Tonight's Doctor Who episode is the third or fourth Dalek story in a row where the focus is on the Doctor's unreasonable hatred for his foes. (It's also the third or fourth Dalek story to rely on a weird gimmick, as if the Daleks are kind of played out.) But what's wrong with hating the Daleks?
On classic Doctor Who, the Daleks were used for all sorts of metaphors, but a lot of the time they were basically Nazis. They're xenophobic, genocidal and determined to wipe out all inferior life forms. Bear in mind that they were created less than a generation after World War II, and they are basically person-sized tanks. The "Nazi" metaphor is clearest in "The Daleks' Master Plan" where they all do the Nuremberg-rally salute, and "Genesis of the Daleks," where their creators are revealed to be actual goose-stepping fascists.
Over time, as the Daleks were fleshed out, we learned more about the nature of their xenophobia. They're actually genetically engineered to be ruthless, and their computer systems are entirely battle-oriented. They're essentially ultimate war machines, bent on annihilation.
So the Daleks are the embodiment of everything the Doctor fights against. Even before the Daleks and the Time Lords fought in a massive universe-shattering Time War, the Doctor was pretty strongly anti-Dalek.
Since the show came back, we've explored the notion that the Doctor's hate for the Daleks is pathological — and that maybe he's made them worse by hating them. (He may even have made them a more powerful and dangerous enemy by fighting them all these years.)
This was explored pretty poignantly in the 2005 story "Dalek," which "Into The Dalek" borrows from pretty heavily. The Doctor is confronted with a lone Dalek survivor of the Time War, and he winds up toting a massive gun to go up against it, only to be shamed by Rose for defaulting to violence and rage, against a Dalek that's actually suicidal. Later, the Doctor meets a Dalek who wants to evolve in a more human direction, but the Doctor won't trust this Dalek until it's too late. And in "Journey's End," Davros accuses the Doctor of turning people into weapons.
But the Moffat era has seen a lot more storytelling in which the Doctor's hatred of the Daleks is portrayed as actually damaging or pathological. In "Victory of the Daleks," there are just a few Daleks left and they're so weak that they've resorted to silly subterfuge, pretending to be World War II British soldiers — until they bait the Doctor into screaming at them about how terrible they are, which plays into their hands. (Er, their plungers.)
In "Asylum of the Daleks," we see an entire planet of Daleks who've been driven insane by the Doctor's campaign against them. And there are a lot of soliloquies about how the Doctor's hatred of the Daleks is pure and beautiful in the Daleks' eyes, and how his loathing of them has made them what they are. And in the end, Dalek Oswin saves the Doctor from his dysfunctional relationship with the Daleks, by making them all forget him.
So now in "Into the Dalek," the Doctor is once again face-to-eyestalk with a damaged Dalek survivor. This story is basically a mash-up of 1967's "Evil of the Daleks" (in which some of the Daleks turned "good") and the aforementioned 2005 story "Dalek." Plus a pinch of "Invisible Enemy." This Dalek has apparently turned nice, or at least anti-Dalek, because of the damage its core has sustained in some kind of future war against the human Resistance.
So the Doctor, Clara, their new friend Journey, and two redshirts get shrunk to tiny size so they can go inside the Dalek and A) figure out if it's really turned nice, and B) repair it. And they find that the Dalek really has turned nice — but unfortunately, once they repair it, it turns nasty again. Whoops.
And meanwhile, the process of venturing deep into the heart of the Dalek allows us to see a side of the Daleks we've never seen before: their insides. And we learn more about just what makes them such assholes. We see the computer core that provides an external memory for the Dalek and suppresses any memories that might expand its consciousness, and we see the Dalek's cybernetic "antibodies." We even visit the Dalek's stomach, where it digests random protein taken from its victims. The whole thing is a treasure trove for anyone who ever collected the 1970s Dalek annuals.
The Doctor's hatred is a tragic flaw
The big crux of the story is that Clara helps to restore the Dalek's suppressed memories of stuff like seeing a star born and realizing that life will always find a way in spite of the Daleks' extermination program. Meanwhile, the Doctor talks to the Dalek (aka Rusty) about the beauty of life and how beautiful the universe is — but alas, the Dalek accesses all the Doctor's memories of hating the Daleks. So they fail to turn Rusty permanently good, but on the plus side they get a Rusty who hates the Daleks as much as the Doctor does.
In other words, the Doctor's abhorrence of the Daleks is a tragic flaw. It empowered them back in "Victory," we learn that it helped to inspire them in "Asylum," and now it costs him the chance to redeem them. Clara, who's being set up as the Doctor's conscience, slaps him for believing the Daleks are irreversibly evil, instead of being open to the possibility that they could change. And the Doctor is crestfallen when he realizes how un-Doctorish his kneejerk hawkish reaction to the Daleks is.
But I guess I'm wondering just what's so wrong about hating creatures that are actually engineered, both biologically and mechanically, to be pure instruments of genocide. I mean, it might be bad for your soul, but who cares about that?
