It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that Series 8 is making a very distinctive tonal shift from the Matt Smith era. I didn’t notice it the first time round, perhaps because, aesthetically, it’s all still very similar. But the first two episodes of Series 8 have been heavily thematic in a way Matt Smith episodes generally weren’t. And now that I think about it, the remainder of Series 8 was much the same. In the era of Capaldi, it seems, there’s to be less (gratuitous) explosions and chasing monsters, and more moral debates and journeys of self-discovery; a show that’s more philosophical and contemplative than adrenaline-fuelled (although doubtless there’ll still be more than enough of the latter). I like that. This episode in particular couldn’t have made the point more clearly that it was trying to be philosophical if Peter Capaldi had shown up wearing a cheesy novelty Socrates t-shirt: apart from the fact that it was set on a spaceship called Aristotle, the title, Into the Dalek, was a pretty good indication that it wanted us to prepare ourselves to be philosophised (that’s a word… well, it is now).
The thing is that, although the themes themselves were not uninteresting, it’s all been done before. To be sure, the idea of a “good” Dalek was intriguing, and the writing of Rusty’s exposition of how his mind was expanded by witnessing the birth of a star was really compelling. The ideas behind this episode, at least, were the seed of a potentially great story. And, on balance, the script was successful: it was involving, stimulating, intelligent, gripping, even funny. It’s just that its ideas are mostly not its own, they’ve been recycled from previous stories, which generally deployed them more successfully. It’s hard not to see this script as a less impressive remake of Dalek, for example. Resuscitating old ideas like this really isn’t what a “brave new era” of the show should be doing, and it gives the impression the show has run out of ideas before it’s even got started (anyone who’s seen the Series 9 trailer will know that’s rubbish, though).
And the questioning of the Doctor’s morality (Rusty’s being inspired by the Doctor’s hatred) isn’t as potent a theme as it might be, given that the show was doing precisely the same thing at this point in the previous series. Again, Series 7 questioned the Doctor’s morality more effectively than here because it did it by showing, not telling. We saw the Doctor deliberately leave Solomon to die a horrible, fiery death in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as revenge for his crimes, we saw the Doctor actually kill several Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks, and come very close to sending Jex to his death in A Town Called Mercy. The Doctor’s hand-wringing in this episode is less effective in comparison, and not even Capaldi’s valiant acting made it totally convincing. The exception was the Doctor’s momentarily shocking sacrifice of Ross, which was notable for the comparison it raised with the Doctor’s previous selves: Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s Doctors would at least have said “I’m sorry” with a genuinely agonised expression before committing the deed.
There was equally a lot in this episode to like, though. The episode felt energetic and exciting. Brimming with recycled ideas as it was, it was at least excited about those ideas, and I will concede that it showed. I didn’t care much for Danny Pink the first time I watched these episodes, but this time I actually thought the scenes between Danny and Clara were some of the episode’s best. The dialogue sparkled, and there’s instant chemistry between Jenna and Samuel Anderson. I’m even becoming somewhat interested in Danny Pink as a character, a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing, after watching him shed a tear over the evidently unpleasant memory of his wartime exploits. I didn’t particularly like Journey Blue as a character (and I’m glad the Doctor didn’t take her on as a companion — one po-faced miser per Tardis, I think), but Zawe Ashton is a very talented actress. Also, even though I know what it’s all about now, I still find Missy and her “Promised Land”, which keep popping up, really intriguing (maybe because Michelle Gomez is a bewitching presence, even in only ten seconds of screen time).
One more thing. I found, and I’m still finding, the Doctor’s aversion to soldiers introduced in this episode to be baffling. I kind of understand it more after watching this episode again — I realised that the Doctor’s anti-soldier prejudice is related to his prejudice or hatred of the Daleks. But it still really confuses me, given that some of the Doctor’s greatest friends have been soldiers, like Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the other UNIT soldiers. It seems to have come out of nowhere. In any case, the Doctor should be intelligent enough to understand that being a soldier doesn’t make a person the same as a Dalek. It’s not like the Doctor to take such a cynical view of certain members of his favourite species, to write off a whole category of humans as totally flawed and beyond redemption because of their occupation. It’s just clumsy writing, I think, to set up a contrived conflict with Danny Pink.