Doctor Who’s Deep Breath: Pros and Cons

doctor

Given that just the other day I argued that we needed to wait and see before passing any real judgment on Capaldi’s brand-new Doctor, I’m going to dig deep and try to find nice things to say about yesterday’s premiere episode instead of just ranting on ad nauseam.

And the only real way I can think to do that is by making sure to weigh down every positive with a negative. Hence, pros and cons.

I don’t think you need much more of a primer than that, so let’s get to it.

PRO: Capaldi’s Acting

capaldi2

This was never going to come as much of a surprise, but it’s an easy plus to start with: Capaldi did a good job. Particularly in his quieter and more sinister moments, which comes as no real surprise, but he was also much better at slapstick than I expected him to be.

Among those quiet moments, I think he nailed two key scenes that helped save an otherwise horrific first episode: his showdown with Robot Two-Face and his final moments with Clara.

If there was one theme that the episode got across well, it was the question of masks and veils and the idea that the Doctor is never completely sure how much a regeneration is just a new suit, and how much it actually changes him until there’s nothing of the original him left. This question echoes a fairly routine fan concern: how can it be the same man when they’re all so different? As a result, it’s somewhat reassuring to establish that the Doctor himself isn’t completely sure of the answer. While the question — did the Doctor push Robo-Face or did RoboFace  jump — was hanging in the air for a moment, Capaldi’s dark, defiant look straight into the camera put it to rest. Would his predecessors have done that? (Actually yes, that scene was almost identical to the final climactic moment in The Christmas Invasion where Tennant’s Doctor basically does the same thing, but the episode wants us to say no, so let’s say no).

But the final moment where he pleads with Clara might be what sold me, particularly because it gave us the first glimpse of who our new Doctor was: someone scared and needy and, because of both of those things, much more walled-off and inaccessible.

CON: That Fucking Dinosaur

dino

If there’s one thing that Moffat has always been bad at, it’s understanding the consequences of his writing decisions. On a basic level, the T-Rex stalking around Victorian London was a perfect example of this. There is no suggestion that it has impacted anyone’s daily life, nobody’s really panicking too much and the T-Rex seems content to kind of just wander around the Thames. Did anyone evacuate the city? Where was the police presence? Why were there plenty of people gathered around the Thames when he caught on fire?

Apparently in Victorian times, a living T-Rex would have been no big deal, but a fire is big news.

I could go on, but let’s be real: the T-Rex was there because T-Rexes are fun. And because at its worst, Moffat’s Who has all of the depth and logic of a Saturday morning cartoon. But even acknowledging all of that, the opening was lame and pointless and the reactions to it were too underwhelming and generic to get the audience caught up in the fun of the spectacle.

PRO: The Comedy Elements

acid

If there was one part of this episode that didn’t feel like a chore to watch, it was all of the little moments where Moffat just decided to have some fun. I don’t know why seeing Clara getting smacked in the face with a rolled-up newspaper was funny, but it just was. Strax mournfully agreeing that they couldn’t dissolve the Doctor in acid? Funny. 12 informing the homeless man that he had attack eyebrows? All good stuff.

These lighter moments made what was otherwise a seriously lagging middle act a little more fun.

CON: Enough With the Paternoster

shush

Sure, Strax provided most of the laughs in last night’s show, but the Victorian monster detective gang’s presence in the show has always been awkward. Where having Mickey or Jack occasionally tag along with Rose and 9 was fun because they had developed a relationship with the characters and with the audience, this random trio that pops up now and then still feels under-explained and ultimately pointless. Who are they again? How did the Doctor meet them? How are they able to go around London without being noticed?

If they genuinely came with the Doctor a few times, or developed some kind of kinship with one of his companions, then Moffat might be able to make them work.  But instead they’re parachuted in at random and then tucked away when they’re no longer of use.

Part of me was hoping for a while that Clara would eventually be left with them for good at the end of the season — that she would decide that solving mysteries in the 19th Century would be more fun than returning to her life as a harried schoolteacher. And then Paternoster and Clara could be tucked away together, having served their dual purposes. But I doubt that now — I think we’re going to keep being subjected to them at random.

