TV Review: Doctor Who – Into the Dalek (S8, E2)

Into the Dalek - 1

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Steven Moffat & Phil Ford
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Zawe Ashton, Michael Smiley, Samuel Anderson, Laura dos Santos, Ben Crompton & Nicholas Briggs

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb1bZ-9Pfbk]

It’s been so long since we last saw a “normal” episode of Doctor Who that I was beginning to forget what they were like. Up until this weekend, the most recent bunch of episodes have all been major “event television” – the 50th anniversary, Matt Smith’s swansong, Capaldi’s feature-length debut – and so it’s nice, irrespective of quality, to see an episode that takes the show back to its simple, televisual roots. That such an episode features the Daleks, undoubtedly Doctor Who’s most infamous and recognisable villains, suggests a minor lack of confidence on behalf of the writers in what they’re doing, though who can deny the inherent thrill in seeing Capaldi’s darker, fiercer, snarkier Doctor taking on such an iconic villain so early into his tenure?

Riffing off very similar ideas to 2005’s “Dalek”, “Into the Dalek” is a character-driven morality tale about what happens when a creature whose entire make-up predestines it to be evil is damaged to such an extent that it accidentally turns “good”. The Doctor, having been asked to “fix” said Dalek by a bunch of rebel fighters who he just so happens to have stumbled upon during his travels, calls on Clara (Coleman) to help him as, in a loving homage to 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, he is shrunk so that he can go “into the Dalek” (never accuse the title of being misleading…) and fix its apparent fault. An obvious twist or two later, the Daleks are back to their terrifying best after years of overuse left them looking pretty feeble and pathetic, while Capaldi’s Doctor is forced to acknowledge the malevolence and hatred – traits we normally associate with the Daleks – within himself.

One of the most notable things about this episode is that it’s the first one in about two years that feels like it’s the “right” length. Almost every single episode in Matt Smith’s final series was about five minutes too short, while all of the feature-length episodes overstretched themselves to breaking point. “Into the Dalek”, by contrast, is the perfect length for its story. The moral dilemmas could’ve done with being fleshed out a little more, as they were rather simplistic in the grand scheme of things, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the scenes involving Clara’s new “love interest” Danny Pink (Anderson), but the episode still felt like a complete whole; one, crucially, that was just as interested in its story as it was in the grand, pseudo-philosophical ideas behind it.

Doctor Who Series 8

Like last week, it is Capaldi who is the real stand-out, and it’s already pretty obvious to me that his Doctor will be one for the ages. The questions about the damaged Dalek’s sense of morality juxtaposed nicely with Capaldi’s colder, blunter Doctor. When characters die, “Twelve” (for that is his number, despite Moffat’s attempts to confuse things out of all recognition last Christmas) is at best nonchalant, at worst annoyed at the lack of gratitude shown to him by the characters who he managed to save. His “human” side, which was so important in both the Tennant and the Smith years, seems to be hugely understated in Capaldi’s take on the character, though not to the extent that you cannot make a connection with him. His coldness is dark, sure, but it’s also humorous, and – without wishing to reduce Capaldi’s marvellous career to a single role – rather “Tuckeresque”. For example;

Doctor: “I materialised the time capsule exactly around you and saved your life, one second before your ship exploded but do please keep crying.”
Journey: “My brother just died!”
Doctor: “Your sister didn’t. You’re very welcome”

Exchanges like this mark a significant shift from the more childish humour of the Smith-era, though with Capaldi’s Doctor one gets the impression that this bleak, near-pessimistic sarcasm masks a genuine malice, recognised by the Dalek in the episode’s final act, which makes for one of the most complex incarnations of the Doctor to date. On the one hand, you recognise just how much he cares about the people he loves. His relationship with Clara feels stronger than ever, not least because she’s finally been given a personality of her own that isn’t wholly dependent on the Doctor, while his acknowledgment of the evil men can do – which stands in contrast to the “good” that a Dalek can apparently do – makes him treat random humans with the contempt they no doubt deserve.

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“Into the Dalek” isn’t perfect, but Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor is. The chemistry he has with Jenna Coleman makes for a Doctor-companion dynamic that we haven’t really seen since Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper were together, and though the writing still isn’t as strong as it could be, it feels like things are moving in the right direction after a series of ambitious, adventurous but rather flawed outings for everyone’s favourite anti-hero. Like Ford’s previous episode, “The Waters of Mars”, “Into the Dalek” deals with a Doctor who is nominally good, but only by his own terms, and then examines the more malicious, self-serving character beneath the façade. More episodes like this would be greatly appreciated, as it does feel like a part of the Doctor’s personality has been lost as the show’s global popularity has exploded and it’d be nice to see him for the callous fucker we all know he can be once again.

A vast improvement over last week’s episode, which I enjoyed but wasn’t completely bowled over by, for me “Into the Dalek” is the best episode since “The Girl Who Waited”, which is almost three years old now. If “Deep Breath” left you worried then this one should assuage most of your fears about where the series is headed. I just hope we get a few episodes that don’t include any references to the series arc now, as that’s already getting a tad irritating…

★★★★

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