The Doctor has to enter the insides of a Dalek to discover how it has turned good.

By Jeroen Amin
Updated August 31, 2014 at 02:00 AM EDT
Ray Burmiston/BBC

Doctor Who always approached the ethics of warfare in a rather nebulous way. Unlike many other characters or media, the show and the Doctor himself have never taken a hard line against violence, death, and even acts as extreme as genocide. That’s not to say that the show has ever supported such things—far from it. Instead the show makes it a point of never ruling out violence as an option, in stark contrasts to other family shows, movies, and even comics. Batman will never, ever kill, but the Doctor will not hesitate when he has to.

Over the course of the Doctor’s adventures, he’s fought all sorts of enemies with different motivations. When he can, the Doctor always seeks to show the villain the error of his or her (or its) ways and that they should not be hurting others for their own gain. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, the Doctor usually has to stop their plan and watch as the villain falls victim of their own hubris. Occasionally, though, he has had to stop them directly himself. The Doctor is no stranger to killing or other forms of violence.

But the Daleks are something special. The Doctor absolutely hates Daleks like nothing else. He has absolutely no sympathy or soft spot for them at all. He will give absolutely anyone and everyone else a chance, no matter how much of an unremitting bastard they are. But not the Daleks. The first season episode “Dalek” with the Ninth Doctor is famous for showing off a side of the character that is never really seen when the usually affable and respectable Doctor went into a hate-filled, spitting mad tirade as he attempts to murder another creature in cold blood. There is nothing else in all of time and space that sends the Doctor into a fury like the idea of Daleks. And that’s exactly what this episode is all about: the nature and being of the Daleks. And, toward that end, the episode mirrors the episode “Dalek” in many ways. Any long-time viewer will be jumping at all the mirror scenes, familiar lines, and similar situations that this episode has.

This episode wasted no time getting into the idea of presenting the themes of soldiers and the ethical dilemma that comes with participating in warfare. The opening scene sets the tone for the episode as a huge Dalek spaceship barrels down upon a fleeing tiny craft, bombarding it with lasers until its destruction. The pilot, Journey Blue, wakes up on the TARDIS and immediately starts trying to commandeer the Doctor’s longtime ship because that’s apparently how she says thanks. And, of course, the Doctor has none of it. He does not show a trace of concern or fear at the Blue’s threats. His endlessly calm and stern demeanor eventually wears her down until she is forced to ask him nicely to take her back to her ship, much like a parent would teach a child how to say please and thank you.

NEXT: The Doctor soldiers on

Back on her command ship, the brusque and brutal behavior of the other soldiers clashes with the Doctor’s own casual outlook, causing more tension between the two parties. If Blue was raised in this kind of environment, it’s no wonder her way of saying thanks is so counterproductive. It’s quite clear that this incarnation of the Doctor cares much less for soldiers than his previous incarnations and his constant understatements of their duties and actions keep reinforcing the condescending perspective he initially showed Blue. Because he is identified as a doctor as opposed to the Doctor, the soldiers introduce the Doctor to the object that will be the focus of the episode in a moment that would jump out at any regular Doctor Who viewer: a captured Dalek.

The show then cuts to modern London where new schoolteacher and former soldier Danny Pink is grilled by a particularly pugnacious student on whether he has killed anyone who was not a soldier, a question that causes the otherwise strong-willed teacher to shed a tear and quietly dismiss his class. He is later introduced to Clara, who was already teaching English at the school. Her usual biting sense of humor stuns Danny when she teases him about the general idea of crying after soldiering, not knowing about the earlier incident. This causes Danny to try and flee from the encounter, but Clara’s remarkably fortuitous stubbornness wins out and they both arrange to go on a date later in a charming exchange that only Clara could have really pulled off.

Clara goes into the supply room and comes face to face with two coffees, held to her face by the Doctor. It seems that the coffee he went to get at the end of the last episode took three weeks and a whole country to arrive. The Doctor, who has been remarkably stoic and cool since the episode started, lowers his guard to Clara and shows off his vulnerable side as he asks her a deeply important question: “Am I a good man?”

He reveals to her the object behind his dilemma when he tells her about the Dalek. Any regular viewer will immediately spot the mirror between this episode and the Ninth Doctor’s famous “Dalek” episode. The explosive utter hatred of Daleks that Nine displayed in that episode is shown again by Twelve as he refuses to help the Dalek, saying “Die all you like. Not my problem.” That is, until the Dalek says that all Daleks must be destroyed. This stops the Doctor right in his tracks and the flame of his hatred is instantly quelled. The Dalek has apparently discovered beauty when it watched a star being born and realized that resistance against life is futile—that life will always find a way.

