It’s a highly uncontroversial opinion that The Daleks, despite being the most iconic monsters in Doctor Who history, are also its most overused. During the Russell T. Davies years alone, the creatures served as the Big Bad (or co-Big Bads) for three out of the first four season finales. To his credit, Steven Moffat and his creative team have taken this into account, employing The Daleks only sparingly. What’s more, since a simple “Daleks attack!” storyline no longer carries the weight it once did, there’s been a recent attempt to add a twist, or unique perspective to The Dalek stories, including Daleks in WWII (“Victory of the Daleks”), or insane Daleks (“Asylum of the Daleks”).
“Into the Dalek” continues that trend with Moffat and co-writer Phil Ford using a Fantastic Voyage structure as their launching pad. The result is probably the most solid Dalek-centric episode since the Season Four finale, “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End,” and the most intriguing since “Dalek,” the Season One episode that re-introduced the screeching metal figures to the rebooted series.
In many ways, “Into the Dalek” marks an excellent companion to “Dalek” in that it also focuses primarily on the moral ambiguity of a single Dalek soldier.
The story commences with The Doctor rescuing a human soldier (named Journey Blue) who is caught in the middle of an air battle with a Dalek fleet. Upon returning back to Journey’s ship (The Aristotle), the crew reveals they have discovered the unthinkable—a Dalek so badly damaged that it has actually developed some semblance of morality. Should The Doctor fix it, such a miracle could prove to be an essential tool against the Dalek armada.
The Doctor subsequently recruits Clara, who is in the midst of flirting with a new teacher named Danny Pink. Danny carries some military experience with him and, when one student prods him about the people he’s killed, it becomes clear that he still has some demons to work out. Besides serving as a hint that he is Journey’s seemingly deceased brother traveled back in time (Clara points out the coincidence of them both having color-themed last names), Danny’s background also feeds into the episode’s main theme about the difficult moral choices associated with being a soldier. Granted, it’s a fairly ham-fisted point, but it’s a small bump in an otherwise compelling entry of Who.
After being minimized and sent into The Dalek body (let’s follow The Doctor’s lead and call him “Rusty” from here on out), The Doctor, Clara, Journey and a few other human soldiers find themselves fighting against the creature’s deadly immune system, which consists of groups of floating orbs that will eviscerate anything they perceive as a threat to the body. In the process, the group learns why Rusty turned good—he saw beauty. Specifically, he saw the birth of a star, and realized that life will continue to go onward, and that the Daleks’ attempt to destroy it all is futile (one of The Dalek’s initial phrases back in their ‘60s iteration was “resistance is useless,” which was later re-purposed by Star Trek’s The Borg as “resistance is futile” in the ‘80s; The Dalek uses the “futile” line… which can’t help but feel like a betrayal).
Once the crew has fixed the radiation leak that is ailing Rusty, however, the Dalek re-sets to its regular “Exterminate!” mode and begins mowing down members of The Aristotle crew. He then programs the ship to allow several other invading Daleks onto the bridge. Inside. The Doctor is dismayed and Journey begins setting up explosives to kill Rusty. Just as Rose Tyler provided the voice of compassion in “Dalek,” however, Clara here insists that there’s another way to both save the crew and retrieve the good Dalek from within Rusty’s mind—make him remember the birth of the star.
As Clara climbs into Rusty’s memory banks to reclaim the images of star birth, The Doctor faces Rusty eye-to-eye and, after Clara restores the proper memories, connects the Dalek’s mind to his. Rather than latching onto the beauty inherent in the Time Lord’s memories, however, the creature hones in on the dark hatred in The Doctor’s heart, and proclaims that all Daleks must be destroyed. Rusty then saves the rest of The Aristotle crew by destroying the invading Daleks, and sends out an emergency signal to get the rest of The Dalek ships to retreat. It’s a victory for The Doctor, albeit somewhat of a hollow one.
First and foremost, it’s worth pointing out that “Deep Breath” director Ben Wheatley has returned for a second go ‘round, and his work here is nothing short of inspired. Whereas “Deep Breath” seemed designed as a more traditional Who episode, it’s here that Wheatley really gets to let his freak flag fly. This especially becomes apparent when the crew first steps into the Dalek. It’s a scene that feels almost psychedelic in the way that it shows them moving through some kind of watery substance.
Second, you have to salute the Who team for actively following up on the “darker” Doctor they promised in the teasers. Between him both leaving Clara behind to face the clock robots alone in the premiere episode, and potentially killing the lead robot near the conclusion, The Twelfth Doctor’s darker nature has already been hinted at. This episode takes it even one step further. Not only does The Doctor allow one doomed soldier to be eviscerated by Rusty’s immune bots so the others can escape, but Rusty’s rampage against the other Daleks comes about mostly because he sees so much hatred in The Doctor’s heart. There are definite shades of Christopher Eccleston’s brooding post-War Doctor in Peter Capaldi’s performance. This comparison is further hammered home in the entry’s final moments when, before departing the ship, Rusty comments that The Doctor is a “good Dalek,” which again connects back to season one’s “Dalek” when the rampaging Dalek coldly told the Ninth Doctor that he “would make a good Dalek.”
The Doctor begins the episode by asking Clara, “Am I a good man?” By the end, Clara replies she “doesn’t know” but that he “tries” to be, and that’s the point. This running question presents a subtle and poignant way of differentiating Eccleston’s “dark” Doctor from Capaldi’s. Unlike Eccleston, Capaldi actively recognizes his darker nature, and seems adamant that this does not overwhelm his role as a guardian figure. He’s someone trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past while also making sure that doing so does not compromise who (haha) he is.
Finally—in another bit worthy of note—after a female crew member (called Gretchen) decides to sacrifice herself inside the Dalek, we again bear witness to the enigmatic Missy and her “Heaven Garden,” which closed out the previous episode. Since last week, the rumors have been circulating widely about the identity of this character. Is it fellow Time Lord Romana? River Song? A regenerated Master (that’s where my money’s at)? The Doctor himself? Whoever or whatever this “Missy” turns out to be, it’s certainly nice to see that the show is again incorporating a season-long arc, after a previous season of mostly stand-alone episodes.
Perhaps most importantly, while some sections of “Deep Breath” fell a little flat to me, “Into the Dalek” legitimately has me excited for what comes next. It’s a visually beautiful and well-written installment that manages to add a nice twist to an old foe. Moreover, now that the pressure of the first episode is off his shoulders, Capaldi seems more relaxed as the new Doctor. Whether it’s inciting dark comedy by pointing out that the crew has fallen into a pool of dissolved humans, or his subtle heartbreak when the Dalek pinpoints the darkness within him, Capaldi really hits the role out of the park here. If I wasn’t totally sold on him before, I have no reservations now.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.