1. Fantastic Journey
I’m not talking about Zawe Ashton’s potential as a companion (like all the best guest stars, she should be good enough to nearly be awesome). Or that Ashton is so well respected that when people were discussing women as potential Doctors to replace Matt Smith, her name was at the top of many bookies’ lists.
Instead, I’m talking about the miniaturisation process, which has direct echoes of 1966’s Fantastic Voyage (referenced in the Doctor’s “Fantastic idea for a movie” line) as well as all the homages and rip-offs that came after it.
Which, of course, included 1977 Doctor Who story The Invisible Enemy, which saw clones of the Doctor and companion Leela miniaturised and inserted into the real Doctor. On a 1970s TV budget. Yes, it’s as hokey as it sounds. Which, like much of that era of Doctor Who, is part of its charm.
One thing all the various stories of this type share is a fast-and-loose idea of how small the miniaturised people actually are. Try and work out what size the Doctor, Clara, Journey and the others are from the camerawork, and they’ll be anything from several centimetres tall to microscopically smaller.
2. Into Darkness
When the Doctor describes their impending journey as “into darkness”, I didn’t immediately think of the latest Star Trek film as many may have done. Instead, for me, it conjured up images of Heart of Darkness, the Conrad novel which was later contemporized and relocated to the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now.
A full scale adaptation would be a little too dark for a Saturday family drama, but the themes of madness, of dehumanisation, do have their part to play in Into the Dalek’s narrative.
3. Musical themes
I didn’t mention the new theme tune arrangement last week, possibly because I was too busy being distracted by the visuals (which I still don’t like). Of all the arrangements since the series returned in 2005, I think this one is easily the weakest. It’s like listening to Dominic Glynn’s theme for Trial of a Time Lord, as reinterpeted by someone who wants to make his audience think they have tinnitus.
This episode’s incidental music was a lot better – and, while still incessant and (on occasion) too loud in the sound mix, didn’t seem to drown out the dialogue too much this week. I did find, though, that the music contributed to a certain lack of energy in the pacing this week. The script pushed forward all the time, but even with the occasional battle scenes, the sense of pace never seemed to be quite there.
4. In the Pink
Although I have a feeling I’m going to get very annoyed by Danny Pink’s inability to open his mouth when talking, so that everything he says is either a mumble, or a slower mumble to indicate he’s being a bit more serious, I like the hints that there is a little bit more to him than meets the eye.
Of course, in this debut episode he’s little more than an opposite of the Doctor. A soldier with a moral core, as opposed to a man of morals who can be a heartless soldier when the occasion demands.
5. The redefinition of Clara
“I was being funny.”
“I just do that.”
Way back in Ten Things about Hide, when the “Impossible Girl” story behind Clara was still being touted as a mystery, I wondered if she would face the “Dawn problem”, of the companion written as a plot device would survive that device’s usage.
And in the specials The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor, it looked as if those worries would come true. But it turns out that now that her character has been freed from all the flirting with the Doctor, she’s an intelligent, effective counterpart to the Time Lord. Apologising for his lack of tact, sure, but also a sounding board, a prompt, a conscience – and a pal.
She is, indeed, his carer. But not so much “she cares, so that I don’t have to” – she cares, and can remind the Doctor that he does, too.
6. The Coupling of Coal Hill
Clara’s attempt to ask Danny out for a drink, his failure to respond appropriately, and his self-admonition form a really sweet sequence. It’s also a nice, creative use of jumping backwards and forwards in time – and the sort of non-linear storytelling that Steven Moffat would do in Coupling (and which that show’s natural successor, US comedy How I Met Your Mother, would often do on a weekly basis).
And of course, that same technique is reused after the Doctor returns to pick up Clara, the action then cutting back to his first sighting of, and conversation with, “Rusty”, in direct continuation of the pre-credits sequence. But its use to lift an otherwise straightforward romantic storyline is what really appeals.
7. Chekhov’s nanocontroller
Remember those wrist things that everyone has to put on just before they enter the nanoscaler? Yes?
Well, apparently you’re one up on the writers. Those gadgets have no further use and are never mentioned again. Just as well, really – if you hit the button to revert to normal size while inside the Dalek, surely you’d expand within the Dalekanium casing? Can’t imagine that’d be good for you or for dear old Rusty –- it’d probably do more damage than Journey’s grenade, especially as that had been miniaturised, too.
8. That is not what we just learned
So we learned that it is possible for Daleks to become more than their programming, whether genetic or enforced upon it.
Of course, we could have done so by watching Dalek. Or Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks. Or, if only the episodes still remained intact, 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks.
In that story by David Whitaker, the Daleks isolate the “Human Factor”, those attributes of humanity that have allowed them to constantly resist and defeat the Daleks. The Doctor instils this human factor into three Daleks and sabotages equipment so that more Daleks will become “humanized”. By the end of the story, the Dalek Emperor has been exterminated and the race has descended into civil war.
So why is the Doctor so convinced that “Rusty” cannot change? The simple answer, of course, is that it ties into the themes of the story – that soldiering is more than killing people, but whatever else there is doesn’t fully compensate for that.
9. Ignorance is Gretchen
What is it with “Carlisle”? Is it just that it’s a funny sounding place name?
Of course the Doctor and Clara have already named something after Gretchen Carlisle – the “opposite of Bliss”, in last series’ Hide.
How, and why, her death leads her to the Nethersphere when her fellow redshirt does not (at least, that we saw) is mysterious. Is Missy picking up everybody who ends up dead through the Doctor’s actions? If so, that Nethersphere’s going to get very crowded very quickly…
10. Am I a good man?
Crying’s for civilians. It’s how we communicate with you lot.
In an episode that all too often retreads the path worn by Dalek, one good deed it does is demonstrate how mercilessly unrelenting, how dangerous, a single Dalek can be.
But for all its faults, for all its problems with pace and the idea that a Dalek seeing stars being born would make it realise that the Daleks’ resistance to life is futile, there is one saving grace. It showed a man who, despite everything he has been through and everything he has seen, struggles with his conscience. This is the same man who questioned his right to kill the Dalek race in Genesis of the Daleks, and who five regenerations later would abandon his name to become the soldier he now professes to hate so much.
This is a man who struggles to rise above his own deeply held beliefs, and who worries that he can’t. And as a message to rise above everything, I’ll take that as a win.
A lifelong Doctor Who fan, now a part-time theatre and TV critic