The Moffat era was somewhat sparse when it came to quality Dalek stories – which is surprising, considering Steven Moffat himself was such a fan of them. Throughout this era, particularly Matt Smith’s era, Moffat almost took the Daleks for granted, as when they did appear, the episodes were rarely about them specifically in the way that an episode like 2005’s Dalek was. As such, Into the Dalek, the second episode of the divisive Series 8, comes as somewhat of a refreshing change compared to earlier Moffat-era Dalek stories, as this episode is all about one very specific Dalek, and gives us a closer look at the inner workings of a Dalek than we have ever seen before. But how does this episode stand up, nearly five years later?
It makes sense to start at the start, and one of the most eye-catching things about Into the Dalek is the opening scene, which immediately grabs your attention in a manner similar to that of Star Wars: A New Hope, as we are shown the tiny human ship desperately trying to outrun a massive Dalek Saucer in an asteroid field. The low angled shots of the Dalek ship effortlessly ploughing through the asteroids as the human ship dodges and weaves around them depict the near-unstoppable power of the Dalek Empire, and how ill-equipped the humans are to deal with the threat. The rapid cuts to the cockpit of the ship, showing pilot Journey Blue trying to radio her command ship, attend to her dying brother and fly the ship all at once furthers the idea that the Humans are vastly outgunned when compared to the cuts to the clean, efficient Dalek bridge.
We see a Dalek move towards a control panel, it shrieks its familiar cry, and Journey’s ship is finally destroyed. But the flash of her exploding ship morphs into the familiar spinning lights of the TARDIS, as she wakes up on the floor with the Twelfth Doctor stood at the controls, holding coffee. This image is one of the enduring impressions that this episode leaves, as it is a truly memorable opening sequence that is sadly underappreciated. Peter Capaldi gives a stern rebuke to Journey’s attempts to order him around at gunpoint, which serves as the introduction to the theme of this episode, the idea of the folly of the military and soldiers in general, and as if to ram this point home, following the title sequence, we immediately cut to Danny Pink in the playground of Coal Hill School, ordering children about like a drill sergeant.
Opinions on Danny Pink and his relationship with Clara seem to vary among fans. On the one hand, he was an honest attempt at developing a character that was unaware of the space-and-time antics and had to be kept in the dark as a series arc, something that had not really been done since Series 4 as Moffat seemed to sway away from the Earth-based parental angle of the Russel T. Davies era and instead kept the majority of his domestics in the TARDIS. But on the other hand, although it is a refreshing change to introduce this kind of character, many have argued that his characterisation was painfully flimsy and that he was underdeveloped – which is hard to argue with. It has to be noted that the Earth-based scenes in this episode were written by Steven Moffat, and these few short minutes focusing on Danny are packed with Moffat tropes from conversational faux-pas to the classic cutting ahead and flashing back routine, so these scenes can be skipped if this sort of thing isn’t for you.
Clara and the Doctor
Another controversial thing about this era is Clara, as opinions on her are widely divided. The best way to think of Clara is as New Who’s Peri – her character is who she is, and is unapologetic about it, whether you like it or not. Ironically, she was first introduced as the most basic, generic, cardboard-cutout companion you could imagine, but during the Capaldi era she is given a chance to actually establish her own character, and Moffat takes the opportunity that any of us would as showrunner, and wrote a companion with serious personality flaws to play out how they clash with the Doctor. He did this knowing that kind of Doctor-Companion relationship doesn’t appeal to all fans, but took the chance, which is commendable. The result is a strange mix of genuinely heartfelt acts of kindness displayed by the Doctor and Clara to each other, to them arguing or falling out or manipulating each other.
As such, they are perhaps the closest thing that we will get to a Sixth Doctor and Peri homage in the New Series, and Into the Dalek shows this down to a tee – the Doctor is melancholy and brooding in the TARDIS, and the companion is attempting emotional support with little success. For those who have seen it, this scene mirrors a similar one in Vengeance on Varos, arguably the best Sixth Doctor TV story, although the topic in question is markedly different. In Varos, the Doctor is facing the idea that the TARDIS has died mid-flight and stranded them in the Vortex, whilst in Into the Dalek, the Doctor is confounded at the possibility of a ‘Good’ Dalek that has made him begin to doubt his own morality. In a way, it is a good problem to throw at a new Doctor, particularly a more grumpy incarnation who is unsure of himself. After all, if a more mean and standoffish version of the Doctor met a ‘Good’ Dalek, who would be the better person of the two? Speaking of the ‘Good’ Dalek:
Rusty the Dalek
Rusty is a rare example of a depiction of an ‘individual’ Dalek, arguably the best way a Dalek can be depicted in the series, as it is by far the most interesting way to portray them. All the best Dalek introspectives have focused on the morality or decisions of a single Dalek, be it the Dalek from Jubilee, the Metaltron, Dalek Sec, and in this case, Rusty. The title Into the Dalek is fitting for more reasons than just the obvious.
The Dalek philosophy is fundamentally challenged in this episode, and it is hard to decide whether Rusty’s sudden change of heart is madness or morality. There have been a few instances of the ‘single captured Dalek’ plot in past Dalek stories, such as Jubilee, The Dalek Transaction and Dalek. But Into the Dalek puts a unique spin on the idea, making Rusty a memorable Dalek in his own right. The effort that went into painstakingly constructing the Dalek prop for this story is impressive, and can be read about in detail in Dalek 63 88’s excellent segment on how Rusty was built using materials to hand.
Another aspect to this story that makes it important in the chronology of Dalek episodes in Moffat’s era is the fact that it features the extermination effect, a staple of successful Dalek stories in early NuWho but sadly neglected during the tenure of the Eleventh Doctor. In fact, the extermination effect had not been used since Series 5. Rusty’s rampage through the Human ship, followed by the climactic battle between the Daleks and the Human soldiers, marks the first time the Daleks are seen doing what they are supposed to do on-screen in a long time.
Not only that, but the exceptional use of model shots during these action scenes is inspirational. The team used 12-inch RC Daleks for the bridge scene and again in the boarding corridor scene, and the results are really good. Practical effects are used for when Rusty turns on the Daleks and destroys them all, and the special effects team made excellent use of a stunt Dalek blown up in several different ways to depict the Dalek Assault Squad being destroyed one by one.
The result of this hard work is something truly special – a Dalek action sequence made in the spirit of Classic Who, but one that is exciting enough to be engaging for modern audiences. And overall, this same praise can be extended to Into the Dalek as a whole, as the episode does a great job of bridging the familiar with the unusual and its creative ideas are executed brilliantly thanks to the inspired work of Doctor Who’s behind-the-scenes team.