Oh, and are Jenny and Vastra married? I feel like they’re being coy on that point.

PRO: Clara’s Flirtation with the Doctor is Over

boy

I want to call this a pro, because I am genuinely glad that Capaldi and Coleman won’t be asked to share any longing glances across the TARDIS. And that’s a good thing — Moffat’s insistence on pretending that the 11th Doctor was some kind of bumbling, accidental sex object was always weird.

CON:  But the Way the Episode Presented that Decision Was Terrible 

boy2

First, the idea that Clara’s entire motivation the whole episode long was to decide if she still wanted to hang out with the Doctor now that he looked old and wrinkly was clearly a slap against the handful of female fans who pouted that they’d lost their young Doctor. But they were in the minority, and devoting nearly all of Clara’s screen time to dressing down a group of immature teen girls was patronizing and dull.

While I do understand that companions have always been stand-ins for the audience, at no point does anyone remind Clara that she has literally seen every incarnation of the Doctor. So it makes no sense that she moans aloud for hours on end about how 12 can be “new” and yet old. I could sort of buy her wondering why this particular regeneration chose to go so much older, but I definitely can’t buy how they expect us to believe she didn’t think it was possible.

The lecturing on the part of Madame Vastra telling her to stop being so superficial was uncomfortable. And then Clara needing to prove to her (but really us) that looks didn’t matter was more uncomfortable. The final insult, though, was having 12 literally say, “I’m not your boyfriend” with the unspoken “anymore” following it.

At least they addressed the fact that the crush wasn’t entirely her fault, but all the same, having Capaldi sternly inform Clara that her schoolgirl crush must come to an end was… well, honestly, it came off as weirdly manipulative. “When it worked for me, it was fine. Now it doesn’t, so stop it. But please still travel with me — I’m lonely.”

PRO: The Callback to The Girl in the Fireplace

callback

Let’s agree to call this a pro. Let’s hope that Moffat has decided to weave his stories better and that maybe we’re getting some kind of further explanation for the Madame de Pompadour episode with the clockwork clowns.

I like the idea that it will build to something greater, provided it can be executed well.

CON: Not Sure if Callback or Rip-Off

chips

I touched on this a little earlier, but 12’s skewering of the villain was almost too similar to 10’s showdown with the Sycorax at the end of his first episode. Battling high above London in a space ship? Tossing the foe overboard? Declaring that this is the moment that makes him different from his predecessor?

Then there was also the “should we get coffee or chips” moment at the very end, which I want to say was a callback to the end of The End of the World, the 9th Doctor’s second episode. It could’ve been.

Both of these scenes could’ve been references to the way that the 9th and 10th Doctors were introduced and established. But it seems like Moffat has spent so long trying to distance himself from the Davies years that they would be odd things to just throw out.

The first is very likely an accidental coincidence. The second sort of has to be a wink. Right?

CON: The Final Phone Call

help

I really tried to think of another pro, but let’s just wrap things up on the most disappointing part of this episode.

The final phone call was cheap.

Part of the hard part with a regeneration is that you don’t get to see your old Doctor again (until a special, of course). Instead, you kind of have to get on with just accepting the new person and learning to like them. But here we get a scene where 11 bizarrely wingmans 12 from beyond the grave. Does that show a lack of faith in Capaldi, or does it just reveal that Moffat wasn’t himself ready to say goodbye to Smith?

Either way, the idea that Clara needed one last goodbye (after already getting that last goodbye in the finale — although I guess he saved the good stuff for Ghost Amy) was odd. And in terms of what effect the call had for the audience, Capaldi’s speech to her after the call was much more convincing than, “Come on, Clara, he really needs you.”

PRO: I’m Still Optimistic

Not so much a pro for the episode, which I can now just come out and say was God-awful, boring, stilted, uncomfortable and poorly-written, but I still hold out hope for the show as a whole. I think Capaldi has the ability to inspire better writing and elevate what he’s given, and while I hate how they went about it, I am glad that they won’t persist with a romantic relationship between the two leads.

