Doctor Who has made those transitions work over the past 50 years. The show is a staple of British pop-culture and watched around the globe. This weekend saw the introduction of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor (although technically he's the Thirteenth or even Fourteenth, depending on how you count them). So how is this new doctor and what might be in store for him?
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I am alone. The world which shook at my feet, and the trees, and the sky, have gone, and I am alone now, alone. The wind bites now, and the world is grey, and I am alone. Can’t see me. Doesn’t see me. Can’t see me. —The DoctorThere have been arguments in the past as to whether Doctor Who even qualifies as science fiction (e.g. according to author Terry Pratchett, it's not). Showrunner Steven Moffat has described the series as a "dark fairy tale" about a reality where wondrous, fantastical, and terrifying things lurk in the shadows and a man in a magic box is there to fight the monsters. But like a lot of fairy tales, Doctor Who is rooted in melancholy. The Doctor may save the universe, but it always comes at a cost. He is an almost God-like figure, who usually knows more than everyone else, and can go anywhere he wants in all of existence and time. And yet, with all that power, there are some things he can't fix, especially with himself. He is lonely and always running, a lonely god that needs "companions" who will run with him through corridors. And there will invariably be another Dalek, another Cyberman, another tragedy to be righted waiting when the TARDIS materializes at its next stop.
With this episode, Peter Capaldi, probably best known for the BBC comedy series The Thick of It, takes over for Matt Smith in the role of the Doctor. Most of "Deep Breath" is predicated on transitioning the audience to accepting Capaldi in the role, and it's not until the halfway-point the story finds its bearings and becomes interesting. Before then it's a bit camp and goofy, with Capaldi's doctor still addled from regeneration and falling from a tree, a giant T-Rex hanging out in Victorian London until it (sorta) spontaneously combusts and the Paternoster Gang doing their best Sherlock Holmes-style investigation. But almost all of it is superfluous to the plot of the episode. In fact, there's really no reason for Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey) to be in the episode, other than to act as familiar faces that confirm that Capaldi's doctor is the same person as Smith's doctor. In fact, some of the banter between Vastra and Jenny seems like it could have been on an episode of Moffat's Coupling.
It's only in the latter half of "Deep Breath," which has the Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman) confronting an organ-stealing droid (the "Half-Face Man" played by Peter Ferdinando) that's seeking the promised land, where the differences between Smith's Doctor and Capaldi's come to the forefront. There's an intensity and grimmer tone to the Twelfth Doctor that wasn't present in the previous incarnation.
Those people down there. They’re never small. Don’t make assumptions about how far I’ll go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way, and unlike you, I do not expect to reach the promised land. —The DoctorAnd this is the first time Clara feels like a well-rounded character instead of a figure functioning as a plot device. The scene in which Clara is seemingly abandoned by the Doctor, and has to hold her breath to deceive the clockwork robots, sells the tension of the situation incredibly well. And Coleman's performance is great at evoking a feeling of being betrayed and then a faith that she will be saved. But even in this story, the writing for Clara didn't seem to mesh totally (a little more about that in a bit). However, it was a good introduction that was really helped by how good of an actor Capaldi is, and his Doctor has been described as a minimalist. And I have a feeling this Doctor is more of a realist. Instead of the facade of boyish looks, this regeneration is older, with "lines" on his face, who seems to accept the truth of his nature in ways the previous recent incarnations had trouble doing. And in the end, that's the fun of each regeneration if done right. Each new Doctor provides a new insight and interpretation of a character we've known all along.
- New intro: The new title sequence is based on a fan-made video on YouTube. Steven Moffat liked graphic designer Billy Hanshaw's intro so much he asked the BBC’s graphics department to make an official version based on Hanshaw’s work.
- The English's fault: While trying to figure out why he looks the way he does after the regeneration, with "cross eyebrows" that want to "secede" from his face, the Doctor comes to the realization that he's Scottish (or Time Lord Scottish). Someone should have told poor David Tennant that he didn't have to spend all those years imitating an English accent. One other note about that scene. The homeless man, who was listening to the Doctor's rant and gets his coat stolen by him, is played by Brian Miller, the widower of Elisabeth Sladen (who played Sarah Jane Smith).
