Into the Dalek

Holistic Review: Strong scripting not only benefits the leads and the plot, but also yields what might just be the best Dalek story since 2005. Or, for that matter, 1975.

You know how sometimes you're watching an episode of something and, a few minutes in, you think to yourself, "This is already noticeably above average"? And you hope that the episode will maintain that level of quality, while fearing that it's all going to fall apart? Well, that was me by the second scene of Into the Dalek, and I'm thrilled to say that the quality did indeed stay very high.

I wouldn't say that Into the Dalek is going to be one of my favorite stories ever. It's lacking a little bit of joie de vivre, although the miniaturization aspect of the plot goes a long way toward that goal. Miniaturizing the Doctor and Clara so they can run around inside a Dalek is a really cool high-concept idea, and it immediately reminded me of The Invisible Enemy, which for me was like an automatic ten points in its favor. (Not only do we have miniaturization via technology, we also have a mention of surgeons being miniaturized in order to operate on a patient from the inside, a very cool (if unexplained) distorting interface between the molecular nanoscaler capsule and the Dalek eyestalk which appears to make the TARDIS crew's perception go a little wonky as they cross the boundary, and several attacks by baleful antibodies.) I'm actually not sure why the Doctor didn't mention his experiences being miniaturized in the past! It's happened to him rather a lot, after all. Once the action moves deeper inside the Dalek, and the Doctor and Clara begin wandering around sets made of giant circuitry, the story also acquires a bit of the flavor of Carnival of Monsters. (I actually had wondered, based on the title, if the story might involve them literally venturing inside a Dalek, although for some reason — probably The Invisible Enemy again! — I assumed they'd be microscopic. From now on, I should start making public guesses beforehand, in case I'm right again!)

One major thing about this story that makes it rewarding to watch is that it's a very solid philosophical tale, which takes us not only inside the shell of a Dalek but also, to some degree, its mind and soul... and, as an added bonus, the mind and soul of the Doctor. The Doctor's worry at the start, that he might not actually be a good person, is explored in some detail. I'm glad to see this topic being broached, because one must admit that although the Doctor often makes claims to pacifism, and is generally passionate about living his life by those principles, he has been known to resort to violence, weapons, and even murder. And, poor Doctor, we don't delve into this question on one of his best days, but rather on one of the days that he's facing down his most hated mortal enemies, the Daleks, so he's not exactly portrayed in the best light. But if the Doctor wants to find out whether he's good or — what, evil? dark? slightly tainted? — then we need to see how he behaves at his worst moments. What's really interesting, and one of the areas where Into the Dalek shines all around, is that the answer to his question is inconclusive. Yes, the Doctor saves the day, and rescues the majority of the Andromeda's crew, not to mention the soul of one Dalek... but it's hard to argue Clara's accusation of prejudice. And she hits the nail on the head when she forces him to own up to this: "We're gonna die in here! And there's a little bit of you that's pleased. The Daleks are evil after all, everything makes sense, the Doctor is right!" And in the end, it's not his wonder at the universe that Rusty finds most compelling, it's his hatred of the Daleks.

And yet, the Doctor does save Rusty. He doesn't feel that he succeeds; Rusty doesn't turn out to be a "good" Dalek who values the sanctity of all life, but rather a self-hating Dalek who wants to exterminate his entire corrupt race. But I think the Doctor's being too hard on himself. Sure, Rusty winds up ranting that "Daleks are evil! Daleks must be exterminated!" and mowing down the entire Dalek boarding party on the Andromeda. But at the start of the episode, Rusty's exact words which initially persuade the Doctor that he might be "good" are these: "All Daleks must die! I will destroy the Daleks!" Not really seeing the difference, are you? So it seems to me that the Doctor exactly achieved his goal. He wasn't able to make Rusty better than good — he wasn't able to make him idealistic, or pacifistic — but he succeeded in re-convincing Rusty that the Daleks' worldview should be an anathema to him.

