Good Soldiers (Into the Dalek)


'Into the Dalek' is about good soldiers vs bad soldiers.

The pain of being a good soldier, the pain of the memories which a good soldier has, vs the anaesthetised mind of the bad soldier.

But, of course, what do we mean by terms like 'good' and 'bad'?

For the army, a 'good' soldier is a soldier who obeys orders without question, kills without hesitation, and doesn't let themselves be haunted.

A 'bad' soldier is a soldier who thinks about, and makes decisions based upon, things other than the orders of a superior... perhaps leading to their inability, or refusal, to kill on command.

In a soldier, morality is a malfunction.  A good soldier is a 'bad' soldier.  Because good people can't do a soldier's job, which is to fight and kill.

At least, that might be how the Doctor would put it, in his simplistic way.  The Doctor doesn't like soldiers.  As in 'The Sontaran Stratagem' he is rude and patronising to the soldiers he meets as a matter of course.  He refuses to take Journey Blue with him because she's a soldier.

But the soldiers on the Aristotle are rebels.  They are specifically described as rebels.  Rebels against the Daleks.  The Daleks, who are, for whatever reason, inherently evil.  This is fuzzy (it still may be because of technological control of the brain) but, at the end of the day, Rusty reverts to type.  He realises that life is beautiful and unstoppable, that the Daleks are the enemies of life, and his response is to decide that all Daleks must die.  Because he's a Dalek, and that's how Daleks think.  So, contrary to the Doctor's hopes, there's no saving the Daleks... which makes Rusty pretty much right: they're beyond saving, so they must be fought.  Which is what the rebels are doing.  So Rusty kills all the Daleks... which is a BAD THING judging by the Doctor's defeated frown (though quite how any of them would have survived if that hadn't happened escapes me).

So, once again, as in 'A Good Man Goes to War', we have an episode which says one thing about warriors while showing us another.  Soldiers are scary and irredeemable... umm, even the ones who rightly rebel against unappeasable and unsalvageable aggressors.

See, I have no problem with the soldiers on the Aristotle.  They're rebelling against the imperialists of the universe.  I'm supposed to think they're wrong or suspect for shooting to kill?  When you're in an army fighting aggressive imperialists or fascists, you'd better obey orders and shoot to kill.  That's what the soldiers of the International Brigades did.  That's what the Red Army did when they drove back the proto-fascistic West-sponsored Whites.  If the Whites, or Franco's troops, or the Nazis, are advancing on you, you want an army that's 'good' at what it does to come and fight them.

Of course, Danny is a former soldier... and Clara doesn't reject him the way the Doctor rejects Journey.  She, despite her copy of the Guardian, rises above the kind of knee-jerk, right-on disdain for soldiers that (supposedly) so many people have, like the Doctor.

So there's some nuance, right?  Taken with the fact that the Doctor's prejudiced hatred of Daleks is what turns Rusty into a Dalek-killer, and Rusty's remark that the Doctor is a good Dalek (however we want to take that), a considerable amount of ambiguity has been created, yes?

And anyway, the Doctor has a bloody cheek being so arsey with soldiers, considering that he ended the Time War by... oh no, hang on, that got fixed last year didn't it.

It really isn't possible to just talk about 'soldiers' as if all soldiers are the same, as if all armies and their objectives are morally equal.  This is obvious.  It's a commonplace of our cultural discourse actually... trouble is, it sits alongside the assumption that 'we' are always the ones with the moral superiority, which is sadly rarely true.  But it could be true, theoretically.  It isn't logically impossible to have soldiers who are both 'good' and good.  It's just that, by a morally and politically realistic evaluation of the world, that doesn't apply to 'our' soldiers.  Our rulers pretend it does.  'Our' media pretends it does.  But it doesn't. 

Presumably, Danny was fighting for the British Army in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Which makes him a soldier in the army of a technologically-superior imperialist aggressor.

