Into the Dalek

Well, let’s get these out of the way:

  • “Planet of Giants” (1964): miniaturization
  • “Carnival of Monsters” (1973): miniaturization, crawling around inside a machine
  • “The Invisible Enemy” (1977): miniaturization, crawling around inside a person trying to cure him
  • “Resurrection of the Daleks” (1984): human soldiers vs. Daleks & their duplicate humans
  • “Dalek” (2005): a Dalek having a transcendent experience and accusing the Doctor of having an infernal one
  • “The Waters of Mars” (2009): the Doctor playing God and being humbled
  • “Let’s Kill Hitler” (2011): a metal shell containing miniature humans and mechanical “antibodies”

So yeah, this is a story with plenty of precedents in Doctor Who alone, enough that on first viewing it’s easy to dismiss this as the sum of its parts. Truth be told, it’s not that hard to do on second viewing, either. It’s not just the miniaturization shtick, which seems more the sort of thing you’d see in prime-time animation these days rather than dramatic science fiction; it’s also the tedious We Are Not So Different, You and I business that’s only rivalled for Tiredest ClichĂ© these days by Everyone Around You Dies So You Must Be a Bad Person. Of course the Doctor is not a good Dalek. A good Dalek hates and kills everyone and everything except itself. The Doctor, as far as we can tell, hates only the Daleks, and half the time doesn’t even kill them. Hating and sometimes killing members of at most one species is not what you’d call a grand moral victory, but it would surely get you flunked out of Dalek school.

But this is what the Doctor’s patient, Rusty, has become: a remedial Dalek. The Doctor hasn’t converted him into a “good Dalek,” but he has made the two of them alike: both of them hate only Daleks now, the difference being that Rusty has a gun and doesn’t hesitate to use it. The Doctor had presumably hoped to turn Rusty into a pacifist, and had the hubris to gamble that a David-Lynch-style camera-facing telepathic monologue straight from his own brain would get the job done. But it turns out that the Doctor’s “am I a good man?” question to Clara isn’t rhetorical. It turns out that he doesn’t have the pacifist brain he thinks he does, and while he blames the outcome on Rusty’s Dalek nature, it seems more likely that the Dalek simply dutifully mirrored what it found in the Doctor’s own mind.

It’s this that illuminates one of the episode’s most troubling aspects, the Doctor’s repeated invective against “soldiers.” He’s at best dismissive and at worst insulting to anyone carrying a gun, which at first seems unforgivably ugly to anyone who knows soldiers in real life and is aware of how many of them are good people who are too often blamed for what their civilian commanders send them to do. The rationale for his refusal to take Journey Blue on board the TARDIS seems flatly offensive at face value, unless it’s not a condemnation of her but a condemnation of himself. That is to say: it’s not that he’s afraid she’ll run around shooting people and transgressing his moral code. It’s that he’s afraid she’ll run around shooting people, and he’ll let her, because of his moral code. He’s afraid that if he had his own soldier — as he briefly has Rusty — he’d start giving orders, and people would die. The last thing he needs is a soldier; he’s much better off with a teacher.

As it is, we already get a frankly jaw-dropping moment with soldier Ross. What the Doctor does is not entirely unprecedented, but the utter lack of apology or remorse is. Capaldi continues to astound, aided but not entirely carried by a pretty fantastic script; it’s strange to imagine Matt Smith delivering these lines, many if not most of which were presumably intended originally for him. The aforementioned telepathic grandstanding is a little over-the-top, but no more embarrassing than it would have been with any other Doctor. It’s incredibly bold to make him so unlikeable, not merely endearingly cranky but actively dangerous and offensive, to the point where it seems almost justified for Clara to slap him. You get the feeling this incarnation would have punched the Moment’s red button in the blink of an eye, no questions asked, and gone to lunch. We haven’t seen a Doctor this obnoxious since Colin Baker, so let’s hope it turns out better than it did then.

Clara herself continues to improve, her relationship to this new Doctor granting her renewed purpose as a character and as a dramatic foil. Newcomer Danny Pink seems fine as a screen presence and an actor, though the actual scripts for his scenes are almost entirely terrible. It seems inevitable that the Doctor is going to have to confront his no-soldiers policy in just a few episodes’ time, so that — maybe just for a short while — we’ll once again have two teachers from Coal Hill School on board the TARDIS, keeping an unreliable, mendacious, and yet still rather wonderful old man in check.

