Review: Into the Dalek (Doctor Who)

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“It just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are: gone in a moment like breath on a mirror.” The final words of the Eleventh Doctor, before the Twelfth’s ‘Deep Breath’. Steven Moffat’s beautiful metaphor of the Doctor’s fleeting lives leads us ‘Into the Dalek’  – and leaves us gasping for air. Yes, I liked this episode. If you read my review of the Doctor Who series 8 opener last week, you’ll understand what a relief that is!

Despite the Doctor’s claims of unfamiliarity within the episode, ‘Into the Dalek’ is not the first story to feature the idea of a morally robust incarnation of the pepper pot killing machines. It was first introduced as a concept during the Second Doctor’s tenure, where Patrick Troughton (the Timelord in question) faced Daleks implanted with a ‘human factor’, granting them emotions and childlike perceptions. The concept was partially revisited in the 2005 episode ‘Dalek’ when a lone Dalek faced off against Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor and became “infected by humanity” through exposure to the touch of the time travelling Rose Tyler. When I have roused myself from a delirious pleasure induced by the stunning pre-titles space sequence of ‘Into the Dalek’, I shuffle uncomfortably in my seat, hoping desperately that they do not rehash territory that has already been tread and dress it up as original. I’m thankful to say, though they do not acknowledge the contents of these previous stories, that overall they very much don’t. The episode even introduces the original concept (at least within Doctor Who) of miniaturising protagonists and inserting them into an alien body – in this case a Dalek – and does not waste the opportunity by creating more original ideas, such as the Dalek Antibodies.

‘Into the Dalek’ is a brilliant episode, in direct contrast to the muddled ‘Deep Breath’, suggesting to me that Phil Ford, who co-wrote this excellent script with showrunner Steven Moffat, should be on hand to have his input on all of the head writers’ contributions. The lines are witty and equally dark, and Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor as shady as he’s been so far: his cold humour and vicious temperament expose the darkest version of the Doctor ever portrayed, even when compared to David Tennant’s performance in the classic 2009 episode ‘The Waters of Mars’. The Doctor’s callous “he was already dead, I was saving us” moment is chilling here, and even the line “don’t be lasagne” (in my opinion one of the best moments from the last three years of Doctor Who) is delivered with razor sharp sarcasm. The moment that makes this episode the one to beat this series is when the Doctor confronts his enemy head on and his hatred, rather than his love, pours out onto the screen. The Doctor is so sure of his ability to do the impossible and change this Dalek for the better, yet his tempered bloodthirst for his greatest adversaries makes this, ultimately, a contradiction to his own character: he cannot change the Daleks, as they cannot change him. In this resolve they are polar-opposites and yet one and the same – the Daleks are what an evil Doctor could be, and he is what a good Dalek would be. This brings me to my Doctor Who line of the week: “You are a good Dalek”. It was an interesting choice to expose such grit to the new Timelord so early on in Capaldi’s tenure. With the previous observation by Rusty the Dalek (you have got to love that name) and the Doctor’s own point; when Rusty exclaims he has exterminated his purer brethren, and the weary traveller states: “Of course… that’s what you do, isn’t it?”, we cannot help but wonder if, after 50 years with various incarnations, we actually know anything about this Doctor at all.

Clara’s observation that the Doctor’s disappointment in himself is a sign of his morality does make this thought less depressing, but maybe it was also because Jenna Coleman was on the same set at the time. Clara is still pushing for relevance but, bit by bit, is finally getting some, and Coleman really shines in this episode. She is every bit as capable as Capaldi all through the episode, and you really can believe their partnership is genuine throughout the 45 minute runtime. The moment where Clara describes herself as the Doctor’s carer is both insightful into their relationship and personalities but also the chemistry that the two share onscreen. There is less of a boyfriend/girlfriend dynamic than there ever was, but it is not exactly father/daughter either. Their friendship is complex and the physicality of it interesting, especially when taking into account Capaldi and Coleman’s real-life age difference (almost 30 years). Their relationship will no doubt unfold more readily as the series progresses and both Clara and the Doctor realise more about themselves and each other, but I am pleased to say that the two certainly complement each other, Capaldi’s dry abrasiveness blends comfortably with Coleman’s soft happy-go-lucky outlook.

There is a lot to compliment here in terms of Ben Wheatley’s second directorial for Doctor Who, and I am willing to say that his contribution was the best thing about the episode. The moment the Daleks board the rebel’s ship, preceded by a pristine swoop of the interior of their warship control room, is breathtaking. Star Wars Episode IV style, the airlock doors erupt with ferocious fire, the Daleks’ approach cast in shadow, their eyes searching and their lights pulsating ominously. As they attack, a rebel manages to blow up a Dalek, and it separates from a solid tank of destruction into fragments of metal (more accurately ‘Dalekanium’ – just sayin’) and slime. What Ben Wheatley has done is make the Daleks organically visceral, both his direction and the script transforming the dominating baddies into living, pulsating, disgusting monsters within their terrifyingly efficient shells. His vision for the pre-titles sequence comes to life at what must have been excessive budget expense – although it could not have been more worth it. Murray Gold’s soundtrack alone has improved exponentially for this episode. Synthesisers pulse throughout the score, harking back to the eras of the Fifth and Sixth Doctors’ tenures, the creepy electronic tones ascending and descending at breakneck speed, causing anxiety and euphoria to rise at the exact right moments. I cannot praise either the direction or music composition highly enough.

Capaldi and Coleman are both fantastic. The supporting cast is fantastic. The score, the visuals, the direction – all fantastic. But the episode isn’t perfect: the ending could have been a little tighter (for example, how did they get out of Rusty so easily?), Clara needs a little more to do (Danny Pink was beautifully introduced – this is a fantastic opportunity to expand Clara’s character, let it not be wasted!) and it could have done with more references to previous adventures for the continuity-obsessed Whovian like myself…

I cannot stress enough how relieved I am that this episode was good. The series needs to maintain this standard and not allow the quality of either the writing or direction to slip. Only then will the Doctor Who be totally back on track in terms of quality storytelling. When it comes to Steven Moffat, he did have Phil Ford, aforementioned writer of ‘The Waters of Mars’ and coincidentally the writer of the best Sherlock episode ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, to fall back on. I am still on the lookout for Moffat’s true redemption for the last few years of, well, terribleness. Maybe he does have a little more breath in him yet…? Who knows.