Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Into the Dalek

Doctor: And isn’t the Universe beautiful?
Rusty: I see beauty… I see endless, divine, perfection.
Doctor: Make it a part of you. Put it inside of you, and live by it.
Rusty: I see into your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I see… hatred.
Doctor: Hatred?
Rusty: I see your hatred of the Daleks, and it is good.
Doctor: No, you must see more than that, there must be more than that…
Rusty: Death to the daleks! Death to the Daleks!
Doctor: There must be more than that, please!
One of the really fun things a long-running series can do is revisit and refresh old concepts with some new ideas. Done wrong, it can just be a dull rehash, but done right, it gives the old concepts new life, and finds new things to say. Into the Dalek combines the Fantastic Voyage-esque miniaturization ray trip inside the Doctor’s mind from The Invisible Enemy with Rob Shearman’s exploration of a Dalek confronted with some sense of morality in Dalek and Moffat’s take on an insane Dalek in Asylum.

A variation on a theme by Shearman, remixed with Baker and Martin, if you will. And while the result isn’t a masterpiece, it’s intriguing enough to be a worthwhile take.

One problem with bringing back the Daleks all the time is that they lose their impact, unless you’re actually able to come up with new things for them to do. In this case, it’s literally going into the mind of a Dalek (dubbed “Rusty” by the Doctor) inexplicably turned good. So we get the always delightful trick of having the Daleks say something non-evil in their voices of pure evil:


Well, non-evilish.

The Doctor abruptly shows a very emphatic rejection of soldiery throughout the episode. While it does come a little out of nowhere, it’s not particularly strange for him to object to it, and his reasons -- that soldiers take orders and that Daleks are perfect soldiers -- add up. (Notably, though, this does work a lot better in The Caretaker, where it’s more thoroughly explored.)

Journey Blue: You don’t like soldiers much, do you?
Doctor: You don’t need to be liked. You’ve got all the guns.
Capaldi also gets to show off his wit throughout here, and it works a lot more often than it did in Deep Breath; the whimsical doesn’t go smoothly, but the nasty stuff? Very funny. (Which isn’t a surprise, of course, to anyone who’s seen Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, but it’s still fantastic to see in the context of someone who isn’t completely awful in every way.) “Dry your eyes, Journey Blue. Crying’s for civilians. How we communicate with you lot.”

Notably, he doesn’t have a problem with their bravery or fighting itself.

Carlyle: Tell me the truth. Is he mad, or is he right?
Clara: Hand on my heart? Most days he’s both.
Carlyle: One question then. Is this worth it?
Doctor: If I can turn one Dalek, I can turn them all. I can save the future.
Carlyle: Gretchen Allison Carlyle. Do something good, and name it after me.
Doctor: I will do something amazing. I promise.

But it culminates in the painful scene where Journey Blue asks to join the Doctor and he rejects her. “I think you’re probably nice. Underneath it all, I think you’re kind, and definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier.”

That’s not the Doctor’s only unsympathetic moment here; when he finds what’s wrong with Rusty, he fixes it basically to prove the point that Rusty can’t possibly be good. Clara (literally and rightly) slaps him back to reality and helps him realize that even in this Dalek, who represents everything he hates about soldiers, there was something good. The point is not that Daleks are naturally evil; it’s that they can be made to see beauty.

This parallels nicely with the introduction of Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink, an ex-soldier, now a teacher at Coal Hill that Clara takes a fast liking to. Danny is effectively sketched out in just a couple of scenes; first, a potent moment when a student starts asking him if he killed anyone in the war. He first answers ambiguously, but the student presses him, (the little twerp) asking if he’s killed any civilians. Pink’s only answer is an involuntary tear.

He meets Clara soon after, and engages in some banter, but nervously turns down her invitations to get together. Anderson deserves tremendous credit for making Danny work right off, getting both the humor and sadness at the core of his character, and never losing the sight of his soldiery.

Danny: There’s more to modern soldiering than shooting people. I like to think there’s a moral dimension.
Clara: Ah, you shoot people, and then you cry about it afterwards.

I love how the next scene cuts between their actual conversation and Danny afterward beating himself up for what he should have said. Even more striking, though, is Clara. We see her usual wit turned just a little too harsh for a moment. Moffat has more than once written witty characters who were utter jerks with their wit (Sherlock probably being most obvious, but most of his leading male characters), but I don’t remember him turning it on one of his female characters before. Which is not to say that Clara comes off as awful, just that her usual joking becomes insensitive because she can’t resist saying the clever thing that jumps to mind. It’s yet again one of the brilliant little details about her character that make her a little more real. And Coleman excels at ever bit of nuance she's given and adds more.

Their brief interactions here are charming and remarkably rich in character given how few minutes they spend together. It's a good set-up in itself, and it's only going to get better.

This subplot, in addition to fleshing out Clara further, gives greater resonance to the Doctor’s rejection of soldiers. Nothing else needs to be said, but it hangs over the story throughout In the background, Clara looks gutted. There’s more to it than just knowing the Doctor is going to reject her possible new boyfriend, but, especially for a control freak who puts on acts for everyone, it spells doom right from the get-go.

All this manages to be put through a non-stop action yarn that brings us through some of the best sets Who has had in years. The whole journey through the Dalek delivers plenty of imagination and cool imagery, and finds fun variations on the expected Fantastic Voyage elements, my favorites being the bizarre entry into the eyestalk and the nasty sequence in what passes for a Dalek stomach. It's not so much the visceral grossness (although that's undeniable) as much as it is Capaldi's marvelously deadpan description of where they are.