Will this actually lead to Clara being taken seriously as a character? Probably not, but again — we’re still in the early days of optimism and hope.

What did you think of Capaldi’s first outing? Are you feeling more generous than me, or less?

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21 thoughts on “Doctor Who’s Deep Breath: Pros and Cons

  1. Have had a chance to give this a second watch now. There were actually a surprising number of times where I found myself eagerly anticipating an upcoming scene or moment.

    There were a number of cringeworthy moments too, including a couple I didn’t pick up first time around. Clara’s freaking out over being called a control freak just after her crowning moment of awesome, for example. I get that half the show runs on mood whiplash, but it speaks to a recurring trend. Oh, they like to insult her appearance too, which is nice. -_-

    Ultimately the episode actually had a lot going for it (I agree that the hot air balloon made of skin was an inventive, creepy idea – and calling it an escape capsule was arguably a neat callback to ” The Next Doctor”‘s TARDIS).

    Unfortunately it also seemed too long and had a lot of bits that detracted.

    Overall it’s still showing a lot of Moffat’s less endearing tics – but also some of his better qualities.

    Time will tell, I guess…

  2. Nice post, thanks. That was a good read.

    In the immortal words of Yoda: very, very bad writing this episode was.
    As much as I like Capaldi’s rendition, the beginning of this series makes me feel more and more gloomy about Moffat. I gave him a limited amount of trust when he took over, many of us did. However, right now it seems it’ll be his wibbly-wobbly method again. Baits, smoke, mirrors and Byzantine plots solved in 3 minutes by an infantile deus ex machina. After two or so seasons of dribbling story arcs. Oh, and one-dimensional characters. Everyone loves those. Catchphrases, that’s what the viewers need to recognize who’s who.

    Missy starts as a mysterious figure with a potential for being a mighty female (hooray!) villain and fans flood the Internet with hypotheses. I have some hopes for this character, but I’m afraid it’ll all end in a disaster or with a bad taste in our collective mouth. At this moment I really expect anything. Up to some episode with final explanation being unveiled after all major fan-made theories have been ridiculed first. We’ve seen it in Sherlock and Moffat does not throw ideas away. Well, at least as long as he does not forget about them.

    What else about the episode?
    The dinosaur was there because:
    1). Some producers obviously think it’s still 1993.
    2). Capaldi could behave for a while in the Eleventh Doctor’s manner, indicating his confusion after regeneration.
    3). Robots needed her organic spare parts for a hardware upgrade. How convenient. It’s all interconnected! #svladcjelli

    Paternoster would be much better if their onscreen time stopped being 99% of REPEATED exposition.

    Doctor and Clara’s conversation on their relationship/fling/crush was awful at best. He was slightly patronizing in a way my feminist mind cannot stand, and she was not empathic enough for a grown human being. It basically went like: “Ugh, you’re ugly and old now. I withdraw my sexual interest in you and do not try to hide it in any way. Did I mention you’re too old now and it makes me uncomfortable?”

    Also, correct me if I am wrong, but a hot air ballon made of human skin is the most sinister and dark thing that was shown in DW so far, right? Even if we consider the drunk giraffe. Or fried cod with Crème Anglaise.

  3. I was really underwhelmed by the Christmas Special and the regeneration of 11, so in a way the phone call gave me closure.

    I have high hopes for this season as well, even though I’m still sceptical. I still cannot relate to Clara, and am afraid it will not happen anymore. I do have faith in Capaldi, but at times I found him hard to understand (never had that problem before, so I blame the editing).

  4. Its obvious Moffat was trying to pull a Rose with Clara’s reaction to the regeneration and the aftermath.The difference is Rose was an actual character love or hate her who had a real connection to both 9 and 10. While Clara was just eye candy that was a mystery to solve. Whats worse is that her reaction might have been a good reboot of the character if had been about her. But it wasn’t it was directed at the audience and the reactions to Capaldi’s casting. Now maybe this just me but I felt like I was being lectured that 9,10 and 11 weren’t the real doctor at all and this version is. It came off very condescending.

