Doctor Who XXXIV(8).2: Into the Dalek
If Deep Breath was Peter Capaldi’s Robot, perhaps Into the Dalek will be seen as his The Ark in Space, the story which didn’t just honour inherited elements from the past of Doctor Who as hollow ritual, but found in them a new expression of the method and practice of storytelling. It is too early to tell, but more elements of the series are in place. Clara’s courtship of Danny Pink might in time justify the summarisation of her character as ‘control freak’ which though stated in Deep Breath and (I think) The Time of the Doctor wasn’t necessarily supported by the evidence. For the moment, it promises to juxtapose her development as a person with the Doctor’s existence alongside but not part of her linear time; though the Doctor’s everyday is extraordinary, Clara’s personality and her experience, both as traveller with the Doctor and as schoolteacher, drive her to question the judgements he makes and force the Doctor to revise his own assessment of practical and moral questions. At a party I attended on Saturday (which caused me to miss the episode as it was transmitted) it was said that there was a Hartnellish dynamic about Capaldi’s performance, and in this episode it was easy to interpret Clara as a more fiery but still controlled Barbara Wright, though I think parents and Ofsted would take a dim view of Clara slapping a pupil in the classroom.
Doctor Who again flirted with topicality this episode. There are beleaguered armies now who must feel they face unknowable, relentless and inexhaustible opponents. At Coal Hill – more central to Doctor Who now than at any time since 23 November 1963 – Danny Pink (who perhaps has benefited from some analogy to the Troops to Teachers Initative) is building up a Cadet Force on a model more often associated with private schools, but in 2014 (and since this episode was recorded) being encouraged by the United Kingdom government in state schools in England. As the British government and press anguish about the prospects of Jihadis trained in Iraq and Syria returning to fight a war against the rulers of their homeland, Into the Dalek returns to the question of the militarisation of society and individual aired in The Day of the Doctor. He may have accepted the War Doctor into his past, but the Doctor can’t yet face the implications for his present. The framing storyline at Coal Hill suggests that Danny Pink may have comparable issues. Of course, it’s comprehensible that a Dalek would interpret the Doctor’s interference in the affairs of others as motivated by hatred of the Daleks; but absence of love and compassion in himself is something the Doctor fears, hence his rejection of Journey Blue as companion material. There was a suggestion on Twitter that this episode might be Zawe Ashton’s audition piece, and while it seems unlikely that BBC commissioners would a non-contemporary companion given Victorian ones have been vetoed at least twice, it was tempting to see the prospect of Journey’s return in the expression on her face at the episode’s end. Then again, having a character called Journey Blue in a story about Doctor Who‘s basics might be considered self-referential enough without her becoming an inhabitant of the TARDIS.
Into the Dalek picked up several batons from the past, from the echoes of Carnival of Monsters and The Invisible Enemy in settings and visuals, to the sole injured Dalek of Dalek and to a certain extent Caan of The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. The injured Dalek, its personality shifts and its ability to relate to the Doctor demonstrated both Barnaby Edwards’s expressiveness in the casing, recognised in the photography, but especially the performing range of Nicholas Briggs, adding an individuality to this Dalek particularly noticeable in its final exchange of reflections with the Doctor. The Doctor has been told he would make a good Dalek before; now he has been told he is one. There has been a shift in the meaning of the term since Dalek, and probably even within this exchange. There’s something monstrous about the Doctor’s conduct and his moral compass which a Dalek would see as common ground, but as Clara acknowledges he tries to do what is right even if his own perspective can blind him to vital details. The fundamentals of Doctor Who are restated, but the emphasis has moved since 2005; if only in that the Doctor knows that for him and the Daleks there can be no final end.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is far more prominent in this episode than he was in Deep Breath, as must be expected. Into the Dalek confirms that his Doctor can effortlessly carry off the authoritative, but he adds a level of anxiety and irrationality which suggests that Clara isn’t just being flippant when she tells Journey he’s often both mad and right. There were times when his pleas reminded me of Sylvester McCoy’s overwrought little man moments, bowing forward to Clara, Journey and Gretchen in supplication, and there are some scenes too where his bellowing recalls Matt Smith, but mostly he is his own Doctor, and rightly so. He’s still scared, the script says, and something about the way Capaldi executes those contemplative moments, whether on board the TARDIS or in the middle of the action, suggests that this is something Capaldi keeps at the front of his performance.
This Doctor seems to have an author within the diegesis; last week Missy said she’d thought she’d keep the Doctor’s new accent, and this week another character killed off found themselves retired from the narrative to ‘heaven’, perhaps for future redeployment. Outside it, and even outside the paratext of Doctor Who Extra, where this is promoted very much as Phil Ford’s episode, Steven Moffat takes a joint credit as writer. With its emphasis on sibling and non-parental multigenerational relationships (and Kai and Journey Blue, Dalek fighters, reminded me a little of Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan) the central storyline isn’t obviously imprinted with the Moffat signature. The inability of Danny Pink to live up to his billing as ‘ladykiller’ – though one is encouraged to speculate about a tragic backstory behind the teasing nickname – is more obviously in the Moffat tradition of mocking conventional projections of masculinity. Mark Gatiss is the solitary author of next week’s Robots of Sherwood, but the episode may play with expectations from the same toybox.
Returning to this piece after posting it, I realised I’d not addressed the most discomfiting aspect of the episode, its seeming readiness to endorse the Doctor’s idea that a Dalek which wanted to wipe out its own species was as a consequence a ‘good Dalek’. This turned out to be the Doctor’s self-deception; looking for an absolute identification of himself with the ‘good man’, he needed to believe in the Daleks as his opposite. Yet as Clara demonstrates, Daleks might not be humans or Time Lords, but they can learn and can be given the chance, like the Doctor, to try to change their nature and those of others for the better, whatever that better might be. The lesson is close to that of Dalek, of course, but after nine and a half years it’s one that bears restating, both for the current audience and with a Doctor who has acknowledged he is undergoing self-examination now that regeneration has lifted the veil from part of his nature.
I’ve been asked whether I thought the episode was actually any good, as I tend to respond in my reviews to points I found intellectually interesting. I didn’t think that Into the Dalek was outstanding. The uneven visual realisation grated a little, with some of the interior Dalek backdrops looking more obviously wooden than others. The depiction of the miniaturiser as a kind of printer head, extrapolating from domestic technology, had a Doctor Who rightness to it, whether or not one wants to link it to the Hartnell era’s likenings of the TARDIS to a television. Capaldi is largely very good indeed, though the moment where he reminded me of Sylvester McCoy, mentioned above, rang alarm bells because as someone raised on the very end of Jon Pertwee and the Tom Baker periods, my default expectation is for Doctors more overtly confident in their improvisations. The supporting performances were all solid enough and I liked Zawe Ashton’s reading of her TARDIS scene, that uncertain struggle towards ‘please’. The acknowledgement of Fantastic Voyage in the dialogue was done in such a way as to send younger viewers off towards their mobile devices to look up the keywords – Sydney Newman’s educational imperative, relocated in the digital age, as well as a memory of the adage I associate with Jeremy Bentham’s era of Doctor Who Monthly, that Doctor Who is at is best when its roots are showing (for more on which see strange_complex).