If you want to find out who the Doctor really is then lock him in a room with his greatest enemy: the Daleks.
This has been one of the few truths of Doctor Who as a show, even more so after its return in 2005 and the introduction of the Time War plot establishing that the Doctor sacrificed his own people to rid the universe of the Daleks once and for all. As an unyielding trickster, the Doctor thrills in subverting the universe’s expectations and inspiring others to do the same. This trait is embedded deeply in the Doctor’s fictional history. He’s not going to bow to the constraints of Time Lord society, he’s going to steal a TARDIS and get the hell out of there. He’s not [whatever his Gallifreyan birthname is], he’s the Doctor. Just the Doctor. And you can’t force him do anything he doesn’t want to do.
Unless you’re the Daleks.
Spoilers for the episode ahead.
It’s not infuriating enough that the Daleks are soulless, ridiculously simplistic monsters that destroy entire star systems. It’s that they’re so successful at this that they force the Doctor to respond on their terms. They dictate the situation and more often than not they do so in a way that gives the Doctor no choice but to act in a way entirely antithetical to his choice of identity. Their purity of hatred erodes even the Doctor’s stubbornness and their greatest victories lay not in razing long stretches of the cosmos but in convincing the Doctor that he isn’t the Doctor anymore.
Concepts like the Time War and the War Doctor and episodes like “Dalek” and “The Day of the Doctor” all explore this conflict. After all, it was not as the Doctor that he undertook the most shameful decision of his life—the destruction of Gallifrey—and it was only by restoring his identity that he was able to reverse that decision.
But who is the Doctor now? So soon after a shaky regeneration, he stands eye to eyestalk with his greatest enemy. What will emerge?
As we’ve seen so far, not even he knows what will happen, and “Into the Dalek” continues the promise of “Deep Breath” in setting Clara up as a cautious guide, nudging Twelve into actions more akin to the history of the Doctor as she knows it, reminding him of himself, and being horrified when he strays. This isn’t a new position for a companion to be in—as characters they’re there to argue the human viewpoint—but the episode wastes no time in establishing that this particular Doctor is openly requesting that position. Sure, a cup of coffee in a cupboard and a tossed off “She cares so I don’t have to.” is a chilling way to express that, but it nevertheless establishes that while Clara was girlfriend material to Eleven, Clara is truly companion material to Twelve.
It’s a dynamic the show employed with some success years ago when transitioning David Tennant’s Doctor from his relationship with Rose Tyler into his friendship with Donna Noble. The Tenth Doctor openly requests her judgment and ends up growing as a person. (It is a sort-of-historical-irony that doing so in “Fires of Pompeii” results in Ten saving Peter Capaldi when he otherwise would not have.) You can see the effect a friend has on the Doctor in how he deals with the Daleks over the course of David Tennant’s run. In season three he’s taking taking insane lightning baths on top of the Empire State Building, but by the time he and Donna encounter Davros in latter season four, the Doctor is begging off from confrontation so as not to be distracted from saving his friends and Earth. (“I only have one thing to say to you. BYE!”)
“Into the Dalek” continues Clara’s transition into that role. The Doctor finds himself in front of a Dalek in need of a doctor and…he doesn’t know what to do. He hates this thing. Just look at how his jaw clenches and unclenches when he faces it. But it’s requesting help. Specifically, it’s requesting help to finish its mission to destroy Daleks. And he’s the Doctor…right? Helping one “good” Dalek would result in a lot of “bad” Daleks dying, and doesn’t that just suit him fine? What does that mean? Clara would know.
And she does, immediately. She points out that he’s letting his prejudices control him. It’s possible that this Dalek has grown beyond being a Dalek and it’s very possible that the Doctor is the only person in the universe who can truly help this Dalek. The Doctor has seen this happen before, long ago. So long ago. And he knows that Clara is right. “I don’t pay you, right?” he finally responds. “I should give you a raise.”
And suddenly they’re undergoing miniaturization to go inside the Dalek and fix it and why? The episode doesn’t quite explain that but it doesn’t need to. Pulling a Fantastic Voyage and traipsing through the innards of a Dalek is its own reward, for the viewer and the Doctor.
Being inside of a Dalek is bound to mess with anyone’s head and the three soldiers accompanying Clara and the Doctor are understandably jumpy, especially Journey Blue, who began the day being saved by the Doctor as her brother burned up under Dalek laserfire. She doesn’t know how to feel about this guy, who glowers and offers coffee in his weird spaceship that’s smaller on the outside.
