TV review: Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 2 (Into the Dalek)
"Morality as malfunction"9
"Evil refined as engineering"9
"Am I a good man?"9
Simon Kinnear | On 31, Aug 2014
When a new Doctor arrives, there’s always a period of waiting. Waiting for the statement of intent, waiting for the first story to define the parameters and the potential of the show’s near-future. The earlier the better, of course, otherwise the wait is agonising. How delightful to see that, for Peter Capaldi, that moment has come in only his second episode.
It’s not the first time this has happened. After the frivolity of the debut, the follow-up is where it’s time to get serious. Think of Jon Pertwee in anguish over the Silurians; of Tom Baker skipping cosy Earth for the dangers of the universe; of Christopher Eccleston showing Rose the end of the world. Or, crucially, of William Hartnell travelling to Skaro and having his morality questioned – and answered – by his first encounter with the Daleks.
The latter encounter is explicitly mentioned in Into The Dalek. Quite rightly, too, because Capaldi has the same quality of the First Doctor, his wisdom as likely to take the form of cruel pragmatism as it is of kindness or warmth. Here, the new Doctor gives a man in peril a pill… but it’s a placebo. It wasn’t to save him (“He was already dead”) but to save the survivors. That’s up there with the darkest moments in this series and, unlike David Tennant, Capaldi isn’t the kind of Doctor to apologise afterwards.
Into the Dalek, a story ostensibly about saving the soul of his nemesis, is also quite clearly about saving that of the Doctor. The show’s greatest morality fables, its most stirring encounters between good and evil, have often come in Dalek stories, but Into The Dalek pares it down to abstraction. The Doctor is miniaturised, inserted into a supposedly “good” Dalek, in order to repair it… but what is a good Dalek? The script crystallises the themes into superb, instantly iconic sound-bites: the Dalek must be suffering from “morality as malfunction”, because normally it would be “evil refined as engineering”. It’s beautiful stuff: Doctor Who as haiku.
Yet what’s really astonishing is that the episode offers more than glib catchphrases, continually interrogating and complexifying the show’s certainties. “Am I a good man?” Capaldi asks, and events leave the question hanging. There was a moment when it felt like Into the Dark was copping out of the ‘dark Doctor’ tag, rebooting the show to more familiar terrain, but the superbly judged final act maintained that uncertainty – and danger. This might be the new Doctor’s first classic, but it hasn’t defined his character.
That has to be the influence of Phil Ford, whose only other main series credit (2009’s The Waters Of Mars) posed a similar challenge to the Doctor’s moral code. Sure, this was co-credited to Steven Moffat, but the latter’s unmistakable comedic style seemed confined to the arc-heavy subplot that introduced Clara’s new love interest, Danny Pink, who is subtly portrayed by Samuel Anderson to be as mysterious as the Doctor. We might already be asking: “Is he a good companion?”
The fracture of tone between space and Earth is also a clever way of splitting the Doctor from Clara aesthetically and stylistically, and a real boon to an episode that helped to form the latter like never before. It’s taken a while for the show to get a handle on Clara beyond being the Impossible Girl; now, rather aptly, she’s become the Possible Girl – the bedrock of the show’s morality. No longer a companion, but (as the script cleverly puts it) the Doctor’s carer.
And all of this swirling promise and ricocheting morality came amidst a superbly child-engaging adventure story – the Doctor inside a Dalek? Yes! There is lots of surreality and action, with director Ben Wheatley making the Daleks stranger and deadlier than they’ve been in years. There is superb one-shot characterisation, too, especially for Zawe Ashton’s Journey Blue, who felt like a throwback to the Russell T. Davies era. And, best of all, Capaldi, whose intelligent, mercurial interpretation has brought a renewed sense of zest and confidence to the show.
The wait is over. The new Doctor will see you now.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I buy or rent Doctor Who: Season 8 online in the UK?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers