Warning: spoilers herein.
Yesterday morning, I watched ‘Deep Breath’ again with the boys. Daniel lasted half an hour, and then the dinosaur exploded and he wandered off to see his mother. Joshua watched the whole thing with academic interest. And Thomas kept his head half hidden under the duvet during the final act (everything from the basement onwards). Two eyes and a nose barely visible above a mound of fabric, like Wilson from Home Improvement or Wilfred from The Bash Street Kids. Watching it again I was able to plot my general interest level for the episode, and it looked like this.
Total Film used to do similar graphs (and perhaps still do – I haven’t bought an issue in years) for every film they reviewed, and it was a very convenient way of checking how good something was without actually having to read the review properly. When it came to doing last night’s episode, the graph looked like this:
(This was fun. I may do it every week.)
In the first instance, there was nothing inherently wrong with the Contractual Obligation story that was ‘Into the Dalek’, despite its pedestrian title. There were explosions. There was a bit of trickery from the Doctor. There was stoic support from Clara. More to the point, there wasn’t a single mention of soufflé or eggs. It could have all gone so horribly wrong. It could have been Clara sitting outside the Dalek brain during that final confrontation, reasoning with it, delivering an impassioned, empathetic monologue. “I’ve been a Dalek,” she’d say. “I know it’s difficult to believe to look at me, but it’s true. I’ve been a lot of places. Sometimes I choose not to remember, because if I remember, it’ll drive me crazy. So the door stays shut. But I know what it was like – I remember what it was like, just for a moment, to be a Dalek and despise myself. And I managed to channel that force for good, even though it meant the death of me.”
Instead, she got a boyfriend. Oh, he’s still only a maths teacher this week, barking out orders at the Coal Hill Cadet School one minute and then, some moments later, handing out a homework exercise that mysteriously skips the last question on page 32 (which is clearly something for the denofgeek comment boxes). I really didn’t want to have to tell you that Danny sounded like an adult version of Mickey Smith, but the truth will out. His early scenes with Clara are clumsy and forced – Coleman has, at this stage, far better chemistry with Capaldi – but that at least works within the context of the relationship they’re trying to create, and this is no doubt something that’ll change (or, if it doesn’t, we’ll be stuck with a Smith / Kingston pairing, and I’ll have something else to whine about). Structurally, Moffat drops a clanger in the opening segment by having Danny reveal his hand far too early, with the Deep Dark Secret manifesting itself through unexpected pauses and the shedding of a single tear. It would have been better to keep this for an end-of-episode reveal, or even a future instalment, but heaven knows there are enough arc references to drop in already, with the references to
the Rani the Eyepatch Lady the post-op Master Missy. So we’re stuck with the crying. (And we’ll not talk about the end of ‘The Snowmen’, of course. That would just bring back bad memories.)
But Danny’s introduction is merely a counterpoint to the Doctor’s own encounter with a group of human soldiers (the most emotionally prominent of which is the improbably named Journey Blue) gathered at an unspecified location at an unspecified point in the future, and the fact that they’ve captured a Dalek. This Dalek appears to have developed a fault, in that it now wants the destruction of all Daleks, so the Doctor, Clara and a bunch of expendable warriors we haven’t really had time to care about are shrunk and then placed inside the Dalek in order to find out what’s going on.
Those who are saying this is Doctor Who meets Fantastic Voyage are basically correct (the Doctor even acknowledges that it’s a “fantastic idea for a movie; terrible idea for a proctologist”), but we’ve been here before, of course, more than once. Visually, ‘Into The Dalek’ works reasonably well, even if it’s somewhat formulaic. The interior of the Dalek’s memory banks resembles the corridor of a worn-out spacecraft (the nods to 2001 are presumably intentional), while much of the highly radiated interior looks mysteriously like a pumping station – but it’s difficult to know exactly how you’re expected to render the inside of these things without resorting to CSO (which is what they did in ‘The Invisible Enemy’), or a big pile of jelly beans.
The last time I wandered around the middle of a Dalek, it was July 2013 and the Dalek was a giant hedge maze in York. It was hot, and the Sixth Doctor was there, in the form of pre-recorded information points. It was certainly a lot less metal. There were annoying children and the occasional wasp, but no steam or vents. Nor did we have to contend with the Dalek’s antibodies, who bear a passing resemblance to the Toclafane, and whom the visitors inadvertently manage to annoy not long after they arrive, upping the threat level and leading to the dispatch of the bearded Ross (Ben Crompton, whom viewers will recognise from Man Stroke Woman).
