Sunday, August 24, 2014

“Doctor Who” Series 8, Episode 1: “Deep Breath”

Posted By on Sun, Aug 24, 2014 at 6:59 PM

After nearly a year of teasing, we finally got to meet our new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. Of course, first episodes with new Doctors are tricky. The character himself doesn’t really know he really is, so it’s difficult for audiences to get a handle on him as well. I felt that way about Tennant and Eccleston in their first outings, and slightly less so about Smith. The new Doctor -- I’m honestly not sure what number we’re supposed to refer to him as at this point -- was all over the place this episode, pinballing from confused naïf to needy old man to heartless bastard. And honestly, I didn’t mind any of that. But the episode itself had some significant issues, most of them symptomatic of showrunner and episode writer Steven Moffat’s increasingly tiresome indulgences.

The set up: the people of Victorian London were astonished to find a Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping its way up and down the Thames. The police called in reptilian Sherlock Holmes analogue Madame Vastra, who of course brought along sidekicks Jenny and Strax, and gave the Victorian cops sophisticated alien technology that nobody bat an eye at, which served to keep the dinosaur penned in the river. And then it hacked up the TARDIS, which had been stuck in is throat.

That is, more or less, the entire extent of the dinosaur plot. It was brought through to Victorian days after it tried to eat the TARDIS, which was thrashing about through time during the Doctor’s transformation. Yes, the dinosaur played into the larger plotline, but in an extremely tangential way. It was basically just Moffat saying, “Look at how cool and awesome I am! I can have a dinosaur!” Lots of pretty, flashy things that ultimately mean very little. That’s Moffat for you.

The larger plot unfolded slowly -- too slowly, I would argue -- and involved cyborgs stealing human parts to stay alive. If elements of the villains (who I don’t believe were ever named) seem familiar, that is in part intentional, as this episode indirectly ties back to an episode from Series 2…also not-so-coincidentally written by Moffat, and featuring well-regarded monsters of his own design. And it ended with an odd epilogue that introduced what I assume will be a recurring nemesis for the new Doctor, Missy, a stern, vaguely batshit woman that at first blush seems to be made from the same mold as Madame Kovarian (the eyepatch lady who worked with the Silence to kidnap Amy’s baby, who never had a pay off) or Tasha Lem, the Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe, who also basically went nowhere. I recognize that we saw Missy for literally 2 minutes, but my sense of déjà vu was powerful.

But the episode was ultimately much less about the villain of the week and more about establishing the new Doctor, his relationship with Clara, and his relationship with the viewers (that long exchange outside the TARDIS in Scotland felt like it was delivered less for Clara and more for this show’s legion of fairly new fans, who are used to cute young Doctors). And in those respects, it was a qualified success. I’ll break down what I thought worked, what didn’t, and what has potential.


-Capaldi is great when the Doctor is playing mindgames or being menacing. No surprise there. The rumor is that this is going to be a much darker Doctor, but the tone of this episode was all over the place. It worked best in the moments when the Doctor was showing us his dark side. There were moments where he felt a bit like Fourth Doctor to me -- dismissive of humans, yet still protective of them. I would like to see more of that and less of the puppy-dog stuff we got toward the end of the episode. But I like the moral ambiguity of the character and hope we get more of that.

-Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are always welcome, and they held this episode together from my standpoint -- especially Vastra, one of the few female characters Moffat writes well. (Possibly because there’s no male-female sexual dynamic there, as she is a lesbian and also a reptile? Discuss.) I will say, however, that Strax’s humor is starting to fall a little flat for me. There are only so many times the “all Earth creatures look the same to me” thing will be funny. But I did enjoy him beaning Clara with that newspaper. I also wonder if Moffat used the trio as a kind of crutch here, because if it was just Clara and the new Doctor, I don’t think this episode would have worked at all in terms of audience buy-in. Which brings me to…


-Clara. Going into this episode I hated Clara. Well, not hated. I was frustrated by her because she’s such a dud of a companion. Jenna Coleman is lovely, and the acting has been passable at least. But there’s no character there. Once the mystery surrounding Clara was resolved at the end of S7, we were left with, basically, a very cute girl who was often chipper but then sometimes cries. Seriously, if you had to describe Clara’s personality, how would you do it? There’s just no “there” there. Thankfully she got some meat put on to her character bones this episode, even if it seems a bit revisionist. Clara is now apparently an egomaniac and a control freak. I don’t recall that being the case prior to this, but hey, I’ll take anything I can latch on to.

I was also glad to see her show some gumption this episode. This was the most interested I’ve been in Clara since she was Oswin in “Asylum of the Daleks.” That said, after nearly a dozen episodes with her, she’s right down there with Martha as the least interesting of the modern companions. So I’m not all that upset to hear that Coleman’s leaving at the end of the season. Because even as the Doctor was asking for her help, I found myself extremely dubious that this mature, complicated man would really want to have this -- forgive me -- basic girl zipping around time and space with him. The pairing just doesn’t make sense to me. But she did grow on me this episode.

-The new TARDIS and the new intro look pretty enough (apparently the new intro was based off of a fan-made one?), although feel a little soulless. But we spent barely any time in the TARDIS this episode, so I’ll have to see more before I decide. I do dig the Doctor’s new duds, and am fascinated by the fact that he’s not overly attached to his sonic screwdriver. I can only recall him using it once or twice this episode. Clara used it more than he did. And it’s notable that he’s never using it in any of the promo materials.


-The broad humor fell flat almost every time, especially when Capaldi was supposed to be handling it. I’m sure he’s a funny guy, and god knows he can let out a stream of insults that will curdle your innards. But he’s just not the right actor for the sillier moments called for this episode. What would have worked with Tennant or Smith seemed painfully awkward here, and I hope that Moffat and the writers recognize that and stop trying to force it. Different actor, different Doctor.Time for a different approach.

-Speaking of time for a different approach…how much longer with Mr. Moffat be running this show? Listen, he’s had a good run. He has contributed many great elements to the “Who” canon and he’s written some crackling episodes with iconic moments. But his flaws as a writer (and we all have them) have become more and more evident, and he doesn’t seem to be interested in hiding them, or in progressing creatively. This episode’s plot was classic Moffat: overly complicated, silly on the face of it (a hot-air balloon…made of human flesh), a specific tension-building gimmick (“Don’t blink!” “Deep breath!”), and everything was fixed tidy-widy with a deeply felt speech and one action. There’s a word, “contrivance.” It can be both a compliment or an insult. With Mr. Moffat, I used to apply it positively. I haven’t done so in a very long time.

As I said in the beginning, first episodes for new Doctors are always a bit of a mess. The audience doesn’t yet know its lead character. The lead character doesn’t himself. The companion is terribly confused, and sometimes even feels betrayed (Clara had good reason to at various points this episode). I left the episode without a firm grasp on Capaldi’s Doctor, but eager to know more about him. What did you think?

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