This story in a nutshell: The Invisible Enemy meets Resurrection of the Daleks meets Daleks meets Let's Kill Hitler...
Indefinable: Have we ever had a Doctor who is so willing to self-analyse so early in his tenure. The norm is that the Doctor regenerates, spends his first story getting used to his new body and from his second story onwards he strides off into the universe to new adventures. The New Series has been obsessed with tackling the Time Lord's psychological issues but with the ninth Doctor it was a case of slowly unpeeling the character over thirteen episodes, the tenth started out fairly happy go lucky and began to self-reflect as time went on and the eleventh Doctor tended to try and forget his past the more his time went on (pointed out in The Day of the Doctor where it all came back to him with a vengeance). The twelfth Doctor is so ready to find some kind of resolution about his character he practically sniffs out a situation where that will be determined. He's so prepared to look into his soul that you have to wonder if he will wind up a poet. Wonderfully however by the end of Into the Dalek he still manages to lack practically any definition with very few characteristics that you grab hold of and say are instinctively his. Despite muddying the waters about his morality, he is still a bit of a mystery. I like that a lot. And I especially like the opening scene where once again he refuses to make allowances for visitors to the TARDIS and make them feel at home. Like the first Doctor, he treats people like intruders and he tells them things precisely how they are rather than sugar coating it. This TARDIS scene was the highlight as far as the Doctor is concerned, a genuinely sinister moment in a noisy, busy episode. The music is wonderful, capturing the ominous tone of Stannis Boratheon's scenes in Game of Thrones. He is pondering the question of whether he is a good man, a riddle that troubles him because he has never been in any doubt before. Bathed in the blue glow of the Dalek cell, the Doctor looks as cold as ice and twice as deadly. Wonderfully the Doctor gets into a real strop when Journey hurts the Dalek from inside. I never thought he would be an advocate for protecting these creatures and I'm pleased he can still surprise me like that. If the Doctor recognises what has addled this particular Dalek's mind, isn't he a bit idiotic to correct the problem and then stand there going 'No! No! No!' afterwards? It reminds me of Peri pushing the Doctor down the hill in The Mark of the Rani and then looking highly perturbed when he trundles away into danger. What did he think would happen? Understandably the Doctor has a natural hatred for these creatures given their disturbing history and so once the Rusty looks into his mind it is consumed by his dark thoughts about his most implacable foes. Turning a Dalek into a merciless killer because of his sheer revulsion of their race, this is one dark Doctor indeed. The fact that he was convinced that he was going to hand the Dalek a soul and instead he exacerbated its homicidal nature was as much of a shock to him as it was to us. More please. Is he a good man? He tries to be that is probably the point.
Mysterious Girl: After flirting with being a real person for the entirety of Deep Breath (one of the strongest aspects of a frankly underwhelming debut story for the new era), Clara is back to being irritatingly self assured. Her insecurity was fun while it lasted. She shows no anxiety about being shrunk to the size of a grain of rice and being placed inside one of the most evil creatures that has ever lived. Clara acts like that is as natural a going down the shops for some milk. It is entirely my problem but what is the deal with constantly dropping the companions off at the end of each adventure these days? Not so much a trip of a lifetime but short sneezes of adventure before picking up their old lives. It feels as if no companions want to commit to a life with the Doctor any more. Bizarrely the only time Clara really works is when she is pondering the new Doctor's persona, existing vicariously through the troubled Time Lord rather than possessing a personality in her own right. I don't understand why it is okay for Clara to slap the Doctor around the face...frankly I think he is perfectly within his rights to slap her back (and don't get me started on this it's okay for a woman to do it to a man but not a man to a woman, sexism is sexism whatever way you approach it). The Doctor's companions are astonishingly critical of him these days but without much explanation to make the disapproval valid. I wish he had turned around and told her he didn't give a damn what she thought, I would have respected that far more than him conceding to her disapproval.
