It was with a mixture of feelings that we approached Into the Dalek.
On the one hand, the presence of Phil ‘The Waters of Mars’ Ford on the credits was enough to pique the interest. On the other – well, stories about miniaturisation are always a little shlocky, aren’t they?
Whether it’s in TV and movies in general – and there won’t be a review of ‘Into the Dalek’ that doesn’t mention Fantastic Voyage – or in Doctor Who (in particular ‘Planet of Giants’, ‘The Invisible Enemy’, ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’), the minute you miniaturise your main characters is the minute you enter B movie territory.
In the event, ‘Into the Dalek’ doesn’t eschew many of the clichés of the genre; but it has enough spikiness in the telling to deliver something painted in shades of gunmetal grey rather than technicolour. Essentially a tale that puts the Doctor’s pacifism under the microscope – and literally cuts him down to size – what powers the action, whether at Coal Hill School, on board the TARDIS or on Command Ship Aristotle, is the question of whether there is such a thing as a ‘good’ soldier.
On the side of the defence is, ironically, Rusty The Dalek – with those initials, let’s just call him RTD – who professes a very unDaleky belief in beauty and creation. On the side of the prosecution is the Doctor: still struggling to intuit if he is, or isn’t, a good man. (Answer: yes. Mostly. Probably.)
It’s a morality play couched as an enemy invasion thriller, and it saves its snarkiest swipes for the people who march around with guns. Identifying himself – perhaps wrongly, given how the episode ends – with civilians, the Doctor observes that crying is ‘how we communicate’ with the military. Ouch.
There’s no room for empty reassurances here. Even the protein-harvested Ross is dismissed as just a surface layer of gunk. Almost everyone is broken: the Dalek, most obviously, but also newcomer Danny Pink – haunted, it is suggested, by an act of unlawful killing – and Journey Blue, forcing herself back into action after having witnessed her brother’s death.
If so much of this is sounding like 2005’s ‘Dalek’, then, certainly, the shadow of the former story looms large over ‘Into the Dalek’, even bequeathing it its best line: ‘You are a good Dalek’.
Ford and Moffat may be embracing Terrance Dicks’s mantra that the best ideas are honestly stolen. But in an age of moral relativism, and in a series which believes wholeheartedly in the power of redemption, it makes sense that the programme should return to the idea that even the embodiment of evil might have a soul.
There’s a grittiness and a deliberate moral ambiguity at the heart of ‘Into the Dalek’ which makes it rather more than shlock, which is not to say that it succeeds on every level. For this reviewer at least, if there’s one thing that can spoil a perfectly decent Doctor Who story, it’s a bit of gratuitous gunking.
Phil Ford presumably feels the same because, once the platoon have bathed in essence of Ross, there’s one sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it mention of a decontamination tube and they are pristine again. Such moments jar – so does the sudden cut, at the end of the episode, when the team are revealed returned to full size.
There will be viewers – Christopher H Bidmead certainly, possibly anyone with a Science GCSE – who cringe at the idea that synaptic connections can be restored by jamming together a few tubes. The Doctor says it is evil refined as engineering, but really it’s neuroscience as basic plumbing.
However, in an episode that’s willing to see the work of antibodies as a bit of household hovering, what matters is the metaphor – the big picture – and, where the big pictures are concerned, director Ben Wheatley succeeds admirably.
The action sequences are as visceral as you’d expect, but it is the little things that impress too: managing to make sets full of concertina tubing look convincing, or building the school stock cupboard outside the TARDIS set to allow a continuous shot from the cupboard into the TARDIS.
If the story ever evokes a feeling of déjà vu, the visuals don’t. The episode may look back into the programme’s recent past, but it does so to do something different: to clear the decks for the future. The Doctor talks of his first encounter with the Daleks on Skaro, and suddenly history is re-born in front of us. It was this encounter, we learn, that gave the Doctor the mission statement inherent in his name. The Doctor and the Daleks. The Daleks and the Doctor.
We may have gone into the Dalek, but it is in the revelation of the Doctor that the episode will earn our fondest remembrance.
Aired at 7.30pm on Saturday 30 August 2014 on BBC One.
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