Doctor Who #949: Into the Dalek

"She's my... not my assistant, what's the word?" "Carer?" "Yes, she's my carer: she cares so I don't have to."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Aug.30 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Clara find themselves inside of a supposedly good Dalek. First appearance of Danny Pink.

While getting shrunk and injected into an organism or machine is a fairly silly notion in SF, it's a good old Doctor Who tradition. It started with a TARDIS malfunction back in the Hartnell era (Planet of Giants) and has popped up several times since (Carnival of Monsters, The Armageddon Factor, and very recently, Let's Kill Hitler, et al.). Inside the Dalek's closest cousin, however, is The Invisible Enemy, in which the fourth Doctor and Leela (or really, they're temporary doubles) were miniaturized and injected into the Doctor's own brain so they could face down an alien virus. While walking around a mechanical construct seems more realistic than the surreal imagery The Invisible Enemy sometimes gave us, the "anatomy" is just as absurd - light impulses traveling down the eye stalk, big buttons you can slap to restore repressed memories, that kind of thing. The wrinkle is that this is apparently a "good" Dalek, by which we can only mean it's on our side. It's still filled with hatred, still a killing machine. It just wants to destroy other Daleks, that's all. A malfunction made it experience the beauty of the universe, and now it wants to stop Daleks from destroying that beauty. Is that doing bad to do good? It's an ambiguity mirrored in the Doctor. When he fixes the Dalek, it makes the Dalek evil again and start killing people. He's done a good thing that resulted in a bad thing. When he asks a man to trust him, while knowingly allowing him to be killed, he saves everyone else's lives. He's done a bad thing to do a good thing. Doc10 would have made the same decision telling the victim he was sorry, so sorry. No "human" niceties with 12. And it's his own hatred of the Daleks "Rusty" takes away from their mindmeld, reinforcing the killing machine's evil strain and destroying any chance that other Daleks can be "turned". He made it an ally, but couldn't save its soul.

Absent the lunacy of the post-regenerative story, Capaldi's Doctor is cool and collected, doles out quick and acerbic wit, and shares an electric alien-ness with Tom Baker's portrayal of the fourth Doctor. We're definitely in "you're a beautiful woman, probably" territory here when it comes to Clara, and he can't even be counted on to recognize any given human being. His callousness is born of pragmatism, but also from an inability to empathize with human emotion. And it scares the hell out of him. What would it be like to lose one's moral compass? Not gradually, through experience, but suddenly, as if from head trauma? That's why the Doctor needs Clara to evaluate him, to keep him on the right track, because he doesn't trust himself to. He wants to be the man he once was, the man who went to Skaro and saw evil and was repelled by it, but finds that evil in himself now. The Dalek reflects it back at him, and we get a shade of Doc9's own hatred of the Daleks (in "Dalek") with a similar line about being a "good Dalek". The Doctor has always been a killing machine; it's just that he's been on our side. I don't think we've seen such grave doubts in him before though. The new dynamic between the Doctor and Clara is that she's his TEACHER, not the other way around, and it's my very favorite thing about Season 8. The big hero moment isn't when the Doctor convinces the Dalek to "turn" - a Pyrrhic victory at best - but when Clara tests him and asks if he's learned the right lesson from these events. No matter how brilliant, the 12th Doctor is still a child, at least emotionally and morally, and every voyage through time and space with Ms. Oswald is a field trip. Love it.

And it all harks back to the inception of the series in 1963. There too the Doctor traveled with a pair of teachers, and though the program didn't stress the point overtly, they too taught him how to be "human". It's notable that Clara works at the same school and that in this very episode, she meets a maths teacher, Danny Pink, with whom she has an immediate attraction. He fills Ian Chesterton's spot to her Barbara Wright (maths for science and English for history), and like Ian, Danny has known military service. Unlike Ian, and this is 50 years of our own time passing, he also has PTSD and woman-induced anxiety. (Not surprisingly, Moffat writes the courtship as if these two were Susan and Steve from Coupling; your mileage may vary.) We're going to see a lot more of the school as their relationship progresses, in line with the theme of Clara acting as the Doctor's tutor. Danny's history as a soldier will also feature prominently, and in this episode, the theme is broached through a different soldier with a colorful name - Journey Blue. At first, she's just the umpteenth target of the Doctor's criticism of the military mind (forcing her to use "please" as an alternative to gunpoint is a nice bit), but by the end, she's become something more. Like the Dalek, she's a reflection of Doctor's own sins. When she asks to come along, the Doctor rejects her, but in the context of the story, he might as well be talking to himself. Clara has no such rule regarding soldiers, but then, how could she when she willingly stays by the Doctor's side. The compassionate soldier is her type.