This week’s Callous Bastard moment: it’s not that the Doctor doesn’t try to save Ross, having accepted his inevitable death with the sort of blasé indifference that would cause James Bond to raise an eyebrow (Roger Moore’s, as theatrical as possible). It’s that he leads Ross – and the audience – to believe that he’s got a plan. It turns out that the pill he gave Ross will enable them to track his progress through the Dalek’s casing (“Top layer,” he later says, indicating a large pool of liquefied human remains, “If you want to say a few words”). This is the sort of pragmatism that we’re gradually coming to expect from the Twelfth Doctor, and Capaldi delivers his lines with a brash carelessness that is frankly a joy to watch. It’s going to upset people who are used to the sort of poignant farewell that was granted to Father Octavian in ‘Flesh and Stone’, but it’s kind of nice to see something a little less melodramatic than Tennant’s mournful stare and pleas that “some good may come from your death”, along with the declaration that he’s so, so sorry. And someone finally seems to have had a word with Murray Gold. Either that or I’ve managed to get the sound mixer settings on my TV balanced.
In the process of repairing a radiation leak, the Doctor manages to fix the Dalek, restoring its core programming and sending it out after the humans outside the surgery. Capaldi’s prejudices about inherent Dalek hatred and rehabilitation – along with Clara’s response, which is to slap him – carry a whiff of social commentary, but this is never really expanded upon, beyond an ironic twist in the final act when it is the Doctor’s hatred that successfully reprogrammes the Dalek to once more destroy its kind. Futilely protesting “There must be more than that”, the Time Lord’s latest incarnation looks out of his depth for the first time, in a scene that would have worked far better had they not blown the budget on the opening space battle, leaving us with some warped overlay that resembles a vintage pop video.
Somewhere on the cutting room floor (do they still have cutting room floors? Do they still even have cutting rooms, or is it all done on a laptop in Steven Moffat’s office?) there’s a scene which explains exactly how the Doctor, Clara and Journey managed to actually get out of the Dalek and back to normal size, given that most of the personnel involved in the experiment are either dead or off doing other things. Or perhaps it happened, and I’d drifted off. There’s a slightly barbed farewell, echoing the Doctor’s callous treatment of (among others) the UNIT personnel in ‘The Sontaran Strategem’, and then the question of whether or not the Doctor is a good man is finally and definitively answered, with an “I don’t know, but keep trying”.
Ben Wheatley helms his second episode in a row, and does so with flair, reining in Capaldi so that we see the Doctor we’re expected to see – there is a sense that ‘Deep Breath’ was anomalous in a way that ‘The Eleventh Hour’ wasn’t. Favouring wide, mid-range shots over tight ones, he grants the action scenes an uneasy pace, and intercuts between Danny’s imagined conversation with Clara with the one that actually happened to amusing effect. Still, even he can’t resist including the two staple shots that appear to be part of every episode in the Dalek repertoire: the eyestalk close-up, and the eyecam shot.
At the end of the day you come away feeling both underwhelmed and strangely relieved: a sense of watching an Who-by-numbers, rather than a story that will sit alongside ‘The God Complex’ or ‘Human Nature’. I measure my enjoyment of episodes by watch checks (seven) and grabs for the remote control (only one). That comes out at about average. But perhaps ‘average’ is enough. It’s certainly a step up from ‘shit’, which if I remember correctly is how I described the last time we encountered the metal dustbins in any real capacity beyond an extended cameo, in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. ‘Into the Dalek’ is nowhere near as smug or pointless. Neither does it plumb the depths of bad acting and rank stupidity displayed in ‘Evolution of the Daleks’, or the comic silliness and wild implausibility of ‘Journey’s End’. The fact of the matter is that we haven’t had a decent Dalek story since ‘Dalek’, and even that was based on a Robert Shearman audio drama that was frankly much better.
Familiarity breeds contempt, you see. I hate to generalise, but unless you’re the sort of person who actively scans ahead to the mid point of of ‘The Big Bang’ so that you can watch the stone thing trundling round the museum, rather than hitting the chapter skip button at the beginning of River’s “Mercy!” exchange, this was always going to be a non-starter. If we must have Daleks every series (and I accept that we must, in order to appease the Nation estate) then they’re never going to reach the heights of ‘Genesis’ or ‘Remembrance’ – people will never get the chance to miss them, and will never fool themselves into thinking that ‘Doomsday’ was actually any good, the way that everyone apparently did with ‘Revelation of the Daleks’. So ‘average’ and ‘a bit boring’ – both words Emily and I used last night – may not be particularly kind, and nor do they represent a show at the top of its game, but they’re an improvement on ‘rubbish’. And improvements I can deal with.