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There is a certain perspective from which, going in, this looked like the most cynical thing imaginable. Since every Doctor requires a Dalek story, they get it out of the way up front, treating it as something to get over with instead of something to anticipate. Accordingly, you take the Daleks and an unapologetically high concept premise and basically give Capaldi a second episode of having lots of other stuff going on to cover as he beds into the role. And with Gatiss having finally cracked the problem of how to pander to the sorts of fans who want a return to the classic series without losing the other 100% of the audience last season with Cold War, an unabashedly straightforward “just like you imagine Doctor Who being” episode becomes the order of the day. Fair enough, but equally, the sort of episode that a segment of fandom (by which I really just mean myself) looks at and (along with next week) goes “well, at least there’s a proper Moffat episode coming on the 13th.”
(Mind you, there’s a logic to it. Matt Smith got the same basic treatment with River Song and the Weeping Angels in his first two episodes. This time they actually shot Capaldi’s first two episodes first, so they put the Paternoster Gang and the Daleks in to smooth out the transition. And the series can’t serve up my kind of episode every week because, again, the other 100% of the audience would rightly object.)
So with the caveat that this is not an episode after my own heart and that I went in with fairly minimal expectations, I thought this was quite good. I seem to not be alone – comments so far on the post are broadly positive, Twitter’s pretty enthusiastic, and the GallifreyBase poll has it running slightly better than Deep Breath was. (72.7% in the 8-10 range, but skewed higher in the range) I suspect that a year’s hindsight will help Deep Breath and hinder this a little, but we’re all about the now here, and this seems, in the immediate aftermath of broadcast, to have scratched the itch it aimed for.
The script, obviously, is primarily bibs and bobs of other Dalek stories, most obviously the ones by Rob Shearman. But this is not entirely unsurprising. Phil Ford’s an odd writer – his best script prior to this was, of course, the one Russell T Davies rewrote entirely. His next best was an episode of Torchwood. And then there’s a succession of Sarah Jane Adventures that range from the quite good (The Lost Boy, Prisoner of the Judoon) to the bizarrely lightweight and disposable (Eye of the Gorgon, The Eternity Trap). The late addition of a cowriting credit for Moffat suggests that in this case he was commissioned as a matter of production expediency – that he was there, in effect, to provide the broad shape of a script for Moffat to tinker with. I recognize that this sounds rather critical and even dismissive, but I honestly don’t mean it to be. Writing to be rewritten is a skillset in itself, requiring a more “jack of all trades” sort of approach. Rewriting someone with too distinctive a style leads to, well, Planet of the Dead. (Which is to say, I really hope that Roberts’s script coming up in the season is very minimally rewritten. That’s the one story where “and Steven Moffat” is not entirely reassuring.)
And this is, to be honest, the sort of story that is made to be a multiply-authored script, because its job really is to hit a series of set pieces in order and in a way that feels unified. So yes, there are large swaths of Shearman here, but any suggestion that this is a remake of Dalek is deeply misguided. Dalek, like any Shearman script, is a theater piece. Into the Dalek is an action movie. In Dalek, the “you would make a good Dalek” line is part of an extended exploration of the Doctor’s psyche intended to show him as, in his own way, a monstrous figure. In Into the Dalek, it’s one last grim little kicker – the line that sends the Doctor grumping away with the knowledge that he’s only had a partial victory. There’s none of the sense of ambition in the line – instead it works as the quote it is – a reminder of the by-now longstanding tradition of the Daleks twisted understanding of the Doctor. (Also, a hat tip to dm in the comments, who points out a marvelous reading of the “you are a good Dalek” line in which the Dalek is using the term exactly as the Doctor is – that is, that the Dalek is acknowledging the Doctor as a Dalek who is morally good.)
But the ways in which the big thematic resonances are superficial and based in effect on allusions to past episodes does make the whole thing a bit muted. The entire “am I a good man” bit feels unearned, with the story not having done much of anything to justify the Doctor asking the question in the first place, and while Clara’s “you try to be” bit at the end is marvelous, it’s still a lovely resolution to a plot that never quite came together.