The Missy cameos continue. Whatever you may think of the possibility that Heaven exists in our universe, it seems unlikely that it will turn out to exist in the Doctor Who universe. And one of the characters who have arrived there is definitely dead — we saw the body. Both of them, however, might exist within the Doctor’s memory — as, indeed, would the character many of us initially speculated Missy might be. It’s conceivable the Doctor might have repressed some guilt about all three of them dying, though why Gretchen would be there and not Ross (who, having threatened the Doctor directly, seems more to fit the pattern) is a bit mysterious. This might even point toward Missy being some aspect of the Doctor himself, which would fit one of the other popular theories. Too early to tell, to be sure, but fun to speculate.

And I must admit the theme tune is growing on me. The little lead-in from previous iterations is gone and it sounds more like the classic theme than it has in a while. I guess it can stay.


  1. Cyl · September 1, 2014

    Nope; that new theme song still sounds like it’s being whined.

    • encyclops · September 1, 2014

      The theme sounds much better in a movie theater or even a Vizio soundbar than it did on my headphones, but yeah, there’s definitely room for improvement. That part where it goes down to the 5 and back up to 1 (I might be talking nonsense here, it’s been a long time since music theory) sounds super clunky.

  2. 5tephe · September 1, 2014

    I’m leaving this reply a lot later than when you wrote it, encyclops, but I’m interested to know whether you took on board the reading of “You are a good Dalek” that several suggested over on the Eruditorum?

    The Doctor certainly would not make a good Dalek, but he is what a Dalek would look like if it had a moral compass.

    • encyclops · September 1, 2014

      I’m replying later than when you wrote your reply. 🙂 Sorry for the delay!

      So: I’m honestly not sure what to do with that line at this point. I mean, I guess if this episode adds anything to our understanding of what a Dalek is, it’s the notion that a Dalek is not merely bred to be the ultimate xenocide; it has electronic inhibitors that prevent it from developing a moral compass. The Doctor has no such inhibitors; he hates the Daleks *because* of his moral compass, which presumably now should lead him to hate them less knowing they (theoretically) have the potential to be good he didn’t believe they had.

      Meaning what? A Dalek is a creature imprisoned by its life-support system, which is designed to suppress all emotions except hatred and all responses to difference except extermination?

      If so: what is a good Dalek? Is it logically possible for a creature that only hates and exterminates to have a moral compass? Is it still a Dalek if it gets one?

      Maybe we can think of this as the trope of the “good serial killer.” I’ve never seen Dexter, but my impression is that it takes Thomas Harris’s retcon of Hannibal Lecter as a sort of avenging angel to the logical conclusion — a serial killer who has a narrow range of emotion and is compelled to kill, but somehow is able to focus that compulsion on killing only people who “deserve it.” It’s barely a step from this idea to the “good Dalek” — an engine of hate and destruction that only directs those energies against other engines of hate and destruction.

      But I guess what makes it hard for me to get from “good Dalek” to “the Doctor” is that he very clearly is not an engine of hate and destruction. To the Daleks, yes (the Ka Faraq Gatri, their very own I Am Legend-style monster), but even then he doesn’t always go out of his way to aggressively destroy them (contrast Genesis with Remembrance, for example). Even if he’d like to, his ability to pull it off varies (try Asylum, for example, when he just swans off and leaves the Parliament intact). But even if he were as good at exterminating Daleks as they are at exterminating everyone else, there’s more to him than that. He is not just his hatred of Daleks. And to flip it around, a Dalek would need more than a moral compass to look like the Doctor.

      So maybe it’s all simpler than that. Maybe all we’re saying here is that a “good man” does the “right” thing all the time, turns the other cheek, loves everyone, is compassionate even toward his enemies…but a “good Dalek” just hates the right species.

      Incidentally, I’m feeling good about my reading of the Doctor’s rejection of soldier Blue. It seems to match up perfectly with the dilemmas he’s up against in “Death in Heaven” — the temptation of authority, the opportunity to give orders first to UNIT and then to the army of Cybermen. At least I was able to make sense of that part, even if the “good Dalek” stuff still makes my brain hurt. 🙂