Quickest way to establish how a new Doctor thinks and what he values? Throw him up against the Daleks.
In the far future, the Doctor meets some soldiers who have captured a damaged Dalek that has turned against its own kind. Unable to resist the temptation of finding out what makes a “good Dalek” tick, the Doctor is shrunk down with a small crew to explore the inner workings of the alien. To go, as the title suggests, into the Dalek.
If last week was about introducing the Twelfth Doctor and transitioning away from the Matt Smith era, then this week is all about demonstrating the new status quo: how “business as usual” on Doctor Who will look from now on.
Our storytelling status quo is that Clara is still teaching English at the secondary school, with the Doctor occasionally dropping in to whisk her way on an adventure (“You’re not my boss, you’re one of my hobbies” she says, in what may be my favourite line of the night).
But we’re also settling into a new status quo character wise. Capaldi’s Doctor spent most of last episode in a daze, struggling through the after-effects of his regeneration and rushing to stop the killer robots. This week we see the Doctor settled into himself, and what the Twelfth Doctor is like on a day-to-day basis.
First impressions? Well he’s a little less… He kind of acts more… He’s an asshole. Sure he’s a little ruder and bitchier than in the past, but it’s his lack of respect for the dead and dying that really bothers. He insists that the pilot he rescues (the futurey sounding Journey Blue) stop crying about her dead brother. (“My brother just died!” “His sister didn’t. You’re very welcome.”) Later, when the explorers land in a pool of the Dalek’s liquefied victims, he quips that a member of their party who just died is “the top layer, if you want to say a few words.” Clearly the days of Tennant and his constant “I’m so, so sorries” are long gone.
Most of the Doctor’s story in this episode centers on his question to Clara: “Am I a good man?” I’m a little tired of this storytelling direction for a few reasons:
A. You are the main character of a children’s television show, so the answer is yes, you are a good man.
B. Secondly, “Into the Dalek” portrays good and evil as being binary states: the Doctor wants to a good man, the possibility of a good Dalek, the box that edits the Dalek’s memories and compassion is “evil refined as engineering”. But in the real world you don’t just “turn good” – it’s a moment to moment thing. Every time you are faced with a choice, you decide if you are good or evil (or in the terms I usually think of it, are you doing the decent thing or the assholeish thing?)
C. Being good takes willpower and work, and even the best of us sometimes make the assholeish choice, because we’re tired, or we just got dumped, or we had to work late, or we have a pressure headache, or just because we don’t think it will hurt anyone. That’s why I think of the Doctor’s “Good men don’t need rules” speech from a few years ago as the definitive statement on this topic. If he’s following the rules for what’s good and right, if he’s “trying to be a good man” as Clara says at the episode’s end, then yes, he is a good man, or at least the closest thing there is to a good man in real life.
D. It’s not really clear what the episode’s definition of “good” is. What first starts Clara and the Doctor discussing the possibility of a “good Dalek” is that the captured one exclaims “Daleks must be destroyed!” So, it’s good, and even later called “moral”, because it has recognised that it’s race is unnatural and damaging to the universe, and so they need to be killed. So killing the irredeemable and murderous bad guys is good and moral?
Then why does the Doctor have such a problem with the human soldiers, who are referred to a s both a “resistance” and a “rebellion”, and are clearly fighting a losing battle against a more powerful Dalek force? And if the moral Dalek’s willingness to kill its own kind is what alerts the Doctor to its possibility for goodness, then why is he so disappointed at the end when it chooses to attack its fellow Daleks?
When the Doctor links minds with the Dalek, “good” is linked with seeing the beauty and perfection of life and the universe. And evil (or at least “not good”) is linked with the Doctor’s hatred of the Daleks. Except, he’s straight up seen the Daleks murder millions of people and dream up long lines of inhumane tortures and experiments. Hell, for a while there he thought they were (partially) responsible for blowing up his whole planet. Maybe he’s justified in hating them a liiiitttlle bit?
So it’s a little muddled, but the strongest argument “Into the Dalek” makes for what is “good” is seeing and recognising the beauty of the universe. This is supported by the eye motif that runs through the episode: Clara’s eye-blouse (connected to Capaldi’s eyebrows? Hmm), the design of the Dalek antibodies, the shots of the Dalek’s blue eye-light, the close up of Danny’s eyes as he cries, and most notably the fade-cut between the Dalek’s eyepiece lens and the eye of the mutant within the shell.
We mentioned briefly last week that all Doctor Who monsters are a system of rules. “Into the Dalek” puts a twist on the usual “It really wants to kill you and it’s really hard to stop” rules of the Dalek by sending the miniaturised Doctor and co. into the alien’s shell. Here the Dalek is less a monster and more a place, like a video game level: you’ve got to down to it’s core to fix the radiation leak, and then get up to the main hard-drive/brain before it kills all your friends outside and calls for reinforcements. Also if you dent the metal, shoot a grappling hook into the wall or just make too much of a disturbance, the Dalek’s antibodies will come and fry you. There’s even a garbage level, like in the Death Star (kinda).
Clara gets a subplot this week, flirting with new maths teacher and returned soldier Danny Pink. Danny seems like an alright guy, he’s a little awkward and big on reading, so I’m in his corner. But he’s also been a soldier, and has killed some people. “There were other soldiers and some of them weren’t on our side. I shall leave the rest to your imagination”, he tells one student who really, really shouldn’t be asking questions about this in the middle of class. His next question, about whether Danny has ever killed anyone who wasn’t a soldier, is even more inappropriate and shakes Danny enough that he cries slightly. Jesus, there’s a time and a place kid.
The conflict that’s been set up is that while Clara has no “rule against soldiers”, the Doctor does. He’s so strict on it that he refuses Journey’s request to come along with them, even though she seems great companion material aside from being a soldier: “I think you’re probably nice, underneath it all. I think you’re kind. You’re definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier”. So there’s gonna be some tension over Clara going out with a soldier. (In case the parallels aren’t clear, there’s a scene where Clara mentions to Journey Blue that she just met a Danny Pink).
Since this seems like a topic the show will return to and I’m banging up against my word limit I’ll leave the soldier question there for now, but suffice it to say there’s more than one kind of soldier, more than one context where soldiers are needed, and more than one motivation for choosing that life, and I’m not sure the Doctor tarring all soldiers with the same brush is something that can be justified. Like Danny says, “I like to think there’s a moral dimension”.
- So the Daleks have metal boxes in their heads that edit their memories and supress kindness and compassion. Maybe the Doctor should just work on a way to hack those en masse? It worked on the Cybermen and their emotion chips.
- Images that struck me this week: Clara and the Doctor wading through the bubbly, warping liquid of the Dalek’s eyepiece. The aforementioned cut between the Dalek’s eyepiece and it’s mutant eye. The crags and deep shadows of Capaldi’s face in the scene in the shrinking pod, contrasted with Jenna Coleman’s fresh face. The blue eye-lights of the invading Daleks showing up on an all black screen.
- “It’s smaller on the outside.” “Yeah, it’s a bit more exciting when you go the other way.”
- “This is Clara, she’s my assistant…no, some other word…” “I’m his carer.” “Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don’t have to.”
About the author: A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Germany and thinks you look very nice today.