The downside here, though, is that Into the Dalek too often relies on characters doing dumb things they really shouldn’t. What it comes down to, really, is the one major hole in its look at soldiers: they’re professionals. Samuel Anderson effectively plays Danny with a sense of disciplined professionalism, but the soldiers on the ship are too often idiots to serve the plot.

Take the moment the Doctor re-activates Rusty, a couple soldiers open the doors, rush in, and, of course, get shot. And the Dalek gets free and starts roaming about. Not only do we have to roll with the staggering stupidity of running into a room with an active Dalek, but we have to wonder why they would have put it in a situation where re-activating it would put it in a position to immediately escape and run amok. Shouldn’t it be, like, chained to a wall or something?

These are soldiers who have been fighting Daleks for a long time; they should know better than to do something like that. And maybe they should fight a little more strategically. The battles are flashy and fun, and find all kinds of cool new ways to blow up Daleks, but they're choreographed to make the soldiers come off as pretty incompetent.

The climax is set up a bit oddly, with the Doctor sending Clara off to “do something clever” and figure out how to fix the Dalek computer brain while he tries to reason with it. Clara, remember, is hopeless with technology, and excels at helping others see the light. Clara does do something clever (that’s what she does, after all), but she really does luck out, what with the solution basically coming down to pushes a bunch of big red buttons. And the story wouldn’t end as effectively if the Doctor didn’t feel as though he had failed by instilling in the Dalek his own hatred of that race. It’s a forgivable contrivance.

This is grand stuff. Unfortunately, it depends far too much on previous stories for its power. Nothing in this episode actually earns its dependence on the Daleks as the ultimate evil. Yes, there are big, flashy laser fights and hints of “kill all life” rhetoric, but it’s really just a little bit of emotion to hang the big action set-pieces on rather than especially compelling drama. It’s not that their history can’t do a lot of the heavy lifting, but it would help if Into the Dalek did a little bit of the lifting on its own.

Still, at least that has history on its side. The Doctor’s questioning Clara about whether or not he’s a good man comes completely out of nowhere, apropos of nothing. And it’s not like he has a lot of reason to wonder; we pretty much spent the entire “Of the Doctor” trilogy, plus, you know, about 98% of every Who story, ever, from about The Sensorites onward, establishing that he’s complex and has a dark side combined with a cold alien approach, but saves the universe because underneath that he's the most heroic good guy ever. This season comes back to this idea a few times, and actually earns it, which makes this one play even worse on a repeat.

It’s really too bad, because if you can stretch and buy the concept (and it does basically make sense by the finale, even if it really needed to be clear a lot earlier to stick), it pays off nicely throughout. Clara’s answer, that she doesn’t know, is a surprisingly thoughtful take on how she would answer. Where most companions would either answer honestly in the affirmative (and a few, like Amy, would lie even after he asked for complete honestly), Clara is truthful. She hasn’t entirely figured out the whole “good” thing herself, and certainly can’t answer for her 2000-year-old friend in completely honesty. (Leela and Tegan might also have answered ambiguously, but I’m not sure any others would.)

What it finally gets at, in the climax, is that the Doctor is consumed by hatred for the Daleks. And while, in some sense, it’s probably earned, (and the Doctor's horror at his own hatred felt a little awkward to me in Shearman's superior Dalek, too) it’s a purely negative, destructive emotion. Dislike or even rage are one thing; hatred is another. Rusty does remember beauty, thanks to the Doctor, but he also consumed the Doctor’s hatred for the Daleks. Ultimately, according to Rusty, the Doctor is a “good Dalek”.

If there’s a moment that makes me like the episode in spite of its faults, it’s that magnificently ambiguous climactic statement. To the Doctor, it’s devastating; he takes it to mean that his hatred defines him as it defines the Daleks. But is that how Rusty means it? Could he have meant simply that the Doctor is a good soldier, since the Doctor defined the Daleks as the ultimate soldiers? Not that the Doctor would take kindly to that itself, but it’s at least easier to swallow. Or perhaps Rusty truly means to say the Doctor is a good man. 

Clara’s final answer, too, is lovely: she’s not sure the Doctor is good, but he tries. And, to her mind, that’s the point. Like Rusty’s take, it’s not entirely satisfying, but it’s hopeful.

Rusty: And yet, new stars are born everyday. Resistance is futile!
Doctor: Resistance to what?
Rusty: Life returns. Life remains. Resistance is futile.


* * *

  • Murray Gold mostly uses weird synth music here, reminiscent of the terrific Radiophonic music of the early Dalek stories. Much as I like his bold orchestral approach to most of the show, I love this here. He actually spends most of the season going smaller; it's effective and less often intrusive at the expense of being less often memorable, but it's a fair trade-off.
  • It is a little weird that the Doctor so fully rejects the idea that a Dalek could be good when he's literally staring into the face of a pretty damn good one.
  • “We made it. Nobody popped.” Nice bit of subtle one-line horror.
  • I like the focus on women here - Journey and Gretchen, the two non-stupid soldiers in the Dalek are women, and since the red shirt gets incinerated pretty early, it's basically three women and the Doctor for the majority of the episode. For all that I think the "Moffat is sexist" crowd is wrong, I suspect this season's greatest emphasis on female characters may have been a reaction to that crowd. Just because the last few seasons of the show have probably done women better than they've ever been done on the show doesn't mean it can't be improved, and Series 8 does a fantastic job pushing further into a truly feminist take on the show.
  • “This is Clara, she’s not my assistant, she’s some other word.”
    “Your carer.”
    “Yeah, she’s my carer. She cares so I don’t have to.” 

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