Writers: Phil Ford and Steven Moffat.
Director: Ben Wheatley.
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Zawe Ashton, Michael Smiley, Samuel Anderson.
A Dalek episode is always something of a special occasion, isn’t it? The Doctor’s oldest and most deadly enemies making an appearance on our screens is a joyous thing to behold, a wonderful event that has us all on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens. That said, it places quite a bit of pressure on that episode to exceed expectations. The Daleks have to be treated with their due reverence, after all, given their importance to the Whoniverse, and unfortunately it’s the opinion of many fans I know that they haven’t quite lived up to it in a few cases (keeping this brief interlude to the modern series, as the classic Daleks are a somewhat-different beast). While there are several episodes where the Daleks are suitably scary and evil (‘Dalek’, ‘Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways’, ‘The Stolen Earth’, ‘Asylum of the Daleks’), there was something of an unfortunate tendency to make them more amusing, more of a comic relief, than they should have been, somewhat taking away from the threat they should pose.
Nonetheless, any new Doctor’s first encounter with the Daleks is generally a defining moment for their character, and should be a highlight. Here, we have Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor meeting his nemeses in ‘Into the Dalek’, written by Phil Ford (previously having co-written ‘The Waters of Mars’) and showrunner Steven Moffat. Does it live up to the hype? Read on to find out!
WARNING: AS EVER, THERE MIGHT BE MINOR SPOILERS!
The episode wastes no time hurling us right into the action, opening aboard a small scout ship blasting through space, pursued by a Dalek vessel. Its occupants are Journey Blue (played by Zawe Ashton), a soldier battling against the tin tyrants themselves, and her brother Kai, who goes largely uncharacterised due to being almost immediately incinerated by his vessel’s untimely explosion. Journey, however, survives, finding herself waking up on the floor of the TARDIS console room, where the Doctor dispassionately informs her of what happened. A tense conversation ensues, the Doctor eventually agreeing to return Journey to her army’s home base, the space-borne makeshift hospital Aristotle. While the other soldiers, including Journey’s uncle Colonel Morgan Blue (Michael Smiley) are inclined to shoot the Doctor on sight due to overbearing suspicion, the Aristotle just so happens to need a doctor, as they’ve got a most unusual patient…
So begins ‘Into the Dalek’. It’s a high-octane action-packed opening that doesn’t particularly let up as the episode goes on, the Doctor and co. venturing into the most dangerous place in the universe: a Dalek itself. It’s a Fantastic Voyage plot, something which the Doctor himself cheekily alludes to early on in the episode, but one that takes place inside one of science-fiction’s most infamous aliens, and it’s all the better for it. Phil Ford has taken certain concepts from other Dalek stories and tweaked them, mixed them up well into a new tale that’s delightfully original. The Fourth Doctor serial ‘The Invisible Enemy’ has a strong influence here, peppered with elements from ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, ‘Dalek’, even the Second Doctor serial ‘The Evil of the Daleks’. The question of a Dalek so damaged that its morality shifts has been addressed before, but this particular take on it is done extremely well. Interestingly, aside from the opening and a few battle scenes later on, it’s not a particularly fast-paced episode, remarkably relaxed considering the circumstances, but this echoes the Doctor’s own take on things nicely. He’s somewhere he’s never been before, a rarity for the Time Lord, and he’s quite content to explore it.
This is something I can’t disagree with. ‘Into the Dalek’ is an utterly gorgeous episode. The visual effects crew, the set designers, the lighting crew, and of course director Ben Wheatley are all to be commended for their fantastic work on this one. The opening sequence is rendered beautifully, while the sets vary wildly in nature from the clean and efficient Aristotle to the suitably-dark and subtly-disturbing wonder that is the interior of the Dalek itself. “The belly of the beast”, the Doctor calls it, and he’s right. The interior is dingy and damaged, a result of this particular Dalek’s defective nature, and it feels as dangerous as it should. Aesthetically, this is one of the most well-crafted episodes I’ve seen, and I hope the show continues in a similar vein.
As with any great episode of Doctor Who, the characterisation is key, and this episode pulls it off with absolute aplomb. More of the still-mysterious Doctor’s personality is revealed to us, and he’s very different. Capaldi plays his part with effortless ease as a Doctor who is reserved, calculating, cold. He continues his pragmatic streak that started in ‘Deep Breath’ with gusto, and there are a few moments in this episode that will likely make even the viewer feel their ever-present trust in the Doctor waver, much like the characters themselves. There’s a great deal of tension between the Doctor and the soldiers in the episode, not particularly helped by either party’s actions. Clara continues to go from strength to strength, still unsure of this new Doctor but willing to go along with him all the same, albeit with more reservation than she would have had previously. The supporting cast are well fleshed out and easy to sympathise with, particularly Ashton and Smiley, and their conflicts both with the Doctor and the Daleks are fascinating to observe. In addition, ‘Into the Dalek’ gives us our first introduction to Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink, a soldier-turned-teacher who, as we know, will be an important recurring character this series. I found him to be extremely likeable practically from the get-go, cheery on the face of it but with some definite depth to be explored, stories to be told. I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes!
That said, it’s plainly obvious who the real stars of this episode are, and we must get to them. As I’ve mentioned above, the Daleks need to be scary, ruthless, a terrifying presence all in all. This episode delivers on that, and it delivers incredibly well. There’s no levity concerning them, they are cold, merciless beings, and the story shows that in great detail. Particular emphasis needs to be given to the chief Dalek of the tale, offhandedly named ‘Rusty’ by the Doctor, the Dalek so damaged that its morality has reversed, that it now sees Dalek life as something of a virus on the universe, something that must be destroyed. The interactions between Rusty and the Doctor are extremely engaging, with several beautiful little moments arising from it (their “mind meld”, in particular, is an utterly brilliant scene to behold). Quite frankly, I hope Rusty makes a return at some point in the future, though I doubt he will.
All in all, ‘Into the Dalek’ is easily one of the best Dalek episodes of the modern series, and a stellar one in its own right. It’s dark, it pulls no punches, it’s got a tight plot that’s resolved very neatly, and the Doctor just gets more and more intriguing with each passing moment. Chiefly, though, and this is the real key, the Daleks are scary again.
The Daleks are scary again, and I couldn’t have asked for more. Top-class episode. 10/10