    • Then you kind of missed the point. The idea isn’t that 9, 10, and 11 aren’t the real Doctor’s, but rather as the Doctor wanted to be after the Time War. 9 was afraid to take life and would rather fall on his sword (or let Rose do it for him) because of his previous actions. 10 wanted to run away from conflict when possible (but at least ponied up when forced) and 11 just wanted to forget it all.

      They were all basically just different sides of PTSD. Capaldi, conversely, is The Doctor as he should be. Finally past the self doubt and grief that’s plagued the series since 2005. It’s basically saying to a younger crowd “okay, and now here’s the Doctor without the deep emotional scaring”

  5. I agree with quite a lot of your points here (like that Dinosaur), and I am also hoping for more details of the Girl in the Fireplace. Also to answer one of the questions you asked, yes Vastra and Jenny are married, they’ve said that before and said it again in this new episode.
    I am not sure if it was just my roommate and myself, but we both got a decent Tenth Doctor feel from Capaldi from this episode. Which honestly I am excited to see how his Doctor days will go, I’m actually really hopeful for Capaldi’s Doctor so here’s to hoping.

    • Pretty sure Sarah was being sarcastic about the “Are they married?” thing. They seem to mention it at the drop of a hat to the point some of us in the audience are going “Yes, we *get* it already…”

  6. This, and a vast majority of the more “nonplussed” or underwhelmed reviews, seem to be coming from viewers who see so little of the OTHER forty years of this program prior to “Rose” in 2005. I do understand a fair number of your “pro” elements, but to enjoy Strax’s humor and then turn to condemn the Paternoster Gang in toto seems…well, inconsistent. It also greatly belittles the exceptional “veil” exchange between Vastra and Clara, which was done not for the characters, but for the fanbase, to help explain, ease, or outright explain to them why the Doctor and his renewed-yet-old face is now present: he looked young before to be accepted (by humans in the show, or by viewers of the programme? you decide), so now that he does not wear such a young, dashing guise, is he no longer seeking acceptance? Capaldi’s delivery and pace smack so heavily of Jon Pertwee, Tom baker AND at times (yes, I’m going to say it) Colin Baker, that newer fans simply seem to be having a hard time grasping it. As for pace? This is categorically a BBC science fiction DRAMA, and Moffat himself stated on numerous occasions that in the desire to take the show into darker territory, scenes and writing would be more focused upon the dramatic elements. Apologies to the lovers of the floor-sliding, hand-waving Matt Smith era, but the story must evolve, and as the Doctor walks the breadth of creation for centuries to come, the song cannot, and will not, remain the same. You may hear notes of melodies past, but these are theme and variation, and the music plays on.

      • Ehhh….

        It kind of helps to know where Capaldi and Moffat are drawing from here. A lot of the finer callbacks and character setups are kinda lost on New Howvians here. It would also help to realize that this series is classically riddled with unrelated starters in episodes.

      • Wow, this review was abysmal. Loved the episode, and thought the writing was top-notch. And the Smith phone call was foresahwdowed in the previous episode, and was fine. Unbunch those panties.

    • Adding: Strax was funny in parts, but the gang is pointless and I feel no emotional connection to them. Why does the Doctor suddenly need an army? Plus, I stated early on that it was in the quiet and more dramatic scenes where Capaldi and the episode most shone, so I’m not sure how you’re mistaking me for a flighty Smith fangirl. Eccleston was actually my favorite, although if things pick up, Capaldi may just eclipse him.

    • I think you’re being unfair to the author in assuming this article is a reaction to the departure of Smith. If you look at her other articles you’ll see she’s been more than willing to be critical of Smith episodes too when they deserved it.

      You’ll notice that her critiques were *not* of Capaldi’s performance (which she listed as a “Pro”) but with the writing.

