As someone who has committed several years of my life to the study of philosophy, and who still practices it regularly, I was ecstatic watching this weekend’s new episode of Doctor Who. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Oh, yes, and
|I feel confident saying that Into the Dalek has given Doctor|
Who in the 21st century some of its new iconic imagery.
Into the Dalek was the most visually inventive and spectacular episode of Doctor Who I’ve seen, other than the anniversary special, probably since the finales of the Davies era. The much more cerebral, narratively complex, dramatic Doctor Who of the Moffat era usually downplays, de-emphasizes, or purposely undermines its own visual panache. But the opening scenes of the Dalek assault on the small starfighter, the Dalek invasion of the Aristotle, the stunning visuals of the interior of the Dalek itself from the small scales of the shrunken TARDIS crew,* and undoubtedly the utter weirdness of the Doctor’s hand turning to liquid as he steps into the Dalek’s eye make for brand new iconic images of Doctor Who.
* Into the Dalek also has a curious relationship with Doctor Who’s past. It touches on the high points of the show, of course, in how it engages with the Doctor’s relationship with the Daleks. But it’s also concerned with resurrecting a curious idea from one of the deservingly discarded parts of the show’s history: shrinking the cast to enter the body of a character is the same notion from The Invisible Enemy, one of the nadirs of Tom Baker’s era.
This episode aimed a tight focus on the relationship of the Doctor and the Daleks. This wasn’t their diegetic relationship, the history in the show’s own narrative of their interactions. At the forefront of Into the Dalek is the philosophical and moral relationship of the Doctor to the Daleks. The Doctor at one point says to the Dalek that when he first started travelling, Doctor was just a name he called himself, but he only understood what it was to be The Doctor after he met the Daleks. The Daleks are a force of monstrousness, evil, destruction. The Doctor defines himself through his fight against this. What is noble and admirable about him, the answer to his question “Am I a good man?,” is seen through his opposition to this monstrousness.
|Peter Capaldi's Doctor and Clara confront the Dalek|
invasion . . . Wait, this doesn't seem quite right.
The Doctor’s devotion to goodness and the precise nature of this goodness is central to the story. The Dalek, which the Doctor affectionately calls Rusty, could no longer believe in the Dalek morality of total destruction of all alien life forms after a revelation that occurred in its thinking upon watching the birth of a star. Rusty understood the futility of the Dalek quest to destroy all that was different. Life itself is the proliferation of difference, of novelty, of that which is alien to what has come before. And this proliferation continues despite all the Dalek attempts to shut it down.
Daleks are opposed to a fundamental aspect of existence itself: the creation of the new. This is the beauty that the Dalek saw, and the beauty that the Doctor spent the climax of the story trying to remind Rusty of his experience. The goodness of the universe lies in its beauty. But that beauty is not a matter of mathematical elegance or physical symmetry, as our more common intuitions would have it. The beauty of the universe lies in its creative energy. The evil of the Daleks lies in their desire to destroy that creativity. It’s at this point, I would say, that Doctor Who has taken up an explicitly Bergsonian philosophy.
|Henri Bergson's philosophy|
understood existence itself as
inherently creative, and later
developed an ethics in which the
best human behaviour was to
channel that creativity into our
This is expressed differently through Dalek activity throughout the story. The action scenes as the Daleks invade the Aristotle are visually breathtaking, some of the most beautiful action sequences Doctor Who has done in a while. But the Daleks themselves are boring. As characters, all a standard Dalek is really capable of doing is destroying things: killing, exterminating, annihilating, all at various speeds depending on physical impediments and their occasional desire for a nice bit of victim torturing first. The presence of Daleks wipes all creativity out of a story, just as, diegetically, they wish to wipe all creativity out of the universe. The only thing you can do in a regular Dalek story is figure out how they’re going to kill everyone, and stop them while avoiding being killed.
This was interesting when they were first introduced (The Daleks, The Dalek Invasion of Earth) because such a creature had never really appeared before on television. Terry Nation’s only attempt to do something different with Daleks was an insane failure, making them comedy characters in The Chase. After that, what was most interesting about Dalek stories was what was going on around them.
