Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 2 “Into The Dalek”
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Phil Ford, Steven Moffat
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson
Air date: Saturday, August 30, 2014, 9pm
Here we go again, indeed. This week on Doctor Who, we engage in a revisit of a foundational myth. Some critics have said that the show is at its greatest when it is willing to retcon its very beginnings. Here we see the attempt, yet again. William Hartnell’s second serial was called “The Daleks” and completed the definition of the four key elements of the show: the Doctor, the TARDIS, the companions, and the monsters. The Daleks are the first true monsters of the series and we learned what Doctor Who was about in 1963. Now, Phil Ford and Steven Moffat attempt to let a single Dalek show us what the series and a new actor playing the Doctor are about in 2014.
The results are ambiguous to some degree. The episode provided some very good moments for both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman to define their characters and their relationship. It also offered a chance to provide some social commentary. It pointed in some uncomfortable directions by exploring the equivalence of opposites. Yet, it did all this with a sometimes heavy hand and like much of the modern series felt rather rushed in places. The themes might better be explored in two parts, not one.
The episode presents a (mostly) intriguing series of parallels. The first is between Peter Capaldi and Paul McGann. “Into The Dalek” begins with a replay of “The Night Of The Doctor”: a fleeing ship, a woman pilot, and the Doctor attempting to save her from destruction. Where “Night” presented McGann as a conscientious objector in a war between his people and the Daleks, here Capaldi is more of calming, humanistic influence that viewers expect. Yet neither is particularly appealing to the woman he’s trying to save, at least at first. Cass dies in “Night” before she can change her mind about the Doctor. In “Into The Dalek,” the Doctor is more successful.
The next is between between Peter Capaldi and Tom Baker. In episode 6 of “Genesis Of The Daleks,” the Doctor is on a mission from the Time Lords to do one of three things: prevent the development of the Daleks, influence their creation to render them less vicious, or discover some inherent flaw in them by observing their development. When the destruction option is the only one available to the Doctor and he wires the Dalek biological incubator with explosives, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen have this memorable exchange:
The Doctor: Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right?
Sarah Jane Smith: To destroy the Daleks? You can’t doubt it.
The Doctor: Well I do! You see, some things could be better with the Daleks. Many future worlds will become allies just because of their fear of the Daleks.
Sarah Jane Smith: It isn’t like that!
The Doctor: But the final responsibility is mine, and mine alone. Listen, if someone who knew the future, pointed out a child to you and told you that child would grow up to be totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?
Sarah Jane Smith: We’re talking about the Daleks. The most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them! You must complete your mission for the Time Lords.
The Doctor: Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek.
Sarah Jane Smith: Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria, you’d destroy it. You wouldn’t hesitate!
The Doctor: But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.
The fourth Doctor questioned and ultimately rejected equivalence between himself and the Daleks.
This plays out rather uncomfortably against “Into The Dalek” where Rusty says at the end that the Doctor is a Dalek, albeit a good one. Does that mean that the Doctor stands diametrically opposed to the Daleks, believing with equal strength and intensity in the precepts of freedom, acceptance, and diversity as Tom Baker’s Doctor was? No. The lesson from the episode is that the Doctor holds just as much loathing and hate as the Daleks, to the point that he teaches Rusty that all Daleks must unequivocally be destroyed. It’s a disquieting change. In the Season 8 premiere, “Deep Breath,” the Doctor tells Clara that’s he’s over 2,000 years old and he’s made many mistakes, and it’s about time he does something about that. If redemption is a theme of this season, it hasn’t come yet.
Finally, there is the parallel between the Doctor and Clara. The Doctor saves a pilot called Blue, who asks to come with him in the TARDIS. The Doctor rejects her saying that while she probably is a nice person, she’s a soldier, too. At the same time, Clara meets a fellow teacher at Coal Hill School named Pink who is a veteran (presumably of the recent conflicts in the Middle East). After he fails to ask her out, she asks him. When he wonders if she has a rule against soldiers, she pointedly remarks, “No, I don’t.”
Ultimately, this episode deals with themes of war and acceptance. The Doctor loathes and fears to the point that he creates a war between one Dalek and the rest of its race. At the same time, the Doctor rejects militarism in anyone joining him in the TARDIS. Clara is now defined as the Doctor’s moral compass; he calls her “not my assistant, my carer” because she does the caring that he won’t. Indeed, she is the one who teaches him that the even temporary existence of a good Dalek is an important thing. When it comes to soldiers, however, she does not reject militarism. Who is the better person? Who is the better society? What does fear of terrorism and conflicts abroad do to a culture and to people?
This is awfully big stuff, and it would be nice if the story had more time to develop and play with these questions. The script scores some points through a few key exchanges, and the sketched outlines of a few key relationships. There is courage, loyalty, and sacrifice, but not huge amount of subtlety. I’d like to know more of the story of Journey Blue to understand why she did what she did; we very likely will be hearing and seeing more from Danny Pink as the season continues.