Sunday 31 August 2014

Reviews in Time & Space: Into the Dalek

Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 2: Into the Dalek

Poor old Daleks, they haven't had much luck in the new run of Doctor Who have they? After Rob Shearman showed just how powerful a single Dalek could be in the phenomenal 2005 episode Dalek, the Doctor's most feared adversary have gone on to be beaten by a poorly executed deus ex machina TWICE (Parting of the Ways and The Stolen Earth/Journey's End), gatecrash a Cyberman finale and then play second fiddle to Rose's long-winded goodbye (Doomsday), be turned in human hybrids (Daleks in Manhatten/Evolution of the Daleks), be rebooted in new cases that are instantly retconned (Victory of the Daleks) and finally put in a story where they get the Doctor to do something because they're too scared to do it themselves (Asylum of the Daleks). And that's without even getting started on the stone Dalek that appeared in The Big Bang...

With such a poor repertoire after such a strong introductory episode in the new series, its no wonder that fans are crying out for the Daleks to be retired from the show for a few years. Yet they still remain Doctor Who's most popular monster, and after some rather good minor appearances in Day and Time of the Doctor its time to wheel them out once again for their first face off against the 12th Doctor. Ladies and gentlemen, its time to go Into the Dalek...

The Doctor comes face to face with his patient
The Doctor is in

After saving space pilot Journey Blue from a Dalek attack on her space shuttle, the Doctor arrives on the rebel space shuttle 'Aristotle'. Once the crew acknowledge him as a doctor, he is introduced to their one patient - a Dalek so heavily damaged its gone good. Refusing to believe there could be a good Dalek but curious about the situation in front of him, the Doctor returns to Earth to pick up Clara before taking up the challenge. However the Doctor still has one important question lingering on his mind - is he a good man?

To find out what's "wrong" with the Dalek, the Doctor and Clara have to travel to the most dangerous place in the universe - inside the Dalek itself. Shrunk down to microscopic size, it's time to take a look at the Daleks like you never have before - not only finding out what makes a good Dalek, but also what makes a good Doctor.

Doctor, Clara and co take a microscopic journey
Into the belly of the beast

Into the Dalek isn't really a story that's going to win any awards for originality. The concept of a good Dalek is one that's been explored repeatedly throughout Doctor Who - from the humanised Daleks of 1967's The Evil of the Daleks to Dalek and shortly afterwards Dalek Sec and Dalek Caan. Graphic novels have even explored the idea, with the fantastic The Only Good Dalek from Justin Richards and Mike Collins being one of the most recent examples. And besides obviously ripping on the 1966 film The Fantastic Voyage ("Great idea for a movie, rubbish idea for a "), there are also obvious traces of previous Who episodes The Invisible EnemyLet's Kill Hitler and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. However the whole miniaturing thing is a wonderful throwback to the most retro of science fiction plot lines, and seeing exactly what makes a Dalek tick is something never really explored by the show before. We've been told plenty of times, but this is the first time we get it witness it.

After so many stories of grandiose schemes, its refreshing to see a Dalek story where things and kept nice and simple. Outside of the plight of Rusty (the Doctor-coined nickname of the sick Dalek), the Daleks are only here to do one thing - destroy. There's no reality bombs, no army of human-Dalek zombies - just a fleet of Daleks wanting to kill everything in sight. And as simple as that is, it really works. It helps remind the audience that Daleks can't be reasoned with and don't always have a bigger reason for the things they do. If you aren't a Dalek, you are an enemy that needs to be taken care of. Also notable is the lack of any mention of the Time War, Gallifrey or the last of the Daleks. Victory of the Daleks may seem like a forgotten footnote in Dalek history now, but its significance in bringing the Daleks back as a constant threat is still very much remembered.

The Daleks begin their onslaught
A good old fashioned Dalek attack

Into the Dalek also further divulges just how different the 12th Doctor is from his predecessors. A man that would once face the deadliest of enemies with a childish smile and eternal optimism, this is a Doctor that takes the more shorter approach. We see this time and time again, from him momentarily berating Journey for not thanking him for saving her life to leading a soldier to believe he was going to be saved when in reality he was 'already dead' and just saving everyone else - even going as far as telling said person to trust him. Then later, when the shrunken group arrive in the Daleks' protein banks (where they have been informed their deceased friend now resides processed into food) his response is a rather cold "He's the top layer if you want to say a few words." This is a VERY different Doctor to the ones seen over the last ten years, and perhaps even going back further than that. He's still the hero of the story, but his actions aren't always heroic. Capaldi's Doctor is one that takes seems to take the practical approach to things, looking at the bigger picture and rarely stopping to take a moment for the ones that have fallen beside him. Its as unsettling as it is engaging, and continues to pave the path of a much darker Doctor.

The Doctor continues to be a very different man
Bedside manner not included

And of course, the subject of a darker Doctor is something that works perfectly with the subject of a good Dalek. Way back in Dalek Christopher Eccleston's Doctor was coldly told he would make a good Dalek, and once again that phrase rears its head with powerful consequences. Most importantly we can conclude that a good Dalek isn't necessarily a good thing, and that arguably there may not be such thing as a good Dalek at all. Once again the Doctor is given hope that he can change his mortal enemies for the better, and just as it looks like he's done it that hope is snatched away from underneath him. This is exactly why the Daleks have made such an impact on Doctor Who and science fiction as a whole. The design may seem completely outdated now, but their relentless and the futility in thinking they'll ever be anything other than Daleks is what keeps them scary.

Clara meanwhile continues her growth as a character, proving that an older man has done nothing but good for the Doctor/companion dynamic. After taking low level insults from the Doctor to literally having to slap him into action, it seems Clara still has quite a lot to learn about this new man. Whilst other companions would have jumped at the opportunity to say how good of a man the Doctor is, Clara is only able to muster up that he at least tries to be one - and that is at the end of the episode. It may be slightly unsettling for us as an audience, but standing next to the man while he watches people die without a flicker of emotion must be all the more disturbing. Regeneration sure can be a doozy.

The Dalek immune system attacks
A Dalek immune system

Finally this episode also introduces a new recurring character to the world of Doctor Who - Coal Hill School maths teacher Danny Pink, as played by Samuel Anderson. Though not playing a part in the main story of this episode, we do learn a few things about this new arrival. Mr Pink is a former soldier, and judging by his reactions to questions from student may have killed someone who wasn't an enemy soldier - something he holds great remorse for if the single tear rolling down his face was any indication of. It isn't exactly the most original of backstories for a character in a modern TV drama, but still a very relevant one that clashes well with the Doctor himself, who seems more prejudice against soldiers than ever. The seeds have already been sown for a potential romance between him and Clara, with Clara even acknowledging she doesn't share the same prejudice as the Doctor (who earlier refused Journey's plea of joining him on the grounds she was a soldier). It wasn't an especially strong debut for Mr Pink, but it wasn't a bad one either - leaving plenty of interest and speculation on how things are going to play out for him, Clara and the Doctor.

Doctor Who's newest recurring character
Meeting Mr Pink

I don't think Into the Dalek will go down as one of the all-time classic Dalek stories, but its certainly one of the better ones the modern series of Doctor Who has had to offer. It's no Dalek by any stretch of the imagination, but puts a unique spin on the Dalek psyche and what makes a Dalek without having to fundamentally change what a Dalek is. The Daleks are at their very best, the Doctor is a captivating watch and the ending provides dark chills that keep the Time Lord's greatest enemy at the top of the game. After this I'm more inclined to agree that the pepper pots need a brief hiatus in order to keep their effectiveness in check, but unlike Asylum this is a much better story for them to go out on.

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