After last week’s season opener, which cushioned the shock of the new Doctor by putting him into a story which was full of the characters and trappings of his predecessor’s time, the real era of Peter Capaldi starts with “Into the Dalek.” Writer Phil Ford, who took David Tennant’s Doctor into unfamiliar and uncomfortable psychological places in 2009’s “The Waters of Mars,” provides a tale that gives Capaldi the opportunity to show how different his Doctor is from Matt Smith’s.
His companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), is certainly left in no doubt that the Doctor’s life no longer centers around her. After being sent off to fetch coffee at the end of the last episode, he doesn’t rejoin her for three weeks. He’s found something of more immediate interest, as he uses the TARDIS to rescue Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton), a member of a far-future group of human soldiers fighting against a superior Dalek force. In fact, it seems he only returns to Clara because he wants something from her: the answer to the question, “Am I a good man?” The series (particularly since the revival in 2005) has made great play out of the idea that the Doctor’s human companions are there to provide his moral compass, and this new Doctor decides he needs Clara’s presence as he deals with what he was shown aboard the soldiers’ ship: an injured Dalek which has developed a strange malfunction (it proclaims that all Daleks must be destroyed). And so he takes Clara to the ship, introducing her as his “carer” (“She cares, so I don’t have to”).
It was showrunner and co-writer Steven Moffat who contributed the idea that the title of the episode should be literally true, with the Doctor, Clara, and some of the soldiers being miniaturized and sent inside the Dalek to find the cause of the malfunction. However, director Ben Wheatley eschews anything like the psychedelic visuals of 1966’s Fantastic Voyage; the inside of the Dalek appears as simply a rather grimy industrial environment of the sort often used in Doctor Who to depict old spaceships or underground bases. The Doctor gets another chance to show off his new hard-nosed pragmatism, when one of the soldiers rather foolishly triggers an attack of “antibodies,” and rather than futilely try to save him, the Doctor uses his death to locate a way into the inner chambers.
It turns out that an internal radiation leak has somehow interfered with the Dalek’s systems that suppress all memories and experiences that would corrupt its fundamental purpose of destroying all non-Dalek life. Unable to deal with the endless renewing of non-Dalek life in the universe as stars are born and new species evolve, it effectively falls prey to despair (and I loved the way the story introduced a new spin on the creatures’ frequent catchphrase, “Resistance is futile”). The Doctor easily fixes the leak (“An anticlimax once in a while is good for my hearts”), but then finds himself with a much bigger problem as the Dalek immediately comes back to itself. It’s a clever counterpoint to the seminal 2005 episode “Dalek”: Again, an isolated, injured Dalek is restored to its true nature by a misguided act of compassion, whereupon it breaks free and begins an unstoppable killing spree.
Capaldi and Coleman are compelling as Clara sharply rebukes the Doctor for taking a grim satisfaction in having “proven” his contention that a “good” Dalek is an impossibility—rather like the way Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper clashed in the earlier episode. Clara shows he was right to bring her along, as she prompts him to realize that if they can undo the Dalek’s memory suppression, he can get into its mind and attempt direct communication with it. The science of all this doesn’t stand more than the slightest examination (the restoration of the suppressed memories is basically handled by showing Clara crawling through some tubing to switch on a few lights), but it’s worth it for the intensity of the Doctor’s speech to the Dalek as he shares his mind. Even better is what happens next: The Dalek fixates on the Doctor’s hatred of its kind and absorbs it into itself. Capaldi shows the Doctor’s horror and disgust as perhaps the most memorable line from the 2005 episode (“You would make a good Dalek”) is now proven to be true; infused with the Doctor’s hatred, the Dalek remains an implacable killing machine, but now focused on killing other Daleks. It quickly destroys the attacking Dalek force and saves the humans’ ship, but as it leaves to continue its crusade against its own kind, the Doctor’s victory seems very hollow.
Another strand of this thematically rich episode touches on the Doctor’s attitude to soldiers in general. This is something the series has often been somewhat hypocritical about: The Doctor might be reluctant to wield a weapon himself, and (as shown here) tends to disparage those who use them, but he’s no pacifist, and is quite willing to take advantage of military help—notably in the 1970s, when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor had a close association with the UNIT organisation. Unknown to him, Clara has met Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), a fellow teacher at her school who’s an ex-soldier with evidently something traumatic in his past. Their initial encounter is played for comedy, but they are obviously on course to develop a deeper relationship. At the end of the episode, Clara is brought up short when Danny wonders if she has “a rule against soldiers”—an implied criticism of the Doctor, who rejected Journey Blue’s request to be a companion on no better grounds. I suspect Danny will cause the Doctor a certain amount of discomfort when they finally meet, and look forward to it.
Next Week: A more light-hearted outing, as the Doctor and Clara pay a visit to medieval times and encounter a certain notorious outlaw, in “Robot of Sherwood.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: A previous homage to Fantastic Voyage can be found in the 1977 story that introduced K9, the Doctor’s fondly remembered robotic dog: “The Invisible Enemy,” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson.
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