The Daleks have been around almost as long as Doctor Who, and are more synonymous with the series than any particular one of the actors to have played the main role. They have been entirely synonymous with its success and longevity, and have reappeared more often than we have seen the Doctor enjoying a well-prepared meal. Finding new things to do with the Daleks is a tricky, almost impossible task – and yet they’re useful. They’re a guarantee of public interest, and they’re also a touchstone for the viewers. It’s no coincidence that, 48 years ago when Doctor Who underwent its most difficult and potentially disastrous development, the Daleks were called in to oversee the first new Doctor’s first new adventure. They were a point of continuity and a distraction for the audience, something to divert the attention away from a substitute lead actor, allowing the new fellow to establish himself while the audience were looking the other way.
It’s no surprise, where the Daleks are concerned, to find history repeating itself. A new Doctor in 2014 is a new challenge for the audience, the first fifty-something Doctor that the 21st century viewers have had to accept. The series’ producers are savvy enough nowadays to know that the change itself is possible without the distraction, but they’re also sensible enough to see that throwing the audience a pepperpot-shaped bone this early in the new Doctor’s tenure will likely help ease the transition, and allow Peter Capaldi to imprint his identity on the nation’s consciousness while they’re still marvelling at the fireworks. Because there isn’t much to the Daleks, but they are spectacular. And so it’s easy to use them to draw focus away from your real intention. Into the Dalek is where we see the twelfth Doctor properly in action for the first time. And it isn’t pretty.
The challenge, then, for Phil Ford (and Steven Moffat, here taking a co-writer’s credit in the same way Russell T Davies did on Ford’s The Waters of Mars) was to do something new enough with the Daleks that the audience would be drawn into the plot, while keeping things familiar enough that the story might be allowed to unfold unhampered. Because when Clara answers the Doctor’s question, “I don’t know,” it’s a shock to discover that she’s right. Any other incarnation, this is a question we wouldn’t have wasted a second’s thought upon. But this twelfth Doctor is something different. The amorality has returned; he’s like the very early first Doctor transfused with Tom Baker’s DNA. Spectacular and compelling, utterly mesmerising in fact, but not necessarily the hero of the show any longer. It felt on a couple of occasions like Clara was stepping up to take on that mantle, this week. The moment when the antibodies arrived and took their man, we got an instant hit of what Capaldi is going to be. It was invigorating – and shocking. It feels like we’re probably going to be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing.
Into the Dalek is essentially a remake of sorts, of Christopher Eccleston’s lone Dalek story, filtered through the prism of Fantastic Voyage (or The Invisible Enemy; take your pick). Thanks to Ben Wheatley’s excellently unfussy direction of a strong but unshowy cast, the episode belts along with some gasp-inducing visuals that add to, rather than distract from, the moments that really breathe life into the story (and Murray Gold has taken a leaf out of the producers’ books, providing less ostentatious melodies that nevertheless harmonise perfectly with the new, cooler visuals). The familial connection between the Blues is included surreptitiously enough to add some real pathos to the last act, although the added association with Danny Pink is perhaps less satisfactorarily accomplished – although again, there is little doubt that this sub-plot is a foreshadowing of character developments still to arise. Michelle Gomez’ appearance towards the end was not unexpected but welcome all the same. Series 8 looks to have a string of running themes that will no doubt pay dividends over the coming weeks, and it’s fascinating to watch them setting themselves in motion.
Ford’s real coup de grâce was in finding an entirely new and yet wholly logical characteristic for his Dalek. The notion that the species mechanically suppress any thoughts that might make them less ruthless fits completely with our previous knowledge of the species, but to turn this around by having a Dalek who has seen that new life always finds a way, and thus extemporises the futility of purposeless destruction, is a brilliant twist of rationale. It sets Into the Dalek above recent stories featuring the creatures that it otherwise bears a superficial resemblance to (like the aforementioned Dalek and Asylum, with which it had a bizarre and perhaps unintentional symmetry), and to make it yet more satisfactory, Moffat’s line about how the Doctor discovered himself through the Daleks all those years ago ties everything together so neatly it almost hurt. The two writers have between them gifted Peter Capaldi with easily the strongest second story (and thus first and establishing post-regenerative adventure) since The Ark in Space back in 1975, and the Daleks with a reason for being again – other than to sell toys, that is.
It wasn’t always easy viewing, though. While Capaldi is still a Moffat Doctor with a clever turn of phrase and a surprising ability to access genius even as he flounders, he’s also a man who, in a deceptively mild-mannered fashion sometimes, brooks no dissension – and the way this exhibits itself is startling, occasionally ugly (in the best way), and utterly utterly spellbinding. This here is the true beginning of the new era, and in spite of a couple of slightly awkward plot developments – more than made up for by the conceit of having a disconnected but relevant sidestep into Coal Hill early in the episode – it couldn’t have been more satisfying.
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