...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Day 4990: Doctor Who: Strictly Come Dalek


How many times can we tell this story?

Terry Nation, infamously, recycled "The Daleks" on let's just say "several" occasions, but now it seems that the "good Dalek" story is giving him a run for his money.

And it turns out that what's inside a Dalek is, basically, "Doctor Who", including corridors for running up and down, bug-eyed monsters (that are literally bug eyes), gunk tank, and an archive with, of course, missing episodes. If only they'd found "The Evil of the Daleks" they could have seen what happens when Daleks "turn good", and saved a lot of bother.

David Whitaker's second Doctor classic is not only pretty much the series' definitive story already – the Doctor has adventures in present, past and future on a distant planet, with Daleks – but already explored what makes the difference between the Human Factor and the Dalek Factor. "Dalek", "Evolution of the Daleks", and "Journey's End" all feature tinpot tyrants who see the error of their ways, or at least see that the Daleks' main operating principle of "exterminate everyone else" is evil. And futile. Life, as is pointed out, prevails.

There was even the graphic novel "The Only Good Dalek" – still more ironic, in this context – and of course David Whitaker’s TV21 original… Oh, and "Children of the Revolution"… The comics like this story, don’t they?

But if we're talking about getting into the "guts" of "Doctor Who", if we're taking the reference Peter Capaldi's twelfth Doctor makes to his first self's first visit to Skaro as taking us back to the series' very beginning, then questioning our basic assumptions about who the Doctor is and who the Daleks are is good, necessary stuff.

No, that doesn't do "Into the Dalek" justice – and I feel bad, having watched "Doctor Who Extra" and seeing Nick Briggs so enthused that this is a "new" thing to do with the Daleks.

Much as we "Doctor Who" fans love to laud our series as capable of doing anything, telling any story, infinite in variety, it is in the nature of the show to go in cycles, as each generation matures and a new audience comes along. People who were eleven when they saw Rose and the Doctor face the Dalek in "Dalek" will now be starting their twenties. Even Millennium is a teenager now! Finding new ways to tell old stories is as necessary as telling new ones.

And: "Can Daleks be good?" is about as important a question as the series can ask. So it should keep asking it.

Actually, everyone seems to proceed from the idea that a Dalek that wants to kill other Daleks is "good". As opposed to "differently psychotic". Fortunately, by the end of the episode, the Doctor has, with some help from Clara (let's skate over that unnecessary slap), reached the realisation that this is not good.

Actually, let's not skate over that slap. The Doctor comes to the self-defeating, self-satisfying conclusion that Daleks just are evil. Clara manages to arrest the Doctor's depression with a look. She has got through to him: he's asking what the look is for. It's totally unnecessary actually to hit him. And as a good teacher – which she is – she would know better. The whole of the rest of the episode is about not using violence against the Dalek but trying to do better. That slap really should not be there.

But aside from that, she is completely right that that is not what we have learned.

The show, never mind the Doctor, often treats monsters, especially the deadly dustbins, as irretrievably evil. And therefore it's okay to kill them.

Except, and "Into the Dalek" makes this abundantly clear, the Daleks are as much victims of their evil as perpetrators. That memory vault in their heads – "evil refined as engineering", brilliant line – doesn't so much keep them "pure" as take away their free will.

And taking away free will is about as close as we get to "Doctor Who's" definition of pure evil.

That memory-controlling vault is a very Moffat meme too, and as a further exploration of the mechanics of the Daleks goes very well with the Dalek pathweb from Moffat's "Asylum of the Daleks", and proto-Clara Oswin Oswald's power to make them all forget about the Doctor.

Also it's really quite hard not to think of it as the evolved remnant of Davros' computer limitation that he installed in the very first generation of Daleks, as seen back in "Genesis of the Daleks", nicely tying new series and old series together. You can see how the Daleks, geniuses but conditioned to obey their orders, would improve that to make them even better at obeying. From a certain point of view – Cornell, Topping, Day – that is the "weakness" that the Doctor retroactively adds to the Daleks, making them vulnerable, in the long run, to defeat, thus enabling "Genesis" to be counted as a "win".

I've said before that I disagree. I think that the Doctor wins philosophically by rejecting genocide – yes, he blows up the incubation chamber later, but only once the "limited" Daleks have been sent out and it's no longer the sole repository of the entirety of Dalek-kind. But, importantly, "do I have that right" is an exercise in free will, defining the Doctor – as ever – in opposition to the Daleks.

(And then we've got the Doctor inside the Dalek's head, holding two cables about to make a huge moral decision in yet another "quote".)

Where "Into the Dalek" is very interesting, is that its conclusion restores free will to "Rusty" – and it chooses to find hatred in the Doctor. So the Dalek does not "turn good".

So, this is a brilliant piece of Doctor Who, from the moment that Capaldi appears sneering down at Journey Blue and ticking her off for not being properly grateful, from the (simultaneous – timey-wimey) moment that new boy Danny Pink sits there headdesking intercut with his epic fail response to Clara's chatting him up. It is everything we want our Doctor Who to be: challenging, brave, darkly funny, with an idea that needs thinking about. And the special effects knock it out of the park.

