Although an essential rite of passage for any new Doctor to undertake, a Dalek episode of Doctor Who is a tricky challenge for a writer – in this case Phil Ford (The Waters of Mars) and Steven Moffat. After all, it is hard to find an exciting new take on a creature that first infested the show fifty years ago, especially one that, for all its deadly intentions, is regularly thwarted by a short flight of stairs.
While Ford and Moffat do their level best to give a fresh perspective on the Daleks, zapping miniaturized versions of the Doctor, Clara and a beleaguered squad of rebel soldiers into the heart of a defective Dalek, as antagonists they simply aren’t frightening anymore.
Yes, the Daleks exterminate in this episode – quite a bit, actually – unleashing a swarm of robotic antibodies that will vaporise anyone who tries to resist their advance. But despite all the endless killing, they are still just slow-moving, daft-looking metal dustbins that are easily defeated by a well placed plot device. And what’s scary about that?
Far more interesting in this episode is the Doctor’s continuing struggle with his new identity. Last week’s series opener focused on the new Time Lord’s doubts about his personality by way of uncovering an organ harvesting plot in Victorian London, and Into The Dalek takes a similar tact, exploring Capaldi’s dodgy morality by conducting an investigation into the trustworthiness of an apparently reformed Dalek.
Early on in this episode the Doctor asks Clara, “Am I a good man?” It’s a question that increasingly troubles him as he uncovers unsettling parallels with his greatest enemy. The writers have fun avoiding giving a definitive answer, teasing the audience with a series of morally dubious actions. The moment when the Doctor opts to sacrifice the life of a nameless soldier without showing even a flicker of remorse is arguably the darkest of Capaldi’s short tenure.
We also get to see Capaldi more settled in his performance as the Doctor, coming across as more confidant and assured compared to his enjoyably delirious work in Deep Breath. It has done little to lighten his mood, however, with his abrasive and snarky style causing him to quarrel with Clara and the squaddies he is burdened with – though he does throw in the occasional pun for his own amusement (“A bolt hole – actually a hole for a bolt”).
After the Doctor’s surprising and wrenching plea for help in Deep Breath, this week’s episode also helps us to understand just how important Clara is to Capaldi’s incarnation as he clings to his one last connection to his old self. Yet we are still waiting for Jenna Coleman to be given something substantial to do on her own – she spends most of the story trailing the Doctor’s well-tailored coattails – but the arrival of her new colleague Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), in brief scenes that bookend the story with tonally incongruous flirting, there is hope that we may finally get to see more of her character away from the Doctor.
Into the Dalek starts out with the potential to be a classic episode of Doctor Who but it can’t quite live up to such lofty standards. Those who complained about the slow pace and tempo of Capaldi’s debut are unlikely to be sated by his second outing, which once again disrupts the action for contemplative dialogue about morality and psychology.
Nevertheless, the enjoyment of Doctor Who hinges on the presence of the man inside the blue box and Peter Capaldi continues to shape his take on the character to great effect, turning all out notions of the modern Time Lord on their head with a fascinating and enthralling performance that makes this episode a must watch.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Into The Dalek on iPlayer