You see, all those years ago, when I began - I was just running. I called myself 'The Doctor' but it was just a name. And then, I went to Skaro - and I met you lot, and I understood who I was: The Doctor was not the Daleks!
- A Doctor struggling with his own inner darkness.
- A lone Dalek captured by humans and kept chained in a locked room.
- A Doctor who falls into this situation by accident but finds himself the victim of human aggression.
- A companion who challenges the Doctor’s prejudices towards his most sworn enemy.
- The Dalek, though at first subdued, breaking free to wreak havoc.
- The captured Dalek claiming ‘Dalek identity’ for the Doctor, despite it being sorely unwanted.
- The captured Dalek eventually choosing ‘Dalek destruction’.
- A companion finding a human love interest in the same story.
I really enjoyed this episode. I genuinely did. But… doesn’t this all feel a little familiar? It probably should. These same ingredients were also present in Robert Shearman’s superb 2005 episode, Dalek.
Yes, I know, I know. This is - for some at least - the obvious observation to make. The one that many were waiting for. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said at all. This episode was enjoyable and fun and thrilling, but also entirely ‘safe’, in a rather paradoxical fashion. (I’ll flesh this out a bit more later; stick around.) Yes, I might be guilty of a few slight over-simplifications. For example: “The captured Dalek eventually [chooses] ‘Dalek destruction”. Well, yes, this is literally true in the case of ol’ Rusty. But one has to stretch the meaning a wee bit in the case of Dalek. The eponymous pepper-pot did indeed choose ‘Dalek destruction’ … i.e. its own.
So sue me. The point still stands. This is familiar territory. More so in some places than others. But it’s a testament to Phil Ford’s writing and the enduring appeal of these stalking genocide-loving plunger heads that it was still a lot of fun.
First, my wife and I re-watched Deep Breath yesterday. As I mentioned in last week’s review, Capaldi’s first episode drew a small amount of criticism from certain quarters. What was reinforced by re-watching Deep Breath, and once again by Into the Dalek, is that it’s almost entirely undeserved. Ladies & Gentlemen; Silurians & Slitheen; Whovians & Rassilonians - I believe we’re privileged to be watching at this point in the show’s history. As was intimated in my previous review these episodes improve upon subsequent viewings. If you haven’t already, go and watch them again. Whereas I was understandably a little guarded at first, I was able to appreciate all of Capaldi’s nuances and features the second time around. This is true for most of New-Who but especially so, I’ve noticed, for Series 8.
Second, isn’t it amazing to have Doctor Who back every week?! I started watching Doctor Who when I was a student (unfortunately I’m not old enough to have enjoyed it first time around). There’s something about those 12/13 week runs that lodged itself into the part of my brain designed for nostalgia and happy memories. Every week, a new adventure. Stuart Ian Burns has pointed out in his fantastic review (have you subscribed to his blog yet, and if not, why not?) that this is the first ‘normal’ episode we’ve had in 18 months. That’s crazy. And more than this, as the latest issue of DWM pointed out, for the first time in New Who history the Doctor will literally take us ‘into darkness’. The clocks will go back by the time the finale premieres in November. This isn’t just a seasonal novelty. There’s something about Doctor Who that thrives on dark nights and drawn curtains. Monsters are more scary; the glow of a TV screen is somehow more magnetic.
We’ll get back to the theme of ‘familiarity’ shortly, but before then, I want to talk about set design and CGI. Look, I know this is Doctor Who. It has always enjoyed an ‘interesting’ relationship with aesthetics. And, contrary to recent criticism, this is indeed part of its appeal primarily because it doesn’t break our suspension of disbelief. The Doctor’s universe is just like this. In fact there are all kinds of hermetically sealed get-arounds for why things look a little dodgy. Perception filters, the transcendent appearance and culture of an alien species, etc. It’s not that it doesn’t matter to us. It does. But it matters for all the right reasons. However, that’s not some sort of season pass, guys. It doesn’t give you carte blanche to film scenes in your Uncle’s basement. That’s why fan-productions are still obviously fan-productions, because it’s just not quite as good, even if ‘good’ remains an aesthetically relative currency.
I’m rambling. Let’s get to the point: this episode looked unnecessarily dodgy in places. The lab that featured the Miniaturiser McGuffin was looked plastic and ‘stuck-on’. (It kinda reminded me of an Aperture Science tribute.) The bit that did it for me was when Clara was crawling through Rusty’s neural cortex, or whatever, all filled with plastic tubing. It looked like a claustrophobic day-visit to Wickes.
And then there’s the CGI. Listen, this isn’t a ‘spoilt New-Who fan’ talking here. I might have begun with the series in 2005, but I’m also going through all the Classic Series from beginning to finish. I’ve been doing that for half a decade now. I’ve watched dozens of classic serials and hundreds of episodes. From the moment Ian Chesterton ripped off some of the badly painted cave wall revealing the gleaming polystyrene underneath, then to quickly cover up his mistake using his hand, I knew what I was in for. No, I’m not boasting. I’m just pointing out that I’m aware of how great we’ve got it these days; it wasn’t always like this and we should be grateful. But sometimes it pushes our gratitude, doesn’t it? The green screen work here, though better than in Nightmare in Silver, is still pretty ropey. Which is a shame, as, again, this is a good episode.
