‘Into the Dalek’, written by Phil Ford and Steven Moffat, continues to explore the nature of the 12th Doctor via his enemies. In this case the story revolves around whether the fundamental nature of a Dalek can be changed. Can they be good?
It is a dark, brutal story in which people die and there is a pervading sense of futility. This ensures that it is a tense, exciting tale that shows once again why the Daleks are one of the greatest foes within the series.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN!
The story starts with a shot not unlike that of ‘Star Wars’ with a tiny rebel ship fleeing a huge Dalek ship. The Doctor saves the pilot, Journey Blue, but not her brother. He makes no apology for this, telling her to stop crying and thank him.
This establishes, for this story at least, that this Doctor doesn’t mourn the deaths of those he can’t help. He is done dwelling on what more he could have done and expects people to be thankful for what he did do. He is practical and cold.
Taking Journey Blue to her hidden rebel ship (after she says please) the Doctor is introduced to the rebels prisoner, a Dalek. The twist being that this Dalek is so damaged that it apparently become good.
The central concept of the episode is one that the series has explored time and time again, dating right back to ‘The Power of the Daleks’. ‘Dalek’ explored the notion that they could rebel against their own nature and ‘Victory of Daleks’ had them act as eager to please servants until the Doctor revealed it was just a ruse. The excellent 8th Doctor audio ‘Dark Eyes’ also has an extended sequence that explores this wonderfully.
The Doctor’s need to discover if there can truly be a good Dalek stems from his own doubts about his current nature. Picking Clara up from Coal Hill school he asks whether she thinks he is good, only for her to be unable to give him a definitive answer. The real question being whether he’d still have helped the Dalek if she’d been able to give him an answer.
In a plot development that they acknowledge is taken from ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (in itself already referenced in ‘The Invisible Enemy’) the Doctor, Clara, Journey and two other soldiers (Gretchen and Ross) are shrunk down and injected into the Dalek (the title isn’t a metaphor, you see).
Their transition through the blue membrane of the eye stalk is wonderfully trippy. It is only a shame that despite the Doctor’s assurance, we see nothing further within the Dalek that rivals this visual.
Being inside a Dalek is no less dangerous than being outside of one, as Ross soon learns. Having accidentally damaged the interior he is swarmed by floating antibodies (similar to the security drones in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’).
This allows another demonstration of the Doctor’s nature. He throws a pill to Ross to swallow, who clearly hopes that this will save him. Instead he is disintegrated and the Doctor reveals that the pill he swallowed was radioactive and they can now track where his remains would be taken. The Doctor never intended to save him and instead uses the mans death to benefit himself.
The others confront the Doctor with this, as they subsequently find themselves in a chamber filled with liquidised dead. He makes jokes and tells them how the deaths of these people is a good thing (for them). For him so many people have died that one more doesn’t affect him.
Finding that the Daleks altered morality is due to a radiation leak the Doctor undoes the damage while the Dalek, now nicknamed Rusty, explains how seeing a star being born made it realise that for all the death his race has caused life would continue to be created. It was futile to resist life.
With the damage undone the Dalek reverts to its true nature, breaking free. Exterminating rebels it signals the Dalek mothership, revealing the location of the rebels. Once again the hopes of the Doctor have been dashed, the Daleks will always be evil.
Except Clara disagrees, slapping the Doctor for giving up hope. As the Daleks storm the rebels ship, exterminating everything in their path the Doctor and his companions make a perilous journey to reignite the spark that inspired Rusty to change sides.
This requires the sacrifice of Gretchen, something she does on the condition that something good come from her death. Tellingly this time the Doctor can’t bear to stay to watch her die.
The ill-fated Gretchen finds herself in heaven, greeted by Missy. In combination with the fate of the Half Face Man from ‘Deep Breath’ this further deepens the mystery of what is happening here. Is Missy collecting everyone that the Doctor is directly or indirectly responsible for killing?
With a plan made up on the fly Clara is able to successfully reactive the repressed memories from Rusty’s databanks as the Doctor gets up close and personal with the mutant, sharing his mind.
He hopes to show it the beauty of the universe but instead it hones in on his unending hatred for the Daleks. Influenced by the Time Lord it goes on a rampage, wiping out the invading Dalek horde.
The rebels have been saved but the Doctor isn’t happy, much to Rusty’s confusion. It looked within the Doctor and all it saw was hatred. This began with the Doctor trying to discover what type of man he is and he isn’t happy with the answer.
Despondent the Doctor returns Clara to Coal Hill school, 30 seconds after she left. Before she leaves she says that she doesn’t know if the Doctor is a good man, but that he tries and that is probably the point.
The message is that the Doctor isn’t perfect. There are many things that he does that could be considered bad and there are obviously great darkness within him him but unlike a Dalek he can decide for himself what he wants to be.
Capaldi and Coleman continue to impress. Peter Capaldi has the difficult job of having the Doctor being outright unlikeable in scenes but still shows his vulnerability (biting his thumb nervously as Gretchen asks him to justify her death) and Jenna Coleman bring patience and understanding to the role of Clara.
The supporting cast are also excellent. Zawe Ashton as Journey Blue takes us on an emotional rollercoaster, as her character looses a brother and is given no time to mourn before she is thrown into a dangerous mission in which her fellow soldiers are slain before her. At the climax she has to defy orders and put her faith in the unstable and callous Doctor.
It is shame that the Doctor doesn’t agree to take her with him at the end, based entirely on the fact that he wish she hadn’t been a soldier. The fact that Journey Blue is a rebel would suggest that she had no choice. It was either that or be a slave to the Daleks. Once again this Doctor decides what’s best for himself and not others.
The other actors playing soldiers are equally good. Colonel Morgan Blue, played by Michael Smiley, has ruthlessness to rival that of Capaldi’s Doctor. Ben Crompton as Ross and Laura dos Santos as Gretchen are minor characters but have enough of a presence that their characters deaths feel like they mean something.
This story introduces Danny Pink, played by Samuel Anderson, an ex-soldier and new teacher at Coal Hill school. He is an intriguing character, obviously tormented by his actions as soldier, shedding a tear when questioned if he had killed anyone who wasn’t a soldier.
I enjoyed the cutting back and fore between past and present as Danny beats himself up about what he should have said to Clara. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if he joins the TARDIS crew and actually does have the ability to revisit the past.
His introduction fits the larger theme of soldiers within the episode and that fact that Clara chooses him, knowing full well that the Doctor would reject him because of his background. It is only unfortunate that after an exciting start to the episode these sequences at Coal Hill school are rather slow, draining the momentum.
There were some problems with the episode. The central premise, that the Dalek was good, wasn’t really established for me. It still wanted to kill, just members of its own race. Even if they had established that it was good there was little they could do with it and even the knowledge that Daleks could be swayed wouldn’t do the rebels a lot of good in the short term.
Overall this was strong episode of self-examination. While there wasn’t much new introduced to the mythology of the Daleks they were well served in the story. The most important element introduced being that the Doctor began to define himself as an antithesis to them following their first encounter on Skaro.
I’m glad that this season hasn’t gone for any easy answers. The Doctor shouldn’t be perfect. A flawed character is much more interesting and makes the challenges he faces more real.
Is the Doctor a good man? We’ll have to see.