Deep Breath

Our new hero, terrorising a poor vagrant and trying to steal his coat on a freezing winter’s day.

So here we go again! I am going to have to tackle some big problems with this episode which will have far-reaching consequences for the next three years of Doctor Who, but first of all I really want to mention what a fascinating episode this is.  Thematically it is brilliant, with the Doctor’s regeneration paralleled within the storyline in probably the most effective way it has ever been done.  There are themes of disguises and changing appearances throughout, plus the clockwork droids are perfectly chosen so that their body horror can mirror the change to the Doctor’s own face.  The dinosaur is also a wonderful parallel to the lonely Doctor… which brings us to the moment of its death.

I’m going to risk sounding like Mary Whitehouse here, and I don’t mind that because there is a difference between somebody being frequently wrong and being always wrong.  Showing any kind of animal burning to death in a family show is the wrong thing to do.  Yes, it’s a bit of CGI but the whole point of it is that we are supposed to respond in an emotional way, and the fact that it is created by a computer isn’t going to stop it being disturbing for children.  Death by ray gun is fine in Doctor Who.  Death by flames: not so much.

Deep Breath was heavily trailed with the Doctor’s question “am I a good man?”, so Steven Moffat had clearly made a decision here to make the Doctor a bit edgier, more dangerous, perhaps less likeable.  At least, that was the impression that was deliberately built up: the Twelfth Doctor as the Dark Doctor.  Much of the episode sets about dismantling this to reassure the audience (so why play on it in the first place?) but even so it is a horrible mis-step.

I have to admit to being biased here, because I was a child in 1984 and had to watch my Doctor die and be apparently replaced by a nasty bully.  And here’s the thing: when handling regeneration stories it is important to remember that Doctor Who is a family show, loads of children watch it, and they have just watched their Doctor die.  They need to be reassured that the Doctor they know is still alive and well so that they want to keep watching.  It’s fine for him to be different, but he still has to be likeable.  Any approach that makes the children watching think “he’s a bit mean – I don’t like him” is going to lose you a big chunk of the viewers, especially when it happens in a new Doctor’s first story.  And believe me, it’s the children who really have power over the remote controls.  So I find even a small step down that route a fundamentally flawed approach, and a bizarre failure to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Have a look at how this episode plays with the post-regenerative craziness.  The key scene is the one with the vagrant on a London back street.  Compare this with the Fourth Doctor’s scene with Harry in the first episode of Robot, because it’s a very close parallel.  The Fourth Doctor is clearly acting in an unpredictable manner, but he is funny rather than menacing.  Not so, the Twelfth Doctor.  He bullies the vagrant, who is clearly very afraid of him, and then decides to steal a coat from a poor man on a cold winter’s day.  So if you are going to go down the route of post-regen craziness you can do that in a benign way (Troughton, Pertwee, Tom Baker, Davison, McCoy, McGann, Tennant, Smith), or you can do it in a way that makes the Doctor seem like a dangerous bully, capable of anything (Colin Baker, Capaldi).  I expect you can guess which approach I dislike.  There is a reason why it was tried once, and never repeated up until this point.

Unlike The Eleventh Hour, there are elements retained from the previous series to help smooth the transition.  The Paternoster Gang are for Capaldi what the Brigadier was for both Pertwee and Tom Baker, and that’s magnificent; how wonderful that a Silurian, her human wife and a Sontaran can function as the familiar elements for audience identification.  Plus Clara is still the companion.  However, this throws up more problems than it solves.  Clara has to function as a companion always functions when the Doctor regenerates.  Like the audience, she has to struggle to accept the change and she has to learn that he is still the same man.  The problem is this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense in light of what we know about Clara.  Here’s what Clara said to the War Doctor in The Day of the Doctor:

Your eyes. They’re so much younger.

So she was able to work out that he was actually the youngest of the three Doctors, despite his apparent age, just by looking into his eyes (always shorthand for looking into the soul).  The was seeing past his apparent age, to understand the Doctor beneath the skin.  This does not sit well with a companion who is positioned (particularly by Vastra) as somebody who can’t see past his new face to the man inside, especially as she is so insistent that it has nothing to do with any romantic attachment to his previous incarnation.  This can be explained away perfectly well because there is obviously a difference between meeting an older/younger past version of the Doctor and having your Doctor change like that, and also she may have assumed each Doctor starts young (as per The War Doctor, in fact).  But it still feels a bit wrong, and also makes Clara a lot less likeable.  The storyline calls upon Vastra to be the one to tackle Clara about this, so from the perspective of a younger viewer we have:

  • Clara being a bit mean to the Doctor.
  • Vastra being a bit mean to Clara.
  • The Doctor being a bit mean to everyone.

Not much reassurance, is it.  And just like The Twin Dilemma ended with an implicit challenge to the viewers, “I am the Doctor, whether you like it, or not” (I didn’t, and I stopped watching), Deep Breath gives us deliberate ambiguity about whether the Doctor has physically thrown the half-faced man onto the spire of Big Ben or not.  Then we have that magnificent cameo from Matt Smith, to illustrate that the Twelfth Doctor is the same man that made the phone call to Clara, which risks everything by ending the episode with the viewers reminded about what they have lost, and possibly deciding that this edgier, emotionally dysfunctional Doctor is not for them.  The critique of Clara’s attitude towards the new Doctor doubles up as a critique of the viewers, which is brave and interesting.  But the viewing figures will decline throughout Capaldi’s time as the Doctor, and that’s not for the reason this episode is trying to call us out on.  We are not judging by appearances.  We are judging by actions.   RP

The view from across the pond:

After the departure of 11th Doctor Matt Smith, his older replacement steps in and we are given no clues as to what his personality will be like short of him having an aversion to the color of his kidneys!  Now, in his first full episode, we get a chance to see how Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will play the role.  And there’s a lot to say!