"Be careful when you fight monsters, lest you become one" is sort of an overused trope, and a deterrent to heroism. And the best answer to that notion is what I call the Troughton doctrine, from "The Moonbase": "There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought." Sometimes, you really do have to fight monsters, even if it makes you less of a nice person.
So did the Doctor actually make the Daleks worse? (This is sort of similar to the idea that Batman created the Joker, advanced in various Bat-comics and in The Dark Knight.) It's really hard to say. Certainly, the Daleks he meets in "The Daleks" are less formidable than they appear in later stories, and the Doctor is quite surprised when they turn up in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth." They master time travel soon after that. And you could interpret "Genesis of the Daleks" as showing the Doctor telling Davros (and various others) about the terrible misdeeds (and defeats) the Daleks will have in the future, thus helping to strengthen them. On the other hand, the Daleks are intrinsically horrid, even in their first appearance, and the reason the Time Lords send the Doctor back to the Daleks' origins is because they foresee a possible future in which the Daleks have extinguished all other life in the universe.
Plus today's episode shows a universe where the Daleks have forgotten the Doctor's very existence — and they're still an unstoppable force.
The most moving and fascinating moment in "Into the Dalek" comes when the Doctor is talking to Rusty, trying to connect with him and turn him good once again. The Doctor reminisces about his first encounter with the Daleks, saying that he chose his sobriquet because it sounded cool, but once he met the Daleks he knew what he was — he was not the Daleks. He defined himself in opposition to them.
And of course, the whole reason the Doctor is willing to be shrunk and sent into "the most dangerous place in the universe" is because he wants to believe in the possibility of a good Dalek. If you could turn one Dalek good, you could turn them all good.
What I'd sort of like to see is a story where the Doctor's hatred of the Daleks is questioned while he's facing a full-on assault by a Dalek army bent on killing him and everyone he cares about. The sort of thing the Daleks used to get up to a bit more. It's easier to question whether the Doctor is too fanatical in his anti-Dalek sentiments when the Daleks are reduced to a few pathetic specimens carrying tea. Or pleading with him to save them (as in "Asylum.") Or transformed into nice Daleks by radiation.
This story is bookended by the Doctor asking Clara if he's a good man at the start of the episode, and the issue being raised again at the end. The first time, Clara responds that she doesn't actually know. But at the end, she says that he's trying to be a good man, and that's the point.
One major point in favor of this story: it does make the Daleks look quite a bit more formidable and scary than they've been in a while. The bits where the Daleks rampage aboard the Aristotle and kill everybody in sight are beautifully shot with lots of smoke and flames and chaos. It's great to watch the Daleks just slaughter a ton of people. And the actual exploration of the interior of the Dalek is wonderfully spooky and claustrophobic.
Also, this story features some more great moments with Capaldi's Doctor, including his great "You don't have to be liked, you've got all the guns." And the bit where he tells Clara to do something clever, and he'll show the Dalek something that will change its mind forever, but he has no clue what. Also lovely: the part where one of the redshirts, Gretchen, sacrifices herself based on the Doctor's promise to do something amazing and name it after her.
I don't quite get the bit about soldiers
The other thread running through this story is that the Doctor doesn't like soldiers — even though everything in the story tells us that the Doctor is in no position to judge. To be fair, the humans he meets aboard the Aristotle do try to have him shot on sight, but he's also a major jerk to Journey Blue after her brother has just died.
The Doctor is tainted by hatred, and he needs to recognize that a Dalek can be more than a killing machine — but his prejudice against humans who wear uniforms and carry weapons is unexamined. At the end of the story he turns down Journey's request to join the TARDIS crew because he wishes she hadn't been a soldier.
And yet, Journey actually proves that she, too, can change — she's carrying out her orders to destroy the Dalek after it's turned evil again and is helping to kill all of her friends. And the Doctor convinces her not to destroy the Dalek, because a Dalek is a better soldier than she'll ever be, and "you can't win this way." So Journey disobeys her orders and stops being a good soldier for the Doctor — but he still judges her in the end.
The counterpoint to all of this is the introduction of Danny Pink, the new teacher at Coal Hill School who is ex-military. His coworkers all think he's a ladies' man, and his students relentlessly ask him about how the people he's killed — to the point where he cries in class. (But he still volunteers to run some kind of junior cadet program at the school.)
Danny is set up as Clara's new love interest, and they have a lot of cute moments together, like when he berates himself for not agreeing to go to some staff party with her and she overhears. Soon enough they have a drinks date, but he's feeling self-conscious about the fact that he cried in front of his kids, and he suspects that Clara knows. In the end, Clara says that she, unlike the Doctor, is not prejudiced against soldiers.
I'm sort of confused by how the Doctor's anti-soldier views mesh, thematically, with his own status as a dyed-in-the-wool Dalek fighter. Maybe it's just supposed to be that he hates war — and all warriors, human or Dalek.
Oh, and after Gretchen dies, she's miraculously transported to Heaven, where she meets the mysterious Missy. Who is apparently not just following the Doctor's adventures somehow, but also scooping up everyone who dies during them.