And it's not as if the Doctor's hatred is unjustified. I knew families growing up who refused to allow that word to come out of their children's mouths (in fact, I think my aunt might have been one of them). We do not "hate" people, they would say, or activities, or brussels sprouts. And that's a really, really wonderful thing to teach your children, but... there are times when the word is warranted. I hate prejudice and the evils it causes: misogyny, racism, homophobia, religious wars, the Holocaust, genocide. The Doctor has also said, in the past, that he "loathes" bus stations and unrequited love, and that's pretty much the same thing as hatred. Compared to that — compared to almost anything, really — the Daleks are the very depths of depravity. Worse even than the Holocaust, if I can be permitted to compare an unimaginably horrific real-life event to fictional atrocities on an even greater scale. So is the Doctor's hatred justified? I would say, yes. Does it make him a bad person? Indeed not: hatred of injustice and prejudice leads people to battle these societal ills and make the world a better place. However, Into the Dalek subtly points out that even hatred of horrific evils can corrupt the soul, if one allows it to become a consuming hatred that overwhelms compassion and impartial assessment.

Still, I wonder why Clara hesitates when the Doctor asks her if he's a good man, and later equivocates with "I don't know." The only reason I can come up with is that she doesn't yet know Doctor #12, and maybe she's still shaken up over the way he behaved last week. But surely if Matt Smith had asked her that same question, the answer would've been a resounding yes? I really like her line at the end ("You asked me if you were a good man, and the answer is, I don't know. But I think you try to be, and I think that's probably the point.") but even though she's exactly right, her reasons for doubting him are murky.

After my slight hesitation last week about the way Capaldi's Doctor was being portrayed, I can say unequivocally that I absolutely adore his characterization this week. This is exactly the Doctor I wanted, and I'm utterly overjoyed that Moffat and his writers have somehow read my mind. What I'm finding really interesting about the twelfth Doctor is that he doesn't have a lot of patience with people, and he's unapologetically pragmatic to the point of being unsentimental. He doesn't waste time trying to figure out a way to save the inescapably-doomed Ross (although one does wonder if his predecessor might have persisted until he figured out a solution); instead, he finds a way to make Ross' death matter. ("He was dead already! I was saving us!") Nor does he weep over the liquefied remains in Rusty's feeding tube. He identifies the purpose of the organic refuse disposal chute, analyzes its usefulness, and ushers everyone into it without even considering (or really caring) how the rest of the team, having just lost one of their own, might be emotionally affected by it. It makes this Doctor feel more alien, in a way that reminds me of Tom Baker's more serious Doctor in Pyramids of Mars. Actually, I realize that there's a very good reason for that specific reference. When Journey, furious, confronts him with "A man has just died! You will not talk like that!", the Doctor's response — "A lot of people have died." — is extremely similar to the way he rebuffs Sarah's small-picture anguish over Laurence's death in that story.

The Doctor's impatience clearly extends most strongly to people who wave weapons about. He's not even slightly impressed, or intimidated, and he's going to make perfectly sure that the weapon-brandisher knows it too. I love his visibly offended reaction when Journey uses the word "demand", and his unruffled bluff-calling response to Journey's ungrateful threat to kill him and steal the TARDIS ("You'd starve to death trying to find the light switch."), not to mention the way he downright refuses her, ah, "request", until she phrases it politely: "No. Hey. Not like that." He's forthrightly matter-of-fact about his unwillingness to even listen to the demands of someone who's pointing a gun at him, insisting instead on respect and politeness, and I think that's such an admirable lesson to be teaching. (Speaking of which, note also that the "shut up" counter is completely absent for this episode.) This is clearly a Doctor who's not going to be bullied. And when he finally agrees to Journey's request, he does so with zero fanfare, zero evident pleasure (unlike the tenth or eleventh Doctors, who would have mellowed once the gun was put away), and zero remonstrance of Journey's behavior... simply low-key acquiescence. It's a pitch-perfect performance.