More interesting is the theme of soldiers, and, of course, Danny Pink. The Doctor’s “rule against soldiers” is clearly complex and nuanced, as suggested by the fabulous scene of Gretchen’s sacrifice (rewatch it and look at everything Capaldi does once the Doctor realizes what Gretchen is going to do). His objection manifestly isn’t to their killing, but a more subtle one having to do with the nature of military authority. “Soldiers take orders.”
But in this case the script is just a starting point. In reality, this is a story about the visuals. Ben Wheatley came under some criticism for the action sequences in Deep Breath, which were, admittedly, not its strongest point. But here, given the opportunity to do Dalek action sequences, he excels. At the heart of it is the decision to work with model shots and actual props, minimizing the CGI for the actual Dalek fight. So we get lots of fire and viscera, and it’s all terribly, terribly gorgeous, to the point where it largely masks the fact that the climax otherwise consists of Clara crawling around hitting buttons and the Doctor wrestling with what is fairly obviously a bit of ductwork. (Though here Peter Capaldi properly earns his Doctor Who wings, managing to make a scene dramatic despite having no co-stars on the set with him and nothing to act with other than the aforementioned duct. In every Doctor’s tenure there’s a scene where he realizes what the job in fact entails, and this is his.) Wheatley makes it feel as fresh and energetic as Camfield felt in the 1960s. (Indeed, the phenomenal Covent Garden battle in Web of Fear is probably the nearest touchstone in the series’ history. Certainly the Daleks themselves have never actually looked this good.
Much of this comes, one suspects, from hiring an experienced and respected film director with a childhood love of Doctor Who and turning him loose on a script that left him with a big Dalek battle to basically fill in as he pleased. The result is something that’s clearly making an effort to feel like the classic series always wanted to feel. The obvious touchstone is Resurrection of the Daleks, which can be looked at as a story that existed to try to do these action sequences and just couldn’t. But in many ways I’d go back to things like the elaborate toy-based action sequence at the end of Evil of the Daleks (however that actually looked in practice), the devastation of the Mechanoid city in The Chase, or any number of sequences in the three Pertwee Dalek stories.
Also deserving of effusive praise is the set design for the Dalek interior, which took something that could easily have been silly and made it satisfyingly unsettling. The long, distorted shot of entering the eyestalk and the play of light builds up expectations, and the resulting set delivers marvelously. The shot of everybody looking up towards the Dalek brain after the Dalek has been repaired is wonderful, giving a sense of the internal shape of the Dalek. The Dalek aesthetic, such as it is, is maintained throughout, in a really satisfying way (which really just means lots of Dalek bumps). But equally, the interior of the Dalek is worn and ugly, in a way that makes an interesting contrast to the excessively pristine Dalek ship.
So, a story that is not necessarily long on ambition, but that takes care to get what it does right. Capaldi gets another episode to bed in, and is brilliant more often than not, although there are a handful of moments where I’m not entirely persuaded by his choices, most notably in the final confrontation with the Dalek mutant itself, but there’s far more where he’s electric. The first scene inside the TARDIS, rescuing Journey, is brilliant, as is his slightly distracted, mournful final scene with Clara. For the obligatory Dalek story, a slot that has, let’s be honest, been a problem slot for the series since about 1965, this is far, far better than we had any right to expect. It’s almost enough to give one hope that Gatiss can be satisfying.
- Is Ben Crompton the most criminally under-utilized actor Doctor Who has ever had? He’s a phenomenal character actor, and I’m pretty sure he gets exactly five lines plus a “scream like you’re being disintegrated by Dalek antibodies.”
- Still nothing to speculate on with regards to Missy, really.
- I’ve decided I like the new credits sequence. The clangy bits at the beginning resolving into something more traditionally sci-fi works for me – it’s almost like a theremin. And I’m glad to see Gold’s scoring moving a bit more towards synths for this season. I think it’s the right shift in the music, keeping it fresh and very 2014.
- To talk about Danny Pink agin, it’s awfully early to say a lot about him, but it really is promising at the start. He’s got good comic timing and can keep his end of a scene full of banter, which is at least a good baseline for a Doctor Who companion. I do hope they find an excuse to give William Russell a cameo soon, though, if only to get the sense of a modern day Ian to be even stronger.
- Letter grades may be a no, but I’ll at least rank the episodes. So, thus far:
- Deep Breath
- Into the Dalek.