In reviewing the latest Doctor Who episode, entitled Into the Dalek, I wonder if it’s self-indulgent to talk about my own experience writing Daleks in fan fiction.
Probably. But that’s not going to stop me.
Decades ago, when my friends and I started working on the Trenchcoat fan fiction series, we played with the fantasy of being showrunners for a revived Doctor Who. The universe was open to us, but we knew that when it came to producing something that felt like Doctor Who, there were rules to be followed. And one of them was: there’s got to be Daleks in it, or there’s no point.
The thing is, while the Daleks can help you write an exciting story, if you’re trying to write a series, and in this series the Daleks return again and again, you know that the stories are going to be repetitive. Daleks have the character of tanks — they just keep coming at you. If you want to build on the magic, as we did, you had to expand the story, and try to top yourself every time.
But there comes a time where it’s not possible to take things higher. There comes a time when the final battle must be fought, and the big showdown had. We wrote that. And being the young, exuberant and gleefully inexperienced writer that we were, I and my friends crafted a story where the Doctor-Dalek battle destroys the Universe, and then I pulled out a Deus ex-Machina to bring everything all back.
Specifically for you Doctor Who geeks out there, I had Gallifrey’s Eye of Harmony (the black hole at the centre of the planet that powers all TARDISes) be as sentient as the TARDIS, realize what had happened, and reverse the universe so that the big battle didn’t happen, but giving every person in the universe the knowledge they had been in a future where this happened, and to this time make a different choice. Story resolved!
But we pushed the series a little farther with a new Doctor (ninth incarnation, with the first four fanzines featuring the eighth) before we moved on with our lives. One of our regrets was that we hadn’t ever given this new Doctor a proper confrontation with the Daleks. Remember, that was the rule: every Doctor has to fight the Daleks at least once, or they’re not a real Doctor.
But how do you top a war that ends the Universe? How do you write a story for a character-less tank that has seen and done everything already? What could we possibly offer to our readers that we hadn’t offered before?
Dan Kukwa and I had an idea.
We figured that, with the Daleks pulled back from utter destruction, and given the knowledge that they had been destroyed, they’d spent the next few centuries gibbering incoherently (basically acting like normal). But what if a small group of Daleks discovered what it was that had saved them? And what if that group of Daleks decided to worship that entity (the Eye of Harmony), and changed their warlike ways? And what if the remainder of the Daleks freaked out, and turned all their efforts towards to exterminate these new religious Daleks, to the exclusion of all else?
We never got a chance to write that story, but I still liked the idea. I think it shows that, with monsters as monolithic and irredeemably evil as the Daleks (or the Borg, or the Cylons), you can get some great action stories out of them on the first few goes. But if you want to keep going, and continue to offer audiences something that is different or interesting, you need to throw curve balls. You need to inject some grey into the black and white tanks. You need to give the tanks character.
In the seven years of the revival, the Daleks have been thoroughly revived and made into the main go-to monster of the series once again. They’ve destroyed the universe already in the Time War, and they’ve faced the Doctor again and again, all guns blazing, and it’s been mostly fun, if somewhat repetitive. In the previous series, the Daleks would often be retired, and put into storage for up to five years before being brought back, but it doesn’t seem as though the writers of the revival are capable of doing this.
However, with Into the Dalek, writers Phil Ford and Steven Moffat have thrown their curve ball. In so doing, they are injecting grey into the black heart of the Daleks, and giving us a disturbing picture of the Doctor while they go about doing it. Things may go in an interesting direction, or it may fall apart. Like the new paradigm Daleks of Victory of the Daleks, the ideas founded here in Into the Dalek may be quietly taken out back and shot.
In the meantime, we got an hour of television that harkened back to the first time a Dalek appeared on screen in the new revival (yes, a lone Dalek), and which I was quite happy to watch.
A full spoilery review follows after this break. You have been warned.
The story opens with a small spaceship under attack. A soldier named Journey Blue is rushing to save her critically injured brother when she finds herself surrounded by Dalek ships. She screams as the ship blows up. Everything goes white (note this for later) and then… she wakes up in the TARDIS console room, with the Doctor standing over her, holding coffee.
We see more of the Capaldi Doctor’s character emerge. He’s definitely playing the character as more alien. This is not, as others have pointed out, a playback of the sixth Doctor’s early tenure where he was uncharacteristically antagonistic; rather, we’re seeing a tip of the hat to the early fourth Doctor stories where the Doctor was compassionate but also, clearly, not human. He casually tells Journey that he couldn’t save her brother, and he’s completely blasse about it, because in his mind, he’s done the important thing and saved the person he could save, so why not get on with it? This is not a Doctor that wastes time on grief.
You see this again later as he callously uses the imminent (and, in his view, unavoidable) death of an extra to save the rest of the people around him. It’s possible that other Doctors, like Matt Smith, wouldn’t do this sort of thing and instead come up with something insanely clever. It’s also possible that Capaldi’s Doctor is just being more open and honest about things when insanely clever ideas just aren’t available.
Returning Journey to her mothership, called the Aristotle, the Doctor finds himself in trouble again. The humans on board are fighting a bitter war against the Daleks and are not interested in trusting strangers. Journey’s uncle has no qualms about killing the Doctor in order to preserve the Aristotle’s secret location, but the mention of the Doctor’s name stops the execution. If the Doctor truly is a doctor, they have a particularly special patient: a Dalek.
