes To War title, of course, and Matt does say at times he's not a good person or words to that effect. So it seems a little further along that continuum rather than a big new thing.

      Dumb thing to say, but it's strange how incredibly sweet and friendly PC is in interview, contrasted with the dark individual he's created on screen.

      Oh, yeah - although the contrast with Malcolm Tucker is even more marked! (We didn't see any of the prepublicity stuff, but have seen a bit since.) We really love that Capaldi's a fan himself, too. We're normally lukewarm about big name casting, as it's sometimes hard to see the Doctor through a famous face (we never shook off this problem with Chris Eccleston), but it's so clear that Capaldi absolutely loves it and is treating the part with the appropriate care and reverence that we relaxed as soon as the regeneration bollocks was over with.

      With the soldiering thing, we talked about the inconsistency over time too, but came to the conclusion that this particular iteration is nothing to do with soldiering in general and everything to do with his own stint as the War Doctor. That's our hypothesis for now, anyway.

      All of this has clarified our own thinking more, so thanks for that. Review on!