He's a good soldier because he cries when he thinks of the people he killed.  Maybe he's even good because he stopped being 'good', i.e. he became 'bad' at his job because he found a moral objection to it (I guess we'll see) but he isn't anything like the soldiers on the Aristotle, the ones I had no problem with.  He wasn't a rebel.  He wasn't in the Iraqi resistance.  He wasn't someone exercising their moral right to use violence against the people attacking them and occupying their country.  He was, presumably, in the occupying force.  He claims that there is a "moral dimension" to soldiering as he practiced it.  In other words, there is a moral dimension to being an aggressor, invader and occupier on the orders of an imperialist hegemon.

So, as always, 'we' are the good guys, by definition.  The ambiguous investigation of the ethics of warfare collapses back into bog-standard liberal hand-wringing over the niceties of what we do in the course of being the goodies.  How terrible it is the bad things happen when we try to help. 

The truth is, we in the aggressive neoliberal imperialist countries... we are the Daleks.

And we're not good.  Though we are 'good'.


Brightcoat 6 years, 4 months ago

Of course, "WE are the Daleks" evokes Jubilee, (as well as "We are the Daleks!", the pre-Genesis Nation prose story from the Radio Times :p).

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Anonymous 6 years, 4 months ago

Regarding Danny, I'd like to add that however good we're supposed to believe he is because of his emphasised tear, he trains children to be 'good' soldiers. For fun.

I disagree somewhat about your reading of both Rusty and Journey, though. I don't think we viewers are meant to share the Doctor's disgust for the Aristotle soldiers. The way Clara gives Journey an apologetic smile, and the way Journey nods bitterly... I think we're meant to sympathise with her, to see the Doctor as hypocritical (or at least, self-loathing and blind to the truth) and unfair to her.

As for Rusty, the episode really seems to make it clear Daleks *have* the potential of becoming good. The reason the Doctor's hopes are crushed is not that he was wrong for hoping, but that he wasn't believing in them enough. He is the only reason Rusty reverted to his killing machine mode.

Admittedly, this reading is partly undermined by the fact Rusty already wanted to kill Daleks at the beginning of the episode, and says so with a very Dalek virulence. I wish they'd elaborated on how 'life prevail' translates into 'destroy the Daleks' because switching sides doesn't magically make a soldier good. However, it is still telling that Rusty uses 'kill' then, and 'exterminate' after the Doctor's intervention.

What makes the final version of Rusty bad is not that he wants to kill Daleks, per se, it's that he wants to eradicate them for what they are instead of for what they do. That he wants to pursue them even as they retreat and are not a threat anymore.

So I think the Dalek side of the plot works as intended without as much contradiction as you saw. Now the Danny side... That's a whole different matter.

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Eric Rosenfield 6 years, 4 months ago

Wait, are you actually saying you have no problems with the Iraqi insurgents, many of whom are the same people who are now in ISIS and were Al Qaeda in Iraq. Say what you will about America's role in creating the modern Middle East, it doesn't necessarily make those fighting against us worth rooting for...

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Matthew Celestis 6 years, 4 months ago

Which is such a blunt and clumsy moral point that it has nothing very much to say.

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FlexFantastic 6 years, 4 months ago

Good take. One thing, and maybe it doesn't so much contradict your points as offer a different way to look at things: since the Doctor's objections to soldiers doesn't come from violence per se, but from an objection to taking orders (which I took as shorthand for an opposition to rigid hierarchy), one could plausibly guess that he'd have no problem with, say, anarchist militias which attempt to resolve some of these issues.

Given my political inclinations, this is obviously an attractive notion as to where the Doctor's sympathies may lie.

Of course, it is utterly impossible that the show will be purposefully taking this reading overall but I think in an isolated context it can work for this episode.

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Spoilers Below 6 years, 4 months ago

I'm not sure I agree it's blunt or clumsy. I think "Why do you always assume you are correct, and always have the moral high ground? Why must everyone who isn't like you be enslaved or exterminated?" is the perfect starting point for a deconstruction of values. Or the perfect end result of the essay, encapsulating in a single phrase Jack's entire point. It might not mean much to people outside the target audience, but then, an essay about Marxist interpretations of Doctor Who already has a rather specific audience...

