Thursday, 20 July 2017

Into the Dalek

Chapter The 60th, where a new Doctor is still proving to be surprising.

The Doctor is suffering from a not previously mentioned or suspected crisis of conscience and hatred of soldiers, the sort of obsessions he has sometimes that only last for exactly one year. He arrives at Coal Hill School and drags Clara off into a Dalek/Human battle in some unspecified corner of Space-Time so they can both be miniaturised and injected into a rusty Dalek that has malfunctioned and is now good. The Doctor fixes the Dalek and it becomes bad again, and he seems unduly surprised by this fairly obvious turn of events. Outside, the Dalek calls in all its mates and everyone starts getting exterminated; on the inside, the Doctor and Clara try to make the Dalek good again, by reawakening its suppressed memories, and connecting its brain to the Doctor's. This works, but only because the Dalek is convinced by the Doctor's overwhelming hatred that all Daleks should be destroyed. In other news, a teacher called Danny Pink starts at Coal Hill, and agrees to go on a date with Clara. He'll likely last exactly a year too.

Watched on my own one evening on Blu-ray, then I watched it again the following night just to familiarise myself with the details, as it was one of those odd episodes that I hadn't rewatched very often, and it had maybe not touched the sides of my mind when it first went out. I don't know why this might be, it should have been a big one: first regular episode after the post-regeneration feature-length special the week before, big name director, and a new Doctor getting his first face-off with the Daleks.

First-time round:
So, why when I watched this on its first BBC1 broadcast in 2014 did it not make much of an impression on me? It's a different angle on a Dalek story. Trouble is, this different angle is utterly hackneyed. Shrinking the heroes had been done at least three times before in Doctor Who, as well as in countless other shows and films. The very first Doctor Who story was originally intended to be the same 'minscules' idea, and it eventually got made (as Planet of Giants) in the first recording block. 

Another reason might have been my mood at the time of watching, a little down at having to imminently go back to work after a couple of weeks of Summer leave. We'd had friends round and drinks for Deep Breath, then the family had spent some time away, in a Doctor Who themed holiday cottage no less, the Pet Shop Boys had cameoed in The Archers and all had been alright in the world; now it was time to get back to the everyday. I think Doctor Who itself was going through something similar. The 50th anniversary hoopla was still fresh in our minds, Capaldi's debut had been shown in cinemas across the globe, and had been preceded by the show's stars going on a world tour for flip's sake. This wasn't sustainable, and perhaps - just a little bit - everything from Into the Dalek onwards feels like the hangover after a big party.

As they do with US presidents in their second term, people often see the outgoing holder of the role, once a successor has been named, as something of a lame duck Doctor. This might be why lately there seem to be more and more rumblings of discontent in that arena of truth and fairness that is the internet about Capaldi's era as a whole. Unscientific analysis time: most people seem to be frustrated wanting more as they enjoyed his final year, but only enjoyed one out of his two years before that. Interestingly, these people seem to break evenly into two camps - one camp loved the stories of the abrasive short-haired Doctor of Capaldi's first series, but hated the offerings featuring the Sonic Sunglasses Kid the year after; the other camp, of course, vice versa. I am in the first camp; I loved the run from Deep Breath to Last Christmas, and was underwhelmed by 2015's stories (Heaven Sent excepted). Maybe the stories were better in 2014 (they were certainly shorter); but, it could be more because of people's expectations of how much darkness they want from the lead. I have a lot of tolerance for a Doctor that can be caustic, particularly if he has a companion to act as his conscience (or - as it's put, in Into The Dalek's best line, "[She's] my carer, she cares so I don't have to.")

That's not to say the darkness of series 8 doesn't sometimes overstep the mark. When the blog gets to it, there's scope for reams of arguments back and forth as to whether Dark Water / Death In Heaven is an unflinching look at mortality or a ghoulishly insensitive mess; but nothing in 2014 to my mind comes close to being as wrong as, say, Sleep No More from 2015. Into the Dalek edges toward that mark with the Doctor's callousness around Ross's death, giving him - and the audience - false hope; but he does that to save everyone else, so you sort of forgive him, until they find themselves in the Dalek's internal equivalent of a charnel house, and the Doctor explains that Ross is also here, liquefied, as the "top layer, if you want to say a few words".

The Doctor is being painted in a negative light both in the Ross section, and at the end where the resolution is dependent on his levels of internal hate. This would make more story sense if he weren't already questioning himself at the beginning of the story, before any of this has happened. It's a very odd structural mistake: Doctor has crisis of conscience before he goes on punishing adventure that highlights his flaws? All it needs is to swap the "Be a pal, am I a good man?" bit to the end, and it makes everything so much better.  Otherwise, it makes his soul-searching seem so hollow when he's being cold about characters' deaths and prejudiced about the possibility of Rusty's redemption. It's not the only flaw too: the characters are a bit nothingy, and the narrative steers too close to quite a few previous adventures of the soldiers of Skaro, particularly 2005's Dalek. It is brave, perhaps, to be pretty much quoting the "You would make a good Dalek" line from that earlier show here, in a not nearly as well told tale.

