A week after a solidly average season premiere, Peter Capaldi and Doctor Who return to kick off Series 8 proper. And what better way to make a new Doctor feel welcome, than with the return of some of his most vile villains – the Daleks.
Episode two – titled “Into the Dalek” – is an acknowledged riff on The Fantastic Voyage, with the Doctor (Capaldi), companion Clara (Jenna Coleman), and a few mostly nameless soldiers shrinking down to repair a Dalek from the inside. Why waste time trying to save an evil mutated jello mold inside a deadly trashcan? Because this Dalek may just be good.
It is against the very nature of the Daleks to be anything but destructive. As we find out in the episode, Dalek’s have a second brain that purposefully stamps out any thoughts or inclinations that might encourage concepts like mercy or positivity, yet here we have a Dalek – affectionately dubbed “Rusty” – who recognizes that the Daleks’ atrocities are morally not right. Rusty desperately wants to stop his own people, and the Doctor wants to help.
The Doctor’s history with the Daleks is a long and violent one, and during the Time War (between the old series and the new one), the Doctor seemingly wiped out his own race to end the Dalek threat once and for all (obviously this solution wasn’t as permanent as our hero hoped). This led to a series of Doctors each more brooding than the last. Matt Smith’s Eleventh (or so) Doctor was often referred to as “a soldier,” a warrior. But the new Doctor claims to “[not] like soldiers much.” He’s fighting against his nature as much as Rusty is, and if the little Dalek is able to do it, there might be hope for an old Time Lord as well.
The only character who is already subverting her pre-established nature is Clara. Showrunner Steven Moffat tried desperately to give her a personality separate from flirting with the Doctor last week, and that endeavor continues here. Unfortunately, the way Moffat and co-writer Phil Ford attempt to go about this mission is by finding a new man for Clara to inexplicably fall for. Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) is a teacher at the school where Clara now works, and his mysteriously tragic past looks to be a season-wide focus. It would be nice to bring another personality aboard the TARDIS, it’s just funny that Pink already has more depth in his introduction than Clara has been given in her entire tenure as a companion.
But that is the nature of the show, especially under Moffat’s guidance. If the Doctor himself cannot fight his nature, how can we expect the television program that revolves around him to do any differently? The special effects will always be rough, the Daleks will always be used too much, and the lives of the companions will always be defined by the time traveler in the police box.
“Into the Dalek” raises an interesting point or two, but the show is still searching for its footing in this new era. I can’t quite tell yet whether Capaldi just isn’t feeling the material, or if he’s purposefully playing it wearied. The man is a terrific actor, however, and his Doctor’s apathy and ruthlessness yield a refreshing mixture. sSo I’ll give him the benefit of doubt. Now it’s just up to Moffat to give Capaldi something other than Daleks or Cybermen to work with.