More dissection of the new Doctor.
Spoilers for Doctor Who – Into the Dalek
It’s a good job the episode never pauses to argue the logic of fixing something by miniaturisation, because it’s a stupid idea. Fortunately we breeze right past it with a quip about a proctologist. And movies. We’ve seen ‘The Invisible Enemy’ and Fantastic Voyage and Inner Space and we know how this goes.
What interests me in this episode is not the implausible premise, or the pseudo-corridors, or the garbage chute, or the Dalek antibodies that are curiously slow and inefficient, or how all the goo on everyone’s clothes dries in the space of thirty seconds, or the tiny memory suppressor component that lets you switch individual memories on and off. Because although none of that really makes sense, it isn’t the point. Doctor Who gave up trying to be credible SF about 50 years ago. It decided instead to be character drama, morality play, good vs. evil adventure story.
I continue to be fascinated by the characterisation of the Doctor as a person who chose to be moral. It was introduced in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ and developed in ‘The Day of the Doctor‘. In those episodes we’re given the impression that assuming the name “the Doctor” was a deliberate choice to assume a moral stance, a sacred oath on leaving Gallifrey and setting out into the Universe. But that doesn’t really tally with what we saw of Hartnell’s Doctor in the early days, when he was a capricious, cantankerous, selfish individual. So here we learn that it was only on visiting Skaro that the newly-minted (ish) Doctor came to define himself. He was everything that the Daleks were not. It prefigures in a way Troughton’s mission statement in ‘The Moonbase’: “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”
It’s a lovely piece of ret-con that allowed ‘The Day of the Doctor’ to paint the Doctor as a character rather than an icon, someone who has grown over time and who continues to struggle to live up to his moral code. I think what we’re seeing in Capaldi is someone who has lost sight of that moral compass. Perhaps fittingly for the start of a new regeneration cycle he’s closer to that person who left Gallifrey. Who called himself “the Doctor” but didn’t know what it meant. He knows that he used to be a “good man” and he wants to make the right choices, but he’s raw and exposed and he has to try harder than perhaps any incarnation we’ve seen to date.
‘Into the Dalek’ only exacerbates his doubts. Clara can’t tell him whether he’s a “good man”, and he finds himself fascinated by the idea of “morality as malfunction”. If even a Dalek can become good, surely that holds out some hope for his own rehabilitation. When he fails, he’s plunged into a black mood, but when Clara convinces him that there’s still hope he’s buoyed up; Doctorish. Right until he links his own mind with the Dalek, who takes all the wrong lessons from him, and re-learns hate.
This is not a failing specific to Capaldi’s Doctor. We’re not meant to think that this new Doctor is singular in his rage for the Daleks. We’ve seen it time and time again, and notably in ‘Dalek’ (which this episode strongly evokes) when Eccleston’s Doctor is so consumed by (self?) hatred that he tries to execute his foe with a hand-gun. What ‘Into the Dalek’ says, I think, is that definining yourself as Not My Enemy is a precarious and relative moral position. A military stance, perhaps, in which your actions are justified because your enemy is the Other. My wife wonders if perhaps that feeds into the Doctor’s distaste at the military mindset: it’s one he strives not to hold. The one time he truly was a Warrior, that time he tried so hard to forget, when he put aside his ideals, it was the Daleks that drove him to it. He’s still trying to distance himself from that. I’m not quite convinced that the Doctor is so close to an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality in general, but when it comes to the Daleks he clearly is.
I’m more comfortable with this examination of the Doctor’s morality than I was with his potential murder last week. In particular, I like the fact that this Doctor is still finding himself. He’s on a journey to be a hero. That’s always going to be more interesting than arriving fully-formed. It helps that the Doctor’s persona of the abrasive genius with witty, quotable one-liners is one I happen to enjoy. It’s the modern Sherlock Holmes or Gregory House. But importantly that arrogance is softened by his self-doubt and his reliance on Clara. He’s much more likeable as a result.
What of Clara? Her transformation into an actual human being is confirmed this week. She’s turned into a great, independent companion in the Sarah-Jane Smith mould. I can take or leave her awkward flirting with Danny Pink, but it’s notable that she’s very much in the driving seat. So it is with the Doctor. His pangs of self-discovery give her a great deal more agency. I loved her this week, from her continual appraisal of the Doctor, to her funny put-downs, to slapping him, to being the one with the insight into the Dalek. In return he repeatedly relies on her judgement, to the point where (arrogantly, dismissively yet with complete belief in her) he sends her off to do something clever and knows that she will. Of course, she continues to revolve around the Doctor, but he’s the title character and to a degree it’s inescapable that he is the centre of gravity. It’s still refreshing that Clara is carving out so much of her own space.
Elsewhere we have several black characters and several female characters, all soldiers, and with no particular reason that they have to be black and/or female. They just are. That’s nice too.
I’ll leave it there without unpicking the whole story in detail. A flawed, illogical but really meaty episode.
(No “Into the Doctor” does not sound rude. It’s all in your mind.)