After 50 years of Dalek stories, it cannot be easy coming up with something that hasn’t been done before — something that can also be realized on the TV screen. Having exhausted our view of the Daleks from the outside, the show takes viewers inside of one, in an episode that is less about Daleks and more about soldiers and what the cost is for being one; pretty weighty fare by Doctor Who standards, to be sure, though the episode never takes it quite as far as it could’ve.
“Into the Dalek” begins in the middle of an epic space battle, inside the ship of Lieutenant Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton, easily the standout guest star). Seconds before her death, the Doctor materializes the TARDIS around her, saving her from certain destruction. After threatening him, and the Doctor smooth-talking her into saying please, the pair head for her nearby space station of origin, the Aristotle, where the Doctor’s disdain for the military is evident (“Dry your eyes, Journey Blue. Crying’s for civilians … how we communicate with you lot”). Finally, the hook: a war-torn, battled-scarred Dalek that is hurt and in pain … yet has somehow miraculously turned “good” via its hatred for all things Dalek. Can the Doctor repair it, the crew wants to know? (It’s never explained why they care.) One thing’s for sure: He can’t do it alone.
Meanwhile, back on Earth at Coal Hill School, Clara is introduced to new co-worker Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), a veteran soldier seemingly prone to tears. She instantly takes a liking to him (he’s personable and easy on the eyes, so who wouldn’t?), but before they can go on a date, the Doctor shows up to whisk Clara away to the other side of the universe. Onboard the Aristotle is a molecular nanoscaler — a device which can shrink people down to microscopic size; tech that’ll be necessary to go into the Dalek to repair its malfunction. If you’re old enough, you’ve seen a version of this story before in the 1966 feature film Fantastic Voyage, which can currently be found on Netflix, though be prepared for disappointment, as it hasn’t aged particularly well. The dialogue covers its referential ass, too, when the Doctor utters, “Fantastic idea for a movie; terrible idea for a proctologist.”
The miniaturization process is achieved well enough, and especially cool was the journey from the tube into the Dalek eyestalk, which had a sort of psychedelic dreaminess to it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long and once the Doctor and friends are inside the Dalek it all becomes rather ordinary, which is precisely what this episode shouldn’t have been. The ongoing attacks by the antibodies — an idea lifted without shame from the 1966 movie — is precisely what I’m talking about. (Why would Dalekanium, a metal, have antibodies anyway?) Where’s the innovation? The unsettling, creeping weirdness? The Doctor and Clara are inside a Dalek, yet it often looked like they could’ve been in any old corridor. The episode needed some amazing set piece, like an attack on the soldiers by the Dalek’s tentacles. Instead it dished up floating orbs and a vat of goo.
The Doctor repairs the fault in the Dalek, which it turns out was the only thing making it “good,” and so it reverts to a creature of hate and destruction. Following is all sorts of action, little of which is especially memorable, and in the climax, the Doctor gets into the Dalek’s conscious in an attempt to make it good again. He sort of succeeds, but only because the Dalek inadvertently taps into the Doctor’s own hatred for the Daleks, and it is only as I sit here typing out the sequence of events that I begin to find the whole thing less and less convincing and more and more absurd. Of course there is no such thing as a good Dalek. In the end, Rusty (the nickname the Doctor bestowed upon it) the Dalek goes off to destroy more Daleks, but surely he can’t beat all of them? As goofy as I find much of the goings-on, I can’t help but think it would be revealing to see this character again at a later date, after he’s developed some actual character. Where might his experiences take him, and who will he become? That could be one of those cases where the sequel bests the original.
“Into the Dalek” is cut from the same philosophical cloth as some of the best Dalek stories of the new series, such as the very first one, “Dalek,” which this episode, it turned out, actually had quite a bit in common with. It’s almost as if it sort of plays as an unnecessary answer to that benchmark tale. Indeed, in “Dalek” the Dalek tells the Doctor, “You would have made a good Dalek!” In this new episode, the Dalek tells him, “You are a good Dalek,” which turns the Doctor’s face ashen, because it indicates that he’s nothing more than a soldier in a never-ending war, which is probably true.
After last week’s spectacular season premiere (which I watched five times in as many days, including the theatrical presentation), my hopes may have been unreasonably high for this episode, if for no other reason than it was directed by the same man, Ben Wheatley. The languid pacing of “Deep Breath” was paradoxically thrilling, so it was a bit of a comedown to return to the bam-bam-bam style of Who storytelling we’re all too familiar with. And yet Peter Capaldi kept his performance dialed down, and aimed in a different direction than the rest of the action. As I mentioned last week, he’s an actor with the ability to make middling material seem better than it is. If the series would just dial it down to match his style, we might have something truly fresh and new.
The backbone of “Into the Dalek” appears to be its commentary on loss. Every soldier in the episode, including the Doctor and the Dalek, suffers from some form of it. The cost of war is high, and in the end Journey is eager to join the Doctor and Clara on their travels, but he hypocritically shuns her, simply because of her occupation. What will his reaction to Danny Pink will be like? “Into the Dalek” is also bookended by a conversation the Doctor has with Clara, in which he asks her if he’s a good man. Her initial answer is “I don’t know,” which he begrudgingly agrees with. At the close of the episode, she amends her answer with, “But I think you try to be, and I think that’s probably the point.”
Odds and ends
- Surely everyone breathed huge sighs of relief that the traditional new series copper-colored Daleks were the focal point, versus the Crayola-infused ones from a couple years ago. It looks as though those are truly things of the past at this point.
- The Doctor’s line, referring to Clara, “She cares so I don’t have to,” could be the anthem for the season.
- Upon her death, the soldier Gretchen went to “heaven” to meet Missy, as did the Half-Face Man last week. So Missy isn’t just collecting villains the Doctor has defeated, but also people who’ve died for him (or is it possible that’s precisely what the Half-Face man did?).
- After falling into the vat of gooey protein, all of the characters improbably cleaned up rather nicely and quickly.
- There was some really innovative cutting that messed with the order of events in the scenes with Danny, as well the Doctor’s discovery of what the deal was with the Dalek. That felt pretty innovative.
- “An anticlimax once in a while is good for my hearts.” — The Doctor, perhaps commenting on the episode itself.
- For an old-school fan, the Dalek screeching “Death to the Daleks!” repeatedly was unintentionally comical. It must have been written as an in-joke for Nick Briggs, who voices the Daleks, and is a massive fan of that story.
- The episode is written by Phil Ford (“The Waters of Mars”) and Steven Moffat. There are a number of episodes this season that feature a co-writing credit for Moffat. Isn’t this a first for the series? And why? Isn’t it generally understood that the Emmy-winning Steven Moffat contributes to nearly every script for the series?
- “Into the Dalek” isn’t Doctor Who’s first riff on Fantastic Voyage. In 1977’s “The Invisible Enemy,” clones of the the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) were created for the sole purpose of miniaturizing them and injecting them into the Doctor’s own body!