"Nobody guards the dead", the Doctor says. Foreshadowing the finale? Tying in with the Missy subplot and how she's having tea and crumpets with all the souls the Doctor's touched? One question: What great thing will the Doctor do to honor Gretchen Carlisle's name? He made a promise to keep her name alive in tribute to her sacrifice, so I'm keeping my ears peeled for something called "Carlisle" in the show's future.

More Heart of Darkness than Fantastic Voyage. The premise may be a little silly, but the story takes us into the Doctor's psyche and redefines his relationship to the companion. Capaldi is proving a force to be reckoned with.


Anonymous said...

They do lean pretty heavily into the Doctor's dislike of soldiers this season, exploring his relationship to commanders and to the commanded. I don't imagine it's a spoiler if I conclude that it was largely a reaction to one of RTD's tropes, about how the Doctor creates his own little army and moves them around like toy soldiers. Which was an argument that never held water with me in the first place: the Doctor fights when there is no other choice, and (except for the War Doctor) has never made a point of deliberately seeking out conflict. Dude just has terrible luck picking vacation spots.

Toby'c said...

"More Heart of Darkness than Incredible Journey."
I'm think you mean Fantastic Voyage.

Madeley said...

The Clara/Doctor relationship was definitely the highlight of the season for me, too. Not only pupil/teacher, but also maternal, implicitily here but more explicit as the series goes on. I love the way they subvert his paternal aspects as old man to young companion by making her a kind of mother figure.

The anti-soldier stuff gets more emotionally complex the more I think about it. He *was* a soldier during the Time War. His last incarnation finally, to an extent, got to put the War Doctor to rest. This is him processing all that guilt after finally facing up to his actions rather than running away from them. It's a reflection of his own self-loathing, reflections and inversions being another theme of this season (the "furious mirror" line being more than just a funny throwaway in Deep Breath). Not to mention, on a meta level, how the show is finally dealing with its own implicit British Imperialism...

Siskoid said...

THAT'S the one, thanks Toby!

Madeley: Keep stoking that fire, your analysis makes a lot of sense.

Ryan Lohner said...

First, the good stuff: Journey is a fantastic character, and I really hope we can see more of her at some point. Also, I'm still a bit blown away by how great Clara is this whole season. Last year she was terrible, barely a character and mostly just a puzzle for the Doctor to solve, and it really didn't help that I strongly suspect Moffat had no idea where he was going with the concept of the same person existing in separate times when he first came up with it. But now that the mystery of her existence has been cleared up, she's allowed to be just a normal person, and that simple change makes her far more likable and relatable. That'll develop more in future episodes, so that's all I'll say about it here.

Because boy, is this episode a mess otherwise. A complete Idiot Plot dependent on stuff like not realizing there might be a significance to buttons being lit or not lit to drive the tension, and what exactly did the Doctor think that fixing the Dalek would do? The stuff about his similarity to the Daleks could have been a nice payoff...if only it hadn't already been done back in Nine's era with nothing new added here.

And then there's the whole "soldier" kick of this season which gets started here. I freely admit that a large part of this is probably lingering bitterness over certain discussions about the Discworld book Men at Arms, where you WILL be treated like a stereotypical American gun nut if you dare to suggest that maybe portraying all guns as possessing corrupting spirits that inevitably turn their owners evil is a bit heavy-handed, but this was a serious turn-off for me every time it came up. Madeley's analysis goes a way to making it make sense to me, but that shouldn't be a necessary step. I shouldn't have to do homework to figure out what a story is trying to tell me; it should be clear from the story itself. Because otherwise you get my initial reaction to the episode (not knowing that it was setting up stuff for later), which was that we were meant to agree with the Doctor that all soldiers are evil baby butchers who walk around looking for stuff to kill. After seeing where this was going I'm not quite so pissed about it anymore, but I never should have been in the first place.