- Trying too hard: Moffat's Doctor Who is much better when he's not drawing attention to his own cleverness and is not so self-aware. His scripts are great at creating complex stories that take advantage of the show's fairy tale, technobabble nature, with the plot many times twisting back onto itself. The criticism of Moffat is generally that he sometimes seems more enamored with the mechanics of the story than consistency and emotions of the characters. I was genuinely surprised by how much time is spent in the episode trying to sell Clara, and by extension the audience, on the idea of an "old" Doctor. It seems like Moffat or the BBC is really worried the show is going to lose some of its sex appeal with the transition from Smith to Capaldi. Not only did it seem like they were selling it hard, but it also made no sense from a story perspective to use Clara as someone who can't deal with a new Doctor and has trouble accepting that he's still the same person. This is the same Clara that went into the timestream, split herself into multiple versions, and been with all of the Doctors, old and young, around the universe throughout time.
- Lady issues: Moffat has been criticized in the past for the way he writes female characters. In short, the argument goes that almost all of the women on the show have no agency beyond being defined by the men (i.e. The Doctor, Rory, etc.) in their lives. In some comments I saw after this episode, there were people who found it a bit hypocritical the episode rightly says, "How dare you judge The Doctor by his looks?!?" but at the same time almost every companion is a young, attractive woman who more often than not will at some point be a possible love interest. And still, Clara's story is not as much about what she wants but whether she can find it in herself to still serve the Doctor in his adventures. The cameo by Matt Smith has the Eleventh Doctor telling Clara how much he still needs her.
While Davies envisioned Doctor Who as the story of the Doctor and the companion, Moffat’s show is simply the story of the Doctor ... This is also part of a larger trend of Moffat’s treatment of female characters. In general, almost all of Moffat’s ladies are “mysteries” for the Doctor to solve—Amy has a mysterious crack in her wall followed by a mysterious pregnancy, River is a timeline conundrum, and Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman) is referred to as “the impossible girl.” While these women serve as dynamic companions to the Doctor, the show has a bad habit of turning them into plot points. Moffat seems generally uninterested in the families, friends, or careers of his supporting female characters, making them frustratingly underdeveloped. Amy’s long-lost parents and their eventual return in “The Big Bang” are major concerns of season five that are immediately dropped so Amy can run away on more adventures. These female characters exist only insomuch as they relate to the Doctor, and anything outside of their time-traveling adventures is irrelevant. Whatever Moffat’s intention, he is continuing the frustrating pop-culture trend of writing women who revolve around men. Add to this the fact that most of the women he writes are sassy, aggressive, and flirty—all of which are fascinating traits for a female character but feel rather reductive when repeated ad nauseam.
- The push or jump question: The episode leaves it ambiguous, but does it really matter? If the Half-Face Man jumped, it was done under threat by the Doctor. Is that somehow more moral than throwing him out the door? In year's past, there would be a moment of realization where the villain would finally accept a "third option" and the Doctor would grab the TARDIS and take him where he needs to go. That not happening is by itself a major change that points to a different way of doing things with this Doctor. Although there is an argument the Doctor is probably considered one of the biggest war criminals in the universe by his enemies.
- Missy, aka Mary Poppins: Michele Gomez, probably best known as Sue White on the hospital comedy Green Wing, seems to be the big bad of this series. Speculation as to who "Missy" might be seems to go in every direction, with many believing she's a female regeneration of The Master, with the shape of the garden and fountain in the middle being reminiscent of a TARDIS control room. (i.e., Missy = Mistress = Master) Other conjecture centers on the Rani or maybe even Romana. Since she refers to the Doctor as her "boyfriend," another line of thought goes that this is a new iteration of River Song. Also, given that just before the scene with Missy, the Doctor tells Clara that he's not her boyfriend, some believe Missy might be some timestream version of Clara that's taken her control-freak tendencies too far.