The Doctor takes a “Fantastic Voyage” into the mind and body of his greatest enemy.
What is truth!?
– Rusty, the Philosophical Dalek
The revived Doctor Who series has experimented with the idea of a “good Dalek” before, but the third season episodes “Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Dalek” are only memorable because the Dalek/human hybrid storyline is among the worst of the series. Peter Capaldi’s second outing as the Twelfth Doctor, “Into the Dalek,” is a much better take on the idea, and, thankfully, doesn’t feature anyone in a rubber humanoid-squid costume masquerading as the Gandhi of the Dalek race. Much like last week’s premiere, “Into the Dalek” is a chance for Capaldi to stretch his legs as the new, darker, almost dour Doctor, this time while facing off with his greatest enemies. Let’s get into it–Alons-y!
Plot-wise, the episode opens with a space fighter pilot evading fire from a Dalek warship while maneuvering through an asteroid field. She mysteriously finds herself in the TARDIS just as her ship is destroyed by the Daleks, saved by the Doctor at the last moment* (more on this later). When he returns the awkwardly named Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) to her mothership, the military crew plans to execute the Doctor for security reasons until Journey convinces them otherwise. It seems the crew recently took on an injured specimen, and they’d like their newly captured “doctor” to take a look at it. That the injured being is a Dalek isn’t exactly a shock. The BBC made no effort to hide that information in the episode’s previews. It is a shock to the Doctor who tries to understand 1) why anyone would be stupid enough to voluntarily bring a Dalek onto their ship (they thought it was dead) and 2) why said Dalek hasn’t killed everyone onboard. The lone, sequestered enemy is a nice callback to season one’s episode, “Dalek,” the race’s first appearance in the new series. If that Dalek was physically separated from its brethren, presumably (at the time) the lone surviving member of the Dalek race, this one is also cut off from the group. But it’s more than a physical separation — it’s a philosophical/emotional one too. He calls for the eradication of not humans, but the entire evil Dalek race. This Dalek has seen beauty, the majesty of a star being born versus the destruction of the millions of stars the Daleks have torn apart. We’ve seen before that inside a Dalek’s pepper shaker metal housing is a living, breathing creature with a brain and a heart. But is there a soul too? It goes against everything we know about the Daleks. He even utters the uncharacteristically philosophical “What is truth?” No wonder he needs a doctor. Of course, we’re supposed to pick up on all of this as the audience. It’s no accident that the episode takes place on a ship called the “Aristotle.”
After a quick trip to earth to collect Clara – this entire expedition has ostensibly been part of the Doctor’s trip to fetch the coffee mentioned at the end of the season premiere – she, the Doctor, and a handful of soldiers are shrunk down and implanted inside the Dalek to take a look around. It’s pure sci-fi, and an obvious shout-out to Fantastic Voyage, and its slew of imitators ranging from Innerspace to The Magic School Bus. It’s also the kind of thing that only a show like Doctor Who can get away with. There have been criticisms of this episode, but few of them have centered on the sheer lunacy of shrinking down a medical crew and putting them inside a robot. The Doctor calls the inside of the Dalek “the most dangerous place in the universe,” a point emphasized by soldier Ross’s (Ben Crompton, another Game of Thrones character making an appearance on Doctor Who) murder by the Dalek’s technological immune system, responding to Ross firing grappling hooks into the Dalek’s metal exoskeleton.
It’s another opportunity to show off the differences between Capaldi and his predecessors. When the immuno-bots bear down on Ross, the Doctor tosses him a pill and urges him to eat it. The bots kill him anyways. It wasn’t a life raft for Ross. It was a radiation marker so that the survivors could monitor the bots’ positions after they vaporized Ross’s body. Gone is the kinder, gentler Eleventh Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor who
nearly made “I’m so sorry” into a catchphrase. Twelve is too straightforward for that. Ross’s death was inevitable. He did what he had to aid the remaining survivors. Which isn’t to say Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is devoid of humor — he isn’t. He takes to calling the sick Dalek Rusty, and jokes with Clara about giving her a pay raise. He even tells her that she doesn’t look like a young woman anymore after their three weeks apart. It’s almost Strax-ian, but the jokes are often played subtly, paired with Capaldi’s deadpan delivery. Capaldi might be the perfect actor to shoulder Doctor Who’s changing tone. Much like the show itself, he’s the same, but a little darker. He’s still the Doctor through and through, but unlike Ten or Eleven, you wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking he wants to cuddle.
Eventually the remaining exploration party, the Doctor, Clara, Journey Blue, and another redshirt named Gretchen, make their way to a radiation leak deep in Rusty’s core. Evidently radiation is the Dalek version of mind-expanding LSD. It’s the constant radiation exposure that’s addled Rusty’s worldview, but it’s also a catch-22: leave the leak open and expose themselves to dangerous levels of radiation, or fix the leak and destroy the Dalek’s newfound morality? Option 2, of course. With the leak fixed, the rejuvenated amoral Rusty begins killing the mothership’s crew members and calling other Daleks to his position while our heroes are still trapped inside him.
The Doctor goes to confront the Dalek’s physical alien form while Clara and Journey head to Rusty’s technical brain to reactivate his “beautiful” memories, again hidden by the overriding amoral programming. It’s all made possible by redshirt Gretchen, who sacrifices herself to the imuno-bots by setting up a zipline for Clara and Journey to use. In the episode’s worst scene, the Doctor mind-melds with the Dalek and reopens his consciousness to the beauty and majesty of the universe and the evil of the Daleks. It’s a bizarre scene in an otherwise solid episode: Capaldi stares directly into the camera and talks to Rusty while the universe is green-screened behind him. It’s jarring and very lazily shot. Each year the Doctor Who budget has gotten progressively bigger, and no one can argue that season eight looks great. It’s cinematic, and the effects and sets are strong, so why they went with this strange 1980’s-style shot of Capaldi in the climactic scene is beyond me. It’s bad directing.
