I’ve become quite skeptical about Doctor Who over the last year as Season 7 stumbled to make sense of its premise and Steven Moffat showed his weaknesses more than ever. Saying goodbye to Matt Smith was hard enough, but I felt that while he got a good sendoff, the special episode really didn’t give us much to hope for in the future. Clara remained, despite Jenna Coleman’s best efforts, a vaguely undefined character, suffering from Moffat’s worse tendencies towards his sexist treatment of women, lost in a plot that didn’t make much sense and failed to sufficiently wrap up any of the hanging threads from his previous years as showrunner. I was excited to see Peter Capaldi take over the role as the Doctor but wasn’t sure if Moffat could keep this up.
Last week confirmed many of my suspicions, with a horribly incoherent plot, a waste of character development time instead devoted to nonsensical exposition, and a very poor treatment of Vastra and Jenny’s relationship. Clara was again left on the sidelines, little more than a pretty face for the Doctor to sound off against. At least they introduced the new dark side of the Doctor that Capaldi is brilliantly exploring, and opened up the relationship between the Doctor and Clara to scrutiny, addressing some of the conflicting dynamics of whether or not they have a romantic relationship, a platonic friendship, or something else.
This week’s episode, “Into the Dalek,” squelched those doubts. Ben Wheatley, back in the directing chair, creates a new tone for this episode that I thought almost rebooted the series entirely. The sense of danger feels larger, the series a little less stable, definitely not the same light-hearted fun that ruled Smith’s time, and far from the chameleon tonal shifts of the Davies era. Wheatley does an admirable job focusing on the Doctor’s internal darkness, tinting the universe to reflect this incarnation’s new nature.
On top of that, Moffat has a co-writer, which probably speaks a lot for the episode. Phil Ford, who also wrote “The Waters of Mars,” one of the darkest episodes exploring the Doctor’s character, from way back when Tenant held the role, that could foreshadow much about this new version, if you looked at time like that, which clearly fans of the show do (insert wibley-wobbly joke here). Finally, for the first time since far too long, we get to see Clara in her real life. So often we forget that the companions aren’t just the Doctor’s pets, and to no fault of us viewers – Moffat never gave Amy and Rory nearly enough development as their own characters. In fact we rarely see them apart from the Doctor. This episode then, came as a relief as we are reminded that Clara only really visits the Doctor (despite her convoluted plot as “the impossible girl,” a title I will not capitalize as it does nothing for her as a character and she doesn’t deserve to be demoted to merely an adjective) in her free time, even if that’s still somewhat at the Doctor’s beck and call. Nonetheless I was very happy to see her back at her schoolteaching job. I’m a little wary of the romance plot that seems to be developing between her and another teacher, especially considering how these plots tend to develop in the past, but I’m glad to see someone else come into the story.
So when the Doctor encounters a wounded Dalek who, in all appearances, has turned good, I was intrigued. Everyone knows that the Daleks are evil, the Doctor’s disdain for them unmatched among all other villains. Immediately I could see through the twist that was coming, and I question the writer’s taking such an obvious route, but the final act took what was expected and turned it into more commentary on the Doctor’s new character, allowing for further exploration into his dark side. Peter Capaldi is a revelation here, in his first role as the fully defined Doctor – last week he was still figuring out who he was – and while he still isn’t sure of himself, I like that. He questions whether he is a good man, and we see him struggle with this in his confrontation with the Dalek in a visceral way that gets to the heart of his hatred of the Daleks, something previously left unexplored, even if it was hinted at many times.
Side characters here are quite expendable and that’s a bit of a letdown but not enough to derail everything else. I do wish the central threat had been more tangible. The Doctor and Clara, along with a small group of soldiers, shrink themselves and literally travel inside a Dalek. This is a wonderful concept, but I would have preferred it to be more dangerous. The Doctor keeps pointing out that this is “the most dangerous place in the universe” but I never quite felt it, a disconnect between the direction and the writing. That aside, pitting the Doctor against his reflection in the Dalek’s eyes was wonderful to see, as he must confront the side of himself he’s never had to face before via the perspective of his most hated enemy.
Clara shows her inner-strength in confronting the Doctor as well, and I’m glad for that. Finally she serves a purpose that exists outside of being the Doctor’s sidekick. She’s there for her own reasons, and she holds the Doctor in line because she believes in him, not because if she doesn’t she won’t have anything else to do. Jenna Coleman is fantastic and she deserves a great character to play. The writers still struggle to figure Clara out, but from this episode I can see that it’s possible. I will be disappointed if nothing becomes of her development this season because there’s already a lot of ways to move her forward.
Overall, this is a much better episode than last week, one that almost redefines the series entirely. I’m looking forward to this year again. For a children’s show, Doctor Who has always dealt with very real, very adult themes, providing applicable life lessons to its viewers, asking us to think, inspiring us, helping us confront ourselves and ask, “are we good people?” This is a very essential question and finally one that the show is asking of its lead character in a way that goes beyond the surface appearances. I will be very interested to see where we go from here.
On a final note, what is up with the recurring heaven scenes? I don’t buy it at all. I know Moffat is going for yet another one of his dreary mysteries, but this one just seems way out there beyond believability. We know there’s going to be lots of “surprising” reveals here, and I’m already, after two episodes, tired of it. Don’t milk it, Moffat. Take some advice from your past failures and don’t create a plot so ridiculous that you can’t get out of it. Please. It’s better to be a bit predictable and make your point that to try and sustain a hollow mystery.