Hello Whovians and DAPs-devotees, and welcome back to the Doctor Who Review. Our titular character has a crisis of faith – both for himself and one of his most sworn enemies. Meeting with insane hope and despair, the Doctor goes into “the most dangerous place in the universe” only to have his convictions shaken and his fears confirmed. Without further ado, let’s journey ‘Into the Dalek.’ Warning, spoilers ahead!
The Doctor saves rebel fighter Journey Blue from a Dalek attack and returns her to the space station Aristotle, only to find himself asked of another task: to repair a war-torn Dalek crying out for the death of its own kind. Recruiting the caring Clara, the Doctor goes into the Dalek and finds more than he bargained for in his enemy. Is the Doctor finding the good he so desperately seeks in himself, or will the Dalek exterminate his hope along with the soldiers on the Aristotle?
‘Into the Dalek’ has some big shoes to fill, and not the way you’d think. Our last four adventures with the Doctor have been in the forms of a series finale, a 50th anniversary, a Christmas special, and the feature-length debut of a new Doctor. Normally I would pity the poor writer who would have to follow those acts, but cowriter Phil Ford both surprises and surpasses expectations in what I consider a much stronger introduction to the Doctor. While structurally very similar to a typical episode (problem with a twist, five-act structure, ending with a twist from original solution), ‘Into the Dalek’ handles an old enemy with new flair. It’s shocking to learn that while Ford is an established writer with a long track record for BBC, this is only his second stab at the TV series; I would not be surprised, given its reception and general approval, if this was far from his last.
As stated before, this seems like a better introduction to the Doctor in terms of establishing the new and reestablishing the old. There are a few traits still present in our favorite Gallifreyan: we see his typical timeliness (or lack thereof) in fetching coffee for Clara, his curiosity for the new and unexplained, and his age-old hatred for the Daleks. It is both reassuring and familiar to see a few constants in the Doctor while simultaneously learning new qualities about him, not all of them pleasant. He takes the loss of secondary characters with ease, a stark contrast from what we saw in the 10th and 11th Doctors. If anything, Capaldi seems to be drawing inspiration from Sylvestor McCoy’s 7th Doctor, who could play people like chess pieces while maintaining a likeable nature. It’s refreshing to see Capaldi manage a fine balance of dry wit and deep internal conflict, earning an equal number of laughs and gasps throughout the episode.
Clara’s continued growth as a character is always welcome. Despite last week’s criticism of her less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the Doctor’s regeneration, Clara has moved from being a relative plot device and mystery for the Doctor to solve to being a companion in her own right. Due in part to Jenna-Louise Coleman’s wonderful acting and more substantial writing, she is also becoming her own person in terms of story. She takes pride in her profession when speaking with Journey Blue and balances her day-to-day and adventures with the Doctor with ease, having a full life separate from Capaldi. Her problem-solving and hopeful nature also brings a lightness to the otherwise darker tone of the show. Transforming from an object of great mystery and importance to a fully-realized and confident person, Clara’s is becoming far more interesting this season than the entirety of her plot points (and plot holes) of the last.
While all of the supporting cast was phenomenal this episode, all eyes were readily fixed on Danny Pink, the newest recurring character on Doctor Who (aside from one other soon to follow). While having only about five minutes of screentime, Samuel Anderson managed to convey a very likeable, interesting, conflicted character without hamming it up or being dull. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Pink shows regret, social awkwardness, and a sense of humor that is both refreshing and realistic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum (both in color and tone) is Journey Blue, a battle-hardened fighter whose only regret is the loss of her brother. She is initially rude and slightly manipulative in handling the Doctor, a soldier willing to follow orders to the end before allowing herself hope and belief in the Doctor. This makes it all the more bittersweet when her request to join him is refused due to her being a soldier. While revisiting the character isn’t out of the question, it seems her secondary role in the story was to juxtapose with Danny Pink, which was a little more developed than poor Gretchen’s. Aside from being the often used self-sacrificing martyr for the Doctor’s plans, she has importance in two aspects: she elicits one of the funniest lines in the show from Clara (when asked if the Doctor is crazy or right, Clara responds “Hand on my heart, most days he’s both), and grants us a second look at the other recurring character of the season, Missy.
While I neglected to mention her in last week’s review, she garnered more of my attention and curiosity than I expected. Twice she has met with two characters who have met with on-screen deaths, welcoming them to Heaven/Paradise with a nonchalant air. Her supposed familiarity with the Doctor raises more questions: who is Missy in relation to the Doctor? What is her end-game? Is she really meeting with these characters on a higher-plane of existence (my skepticism of anything remotely religious in Doctor Who says no, but then again we did see the Doctor fight the proverbial Devil, so who am I to question). While not yet enraptured with the mystery of Missy, I am at least curious.
The Dalek is by far the most important aspect of this story: being a character, a set piece, and a metaphorical question of morality, the Dalek aka Rusty drives the very plot that is centered around it. While we have seen emotional Daleks before, none brought the very singular feeling of hope that Rusty does. Admittedly what sold me on the concept was seeing Capaldi’s otherwise skeptical and hardened character begin to believe it as well. It also brought an ironic and beautiful twist to the Daleks’ typical “resistance is futile,” bringing up the rarely thought of inevitability of life. It makes it all the sadder to see Capaldi’s worst fears made real when trying to give the Dalek new hope, only to have it focus on his own hatred for all Daleks despite his pleas of “there has to be more than that.” It brings more doubt to the Doctor, pontificating on his “Am I a good man?” While Clara does abet his worries by stating that what matters is him trying to be one, it’s doubtful that it will be the last time we hear him ask the question.
As stated before, this episode is a far stronger episode than last week’s: a better introduction to the Doctor, stronger primary and supporting characters, and a more developed moral dilemma made real. It brought out more thoughts and emotions in me than many feature-length specials and multi-episode story arcs. While Capaldi’s acting was on point in ‘Deep Breath,’ ‘Into the Dalek’ cemented him as the Doctor for me; his duality and complex handling of his character keeps my attention. The singular focus of the story as opposed to last week’s only strengthened his presence, giving us more time to get to know the Gallifreyan. And believe me, I definitely want to know more about him, now more than ever.