“Into the Dalek” is co-written by Steven Moffat and Phil Ford who also co-wrote the all-time great episode “The Waters of Mars,” which is one of my personal favorite episodes. One of the things I love about it is how absolutely wrong the Doctor gets things in that episode. The series sometime paints the Doctor as a nearly perfect being who always has all the right answers. What “The Waters of Mars” shows is a time when the Doctor is horribly mistaken, and makes the wrong decision with terrible consequences, something “Into the Dalek” isn’t afraid to address either. When the Doctor mind-melds with Rusty, attempting to rejuvenate the images that made him the “good Dalek,” what Rusty gathers instead is the Doctor’s universal hatred for the Dalek race. Thus, Rusty engages and destroys the entire Dalek fleet that answered his previous call to arms on the mothership. He remains a perfect killing machine. Only his target has changed.
It’s a continued exploration of the Twelfth Doctor’s search to discover if he is truly a good man. What does it say if all that Rusty could learn from him was hated of the Daleks? Obviously the Daleks are completely evil, but does his hatred of them make him any better? He’s devoted his life to eradicating the Daleks, and that’s still genocide. It’s telling that Rusty states that the Doctor himself is the proper model for a “good Dalek,” before setting out to destroy more of his own race.
In the end, the Doctor refuses to let Journey Blue travel on the TARDIS with him and Clara, asserting that he doesn’t want soldiers with him, surely foreshadowing future issues with soon-to-be companion (and equally awkwardly named) Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), a former British soldier with emotional baggage from the war who’s developing a romantic relationship with Clara. There’ll be more to talk about with Danny once his character becomes more involved with the series.
I’ve seen some reviews online that didn’t love “Into the Dalek.” I thought it was a solid episode. The days of near-universal acclaim for the series are over. The show has simply gotten too popular and covered by too many outlets to satisfy them all. It’s certainly an improvement on their previous look at Dalek morality in “Evolution of the Daleks.” Also, this episode might have been better received if it had come mid-season. Season 8 is still trying to set-up the themes that will be explored across its whole arc. As I said, I thought it was really good. If people just want to complain, just wait until next week when Clara and the Doctor encounter Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. That’s very silly, even by Doctor Who standards.
At least for my reviews, this is a section where I’ll cover extra tidbits and theories I didn’t address in the main article, but still want to mention.
– The early scenes between Clara and Danny Pink really remind you that Steven Moffat once created and wrote the British series Coupling , about the adventures and mishaps of dating among a group of friends. It was equal parts funny and painfully awkward (for the characters) to watch.
– I’m thankful we’re getting a chance to see more of Clara. She spent more time as a plot point than as a character in her first season. It’s good to see her develop in these first few episodes of Season 8, and I think her position as this new Doctor’s moral compass makes her a great foil. It’s telling that the Doctor said he needed her for the expedition even though she added nothing tactically. He needs her to guide him morally and emotionally. Coleman and Capaldi have some great back and forth, and she’s turning out to be an effective comedienne.
-Obviously, we have to talk about Missy. She made her second consecutive appearance of the season this week, when the newly deceased Gretchen found herself in “heaven” having tea just like Half-Face Man last week. It seems like Missy is going to be our continuing thread through the entire season (especially if you’ve stumbled onto that picture of her and the Doctor from the midseason finale online), and I’m excited about the prospects. Even if she doesn’t pan out character-wise (as Moffat characters are wont to do), I’m already in love with Michelle Gomez’s sweetly acidic performance. I don’t know what her game is, but I at least have a theory. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I’ve avoided all the leaked info. This is purely my guess:
My guess is that Missy is actually a female version of The Master. Missy would actually be short for The Mistress. Her back and forth about the Doctor being her “boyfriend” seems appropriate to the relationship the Doctor had with John Simm’s version of The Master. Also, I can’t shake the idea that the square garden with the tall, round fountain in the middle where we first saw Missy in the premiere is very TARDIS-like, geometrically. Also, let’s take a look at how she’s gathering people. The Doctor took Journey Blue from a moment of certain death transported her to a wholly new place inside his TARDIS. It wouldn’t be that different from Missy taking people from the seeming moments of their deaths into her garden. Just something to think about. There’s at least some similarity there.
Why is she gathering people, and why Half-Face Man and Gretchen in particular? “Deep Breath” left the question of who killed Half-Face Man open. The Doctor may have killed him, or he may have killed himself. Certainly, the Doctor killing his enemy fits with the new, darker Who, but it also seems jarringly out of character for the Doctor. If the Half-Face Man jumped to his own death, that would mean that Missy’s only two contacts so far are the only two characters who have sacrificed themselves for the Doctor. None of the other Daleks, Ross, the dead ship crew members, or dead automatons from the premiere have had encounters with Missy that we’ve seen (I for one would have died to see a Dalek ask for cream and sugar in its tea). A group of people who’ve died for the Doctor would pair well down the road with the season’s themes about the Doctor’s morality. It also seems like the kind of mental anguish a Master-like character would want to force on the Doctor. Again, just a guess.
Rachel has next week’s recap. See you all down the line in space and time.