Following last week’s headline-grabbing debut for Peter Capaldi’s freshly-minted Doctor, this week the time traveller faces his oldest enemies eye-to-eyestalk, as the Daleks make a dramatic return after not having appeared for a whole episode (perhaps not quite as attention-grabbing a headline). The plot, however, takes a unique angle at these 50-year old foes as the Doctor, schoolteacher Clara (Jenna Coleman) and a merry band of generic soldiers are shrunk down and enter a Dalek in order to heal it. Its just a pity that this inventive premise is squandered by being executed in a way which doesn’t really work.
‘Into the Dalek’ may be a beautifully-shot, highly entertaining 45 minutes but Phil Ford and Steven Moffat’s muddled script means the central conceit feels instinctively wrong. Unlike most Dalek episodes using the ‘good Dalek’ trope, this time the switch from ‘broken nice Dalek’ to ‘fixed evil Dalek’ doesn’t simply feel predictable but such a natural assumption that it is confusing why the characters did not see it coming, why they are even there or how this story beat was supposed to affect the viewer. In a story which feels instinctively misguided to an audience familiar with the rules of Doctor Who (and the role of the Daleks within this), character motivation cannot lack clarity when even why the plot is taking place isn’t that obvious, bar to tell a vague morality tale about prejudice.
Look beyond the muddy core however and you can sense the groundwork continuing to be laid for a very strong season. It seems redundant to point out that Capaldi is fantastic – but Capaldi is fantastic. His anti-flirting dynamic with Clara is a refreshing contrast from the monotonous sexual banter which had previously filled the console room, but those missing this tension will enjoy Clara’s almost-flirting back on earth with colleague Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) which, with some fun editing, manages to be effectively awkward in a succinct amount of time, tantalising some more serialised developments across this streak of episodes. Lower down on the tantalising scale is the ‘heaven’ arc, which needs to make some progression soon before it simply becomes a meme representing the (half-true) idea that Moffat’s Who is unable to kill anyone.
If we ignore the potential existence of an afterlife though, we can enjoy the evil glee of the first real Dalek massacre on screen in a significant amount of years, even if the victims are indistinguishable soldiers which generally lack even the “quirky name and sympathetic hobby” levels of distinction to attempt to make the audience feign even some level of interest in them. This sadly leaves Capaldi’s brutal dismissiveness of Ross’ death seem, rather than emotionally piercing in the way it probably should be, only conceptually interesting.
But this brutally conception of the Doctor is still dynamic enough to linger long after the episode ends as Capaldi’s interpretation remains engaging without being necessarily understandable. Even if this trip ‘Into the Dalek’ is a confusing and slightly disappointing one, the larger journey into the Doctor is just beginning. And what a journey it looks to be.