Nor is it an isolated moment of greatness; Capaldi absolutely hits it out of the park this week. Any hints of mania from last week are utterly absent this week, and when the twelfth Doctor does have a rare moment of verbal diarrhoea, it's anchored by Capaldi's gruff delivery, which again puts me more in mind of bad-tempered Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker than class-clown Williams-era Tom Baker. (Which reminds me of Mark Gatiss' comment in DWM 477: "Since it came back in 2005, the default story, as a template, is City of Death, but as of this year the default is a bit more like Horror of Fang Rock." He was on the nose about the past and will be, I hope, about the future.) A perfect example is the way the Doctor introduces Clara to the crew of the Andromeda: "This is Gun Girl. She's got a gun and she's a girl. This is her sort of boss one. Are you the same one as before? I think he's probably her uncle, but I may have made that up to pass the time when we were talking." Hilarious and defiantly non-sequitur-y, yet with a dismissive attitude that keeps him from sounding loopy. Capaldi's performance is so wonderfully nuanced (partially, I suspect, because he's working from such a good script) and he takes advantage of brief moments to shed light on elements of the new Doctor's personality. For example, the Doctor's adrenaline-junkie nature is pleasantly understated in this episode. I didn't even notice until my third viewing that, while everyone else shrieks in terror during their ride down the disposal chute, the Doctor is whooping with exhiliration! Likewise, it's often been said that the Doctor isn't big on goodbyes, but with a lot of Doctors, who are so very personable, it's more difficult to believe. But with the twelfth Doctor, who seems to lose interest once the problem is solved, it's not hard to believe at all, though I imagine his reasoning for a quick exit is not the usual "farewells are so sad", but rather "not terribly concerned about making friends". Yet again, I find it to be a refreshing change, and now I'm really optimistic about how the twelfth Doctor is going to develop. Among my favorite of Capaldi's deliveries: the genuinely funny "Oh, it's a rollercoaster with you, isn't it?", the way his facial expression slowly falls as the Doctor realizes his patient is a Dalek, his abruptly-halted mockery of the Dalek's line "Daleks must be des- ...", "This is a feeding tube!", "Oh no, no, no..." as he realizes he's made Rusty un-good, "I gave it a shot, it didn't work out, it was a Dalek, what do you expect?", his astonished post-slap "Clara!", "There must be more than that! Please!", his perplexed "I'm sorry?", and my favorite is his little "ooh, scary" gasp, complete with eerie hand flourish!

It's always a lovely surprise when a companion who was created for one Doctor turns out to be an even better fit with his replacement, and I continue to see Clara developing in that direction. The Doctor again hits the nail on the head when he describes Clara as "Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don't have to." That's exactly the role that Clara's beginning to take on, and it's part of the reason why Barbara and Sarah and Peri worked so well opposite their respective Doctors. They were able to smooth over the Doctor's rough edges, and ingratiate themselves with the locals in a way that the Doctor couldn't always, and they could draw his attention to the important small-picture details that he was in danger of overlooking. After I complained last week that Clara, despite showing some promise, contributed almost nothing to the plotline, here it's the absolute reverse. Clara gets a very proactive role in this story; in fact, she's the pivotal element of the story's resolution. If Clara hadn't realized that there was a possibility for a good Dalek to exist, the entire story would've turned out differently. Like Clara, I too was astonished that the Doctor could witness Rusty's reversal of personality and conclude, "The Daleks are evil, irreversably so. That's what we just learned." And yet it's so believable because the Doctor, blinded by his own prejudices, just can't see what's glaringly obvious to Clara and myself, as compassionate humans. It turns out that Clara and I were thinking precisely the same thing, and I knew exactly where she was headed when she retorted, "No, Doctor, that is not what we just learned!" You want to script a moment that makes me cheer for Clara? That was it.

Then, having pretty much single-handedly turned the course of the story from "fiery pointless death" to "possible rehabilitation of all Daleks", Clara is given yet one more opportunity to shine, when the Doctor entrusts her with the task of doing "something clever" to reawaken Rusty's buried memories. And it's not even as if Clara's being given the lion's share of the plot, to the detriment of the Doctor. No, he has an equal if not greater share to contribute.