For his part, the Doctor seems to be enjoying the experience, taking satisfaction in the victory inherent in simply being allowed inside of a Dalek. Clara is…not entirely present at first…which feels like a misstep on the part of the episode. She’s the first to note that the passage of the Dalek’s thoughts gives off a beautiful light, a unique perspective on Daleks to be sure, but she initially offers no additional insight beyond that. You would think that someone who was introduced to us as a Dalek would have more of an opinion about them. Even if she doesn’t remember being Oswin, there’s still an opportunity here to link that version of her with the one we know now, at least in the eyes of the viewers.
Although maybe not. We had the same opportunity with Victorian Clara and Actual Clara in last week’s “Deep Breath” and nothing came of that. And maybe it’s for the best that Clara doesn’t dwell on the prior season’s events. This is a new Doctor, after all, and this current season is still putting a lot of effort into re-forging Clara into a Real Human Character.
In fact, the first fourth of the episode belongs to Clara and her life at school, as she meets new character, new history teacher, and former soldier Danny Pink. Danny’s first day at school doesn’t go so well. Despite his insistence to his students that he won’t answer questions about his military history, the kids find ways to wheedle around the technicalities of Danny’s wishes. Okay, they can’t ask if you killed anyone, but did you shoot guns? Did you shoot guns when people were around? The kids want to know that teacher has killed people, because that’s exciting for them. They spend their days surrounded by rules regarding their dress and behavior and yet here is a man who has broken a cardinal rule of humanity. He has taken a life and can speak from beyond that moral horizon.
Clara takes an instantaneous liking to him in the teacher’s lounge, even after he is heavy-handedly introduced as a “ladykiller.” (And he is quite likable, to be sure.) Clara has a stronger resolve than she lets on, of course, and her attraction to Danny makes sense to us even if it doesn’t make sense to him. She travels with the Doctor, after all, and in this episode she watches that same Doctor trick one of the soldiers into becoming a target for Dalek antibodies. She travels with killers. They’re her hobby.
She’s shocked, yes, but not as much as the other soldiers. And she’s not angry, like Journey Blue is. She’s silent, even as they dive into the gooey remains of the soldier the Doctor just sentenced to death. She’s here to care where the Doctor doesn’t, but that’s not an automatic mindset she can adopt. Especially not when she needs to rely on the Doctor to guide them through the Dalek. She can’t protest, so she’s measuring, she’s justifying internally. Soldiers surround Clara in this episode, from Journey, to the Doctor, to Danny, and they’re all very different people. For now, her judgment is hers to keep. Let’s see how the Doctor plays out, she’s probably thinking. Let’s see how Danny plays out, too.
Unfortunately, passively letting the Doctor feel his way through this situation backfires continually. First Twelve lets an innocent die, then he repairs the radiation leak that changed the Dalek’s brain chemistry and made it able to imagine better things. The Dalek immediately goes back to being just another Dalek and as it rampages murderously across the base it’s housed within and summons the rest of the Dalek fleet to begin an invasion the Doctor essentially tells everyone “I told you so.” There’s no such thing as a “good” Dalek. It was just a radiation leak. Not his fault.
Only then does it dawn on Clara how corrective she needs to be. She slaps him a good one for his poor choices. “The Daleks are evil and the Doctor is right!” she taunts, as if that’s a good thing. “That’s what we just learned!” the Doctor says, but his justification is weak in the face of Clara’s awakened righteousness. “No Doctor, that is NOT what we just learned.”
Clara gets him to admit that one “good” Dalek would make all the difference in the universe, but that it’s impossible, and finally the Doctor realizes what’s gone wrong. Here he stands, the Doctor, unapologetic as people are gunned down as a consequence of his actions, inside of a Dalek that just described the beauty and wonder of a star born and the realization that life is a vast cycle that the Daleks can do nothing to extinguish. Whose words belong to whom here? Is there no such thing as a “good” Doctor? Can he not make all the difference in the universe?
One of the soldiers, Gretchen Alison Carlyle, asks the Doctor if he can restore the Dalek’s consciousness. “Is this worth it?”
She needs to know, because Gretchen needs to trigger the antibodies so Clara and Journey can get back up to the Dalek’s brain and reactivate its repressed memories. Someone needs to be sacrificed. One of the soldiers has to face death.
The Doctor promises that this is worth it. That this can lead to amazing things. For a moment, an important moment, our Doctor is here. We’ve seen him do amazing things and we believe in him, in a way that he is slowly, finally, coming to believe in himself.
That’s acceptable to Gretchen. “Do something good and name it after me.”
It’s Clara who makes the saving throw, restoring the Daleks memory bit by bit, tube by tube, until the Doctor can enter the Dalek’s mind personally. The Dalek sees the same beauty and endless divine perfection that the Doctor views. “That’s good. Put it inside you and live by it.”