Ex-Soldier: An interesting prospect, this because Danny Pink is presented as an instantly damaged character. Immediately he is more engaging than Clara because he has a lot of injury that is going on beneath the surface and that can boil up with provocation. Much more fascinating than goody two shoes, take everything in my stride Clara and frankly he would have been much more useful a character to explore in the physical conflict that this episode flaunts. He's an ex-soldier, he has done terrible things and he hasn't quite come terms with that yet. Okay so as presented here he is practically John Watson from the revived Sherlock in that respect but points for trying something completely different with a male companion. I don't think we have explored a vulnerable, broken male companion since Steven Taylor back in the shows first three years. Samuel Anderson makes an instant impression but his scenes are rather hampered by the fact that his chemistry with Clara lacks sparkle. They are saying all the right things but there is little between them that gets me excited. If the idea is to recapture the Ian/Barbara relationship then there is a long way to go yet. Something tells me that had these scenes been scripted under Russell T. Davies' tutelage it would have bounced off the page into the actors mouths. Like much of this episode, it was functional but lacked heart. I would respect Moffat far more if he would have let Clara be a good friend to Danny, to help him through his trauma without any kind of sexual connotation but he simply cannot write Doctor Who without a stirring in his trousers.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'I'm his carer' 'Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don't have to.'
'Are you out of your mind?' 'No I'm inside a Dalek!'
'Victory would have been a good Dalek.'
* The Daleks are back to being complete bastards again. After being castrated in Victory of the Daleks, calcified in The Big Bang and had their insecurities aired in Asylum of the Daleks you could almost believe that the Doctor's most frightening opponent had suffered limp plunger syndrome. Fortunately Into the Dalek features the most Dalek action (them dashing about and murdering for sheer pleasure) since The Stolen Earth. I like my Daleks as mean badasses and that is exactly what I got here.
* This story opens in a dogfight in space. We haven't seen one of those before on Doctor Who and it was certainly an attention grabbing way of kick starting the show. The space battle itself looks wonderful, Doctor Who commands some wonderful effects these days.
* The whole good Dalek angle has barely been covered in the past is certainly worthy of examination. I'm not sure reducing it to a quirk of radiation does it justice but I appreciated the willingness to try something completely new with the creatures for a change. Ultimately the episode decides that a good Dalek is genuinely possible, a massive decision for the series to take and one that might have profound consequences for the show down the line. It sure did in Evil of the Daleks. Let's see what they do with it.
* If you are going to tell an episode where the Doctor and his assistant are shrunken down to the size of a pea then I can't think of anything much more quirky than shoving them inside a Dalek. Whoever came up with this idea, I can see why they snapped it up.
* The condensed time that this episode has to tell its story in means that we have to take an awful lot for granted. We have to accept a good Dalek in record time, recognise that we need to get inside its head and that there is precisely the means to do that at their disposal within about ten minutes. Two plot elements that dovetail so beautifully (the Dalek and the technology) is a massive co-incidence that you simply have to swallow to allow the episode to work.
* Once again Ben Wheatley's direction was lacking, I found. Don't get me wrong the effects were frequently wonderful, the lighting often striking and performances top notch but the way Wheatley shot the scenes meant that the story was curiously lacking in any real tension. When you compare to the previous Phil Ford/showrunner collaboration (The Waters of Mars directed by Graeme Harper at his most dynamic) and the differences in how the two directors bring a story to life are definable and not in Wheatley's favour. The Dalek in the cell, the miniaturisation process, the antibody attack...none of these moments provoked even a seconds anxiety. Maybe it is because none of the characters are reacting to any of it in a fearful way. He shoots the Daleks really well (they love the camera) so it is shame that we spend so much of the episode inside of one.