But here, around the midway point, is where the script really could have gone off the rails. "We need to show the Dalek that star being born again," declares the Doctor, "recreate that moment!" And all of a sudden I began imagining this beautiful, complicated, well-scripted plot devolving into yet another sappy "emotion saves the day!" storyline. Into the Dalek's overall success hinged on how exactly Clara would be able to reawaken Rusty's memories, and how the Doctor would expand the Dalek's mind. I was encouraged that the Doctor felt the need to wing his plan, not immediately having a super-sappy appeal all ready to go, and to my extreme relief, in the end there was barely any glurge involved at all. Rather than making an inexplicable mental leap, Clara simply realizes that some of the lights in the cortex have gone out, likely indicating memories that have been suppressed. This clue is a brilliant way to justify Clara's plan of action without making it seem in any way like a plot shortcut, because it's been well foreshadowed, it's a plainly evident change, and Clara herself has realistic doubts about whether it will work. ("Well. Maybe, I, i- it's either that, or the bulbs need changing.") Meanwhile, the Doctor's scene with Rusty did threaten to get a little bit inappropriately emotional, as Rusty coos over the birth of a star and the "endless divine perfection" of the universe... but when he got sidetracked by the Doctor's hatred for the Daleks, that was not a twist I saw coming, and it was one that darkened the tone of the episode and raised some really difficult questions.

But I digress. Turning back to Clara for a moment, I appreciate that Ford's script highlights her intelligence. It's Clara, not the Doctor, who inquires about the point of their mission, wondering — in pointed fashion, to remind the Doctor of the stakes involved, and to remind all of them that the mission didn't fail — what difference one good Dalek would make. Later, she realizes that her memory-restoration plan is working when she intuits the connection between the electrical signals emitted by the cortex vault and the electrical pathways in a brain. Her rapport with the Doctor continues to build, and deepen beyond her relationship with the eleventh Doctor. I still love that she challenges him, and she's beginning to tease him good-naturedly (to others, anyway, if not yet to his face!). Yet they have their tender moments too; I adored the brief shot of Clara comforting the Doctor, patting him gently on the back as they returned to the TARDIS. Meanwhile, in her personal life, Clara is getting bold! Is this just another facet of her control-freak personality? Because lines like "Are you gonna look that terrified when you take me out for a drink?" made me think 'whoa, Nelly!'... and then, when Danny promises that he won't, she follows up with "Play your cards right, and you might." Good heavens, Clara, in the mood to throw yourself at cute boys, eh? Well, who can blame you. But I really have to ask, why is Clara wearing a shirt that's covered in eyes? It's a slightly creepy fashion choice. Still, together with her quick-change act at the story's end, it's at least helped me to suddenly realize that Clara apparently favors the color red. Wise choice, Clara; it was a flattering color on you in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS too.

Jenna Coleman has a number of great moments in the story, not limited to her character's quick thinking and pivotal plot involvement. Her first meeting with Danny ("Ahh, you shoot people and then cry about it afterwards?") is so well written, and Jenna's reactions throughout the scene are superb, especially her totally on-point initial reaction, alarmed and clueless ("No no, no, as, as far as I know, nobody has told anybody anything. What, what are you talking about?"), and the eyebrow-raised "I have no idea what I did wrong but it was completely innocent!" face that she gives Danny at the end! Loved her delivery of "That's the look you get when I'm about to slap you!" (not normally cheering for physical violence, but woohoo!), "Is that a fact? Is that really what we've learned today? Think about it! Is that what we learned?", "Errrrr... a clever thing?", "Hmm, I think I'd better be.", "Yeah!" (re: having a drink with Danny), and her pensive "Not me..."

The script excels in characterization, and not just of the Doctor and Clara. When the scout ship was blown up by the Daleks, I suddenly realized that I'd quite warmed to Journey Blue, and I was sorry that she wasn't going to get more airtime. So when she appeared back in the TARDIS, miraculously alive, I was really pleased. She turns out to be a complex character with an emotional backstory, so even though she winds up getting a bit overshadowed by the eventful plot, and isn't really given a great deal to do, it still feels like we get to know her relatively well. I thought Zawe Ashton was especially convincing at expressing Journey's bitterness and frustration, and the raw pain in her voice made my heart hurt for her. I really liked Ashton's delivery of "Stay with me, please!", her choked-up goodbye ("Yeah. Me too.") to her uncle, her frustrated "So what do we do?", "Really wish I had," and "Take me with you." (demanding again!) Yet, as much as I liked Journey, I wasn't that eager for her to join the TARDIS crew, even though, as the Doctor says, she's brave (and skilled) and she seems nice. But she is more than a bit shouty, and pushy, so that might explain my reluctance.

