These two episodes of Doctor Who each contain a scene which, by themselves, are very similar to one another. And it’s had me wanting to compare the episodes for a while. So let’s do it.
When Robert Shearman was commissioned to write “Dalek” he wanted to “make a whole new generation of children scared of their dustbins” like the Daleks had rendered him. I’m going to take a quick look at “Dalek” and “Into the Dalek” and see how they stack up, given that they both deal very heavily with the morals of Daleks, and contain (at least) a scene mentioning the morals of the Doctor.
If you pick up Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts, you’ll find some interesting stuff in Robert Shearman’s introduction to “Dalek”. He writes, “The glimpses I caught of Daleks—and my sister’s lurid descriptions of them—were enough to give me nightmares.”
Shearman was writing from a place of childhood fear. He also, I think, understood Daleks, and their importance. “Daleks [have] become genuinely iconic—that knobbly pepperpot shape is the most memorable image of the series. But there’s something very safe about icons. We take them for granted.” It seems like he felt the episode couldn’t just play at important, memorable, and frightening, it had to be important, memorable, and frightening.
In “Dalek”, the Doctor and Rose follow a distress signal to an underground facility owned by a guy named Van Statten. He collects alien bits and bobs, and he’s acquired his first complete and alive exhibit—he doesn’t know what it is, of course—and he’s frustrated because it won’t talk to him. So, since the Doctor made it into the place, why doesn’t he give it a go?
Let’s think about where we are, and how the Doctor has been presented so far in the series.
This is Episode 6. In Episode 1, the Doctor blew up a building with a smile on his face. In Episode 2, he danced to Toxic by Britney Spears. In Episode 3, when it seemed like he was going to die, he made a joke about having to die in Cardiff of all places. And, in the two-part story preceding this episode, he pratted about with farting aliens. Despite the odd serious moment, he seems relatively chill.
We know that this episode must contain, you know, a Dalek, but given the Ninth Doctor’s characteristic grin, how could it phase him?
The scene in which the Doctor first encounters that Dalek has to be one of the most memorable in the—in the show, actually. While some Moffat-era episodes have tugged at the heartstrings, no other scene has so quickly hurled me through so many emotions as this one.
The Doctor flees. He cowers. He shouts. He mocks. He lashes out. He’s afraid and he’s angry and he has this look in his eye like he’s never confronted this trauma before, and it’s killing him to do it now. This is paired perfectly with the quietness of the Dalek, which is indeed quiet in this scene, not doing any Dalek screeching. The Dalek is solemn, actually. This scene has such feeling to it.
It’s the first time in this series that such pure, visceral pain has been seen in the Doctor. And this episode, as it goes on, is also the first time that the Doctor is just filled with hatred. Because, yes, this Dalek is a threat.
There’s one Dalek in this episode. Just the one. And all by itself it absolutely tears through the facility. People are shot down left and right. Rose and Adam (who’s one of Van Statten’s staff) are lucky to survive, and the Doctor only does because he’s holed up in Van Statten’s office.
“Dalek” builds amazingly on these stakes. The Dalek moves slowly, yes, but there seems to be nothing that can stop it. It mows everyone down. And there’s the Doctor, watching the carnage on a screen. He even chastises Van Statten for not letting him kill the Dalek, when usually the Doctor does everything in his power to avoid killing.
This scene below is the one that had me wanting to compare the two episodes.
That look on the Doctor’s face says it all, doesn’t it?
Let’s head over to “Into the Dalek”, the second episode of Series 8. I find this episode a lot harder to analyse for what we’re talking about here, because of a quirk of Moffat’s writing that I’ll get into in a minute, but let’s give discussing it a go anyway, shall we?
This episode was written by Steven Moffat and Phil Ford (but you can bet we’re putting most of the blame on Moffat because Who fans will never recover from what he’s done to us) and visits the classic sci-fi trope of shrinking some characters down to explore another character’s body. In this case, they’re treating a Dalek. Why? Because there’s something wrong with it, clearly! It’s acquired a conscience. And this is … this is all very, very wrong.
Okay. So, the idea of exploring a Dalek’s body is interesting. Daleks are cool. And the action of “Into the Dalek” is fine. It’s all good Who stuff. You know, running away from things in corridors that are trying to shoot you dead. All that. The problem is that it’s building on a weaker foundation than “Dalek”, plus the building is made out of browning grapes and old crisps.
The running theme of this series is whether or not the Doctor is a good man, and it’s one of the most sloppily handled series arcs I’ve ever witnessed. Firstly, the Doctor is obviously a good man, it’s just whether or not he thinks he is, so shut up Moffat. Second, this theme just sort of has us weirdly circle back to character development we already did with the Ninth Doctor, and not even executed as well.
It’s like Moffat doesn’t know how character development works. Or, perhaps more accurately, he doesn’t care.
“Into the Dalek” is interesting in that this Dalek with a conscience could be evidence of Daleks being good. And the Doctor doesn’t believe that there’s such a thing as a good Dalek. The Doctor’s hatred of Daleks has also intensified because of Trenzalore.
(This is all to say nothing of the fact that Moffat’s definition of a good Dalek is a Dalek that wants to kill all the other Daleks, apparently. Because genocide is fine when you’re killing Daleks! I mean I know the Doctor did it, but … examine that one, Rusty. Watch “Genesis of the Daleks” or something.)
And, here’s the scene:
I have … I have feelings.
“Dalek” is an episode about the Doctor’s hatred of Dalek’s following the destruction of his people during the Time War. During the episode, he has to confront that hatred, which is something he seems to have been avoiding. He has to address it and grow as a person. It may only be a small change, but the audience gets to see it happen in front of them.
The similar scene in “Into the Dalek” occurs at the end of the episode and ends up barely building on what’s come before. It’s not there so that the Doctor can confront his hatred of the Daleks. It’s there so that the writers can imply that might … eventually … so you better tune in next week!
This is what makes the difference. Well, that and the fact that “Into the Dalek” came after the Daleks were zipping about in the millions and a fundamental understanding of what makes a Dalek a Dalek (they’re not all hatred, ya know) had been lost to jokes about firing the Doctor at a planet.
One of the reoccurring problems with Moffat’s writing (co-writing with “Into the Dalek” haha) is that he doesn’t show things growing and changing so much as he hints at interesting growth and change that will be coming soon, we promise! (That’s literally the plot of Sherlock.)
“Dalek” forces the Doctor to confront his hatred, to grow because of that, and this results in a small bit of character development. “Into the Dalek” mentions an aspect of the Doctor’s character, hinting at potential future character growth, and then in the next episode the Doctor’s fighting Robin Hood with a spoon. The two scenes I used as examples are, by themselves, similar, but they highlight huge differences in the style—and the standard—across the two eras.
I think “Dalek” wins the day. But, if you have any thoughts to add, please let me know so I can talk about Doctor Who some more. Or, if you feel like reading more Who content, you can check out my post on Clara Oswald and the Bootstrap Paradox.