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Last night on 'Doctor Who:' journey to the center of a Dalek

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For this season of The Doctor, Ross and Kwame Opam will be sounding off on each episode in a series of emails we'll be publishing on the site. Warning: spoilers ahead.

After a season premiere all about Peter Capaldi finding himself as the new Doctor, "Into the Dalek" is his first true post-regeneration adventure. Or rather, it's more of a parable: an outrageously weird story that serves to highlight a darker truth of the Doctor's own soul. "The Doctor goes literally into his worst enemy to try and understand good and evil... and comes out learning about the good and evil in himself."  It's a great pitch for an episode that mostly pulls it off. Mostly.

Ross

Here's a fun game: take all the Doctor Who episodes with "Dalek" in the title — there's about 20 in all — and use the word "Muppet" instead. It's fun, but I digress.

"Into the Muppet" might as well be called "Journey to the Center of the Muppet," wherein the Doctor, Clara, and a few futuristic soldiers shrink down (get "nano-sized") and then walk into the Muppet's eye. And that isn't even the trippiest part: there's a scene where Capaldi is looking directly into the camera while images of the universe flashes behind him. It's basically an audition for the Cosmos (I'd watch it, by the way).

I'm cool with Doctor Who episodes that start off crazy and commit to the idea — it's fun, after all. But then even within that fantastical premise, the ending is just too out of place and convenient. (Spoiler: brains are a series of tubes and memories are activated by large red buttons that are meant to be pushed by... what... really small Muppet scientists?)

PS: happy to see Clara have a moment of likeability and normalcy talking with the new professor, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). Also happy to see her, much later on, slap the Doctor hard.

PPS: one part that bothered me: at one point the Doctor said "heart," singular. You've got two, bro.

PPS: Into the Muppet... Asylum of the Muppets... Victory of the Muppets... Muppets in Manhattan... Evolution of the Muppets... Remembrance of the Muppets ... Revelation of the Muppets ... Resurrection of the Muppets ... Destiny of the Muppets ... Genesis of the Muppets ... Death to the Muppets ... Planet of the Muppets ... Day of the Muppets ... The Evil of the Muppets ... The Power of the Muppets ... The Muppet's Master Plan ... "Muppet Cutaway" ... The Muppet Invasion of Earth ... The Muppets

Kwame

You know, you kind of have to hand it to Moffat for committing to an idea that was probably tired by the time The Magic School Bus had its way with it, and seeing it through all the way to the end. The Doctor and Clara totally go on a not-so fantastic voyage (see what I did there?) to fix of a broken/"good" Dalek. They fail, but are given a chance to succeed and save the day, only to fail again but on a much more spiritual level. It was a fun, action-packed little episode. The stakes felt pretty high throughout, Moffat's really driving home that this is meant to be a darker Doctor, and there's plenty of string for at least five or six follow-up Dalek stories. The world needs a "Daleks at Burning Man" story.

The trouble is I never really felt the plot was a deep as the show wanted to seem. Asking what is goodness in a machine meant to be perfectly engineered evil felt kind of hokey throughout, especially when we're diving into such morally gray territory. Like, why should the Doctor of all people be so rigid about the nature of good and evil, especially after the Time War? Is that even a useful idea anymore? That said, the conclusion pretty perfectly encapsulated that whatever good and evil are they're ideals we can't really achieve in this universe. The Doctor as a "Good Dalek" is a pretty heavy notion, and I felt this strange sense that the Dalek looked at Capaldi with admiration after it said it. But I'm sure that's the point. Clara said it best when she said she wasn't sure if the Doctor was a good man, but at least he tries. If nothing else, the episode was useful in getting us to that point in whatever evolution we're supposed to be seeing.

Oh and Clara was in good form, especially when she was forced to pull the Doctor out of that bizarre existential crisis there. It was a little "The Doctor doesn't give up dagnabbit!" when she slapped him, but it was a great moment. I'm really liking their dynamic. We may be rooting for Capaldi at the end of the day, but it's clear Clara's there because she humanizes him in a fundamental way. Like, you know how Batman would probably go on more insane without Robin? That's what I'm seeing here.

Ross

The season premiere hinted at this news Clara-as-a-Doctor-caretaker, and I'm happy to see that continue (she's a "care-er," she cares... according to the Doctor). That isn't a foil that made sense with Matt Smith, who cared plenty on his own — and again, the flirtation thing never felt right — but Clara in this episode was more confident and composed.