I find it very interesting that the Doctor turns down Journey's application for companion status, apparently solely based on her employment history: he's got a rule about soldiers in the TARDIS. It makes you wonder whether Leela would make the cut these days. Then again, the Doctor didn't invite her onboard the TARDIS either. But what about Jamie, or Ben? You could argue that they're both soldiers as well, and Jamie at least, despite being the clan piper, was likely no stranger to killing, although he wasn't as triumphant about it as Leela could be. It also makes you wonder what would happen if the Doctor suddenly learned that one of his current companions had once been a soldier (ahem). How would he handle it? Not well, I'm guessing. I've said in the past that I think Doctor Who, most likely the Pertwee years, was primarily responsible for my gut reaction whenever I think about what the military stands for. Even though in my own life I have nothing but deep respect for our soldiers and the sacrifices they make for our freedom, and I have several friends who served in the military, I still have this unshakeable mental image of bull-headed, invariably wrong, pompous buffoons screaming orders at helpless soldiers and refusing to listen to the voice of reason. I can attempt to reconcile my two viewpoints by admitting to myself that the military and its goals are, indeed, not always honorable, and our soldiers are sometimes forced to do things that aren't right by superior officers who are motivated by ignoble concerns, and there are certainly also soldiers who aren't honorable moral people... but even as I nod and chuckle at lines like "Crying's for civilians. It's how we communicate with you lot." and "You don't need to be liked, you've got all the guns", I just can't bring myself to feel as disdainful about the military as the Doctor does. Into the Dalek is a perfect recreation of the Doctor's Pertwee-era attitude toward the military, but I suddenly find myself wondering if this episode is subtly hinting that the Doctor has almost as much unexamined prejudice against the military as he does against the Daleks?

Journey's uncle, Colonel Morgan Blue, is played with great world-weariness by Michael Smiley. The colonel seems perpetually serious, and his eyes are haunted by a deeply sad expression. I've criticized characters in the past for not making much of an impression, and here, I think, is an excellent example of an actor who was able to create a really solid character even without being in any way ebullient or showy. His personality, and even a bit of his backstory, is projected loud and clear through Smiley's demeanor. It's a restrained performance, and all the more impressive for it.

I was even more seriously impressed with the script's treatment of Gretchen. Here we have a soldier character that I'd barely even noticed, and suddenly in the span of three lines I'm absolutely loving her. They're great lines, of course: "Probably gonna die anyway. Wouldn't mind something to do for the rest of me life." demonstrates a wry sense of humor I'd have enjoyed getting to know, and "Gretchen Allison Carlisle. Do something good and name it after me." tugged at my heartstrings like crazy. Very, very well done, Phil Ford. When Gretchen, like Journey, outlived her death, I thought for a moment that the Doctor had materialized the TARDIS around her too — sneaky script! if not for that red herring, I'd have realized the truth straight away — but the reality of the situation, that Gretchen was now in this mysterious Heaven, enjoying tea with Missy, really threw me for a loop. I'd somehow never considered that when Missy said "Welcome to Heaven!" last week, she really meant it. Do you suppose we'll see Laura dos Santos again? (Good thing I wound up liking her so much!) I find myself extremely curious to see where this season's arc leads, maybe moreso than any other we've had thus far. I think part of the reason is that it reminds me strongly of the buildup to DWM's comic strip "Ground Zero", which involved several of the Doctor's companions (Susan, Sarah and Peri) being gradually kidnapped from their own strips and ultimately brought together for the finale. Except that Missy appears to be collecting the Doctor's friends and enemies...

Ross (Ben Crompton) gets very few lines, but I warmed to him too, probably because of his instinctive trust in the Doctor even when facing down homicidal Dalek antibodies.