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Anonymous 6 years, 4 months ago

nice distinctions here, and the dissonance rather than black and white 'happy' ending is part of the point.
I think the Doctor's feeling of failure with Rusty was because of what it taught him about himself: he'd hoped to 'dose' Rusty with his own mind, and could hardly see it as victory that his 'cure' was contaminated.
Maybe that's part of his stated anti-soldier stuff.
The thing about crying being how civilians communicate with soldiers holds true for all 'collateral damage' whether by morally 'good' rebels/freedom fighters, or effectively 'good' obedient tools of an occupying force. As the african proverb puts it:
'When elephants fight, the grass suffers.'

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Verblet 6 years, 4 months ago

Lots of good points, as always, but I feel you're being more than a little ungenerous.

Into The Dalek isn't about Good Soldiers vs Bad Soldiers, more subtle things. It's about the differences between goals and reasons when going to war, about how all soldiering, regardless of justification, turns people into something unquestioning and unkind, and about the fundamental incompatibility between being a soldier and being a companion to the Doctor.

To start with the thing you're most wrongest about (why not!), it is obvious to me that the Doctor thinks The Rebels are in the right. He *always* supports 'The Rebels', even when he distrusts the hierarchy, authority, macho bluster, and blind obedience that often comes with them. He supports these Rebels completely in their fight against the Daleks, and never once stops to moralise against the importance of their fight, even when he dislikes them personally.

Rather than being about Good vs Bad Soldiers, there are a few dichotomies in this episode that raise interesting questions (that aren't adequately answered over 45mins, but I'm not so bothered about that):

* Journey vs Rusty - Is it good enough just to fight the Daleks, or do you have to fight them for the right reasons? You get the sense that the Rebels are defending an existing society - that there is a future with them - but what does Rusty stand for? What would Rusty build in place of the Daleks' racially pure universe? Nothing. With Rusty there's still only hatred. And while hatred is okay (the Doctor and Journey have it in spades), hatred isn't enough.

* Rusty vs The Doctor - Is the Doctor simply the Anti-Dalek? The line at the end about the Doctor being a 'Good Dalek' is brilliant, on the surface simply calling back 9 years to Dalek, while simultaneously subverting its meaning. The Doctor is no longer being described as having *sufficient* hatred to be a Dalek, but rather being the moral *equivalent* of a Dalek. The fact that it is the Doctor's hatred of the Daleks that, in effect, makes the Dalek 'good' (and in turn saves everyone's life) is the bow that ties it all together.

* Journey vs Danny - I find this more difficult to deconstruct. Perhaps because at this point to we don't know enough about Danny to make many ethical inferences, whereas the Rebels are a complete package delivered over 45mins. Regardless I cannot stress how important it is that we are presented with a British soldier character who immediately has to justify who he is and what has done, and struggles to do so. Clara doesn't reject him completely for his soldiering past, but doesn't pull punches either. To have a character say "moral soldiering, is that when you kill someone and cry about it afterwards?", in 2014, in such an atmosphere of militaristic sanctity that typifies Britain today, is refreshing. I don't know where they're going with this, but I'm not going to assume it will all be "Danny Was A Good Soldier, Leave Him Alone".

* Journey vs the Doctor - The Doctor isn't a solider. Until he needs to be. Or needs the help of some. So why not have Journey as his companion? Not because Soldier == Bad, but because Solider =/= Companion. Not to jump ahead too far, but as we later saw in Listen the Doctor does not need someone who will take orders. Taking orders from the Doctor will get him, and you, killed. And regardless of how brave and good a person Journey is, being a soldier has changed her into someone who takes orders without question, motivated by hatred and grief. And being motivated by hatred and grief makes you akin to the Doctor, but not a good compliment to him.

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Bar 6 years, 4 months ago

Thanks so much for this thought-through post.
It is nice to have an ongoing theme rather than just the annoying story arc. Whether 'Dan the plastic soldier man' - someone so brave he doesn't need a gun - is more than a passing token I don't know, but Clara handed it on to him before he made it through the Academy and took the name Doctor.
It's worth re-listening to the differences between her speech to the young Gallifreyan, and his to young Rupert 2000 years later.
Instead of complex arc plot twists this season we're getting lots of nice character layers we can unpack to our geek hearts' content.

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