Last week, the new Doctor announced a new mission: He’s out to right the wrongs he has committed in his very, very long life. Before we can get started on that, though, he’ll need some sort of definition of “right” and “wrong”—and what better place to do that than a ship named the Aristotle?
Doctor Who is fond of staging morality plays, and as with this episode, they are often left satisfyingly open-ended. But this time around, the show takes the usual elements of its moral universe and turns them on their heads. Instead of just assuming that he is a moral paragon, Twelve sees fit to ask Clara right at the outset, “Am I a good man?” — and she doesn’t really know. Meanwhile, we meet a Dalek, the show’s embodiment of evil, that seems to be good.
Even the central moral metaphor of the Tardis gets read backward: If you remember that every person is “bigger on the inside,” it becomes impossible to avoid empathy or treat anyone as an abstraction. But three minutes into the episode, a character walks out of the Tardis for the first time and exclaims, “It’s smaller on the outside!” We’re clearly in some murky moral waters here.
The speaker is Journey Blue, a lieutenant in the forces united against the Daleks, whom the Doctor rescues from certain death. He returns her to her mother ship, where the military is holding a captured Dalek, a very damaged model that is claiming that it wants to kill all the Daleks.
It also desperately needs medical attention, and so the Doctor and Clara are recruited to save the good Dalek’s life by being miniaturized, along with a military unit led by Journey, and sent physically inside the Dalek.
They run around rather aimlessly for a while and try to avoid being killed by the Dalek’s immune system; two soldiers don’t make it. And the Doctor talks to the Dalek—it seems it was compelled by the sight of a star being born to realize that life always prevails, and thus turned against the death-loving Daleks.
But this philosophy was just another aspect of the cyborg creature’s malfunction, and so when the Doctor repairs its radiation-leaking power cell, it becomes bad again and begins murdering its way through the Aristotle.
The soldiers are committed to blowing up the Dalek from the inside (and them with it) to protect the ship, and the Doctor is inclined to agree with them, believing now that there is no such thing as a good Dalek. But Clara convinces him that the damaged creature’s goodness proved that even a Dalek is not purely, fundamentally evil. That even the worst thing in the world can be taught morality. And this gives The Doctor hope—if he can convert this now-repaired Dalek back to goodness, perhaps he can convert them all. So he melds minds with the thing to show it the world as he sees it, the universe in its infinite beauty.
But the Dalek also sees the Doctor’s intense hatred for the Dalek race, and that becomes its takeaway. Instead of becoming an actual good Dalek, it ends up being just an anti-Dalek Dalek. It conveniently kills all the other Daleks attacking the ship and then runs off to go exterminate as much of the rest of the fleet as it can.
Not before leaving the Doctor with one last dig, though: “I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek.”
The Doctor seems quite put out by this, coming as it does on the heels of the discovery that deep down he is made of hatred. But it shouldn’t come as a shock. After all, he admitted as much, explaining that centuries ago, he had defined himself, his core identity, as the opposite of a Dalek. “I went to Skaro, and I met you lot, and I understood who I was. The Doctor is not the Daleks.”
As Clara pointed out, their experience inside the Dalek showed them that a Dalek is not fundamentally evil. It is made evil. And so the Doctor, as their polar opposite, can’t simply be a fundamental embodiment of good. Morality isn’t something he is—it’s something he does. Our actions are what make us good, not some core essential quality. And so Clara finally comes up with the answer to his question, “Am I a good man?”
“I don’t know,” she says, “But I think you try to be, and I think that’s probably the point.”
A lovely little encapsulation, which rings simply and profoundly true. It’s really too bad, then, that the episode was such an awful narrative muddle. There is no good reason for them to be sent inside the Dalek in the first place. What are they going to do from within its shell that the Doctor can’t just do with his sonic screwdriver from outside? So they’re sent on this incredibly dangerous mission, fatal for two of them, mostly because “We have this super-awesome miniaturization technology, so let’s use it!”
And then, despite the fact that it is explicitly called “a Dalek so damaged it’s turned good—morality as malfunction,” everyone is taken completely off-guard when fixing it makes it bad again? Even if they weren’t certain that this would be the result, you’d think they’d have taken precautions in case it was, rather than just letting the thing kill everyone.
And finally, and more damning thematically, for a Doctor whose overriding concern in the episode is whether he is, in fact, good, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in doing good things, or even acting nicely. A soldier is being attacked by the Dalek’s internal antibodies, and he tricks the guy into swallowing a tracking device right before he’s disintegrated. “He was already dead,” the Doctor grits—and as true as that may be, he acts without an once of compassion.
This seems to be a feature of this new, darker Doctor (recall Ten in several very similar scenarios: “I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.”), but if he’s worried about being good, this should have given him at least some pause.
And while the Doctor is introspecting about his own moral center, it is telling that he spares not a moment to reconsider his famous, and famously hypocritical, stance against soldiers and guns. The episode is full of him spitting insult after insult at those who take up arms, in the end refusing to let Journey journey with him simply because she is a soldier. He totally ignores the fact that, as in so many episodes, his life was saved several times over by people with guns, one of whom heroically gave her own life for the sake of his plan. (She wakes up with our mysterious Missy in what appears to be a tea shop, which Missy calls “heaven.”) Not to mention the fact that he himself has killed billions. But oh no, please don’t pick up a gun or the Doctor will never forgive you.
Which means he’s probably going to hate former soldier Danny Pink, Clara’s new love interest. More on him in coming weeks, to be sure. But before then: Robin Hood! (Or probably some weird alien facsimile thereof.)