NEXT: Into the abyss

The Doctor takes Clara to the command ship so that she can accompany him on the mission to discover why the Dalek, called Rusty by the Doctor, has become so damaged that it has, effectively, turned “good.” How? Oh, only by shrinking down to almost microscopic size so that they can just walk right inside of the Dalek. Standard fare, no biggie. Accompanying the Doctor is Blue and two other soldiers to make certain that he is not a Dalek spy himself. The episode takes a unique change in direction as it portrays the entrance into the Dalek’s body as a 2001: A Space Odyssey method as it shows the Doctor and Clara floatingly enter through a blue wall into a black void. It is a shot straight out of the psychedelic and experimental, and easily one of the most memorable moments of an episode that seems to be making any excuse to show off the size of its budget. Inside Rusty, the series’ usual theme of idiot soldiers not listening to the Doctor and dying because of it continues as one of the soldiers behaves like an idiot and then dies for it when the Dalek’s antibodies take care of him. The rest flee into Rusty’s nutrient pool and work their way to its innards to discover the source of Rusty’s change of heart.

And then they make the mistake of fixing the damage that caused it. This turns Rusty back into its normal state—or, as the Doctor has been insisting all episode, its natural state. Rusty breaks free of its captivity and goes on a tear through the command ship, gunning down soldier after soldier in a series of shots that will further remind any longtime viewer of Nine’s “Dalek” episode, where the exact same thing happens. Rusty calls for reinforcements in the middle of its escape so that the human nuisance can be wiped out for good.

Back inside Rusty, the Doctor restates to Clara that this was inevitable. “There was never a good Dalek. There was a broken Dalek, and we repaired it.” So Clara slaps him and angrily tells him that the notion of the Daleks being irredeemably evil all along is the exact opposite of what they really learned that day. The mirror between “Into the Dalek” and “Dalek” ends in this moment as the complete opposite consequences emerge from the otherwise similar events of both episodes. Whereas “Dalek” established that Daleks are irredeemably evil creatures with no recourse for vindication, “Into the Dalek” sees the Doctor try to find one way to make the Daleks into creatures that can have some small inkling of redemption.

The Doctor’s own little Away Team put their plan into action. Blue and Clara climb their way back to Rusty’s brain area after the other soldier, Gretchen Allison Carlisle, sacrifices herself to the antibodies so that they can make it there in time. In a very quick but no less important moment, Carlisle wakes up in heaven with Missy. The Doctor, meanwhile, makes his way to the actual Rusty organism’s chamber to confront it face-to-face. Outside the Dalek, the soldiers futilely fall back to organize their last stand as the Dalek army come bearing down on them.

NEXT: The Doctor clutches his totem

Clara climbs into Rusty’s memory banks and begins activating memories as she crawls through it. In an interesting moment that could either be a nod to fans or a crucial hint, the very first memory she reactivates is a shot taken straight from the much earlier “Dalek” episode when one of the Daleks kills a soldier. Eventually she activates the memory of the star being born, which allows the Doctor to mind meld with Rusty in order to convince it that it does have a moral compass. Capaldi’s performance in this scene should convince anyone that he is the Doctor, as he delivers a hauntingly captivating speech to sell the beauty of the universe.

But in a rare moment, the Doctor’s plan backfires as the Dalek does not see the wonder behind the universe that the Doctor does but instead the utter hatred that the Doctor has for the Daleks. This pure hatred override Rusty’s own programming and turns Rusty against his own kind. Rusty does not seek to exterminate everything but Daleks anymore—now it seeks to exterminate only other Daleks. His turn winds up saving the day as he destroys the Dalek invasion force and puts out a retreat signal after falsely indicating that the human ship has activated its self-destruct. The Doctor, though, sees this as a failure because “Victory would have been a good Dalek.” Instead he showed it a hatred so fierce and deep that it overrode even the Daleks own hatred. In other words, the Doctor turned a monster into another kind of monster. In a line that closely mirrors one from “Dalek,” the Dalek tells the Doctor that he “is a good Dalek” and then leaves to hunt down other Daleks. The Doctor, shaken from what he was just told, brusquely says goodbye to the soldiers and leaves with Clara. Blue asks to join but the Doctor turns her down saying that it was too bad that she is a soldier.

Back in the present day London, Clara tells the Doctor that she doesn’t have an answer to his earlier question of if he’s a good person. But he tries, and that might just be the point. She meets with Danny back at the school, where he makes certain that she does, indeed, want to go out with him because he feared she might have a rule against soldiers. “No,” she says, “not me.”