Into the Dalek

Into the DalekTARDIS
My own ‘rules’ for writing these reviews are as follows.

– Watch the story twice. One of those times (not necessarily the first) being for fun.
– Complete the piece before the next episode is available to view. (NB. I broke that rule last week, but never again).
– Don’t get too hung up on any illogical bits in a plot, not because they don’t matter, but if you tackle them in much detail, it’s a boring read.
–  Try and be direct in criticism or praise. I still have a tendency to hedge.
– Never, ever, use the word ‘meme’

The following is from DWM #478.

DWM #478

There’s a Dalek! There are Daleks everywhere! How many Doctor Who stories have opened up the throttle with that revelation? It’s one of the scariest things about the Time Lord’s oldest enemies. They’re pervasive. They always get through. They’re everywhere.

There was certainly some sense of that in Into the Dalek. After last week’s stately opening piece, Ben Wheatley’s direction felt a little more down and dirty, presenting us with a hand-held universe of frenetic, splenetic space battles, executed by the lordliest Daleks ever seen. From the story’s off, it succeeded wonderfully in establishing the feeling of an outpost being absolutely monstered by the creatures. Then later, a terrifically staged slo-mo laser battle as they trundled aboard and brought inversely-coloured death to the command ship Aristotle. This was Resurrection of the Daleks’ plastic-crate space station attack done right. You can’t stop them. Daleks, everywhere.

Except? Except if you find yourself in the most dangerous place in the universe.

At first flash, the conceit behind Phil Ford and Steven Moffat’s tale is great – a Fantastic Voyage (translation: Invisible Enemy) inside the programme’s most fearsome creation. That’s going to be awesome. It’s the kind of big, simple idea that generally serves Doctor Who well. But after the initial pop, you get to thinking: Why, in all necessity, would a Dalek’s innards be especially perilous? More so than its outards? It’s not as if anyone would run with the theorem that the only thing worse than the Master is the Master’s duodenum. Watch out, Doctor, you’ve aggravated his IBS!

But even more profoundly, by going into the Dalek, you’re simultaneously taking it out of the adventure. Sure, it may not be nice inside a Mark III travel machine, but it is the only certain spot where you’re not going to run into another one. When Rusty and pals eventually go on that longed-for killing spree, the Doctor and friends are safe from the death rays. Yes, said spree is bad news for Uncle Morgan and the others, but – we’re all thinking this – they are only supporting characters. It means that somewhere nestling between the creature’s mutant life support organ container (below) and the manipulator actuation bus (above) we’re discovering a story struggling to find some equal threat with which to menace our hero.

What it comes up with takes the form of spherical antibodies, which put this fanboy in mind of the poor old Toclafane. Although they first appeared in 2007’s The Sound of Drums, you probably know Russell T Davies originally created them in 2005 as a stand-in monster for the story Dalek when it seemed the titular tin cans’ representatives weren’t going to grant approval for their appearance. On again come floating evil balls, hoping to cover for The Absence of the Daleks. But they’re no real substitute. Were there ever Tocalfane pencil cases? Bubble bath? Quite.

If there’s the Doctor and there’s a Dalek, I want them going at it eyeball to eyestalk. While in part a war of wits, their confrontation still has to be played out physically. He, just a lone humanoid, doing what he does in spite of the promise of extermination from the protruding, probing, outward-facing exterminator stick.

Into the Dalek isn’t really a Dalek tale, then. It’s, in every way, more insular than that could ever be. It’s bordering on a meditation of our hero’s relationship with his bitterest enemies. “You see, all those years ago, when I began, I was just running. I called myself the Doctor, but it was just a name. And then I went to Skaro and then I met you lot. And I understood who I was.”

Brief digression, but while he’s still new, let’s all thrill for a little longer at the fact we know Peter Capadli visualised exactly that Skaro when he delivered those lines – the black and white, table-top diorama back-projected behind Hartnell and co.

