Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 2, “Into the Dalek”
August 30, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
“Clara, be my pal, tell me: am I a good man?”
The Daleks have always defined Doctor Who and, to some extent, The Doctor himself. So far, the eighth series has mirrored the first season of Classic Who, with a prehistoric-tinged first story that introduces The Doctor as a dangerous, unpredictable renegade and a second story that puts him up against his greatest enemy, the darkest force against which he ever stands, the thing that taught him how to stand in the first place: the Daleks. There’s an easy narrative within the series that The Doctor seems to believe, even if it isn’t wholly true. As he tells “Rusty” late in the episode, “See, all those years ago, when I began, I was just running. I called myself The Doctor, but it was just a name. And then I went to Skaro. And then I met you lot. And I understood what I was. The Doctor was not the Daleks.” The Doctor truly believes the Daleks are what taught him to be a good man. As someone who has seen that first season, I can tell you The Doctor’s transition from a wily outsider whose intentions were inscrutable into the unassailable hero of the show was much more gradual (and, I would argue, much more elegant) than this narrative allows, but it is easy to see how The Doctor, and much of the show’s audience, could get caught up in it. Holmes and Moriarty. Batman and the Joker. The Doctor and the Daleks. Polar opposites locked in an endless battle for supremacy, a battle that comes to define them.
Yet that is never the whole story. “Into the Dalek” pulls at that narrative in a way that Doctor Who has time and time again: The Doctor and the Daleks are much closer than he would like to believe. Good and evil aren’t so easily separable in the real world. Sanity and madness bleed together, heroes and villains find themselves stained with piety and darkness in combinations not wholly desirable nor conveniently explicable. It would be repetitive if it wasn’t so compelling. It would seem played out if it wasn’t playing out, constantly, all around us and within us. The Doctor is on an existential journey at this point in the season, searching desperately for a sense of self, for a way to determine who he is, for an evaluation of his worth in the universe. What he finds in “Into the Dalek” is discomfiting to say the least. He stares into the eye of his enemy. He let’s the Dalek see into his whole being, to get a glimpse of his view of the universe. And what the Dalek finds is hatred.
Dalek episodes are a tricky thing, because the Daleks stand for something abstract in the series that they can never fully live up to in fact. The Daleks are symbols, and symbols have power; but when you make them concrete, something is lost in translation. It is less that the Daleks are The Doctor’s arch nemeses and more that they are what has been slotted into that position since the show’s second story. The Daleks have never been the “oh shit!” moment for me they are generally played as, but the show has trained me well to understand that is the response they are supposed to evoke. The Daleks are the big guns. The Daleks are who you call when you want to do a big, bombastic, defining episode of Doctor Who.
This is hurt a bit by the actual episodes that often result from the use of the Daleks. For every “Genesis of the Daleks,” there are several “Planet of the Daleks” that have to be waded through. You get the occasional “Dalek,” but you also get “Evolution of the Daleks,” for my money one of the worst stories the show has done since its return. I think the solution to this is to actually treat the Daleks like the event they are supposed to be, and to hold them back until you’ve got a story that is really worth telling, or a way to knock it out of the park. The Daleks will never really be great villains in my mind, but if you can put a good enough story around them, they start to register in the way they are intended to. Elevate things to mythical proportions, and the symbol doesn’t feel so out of place—the story around them grows to fill in the gap in their effectiveness.
“Into the Dalek” is one such story, perhaps the best Dalek story the show has done since “Dalek” way back in series one (I liked “Asylum of the Daleks” last season, but felt it was a great premise wasted on an adequate episode, a fairly frequent problem on Doctor Who). This is an episode that sparkles at every turn: the screenplay crackles with memorable, hilarious, and insightful dialogue, the plot is zippy enough that it sort of papers over how little sense it makes (try not to think about why the Dalek is being treated. Trust me, it’s better that way) in the way most great Who stories do, and it is about something, for both The Doctor and Clara.
