“Lost in the ruin of himself” – Deep Breath (Doctor Who)

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So here we are at last: new year, new Doctor, and as the title suggests, we’re at the moment of preparation before a deep dive. It’s the start of Peter Capaldi’s run as the Twelfth Doctor, “Deep Breath”.

After regenerating from Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in last year’s Christmas special, Doctor number 12 crashes through time to Victorian London (dragging a surprised Tyrannosaur along for the ride). The Doctor comes to terms with his new body and reorients himself, while companion Clara wonders if she can trust this new Time Lord like she did the old one. Meanwhile, a half-robot half-human man is stalking the streets of the city, grabbing victims and using them for “spare parts”.

So who is the Twelfth Doctor (as I’ve chosen to call him for clarity)? Well, the emphasis seems to be on his age: he has dropped the young and flirty personality, which it’s implied he used to be accepted by his companions and the people he meets. This Doctor acts like a 2000 year old space traveller.

He’s independent, running off on his own at least three times, including once when he locks Clara in a room with the monster while he runs away, cos “there’s no point in him catching us both”. (Though of course he’s still ultimately a hero who cares about his friends, so he comes back for her later.)

And he’s open about having made many mistakes in the past, aware that he has done terrible things that mean he’s not one of the people going to the “Promised Land” (which seems to carry on from the “good men don’t need rules” theme that popped up a few times in Matt Smith’s run). And, I think, he’s still willing to kill to protect others, even though he says murder is against his basic programming.

(“You realize of course, one of us is lying about our basic programming” – I think that given his speech immediately before this line about how he has done terrible things to protect the people of Earth and doesn’t expect to go to Heaven, the implication is that he pushed the robot to its death to stop it from more killing. Though they obviously couldn’t show that moment of the hero cold pushing a guy to his death on what is still ostensibly a children’s programme.)

But on the other hand, based on his last chat with Clara back in modern times, he still values his friendship with her and his identity as the Doctor – defined in last year’s 50th anniversary special as being “never cruel or cowardly”, though I’ve always liked “the man who makes people better” from the Tennant era as a definition.

So he’s got the same core character traits as the earlier models, but a lot is also made in this episode of this being an older Doctor, starting with the opening shots of a dinosaur and the London of a hundred-plus years ago. Vastra implies in her veil-speech to Clara that he has dropped the pretence of being a young man and is now letting his true nature shine through: an impossibly ancient force of nature: “you might as well flirt with a mountain range.”

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Speaking of Clara, I feel like this episode takes steps towards finally giving a consistent characterisation of who she is. An aspect that kind of appeared last year before being dropped was that she isn’t naturally brave and has to prod and talk herself into doing what’s needed. That returns here, in the scene where she’s trapped by the robot, and draws on her first day of teaching and the fear she felt then. She’s again able to think past and even use her fear, making it work for her to prove that her fear of dying will allow her to outlast any torture the robot can think up. (Which was an uncomfortably dark few lines for a kids’s show.)

On the other hand, I’m not sure that I agree with the “control freak” and “deflected narcissism” labels that Clara gets stuck with here: nothing in here previous appearances has really suggested those traits to me, yet they are repeated as a well known fact about the character we can all joke about here.

While the jokes about Amy’s over-sexed nature and stubbornness weren’t always appreciated in the Smith years, at least they stemmed from character traits that the audience had seen before and could associate with Amy. But Clara has been so fuzzily and inconsistently defined up to now that jokes about her egomania and need for control don’t really ring true.

We need to have Clara’s personality quirks established before the script starts dropping in jokes that score points off them.

On the topic of inconsistency, the first half of the episode spends a lot of time playing up Clara’s dilemma at the Doctor having changed into an older man, and “not knowing who he is anymore”. Except in earlier episodes we’ve seen her experience his whole life when she jumped into his personal timeline, and this was the writing shortcut used to make a character introduced 5 or 6 episodes before into the Doctor’s best friend, who knows him best in all the universe”.

Yet here she seems shocked that he has changed into a new man, doesn’t understand that he can regenerate into a new body despite having met all the other Doctors (who vary in age broadly btw). Hell, even if we say that she doesn’t remember the time she jumped into the Doctor’s timeline, the very next episode had her meet two more past-Doctors, one of whom was pretty obviously an old guy.

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So, we’ve talked about the Doctor and the companion, what about the monsters? People smarter than me have said that Doctor Who monsters are all just systems of rules, and the rules for the people-skin-robot-drones are pretty simple: they can’t see you when you hold your breath. Which isn’t really justified by the script (the only way the super-advanced robots can pick out another robot is if it too isn’t breathing?) but they make for okay filler bad-guys.