Finally, the intriguing Mr Danny Pink, math teacher and ex-soldier. Although I miss the days when companions travelled with the Doctor full-time, I enjoy getting to peek in on Clara's real-world life from time to time, and even if there weren't a handful of other equally strong signs, the fact that Danny has practically zero plot function in this story would make it clear that he's going to be a recurring character. I suspect I know where this plot thread is leading, if early rumors swirling around the announcement of his character prove to be true. To my surprise, at first the script seemed to be actively trying to make me dislike our new friend. Lines like "I've never seen such a miserable bunch! What are you, children?" do not exactly ingratiate me. But after that unpromising start, Danny almost immediately deepens into a much more relatable person. Actually, vulnerable is exactly the word I'm looking for, and it's a very encouraging character trait that he demonstrates in practically every scene. The secretary (not to mention everyone else) is utterly convinced that he's a ladies' man, and flirts with him shamelessly? Well, it's either true but he's deeply embarrassed about it, or he really is a solitary homebody who slightly resents being painted so unfairly, but either way it's clear that he's not at all thrilled by the description. He has a crush (apparently mutual) on Clara? Well, the so-called "lady killer" can barely even stammer out an acceptance to her party invitation until he's all alone, mentally beating himself up for his inability to articulate what he really wants. And he's a former soldier who has killed people, enemy and civilian alike? Well, here's where the vulnerability really comes crashing through. That single tear was so manipulative, and it manipulated me right off my cynicism about Danny Pink. At this point, I'm really really curious to learn his backstory, and find out how his character is going to develop. So far, I'm really liking him. It probably helps that Danny has kind, sensitive eyes, which helped convince me that he truly was a good guy despite that momentarily gruff exterior. He also seems like quite the gentleman, if it's at all relevant that his reaction to being propositioned by Clara is not to gloat once she leaves, but rather to wince and rub his sore head! I think Danny handles Fleming's extremely inappropriate question very well (and the students' sympathetic reactions throughout are heartwarming), and I loved Samuel Anderson's delivery of "Thank you!" and the frustrated noise he makes when he walks back into his classroom after he first meets Clara.

But now, just because I really enjoyed this story doesn't mean I'm going to let Phil Ford totally off the hook, especially when we're given yet more lines that denigrate Clara's appearance in the name of humor. (Actually, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that these were among the script elements contributed by Steven Moffat, because they stand out like a sore thumb.) First: "You're not a young woman any more," the Doctor tells her, and when Clara objects that she is, he replies with "Well, you don't look it." Second: Clara warns the Doctor not to make cruel jokes about her hips, and he responds with a comment which I suspect most women would not regard as kind: "Ahh, your hips are fine, you're built like a man." Third, and worst of all: the Doctor tells Clara that she looks "sort of short and roundish but with a good personality, which is the main thing." Roundish??? Who on this planet would ever describe Jenna Coleman as "roundish"? Even if it were true, why is it okay for the Doctor to fat-shame her? I suppose it's a sort of anti-flirting, for which I'm presumably meant to be grateful — although I would point out that insulting her appearance doesn't automatically mean that the Doctor isn't flirting with Clara; the eleventh Doctor, Clara's flirtatious "boyfriend", sometimes did it too — but gosh. The pendulum doesn't have to swing so far in the other direction, okay?

