How did the new Doctor fare in his first encounter with the Daleks? And are we any closer to understanding his motivations yet?
Warning: Spoliers to follow..
Episode 2 of Doctor Who series 8 had a lot to prove. It was the first episode that wasn’t a 50th special, a series finale, or directly linked to a regeneration. It was the first episode to show the new Doctor in action from beginning to end. It was also the first opportunity to pit our titular hero against his most feared enemy, the Daleks.
We’ve seen the deadly pepper pots a lot since the show returned in 2005 and the majority of those stories, particularly in the RTD years, focused on life and death of the universe scenarios, fleets of Dalek ships and hundreds of flying Daleks sweeping across the sky to Murray Gold’s bombastic musical scores. It has all been a bit much at times. What makes a Dalek scary is when there is a single one, hunting down its enemy without remorse; that’s what made the episode ‘Dalek’ in Christopher Eccleston’s series so good. It had the Terminator effect. A Dalek won’t stop until it destroys you and not ten or even a hundred men can stop it. In comparsion hundreds and hundreds of Daleks become totally intangible and their defeat ruins their effectiveness. One dead Dalek is a big victory. The defeat of a Dalek fleet means they can never truly be an effective threat again.
Writer Phil Ford returns after the brilliant ‘Waters of Mars’ and achieves in making the Daleks a threat again. ‘Into The Dalek’ was evocative of ‘Dalek’ in many ways. A claustrophobic base. Soldiers powerless against a single Dalek. You have no doubt that Rusty the Dalek will wipe out everyone on the base and cleverly, when reinforcements come, we down have hundreds of Daleks…we have about four. That’s all we need to pit the human soldiers on the Aristotle against insurmountable odds.
But it was so much more than a ‘Daleks want to destroy us all’ story; like Steven Moffat’s ‘Asylum Of The Daleks’ this episode attempts to do something interesting with the enemy, namely the question over whether there could be a good Dalek. It’s a clever counterpart to the Doctor’s own question – is he a good man – and as the episode proves, there’s still some debate over whether he is still good or whether events have changed him forever.
Good and evil is the core theme of the episode. An injured Dalek sees the beauty of a star being born and begins to question the futility of the Dalek Empire’s goal of universal destruction. The Doctor rallies against the idea of a good Dalek at first; it is Clara who forces him not to deal in absolutes and drives him to complete the mission.
I’m loving the developing relationship between the Doctor and companion. This isn’t the flirty banter and mutual admiration we’re used to. Clara still doesn’t fully trust him – she can’t answer the Doctor’s question over whether he is a good man – but they do rely on the other and trust each other’s instincts. It was really interesting to hear the Doctor’s response to Clara calling him her carer. ‘She cares so I don’t have to.’ Is that the statement for their relationship moving forward?
Peter Capaldi continues to deliver a strong performance, more subdued, more calculated than what audiences are used to. (I wonder how that might ultimately translate to ratings). Just as he left Clara alone with the clockwork robots last week, this week the Doctor shows his ruthless streak in his reaction to poor Ross. Just when we think he’s found a way to save the poor soldier from the Dalek antibodies, we discover Ross is doomed, the Doctor knew it all along, and he simply gave him something to swallow just so he could track the antibodies to a place of safety and save everyone else. The Doctor’s intentions might have been good, but his inability to care about a human’s death is a stark contrast to what we’ve seen before. (Could you imagine the guilt Tennant’s Doctor would have felt?). It’s another ‘Classic Doctor’ vibe we’re discovering in Capaldi’s.
Into The Dalek was a great character piece, not just for the Doctor but the Daleks. Seeing into the heart of the enemy (literally) was fascinating. The anti bodies were a great little plot device and the confrontation between Rusty and the Doctor at the end was shockingly brilliant. The idea that it was the Doctor’s hatred of the Daleks and not the beauty of the universe that changed Rusty’s viewpoint was a great twist in driving the good Dalek to exterminate his own kind and save the day.
Away from the Daleks, Danny Pink’s introduction at Coal Hill school was a very effective one. Potential love interest for Clara, potential companion (though as a former solder he might not meet the Doctor’s criteria), Samuel Anderson made a big impact as a character with depth, an interesting back story and a great face for Clara’s human life back on Earth. It will be intriguing to see where this goes. Furthermore, wasn’t his reaction to taking up Clara’s offer of a drink and her catching him in the act a pure Coupling moment. As a series that made me a fan of Moffat as a writer I look forward to more of this! (I assume of course that Danny Pink’s scenes were Moffat’s contribution as co-writer on this episode).
Overall, Into The Dalek was a stronger episode than last week’s slightly-overlong Deep Breath. Ben Wheatley’s direction was good last week but it was in this episode where we saw a true filmic quality – particularly the action packed and brutal Dalek assault on the Aristotle. The supporting cast were great, particularly Zawe Ashton as Journey Blue (any connection there to Danny Pink? Clara certainly noticed it). I certainly felt for her when she asked to join the Tardis and the Doctor turned her down for being a soldier.
Most importantly, it was one of the best paced episodes in a long while. Deep Breath felt like it could have had five or ten minutes shaved off it and many of series seven’s episodes felt a little rushed. Into The Dalek filled those 45 minutes perfectly, delivered a great, rather intimate Dalek tale and serving up a bigger introudction to Clara’s life at Coal Hill school and Danny Pink. You didn’t feel like there was more story to tell by the time the credits rolled.
A perfect episode? Not quite. Like Deep Breath it was all a little low key and stopped it from hitting true classic status. There’s definitely a sense of build up (we had a less-jarring and more intriguing Missy cameo this time round) in the series and I still feel like Capaldi’s Doctor is still warming up. I haven’t fully forgotten Matt Smith’s Doctor like I did straight after he replaced David Tennant, but I do feel like I’m moving on. I’m still very excited for more Twelfth Doctor and Clara adventures to come. Let’s see how they fare with Robin Hood next week!
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