This is the first story where Clara Oswald in her current incarnation has worked for me as a character, and it gives her a vital purpose and a strong characterization she has previously lacked. From that great exchange about Clara being The Doctor’s “Carer” (which is below in The Roundup), to the way she forces The Doctor to reconsider his prejudice, to her final summation of the episode’s central question, Clara steps up and proves her worth this week. That little moment, deep in the heart of the Dalek, when Clara forces The Doctor to find a better way actually nails what the show was going for way back in “The Day of The Doctor,” but does so with weight. Clara is a moral force for The Doctor. She is someone that won’t let him give into his worst impulses, not because she sees the best in him, but because she sees the potential in everyone. “Into the Dalek” forwards Clara not as a pale replacement for Amy Pond (who did see the best in The Doctor, and believed in him too much), but as a successor to Barbara Wright, one of The Doctor’s first companions, a teacher with a moral compass so strong it pulled The Doctor into its sway. I can’t say that this episode single handedly redeems Clara as a companion, but I can say that this is the first time I have felt like the character worked, and it offers a way forward in which she could be an excellent companion in the remainder of her final season on the show. If “Into the Dalek” is the only time Clara rises to this potential, it will exist as evidence of the companion she might have been. If this is the first step in a new direction for her, it is a very exciting one indeed.
And then there’s The Doctor. The show seems to have come leaps and bounds from even last week at figuring out how to use Capaldi comedically. The Doctor is brusque, obtuse, and superficially uncaring. He’s all edges to cover up for the hollowness he fears he might find at his core. His Doctor is weary and cynical, resigned to the fact that he might not be the hero The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors were so frequently convinced they were. When he asks Clara whether he’s a good man, it doesn’t feel like a hook for the episode; it feels like a genuine searcher who knows enough to be afraid of what he might find. The constant refrain in the months leading up to his debut was that Capaldi’s Doctor would be “darker,” and the last two weeks have shown evidence of what exactly that means. He is a Doctor with doubt. He is willing to confront the darkness not just in the universe, but in his own soul. His darkness doesn’t just come from his more abrasive attitude and his feigned ignorance of everyone around him (already, forgetting names and pretending not to notice exposition are hallmarks for this Doctor), but from a growing understanding of the role he plays in the universe (which leads me to a probably wrong theory I’ll address in The Roundup about where things are going).
So The Doctor faces his greatest enemy in a time where he needs something to define himself in opposition to, and yet he comes out with a look of sorrowful confusion much like the one he wore last week when he looked at himself in that mirror. His enemy looked deep into his soul, and saw something it could relate to. The idea that The Doctor would make a good Dalek is something the new series wheels out every once in a while as a shocking moment, and yet just like Christopher Eccleston before him, Capaldi absolutely sells the mix of horror and resignation The Doctor feels when he hears this. The Doctor would make a very good Dalek. We all might. The Daleks are thinly sketched, because they never need to be more than an emblem of pure hatred. They are at their most relevant, and their most terrifying, when they are utilized not as the ultimate mustache twirlers, but as the dark side of all of us. The Daleks are the Nazis, but they are more than that. They are that little corner in all of us that hates. They are the rage we push down in ourselves made manifest, exploded outward into a genocidal conquest that knows no bounds. They’re what any of us could become without compassion, without empathy, without a sense of wonder and a hope that things can be better than they are currently.
That’s why there’s so much to the beautiful, terrifying philosophy that the radiation-poisoned “Rusty” develops, a type of nihilism only a Dalek could come up with. “Life returns. Life prevails. Resistance is futile.” It’s hope curdled into hopelessness, optimism corrupted into cynicism. It’s the light that is abhorrent to true darkness. The brilliance of “Into the Dalek” is how it twists this image of eternal recurrence, this idea that life can beat death, that optimism can beat nihilism into something unpalatable to the creature of pure evil at its center. The Dalek looks what drives The Doctor to do good in the face, and finds only the impetus for evil. He sees the good, and perverts it. But he only manages to warp The Doctor’s core goodness because of its imperfection. The Dalek finds something to relate to in The Doctor, and he clings to it, using it as a bedrock for the destruction he rains down.