Thankfully, we can all breathe a sigh of relief: the new Doctor is great!  He has some awesome lines, some great action scenes… yes, I think he’s going to be great.  But beyond him…

For one, when doing the contrast-thing, the focus should be on two qualities that work in their own right.  For instance, contrasting youth with age.  Or comedy with action.  In other words, qualities we accept in a hero.  When it’s undesirable qualities, one questions the efficacy of the contrast.  For instance, the warmth and heart of the 11th Doctor against the cold, aloof attitude of Capaldi.  Now, I say this, but I like Capaldi’s Doctor.  And he clearly does care, but there are moments when we are left wondering!  More on that in a moment.

Next, allow me to blast the most idiotic part of the story: Clara.  She supposedly knows all the incarnations of the Doctor as established in The Name of the Doctor which is then built upon over the next few stories.  So why is she having such a hard time accepting his latest incarnation?  Was Moffat just worried that the audience wasn’t going to accept an older actor?  Did he write in the scene with Matt Smith to remind audiences to accept Capaldi?  I liked the scene; but it felt forced, even though I liked the way they played it out.  It felt like a lack of confidence, plain and simple, regardless of the fact that I liked having one last moment with Smith’s Doctor.

I also love Jenny, Madame Vastra and Strax!  They are great, funny, and likable.  It’s almost impossible not to like them!  That’s not to say I don’t have a couple of complaints!  One, I counted 3 reminders between Jenny and Vastra that they are married.  I don’t take issue with their marriage but it feels like the writers want to shove it down our collective throats again!  That damned “agenda” that gets thrown around with Doctor Who and it does gain a foothold when it’s so blatant!  Two, Babylon 5 proved we could have aliens on week after week.  Why can’t Vastra or another alien travel with the Doctor now and then?   Three, in that “meaningful” scene where Vastra is wearing the veil while talking to Clara, there are scene cuts from the dialog to focus on the Doctor.  At some point, they cut back and Vastra is no longer wearing her veil.  It takes Clara a few minutes to realize it then asks when it was removed.  I like the comment “when you stopped seeing it” because it says a lot about the nature of prejudices, but it ignores the fact that there were no camera cutaways for Clara, so she absolutely would have seen Vastra remove it.  It didn’t melt!  Moffat takes liberties sometimes!

While Moffat takes liberties, he also pulls some great stunts, like the “where’d I get this face” turning up at the start of season 8 only to wait until season 9 for the payoff.  Bravo!  Alternatively, showing us all those who go to the Promised Land in this season has no payoff as they are never seen again!  Not so bravo!

So there are a lot of tidbits I can throw out there, but the biggest has to do with the end.  (Even Missy is uncertain about it.)  The Doctor rather surprisingly states “I have a feeling I’m going to have to kill you!”  This could be bravado, but since the clockwork man does die, one wonders.  I don’t have a problem knowing the Doctor will defend his surrogate home no matter what it takes, but I’d like to think he would not kill unless absolutely necessary.  Now there is a bit of debate: when the Doctor says one of them is lying about their basic programming (of himself and the droid), is it possible that he means the droid is lying?  The last scene we see of them together, the Doctor and the Droid are standing apart.  Next we know, the clockwork droid is dead.  So my hope would be that the Doctor knew the droid would allow himself to die rather than have to be killed.  But we are not explicitly told and that would be fine for some characters, but the Doctor is supposedly “the man who never would”, so I’d like that one to be explicit!

Since the whole arc of the season is the Doctor trying to determine if he’s a good man, it’s alright that we leave the debate open.  And since this has gone on for so long, I won’t add a list of random thoughts.   Suffice to say, Capaldi has one of my favorite opening episodes of any Doctor.  I think, like a fine wine, he’ll age well.  We just have to give his Doctor time to breath.  In the meantime, we must be diligent and avoid things this Doctor doesn’t like, like karaoke and mimes or we might find ourselves going against our own basic programming!   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Into the Dalek

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Doctor Who, Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, Twelfth Doctor and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Deep Breath

  1. Mike Basil says:

    Capaldi’s supposedly heart-breaking regeneration finale this Christmas should make some sense out of all the troubles routes they chose for the 12th Doctor. Thank you both for the reviews.

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  2. Mike Basil says:

    To be as far as Whoniversally possible, each Doctor’s era has its mix of positives and negatives from considerably violent content to considerably unpleasant Doctors. But each Doctor has for obvious reasons worked thanks to the random appeals of the fans, even if it takes Big Finish to intervene on behalf of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy with BBCi’s help as well. The Doctor’s metamorphic characters can be a misapprehension as T. Baker once commented. Because it’s essential for the Doctor to be enigmatically heroic and therefore permit us our own opinions. In Capaldi’s case, I knew it would somehow be okay because his reclaiming of the Doctor’s ‘good-man’ identity was the whole point and that was exciting. Dr. Who is one of the few SF shows in today’s television era that can attract fans to that extent.

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  3. Mike Loschiavo says:

    Rog,
    When I was doing my write up, I too almost commented on the vagrant’s jacket, however, there may be no need. While he does seem to be threatening, when he turns up in the coat, he tells Clara he traded for it. She asks with what and he says a watch. She says she really liked that watch! So, while it seemed hostile at first, the vagrant may have made out like a bandit and been quite pleased with the trade after all. (Check when they meet in Mancini’s.)

    Just a thought.
    ML

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    • The vagrant was clearly scared, so for me any trade if the Doctor is telling the truth was the vagrant agreeing to something in order to escape. It’s a cold day, and clothes were not the cheap in those days, so I understand that explanation but I don’t quite buy it as the whole picture, or making the characterisation of the Doctor much better. Point taken though. Rog.

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