The main robot pulls the old trick of being a mirror of the Doctor (to the point where the Doctor literally holds up a mirror to the monster and sees himself). The cyborg has replaced all of its parts, human and organic, so many times through the years that no trace of its original self remains. This is set up to parallel the Doctor’s regenerations, and how every cell in his body has now been rewritten twelve times, so he is twelve steps removed from the body he was born with.

The Doctor uses the old thought experiment of the axe that has its blade and handle replaced (or a broom here), and concludes that of course it’s not the same axe/broom/robot/Doctor after every part has been changed.

Of course the counter-argument to this point is pretty clear: unlike the other objects (even the robot), the Doctor is a thinking being with memories, free will, consciousness and (let’s just say) a soul: his existence is independent of his body parts.

As for the other villain, hinted at in the final scene… In the past I’ve been disappointed by series writer’s Steven Moffat’s resolution of these kind of series-long plots: most recently the resolutions to “Silence Will Fall” and “Impossible Girl” mysteries have left me cold, while the earlier “Who blew up the TARDIS?” and “How’s the Doctor gonna avoid his upcoming death?” plots were also cheated through or answered with throwaway lines after seasons of build-up.

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Moffat seems to be good at setting up these long-form plots and kinda bad at paying them off. Or, more charitably, maybe he’s trying to subvert the whole idea of built-up season long mysteries.

Either way I’ve decided that as a way of managing expectations and keeping focused on enjoying the episode-to-episode story this year, I’m going to try to steer my discussion away from the season finale buildup and keep the focus on the characters, the dialogue, and the ideas and images of each individual episode. (Speaking of imagery, the shots this week of the T-rex and Big Ben, the Doctor silhouetted by the orangey smoke-filled sky after the fire, and of Capaldi’s eyes flicking to the audience after the robot fall were the images that struck me.)

Say what you will about Moffat’s Who, there’s always a lot to talk about, and there’s several more points I could touch on and directions this piece could go:

The weirdness of the power dynamic between Vastra and Jenny, the various callbacks to earlier stories, Matt Smith calling in for one last farewell, the references to Heaven and the Promised Land, the still stage-presence of Capaldi in contrast to the last two energy filled bounce-around-the-room Doctors, and of course the questionable inclusion of the scene where Vastra questions Clara’s loyalty to the Doctor because Vastra is distracted by how pretty Clara is (and then Clara answers that she doesn’t even like young guys cos she had a poster of Marcus Aurleius on her wall when she was young, so she’s actually…attracted to…older powerful guys…huh.)

But all of that aside for now, I’m looking forward to talking about this series a lot more, and I’m really excited to see how Series 8 plays out. I’ve got a good feeling about this one.

Stray Thoughts:

  • With the split seasons of the last two years and the mega-budget epic status of the last three stories, we’re now going into the first uninterrupted stretch of 12 Doctor Who episodes in a row since Matt Smith’s first season in 2010. It’s a nice feeling, to have 11 more weeks of DW to look forward to, as Capaldi’s Doctor accompanies us through the dying days of Summer through to the first weeks of Winter.

 

  • I know I’ve said I’ll be steering away from arc-plot speculation, and Moffat is absolutely a writer who enjoys playing with audience expectation and bait-and-switch plot twists, so I’ll just say that I’d like it if Missy turned out to be a female regeneration of the Master (ya know, The Mistress).

 

  • So the robots have been based in the area that became London for millions of years, but the Doctor only stops them at some stage in the late 18th century…so in every Doctor Who story set in London before this story, there’s been a robotic serial killer lurking the streets, hollowing people out and turning them into robot-skins and spare parts. Every time you see characters at the end of those earlier stories wave a happy goodbye to the Doctor…they could get nabbed by the Robot Ripper later that evening.

 

  • Another trait of our new Doctor, though maybe it’s just a running gag for this first episode: he likes to anthropomorphise things: we see him talk with and about horses/dinosaurs/his eyebrows as if they were people while he runs around London.

 

  • “I’m the Doctor. I’ve lived for over 2000 years, and not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes, and it’s about time that I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.” “I never thought you were.” “I never said it was your mistake.”

 

About the author: A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Germany and thinks you look very nice today.

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About English Den

Experienced, qualified and professional English teacher working in Warsaw, Poland. Interested in pop culture, and using pop culture to teach languages. Available for private or in-business classes. International classes also available on Skype. Contact Cian.shep@gmail.com for further information.
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