Into the Dalek Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the second episode of Series 8.
Plot-wise, “Into the Dalek” offers nothing new, blatantly copying the basic premise of Fantastic Voyage, a meta reference that it’s a “fantastic idea for a movie” serving as its plea for forgiveness. However, by placing the episode directly following “Deep Breath” – the Doctor having now “fetched” the aforementioned coffee – Phil Ford and Steven Moffat also use their script to further examine the Twelfth Doctor’s character, making the episode richer than the flimsy premise merits.
When the Doctor asks Clara for an answer that is “honest, cold, and considered, without kindness or constraint” – words that could never have described the Eleventh Doctor (or the Tenth, or even the Ninth) – Ford and Moffat are actually defining this incarnation’s personality. These are his values, now, and they’re evidenced by the Doctor’s quips crossing from “careless” to “caustic.”
However, despite his new demeanor, “Into the Dalek” demonstrates that the Doctor’s defining character traits remain the same, including his inherent desire to make people better. “No, no, come on. Not like that . . . . Get it right,” he demands of Journey, even though she has a gun pointed at him, and is in shock over the loss of her brother. “Will you take me back to my ship . . . please?” she responds. This isn’t just a lesson in manners, but in conflict resolution, negotiation, and tempering violence. This is how the Doctor initially tries to solve problems, not with screwdriver-induced explosions, but with insight, and with words. Note that, upon rescuing Journey, his first priority is not to destroy the attacking Dalek saucer, but to ensure Journey’s safe return to the Aristotle. Further, in the episode’s third act, the Doctor appeals to Journey’s humanity, reminding her that, “Soldiers take orders,” and encouraging her to think for herself:
The Doctor: “A Dalek is a better soldier than you will ever be. You can’t win this way.”
Journey: “So, what do we do?”
The Doctor: “Something better.”
That so much of “Into the Dalek” demonstrates the positive effect the presence of the Doctor has on others, the conclusion to Journey’s story even is more heartbreaking. What a terrifically wasted opportunity! Journey has the best introduction and reason to join the TARDIS crew than anyone since Martha, and could have been the best example of a companion fulfilling the Doctor’s mantra of becoming extraordinary since Rose or Donna. Plus, her name is “Journey” – how is that not perfect for a companion? It’s as on-the-nose as, say, the War Doctor having an assistant named “Ash.” “Nice,” “kind,” “brave” – and obviously capable – the Doctor has taken on far worse companions than Journey, before. Leaving Journey to regret her station in life was a terrible action, and against the Doctor’s message of doing the right thing.
Why does the Twelfth Doctor have such contempt for soldiers? It would be an understandable prejudice from, say, Nine, or Ten, who would remember the War Doctor as the soldier who destroyed Gallifrey, but, after the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” the disdain makes little sense. Further, the aversion is contradictory to continuity as six out of nine modern-day companions – Rose, Jack, Mickey, Martha, Amy, and Rory (and also Wilf, Strax, and probably Vastra, not to mention Kate Stewart, and the oft-mentioned-as-of-late Brigadier) – have had ties to the military, or have been classified as soldiers.
Beyond further examining the Doctor, “Into the Dalek” is notable for, well, not redefining the Daleks. While the frequent recurrence of the Doctor’s most-recognizable foes has yielded diminishing returns – and, yes, this episode was a shameless tactic to get an audience, unsure of Capaldi as the Doctor, to return for his second episode – it is not because the Daleks appear to be too easily defeated, but because many of their episodes are terrible. “Daleks in Manhattan”/”Evolution of the Daleks,” “Victory of the Daleks,” and “Asylum of the Daleks” all focused on reimagining the Daleks over embracing their nature as irrationally hate-filled, seemingly-unstoppable war machines, resulting in sub-par episodes. The Daleks haven’t been truly terrifying since Series 4’s “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End” and “The Waters of Mars.” While “Into the Dalek” is an unconventional Dalek episode, in that the titular Dalek is more the setting and less the threat, its script includes lines like, “We don’t need hospitals, now. The Daleks don’t leave any wounded,” and images of a Dalek platoon invading the Aristotle to remind the audience that the Daleks are truly terrifying when they aren’t serving tea.