In The Daleks’ Master Plan and Revelation of the Daleks, it was the plots of all the secondary characters. In The Power of the Daleks, it was how they manipulated the power games at the colony until they could get back to proper massacring. In The Evil of the Daleks, it was the literal alchemy of the story transforming Dalek nature. In Day of the Daleks, it was the narrative of collaboration with evil. Genesis of the Daleks was brilliant because of its depiction of a self-destructive society, and the charisma of the character of Davros. Remembrance of the Daleks was wonderful because it used the Daleks to tell a parable about race, prejudice, and the political and personal consequences of social exclusion.
Stories in the classic series that focussed specifically on the Daleks and their nefarious plans to do what they do every night, Pinky, and try to destroy all other life forms, were generally terrible. Jon Pertwee’s other two Dalek stories, Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks, were uninspired retreads of story styles from the 1960s, as was Tom Baker’s second Dalek story, Destiny of the Daleks. The same goes for Peter Davison’s Resurrection of the Daleks, which also suffers from being hopelessly convoluted and written by Eric Saward.
The post-revival series follows the same trend. The more boring Dalek appearances are when they’re behaving just as Daleks do: storming through the narrative destroying everything. Journey’s End was probably the only story to fall completely on this problem. The difference of the post-revival from the classic series is that the Daleks so rarely overpower all the more interesting characters and ideas around them anymore. The Parting of the Ways and Doomsday came close, but avoided collapse because those stories were still ultimately about the relationship of the Doctor and Rose. Victory of the Daleks was in similar trouble, and suffered from the android Bracewell not being prominent enough to carry the episode.
|The greatest Dalek stories of the post-revival series have|
seen Daleks themselves attempt what the Doctor first tried
to do to them in 1968: change them.
Asylum of the Daleks worked because it was about setting up the multi-diegetic mystery of Clara and repairing the Ponds’ relationship. Evolution of the Daleks, shit-show though it was, was most intriguing when it focussed on Sec’s own transformation and its implications. Rob Sherman’s Dalek was the first attempt in the televised series to have a Dalek itself try to develop.
Only when a Dalek character breaks from this pattern of a totalizing will to destroy can it be truly interesting. But once that happens, the character isn’t really a Dalek anymore. Rusty is unique in this tradition of self-refuting singular Dalek characters because it understands that it isn’t a Dalek anymore once it accepts this new moral perspective. Rusty still has his Dalek heritage, because the only way he knows how to put his morals into action is to destroy things. Now, he simply destroys Daleks.
Yet there is also a very important difference between Into the Dalek and the other stories that focussed on a Dalek transforming itself into something different: Rusty survives.
Sec, the Dalek in Sherman’s episode, and Caan in Journey’s End are all progressive evolutions of the essential Dalek nature. They achieve individually what Patrick Troughton’s Doctor (in David Whitaker’s script, most importantly) tried to do through alchemical intervention in The Evil of the Daleks. But these three Daleks are all failures in this progressive change because they don’t survive their stories. The change does not proliferate.
|The Doctor and the Daleks, philosophically entwined,|
This is why the Doctor was so intrigued to have found a Dalek who had made itself ethical, who had learned to appreciate the goodness of the universe’s relentless creativity. The Doctor first defined who he was in opposition to the Daleks. In the original sense, this was in strictly moral terms; the Dalek drive to destroy was “senseless, evil killing,” and the Doctor opposed this. But this was a negative self-definition; the Doctor defined himself through identifying what he stood against.
Regeneration gave the first positive definition to the Doctor himself, and to Doctor Who as a television show, which has allowed them to run for half a century and, despite sometimes getting worse, still continuing runs of brilliant television. The Doctor was defined by his changeability. Like a star born from the dust of dead stars, he could make himself again and again, as can Doctor Who. Now, we can identify the Daleks negatively, in opposition to the Doctor; he changes, and so they stay the same. With Rusty, the change in the essential morality and personality of the Daleks can continue. The seed of creativity and fluctuation exists in the Daleks now.
My girlfriend said, astonished as we watched Into the Dalek this weekend, how amazed she was that Doctor Who could still produce such good television after so long. I said that it was because the show never let itself get stale by staying the same for too long. It kept changing.
Into the Dalek brought us a Dalek who could change.