It’s the twentieth anniversary of Terry Nation’s death today. I remember reading about it in my college computer room, where I think the news was broken over rec.arts.drwho (by veteran Doctor Who fan and writer John Peel) before I heard or read it on any more conventional source.
A few years later I was a research editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, primarily commissioning, editing and writing articles in the eighteenth-century area, and I persuaded my colleagues in the general literature area to give me the article on Terry Nation to write. It was published in 2004 (content available for subscribers and members of most United Kingdom public libraries) and has survived online with only minor changes ever since. It was edited down heavily for publication, so there’s no mention of his Associated-Rediffusion play Uncle Selwyn which I’d wanted to include. It’s difficult in a small space to give a rounded picture of a career particularly when the Daleks threaten to overwhelm their historical context. A peer reviewer had said (if I recall correctly) ‘It’s not as if there is going to be a monograph on him, is there?’ To which I want now to point to the work of Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, and Alwyn W. Turner. There’s definitely room to revise the entry and I hope to make time for that shortly.
Time has been limited the past few weeks, so I’m behind on Class reviews. However, John Connors asked me to review The Power of the Daleks, animated version, for his site Timelines, and my look at that story was published a few hours ago. However, reading the review back, I’ve realised that apart from having committed some very cumbersome phraseology indeed at times, I have managed to write a review of Patrick Troughton’s first Doctor Who story, without mentioning Troughton himself.
Troughton’s performance in The Power of the Daleks remains enigmatic even after the valiant and effective reconstruction by the animation team led by Charles Norton. There’s a sense from the telesnaps and from recollections by those who worked on or watched the serial that there was a lot of physical comedy of which we see very little – only the leapfrog in episode one, I think, is achieved, the point of which is to subvert the viewers’ expectations of the Doctor, as it appears that he isn’t measuring the rock for the purposes of geological, petrological or mineralogical study, but as a precursor to testing his new body’s physical capabilities. There’s a great diffidence about this Doctor, which often makes him irritating rather than charming, his recorder-playing a puzzle as it leaves so few cues for Ben, Polly and the viewer to draw conclusions. Even his destruction of the Daleks is left ambiguous by the script, as it’s not clear what the Doctor had anticipated from his attack on the power supply.
As for Troughton’s playing of the Doctor, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the evidence we have. I remember, many years ago, going through one particularly frantic scene on the first VHS release of The Seeds of Death, where it appeared that Troughton changed his facial expression completely on each frame. With such flexibility and control, the animators can’t be expected to keep up with Troughton within the parameters of this project, though they have a good try. The New Doctor Who of 1966 is still a mystery to the 2016 audience, but we can at least now see with more definition the space the acted performance would fill.
I love Doctor Who and tend to concentrate on the positive in my reviews, or more accurately the intellectually or creatively interesting or amusing things about each episode. However, I’ve read some negative comments about Into the Dalek and they trouble me because they point to wider problems.
Firstly there’s the issue of narrative compression within the forty-five minute episode. I’d not thought of it myself, but some writers I’ve come across have a point when they suggest that too many ideas are being set up for dramatic effect and then lost. The Doctor is sentenced to death by Colonel Blue – the Pinks and Blues must be an allusion to co-writer Phil Ford’s time with Spectrum as lead writer on the reimagined 2000s version of Captain Scarlet – but is then allowed to leave the rebel base in the TARDIS to collect Clara, when the rebels have no guarantee that he isn’t a Dalek duplicate (a pleasing enough nod to Resurrection of the Daleks) or that he will return to help them. He could at least have had a Revenge of the Cybermen-like bomb strapped to his back, a further incentive to a somewhat annoyed Clara to come with him.
I wasn’t greatly impressed by the Doctor having abandoned Clara in Glasgow, either – it damaged the effect of their walking off together in their final scene in Deep Breath. Alternatively, this shows how patient Clara is with the new Doctor, a man far more overtly conscious of and worried by his lack of self-knowledge than his previous self.
Clara has to be patient given that the Doctor seems to like insulting her. It’s not true that he hardly notices that she’s a girl, as the publicity says; instead he plays on anxieties such as age and body shape. Clara seems at least able to put these down, but I was reminded of the defenders of the portrayal of the Danes in one of the Beowulf films of the last decade after I’d reviewed their bar-room lascivious aggression negatively, who told me that men are the same the world and time over. Perhaps, but not like that. Clara’s struggle through the channel was reminiscent of Sarah Jane Smith’s through the service duct in part four of The Ark in Space, but the fourth Doctor’s goading was a more general jibe at ‘girls like you’ rather than the ‘built like a man’ line. Perhaps it was meant to suggest that after the lusty and sometimes lustful eleventh Doctor, the twelfth sees Clara as androgynous, but I can feel the offensiveness of the line given that it draws attention to the very femininity (thankfully less decorative this year so far) that has been part of the presentation of Clara in the series.
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).