In Peter Capaldi’s first confrontation with the iconic monster, he again plays it subtle and subdued. There’s no shouting. Instead, there’s horror at the thought of being in the same room as a Dalek, and burning hatred as the Dalek appears to recite all the usual lines — except about the part of who it wants to exterminate. All Daleks must be destroyed. Something has happened to this Dalek’s morality circuits. It’s so damaged, it’s turned good.
This spooks, rather than delights the Doctor, although the fact that it does isn’t clear until you think about it. The scenes with the Doctor and the Dalek are told in flashback, as the Doctor goes to fetch Clara. He’s apprehensive, and while he’s enough of a friend to casually insult her, he frankly tells her that he needs her. One has to ask, for what?
Clearly, even though the Dalek is damaged just well enough to turn it “good”, it still needs urgent medical attention. A good Dalek is probably useless if it can’t move or shoot. Fortunately, the crew of the Aristotle have raided the set of the movie Fantastic Journey (and possibly the people behind the Tessalecta as well) to create a medical device that can shrink surgeons down to nano size to be injected into the patient. There, they have to trek through the Dalek’s inner workings to find the fault, braving the Dalek’s antibodies along the way.
Journey Blue accompanies the Doctor, likely because she’s seen as being responsible for him, having been rescued by him. Two other soldiers accompany to shoot the Doctor in case he turns out to be a Dalek spy. Why is Clara there again? The Doctor must have needed her enough to convince a very skeptical crew to let him go and retrieve her, remember, but she doesn’t have much to do, other than to think almost as fast as the Doctor. What can she do in this situation, as the Doctor proceeds with what is a pretty simple task with pretty predictable results.
It’s in the third act, however, when this is revealed, and Into the Dalek turns from a rather thrown-together story into one with a very interesting window in the Doctor’s soul. To no one’s surprise, repairing the major fault in the Dalek not only restores its motor functions, it allows the morality computer to kick in and squelch the Dalek’s impure thoughts about the beauty of the Universe. The Dalek is now back to being a killing machine, and even though the Doctor and company are about to die, the Doctor is not particularly displeased.
The way that Clara calls him out on this is the highlight of the story, and it works if the Doctor is almost literally in two minds over this situation, so as to be fighting against himself. Clara suggests that, at his heart, the Doctor wanted to fail, because the Daleks are a lot simpler to handle if they’re just plain evil. The fact that one of them could be turned good throws some of the Doctor’s whole raison d’être into doubt. He’s killed billions of Daleks, and manages to sleep at night because he believes there’s no good in them. What if he’s wrong?
Still, he did bring Clara aboard and make her available to slap some sense into him. As fear inducing as it is to be wrong about your worst enemies, the opportunity cannot be overlooked: if he can change one of them, he can change all of them, and that could save the universe better than a billion bombs could.
Unfortunately, he gets another nasty surprise as his attempts to show the Dalek the beauty of the universe by linking the Dalek to his soul instead shows the Dalek the hatred the Doctor has for all Daleks. This is something the Dalek is able to understand and cling to. The horror on Capaldi’s face here anchors the story. As the anti-Dalek says later on, the Doctor is actually quite a good Dalek. “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
This frankly Nietzschian theme is carried over into the B-plot, where Clara meets and chats up a new teacher at Cole Hill School, a former soldier named Danny Pink. The name is an obvious parallel to Journey Blue, who shows herself to be a good person that had to make tough choices in order to become a good soldier. Danny clearly has some issues in his past to be worked out, but Clara sees something attractive in him, which leads her to pursue the relationship, even as the Doctor politely rejects Journey Blue’s request to travel on board the TARDIS.
The way this theme is set up strongly suggests to me that it applies not just to Into the Dalek, but may also be returned to again throughout the new season. How will it play with Missy and her growing collection of dead extras? Not certain at this point, but with the Doctor clearly unsure of himself, and asking Clara if indeed he is a good man, one suspects that the question is going to come back to bite him.
The episode recalls a lot of the very first Dalek episode of the revival (entitled simply Dalek) — indeed, look closely and you’ll see a scene from Dalek as one of the suppressed memories that comes back to the Dalek. I like this type of Dalek story, because it uses the iconic creatures in new and different ways. Also, as I said, the Skittle-coloured “New Paradigm” Daleks appear to have been quietly taken out back and shot.
Then, of course, there is Missy. I’ll give credit to my father: after seeing Deep Breath, he suggested to me that Missy was the TARDIS, or that Heaven was a TARDIS and she was the Time Lady running it. I pooh-poohed his suggestion, pointing out that the character’s name has been leaked as “the Guardian of the Nethersphere”, but after seeing Into the Dalek, his theory holds water. Cameron noted the scenes where Journey Blue and the soldier Gretchen are seen at the moment of their imminent deaths, in both cases, they screamed, and the screen went white, before the whiteness faded away and they found themselves… elsewhere (Journey in the TARDIS and Gretchen in “Heaven”).
Any particular reason why these two scenes would be virtually identical? And it’s worth pointing out that while Missy might not be the TARDIS, there’s nothing to say that she couldn’t be a TARDIS. Indeed, that could be a powerful big bad to face at the end of the season: imagine a Gallifreyan battle TARDIS, left over from the Time War, its old owner long dead, but with the ship looking for a new one. Of course she’d glom onto the Doctor. And she’d probably have no qualms about trying to push our beloved TARDIS out of the way. Perhaps we’ll be seeing actress Suranne Jones again?
Anyway, I’ve been pleased with this season for two weeks in a row, and am excited by the possibilities of the future. I think we’re off to a good start, and I’m looking forward to some swashbuckling adventure from our next episode.
- What Culture Review: Into the Dalek Review