Tony Fyler asks how fantastic the voyage really was.
As an idea, Into The Dalek must have seemed like a shoe-in. Fantastic Voyage – but with a Dalek.
For once, the battleground with the Daleks is inside their body. Plus, let’s say there’s an external Dalek threat too, to give a time pressure, annnnnd, just for sheer ante-upping, let’s make this the most extraordinary Dalek in history: a good Dalek.
With a premise like that, the episode should have written itself.
Unfortunately with hindsight, it too often feels as though it did. As though ‘good enough’ was acceptable too many times, meaning Into The Dalek ended up as a Dalek story that could have been great, but will be remembered mostly as an ‘OK’ episode.
The pre-credits sequence, to give it its due, looks superb. The space battle gives you the feeling you get when your eyeballs have been plastered with money, good intentions, skill and conviction, and the Doctor in the Tardis continues his ‘unfriendly grump’ routine, the man who’s lived too long and had more guns pointed at him than he can remember. There’s little – which is to say nothing – in the way of explanation of why the Doctor’s in the middle of a Dalek war, still holding the coffee Clara sent him to get at the end of Deep Breath (not for nothing, but if you’re going for coffee with someone, don’t you usually go with them? A niggle, but one of many). The Fantastic Voyage reference is explicit, but the proctology gag that goes with it, which sounded fresh a year ago, already gets barely a smile on watching back. And the pre-credit sequence ends on what feels like a scene recycled directly from Rob Shearman’s Dalek script in 2005.
Space war visuals aside, it all feels a little inevitable with hindsight.
Post-credits, we’re introduced to Danny Pink. And introduced to him. Annnnnnd introduced to him some more. Seriously, on rewatching after a year, the introduction to Danny Pink feels like it takes half an episode – there’s Danny the squaddie, turning youngsters into soldiers and believing in ‘the moral dimension,’ there’s Danny who everyone thinks is a ladykiller (no explanation, incidentally, is ever given for that reputation). Danny the maths teacher who’s killed people he wasn’t supposed to kill and cries about it in front of a class (just so we’re clear, modern teenagers would eat his face off and pick his bones clean for this admission of an emotional reaction, yes?), and Danny the actually hopelessly inept when it comes to talking to women he likes, leaving Clara to do all the heavy lifting in what’s becoming typical of her relationships – emotionally complex men who need saving from the bad things they’ve done with the best intentions. Watched on broadcast, this felt like the bedding in of characterization and hooks to be picked up and developed later. Given that few of them really were, and that the character of Danny turned out to be perfectly reasonable but also perfectly bland, it feels like wasted effort here in a story that could have been focused on more interesting things.
As if Danny’s not mopey enough, the Doctor too is in ‘terrified’ mode around Clara, asking the series arc explicitly – ‘Am I a good man?’ – and getting the honest answer ‘I don’t know.’ Neither do we, but already after an episode and a half, it’s a question that’s losing its fascination. We’re all for complex characterization and flirtations with the dark side, but when it translates into moping about the Tardis and asking flat-out for validation, it comes off as a little needy.
And on we go - when the team go into the Dalek, on broadcast, it was a case of buckling up for the adventure but on rewatching with a year under your belt, one thing becomes patently clear – no-one ever actually explains why they’re going to the incredible personal risk of wandering about inside a Dalek – at least, not convincingly. And given that it’s hugely damaged and proclaiming its hatred for the Daleks, if you stop and think about it, you have to wonder why they’d bother. Surely it must have occurred to someone before they ended up inside the belly of the beast that its hatred of the Daleks was simply an inversion of its normal hatred for non-Daleks, and that by fixing it, it would be rendered just another Dalek with a bunch of humans trapped inside it? Again, rational questions are the enemy of many an adventure, but an odd line here or there to head off such questions with even the flimsiest bafflegab would shut such issues down. But no – onward, ever onward, there’s adventure to have.
The question of whether the Doctor’s a good man continues to dog us, and throughout this episode, the Twelfth Doctor appears to go out of his way to make us answer no: his treatment of Ross, and the feelings of the people who liked Ross, reinforces the coldness of his alien nature, and he’s rarely been further from our hero than he is when giving Ross the power cell he can track, with a smile and a twinkly “Trust me.”
That of course is the tragedy of this episode, arc-wise. When faced with a Dalek who did the impossible thing and changed its philosophical position, putting life, rather than the Dalek, at the top of the universal tree, the Doctor is forced to show it his own point of view, and among all the wonder and beauty and magnificence, the Dalek finds hatred there, in the core of him, because it’s this Doctor he encounters. The Doctor’s been angry many a time, he’s been furious and sad and heartbroken, but has there been hatred in him all this time? Perhaps a few times in Matt Smith’s Dalek episodes – the Prime Minister says that perhaps the hatred he holds for them is too beautiful for them ever to actually kill him, but the Eleventh Doctor responds feeling sickened. The Twelfth Doctor reacts to Rusty finding hatred in him like a desperate prisoner condemned – ‘No, surely there must be more than that! There must be!’ – ultimately, he’s unable to cope with either Clara’s inability to tell him he’s a good man, or Rusty’s judgment of what is really at his core.
The approach of the Dalek fleet and the shoot-out that follows all feels a little pointless after the events of this episode, and we’re a little confused as to how one ‘good’ Dalek is able to defeat and exterminate a squad of ordinary Daleks – somehow the element of surprise doesn’t feel like explanation enough. And at the end of Into The Dalek, the mood is heavy and sombre – good people have died (whether or not the Doctor thinks a soldier can be a good person), the Doctor stands accused of being ‘a good Dalek’ – another riff directly from Shearman’s 2005 script – and ultimately, we’ve learned… what? That perhaps one good Dalek is better than one unsure Time Lord? Watched with hindsight, Into The Dalek is a very depressing experience, rescued from total Logopolitan ‘kill me now’ status by its position in the initial run, meaning we were hungry for more definition of the Twelfth Doctor, and by some sharp dialogue that gives us just that - “I’m his carer.” “My carer, yes. She cares, so I don’t have to.”
That’s a sad revelation for me – I loved Into The Dalek on broadcast. But with a year of hindsight, rewatching it sits like a Kaled mutant on my chest, and leaves me longing for the greater Dalek stories of years gone by - and hopefully of years to come as well.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk