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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - "Into the Dalek"

My apologies for the delay on this week's review. We spent this weekend heavily wrapped up in all things Dragon Con and Fan Expo (expect to see coverage very, very soon). But, better late than never...

Those new to Doctor Who, or primarily familiar with just the new take on the property, often forget what the classic series was actually like. I'm not referencing the rudimentary effects and set design, or the not so great performances that would crop up more regularly than we'd like; but more specifically the glacial pace that each serial episode clocked in at. If you were to sit down with a Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee Doctor Who episode, you'd be shocked at just how slow and methodical the series was in those days. This is, of course, no mark against the Classic Era, its actually a benefit at times, giving dramatic moments more breathing room and allowing more horrific elements their opportunity to sit with a viewer a bit longer for greater impact.

With "Into the Dalek", we're finding ourselves heading towards a storytelling pace that reminiscent of those years gone by, and what could be a more methodical storytelling conceit than The Doctor reaching an existential crisis? This week's episode sees two major strands appearing as a possible through-line for this Eighth Series; the debut of Danny Pink as a fellow teacher at the Coal Hill School and the Doctor reconciling with the possibility that he may have a dark side that's beginning to manifest. Both story paths are dealing with the idea of damaged characters attempting to remain good people. Danny killed civilians as a part of his military background, possibly even children, and now he's an English teacher at Coal Hill School with Clara. The Doctor, in turn, has arrived at a cross-roads regarding his past actions. In our previous episode closing the Doctor cites the mistakes he's made and how "we're going to have to do something about that". Now, The Doctor has become a more proactive and, frankly, terrifying individual. 

More and more, it looks as though Steven Moffat wants us to question the moral tack of this new Doctor. Last week, the big question was...did The Doctor kill The Clockwork Android by his own hand or did he commit suicide and does the difference between the two really matter? This time around, we see the Doctor flippantly allowing the soldiers that come along with he and Clara as a means to an end. To be fair, one was going to die anyway through the stupidity of his actions, but nonetheless, the Doctor experienced very little anguish over either of these loses. It's a far cry from the days of The Tenth Doctor, where he was "the man who regrets". It's no wonder The Doctor asks Clara if he's a good man. Yet, at the same time, by episode's end, he does not allow a soldier to travel with them because of her background. It's an odd bit of hypocrisy on The Doctor's part, as he basically already has done all of the things a soldier would do, except in his mind its for what he perceives as the "right reasons". He's just as much a soldier as anyone else, except he answers to no one. Surely, his "no soldier" rule and Clara's budding attraction to Danny is going to collide as punctuated by the closing moments of the episode.

As for the villains of the piece, its easy to get pretty tired of the Daleks as they are indeed the most overused bad guys of the series. To his credit, Steven Moffat has used them sparingly, knowing that the terror that inspire is best when seen in the smallest of doses, rather than having you hit over the head with it by a crying Sarah Jane clutching her son for dear life. Their appearances during this era have generally worked well, "Victory of the Daleks" was a decent adventure romp that embraced a lovely space-age 40's sheen, while "Asylum of the Daleks" finally did something new with this tired alien race; instilling the idea than any of us could be a Dalek. Phil Ford and Moffat's script takes this idea further in regard to the Doctor, basically riffing on the idea of The Fantastic Voyage, but this time, inside a Dalek. This is unfamiliar territory for all involved, thusly the haunted house aspects of the episode are thankfully brought front and center. But it's when The Doctor and the Dalek that he refers to as "Rusty" meld minds, that we begin to realize just how alike these two really are. 

The Doctor hates The Daleks more than any other foe in his Rogues Gallery, referring to them as "evil refined", despite the idea that we've seen a small handful of moments where a Dalek has expressed some level of compassion (Oswin Oswald from the aforementioned "Asylum..." being the most immediate example). "Rusty" recognizes this utter contempt and it changes him permanently into a Dalek-destroying machine, much like The Doctor himself. But that doesn't mean "Rusty" is without his own agency either, as when he tells The Doctor that he "is a good Dalek", it comes across as a criticism in a way. If the Daleks are relentlessly evil, what does that make The Doctor? Clara may say he's a man trying to do good, but is that completely true? This is an area that's certain to be explored the further we go along this series.

I can't let this piece go by without expressing just how strong I found Ben Wheatley's direction, and the episode as a whole. More so than "Deep Breath", which I enjoyed, but didn't start really loving until 20 minutes in, "Into the Dalek" was a perfect canvass for Wheatley to work off of and provide something approximating auteur vision. There were moments that were downright trippy, and the kind of visuals I can't recall seeing in Doctor Who before. Additionally, the non-chronological storytelling style worked like gangbusters, particularly in the cute scene with Danny regretting his inability to ask Clara out for a drink. This episode also feels like the first where we really getting a look at what Peter Capaldi's Doctor is all about. This is The Twelfth Doctor fully formed; morally ambigious, fairly rude in places, and as Hannah put it "fairly Batman-like". I'm sure this characterization will turn off those fans that were particularly enamored with David Tennant's "tortured romantic idol" and Matt Smith's "The Cat in the Hat", but for me, this is the Doctor I've been waiting for. One that kicks ass and is bit of a downright bastard.

"Into the Dalek" is the episode I was hoping "Deep Breath" would be, then again, regeneration episodes have never been my favorite. Yet it's here where we see the real status quo of Series 8 taking shape and I can't wait to see what's next. Then again...A Doctor Who version of Robin Hood has me a little nervous.

Thoughts to ponder:

- Missy makes another appearance, this time with the soldier who sacrificed herself in the name of ending the Daleks. I know everyone is hoping she's the new Master, but I'd love to see a new iconic villain rise instead, which is something Moffat is quite good at, Madame Kovarian excepted.

- Clara's new relationship with The Doctor is forming along very nicely. I can't quite define it anymore, but it's approaching something like work colleagues. Whatever it is, Clara is now forming a life outside of her travels with The Doctor and their adventures are what she does as a hobby. That's far healthier than the codependency that has crept up in his relationships with Rose and Amy to an extent.

- Samuel Anderson is my new fave.

- Hey, Michael Smiley also makes an appearance! One more kudo to Ben Wheatley for bringing his long time collaborator along.

- Damn, Peter Capaldi is great.

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