Into the Dalek
The only good dalek ...
The return of the (hardly) prodigal enemy
|Who's your dalek now? Screen-shot from "Into the Dalek". Doctor Who Copyright © 2014 BBC.|
Once daleks were a special terror, on rare occasions swarming like screaming locusts to devour everything in their path; now they show up at least once every 13 episodes, more like angry grasshoppers than a scourge blotting out the sun.
So my expectations for "Into the Dalek" were pretty low. Yet on first — even second! — viewing, I enjoyed it. Though no classic, it was an entertaining 46 minutes of fast-paced adventure that made up for its derivative qualities with clever homages to its antecedents, a solid structure and dialogue-driven characterization and humour that usually rang true.
Since Phil Ford's pedigree includes the last really good Russell T Davies-era story, "The Waters of Mars", and a number of the best episodes of the still missed Sarah Jane Adventures, I should have been expected at least that much. In retrospect, the surprise is that the pleasures were so flimsy.
Set a long time ahead, in a star system far, far away, the story opens with a visually impressive space battle, as a damaged shuttle dodges asteroids while fleeing a dalek warship. (Quite properly, director Ben Wheatley lards the episode with visual nods to the original Star Wars trilogy, to 2001: A Space Odyssey and — I presume, never having seen the original — to Fantastic Voyage), while composer Murray Gold happily riffs on John Williams for added fun.)
The rebel pilot, a young woman named Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton in a solid performance) is about to join her brother in death when she materializes aboard the Tardis, "one second" before her ship explodes. Coming to aboard the Tardis, she shows her soldier's colours and scrambles for her blaster, aims it at the Doctor and starts issuing orders. "I demand you take me back to my command ship, the Aristotle, which is currently located—"
The Doctor, armed with a pair of take-out coffees, suggests she would do better to ask nicely. Where will you be if you kill me? When she says please, he tells her he already knows where her secret, stealthed Base is, and away they go. (And we try to forget just how eager our intrepid rebel was to give away that vital piece of information).
The Tardis is greeted by Colonel Morgan Blue, the base commander and also Journey's uncle. He's grateful the Doctor saved his niece, but explains that, sorry, "I have to kill you anyway." The Doctor might be a dalek spy and he isn't taking any chances.
But wait! cries Blue. If my rescue isn't enough, he's a doctor! And don't we have a patient?
Why yes, yes they do. Though the daleks leave no wounded and the rebels take no prisoners, they just happen to have a damaged dalek on board and would the Doctor mind taking a look?
Given the choice between a captured dalek and a quick trip out the airlock, The Doctor agrees. The dalek demands help, which the Doctor refuses. "Why would any living creature help you?" But when the dalek — whom the Doctor will later call Rusty; a nod to Russell T Davies and the 9th Doctor story, "Dalek"? — screams, "I will destroy the daleks!" he changes his mind.
And then, off-screen (of course!), he somehow convinces this violent and paranoid gang to let him just pop off in the Tardis for a mo' to pick up his assistant.
Back on earth, Clara is teaching at the Coal Hill School, flirting with a new teacher on staff, the former soldier Mr. Pink, and still waiting for the Doctor to bring her her damned coffee — it's been three weeks for Pete's sake!
When the The Doctor shows, he says he needs her help. When she asks what for, (I have no doubt) Steven Moffat takes over for the keyboard to re-introduce this season's Great Big Angsty Theme. "Am I a good man?" the Doctor asks Clara, just before he drags her into mortal peril.
Having returned to the Secret Rebel Base as (presumably) promised, the rebels greet him with renewed suspicion and threats. Go figure.
The Doctor introduces the Clara to the "moral dalek" and for some reason all agree the thing to do is fix it. Why anyone would want to restore their greatest threat to its factory settings is never explained. The only question is how.
As it happens, though the rebels don't have a physician on staff but, almost as implausibly, they do have on hand a "molecular nano-scanner", which doubles as an Incredible Shrinking Machine.