That's the only serious objection I have, though, to a script that's thought-provoking, poignant and creative. As the story unfolded, I found myself strikingly impressed with Phil Ford's writing style. There are just so many well-crafted lines which demonstrate that Ford is smartly economical with words, skilfully wielding them in a way that's concise but often powerfully effective. Even though the story revisits some familiar themes, the dialogue feels original and fresh, and I got the impression that his script provided numerous opportunities for the actors as well as the director to add their own inventive flourishes. The structure of the script, too, is a bit quirky. It plays with time in a way that keeps you on your feet but is never confusing, and enables some cute moments of well-timed comedy that wouldn't be possible in a more linear script, like the intercutting of Danny's awkward responses to Clara's invitation with his later anguish as he mentally replays how the conversation ought to have proceeded. This isn't simply being creative for creative's sake — although that would've been fine too — it also serves a character purpose, making us more sympathetic to Danny because, despite his reputation as a ladies' man, in the stress of the moment he totally bombs the way he handles Clara asking him out. I can't even pinpoint any important plot holes; Ford sews up some of the potential ones very neatly, with well-placed lines like "Can you control your antibodies?" There are even a few lovely references to the past, such as the nice offhand reference to Dalek duplicates (one assumes they mean the High-Council-infiltrating type from Resurrection of the Daleks rather than the hostile-takeover corpse-implants from last season), and the Daleks' habit of chanting "Seek! Locate! Destroy!" Aside from the Doctor's previous experiences with miniaturization (which were probably too numerous to recount), the only reference that I was half-expecting, but didn't get, was some footage of the Doctor's previous encounters with the Daleks, when he passes his memories along to Rusty. Overall, I was seriously impressed with the quality of the script. I'd be interested to know which parts Moffat really did contribute, so that I can apportion some of the praise to him, but until then I'm going to lavish it on Phil Ford.

Most impressively, Ford has written a Dalek story that I thoroughly enjoyed, possibly even rivalling my heretofore probable favorite, Death to the Daleks (which is apparently one of Rusty's favorites too). I think one reason Death to the Daleks appeals to me is that the Daleks are only one of several elements in the story's interesting plot, but also because the Daleks are used in an interesting way. Although the Daleks are very much foregrounded in Into the Dalek, they're likewise used in a novel way. I like that the story includes the impending threat of a looming Dalek battleship, with an unusually impressive battle scene once the Daleks board the Andromeda in force, but the story isn't really about those Dalek battles. It's about one lone Dalek, how that Dalek sees the world, and how the Doctor's character is illuminated by his interaction with it. And, of course, miniaturized humans exploring its interior nooks and crannies, which is endlessly fascinating. I wish these explorations had resulted in the Doctor uncovering some interesting new information about the Daleks, but it's not a major complaint; I was happy just to enjoy the ride. Along with The Invisible Enemy and Carnival of Monsters, the story also has echoes of the plot themes that I really appreciated in Dalek: another lone injured Dalek, captured by humans, comparing its morality with the Doctor's, and turning out to have sort of a good side in the end. I suspect these parallels must be deliberate — Rusty even tells the Doctor, at the end, "I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek." — so it's a bit of a surprise that it doesn't occur to the Doctor, when he's ranting about how no Dalek could ever possibly be good, that he's already met at least one other half-decent one. (He's also apparently forgotten about the human-factor Daleks in Evil of the Daleks, which I imagine ought to count as well!) Rusty's survival at the end, even joining forces with the humans, is yet another unexpected plot development. Like Gretchen, do you suppose we'll see him again?

This week, I'm finding Ben Wheatley's direction to be really subtle, in really lovely ways. He doesn't have a flashy style, but he sure knows how to use angles and how to milk a scene for impact, like his use of intense close-ups during the battle sequences. I love the shot of the Dalek base from above, as the nanoscaler is carried toward the eyestalk; the artsy transition, complete with voiceovers and backlit shots, as the rescue team traverses the inside of the eyestalk; Rusty watching the rescue party on its internal camera; the way the camera pans around some clear tubing before giving us a good look at the glowing breach in the power cell; the Daleks boarding the ship, with ash artfully drifting down around them; blaster fire streaking past the Daleks toward the camera (also a great effects moment); that lovely angle down on the Dalek skirt as bullets ricochet off it; the Dalek with a fractured dome, leaking blue liquid (another great effects moment); and the Doctor and Clara standing off to the side looking at Rusty. For whatever reason, I also found the shot of Clara climbing into the cortex vault to be very creepy, and very reminiscent of classic Who (maybe by analogy with Mel climbing into the Hyperion III air ducts, or Sarah crawling through the Nerva conduits). In fact, I'm delighted to say that as Wheatley himself promised, I actually am getting classic-series vibes from the episode as a whole. Not in a "recycled plot" way, but rather the way elements of the story are handled, like the Doctor and Clara's abrupt departure.

