As per the late Gretchen Alison Carlisle’s request, I’m doing something good and naming it after her. At least, I hope it’s “good,” because who the hell knows about the difference between good and evil anymore?
That’s the eternally weighty moral conundrum taken up by “Into the Dalek,” the second episode of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Twelfth Doctor, in which the Doctor, Clara, and a bunch of their new soldier friends are miniaturized and injected into a Dalek’s “bloodstream,” Magic School Bus-style. (As the resident teacher, does that make Clara Ms. Frizzle?? Headcanon: #APPROVED.)
“Into the Dalek” is a phenomenal piece of subversive storytelling. Everything is turned upside-down as the crew heads through the looking glass and into the Dalek, beginning with, at the simplest level, the very setting of the episode—while Doctor Who usually focuses on the Big, taking viewers to the far reaches of the outermost galaxies, “Into the Dalek” took us under the microscope while making our protagonists very, very small.
Let’s start with the fun variation of the subversion theme:
From beginning to end, “Into the Dalek” represented a wonderful throwback to the Russel T. Davies era of exhilarating yet unsurprising diversity. Two people of color were introduced in this episode, and both immediately took on sincere, engaging, and fully-realized personalities. Interestingly, both are (or were) soldiers, and both have colors as last names. At first glance, the most fascinating aspect of their characters is that they are each complete inversions of typical gender tropes: Danny is the shy, awkward, sentimental one, and Journey is the brash, no-nonsense, steely version of the soldier. And, of course, Danny’s last name is Pink, while Journey’s is Blue. Nice little switcheroo there, Moff.
Before we go further, let’s go for a quick refresher on the specifics of the Bechdel Test, which measures the equality of gender portrayal in films/television. At its most basic level, it states that to pass the Test, a film must have (a) two women who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man. In technical terms, “Into the Dalek” passes the Bechdel Test like it’s nobody’s business—there is plenty of interaction between female characters about the task at hand, which involves more wading through Dalek memory banks than coffee table match-making.
But the episode goes even further than this. Not content to merely pass the Bechdel Test, co-writers Steven Moffat and Phil Ford also specifically address the issue of gender bias as it is usually revealed via the Bechdel Test. Then, they actively subvert it. As Clara and Journey discuss the details of the upcoming mission, they quickly devolve into a discussion of Clara’s Omg I’m So In Love aura. “Lucky fella,” Journey notes, “from the way you smile.” Clara inquires right back: “And who makes you smile? Or is nobody up to the job?” It’s a polite enough conversation tactic, until you realize that this is the very reason Alison Bechdel popularized the Test—see condition (c). Fortunately for savvy viewers (though unfortunately for the character of Journey Blue), Journey turns the Girl Talk conversation on its head with her response: “My brother. But he burned to death a couple of hours ago, so he’s really letting me down today. Excuse me.”
Whoa. Keeping with the theme of subversion, it’s like an unhappy version of Frozen, in which the sibling is burned alive, not frozen alive, and true love doesn’t actually win out. But I digress.
Finally—though I’m 110% certain the internet has more to say on this particular subject—the name of Gretchen Alison Carlisle could be another allusion to the famed (Alison) Bechdel Test.
The other big flip in this episode is, of course, the subversion of “Doctor vs. Dalek” as the prototypical battle of “good vs. evil.” And might I add: finally!
Every compelling hero-villain dynamic engages the notion of a fine line between good and evil, wrestling with the terrifying little voice that slyly points out that “hero” and “villain” are not so different after all. Think of BBC’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, in which the latter chillingly tells Sherlock: “You are me.” Many Sherlockians have pointed out that Moriarty is what Sherlock Holmes would have become if he had– by pure chance– befriended Moran instead of Watson. The Master was always a more compelling archenemy for the Doctor for this very reason: tip the scales just a bit, and the Doctor could have been the Master. At their cores, what really makes one different from the other? It’s not at all clear, and that’s what makes each personality so fascinating. In saying that they are two sides of the same coin, it’s vital to emphasize that they are two sides of the same coin. Separated by but a single sliver.