Into the belly of the beast
Clara, the Doctor, Blue and a few other soldiers — "We're here to kill you in case you turn out to be a dalek spy!" —
get shrunk are miniaturized and injected into the dalek's eye-stalk. (Like last week's Godzilla-sized "tyrannosaurus rex", scale seems only a matter of visual convenience, not in-story fact: when injected, our heroes appear to be a few centimetres tall, but shortly thereafter, are communing with neurons and battling anti-bodies the relative size of bowling balls. But onwards.)
redshirt soldier's death and an escape from the flying anti-bodies via the dalek's stomach (who knew!) (which resembles the garbage room on the Death Star in another wink at Star Wars) the Doctor fixes the dalek, only to be surprised and dismayed when it forgets all about the beauty of life and seeks once again only to exterminate it.
And we wonder again: what did they expect to happen when the dalek was repaired? Better poetry? Dancing? On further consideration, we now know for sure there was no convincing rationale for the Fantastic Voyage in the first place.
Oh hell. Onwards.
The only good dalek ...
While the rebels face a dalek attack from without and Rusty readies a strike from inside, time is running out. The Doctor assigns Clara to "do a clever thing" and release the memories the Doctor's fix locked away. After one more red-shirt's death (this one a noble self-sacrifice, ruined by the re-appearance of Missy in "Heaven", Moffat's latest mystery woman) Clara literally stumbles onto the solution, then makes like an anti-matter Dave Bowman and re-activates Rusty's memories, allowing the Doctor to play shrink (ahem. Sorry about that) and bring back poor Rusty's appreciation for the beauty of star-birth and life's eternal recurrence. And also, a lust for auto-genocide.
The pepper-pot turns on its compatriots and, after routing them, heads out into space to deal with the rest of them. The universe (or at least this particular corner of it) is safe once again, and we are left to worry at some very sloppy questions about good and evil.
The episode ends with the Doctor refusing to take Blue with him ("I just wish you hadn't been a soldier") and Clara still unsure whether the Doctor is a good man, but leaning towards yes. "I think you try to be, and, I think that's probably the point," quoth she.
Then it's back to the Coal Hill School and her big date with Mr. Pink, who is clearly Someone Important.
And, er ... that's pretty much it.
Is there a there, there?
I did enjoy "Into the Dalek", twice. But having now thought it through, I feel vaguely unclean, as after an unsavoury one-night stand.
Yes, the episode easily passed the Bechdel Test, and for once Clara seemed like an actual person, given identity by what she said and did, not by what the Doctor said about her.
And yes, the story's humour arose from character and situation, not repeated set-pieces, like the Sontaran Butler Sketch. (Steven Moffat should be taking notes).
And yes, Peter Capaldi already owns the Doctor.
But is it too much to ask for a plot that makes sense on its own terms? Is it too much to ask for a story that doesn't melt when you shine a 40-watt bulb upon its words?
And can't we, please, stop being asked to wonder whether the Doctor is a monster on the order of daleks, that there is any reason at all to take seriously Rusty's judgement, that the Doctor is a "good dalek?" That, Mr. Moffat, is the proverbial dog that just won't hunt and has been for a long time. Whatever our favourite Time Lord's faults, he doesn't feel an uncontrollable urge to exterminate all other forms of life in the universe.
I digress. Inane philosophical questions aside, much of what was wrong with "Into the Dalek" could have been easily fixed with a little more time and a little more thought. The combination of obvious plot-holes and disjointed scenes (as with the Doctor's trip to Earth to pick up Clara) leads me to wonder if, as was rumoured of Neal Gaiman's very disappointing "Nightmare in Silver", Ford intended "Into the Dalek" to be a two-part story.
If so, the fault lies with Steven Moffat; if not, the responsibility still rests with Moffat — as show-runner, he should have fixed the problems regardless.
It's a shame. As hackneyed as the basic plot was, there was a lot to like in the parts of "Into the Dalek". It wouldn't have been too hard to knit them into a respectable, if not an inspired, whole.