“Into the Dalek” is a solid episode but is simply not the most original contribution to Doctor Who. The idea of miniaturizing people and inserting them into another living being in order to solve a health problem may be a new experience for the Doctor but is certainly nothing new for science fiction (and honestly made me immediately think of The Magic School Bus, though the miniaturizing there was accidental).
“Into the Dalek” also draws very heavily from past Doctor Who episodes, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in lazy ones. The Doctor asserts that inside the Dalek is the “most dangerous place in the universe.” Yet I’m pretty sure the Dalek Asylum was supposed to be the most dangerous place in the universe. (And we’re working on a technicality that the trip outside the universe in “The Doctor’s Wife” doesn’t also earn this designation.) Declaring that something is dangerous doesn’t make it so and doesn’t build real suspense. The plot itself has to do that, and the work is harder when everything is supposed to be the “most dangerous” thing.
Also, the entire plot is based around the idea that there might exist a “good” Dalek. (A side note: I don’t think “good” is ever adequately defined, but there is a working sense of the word for the purposes of the plot—apparently the Dalek does not want to kill everyone on sight.) The Doctor is skeptical; there can be no such thing. Apparently the Doctor forgets “Dalek” from series one, when a Dalek is unwilling to kill Rose. Yes, there was some tampering that resulted in that “malfunction,” but the same is true of the Dalek in “Into the Dalek.”
However, there are some good throwbacks in this episode. The Doctor can never really be reminded enough that he would be a good Dalek. We also have the classic side character who is willing to give her life for the sake of the mission and humanity. Maybe it’s cliché to have so many, but maybe the show is also saying bravery and selflessness are characteristic of humans, and that we and the Doctor remain sane by remembering that.
Clara continues to be a much stronger character than she was in the previous series. The Doctor entrusts her with coming up with “clever” solutions to difficult problems, and she delivers. The new Clara appears as though she may be consistently brave, smart, and strong—a character the audience can really get behind. This episode also incorporates more of Clara’s “real” life as a schoolteacher, which helps to further give her a more defined personality.
Clara’s unrelenting ignorance about the Doctor’s personality, however, is a more troubling trend. In “Deep Breath” she blithely proclaimed the Doctor is “uncomplicated.” In “Into the Dalek” she says she has no idea whether he is a good man. She’s travelling all through time and space with him and isn’t even sure whether he’s a good person? Is that even safe? She has a little more closure by the end of the episode, but her interpretations of him are baffling.
The Doctor, too, is still growing into his new role, and Capaldi is doing very well. He, as the audience expected, is generally a more mature and serious Doctor, though personally I think a lot of the supposedly “intense staring” he does is simply dull. I am also concerned by the fact that he seems to be somewhat more callous than previous Doctors, even though his primary concerns are supposed to be correcting past mistakes and being a good man. Can one do that without feeling genuine compassion?
So far, the general direction of Series 8 appears to be going in a strong direction. Clara is becoming a great character, the Doctor is finding his footing, there is a mix of old and new, and there is some mysterious “Paradise” plot line that will probably tie the series together. The problems are mainly in the details. The characters are spouting lots of lines the writers probably think sound deep, but they make little sense in the context of the show. And someone somewhere is overlooking a lot of the Doctor’s previous history. I am a big Doctor Who fan but not the biggest fan; if I can pick holes in the plot line, the writers really need to take more care to keep things accurate and fresh.