Yes, this darker, "Doctor-as-a-good-Dalek" notion... even if the story itself was far too ridiculous, I was happy with the emotional payoff. The episode was written by both Moffat and Phil Ford, whose other Doctor Who television credit includes co-writing the fantastically dark penultimate Tenth Doctor story "The Waters of Mars." The first 20 minutes or so of "Into the Dalek" were great — between the Doctor and the soldier(s), Clara and the teacher — and I love the payoff of his holding coffee the entire time (I had completely forgotten that coffee line at the end of the premiere but amused to see him miss the return date by three weeks).

PS: and why not, let's do Muppets-as-Daleks now: The Dalek Movie ... The Great Dalek Caper ... The Dalkes Take Manhattan ... The Dalek Christmas Carol ... Dalek Treasure Island ... Daleks from Space ... The Daleks ... Daleks Most Wanted ... Dalek Babies ... Silurian Street

Kwame

Speaking of emotional payoffs. You know, the more I think about it, the more crucial Clara seems, and it makes me pretty excited.

All things considered, I would have thought the Doctor would be a bit more open to thinking about Daleks as potentially good. Previous stories have even explored how his hatred of them makes them what they are. What's crazy to me (and I've spent probably an inordinate amount of time chewing on it) is that, even if "goodness" is a flaw in their perfected design as opposed to some moral fabric in the universe, the Dalek is still at it's core a killing machine. Clara spends all that time exploring neural pathways/plastic tubing and disinhibiting the Dalek only to prove that. That's obviously not "good" as far as the Doctor is concerned, and for the Dalek to turn around and say he's a "Good Dalek" must have been a terrifying prospect. On that level, the Doctor can't be good. But it's Clara who says he tries, as if to say that's enough. Clara's the one who's grounding him throughout the entire episode. Clara cares. Clara's fundamentally human. The Doctor is deeply inhuman and he knows that, and it's coming to bear now probably more than ever. He's a living horror. That's why he admires humans so much. I'm really starting to dig this Batman / Robin parallel.

Also, all this good / evil stuff most likely plays heavily into... whatever other dimension our high-tea-loving Big Bad is bringing the newly dead to. That lady gives me the creeps.

Ross

Still ignoring the whole Batman / Robin thing since next week's episode is all about Robin Hood.

Like so many other second episodes in modern Doctor Who — "The End of the World" (Eccleston), "New Earth" (Tennant), and "The Beast Below" (Smith) — we go from straight regeneration to the distant future. "Into the Dalek" starts off where the premiere ended, with Capaldi going on a coffee run for Clara by way of the TARDIS. Only he's three weeks late relative to Clara's life — plenty of time for her to go back to teaching and meet up with former-soldier-turned-emotionally-distraught teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), who'll no doubt show up again later. Along the way, the Doctor saves a soldier named Journey Blue (apparently a soldier naming convention), which leads him to fixing a "sick" Dalek who saw a star being born and thus now wants to fight against the Daleks' war to destroy everything everywhere.

The Doctor, Clara, Journey, and a couple soldiers find themselves shrunken down into a capsule, whereby they journey to the center the Dalek to see what's happened. Turns out, by fixing the Dalek, the alien-in-a-death-machine has gone back to his old self, teleporting a bunch of Dalek buddies onto the ship. So Clara and the remaining soldiers (by now, Ross the soldier has been killed by Dalek antibodies) look for a way to reactivate the Dalek's good memories (spoiler: it's a large button) while the Doctor stands before the alien at eye level and shares his memories (spoiler: it looks like an episode of Cosmos).

It works, in the sense that the Dalek turns on his brethren and thus saves the day. But the Doctor's memories were less about how good the world is and more about how the Daleks must be destroyed. The Doctor himself, it turns out, is driven by Dalek bloodlust — he is a "good Dalek," in that regard.

With the ship saved, and Journey Blue denied an adventure on the TARDIS (no soldiers allowed), the Doctor and Clara set off on their next adventure: scruffy Robin Hood.

Hints at the Larger Story Arc: Soldier #2 to die (i.e. the one not named Ross) finds herself in the Promised Land having tea with Missy. How? Why? What? Not gonna think about it.