Murray Gold is really on a roll, so far. This makes the second story in a row with a musical score that I liked, and this one I really like. I'd go so far as to say that it's one of his best; the only downside is that while the notably great parts are really quite fantastic, they're also relatively brief. If he'd sustained the musical motifs throughout the episode, I might be hailing it as his best since Blink. But even as it is, it's pretty great. My favorite moments: as the Aristotle dodges the Dalek blasts, as the Doctor gets Journey to say 'please' (this bit reminds me somehow of Nightmare Cafe), and as the Daleks board the Andromeda. I also loved the retro-sounding noise that the nanoscaler makes, the equally retro noise as the rescue team wades through the boundary leading to the Dalek's eyestalk, and the wibbling background noise as the Doctor asks Rusty what he saw that expanded his mind. Oddly, I find I'm even liking the theme music more this week. Maybe it seems more dramatic when it actually fades in over the end of the teaser, because then the first major beat is synced with the appearance of the title sequence?

Aside from the script, the characterization, the acting, the direction and the sound — you'll notice that's a lot of story elements — I'd venture to say that one of the very best things about Into the Dalek is the effects. Some of them were, I suspect, influenced by Wheatley. I'm thinking specifically of the absolutely fantastic explosions during the battle sequence, which quite frankly top any explosions heretofore seen in Doctor Who for dramatic beauty. The medical bay door blowing bluish glittery spark-filled clouds of smoke, fire and sparks raining down on a Dalek dome, or the sparks exploding out in front of the Daleks as they advance toward the Andromeda crew... Apparently, I really like sparks. The exploding Daleks also look spectacular, because with only one (still stunning) exception, they don't all fly apart in a maelstrom of metal shards. There's something very obviously organic and messy inside these Daleks, so when they explode, a burst of liquid gushes in all directions, even spattering the walls in some shots. Yet somehow it's not made to look gory, but rather elegant and scenic. It fair boggles the mind! And it literally made me go "whoa" the first time it happened. Wheatley's decision to film these effects shots in slow motion really amps up the beauty. The other effects are great, too: the opening shot of space, with the outline of continents glowing on the planet's surface; the very convincing viscous greenish protein goop in the feeding tube; the Dalek hemispheres on the interior of the casing, discreetly visible in the distant background of numerous shots; the crack in Rusty's power cell sealing up (is it really just done with lights? it looks excellent, like the breach is actually knitting itself back together!); the soldier to the colonel's right being exterminated as they back away from bloodthirsty Rusty; the scale shots of the Doctor standing in front of Rusty; and the ring-of-stars effect behind the Doctor as he says "And isn't the universe beautiful?"

Set design is a prominent part of the story, particularly once the action moves inside Rusty's casing. The dark, smoky, neon-lit tube of the eyestalk makes for really atmospheric scenes; it's a shame that it doesn't get more airtime, but it makes for a suitably psychedelic entry into the miniaturized world. The other really noteworthy set is the egress of the bolthole, with circuitry that's periodically illuminated by travelling electrical signals. Many of the interior Dalek sets are dressed with oversized cables, which really help to sell the enlarged scale. Otherwise, given that the Dalek is an alien machine, there aren't many handy human-culture referents around from which to judge the scale. Initially, that lack of obvious reference points made me feel that the cortex vault set had more fine detail than one would expect on a two-inch-high mass-manufactured component, but, on further examination, there really aren't any set elements that would appear small to inch-high people. So maybe these interior sets lack the immediate impact of the ginormous garden path and laboratory in Planet of Giants, but they're quite well done and they feel very true to what the inside of a Dalek might look like. I even really like the interior of the Dalek ship, which we barely get to see, but its glowing white dome-shaped walls feel like a clear product of Dalek aesthetics.

Minor points:

For a Dalek story, it's more than usually imaginative, which keeps the audience engaged throughout, but it also engages on an intellectual level, as the story raises a number of thorny philosophical and moral issues, some of which are likely to recur throughout the season. As the first story to embody the show's new style, it makes for a very promising start.

Back to Into the Dalek.

Back to the episode guide.