Last week there was a lot of stuff about the Doctor's new face, and what subconscious message he might have been trying to tell himself by choosing it. It was obvious that we were meant to pay attention here to the elephant-sized hints about the Doctor's new character. With this story to add to the bank of evidence (and noting that it was co-written by Moffat, so is likely to contribute directly to the Big Arcs of the season), we can now see a little more clearly where those hints were going. The Doctor's Caecilius-face reminds us that while he certainly saves people, there are also many more whom he can't and doesn't save - and indeed that the difference between them often rests on little more than chance and his whim. And we saw exactly this multiple times during this episode.
I groaned at the opening, when it seemed clear as day that yet again, we'd just met two ethnic minority characters only for them to be the first to die. But while one of them did, one of them didn't, so that we were confronted directly with that very difference between the saved and the not-saved - and it was made quite clear that Journey was more upset about the loss of her brother than grateful about her own rescue (as the Doctor expected her to be). Then two more died inside the Dalek - the first of whom the Doctor explicitly stated he had chosen to sacrifice without any consultation (thus acting in exactly the role of a divinity which the Dalek later sees in him), and the second of whom chose to do it of her own volition (perhaps now convinced, after Clara's assurance, that he is a quasi god-like figure, in the service of whose mission it is worth sacrificing her own life). And, most importantly of all, we see her ending up in 'Heaven' with Missy, just like the cyborg whom the Doctor either killed or allowed to die last week as well.
I no longer care who Missy is (beyond hoping that she is her own original, independent character, rather than a rehash), but it looks very much like what she is doing is collecting up all the people whom the Doctor doesn't save. She is a sort of inverted version of him, so that while he acts like a god in his own universe, she has set up an alternate heaven, with herself as goddess, which reflects his failures. Likewise, all the other themes here - about whether being a soldier fatally compromises a person's morals, and whether or not the Doctor is any better than an inverted version of the Daleks - seem to be exploring the same territory. I still don't trust Moffat not to mess up the denouement of all this in the final episode with his trademark combination of over-complicated action and over-simplified emotions. But I am certainly sick of Moffat-y 'everybody lives' stories, so am happy in the meantime to watch stories where everybody doesn't live, and to explore some of the emotional and moral consequences of that.
The other obvious thing to say about this episode, as was also the case for last week's, is how strongly it references other stories. There is an adage about Doctor Who (one that's repeated often enough to mean that a cursory Google doesn't reliably reveal its source) which says that the programme is often at its best when its roots are showing. That is, when it presents unashamed re-tellings of existing stories, as e.g. in the glory days of the Tom Baker era, when writers like Robert Holmes raided Hammer's back-catalogue for their inspiration. This story most obviously recalls Dalek from the New Who era, The Invisible Enemy from the old, and by extension that story's own source, Fantastic Voyage (1966) - as acknowledged in the Doctor's comment that being sent 'Into the Dalek' would make a great plot for a film. And those are only the most prominent plot references. The Doctor himself muses over his first encounter with the Daleks on Skaro; any appearance of Coal Hill School still inevitably recalls the many previous stories in which it has featured; and I'm sure there are many other connections which one could spot. All in all, the experience of watching this story often felt rather like watching several stories at once, all layered over one another like strips of gauze.
Whether this is a good thing or not, I'm not sure. This was certainly a good story, but was that because of the references to other stories, or in spite of them? The 'roots are showing' adage of course doesn't really relate to references within the Whoniverse - only the usage of external stories by Doctor Who writers - and in those terms I think it still rings true. Fundamentally, the fact that this story used substantial chunks of the plot from Fantastic Voyage (1966) meant that Steven Moffat and Phil Ford could concentrate their energies instead on the 'Who-ish' elements of the story - i.e. writing the Doctor, Clara and the one-off characters well, and inserting a bit of classic Whovian fun and irreverence. That, I think, is why the 'roots are showing' rule has been so reliable over the years. Multiple internal references back to other Doctor Who stories are a rather different thing, and may be more about fan-service and showing off how clever and geeky Moffat is than anything much else. But then again, they may be leading somewhere interesting, and they certainly didn't commit the cardinal sin of overly-fannish continuity references - relying so heavily on viewers' knowledge of (long-)previous stories that they couldn't follow this story without it. So far as I could tell, this was a decent stand-alone story, whether or not you knew its sources, and that is the really important thing.
Meanwhile, Clara continues to be interesting and well-developed, both in her interactions with Danny Pink, the ex-soldier-turned-teacher at Coal Hill School, and in her contribution to the story-of-the-week. It's nice that the Doctor trusts her enough to send her to the Dalek's main cortex to 'do a clever thing' without himself having any clear idea what that might be - and that she manages to do it and save the day, too. That said, while it was also a lovely idea to give her insights which the Doctor fails to spot into what they have learnt from the fact that the Dalek returned to form after the radiation leak was fixed, I'm not so keen on the fact that she never got to voice them. OK, yes, the Doctor gave her full credit when he relayed her insights to the rest of the group, but it did feel rather a lot to me like the phenomenon in meetings where a woman puts forward a good idea and nobody hears it, but when a man says the same thing he gets a rapturous reception. Still, by Moffat's past standards this is definitely an improvement. Maybe he really has been listening to people's criticism about his portrayal of women, BaME characters and (given last week's lesbian lizard kiss) LGBT characters, after all?
- Suddenly the rumours that Clara may be leaving in the near future seem more substantial. She has been given a love interest, while we've also seen another person ask to join Team TARDIS. I.e. the ideas that the existing companion might move on to other things, and that another person might start travelling with the Doctor, were both aired - even if they haven't gone anywhere yet.
- I loved the Dalek spinning round yelling "Truth? What is the truth?" on a spaceship named Aristotle. I'd been waiting for the name to pay off all episode, and that moment did not disappoint.
- Looking forward to a straightforwardly silly episode next week with Robin Hood - yay!
- [Added a couple of hours later] Oh - can't believe I only just noticed this, but Rusty the Dalek? Because while 'Rusty' is a perfectly reasonable name for a Dalek with corrosion issues, that's also what fandom always used to call Russell T. Davies. Did you really do that Moffat? Name your confused Dalek who has two settings - GOOD and EVIL - after your predecessor? 'Cos that doesn't sound super-complimentary to me, and you'd better be pretty confident about delivering the goods yourself if you really meant everything that implies.
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