This is also the reason that I never really bought into the whole “terrifying” idea of the Daleks. I didn’t grow up on Who, so the fear of oversized vacuum cleaners never really ingrained itself into my childish subconscious. A toilet plunger and a whisk? Seriously? I’ve been attacked by an electric mixer before and it really wasn’t all that scarring.* And the Daleks’ trump card of all evil—their complete and utter lack of any emotion except hatred—actually lessens my fear of them rather than increases it. If confronted with a creature that is essentially evil wrapped up in kitchen supplies, what qualms should anyone ever have over destroying it? Someone so totally evil can never really be terrifying, because you are not even forced to confront your own humanity by getting rid of it. There are a grand total of zero downsides to destroying a Dalek, but a whole host of positive results, such as, off the top of my head, avoiding widespread death and destruction.
Blurring the line between Doctor and Dalek has been addressed before in the rebooted series, most notably in season 1, episode 6—succinctly titled “Dalek”—in which the Doctor rages at the (yawn) last Dalek in the universe to “just die!” and the Dalek responds coldly with: “You would make a good Dalek.” Hearkening back to this early episode while also ostensibly providing an answer to Twelve’s question of “Am I a good man?”, the Dalek at the end of “Into the Dalek” focuses its inscrutable blue eye at the Doctor and says, “You are a good Dalek.”
As jolting as this idea is, it’s not exactly a novel concept to consider that the Doctor has a dark side. At the very least, he constantly rustles the veil that separates darkness from light—whether the Doctor pushed the droid out of the spaceship at the end of the last episode or the droid killed itself, the result is the same: death.
This troubling idea comes to the fore in the Russel T. Davies swan song storyline, “Journey’s End,” which is so overstuffed with high-stakes twists and high-profile cameos that it’s easy to miss one of the most probing lines in the entire series to date. As his friends are driven to extreme measures to stop the Dalek Emperor Davros from destroying all of existence (or something like that), the Doctor, as usual, attempts to figure another way out. Taking advantage of this moment of self-doubt, Davros addresses the Doctor’s inner darkness, expanding on Rusty’s “You are a good Dalek” line:
“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people… And you fashion them into weapons. How many more? Just think. How many have died in your name? The Doctor. The man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.”
River Song. The Doctor’s daughter. The hostess from “Midnight.” Luke Rattigan in “The Sontaran Stratagem.”The list is endless. And now, we have another name to tack on: Gretchen Alison Carlisle. The Doctor doesn’t kill, but his hands are far from bloodless. It’s almost irrelevant to consider whether or not the Doctor “killed” the droid in “Deep Breath”; he might as well have pushed him.
But, for selfish reasons, I’ll still hold out hope that the Doctor didn’t actually do the deed. I’ve always liked the Doctor’s “no weapons” creed. Actually, I more than just “like” it—it would be more honest of me to say that, despite all, I’ve clung onto this ideal with all of my puny little might. Because the Doctor, to me, is not Batman. He’s not the horribly twisted Man of Steel version of Superman. Rather than having the guts to commit violence when necessary, the Doctor has the courage not to commit violence when necessary. And I think that is the most important lesson to be learned in the whole entire world.
This is why I tend to shy away from the “Doctor as Dalek” can of worms. I much prefer to flip the issue on its head, like this episode did, and consider it from the other perspective: What if we consider a Dalek as the Doctor? Or as Clara put it: “What do we do with a moral Dalek?”
What indeed? Notions of good and evil are so often a matter of perspective. As the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Or perhaps we should say, one man’s Dalek is another man’s Doctor.
What’s more, who (or what) should be at fault for evil actions or evil character? Neuroscientists and ethicists alike have been arguing for ages over what determines a being’s moral agency. In “Into the Dalek,” the Dalek is altered merely because of “radiation affecting its brain chemistry,” and I can think of half a dozen analogs to human cases that fit this theme. Are we more than just brain chemistry, more than just matter? Psychologist Steven Pinkner thinks not.
On another track, Gary Watson discusses the case of a deplorable murderer who possessed not a single shred of mercy or morality, in a fantastic essay on responsibility and the limits of evil. Investigations into this man’s background revealed that he had a perfectly horrible childhood, and, as a result, the moral outcry over his actions softened. But should this really change our perspective on this murderer? Should we judge him less harshly if he was born evil, or if he had evil thrust open him?
