Two stories in, Peter Capaldi's Doctor Who offers a very different kind of Dalek story.
|The Doctor's heart of darkness. (Image: BBC)|
If you're trying to make a sell of a new Doctor who's radically different to the previous two, the second episode of your new series should logically feature the monster that people will tune in for regardless of who's in the title role. To remind the audience that they're now watching a series with no easy answers - i.e. a grown up drama - what you then do is deliver a Dalek story unlike any other before it.
The advance publicity stressed the Fantastic Voyage spectacle of putting the Doctor and co. in one of those wonderful cutaway illustrations from 1964's The Dalek Book or 1976's Doctor Who and the Daleks Omnibus, but the real story here is about the psychology of being a soldier. From Samuel Anderson's engagingly gauche Danny Pink, acting tough with his Coal Hill Cadets but a social disaster area when it comes to asking Clara out - typically and amusingly, she talks him into it - to the damaged Dalek that has acquired 'morality as [a] malfunction', different perspectives were offered on what being a warrior does to the individual who takes on, or is born with, that calling.
In a year of colonial expansion by Russia in the Ukraine, the continued war of attrition between Palestine and Israel and internecine warfare in Iraq, played out most evenings on the television news, 'Into the Dalek' is a timely and thought-provoking morality tale. The central, downbeat point is that all Daleks can ever do is kill - be it every creature that isn't a Dalek or, as the Doctor depressingly discovers here, other Daleks - but around it every other character who's a fighter, including the Doctor, learns something new about war.
Journey Blue (the excellent Zawe Ashton) realises there's a better, if more complicated, life outside obeying orders, while her uncle (the equally excellent Michael Smiley) goes from the blunt pragmatism of wanting to execute the Doctor to protect the location of the rebel base, to discovering heroism by standing against the Daleks to the last trooper. The Doctor himself, struggling from the start with his own sense of morality, in the end is comfortable with his 'carer' Clara's assessment of his attempts to be a good man: 'I think you try to be, and that's probably the point.' After two episodes of Matt Smith, you felt you knew his Doctor. With Capaldi, there's the feeling that you might never really know and be comfortable with the 12th Doctor. Great stuff!
It's an incredibly stylish episode, again benefiting from Ben Wheatley's trippy, nightmarish and cinematic direction; the moment where the Doctor pierces the membrane of the Dalek's eye is one of the most psychedelic scenes in Doctor Who's history. Peter Capaldi continues to push the envelope with the Doctor's character, by turns funny, introspective and callous - 'top layer [of human pulp] if you want to say a few words' - ocassionally hammy and defiantly not-fancying-his-assistant: 'Your hips are fine. You're built like a man.'
Watching 'Into the Dalek', you can't fail to want to see what happens next in this series. The sweet relationship between Clara and Danny is very promising, and the 'WTF?' moment where the marvellous Michelle Gomez's Missy - short for Mistress, perhaps? - interrupts the action, reminds you that Doctor Who remains the most unpredictable show on British television.
And the reprogrammed Dalek heading off to sabotage the ranks of its pure brethren warrants a series of its own. Terry Nation would have been delighted.
Finally: what are the odds on Journey being the next companion? With a name like that, it'd be a shame if she wasn't.