“Into the Dalek” is an episode that offers no easy answers. It is an example of the show going to its most frequently visited “good versus evil” well and coming back unsure of what it found there. After a season in which the show posited its most important question was “Doctor who?” this is an episode that proves there is a much more important question, for The Doctor, and for all of us, this series can examine. The Doctor defines himself in opposition to the Daleks, but that is a failed paradigm; it’s a version of history that trades simplicity for honesty. It’s the sort of bedtime story account we’re taught in elementary school to shield us from all of the muddiness and complexity of what actually happened. When The Doctor asks whether he’s a good man, he gets back the only answer any of us can really expect if we demand honesty: “I don’t know.” A complicated question of such vital importance can never truly be answered any other way. If “Into the Dalek” concluded on that note of ambiguity, that would probably be sufficient to make it a very good episode of Doctor Who, but instead, it offers us one better. It offers us a world view that provides a way out of this constant quagmire that isn’t an easy absolution. Clara returns to The Doctor’s question with a slightly amended answer: “You asked me if you’re 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.” In a world with this much darkness and uncertainty, in a world where we all have the capacity for great evil within us, this is a sentiment of monumental importance. It tells us how we can live with the ambiguity, with the uncertainty, with the fact that we will all fail to live up to our ideals, not just occasionally, but constantly. We cannot be white knights; we spend too much time in the mud. But we can try. We can constantly evaluate, and we can aim to improve. There’s always a better way, and while the right attitude and the right effort won’t always guarantee we will find it, they do inspire us to keep searching. That, to a large extent, is what Doctor Who is all about. Not the destination, but the journey. Not the answer, but the search.
- Probably wrong theory: It seems like this season is shaping up to be a story about the collateral damage The Doctor leaves in his wake, which would explain why Missy is seemingly collecting those discarded dead who add up around the edges of this show, to shove back in his face when he inevitably arrives in “Heaven.” I love stories about the damage The Doctor does, and I always applaud the show when it is bold enough to question whether its hero is actually a force for good in the world, so if this is what Moffat is after this year, expect me to be very on board.
- “I materialized a time capsule exactly around you and saved your life one second before your ship exploded, but do please keep crying.” “My brother just died!” “His sister didn’t. You’re very welcome. Put the gun down.”
- “Dry your eyes, Journey Blue. Crying’s for civilians. It’s how we communicate with you lot.”
- “Its smaller on the outside.” “Yeah, it’s a bit more exciting when you go the other way.”
- “You don’t like soldiers much, do you?” “You don’t need to be liked. You’ve got all the guns.”
- “Daleks will die.” “Die all you like. Not my problem.”
- “Do I pay you? I should give you a raise.” “You’re not my boss. You’re one of my hobbies.”
- “This is gun girl. She’s got a gun and she’s a girl. This is a sort of boss one. Are you the same one as before?” “Yes.” “I think he’s probably her uncle, but I may have made that part up to pass the time while they were talking.” “This is Clara. She’s…not my assistant. She’s some other word.” “I’m his carer.” “Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don’t have to.”
- “A Dalek so damaged it’s turned good. Morality as malfunction. How do I resist?”
- “Who makes you smile? Or is no one up to the job?” “My brother. But he burnt to death a few hours ago, so he’s really letting me down today.”
- “Imagine the worst possible thing in the universe, and then don’t bother, because you’re looking at it right now. This is evil refined as engineering.”
- “I thought you were saving him!” “He was dead already. I was saving us.”
- “An anti-climax once in a while is good for my hearts.”
- “Are you out of your mind?” “No! I’m inside a Dalek!”
- “You need to get up there, find that moment, and reawaken it.” “Me?” “Yes, you, good idea!” “How?” “I haven’t the foggiest. Do a clever thing, and then once you’ve done it, the Dalek will be suggestible to new ideas.”
- “Is he mad or is he right?” “Hand on my heart, most days he’s both.”
- “I see your mind, Doctor. I see your universe.” “And isn’t the universe beautiful?” “I see beauty. I see endless, divine perfection.” “make it a part of you. Remember how you feel right now. Put it inside of you and live by it.” “I see into your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I see…hatred.” “Hatred?” “I see your hatred of the Daleks. And it is good.” “No no no. You must see more than that. There must be more than that!”
- “How do I look?” “Sort of short and roundish, but with a good personality, which is the main thing.”
“Into the Dalek” is one such story, perhaps the best Dalek story the show has done since “Dalek” way back in series one.