With the Daleks, everything is black and white, and it’s up to us to consider how we want to deal with that type of worldview. And, of course, how we deal with a Dalek worldview that is flipped. Consider the Doctor’s diagnoses: “A Dalek so damaged it’s turned good. Morality as malfunction.” The inversion is beautifully written: damaged = good, morality = bad. Through the looking glass, indeed! (Aside: And might I say, glorious alliteration in those two lines as well. /aside.) And, naturally, as soon as the Dalek is “fixed,” it attempts to destroy all non-Dalek creations in sight, so the Doctor and his cohorts attempt to, essentially, “re-break” the Dalek. If you really, truly think about it—how different is “good” brainwashing from “evil” brainwashing? In true libertarian fashion, I will allow you all to come to make your own deductions.
Yet of course, we want the Doctor to try—in answer to the Doctor’s earlier question about being a good man, Clara finally says that she thinks he tries to be, and that’s the point. After the Doctor mends the crack and the Dalek is “healed,” the Doctor appears relieved—and Clara immediately sets him straight. “We’re going to die in here, and there’s a little bit of you that’s pleased. The Daleks are evil after all, everything makes sense!”
Of course the Doctor is secretly pleased—how much easier life would be if it were all black and white! I can see this being the central struggle that inhabits Twelve’s personality, and while I clearly fall out on one side of the struggle, I definitely appreciate the drama. The Twelfth Doctor is already in danger of becoming too emotionless, too macroscopic. Twice in this episode, his “big picture” philosophy propelled him to focus on saving those left alive rather than mourning (and therefore respecting) those already dead—first, when he rescued Journey from her burning ship without sparing a thought for her brother, and second, when he used the dying soldier Ross to distract the rest of the crew from attacking Dalek antibodies. Practical, sure. More responsible, even, and this may be where he breaks from Ten and Eleven; while Ten “regrets” and Eleven “forgets,” Twelve selectively regrets and forgets, but uses these experience to take responsibility and move continually forward. A man defined by his regrets or lack of regrets is by necessity living in the past. Twelve is the Doctor who will finally move on into the future– even if it is, as he says, “into darkness.”
That’s not to say that the Doctor doesn’t have quite a few lessons to learn along the way. Most notably, he needs to learn to overcome his prejudices. The whole “All [ group] are [adjective]” thing? A bit not good. He doesn’t allow Journey to accompany him and Clara into the TARDIS at the end because she’s a soldier—but, you should know, Doctor, #NotAllSoldiers. In the very beginning, Rusty the Dalek insiss that “Daleks must die”—but now we and the Doctor know: #NotAllDaleks!
That last line specifically reminded me of another philosophical concept: the syllogism. A syllogism is a logical argument that traditionally takes the following form:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Syllogisms are ironclad logical arguments that leave no room for emotions, intuitions, etc. The discipline of logic is fundamentally dry, and while it can be intellectually stimulating in a mind-bending sort of way, it is a far cry from the more colorful affairs of the heart(s), which is something this more cold-hearted Doctor might need to explore. It is quite interesting, then, that the very first line of this episode—and the name of the Dalek Resistance’s ship—is “Aristotle”—often credited as the originator of the syllogism (among a bajillion other philosophical concepts, of course).
*This is a true story. And it may have been totally my fault.
Oods and Ends
- “Hello, I’m Missy. Welcome to Heaven. Would you like some tea?”
- Back to the [Journey] Blue and [Danny] Pink thing—what exactly are the writers trying to tell us with the colors thing? Other than gender bending, of course. Maybe they’re both destined to be companions? No complaints from me!
- As I mentioned before, this episode reminded me a lot of “Journey’s End.” I wonder if the character named “Journey” is supposed to be another allusion to that storyline?
- Bolt holes, missed metaphors, painful puns…gotta love the Doctor and his dad jokes.
- The Dalek’s speech about seeing beauty in the birth of the star is in itself quite beautiful, and the whole subversion of the oft-terrifying mantra “resistance is futile” by changing the object is eye-opening, to say the least. It is not resistance to death that is useless, but resistance to life. Honestly, I don’t even know if that inverted viewpoint is optimistic or fatalistic. Or maybe even both.
And finally, I leave you all with a question: “What difference would one good Dalek make?” Food for thought until next week, fellow Whovians!