LiamKav said...

" I don't imagine it's a spoiler if I conclude that it was largely a reaction to one of RTD's tropes, about how the Doctor creates his own little army and moves them around like toy soldiers. Which was an argument that never held water with me in the first place: the Doctor fights when there is no other choice, and (except for the War Doctor) has never made a point of deliberately seeking out conflict. Dude just has terrible luck picking vacation spots."

The Doctor as wandering, active force for good is certainly not an RTD invention:

"There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought."

Neither is the idea of the Doctor secretely manipulating his companions to turn them into soldiers that he can control, allowing him to pretend that he's keeping his hands clean:

"I don't suppose you've completely ignored my instructions and secretly prepared any Nitro-9, have you?"
"What if I had?"
"And naturally, you wouldn't do anything so insanely dangerous as to carry it around with you, would you?"
"Of course not. I'm a good girl and do what I'm told."
"Excellent. Blow up that vehicle."

(You could also substitute in a quote between the Forth Doctor and Leela if you want there)

Or, to combine both ideas together:

"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace. We've got work to do."

Cradok said...

And then we find out that 12 is less 'cold' and more 'asshole'. I liked the lying to the doomed guy, and the bit with Gretchin, but everything else was just annoying.

And speaking of annoying, Danny Pink! Okay, so I didn't find him annoying yet, that will come later, but on the other hand, I didn't feel anything positive about him either, which wasn't good for someone who was blatantly supposed to be a love interest.

The story? Again, too referential and not referential enough. Not the best start for a new Doctor.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"Because otherwise you get my initial reaction to the episode (not knowing that it was setting up stuff for later), which was that we were meant to agree with the Doctor that all soldiers are evil baby butchers who walk around looking for stuff to kill. After seeing where this was going I'm not quite so pissed about it anymore, but I never should have been in the first place."
Heartily seconded, Ryan. One of my biggest issues with the finale (I'll tyr to keep this vague just in case for spoiler purposes) is that we never get a recantation of this attitude from the Doctor. However the SHOW may tribute soldiers, the Doctor seems to leave the season with this same horrible attitude (which he's had since the 10th Doctor at least, with his obnoxious line 'You have a gun, that makes you the bad guy' and his hypocritical 'man who never would (even though I have many times)' garbage.) The show does some good exploration of soldiers- and, with things like the 'how many wells' speech, explores the issues better than the show ever has before. But they miss a mark, I think, by failing to have that change of heart come from the Doctor- only from the other characters in the show. (Of course, some see the significance of a certain moment at the end as representing that shift of thinking for the Doctor, but I didn't.)

This episode was, for me, the best Doctor Who story I'd seen since Time of the Angels. Retrospectively, it's actually a lesser entry in the season- which for me was kinda bookended by flops, but got REALLY strong in the middle.

However, it's cardinal sin- and this legitimately ticks me off- is setting an entire season at Coal Hill School and even establishing (in the 50th) that Ian Chesterton is Clara's boss, and NEVER ONCE BRINGING HIM IN FOR A CAMEO. (Maybe it's so they can preserve the eternally-young-lovebirds fate postulated by the SJA, which I like, but still... William Russel won't be around forever! Bring him back while we have the chance!)

Siskoid said...

I'd love to see Ian again, but maybe it wasn't possible on his end. be a nice Christmas surprise though, wouldn't it?

As for all the soldier stuff, it definitely comes from a post 9/11 anxiety of our countries having soldiers in the Middle East, and the cognitive dissonance of wanting to condemn these military actions, yet exalt our soldiers as heroes. These concerns are now part of our world view, and they obviously bleed into Doctor Who writers', just as the energy crisis was all over the place in 70s Who.


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