Sunday, August 31, 2014

More Than The Novelty, Doctor Who Succeeds Going “Into The Dalek!”

The Good: Good character development, Decent pacing, Good performances
The Bad: Somewhat silly plot conceit for the plot . . .
The Basics: An utterly unnecessary trip “Into The Dalek” makes for a strong, compelling philosophical episode of Doctor Who that helps strongly establish Peter Capaldi’s version of The Doctor!

Now that Peter Capaldi has taken up the mantle of The Doctor, my household is in a state of near-constant excitement. Capaldi is the first new Doctor since my wife became a Whovian and more or less dragged me into the fandom as well. That means that each little teaser trailer for the new season yielded a “stop everything, we have to watch this!” moment in our home. None of those trailers left my wife with more excitement than the one that had Capaldi’s first Doctor lines where he quietly asked his companion Clara, “Am I a good man?” Between learning that Capaldi was bringing a Bowie-esque take to The Doctor and that teaser, my wife was super-enthused for a month.

That line was not made just for the promos; it comes up in “Into The Dalek,” Peter Capaldi’s second full episode as The Doctor (whose number could be retconned at any moment, but is generally called the Twelfth Doctor). The new episode is “Into The Dalek” and while many fans I know were excited to see the Daleks return, Dalek episodes are, for me, quickly becoming stale. The once seemingly-unstoppable enemy never seems to die, was defeated in the past (early 20th century in a somewhat nonsensical two-parter), wiped out in the future, and was last seen blowing themselves up during the significant action of “The Day Of The Doctor” only to return the very next episode to bring about the long-awaited Siege Of Trenzalore in “Time Of The Doctor.” So, going into “Into The Dalek,” my expectations for the episode were pretty simple: I want to know how the Daleks exist in this incarnation of Doctor Who and if they will serve as a distraction or a key to The Doctor finding Gallifrey, a purpose that was neglected in “Deep Breath” (reviewed here!).

In the distant future, a small ship is being attacked by a Dalek mothership. Just as its captain, Journey Blue, is about to be killed, she materializes on the bridge of the TARDIS. Rescued by the Doctor, Journey Blue just wants to know where her brother and her command ship, The Aristotle, are. The Doctor returns Jenny to her hospital ship where the fact that he is a doctor earns him his survival (the captain wants to kill him for fear that he is a Triplicate). The Doctor recognizes a medical shrinking device before he is shown the patient the captain wants him to heal: a Dalek. The Dalek seems to recognize The Doctor instantly.

Clara is working at Coal Hill Secondary School, where she meets the new teacher, Danny Pink. Mr. Pink is a former soldier, who is shell-shocked from having killed and Clara takes a pretty instant fancy to him. Her potential for a date with him is interrupted by The Doctor, who pops back (three weeks after he abandoned her in Glasgow) to get her advice. Flashing back aboard the Aristotle, The Doctor learns that the Dalek is expecting medical assistance and that it was found adrift by the crew, who do not entirely understand its nature. The Doctor is equally confused by the Dalek; it wants to destroy the rest of the Daleks. Returning with Clara to the future, Clara and The Doctor go through the nanoscaler and into the Dalek’s shell. With a military team, the Doctor and Clara try to figure out why this Dalek is different and how to heal it. When one of the soldiers activates the Dalek “antibodies,” he is killed and the Doctor’s team runs to the organic waste disposal section of the Dalek. Tracing the problem with the Dalek to a radiation leak, the Doctor is able to heal the damaged Dalek . . . only to have it revert to its true nature!

“Into The Dalek” runs into similar conceptual problems to the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “One Little Ship” (reviewed here!). Both episodes try to take a somewhat ridiculous premise which plays better on a Saturday morning children’s cartoon and make it plausible in an adult science fiction show, namely miniaturizing people and having them fly about something or someone a similar size to their original one. The idea is an old one: ever since the 1966 science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage. The danger for an adult television context is simple: such a conceit naturally leads to the potential that the episode will just be a goofy, big-budget special effects-driven one-shot with little purpose outside creating spectacle. While “One Little Ship” played with the spectacle, it utilized the conceit well-enough to make for an enjoyable episode. “Into The Dalek” smartly avoids being a simple special effects show by keeping the conversation flowing and minimizing the battle sequences.

Instead of spending a great deal of time with the wonder that is the inside of the Dalek, the journey into Rusty (as The Doctor nicknames it) is rather quick. The Doctor does now dwell on how some of the wires he and Clara sees are actually blood vessels. Instead, the episode treads smartly toward the philosophical. Just as the first “modern” episode that involved Daleks, “Dalek” (reviewed here!) had the concept that combating the Daleks could be a philosophical war, “Into The Dalek” picks up the idea of converting Daleks. Much like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “I , Borg” (reviewed here!), the purpose of “Into The Dalek” is largely to change the terms of the conflict with the implacable, unstoppable, foe. In that regard, “Into The Dalek” works exceptionally well. Instead of being a physical conflict, “Into The Dalek” turns into a psychological conflict where epiphany and beauty become the best chance for humans to survive and succeed in the darkened future.

The Doctor might need more guidance in “Into The Dalek,” but he generally answers the question of whether or not he is a good man in the episode. Actually, one of the beautiful aspects of “Into The Dalek” is that the emotionally-conflicted nature of the Doctor is delightfully presented in the episode. The Doctor has anger within him at the Daleks and even at himself. Despite having a strong philosophical bent to his take on warfare, he has no real issue with killing by proxy (while he is happy to mind-meld with Rusty, the result is not to download the epiphany back to the Daleks to get them to stop . . . ). The character elements of “Into The Dalek” are good, though much of the episode seems to serve the purpose of differentiating the Doctor’s rules (not big on soldiers) from Clara’s (she has no issue with them).

Fortunately, once Rusty is repaired, the end of “Into The Dalek” is not telegraphed. The Daleks refer to the crew of the Aristotle as “rebels” and that makes no real sense . . . unless the entire crew is Daleks in human form who have left the Dalek order. That does not seem to be the case, though; the rebels are those who rebel against the Daleks, though that has not been established in the Whoniverse before now. So, the sacrifice of Gretchen Allison Carlyle is not a clever chance to reveal the true nature of the rebelling humans, just that Missy is going to continue to recur and swipe out of time and space significant people The Doctor encounters this season.

The trip into the exoskeleton of the Dalek largely serves as a conceit to make the Doctor’s conversation with the organic element of the Dalek seem more sensible. It’s a largely unnecessary conceit, but the episode’s other conceits – the mind-meld, the Dalek declaring that resistance is futile, etc. – have all been established fairly well before now. In fact, on the conceptual front, the only real issue with “Into The Dalek” comes from a few stray lines where the Doctor talks to Clara as if he was Strax (the line about Clara’s hips and looking like a man did not quite seem to fit). Unfortunately, the explanation for how this batch of Daleks survived the carnage that ended the Time War or the Seige Of Trenzalore is not at all addressed.

All that said, “Into The Dalek” has Peter Capaldi strongly defining himself as a morally-ambiguous Doctor who tries to do good and while there might be a debate as to how well he succeeds, his desire to safeguard the beauty that exists in the universe becomes one of his most compelling and likable traits.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and season reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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