Sunday, September 7, 2014

“Doctor Who” Series 8: “Into the Dalek”/“Robot of Sherwood”

Posted By on Sun, Sep 7, 2014 at 11:37 PM

A combination of vacation with limited internet access, an apartment move, and a hellish cold kept me from seeing the second episode of Series 8 until this weekend. In fact, I watched it back-to-back with Episode 3. So I thought I’d merge them both into one review, much like the Doctor sharing his mind with a mentally ill Dalek. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?!

But honestly, I quite liked both episodes. “Sherwood” was the stronger of the two -- although they’re so incredibly different that it’s difficult to make a fair comparison -- but I thought they were both worthy additions to the “Who” canon. And more importantly, they gave us a much better sense of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, and again made great strides at making Clara an interesting, useful Companion.

First up, “Into the Dalek,” directed by Ben Wheatley and co-written by Phil Ford and Steven Moffat. This was a big-picture space story, with the Doctor trying to help a rebel star ship on the run from a Dalek war vessel. The rebel ship’s solution: miniaturize the Doctor and a small crew so that they could go into a malfunctioning Dalek that they had captured. By “malfunctioning” Dalek they meant a Dalek that had turned good --it saw the value of life over destruction. Once the “good” Dalek was fully operational, they would send it back to the Dalek warship as a Trojan horse.

The problem with this episode is that there’s an obvious flaw in the logic (several huge flaws, actually). If a malfunction has caused a Dalek to flip sides, what happens when you fix the malfunction? A-doy. However, the nature of the Dalek -- and the promise that a Dalek could actually turn good -- mirrored this new Doctor’s internal struggle about his own place in the universe, among other larger philosophical issues. There was also an unsubtle and yet still unsuccessful attempt to mirror the warrior Daleks with modern soldiers, specifically Danny Pink, the new instructor at Coal Hill School/former military/probable love interest for Clara.

The actual plot of the episode didn’t really work, the sets for the inside of the Dalek weren’t remotely convincing, the various subplots were handled clumsily, and the whole thing felt overly referential to me (I got “Star Trek” and “BattlestarGalactica” vibes at different points in the episode). So from a narrative standpoint, it’s got big issues. But from a character standpoint I thought it was successful. We got some great interactions between the Doctor and Clara, and the Doctor and the other humans around him. What remained of Eleven’s personality has been largely shed, as this new Doctor is a condescending dick most of the time -- and I LOVE it. Capaldi is so, so good at being a self-righteous son of a bitch (not a surprise) and I have weirdly never found the Doctor more lovable. At the same time, his personal crisis of self feels very real, and understandable given what he did as the War Doctor and even as recently as last episode, when he maybe sort of killed the clockwork dude.

Clara was actually useful again this episode, and not just a teary-eyed Fix-It button. And I’m starting to understand why these two seemingly disparate people would continue to hang out together, even when they each have very east outs. Clara even says bluntly that she’s now the Doctor’s conscience, and for Clara, even though he’s kind of a jerk, he’s still her friend who saves the universe again and again. It’s an interesting dynamic, and much different than anything we’ve seen since the reboot.

As for Danny Pink, he’s apparently back in Episode 4. I’m ambivalent. He’s a good-looking guy, for sure, and he had more of a discernible character after 10 minutes of screentime than Clara did for practically a whole season. But the weird flash-sideways the show did to show his internal thoughts, and ham-fisted presentation of his PTSD -- that had Moffat written all over it. Not in a good way.

Blessedly, “Robot of Sherwood” was written by Mark Gatiss, and it was a total hoot. It was a campy “Doctor Who” romp and still found some room to make some larger points about heroes and legends. The Doctor presented Clara with a classic Doctor question -- “Where do you want to go?” -- and she responded, oddly, by saying that she always wanted to meet Robin Hood. The Doctor assured her that no such person ever existed. Except when they showed up in 12th century England, there he was, trying to steal the TARDIS, making goo-goo eyes at a very fetching Clara (Jenna Coleman looked outstanding in this episode), and of course fending off the Sherriff of Nottingham and his alien robot goons. Wait, alien robot goons?!

It actually worked a lot better than I expected, in part because the design for the robots was so cool (I’d love to see them come back), and because it surprisingly tied into what appears to be the season mega-arc regarding The Promised Land. But mostly it worked because of the crackling chemistry between the Doctor, Clara, and Robin Hood (Tom Riley). The squabbling between Robin and the Doctor was laugh-out-loud funny, and the Doctor had some great ridiculous moments all his own (the spoon, blowing up the archery target, his testing of the various Merry Men).

It was also another strong episode for Clara, and given that Jenna Coleman is leaving at the Christmas episode, should Clara survive, I’d love to see her end up back with Robin and his gang. Clara was more “alive” in this episode than I can ever recall. She felt like more of a leading lady than a sidekick or hanger-on.

“Into the Dalek” also featured a brief epilogue with Missy, the stern woman who seems to be collecting people who died due to the machinations of the Doctor and bringing them to “Heaven.” In the series premiere she brought the clockwork man to a garden. In “Dalek” she brought a dead soldier to a tea party. I expected the Sheriff and his gold hands to pop up with her in “Sherwood.” My roommate actually asked, “Isn’t that the eyepatch lady from The Silence?” which goes to show you how predictable Moffat and his female characters have gotten. But people are lighting up the internet speculating about who/what she is. So I guess Moffat wins again!

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