Doctor Who Recap: The Doctor Got Dark

Doctor Who has often promised a new, darker direction. In this week's episode, it seems they're finally making good. (Spoiler alert.)

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This is the latest in our series of Doctor Who recaps. Spoiler alert.

Doctor Who has often promised a new darker direction — but with a hero who has been described as “CS Lewis meets HG Wells meets Father Christmas”, there’s really only so much darkness the character can embrace before he becomes completely unrecognisable.

But Into the Dalek, the most recent episode, did the impossible: it made good on the promise.

The second episode of a new Doctor is always the defining one. Once we’ve got all the post-regenerative craziness out of the way, we actually get to see what the guy is actually like. Introductions are out of the way. Costume is sorted out. This is how it’s going to be.

For the first time since the show’s inception, the new Doctor’s sophomore story is a Dalek one. This is very clever, deliberate callback, but not of the type you’d expect. We’ll come back to this.

“Am I a good man?” “No, you’re a Capaldi. John Goodman was booked.”

“Am I a good man?” “No, you’re a Capaldi. John Goodman was booked.”

This episode takes us into a Dalek’s mind. Like you (probably), Clara thought it was a metaphor as well, but no: our heroes are going to be shrunk down and inserted into the Dalek, where they will journey around it from the inside. After 50 years, over 800+ episodes, countless spin-off books and audios and comics, it’s not easy to come up with new takes on the familiar set-up of Doctor vs Dalek. Which makes this story all the more impressive.

See, as lauded as the Daleks are, there’s really not a lot you can do with them. Sure they’re scary, but you can’t really talk to them, which is why so many of their stories have them playing second fiddle to their creator Davros, or some hapless human henchman who is unjustifiably confident they’ll make good on their promise not to exterminate him.

Since its return, the show has actually done a great job of keeping the fascist bots interesting (yes, even the hugely underrated Daleks In Manhattan – come at me, H8RZ!), but this is something else entirely. Putting the Doctor inside the bloody things is a pretty exciting concept, and is as exciting as their triumphant return in 2005’s accurately-titled Dalek.

The new computer graphics were a little basic, but no less impressive.

The new computer graphics were a little basic, but no less impressive.

For those unfamiliar, the rule of thumb with the big-name Doctor Who villains is that the Cybermen represent communism and the Daleks represent fascism. One will make you exactly like them, the other will destroy you because you are not. As such, they’ve always been great fodder for a solid moral conflict: in 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, the Doctor wondered if he had the moral right to destroy the Daleks at the moment of their creation (echoing the philosophical challenge of whether one could kill infant Hitler); in 2005’s The Parting of the Ways, the Daleks suggest the Doctor is a lot like them because of his willingness to wipe them all out; in Into the Dalek, we’re forced to question how much like the Daleks we really are. Have you never worried about what you might do if you’d been living in Nazi Germany? Would you have joined the resistance or capitulated and goosestepped safely along with the crowd? The thing that makes the Daleks evil may well reside within us. Within the Doctor.

Into the Dalek sees the Doctor and Clara facing off against a Dalek that no longer hates; it has seen “the beauty of creation”, and is now well beyond the destructive impulses with which it has been programmed. Up against this, the Doctor is forced to confront his own views of the universe: does he really see it as all beauty and creation, or does he also see ugliness and destruction?

Past attempts to explore the Doctor’s inherent darkness have been a mixed bag. They usually settle for making him a bit Machiavellian, or rude and shouty. How to explore a character’s inner-turmoil without sacrificing his mysteriousness?

Picture shows:  Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara

The First Doctor’s attempt to explore the insides of a Dalek was much sillier.

Jump back to the first year of the show. In 1963, the Doctor was an unknowable figure who kidnapped two Coal Hill School teachers and immediately faced off against the Daleks. In 2014, the Doctor is travelling with Clara, now a Coal Hill School teacher, and immediately encounters the Daleks. In Into the Dalek, he cites that adventure as the thing that taught him how to really be the Doctor. To be a hero.

Given that, is the Doctor only the Doctor because of the Daleks? If so, why? This episode suggests it may be because the Daleks embody the darkness the Doctor fears within himself. The way in which he callously tells a soldier to trust him before the soldier dies displays that darkness more than anything else ever has.

But rather than using this darkness to cynically appeal to the overly-serious Dark Knight crowd, it’s actually exploring the Doctor in a way that the show has long-threatened to, but never fully committed to: is he a good man? It looks like we’ll soon find out.

Questions to ponder:

  • Is it weird that the Doctor keeps dropping off and picking up his friends? Long gone are the days of his companions yearning to get home and the Doctor being unable to take them there. It’s less nomadic, and feels a lot like the Third Doctor years, as if adventuring is simply a day job. Not a criticism, just an observation.
  • Doctor Who has had some great directors, but has anyone come close to what cinema’s Ben Wheatley did with the show this week? Outstanding, spine-tingling stuff.
  • Is this the first time Doctor Who has employed non-linear editing of a scene that has no inherent time-travel craziness? The scene between Clara and Danny was very nicely done.
  • I like where they’re going with Danny Pink. A soldier for a Doctor who hates soldiers but still uses them at every opportunity? The show is always at its best when it challenges the Doctor’s own prejudices.
  • Everyone predicted Capaldi would play an “angry” Doctor, but his counterintuitive delivery of jokes as if they’re insults somehow makes them all the funnier.
  • As someone who loves the last two Matt Smith seasons (see earlier request, H8RZ), I suspect this is the best episode in years. Exciting, funny, scary, and with real ideas.

Throwback Thalday:

The Invisible Enemy Like this episode? Then check out 1977’s The Invisible Enemy with Tom Baker. The Doctor and Leela shrink down to microscopic size and take a journey through the Doctor’s own head in search of a deadly virus.

Features a great moral conundrum (does a virus have as much right to life as a person?), the introduction of beloved robot dog K9, and awesome dialogue like this: “What was that?” “A passing thought.”

Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah.