• 1st September 2014 • Review by Julian Hazeldine •
The appearance of a Dalek tale in a traditionally low-key episode slot is eyebrow-raising, and might foster suspicion of obligations. To Peter Capaldi, a Doctor that quite conceivably could only be with us for only one series. To Ben Wheatley, the director du jour who was unexpectedly coaxed into helming the first recording block of Series Eight. The opening of the story adds to this impression, with the action clearly more energised by the introduction of a shrinking machine than another clash with Skaro’s inhabitants. These initial scenes prove deceptive, however. This is the most Dalek-orientated story broadcast this decade, and the Doctor and co’s miniaturised quest could have as easily been accomplished by running full-sized through a Dalek data centre.
Until now, the treatment of the Daleks during Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner has been reminiscent of Russell T Davies’ approach to the Cybermen. While the writers are clearly aware of these respective elements of the show, and acknowledge their importance, it feels at times as if they are not susceptible to their appeal personally. Moffat chose to delegate the 2010 episode which introduced the Daleks’ botched redesign to Mark Gatiss, while the showrunner’s more successful uses of the Kaled mutants in “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Time of the Doctor” had little to do with the pepperpots themselves and much to do with appropriation of the gas-mask/nanogenes plague from “The Empty Child”.
Here, the Daleks are portrayed once again as per tradition: miniature tanks with an onboard propaganda department. It’s tempting to assume that returning co-writer Phil Ford has been able to find more mileage in this concept than his boss. Tellingly, the 2010 Paradigm Daleks are absent here.
While “Deep Breath” intentionally leant on the Paternoster gang to give a sense of continuity in the face of a new and older Doctor, “Into The Dalek” again suggests that the Peter Capaldi era of the show will look very similar to the vision we’ve encountered over the last few years. Specifically, it’ll look very similar to the long chute & gunge pool of “The Beast Below”, the floating synthetic antibodies of “Let’s Kill Hitler!” and the TARDIS space-rescue of “Night of the Doctor”.
When these references are layered on top of a high concept of “Dalek” meets The Fantastic Voyage, with the latter story already having been explored in Doctor Who, the episode at times looks like a bit of a greatest-hits package. If it didn’t have a new Doctor to play with, it would struggle to find its own identity. On paper, it also shares some of the failures of series 7B, with the troops of the Aristotle just as under-developed as the cringe-inducing salvage crew from “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”.
The great achievement of “Into The Dalek” is that it convinces you that most of these flaws don’t matter. Much of the credit for this goes to Ben Wheatley. While the guest director appeared somewhat constrained by the costume-drama trappings of “Deep Breath”, here he cuts loose, turning Phil Ford’s loosely-scripted accounts of Daleks “doing Dalek shit” into a horrific reality.
The Doctor’s arch-enemies haven’t looked this good since Joe Ahearne was working in Cardiff, and their offensive through the hospital ship is electrifying to watch. There are a couple of slightly questionable decisions from the director, with the sped-up miniaturiser a little out of place, but in general the pace is relentless and it’s extremely hard to resist the temptation to devour the story in one sitting.
“Into The Dalek” is a solid but unspectacular outing for the Coal Hill incarnation of Clara, but seeing more of the character in her school setting helps bed in the revamp of Oswald following her debut series. Of more interest, unsurprisingly, is Capaldi’s Doctor, still in the midst of a slow bedding-in period which the actor has stated will extend through the first half of the series. There are some achingly sharp quips here, presumably one of the reasons for Moffat’s writing co-credit, but Capaldi really seizes the moments of uncertainty and cracks in the facade that the script affords him.
Despite the triteness of “a good man“‘s phrasing, the Doctor’s self-questioning is an interesting new direction, and at odds with the showboating of David Tennant and Matt Smith’s incarnations. After dismissing the concept of the afterlife last week, we get more hints of this Doctor’s atheism, as he triumphantly points to Rusty’s enlightenment having stemmed from a mechanical fault. Presumably this thread will play into the overall series arc of Missy’s ‘Heaven’.
The only elements of the new Doctor’s characterisation which appear out of place are references to his disorganisation, such as distractedly abandoning Clara in Scotland. This scatterbrain approach feels more of a hangover from Smith’s portrayal than part of Capaldi’s pin-sharp take. Apart from that, it’s for the most part a strong showing for the regulars.
The exception is the arrival of Danny Pink, the show’s least convincing ex-squaddie since “The Invasion”‘s Jimmy Turner. It’s too early to make any comments on Samuel Anderson’s performance, as he’s visibly struggling with the thin material the script offers him, but the character will have to work hard to overcome such an unpromising introduction. His truncated screen time means that there’s no room for subtly in nailing the beats of his character. He gets carried away with the school’s cadet club, and breaks down in tears when asked about his past, instead of giving a more insightful portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder.
While the reintroduction of significant character-based arcs to the show is entirely welcome, the decision to feature Pink in this episode is questionable given that his minimal screen time leaves him as little more than a cardboard cut-out. At present, he’s too transparently a device to probe the Doctor’s hypocrisy as the planet-killer who takes the moral high ground over handguns.
For a time, it looks as if Rusty might take the vacancy left by the late, lamented, Handles, but instead vanishes back into the general mass of Daleks. The fact that the mutants aren’t rostered for another showing this series suggests there isn’t a plan for this thread. On the bright side, it’s less obtrusive than the short-lived hive-mind hack from “Asylum of the Daleks”.
(Actually, maybe it was only the Trenzalore Daleks which overcame this? The repaired Rusty seems remarkably unconcerned that a tiny Doctor is running around inside his casing.)
It’s too derivative to be truly vintage Doctor Who, but “Into TheDalek” cements the show’s creative revival since the disappointing Series 7B, and bodes well for this run. Phil Ford has obviously been absent from the show for too long, and a return by Ben Wheatley can’t come soon enough.