Digression over, and there’s a powerful notion here that the Doctor first found his identity in opposition to the creatures. “I was not you. The Doctor was not the Daleks!” He casts himself as their negative image, but the story plays with his perception. Already this new Doctor has been fretting about whether or not he truly is a good man. Now Rusty tells him, with a cool clarity that Clara couldn’t muster when the Time Lord sought her reassurance earlier, “You are a good Dalek”. Joining up those two notions is clever writing but in addition the dialogue also works as a knowing nod to the punchline of the aforementioned 2005 story. A tweak, even. One that, should you wish it to, completely changes the meaning of that earlier Metaltron’s taunt: “You would make a good Dalek.”

But there’s only so far you can take talking philosophy and morality with a motorised dustbin. I didn’t go with all of it, certainly not the Doctor’s speechy stuff about the beauty of the universe, delivered to a sorry for itself, slightly under-articulated giant eye. Particularly while the plot conspired to have Clara luck into reprogramming an alien cortex with skills she could have only picked up in ball pit. And just in the nick of time too.

Outside the Dalek there’s more to be explored. In Coal Hill School on the planet Earth, there’s Danny Pink, and I like him already. Samuel Anderson’s performance is finely judged. The new guy – the love interest – could have been played with some real swagger. He has the foreknowledge that he’s going to be someone in Clara’s life, and that everything in the story has set him up as a bit of a catch (oh, I bet he is). But Anderson dials back on the alpha male, and brings us a more measured person. From our reading materials, we all know he will later move in opposition to the Doctor, but unlike almost anyone else adopting that role, it might be the case that in those clashes we’ll find ourselves rooting for this guy. Certainly, I want to know more about him. Why the tear, trickling down his cheek?

In fact the cast impresses across the board. There’s a rugged reality to Zawe Ashton as Journey Blue and Michael Smiley as Uncle Morgan, they both bring a lived-in quality to their characters. One can believe they’ve been out there at that end of the galaxy fighting that war forever, and you can’t underestimate how much value that brings to a space fantasy.  Jenna Coleman’s New Clara continues to sparkle too. It’s pleasing there’s no erosion on the progress made in Deep Breath, and she parries with the Doctor supremely well, the pair beginning to build a relationship more layered than a simple friendship (I’m not quite sure how it can be characterised) but just as durable. In this, they survive some terrific fallings-out. I can’t remember a companion ever clouting the Doctor in such a fashion. But he has a need for her – not a yearning – as if she somehow completes his function.

As for Capaldi, I think, his Doctor is starting to display his grandeur. I loved him facing down Journey in that early TARDIS scene, she with gun drawn, he armed with a couple of coffees and lethal self-confidence. He’s very much a Doctor in control who, onboard the Aristotle, cans the charm offensive and just wants to get down to business. Being liked isn’t going to help him. Where last week we wondered if he was responsible for a creature plummeting to his death, this time he throws doomed crewmember Ross a battery to swallow (“Trust me”) already making plans for how the poor guy’s remains are going to help him out of a jam. Too chilly? Too unfeeling? It could get there, but in this instance, as the Doctor reasons it out, “He was dead already.”

Okay, so I do have reservations about what’s actually at the core of Into the Dalek, but unlike Deep Breath, this to me does feel as if this year’s Doctor Who is now truly headed in a new direction. In part, that’s down to Wheatley’s literal direction which seems especially spirited. There’s the roving, juddering camerawork, the brilliantly pompous slow-motion sequences and the gorgeous restricted colour palettes (sometimes hues of blue, sometimes red, stark whites on the Dalek ship). Of course, we’ve got our new Doctor and rebooted companion to thank for that too. But I also want to make special mention of Murray Gold’s incidental score. I think it’s his best yet, ranging from John Williams bombast to a more introspective Vangelis-inspired (translation: Peter Howell-inspired) analogue synthesizer sound that’s just out and proud sci-fi.

Something else that should be out and proud, of course: Daleks. And hopefully that’s how they’ll be when the Doctor next encounters them. Daleks, everywhere, Daleking-up everything. Clara’s right that it may be a bleak worldview, but I do truly side with the Doctor here. If all is right with the universe, then there really is no such thing as a good Dalek.

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