Now here's a surprise: Into the Dalek was a pretty darn enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. Painfully cheesy at times, with some rehashed material from other Dalek episodes, it still managed to be fun and dramatic and intriguing, while asking interesting questions about bot the Daleks and the Doctor.
Compared to last week's confusion, it basically deserves an Emmy.
The Doctor makes a clear point near the beginning of the episode that the Daleks are engineered to be evil. They are programmed to hate all other living things, and so any Dalek that doesn't think that way isn't "good" but "broken." I did hope that the episode would then go into the question of "good" and "evil," and whether you can really call something "evil" when it's been forced to be that way, but the show mostly skimmed past this question in favor of exploring whether it's possible to make a "good" Dalek, and what a "good" Dalek might be.
But of course, like all good episodes, the philosophical questions here come back to our protagonists. Clara asks the Doctor "what difference would one good Dalek make?", and the answer to most people may be small, but to the Doctor, it changes everything. The Doctor has destroyed the Daleks in their thousands, again and again and again, on the basis that all the Daleks want to kill everything, that there can never be a good Dalek, and that they must be stopped. And although some Doctors have hesitated to massacre them (I'm thinking of Christopher Eccelston's in particular), others, like the Doctor in the Time War, have taken far more drastic measures. And these measures can generally be parcelled up as "good conquering evil," unless a Dalek can be good. Then it becomes far more worryingly like murder.
And so it was almost like the Doctor wanted this Dalek to go on a killing spree in this episode. In my original notes, I wondered why no one had realized that a "repaired" Dalek would start killing everything in sight, but now I think that's the point. The Doctor gave the Dalek the easy fix, because the easy fix led to easy answers, a return to a black and white worldview, where the Daleks are all evil and so hating and killing them is totally justified.
The moment had its moment of hope when they realized that they now knew how to make a good Dalek, but unfortunately, the episode didn't push this as far as I would like. If you can make a Dalek with true free will, what would that Dalek then do? Can you do this on mass for all the Daleks? The episode avoided these questions by having the Doctor replaced the Dalek's programming with brainwashing of his own, which backfired because the Doctor is as dedicated to killing Daleks as the Daleks are to killing everything else. I'd much rather see the actions of a Dalek without any programming dictating its emotions and goals, and I hope that's something we come back to in the future.
In the meantime, we have a Dalek that no longer wants to kill humans, but is determined to kill all the other Daleks. And the show presents that as a bad thing. But it really didn't dig far enough into why that's a bad thing. Is it a lack of emotional motivation? Is it simply the fact that it's a Dalek doing the killing? Why is a Dalek not a "good" Dalek for basically taking on the same stance as the protagonists?
I think the final insult, when the Dalek called the Doctor "a good dalek," fell slightly flat in the context of the show, if only because it bore so much resemblance to the line "you would make a good Dalek" in the Christopher Eccleston episode Dalek. I assumed, then, that the Dalek was basically saying that the Doctor was evil, as hateful and indiscriminately evil as the Daleks themselves. But considering the context of the episode, I no longer think that was the intention. The whole episode questions whether a Dalek can ever be good, and what a good Dalek would look like. And it concludes with an answer to that question: a good Dalek looks like the Doctor, killing "evil" indiscriminately for the sake of "good," whatever that means. And so maybe a Dalek can be a "good Dalek" -- it all depends on which direction the gun is pointed.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the secondary characters in the latest episode. It feels weird to exclaim in excitement every time a show has a female character, or even (shock, horror) has multiple female characters talk to one another, but it's become rare enough in Who that it feels worth noting. Both of the surviving soldiers with the Doctor in this episode were women, and they actually spoke to one another, and to Clara. One of them got to be the self-sacrificing hero, and they were not only integral to the plot but also played roles that could easily have been given to male characters, line for line, without any noticeable oddness.
And then there's Clara. After my saying last week that the companion needs to have real backbone to stand on her own against a less likeable Doctor, it was really exciting to see Clara this week do exactly that. Her soldier-teacher friend got more emotional development in five minutes than we've basically seen for Clara during her whole run so far, but at least in the context of this adventure, Clara was intelligent and resourceful, she called the Doctor out on his nonsense, and she challenged him for both his lack of humanity and for his callous stupidity. Let's hope this new Clara sticks around.
But I've been bothered for a while by this new Doctor-companion relationship, where he shows up unannounced to take them on a life-threatening adventure and then drops them back home so they can return to real life. I miss the sense that travelling with the Doctor is a whole lifestyle, that he and his companion(s) fly from adventure to adventure without mundanity in between. It was especially noticeable this week, since Clara spent the first ten to fifteen minutes of the episode in a completely different storyline at her normal teaching job. In theory, it would seem healthy for the companion to have a life outside travelling with the Doctor, and like this life would actually provide more depth, but I feel like it actually weakens the protagonist's presence in the show. They're not a key part of the adventure or of the Doctor's life, and when it comes to all the wonder and opportunity... well, they can take it or leave it, really. Once a week is more than enough, even in a time machine.
But for all its flaws, Into the Dalek was an interesting and enjoyable episode. Certainly more exciting than most of the Daleks' appearances in recent years! Here's hoping for more good episodes to come.