Unfortunately, unlike the Daleks, Clara’s character is written as inconsistent. For every uncharacteristically-harsh “Where the hell have you been?” there is a moment where she answers the Doctor’s “Am I a good man?” question with chosen sincerity – a mark of true friendship, which has been largely missing from the Doctor/companion dynamic since Clara’s arrival. “Hand on my heart, most days he’s both,” is a fantastic circular reference, as Clara is asked to be decidedly honest about the Doctor’s nature, at two points in the same episode.
However, Clara’s slapping the Doctor is especially jarring. Of course, she would be angry, having been placed in mortal danger, seemingly on the Doctor’s erratic whim. Her comment, “We’re going to die in here, and there’s a tiny piece of you that’s pleased. The Daleks are evil after all, everything makes sense, the Doctor is right!” is wildly accurate in its description of the Doctor’s motives. However, one defining characteristic of Clara’s (and there aren’t many) is that she is resourceful with her words; such a physical reaction seems out of place.
Most frustratingly, the script for “Into the Dalek” doesn’t capitalize on Clara’s unique aspects to further the story, relegating her to her usual, stock-companion role:
The Doctor: “You need to get up there, find that moment, and reawaken it.”
Clara: “Me? . . . How?”
The Doctor: “Haven’t the foggiest. Do a clever thing. And when you’ve done it, the Dalek will be suggestible to new ideas. It will be open again. And I will show it something that will change its mind forever!”
The episode doesn’t even bother to make this plot point sensible; as resourceful as she is, how could a miniaturized Clara be able to rewire the alien Dalek circuitry? This is a shame, because the narrative has already given us a perfectly good reason to expect Clara’s success: she had her mind filled with computer knowledge in “The Bells of Saint John.” Mentioning this would not only have been a nice reference of continuity, but it actually would have furthered Journey and Gretchen’s storylines, as it would provide a reason for Gretchen’s sacrifice and for Journey’s request to travel with the Doctor. (“Wait – you’ve had your mind rewired and you still trust and follow him?” “Yes, he’s that amazing!”) Instead, the episode includes this line, “Of course! It’s a brain! Brains work with electrical pathways linking up memories. It’s working! We’re turning the memories back on!” The dialogue is embarrassing, and it is evident that even actress Jenna Coleman doesn’t believe what she is saying.
It is especially fitting that Clara chides the Doctor for not considering the possibility of a “good Dalek.” Oswin, the “good Dalek” from “Asylum of the Daleks” was later revealed to be a time-splintered aspect of Clara, a plot point the script fails to mention. Unfortunately, by neglecting this point, Clara’s final encounter with Danny Pink lacks a deeper layer of uncertainty. Having just seen the Doctor reject someone because they were a soldier, Clara is surprised to see that, maybe, she has those preconceptions, too. Could she also be pondering that, if she’s like the Doctor, and he’s like a Dalek, then she draws uncomfortably close to Oswin’s character? Exactly how different are Clara’s time-splintered selves?
Just as with Clara’s role, the introduction of Danny Pink is both brimming with clever possibility and flawed in its execution. The scene where Danny tears up, ostensibly having remembered killing a non-soldier, in the past, isn’t believable. Not only does he seem so emotionally raw as to not be able to survive the job interview necessary to teach children, but many details of the scene aren’t quite thought through. Danny’s such a new teacher at Coal Hill that Clara’s never met him, yet he’s already sponsoring an extracurricular activity (during which Clara all-too-coincidentally arrives). He’s been asked if he’s killed someone so often that the class groans from the repetition, yet he’s only now falling apart. Possibly, it’s the start of a new school year, but why then is Cathy only now leaving? Yes, technically, Fleming’s question was differently phrased, but, surely, the flashback that it triggered would arise either way. And, perhaps, an ex-soldier of his emotional fragility shouldn’t be in charge of the Coal Hill Cadets?
Those quibbles are forgivable, though, because of what Ford and Moffat accomplish next. As Danny and Clara meet, the scene jumps back and forth in time, telling the story out of order, giving better insight into Danny’s mind. While it is not unusual for a plotline to flash backwards in time to reveal preceding causal events (as, in fact, occurs in this episode), it is unusual to more than foreshadow future events. (Is Danny’s defensive denial that he is a “ladykiller” really a hint at his past?) For a show about time travel to experiment with linearity in such a figurative, symbolic manner adds an amazing, metaphorical layer to the narrative.