Doctor Who XXXIV(8).2: Into the Dalek

intothedalek

Image by Stuart Manning, http://www.radiotimes.com

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.

Postscript

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. 

Postscript II

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).

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Posted on 31 August 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Good review, Matthew. There is a clear binary between the Doctor and the Daleks – it’s disturbing to reflect on how much they need each other. One gets the distinct feeling that if reconciliation was on offer the Doctor would find it too much of a threat to his identity to explore the possibility.

    One of the things that infuriated me about JE was the melodramatic wallowing in guilt when Davros presented the Tenth Doctor with a roll-call of all the companions that had sacrificed their lives for him. It seemed to serve little function other than to confirm Ten’s narcissistic belief that he wasn’t good enough for Rose (and give Tennant even more emoting to do), and then that was undercut by his reductive association of all his violent tendencies with his double, who was conveniently shunted aside for Rose to heal.

    None of those moral issues have gone away and if they end up being addressed more intelligently in S8 I for one will be delighted. Whoever Missy is (and like most fans I have my pet theory), if 12 is presented with all the people he has casually (or otherwise) sacrificed and called to account for his choices at the end of this series, or even beyond, it really will be intriguing.

    • Thank you, Ruth – I’m glad you approve. Like you, I don’t think reconciliation with the Daleks is a possibility for the Doctor; the two have grown up within the other’s shadows on- and off-screen. I hope there proves to be more to the soldier-bashing and the question of the Doctor’s sense of good than an overused tagline.

  2. Great review, and gives so much more to think about… especially your thoughts about the military.

    • Thank you, Rachel – the great thing about Doctor Who (as strange_complex says in her review) is that it can inspire so much discussion. I know that some people think the Doctor should be shown to have learned from his rehabilitation of the War Doctor in the anniversary story, but he has just regenerated and I go along with what Frank Collins of Cathode Ray Tube said in his review of The End of Time part two (I think), that modern Doctor Who is in part a Bildungsroman which was the story of the lead character’s personal development, but with the Doctor the price of maturity is to be returned to adolescence. So, he’s allowed to be anguished about soldiers again.

  3. Hi Matthew. Intriguing as always. Some random, unconnected thoughts:

    1 – It’s curious you mention Capaldi’s similarity to the other Scottish Doctor Sylvester McCoy as during the trailers for the series I thought the Twelfth Doctor resembled the image of the Doctor I had in my head whilst reading the Virgin New Adventures. Capaldi’s portrayal so far seems to confirm this. Twelfth Doctor and Benny stories NEED to happen at some point (licenses permitting!)

    2 – I agree that Clara’s resemblance to a modern version of Barbara is very striking (pun intended!). Barbara being one of my favourite companions and Clara now having a personality (ANY personality) means that this is definitely a good thing.

    3 – Fantastic Voyage is an obvious intertext, but I wonder if anyone’s noticed the similarities to Michael Chrichton’s unfinished novel Micro? The plot of that story is very different, but it includes a shrinking machine made up of a huge magnet that sweeps across the subject, whilst a computer voice tells impels them to breathe normally for their own safety. The miniturisation sequence here made me wonder whether Ford and Moffat hadn’t actually read Chrichton’s novel, or had been informed by some of the same sources.

    4 – I also like the attitude to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as opposing binaries that give each other meaning – rather than essentially stable terms that can be applied objectively. I never thought I’d see poststructuralism explained concisely and interestingly in a children’s TV show!

    Just some random thoughts there. I enjoyed the episode a lot but feel the best of this series is still to come.

    • Hello, Dewi, and thank you. Benny should appear in 2016 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the New Adventures, I’d argue… though to honour the spirit of the series, the episode will go out post-watershed, perhaps on the Red Button…

      Clara is in the middle of gaining her Ian Chesterton (and he was probably a soldier too, given the date, and knew his fighting skills) and the unearthly child of our days is making sarcastic comments through windows or being threatening in daydreams, so the parallel is being built upon.

      I had no idea about Michael Crichton’s ‘Micro’; I’m sure you’re right that someone knew about it – the ‘printer head’ isn’t in the script, which describes ‘pulses of light’, but that could also be derived from Crichton.

      The use of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this story really only make sense in the way you describe; and they are also relative to their subject – a ‘good man’ and a ‘good Dalek’ are not necessarily morally equivalent; and a good man’s idea of a good Dalek is distinct from a good Dalek’s idea of a good man, and onwards through very many permutations and cross-conversations. The weariness of the Doctor’s ‘Until the next time’ as he walks away from his latest encounter with the Daleks is an acceptance, perhaps, that he won’t find the answer he sought to his earlier question about whether or not he is a good man, because (in contrast to his detection priorities last week) he was asking the wrong question.

      I’m fairly sure the best is still to come; we know so little of the shape of this season and I look forward to seeing it defined over the coming weeks.

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