Wow, two Doctor Who episodes in a row that I liked! That hasn’t happened in years! I hope this bodes well for season 8, and indeed for the entirety of the Capaldi era. Because last night it really sank in how much more I like Peter Capaldi as the Doctor than Matt Smith. True, the writing got progressively worse during the Smith era, and that was a big part of my dislike of it, but I also never quite warmed to Smith himself in the role. By contrast, I liked Capaldi right away and even find myself excited about Doctor Who again in a way I haven’t been in a long time. But enough harping on the past, let’s talk about “Into the Dalek”!
**MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW**
Like last week’s “Deep Breath,” “Into the Dalek” is a fun adventure whose plot benefits from not being examined too closely. I call this Blockbuster Syndrome, where the events are compelling enough to let you ignore all the handwaving and logic problems. There’s plenty of that in “Into the Dalek” — Why would opening up blocked memory banks reboot the Dalek’s antibodies into retreating? How exactly did the Doctor mind-meld with the Dalek just by grabbing a couple of wires? How did the Doctor, Clara, and Journey Blue get themselves out of the Dalek and return themselves to full size when their mission was complete? — but the performances carry us past them. Peter Capaldi’s, of course (although I notice he can’t do humor quite as effortlessly as David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston), but also Michael Smiley as Colonel Blue, Zawe Ashton as Journey Blue, and yes even Jenna Coleman as Clara.
I mentioned in my review of “Deep Breath” that I find Clara’s rapport with the Twelfth Doctor much, much better than the one she had with the Eleventh Doctor. This week I finally realized why: This is the way the Doctor’s relationship with a companion is supposed to be. No creepy, obsessive stalking. No swooning over how tight her skirt is. No flirting or sexual humiliation or sexist innuendo. Instead, we get the half-mentor, half-friend relationship that’s supposed to be there, along with some good-natured ribbing. (I wasn’t as offended by the “you’re built like a man” line as some were, but I could understand why they were. After years of the Eleventh Doctor either sexualizing or body-shaming pretty much every woman he meets, including Clara, the line was an unfortunate reminder of a bad era, but not, in my opinion, delivered in the same spirit here.)
I liked Danny Pink right away, too. I hope he and Clara get together. I’m not much of a shipper, but it’s obvious they like each other, and now that I actually like Clara I’d like her to be happy and maybe even leave at the end of this season, as has been rumored, in a happy place instead of in one of those forced tragic arcs the program seems to be so fond of these days. (Seriously, Martha Jones’ exit at the end of season 3 is the only companion exit of the revived Doctor Who I find satisfying because she actually chose to leave instead of having it forced upon her by the plot.)
While I liked “Into the Dalek,” I do have some reservations. As much as I love the new opening visuals, the new version of the theme music remains atrocious. There was a real missed opportunity with Journey Blue, who would have actually made an excellent new companion. (Pairing Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor with a hard-nosed soldier would be amazing!) There’s yet another joke about how the Doctor was supposed to come right back but it’s actually been much longer, just like in “The Eleventh Hour” and “The Girl Who Waited.” It’s a joke that Moffat-era Doctor Who really loves to drive into the ground. And then there’s Missy, this season’s Big Bad. Her scene in this episode, while short, still felt wholly intrusive. I don’t know where this plot line is going, but at least this time she didn’t start twirling again and rhapsodizing about “her boyfriend.”
The prevailing theory about Missy among those online who do things like theorize about Doctor Who is that she’s a splinter of Clara who went nuts and is obsessed with the Doctor. If it were anyone but Steven Moffat in charge of the storyline, I would say this is pretty far-fetched, but because it is who it is, I think there’s a good chance it might be true. (Though it remains to be seen how she’s able to collect “souls” like this.) I dislike this theory for many, many reasons, but the greatest of them is that it is a reminder of yet another plot line from season 7 that went nowhere. What exactly was the purpose of these splinter Claras in the Doctor’s timeline, especially when she makes it clear in her narration that most of the time the Doctor didn’t even see or hear her anyway? The Great Intelligence was supposed to be doing something in the Doctor’s timeline that she was supposed to undo, right? But none of the details were ever made clear, so it comes off as empty nonsense. Of course, with the battle of Trenzalore taking a different turn in “The Time of the Doctor,” the Doctor’s tomb wouldn’t be there anymore anyway, which means Clara didn’t enter the Doctor’s timeline, which means there wouldn’t be any splinter Claras anymore. The events of “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Snowmen” would likely be different now. (They could feasibly explain Clara still being the Doctor’s companion with a bit of handwaving and technobabble: “It’s the Skrillex Timestream Conservation Effect!”) Anyway, here’s hoping Missy isn’t a Clara splinter, but really, any explanation for this character probably won’t be a good one. It’s high time to drop the whole “obsessed with/in love with Doctor” trope from the program entirely. It is at best narratively unsatisfying and at worst a sexist stereotype of women who are motivated solely by their romantic desire for the hero.
And now for some fun Doctor Who neepery! When the Doctor mentions that morgues and larders are the easiest to break out of, he could be referring to the events of the 1996 TV movie, where shortly after regenerating from the Seventh Doctor, the Eighth Doctor finds himself in a hospital morgue and is forced to break out of it while the security guard is distracted by watching Frankenstein on TV. This isn’t the first time the Doctor and a companion have been shrunk down to be injected into a medical patient, either. It also happened with the Fourth Doctor and Leela in “The Invisible Enemy,” though they were actually clones and the body they were injected into was the Doctor’s own. The Doctor references his first encounter with the Daleks on Skaro, of course, from the 1963 serial now called “The Daleks,” even though each episode had its own individual title back then (“The Dead Planet,” “The Survivors,” “The Escape,” etc.), but a more interesting reference might have been made to the 1967 Second Doctor serial “The Evil of the Daleks,” in which the Doctor actually succeeds in creating “good Daleks” by instilling them with “the Human Factor.” These good Daleks go on to fight the evil Daleks in a civil war that ultimately was supposed to spell the end of the Daleks forever. But of course, you can’t keep a show’s most popular villain down for long, and the Daleks would eventually show up again in the 1972 Third Doctor serial “The Day of the Daleks.” They started showing up again pretty damn regularly after that, as any Whovian can tell you.