In the positive column, the visuals are very good (creating tiny worlds blown up large always seems to bring the best out of any designer), and the piece is directed with the quality you'd expect of feature film man Ben Wheatley. The music is excellent too, and the fun scenes between Clara and Danny zip along with considerable verve. By grounding her character, it finally provides Jenna Coleman decent material with which to work: there's really nothing in her stories from the previous year and a bit that's as good as those Coal Hill scenes. Also, there's the refreshing air of promise one gets from the beginning of these story arcs. 'Will time-travelling get in the way of Clara and Danny falling in love?' is so much more immediate and interesting a dramatic question than 'What's the secret of the impossible girl?'. And - as clumsily as it's handled - the Doctor's quest for a sense of self has more meaning than cracks in walls, or astronaut suits, or any other timey-wimey nonsense. 

Grumpy Doctor - check. Callous quips after someone gets killed - check. The Doctor and female companion teamed up with three local rebel characters, rapidly reduced to two, who make their way through an enclosed environment full of dangers, while other characters watch their progress on screens - check...

Deeper Thoughts:
Tales of the Expected. Doctor Who fans - not Whovians, never Whovians - have to brave some hostile territory occasionally. On Sunday 16th July 2017, my people - my poor suffering people - had to watch the post Wimbledon Men's Singles final commentators blather on for, like, minutes before BBC1 showed us who the new Doctor was, and excitingly it was... the person whose odds had narrowed in the couple of days before the announcement, and whose name therefore had been all over the corners of the internet where nerds congregate. It's not really a spoiler if you're tipped off by an accumulation of strong indicators rather than a deliberate confirmation from someone in the know, but it still feels just like a spoiler. You may be thinking to yourself that if I'd wanted the full surprise I should have stayed clear of any forums or feeds; but, it was only through the forums and feeds that I knew there was going to be an announcement in the first place; I'd never have been watching post-match analysis of tennis for pleasure. Anyway, I'd still have been speculation-spoilered by the front page of a national newspaper peeking out at me on Sunday while I queued for groceries (is there any mileage, do you think, in legislation to force English tabloids to be in plain wrapping, like cigarettes, so I don't need to see their ghastly bile and hypocrisy?)

It was the same for Peter Capaldi's announcement; I knew the right name a day before it was official, from internet gossip and reports of bets being placed; in 2013, it was a shiny floor BBC1 entertainment show to wade through rather than sport, but it didn't make it much better. The bad thing this time was that it deflated what should have been a magical moment. My reaction was 'oh it is Jodie Whittaker' instead of 'OMG it's Jodie Whittaker'. Instead, my excitement gradually built through that Sunday afternoon and evening at this excellent bit of casting. Firstly, obviously, they have cast a woman to play the Doctor. I predicted this, of course (see the Deeper Thoughts section of The Crimson Horror post for full details, fact fans). It was an idea whose time had come, oooh, at least two regenerations ago, probably earlier, so it is no surprise it's happening now, but that shouldn't take anything away from how marvellous it is. My post in February this year was a little pessimistic, worrying that the writing would get too bogged down in the biological details of this change; I hope I'm wrong. The Doctor's the hero and should just get on with saving the universe, there's no need to dwell on the chromosome that's disappeared, or Y.

It's a great actor that's been cast. I realise, if is correct, that I've followed her since her very first on screen role, a memorable turn in an Alan Plater TV play in 2006 ("The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds") and she's been in loads of great stuff since. I've never seen her play anything remotely like the Doctor, but - hell - that's part of why this is such a revolutionary move: women don't get to play characters like the Doctor enough, but she will hopefully change all that. It was at first disconcerting, but gradually more and more intriguing, not to have the slightest inkling of how an actor is going to approach the role. The closest analogue I can think of is when Christopher Eccleston was cast, not because of Northern accents, or that they've worked together in the past: this is an actor known for grounded performances within mainly realist settings, but now being thrillingly asked for something more, something new. But Eccleston had done The Second Coming, at least, Whittaker's take on far out science-fantasy is a completely unknown quantity. So, the lack of surprise I felt at the announcement is more than compensated for. It will be sad to say goodbye to Capaldi, but I can't wait for Christmas, or the New Year.

Finally, one other point to note, one I'm not proud of or anything but it happens to be the truth, and I may as well get it off my chest now, as I'm sure I'm not alone: I love Jodie Whittaker. I love her. I luurvve her. A massive teenage-boy crush. I will have to learn to reconcile these strange stirrings I'm feeling suddenly for my sexless childhood hero. The Better Half can hopefully help me get through it; after all, she just about navigated a similar reaction on her part during the David Tennant years. Just about. Get behind me, unworthy feelings - I need to be better that that, I need a role model. Luckily, I have one, and she's called the Doctor.

In Summary:
Into the Dalek, betrothed and divine... Ahoy! Ahoy! Land, sea and sky, Ahoy! Ahoy! Boy, man and soldier... 

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