‘Doctor Who’ Goes “Into the Dalek” and Discovers an Evil That’s Bigger On the Inside

By  · Published on August 31st, 2014


This week, Doctor Who continued what may be the running theme of series eight: what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who. I’m not sure if that should be a statement or a question or both. Last week, the philosophical concern with his identity was a sort of “Ship of Theseus” paradox regarding his physical regenerations. Is he the same if so much of him is different? This time it’s the question of whether or not he’s good. And are any soldiers good, if they’ve killed? Is he any better than a Dalek if his hatred of them is as powerful an influence on one of them as is their intrinsic hatred of everything else?

The episode, “Into the Dalek,” made me wonder about Peter Capaldi’s casting and whether it is okay or expected that we think of the actor’s past work while watching this. Thanks to his well-known role as Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It and in Into the Loop, he carries a bit of meanness on his shoulders that heightens the Doctor’s usually horrible bedside manner. There are a few deaths in this installment, and while they’re no more significant than so many in the past, his attitude towards them comes off crueler than usual. Particularly the darkly comic bit where he gets a soldier (Ben Crompton) to swallow a tracking device prior to his demise so that the Doctor can see where his remains will go.

Such insensitivity makes it all the sadder for him to get another character (Laura dos Santos) to sacrifice herself. Sure, she’s doing it for a greater good, but to this Doctor that is all she is and it’s easy for him to request it of her, not caring for who she is as a person. Will that all come back in the Paradise stuff? That character, Gretchen, winds up there, the second to arrive after suicidal circumstances (now we realize last week’s Clockwork Robot did jump, which might be worse than being pushed, given this trend). Is the mysterious Missy (Michelle Gomez) able to snatch them just before they actually die, as the Doctor snatches Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) just before her ship is destroyed (why not save her brother a few moments earlier, too?).? Missy must be tipped off somehow whenever the Doctor has someone or something give themselves for his (and others’) benefit.

The last few incarnations of the Doctor could make their inclination for reason over emotion (always funny for a creature with two hearts) appear more aloof. Capaldi’s comes off as truly callous, enough to give him and Clara (Jenna Coleman) such tension that she eventually socks him. Much of what he does and says in the moment, though, clashes with what he wants to be, if he’s really worried about whether he’s a good man or not. Clara tells him it’s good at least that he tries to be. I don’t know that that’s always the truth, but anyway it’ll be relevant for her when she gets to know fellow teacher and guaranteed future boy friend Mr. Pink (Samuel Anderson), who also clearly doubts his goodness when a student asks him about killing anyone besides enemy soldiers. His tears show that he at least wishes he hadn’t.

As a character, Pink also makes the Doctor appear, by comparison, more like a jerk, not unlike how Rory (Arthur Darvill) always kept us from seeing Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor as a real nice guy (in spite of the bow tie and smile). Somehow Danny Pink might be even more awkward and insecure than Rory, an extreme that pushes the Twelfth Doctor even further out in his contrasting traits. It is interesting, though, how Danny is the usual wimp of a companion love interest yet he has already been a soldier – whereas Rory became one, specifically a Roman Centurion, and Mickey (Noel Clarke) turned out to be one in another dimension (though he had a different name), as a resistance leader.

Only adding to his contraposition to the Doctor is how he’s introduced in a scene that interrupts the main action of the episode with a tonally different rom-com moment sandwiched between the Doctor’s own meet-cute with a “good” Dalek (aka “Rusty”), as prologue, and the continuation of that primary storyline after he breaks off and grabs Clara away. The stuff at the school should, by traditional structure rules, be more bookending – first and last scene with the entire Dalek plot in the middle. It was jarring the way it plays here, but as such it makes the show feel less predictable. And overall this was a far less conventional Dalek episode than we’ve seen in the past. Speaking of predictions, most believe that the Doctor and Danny will have trouble getting along – probably, but I bet they’ll soon enough bond over that shared sense of guilt about not being a good man.

I should comment on the main premise of “Into the Dalek,” which I found quite clever. The whole miniaturization concept has never been that interesting to me after seeing it done once (admittedly my first was probably Innerspace over Fantastic Voyage), and there have even been two prior Doctor Who stories with variations on the idea (1977’s “The Invisible Enemy” serial and 2011’s “Let’s Kill Hitler” episode), but never have we gone inside a Dalek. There’s none of the usual anatomical situations, though there are still antibodies, functioning like little security drones in the halls of the cyborg’s internal crevices, which resemble parts of a giant ship. The fun thing about miniaturization on this show is the way it relates to the traditional “bigger on the inside” jokes – by the way, this episode’s “it’s smaller on the outside” comment was pretty neat given the way Journey was introduced to the Tardis.

How interesting would it be if, with the theme for this series what I say it is above, there was actually another Fantastic Voyage kind of episode where the insides of the Doctor are explored? For some other reason than infection, a la “The Invisible Enemy,” that is. It’d just be another way of presenting who and what this character is. Yeah, it’d probably be too much of a repeat, even if that was the point. We already see inside of the Doctor here with his and Rusty’s mind-meld, which indicates that the Doctor is basically the same as his archenemy (note this comparison against the one with Danny). He went inside a Dalek to see deeper inside himself.

Next week’s episode, “Robot of Sherwood,” centers around Robin Hood (which I find fun because while growing up a huge fan of Time Bandits, I’d thought it strange that they encounter what I believed was a wholly fictional person), who very well could have some parallels in the Doctor. Will the episode be about how the Time Lord steals lives from people like Gretchen in order to give more life to the rest of the universe? Oo-de-lally, I can’t wait to find out.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.