Though Into the Dalek is another highly derivative episode, it’s still a solid entry into the mythos of the Daleks and the Doctor.

Throughout the new Who era, second episodes have almost inevitably been disappointments after a strong initial showing. The second episode of the 8th season is only different because the first episode wasn’t that strong — and this one’s about the same, quality wise.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Peter Capaldi makes a great Doctor. The question of whether the Doctor’s a good guy that Capaldi tackles head-on is a compelling one — and one the show hasn’t done much to address in the past. So one one hand, this feels like something interesting and new… but on the other, both of the episodes we’ve seen so far have been more or less remakes of earlier episodes. Deep Breath borrowed liberally from season 2’s The Girl in the Fireplace while this week’s Into the Dalek borrows from season 1’s Dalek, and if you wind up comparing the new episodes to the old, the new ones don’t come out on top — despite the fact that Capaldi and co-star Jenna Coleman (as companion Clara Oswald) are delivering top-notch performances.

However, the acting alone is good reason to turn in: Capaldi is a distinctly different Doctor after the eras of Smith and Tennant, while Coleman’s Clara feels like a fully realized character for the first time she was introduced. These past two episodes have given us more characterization of Clara than all of last season, and it’s great to see her finally have a unique identity. This episode particularly hones in on Clara being a teacher (not just of children, but of the Doctor, too), and while it felt arbitrary when she was shown, out of the blue, in a classroom last season, it finally feels like it fits.

In the last episode we saw:

  • The Doctor being awfully shaky on his own identity after his regeneration, including rejecting a lot of last season’s quasi-romantic suggestions between the Doctor and Clara.
  • The Doctor fighting off a new batch of clockwork androids, which we last saw in season 2’s The Girl in the Fireplace.
  • A mystery woman (introduced as Missy) who called the Doctor her boyfriend. She took in the episode’s villain after his death, telling him that he had reached heaven.

This week, the Doctor’s run off to fetch coffee for Clara (as he promised at the end of the last episode), but has gotten distracted by his long-time enemies, the Daleks. Old-hat Who fans know things aren’t likely to go well from here.

If you want to tune in yourself, you can can new episodes of BBC America — though cord-cutters will have to pick up the current season on iTunes or Amazon Instant. If you want to catch up on earlier seasons, they can be found on both Netflix and Hulu.

Now, for those of you who have watched (or don’t mind spoilers), read on for more about the second episode of season 8, Into the Dalek.

Meet Mr. Pink
This episode is our first look at Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink, a new teacher at Coal Hill School where Clara works. Last season, we saw little of Clara’s life away from the Doctor, but this season it feels like she’s got some real roots as her identity as a teacher has been fleshed out. Last episode, we saw her come up with a response to being threatened by remembering an encounter with a student, and in this episode we see even more.

Not only does the episode begin and end at the school, but there are teacher references throughout, with one of the characters deriding Clara for being dressed like a schoolteacher, Clara going after the Doctor for coming to the wrong conclusion by asking “is that what we learned?,” and the Doctor referring to Clara as “teach.” It’s a bit overkill and, honestly, this sort of basic identity establishment feels like it should have been done right after we met the character rather than during her second season — but it does so much to make her feel like a real inhabitant of the Doctor Who universe that it’s hard to be bothered by it. This season, Clara’s been nothing but great… it’s just a shame that it’s taken this long to get to it.

As to Danny Pink we see very little of him, learning that he’s an ex-soldier who’s just started with the school — and he’s pretty sensitive when the kids needle him about having killed people. There’s a bit of a soldier theme this episode, as the Doctor meets — and doesn’t like — a group of soldiers fighting the Daleks, but Clara (and the audience) meet Danny, who seems like a nice sort. The episode closes with Danny and Clara heading off for drinks together, and hopefully we’ll see more of Danny in the future.

Introducing…a Good Dalek
We’ve been here before: a beaten-up Dalek that isn’t as evil as the rest. It was the first season episode Dalek where the 9th Doctor and Rose encountered a Dalek in a museum — Rose didn’t see what was so awful about it, while the Doctor, in an aggressive turn we hadn’t seen from him before, was more than ready to destroy it.

Here, the Doctor has gotten distracted while getting Clara coffee by rescuing a soldier fighting the Daleks… and lucky for him, the soldiers happen to need a doctor, or they would have executed him for finding their secret base. Unlucky for him, the patient is a Dalek, which the soldiers tried to dissect without realizing it was alive. (“Not until it started screaming.”)

They promised it medical help, which is why the Doctor’s here — though he’s not particularly interested in helping, mocking it until it says “Daleks must be destroyed.” It’s a Dalek that doesn’t like other Daleks… so should the Doctor help it exterminate the rest of its race? (If you want to see another earlier-but-better variation of this episode, you could also watch I, Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which hits on the same sort of moral quandary.)