* The Moffat era lacks real heart. There I said it. His characters can talk about emotions all they want but we rarely see them experiencing them, embracing them, learning from them. More often than not his characters are plot functions first and real people second, something to trial his dazzling ideas and set pieces on. There were no definable characters in Into the Dalek, only ciphers to push the plot onwards. The soldier that lost her brother was no more distinct than Bree in Victory of the Daleks, the wartime worker who lost her husband in two brief scenes that barely thought to explore the human cost to the Second World War. The fact that Journey has lost her brother is all that is tangible about this character, she has no real personality beyond that which is a shame because Zawe Ashton gives a terrific performance. This could have been a hard hitting examination of loss when it comes to fighting the Daleks but her one character trait is skipped over in a few throwaway scenes. The characters in Phil Ford's previous Doctor Who script were instantly vivid and multi-faceted, one of the most memorable casts in the shows history and put through the physical and emotional wringer. In comparison this bunch were just Dalek fodder. Like my point about inconsistencies in continuity in my review of Deep Breath, weak characterisation is another fault of Moffat's that has to be accepted if you are to move on and continue looking for the gold in the era. It's not how I like my Who (favouring ideas over people) but it is certainly a unique approach. The downside is that you waste terrific actors like Michael Smiley.
* Why didn't the Doctor comment that 'there is something very familiar about all this?' like he did in Deep Breath. A thematic sequel to The Girl in the Fireplace followed by a thematic sequel to Dalek? They don't even try and pretend that this is anything else in the pre-titles sequence, aesthetically copying the moment when Eccleston walked into the cell and met the lone Dalek (except Joe Ahearne captured it with far more drama and atmosphere). When the Dalek comes to life and escapes its cell, attacking the base personnel it is shot in a very similar way too. Visual self plagiarism? Miniaturisation was handled far more imaginatively in The Invisible Enemy (a story, despite the giant prawn, that I admire for its ambition and pace) and the scenes inside the Dalek are visually stolen straight from Let's Kill Hitler and the Tesselecta (especially the antibodies). Down a chute into gunk is lifted from The Beast Below.
* Like most of this era you wont be able to pull Into the Dalek off the shelf and watch it as a story in its own right. It is saddled with arc material that has absolutely no relevance to the story at hand, including a five minute sequence introducing Danny Pink that hampers the overall story because that extra time was urgently needed to flesh the central narrative out.
* When is this story set? Isn't that important anymore?
* Rusty turning round twice to drive its point home before leaving. Hilariously bad. He's practically saying 'I'll be back...'
The Shallow Bit: Samuel Anderson is very easy on the eye. Clara looks like she is wearing her pyjamas throughout.
Result: Given the last collaboration between showrunner and Phil Ford produced the superlative The Waters of Mars (still my idea of the perfect Doctor Who story) I was expecting great things of Into the Dalek. It was certainly a step in the right direction after Deep Breath but unfortunately still riddled with flaws that kept it from being just above average for me. Into the Dalek wants to be a mad Fantastic Voyage style adventure, a gripping Dalek massacre and a psychological examination of both the Doctor and the Dalek and simply doesn't have the time to do justice to all three and so much of the material is rushed. It performs all three adequately (visually it works a treat) but I would say that The Invisible Enemy, The Parting of the Ways and Dalek tackle these three individual elements in a much more effective way because they have the time to explore them. Squishing them all together means there is barely a moment to breathe and in some cases the genres are fighting each other (Honey I Shrunk the Kids style running about inside a Dalek and a psychological face off between the Doctor and the Daleks are hardly the most complimentary of concepts). This so desperately wants to be Capaldi's Dalek but it isn't as hard-hitting or as intimate and he simply isn't scared enough of the creatures for it to have the same impact. Dalek was so raw it was practically bleeding, this discusses emotions and feelings but it doesn't show the characters experiencing them and there is a massive difference between the two approaches. Whilst it doesn't engage me psychologically, I have long awaited the time when the Daleks were behaving like total bastards again after being slowly castrated throughout the Moffat era and here they get to do what they do best, kill indiscriminately. The scenes of them storming the base and massacring the crew are a highlight. I found this entertaining, occasionally quite profound but this desperately needed an extra 15 minutes to add extra depth to the characters, detail to the setting and to allow the plot some time to breathe. Into the Dalek is packaged in such a mechanical way that it pretty much guts the story of any real tension. Kudos for the action content though and I can't wait to see a lighter side of Capaldi next week: 7/10