It goes back to this central repeating theme: The Doctor is an alien. He’s not like you and me. He’s not your boyfriend, nor your eccentric Uncle, he’s not your friendly Grandfather. He’s a Time Lord, from the planet Gallifrey of the constellation of Kasterborous, and … oh, sorry. You get the idea.
Kids will adjust. But it’s perfectly legitimate to suppose that some might struggle.
Once again we’re reminded of just how amazing Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are together. In the words of my wife, they are what ‘carry this through’. When Clara slaps the Doctor I let a genuine and spontaneous gasp of shock (oh-no-she-didn’t). It felt real, visceral, forbidden. As we said last time, Jenna Coleman is New Who’s Sarah Jane, not necessarily in the sense that she’s as iconic (although posterity might still prove her to be so), but in the sense that she’s playing a crossover companion who has found her groove with a new + strange Doctor. Meanwhile, Peter’s reaction to Journey Blue waking up in his TARDIS was fantastic (“You’ll starve to death trying to find the light switch”), as was the caledonian tones of mockery heard when Rusty first awakes to the presence of a military collective sojourning inside its innards.
Samuel Anderson puts in a good performance as Danny Pink, too. As Anderson notes in ‘Doctor Who Extra’, it’s not really love at first sight. Quite right, too. He’s just met her. But there’s most certainly chemistry between the two actors and it’s awkwardly enjoyable watching two pretty people flirt in such a terribly uncool way. You can hate me for saying this, but it was just nice watching a simple romance develop onscreen. We’ve come a long way since Clara was rigidly cast as the Impossible Girl. Now she’s actually human. Anyway, two Coal Hill School teachers sauntering away with an elderly Time Lord certainly rings a few bells, although it’s good to have the romance more explicit. The subtext did get a tad tiring the first time around.
Moreover, did you find it a little bit frustrating that the Daleks were never aware of the Time Lord’s presence? Not even Rusty? It removed a lot of the threat and the tension. After all that’s what makes these showdowns memorable. The Doctor and the Daleks, two great enemies, battling across time and space. To retain that tension you have to have one of three things: either they BOTH don’t know each other’s identity (as in 1964’s The Daleks); or they both DO know each other’s identity and they’re at each other’s throats; or ONE knows the other’s identity and then uses that knowledge to imperil the other.
Here, ONE knows but then NOTHING comes of that. That’s not tense or exciting. That’s a non-event. The result of this, dramatically, is that the story is forced to walk with a limp. And take it from a cripple: limping is no fun.
Still, the central conceit of going into a Dalek was great, and it’s what stops this story from being a total repetition of Dalek. That scene when they’re going through the eye stork and then slowly wander through to peek at the pepper pot’s pulsing parts was particularly pleasant. Also, the idea of antibodies was well executed and genuinely scary.
Remember: the Dalek’s remark that the Doctor is a “good Dalek” is exactly the same accolade as that bestowed on the 9th Doctor, but it’s intended differently here. Owen calls our house rabbit a ‘bad dog’, but that’s not an insult. It’s a positive description: our bunny excels in his class insofar as he’s especially affable. Similarly, the Doctor excels in his class. He may be broken and filled with memories of the dark days. He may wish to see his enemies judged for their deeds. If this is ‘Dalek-like’ then so be it. However, the Doctor is a good Dalek. The point of this accolade in Phil Ford’s hands, as opposed to Rob Shearman’s, is that it is a compliment. It means there’s divinity as well as hatred in the Doctor’s soul.
We see the Doctor entering Rusty’s mind presumably with the expectation that it’d only perceive in him beauty and life and light. In actual fact, it saw that, as well as judgement. The Doctor, our frustrated hero.
In terms of the episode’s form, we see something rather similar. Phil Ford ventures to push boundaries. We’ve never been inside a Dalek before. Here’s a Doctor being challenged and compared to one of his most loathed enemies. Isn’t this radical? Well, no. It’s not. We’ve seen much of it before. Into the Dalek presents itself as an envelope-pushing romp into the Doctor’s psyche. In reality, it’s very safe and ‘centre’. Its notes are variations of a theme already heard.
Frustrated pretensions indeed.
Does that make this a bad episode? Of course not. At the end of the day, Into the Dalek has great acting, crisp dialogue, great pacing, some shooting and explosions, and an interesting idea to boot. For newcomers in particular this will have established central themes and ideas. In fact I suspect that this might be what they were doing here.
As far as second episodes go, this is better than The Beast Below. Better than The End of the World. Better than The Shakespeare Code. Better than Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
Into the Dalek is a direct transplant of Doctor Who DNA, right into the veins of new and old fans alike. For the former, I can only suspect that this will have been mind blowing. For the latter, it may be familiar, but it’s most welcome.
It’s still the stuff of fairytales for me.