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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Doctor Who S34E1: Deep Breath

Start of a new series, start of a new ongoing. This is in theory replacing Falling Skies, even though the finale for that is next week, so for this week and next week this blog will be Ongoing Review Series: The Blog. 

If you're wondering what will be replacing Teen Wolf, the answer is almost certainly Kamen Rider Drive. 

Doctor Who
Series 34, Episode 1
Deep Breath.

I profess a certain amount of irritation with people who refer to this series as Series 8 (which the BBC does, actually. You should know better, BBC) or, worse, Season 8. It's the thirty-fourth series, goddammit. Doctor Who existed before it became interesting to Americans.

I also profess a certain amount of irritation with this episode. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Having heard the rumours of Capaldi putting the kibosh on the worst of Moffat's excesses, perhaps I had readied myself for something marvellous and wonderful that went entirely counter to what the past few years of Doctor Who have given me.

I was mistaken.

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first: Capaldi was excellent as the Doctor, as I think we all knew he would be. 10/10 performance would watch again – and will this Saturday, one supposes. I also want to give a shout-out to Brian Miller, husband of late actress Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah-Jane Smith. He appeared in this episode as a homeless man who has a lengthy conversation with the Doctor.



Deep Breath, our first episode with Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor after a rather indulgent Christmas Special where Matt Smith departed, takes us to favourite location Victorian London – it's like how Kamen Rider goes to the Edo period once a year. They have the sets, and by god, they're going to use them if it kills them. There, the rather disorientated Doctor and rather irate Clara meet up with the Paternoster Gang – Silurian Sherlock Holmes expy (and in-universe inspiration) Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and overenthusiastic Sontaran Strax – to investigate the spontaneous combustion of a dinosaur.

Which all sounds like good, rollicking fun, but to be honest, this episode is a mess. Moffat's writing has always been marked not just by a marked tendency towards misogyny and an even more marked tendency towards the worst kind of wish fulfilment, but also by a lot of very basic technical errors: It's an issue that's extremely pronounced in his other well-known series Sherlock (try watching the third episode of the first series with a sufficiently critical eye and you'll notice that it crumbles in on itself), and which mostly goes unnoticed because Moffat is a genuinely impressive cinematographer and fairly masterful at staffing his shows with talented directors and actors – in short, Moffat's consistently poor writing is concealed by the glitz of people more able than he is.

But even by Moffat's standards, this was a very poorly written episode. The dinosaur, introduced early and killed somewhat later, has no relevance to the plot except to get the Doctor interested. The monsters are recycled ones from an earlier episode – which would be fine, except that in the first episode they showed up in, The Girl in the Fireplace, also penned by Moffat, they weren't the main attraction, and for a very good reason: They're not interesting, and they were there mostly to add a foe to an episode which was really more about romance. They're not any more interesting here, and there isn't anything else to distract from that, so they end up being a very 'so what' kind of villain – and no amount of pontificating on the nature of humanity, and on the philosophical problem of Theseus Ship (less pontificated on and more tossed out the window, despite the fact that if Theseus Ship isn't the same ship, then every human in the world is periodically dying and being replaced by a doppelganger. An evil doppelganger, we must assume) will muster charisma and interest into the shoddy frame of a very bland and by-the-numbers monster. Lastly, though, and perhaps most damningly of all, nothing really happens.

The progression of the plot is glacial, absurdly so, and the plot points covered could have been boiled down to an episode half the length, or even shorter, in the hands of a more competent writer. It feels like an episode with more fluff than substance – and you know, I like fluff. I like fluff a lot. I don't like badly written fluff, and that is, unfortunately, true of the fluff here. 

The relevance of this picture will become clear shortly.

What did happen to Clara's characterisation? I don't recall her being the type of person who, herself having seen no less than twelve incarnations of the Doctor already and having absolutely no problem with any of them, including John Hurt, would become angry, resentful and upset over the Doctor being old. I don't remember her being the type of person who would angrily accuse another woman of just being too clouded with lust for her to think straight.

The answer seems to be 'someone on the writing team was worried about how fans would react to an older Doctor, and Clara is meant to be their stand-in as they're guided into loving this new Doctor, consistent characterisation be damned', which … Okay, which has been done before and isn't a terrible idea. Russell T. Davies did it when Nine initially regenerated into Ten, having Rose be suspicious of and alarmed by this new Doctor, and then coming to accept him over the span of an episode. Moffat didn't when Eleven arrived, but there was no companion to fulfil that role, so instead he utilised Amy and Rory for that task. But both those instances were done with a great deal more subtlety, and they were both effective and, most importantly, didn't patronise the audience by assuming that they'd be unable to cope with a man in his fifties. Perhaps more saliently, they didn't butcher anybody's character to do it.

Clara's sudden personality change is a problem, because it's the companion that carries a Doctor Who episode, not the Doctor, and a companion without a consistent personality may as well just be a sockpuppet. Not that, of course, companion consistency has ever seemed to be a strong point of post-RTD Doctor Who, as we are not long yet past Amy, whose life and goals seemed to change with the passing of the seasons – compare and contrast with Rose, Martha and Donna, who had clear driving goals throughout their tenures as companions.

Clara looks as alarmed as I am.

Moffat's characterisation of the Doctor is also on shaky ground, as the Doctor becomes abruptly clingy towards the end of the episode – a character trait that no Doctor has ever displayed. It's a very jarring scene, because it feels so fundamentally wrong, and because it is so entirely unnecessary for the purpose it was trying to achieve. A more understated script, where the Doctor is visibly sad at Clara's uncertainty but doesn't push it, could have been worked with to produce the same result while having more emotional impact.

So, overall opinion? I adored Capaldi, and I look forward to seeing more of him. I also look forward to seeing more of him in episodes written by people with competence – and so help me God, I will seek out and eat the first person to go 'But Moffat won Emmys!' as if that means anything other than 'he won Emmys' – and I'm especially looking forward to seeing his interactions with Clara. Actual Clara, not Pod Person Clara.

Ugh, not a good start to the series. But I hold out hope yet.  

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