On Facebook, I remarked that the Daleks boarding the Aristotle, while virtually a shot-for-shot remake of a scene from "Resurrection of the Daleks", is a case of someone showing Eric Saward how it's done. (And I know Matthew Robinson not Eric Saward was the director – he actually makes a lot of the rest of the story very brilliant and watchable, but that attack is pretty much unfilmable in a four-camera studio on the budget they had in the Eighties. And as script editor Saward should have known that.)

But never mind that, the opening effect shot of the Dalek saucer pursuing Journey Blue's space fighter through asteroids is… well, almost everyone has seen the opening of "Star Wars", haven't they. That's the league we're playing in now.

In fact I generally thought much more highly of the direction this week, too, Ben Wheatley bringing a real cinematic scope to the adventures. A lot of very interesting direct looks into the camera – in particular the moment they all look into the Dalek-eyestalk-point-of-view before entering the lens (what a trippy journey into the eye of the Dalek too) and the shift in perspective on the Doctor when he goes from "standing in front of Rusty's eye" to "inside Rusty's mind".

And after last time's very literal use of mirrors, there were many more metaphoric reflections here: not least the Doctor and the Dalek, of course, but also soldiers Danny Pink and Journey Blue (and, via the Verity podcast, the Doctor meeting the Dalek with hatred as Clara meets Danny with… flirting).

And, although I don't really want to tread on the mystery of Missy (Hmmm, Missy, Miss Tery… Nah.), but thought that in among the reflections the arrival of Gretchen in "Heaven" mirrored the arrival of Journey Blue in the TARDIS console, making me wonder if Missy wasn't materialising a time-capsule around the "dead". (Unlucky Ross, of course, is definitely physically dead because the Doctor tracks his remains.)

Capaldi continues to impress as the Doctor. Putting the alienation into the alien. Making Journey Blue ask for a lift properly; suddenly being a bastard about Ross's death – "he's the top layer if you want to say a few words"; jumping from despair to delight when Clara teaches him that Daleks are not predestined to be evil; his horror and self-recognition when he realises that what the Dalek chooses to see in his mind is his own worst side.

I have seen people criticising the line: "You are a good Dalek" as a poor man's knockoff of Rob Shearman's "You would make a good Dalek".

But to me it's another example of reflection: the Dalek's statement is definitive – "You are a good Dalek" – as inversion of the Doctor's question, "Am I a good man?". Again, recalling "The Evil of the Daleks", asking questions is a sign of the Human Factor and the antithesis of the Dalek Factor.

And it's more of Moffat-era playing with ambiguity (see last week). Where the Dalek in "Dalek" means it only one way (and a nasty way, at that), here we ask does Rusty the Dalek mean: "You are good at being a Dalek" (good in the Dalek sense); or "You are what a Dalek would be if it really were good"? (good as the Doctor would understand it). The Doctor's fear and horror is that it's the first.

It's good that the Doctor knows he should be better than that but isn't.

Remember, this Doctor has just come back (literally from the dead) from the siege of Trenzalore, hundreds and hundreds of years of stand-off against the Daleks, and just seen them overrun the planet, very nearly win, and then get wiped out alongside his chance of getting Gallifrey back… a Time War in miniature all over again. So he's had those hatreds stoked all over again. But also the unexpected reprieve from the regenerations limit may have given him cause to look back, reflect on his lives once more.

The prospect of actual death may have led to the eleventh Doctor living without thinking of the consequences. He wrecked lives – Amelia's, River's, Rory got killed more than anyone deserves – and, to borrow from Captain Kirk, patted himself on the back for his cleverness in dodging the consequences. Much like Moffat himself, in fact.

Capaldi, rather like Eccleston, has the gravitas and reputation to bring off this more introverted side to the Doctor's character, and if his arrival has raised Moffat's game to match that first glorious series from Russell, so much the better.

Equally, Clara continues to flourish thanks to seeing her life outside the TARDIS. It is a bit of a shame that she goes straight from "I'm not your boyfriend" to "hello salty goodness", but having her meet Danny, and how she engages with him start to add an actual second dimension to her. And at the same time she has a stronger relationship with the Doctor now that he is her hobby, rather than she being a puzzle for him to solve.

"Doctor Who" is often at its best when it operates on the fringes of great events. That old Bob Holmes technique for painting a bigger canvas by alluding to the larger story off. Think backstory in "Pyramids of Mars" or the galactic politics that drop the Graff Vynda K into "The Ribos Operation". So I like that what we see here is the fringe of a galactic war. We don't go straight to the Emperor and learn about the Master Plan; we take the view from the trenches. Leave the rest of the story to your imagination – it's bigger on the inside, that way.

Next time: Mark Gatiss writes what looks like a comedy historical. There's Ben Miller in the Sheriff of Nottingham's castle, wearing the Sheriff of Nottingham's hose; sporting the Sheriff of Nottingham's sticky-on beard.

Is he the baddy?
(Hat tip: Warped Factor)

But who's that blank-faced automaton… or is Jason Connery not in this one? Twang! It's "Robot of Sherwood".

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

Thanks for this very enjoyable and insightful read. It often feels that New Who reviews are split between Positive But Vacuous (most of the mainstream) and Negative But Insightful (Andrews Rilstone and Hickey). I do like to read someone who can be as analytical as you but still emerge on the other side with a big bowl full of enthusiasm.