Clara to the Rescue
Faced with this conundrum, the Doctor heads to Earth to fetch Clara, who he’s using as a sort of moral barometer. Newly regenerated and not all that sure of himself, he’s turning to an external source to get a level opinion on things… which is something we’ve really never seen the Doctor do before. The fact that he’s relying so much on Clara to help him figure out right and wrong is certainly interesting. Is Capaldi’s Doctor less stable than regenerations we’ve seen in the past? Or is he simply more open to accepting help? We’ll have to wait and see what future episodes have in store.

However, Clara definitely proves herself a good person to turn to. When the Doctor shows up at her school — three weeks after she’d last seen him — saying he needs her help to figure this out, she drops everything (including the date she’d set up with Danny) to go with him. And when they arrive on the ship with the Dalek, the Doctor introduces her as his “carer,” who cares about things so he doesn’t have to — which seems pretty spot-on to Clara’s role so far.

Fortunately, Clara seems to have no problems calling the Doctor on his own bullshit when it needs to be done, helping bring the Doctor back to reality when he’s overly negative or dismissive. Without Clara, this would have been a very different episode, as she’s the catalyst for the Doctor’s big, episode-saving idea — and gets to save the day herself.

What’s a Death or Two Between Friends?
Because it’s Doctor Who, things get a little weird from here as the Doctor, Clara, and some redshirts soldiers shrink themselves down in order to go inside the Dalek to repair it. Why is this necessary? Why do we even want to go on a risky Dalek repair mission — even if this Dalek is good, they’re risking the lives of five individuals to shrink down and try to save it, which seems like maybe not the best use of resources.

This leads us to a series of sequences that mostly seem to take place in corridors with differently colored lights — admittedly, more set dressing than some classic episodes have had — as the crew finds the Dalek’s damaged power supply and repairs it. Unfortunately, repairing it causes the Dalek to return to its normal programming of “Exterminate! Exterminate!” — it breaks out of the medical area to wreck havoc on the ship and summon its friends to help exterminate the rest of the humans.

The Doctor is dismissive of the deaths of the soldiers both inside and outside the Dalek. For the episode’s first death, it seemed like the Doctor was attempting to save a soldier threatened by Dalek “antibodies,” but instead he was just setting up a way to track where his remains were taken. When called on it, just said “He was dead already; I was saving us,” which is a rather bleak turn for the Doctor.

When the Doctor grows dejected after the Dalek goes back to being an ordinary, hate-filled Dalek, Clara slaps him for not caring about the situation. “People are dying here and there’s a little bit of you that’s pleased. The Daleks are evil after all, everything makes sense, the Doctor was right.” Her pep talk — if it could be called that — seems to have shaken something lose in him, though. He realizes that if the Dalek, when broken, could be good, they can convince it to be good again.

Of course doing this causes the death of another redshirt soldier, but eventually Clara and the last remaining soldier manage to get into the Dalek’s memory banks and reactivate memories — suppressed by its Dalek programming — of a star being born that had impressed on the Dalek that “Life returns. Life prevails. Resistance is futile.”

The Doctor and the Daleks
At the episode’s climax, the Doctor does a sort of mind-meld with the Dalek in an effort to convince it — again — that life in the universe is a good thing rather than something to be exterminated. And it works… for a while… as the Dalek sees the wonder and beauty of the universe in the Doctor’s mind. But then, things go a bit sideways as the Dalek sees the Doctor’s tremendous hate of the Daleks and becomes convinced that the other Daleks must be exterminated — which it moves to act on, destroying the rest of the Daleks on the ship before leaving to carry on its work of extermination.

It’s a moment that calls back to the Doctor’s earliest encounters with the Daleks — in which he’s always struggled with himself as to whether wiping them out makes him any better than they are. The Doctor desperately tries to convince the Dalek (or perhaps convince himself) that there’s more to life than hate, but it’s a lost cause: the Dalek wants only to exterminate the rest of its kind. The scene plays out beautifully, but it’s terribly reminiscent of Christopher Eccelston’s Doctor being told he would make a good Dalek — and has that been so far in the past that it bears repeating?

The Doctor may have won the day, but he’s is still struggling with the question of who he is, and this episode hasn’t given him any clear answer, despite Clara telling him that she thinks he’s trying to be a good man, which she claims is the point.

Our Ongoing Story
Just in case we’d forgotten, Missy makes another appearance this episode, showing up with one of the dead soldiers and explaining they’re in heaven. We’re sure to find out who she is and what she’s up to eventually, but in the meanwhile this reads a lot like Davros, after capturing most of the Doctor’s companions, lecturing him about turning people into weapons. This woman is collecting people who have died in the Doctor’s name, which seems to assure we’ll get a massive guilt trip later… another thing we’ve seen previous episodes do, though we’ll have to wait and see whether this season manages to get the message across in a new or interesting way.

Is season 8 worth watching? Sure. The episodes have been solid so far… but you’ll probably enjoy them more if you haven’t seen much previous Doctor Who, of which they’re extremely derivative. Still, these episodes have a very classic Who vibe that I’m definitely digging… I just wish there were something a bit more exciting to enjoy.

Whether you liked this week’s episode or not, tell us about it in the comments, won’t you?

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