It’s a stirring sentiment to end an episode on. Or it would be if this wasn’t Doctor Who and this wasn’t a man who’s hatred of the Daleks leads to his most furious, most shameful moments. The Dalek sees beauty but it sees the Doctor’s hatred as well. The Doctor is sure there must be more than that to his opinions on Daleks. After all, he believed in this Dalek for a little bit, didn’t he? But whatever sympathy hides in the Doctor doesn’t shine bright enough for the Dalek to see, and it rides the Doctor’s hatred into a total extermination of the Dalek fleet that’s closing in. “The Daleks are exterminated!”
“Of course they are,” the Doctor says, not really to the Dalek anymore. “That’s what you do, isn’t it?” This Dalek has a part of the Doctor inside of it now, and if you want to find out who the Doctor really is, all you need to do is lock him in a room with his greatest enemy.
As the soldiers mop up the battle, the Doctor laments his failure. This wasn’t a victory. He remembered himself, he tried to help, but what resulted isn’t a “good” Dalek at all.
The Dalek agrees. “No, I am not a ‘good’ Dalek. You are a good Dalek.”
Early on in the episode, the Doctor asks Clara very frankly whether she thinks he is a good man. She honestly doesn’t know, and her reply rattles him. That’s not the answer he would have preferred. Still, he thinks, she’s just one perspective and there’s time to prove her wrong.
Just not this time around, and even the rebellious Dalek can sense that. After the battle, the Doctor rejects Journey’s request to come aboard the TARDIS, dismissing soldiers and himself in the same breath. A soldier, a Dalek, such as himself can’t possibly be a good man.
Except, Clara tells him, even though she doesn’t know whether he is still a good man, at least he’s still trying to be, and that counts for her. That counts for everyone who’s alive right now thanks to the Doctor. That counts for a planet called Gallifrey, lost somewhere in the ocean of reality, but very much alive. And he should allows that to count for himself.
- Gosh I liked this episode. It manages to be a thematic and direct callback to “Dalek” and the Time War while still imparting a ton of new character info about Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. He continues to grow into himself and I think I might actually be slightly disappointed when his character fully solidifies. Clara’s expanded role in this season ties in really well with this ongoing journey, even though their plotlines have run somewhat separately so far.
- Just like “Deep Breath,” this episode isn’t afraid to keep digging. The supporting cast is nicely fleshed out. (I wanted the Doctor to say yes to Journey!) The scenes linger, but not too long, and it has something definitive to say about the Doctor beyond the plot. If this were a lesser episode, it would have ended with the Doctor fixing the leak and the Dalek realizing it was good and that would have been that. Instead, we got so much more.
- And I like Danny! He’s slated to stick around and there were rumors that he would end up being an incognito Master (I think mostly because the actor has a beard) but that’s obviously not true. I imagine he and the Doctor will have a lot to talk about regarding morality and war once they finally meet.
- Weird Lady Theory Time: I think she’s a Time Lord. Gretchen flashing into Heaven seemed an awful lot like how the Doctor saved Journey in the beginning of the episode by wrapping his TARDIS around her, making it seem like she was teleported inside of it and not the other way around.
- I don’t think this woman is the Rani, because that’s played out and after the last season and the 50th anniversary hoopla the show seems done bringing back older stuff for a little while. In fact, I’m betting that this woman is a Time Lord who has kind of forgotten that she’s a Time Lord in favor of believing that she’s a GOD. Becauuuuse…
- She’s certainly framed herself as a celestial overseer of the afterlife. And we get a hint of her agenda here. If we consider that the clockwork guy from “Deep Breath” killed himself and that the Doctor didn’t push him, then that means the Doctor effectively convinced Mr. Clockwork (I forget his name) to sacrifice himself for a greater good. Gretchen does the same thing in this episode and honestly, a lot of people over the course of the series have done the same.
- All those people? All those soldiers in the Doctor’s wars? What if there was an entire afterlife full of them? What if this odd lady is intent on creating an afterlife full of them? What if she’s trying to prove that the Doctor isn’t making all the difference in the universe? For a season that seems to so far be about the Doctor doubting himself, this would make for a heck of a season finale villain. Moffat has also brought up the notion of the dead that that Doctor leaves behind at least once a season during his tenure on the show.
- It would also explain why she calls the Doctor her “boyfriend” in the first episode. If she sees herself as a God-figure, a guardian of the afterlife, then she probably views the Doctor as Death, i.e. someone with a vital relationship to her.
- It occurs to me that, if this theory is correct, it would be a perfect way to re-introduce Harriet Jones, Prime Minister into the show.
Chris Lough is the programming manager at Tor.com and would not make a good Dalek on account of all the student loan debt.