      The veil scene had its plusses but she’s absolutely right that it was very heavy-handed – in much the same way as having Smith phone in to say “trust the new guy” was heavy-handed.

      When a dialogue is “for the fan base, not the characters” that’s bad writing. A good writer doesn’t have to have characters step out of character to keep the audience informed. Meta is fine, but it needs to add to the existing story not supplant it.

      PS. The author may or may not have seen Classic Who, but I have. And while it’s a nice touch that Capaldi is in some ways reminiscent of earlier Doctors that doesn’t actually render any of her criticisms invalid.

      • “When a dialogue is “for the fan base, not the characters” that’s bad writing. A good writer doesn’t have to have characters step out of character to keep the audience informed. Meta is fine, but it needs to add to the existing story not supplant it.”

        The whole episode was just that. Moffat uses dialogue to tell the audience what’s happening on screen, either because he doesn’t know if people will understand (even when it’s blatantly obvious) or because there is no sense to be made from what’s happening on screen. During the “fight” sequence at the end, all of the shots were so close you couldn’t really make out what was happening. There were several moments where things looked identical to other shots but the dialogue claimed “We’re in trouble!” or “We’re winning this!” Like you said, it’s bad writing.

        (On a deeper level, Moffat has used this sooo many times in the past, usually with The Doctor. Things are going bad, nobody has a solution, The Doctor steps in and says “Blah blah blah,” and we’re just to assume he’s right and that’s the answer to the problem. It’s still a deus ex machina even if the deus ex machina is the main character.)

  7. Great post. Very little to add at this point other than: The Matt Smith Doctor also had a very similar ‘dark’ moment in the episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. (And of course the classic Doctors got up to some very dodgy stuff at times too).

    BTW, I’m not clear if you’re indicating that we needed further explanation for “The Girl in the Fireplace”. If so, I disagree – I found that episode was completely self-contained and wrapped up everything nicely by the end. If you’re just saying that they’re nifty and it would be nice to learn more about them then I totally agree. 🙂

    • Thanks! It’s not that I think Fireplace needs more explanation, but in a somewhat patronizing way I almost feel like I should commend Moffat for at least trying to tie back into older elements of the show. And if he wants to offer more, that’s fine.

      Yeah, the Doctor has always hinted at a much darker part of himself several times. I did instantly think of The Christmas Invasion because of everything else about the scene.

      • It’s a bit annoying that he only seems willing to tie back to his own stuff though.

        We haven’t seen an Ood since Tennant (one minisode aside). Which is a bit weird, with them being an integral part of the great and bountiful human empire, after all. I’m hard pressed to think of a single feature of the RTD-era that Moffett didn’t create which has been carried over.

        We’ve had one Cybermen episode (where he changed them to a Moffetised version), a few Dalek episodes (after he changed them to a Moffetised version) and (I give him fair credit for these) an awesome Ice Warrior episode and an adequateish special featuring the Zygons.

        And it’s not like I even *want* everything to call back to previous Who. Moffett’s inventiveness is perhaps his most praiseworthy trait as a writer.

        But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the show is now set in the Moffatverse rather than the larger Dr Who universe…

  8. I appreciate you commenting on the flaws/cons of the episode and not just shouting praise for anything new from Moffat (seems to be the common practice by most fans). While you’ve pointed out some of the major offenses, on a broader and more abstract level I just felt the entire episode was very divisive. I accept that some people will sit down, take this all at face value and more or less enjoy it (laugh at the jokes, tear up at the intended emotional times, etc) but I couldn’t help seeing Moffat’s intent behind every line (words and delivery), cheesy sound effect or jump in logic.

    Vastra’s comment about the veil and how Clara stopped seeing it is a good analogy for the show itself. Plenty of people are perfectly content just taking the surface level of things but once you stop, actually put some thought into it and remain objective, you see what’s really going on underneath. Unfortunately, there isn’t much there to see, and while I also remain hopeful, I am disappointed and skeptical.

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