Wednesday, August 27, 2014

After A “Deep Breath,” Doctor Who’s Eighth Season Might Find Its Own Legs. . . (But It Doesn’t Here!)

The Good: Decent acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Heavy reliance on comedy, Very simple plot, Requires so much other Doctor Who to truly get.
The Basics: Peter Capaldi’s first full outing as The Doctor has the new Doctor in Victorian London alongside Steven Moffat’s reliable gang of Companions for a “Best Of”/sampler pack episode.

This week is a big week for those who love genre television. Sunday saw the end of True Blood with its series finale, “Thank You” (reviewed here!), and the BBC sent the new season premiere of Doctor Who across the pond to American audiences. “Deep Breath” is the first new episode I’ve had the opportunity to review since my wife got into Doctor Who (and pretty much dragged me along into that fandom, too!). “Deep Breath” is also the first episode of Doctor Who that I’ve felt the need to watch more than once (I’m up to three times now) before I actually reviewed it. The reason for that is simple: on the first viewing, I was excited by the experience and the novelty of the new Doctor, on the second viewing, I was predictably disappointed (comedy and self-reference plays poorly the second time around) and on the third, I felt I had a fair assessment of the episode.

“Deep Breath” is a decent comedy and a good episode of Doctor Who, but it is utterly unremarkable for television. In other words, if one is not a fan of Doctor Who the episode is much more likely to baffle and disappoint than genuinely entertain. When it is not busy explaining itself to new viewers, “Deep Breath” belabors the humor. More than most episodes of Doctor Who, “Deep Breath” is like Doctor Who meets Ally McBeal. Somewhat surprising for Stephen Moffat, the humor in “Deep Breath” is troublingly obvious; Moffat telegraphs most of his jokes. My wife and I managed to avoid all spoilers for the episode and virtually every gag the episode had (most involving Strax and props), we were able to call in advance of its execution. Humor that is predictable plays poorer upon subsequent viewings and “Deep Breath” might be amusing or diverting, but its entertainment value quickly diminishes upon multiple viewings.

Opening in Victorian London where a dinosaur is walking around the Thames, Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax the Sontaran witness the dinosaur cough up the TARDIS. When The Doctor emerges from the familiar blue box, he is entirely disoriented and his companion Clara tells the others that he has regenerated. After taking The Doctor back to her house and telepathically knocking him out, Madam Vastra finds herself annoyed at Clara’s treatment of the Doctor and her lack of comprehension over his regeneration. As The Doctor becomes more grounded, he witnesses the dinosaur spontaneously combust before he rushes out into the London night to see what happened. There, he challenges his Companions with the question of “have any other, similar, murders occurred?” As he heads off to try to investigate the only person in the crowd unphased by the flaming dinosaur, the other four return to Madame Vastra’s.

After a medical examination by Strax, Clara finds an advertisement in the newspaper that seems to be an invitation from The Doctor to lunch. Meeting The Doctor, who has managed to get a new coat and an unpleasant odor, both Clara and The Doctor realize they have been set up for their meeting. The Doctor recognizes the restaurant as a trap (all of the other diners in the restaurant are automatons) moments before he and Clara are taken to a subterranean ship where human organs are being harvested. With the villain revealed as a machine who is reconstructing himself with organic parts (then disposing of the bodies by lighting them on fire), the Doctor abandons Clara to try to figure out why the adversary seems so familiar to him.

On its own, “Deep Breath” does not answer the question in a satisfying way, though fans of Doctor Who will easily recognize what the Doctor obliquely references. “Deep Breath” is a de facto sequel to the second season episode “The Girl In The Fireplace,” where the romance of that episode is replaced with over-the-top humor that does not fit the established patterns of Doctor Who (has there been a cheap groin joke in the modern Doctor Who before now? This is not progress . . .). In a similar way, the Doctor’s references to his own face are not explicitly clarified in “Deep Breath,” but strongly allude to Capaldi’s previous appearance in Doctor Who, “The Fires Of Pompeii.” So, while fans of Doctor Who might appreciate the new Doctor running around declaring that this situation and adversary (and face) are familiar, casual viewers or newbies to the series will be left baffled.

The reason this is as much of an issue as it is is because of Clara. Clara was the Doctor’s last companion before he regenerated from his Matt Smith appearance/personality to the new Peter Capaldi incarnation. Moffat uses Clara’s inexperience with regeneration to have Clara go through the character struggle of feeling like she does not really know the Doctor anymore and her arc in the episode leads her to the decision of whether or not to remain with the Doctor on his journeys. Unfortunately, as the Impossible Girl, this struggle is the most ridiculous journey for the character to make. Clara has been a part of the lives of all previous Doctors – in “The Name Of The Doctor” this is made explicit – and possibly the subsequent incarnations of him. Either way, Clara has witnessed, interacted with and saved all of the prior incarnations of The Doctor to undo the damage done by The Great Intelligence. In short, there is no sensible reason why Clara would have an issue with the Doctor changing his face; the only reason for that character arc in “Deep Breath” is to explain the regeneration concept to new viewers. So, fans are given tons of allusions to thrill over, but bored by a senseless character direction for the most consistent character in the episode and browbeaten with regeneration information they already have and new viewers are spoon-fed the regeneration concept while being baffled by allusions that are not made explicit enough.

Beginning the episode with Vastra, Jenny, and Strax (indeed, setting the episode in their native time and place) sets the stage for an episode that is much more fan-friendly than it is intended for anyone who is starting the show at this point. The trio of occasional companions/allies to the Doctor could have their own spin-off and it might work better than “Deep Breath” because they could pull off a science fiction comedy more effectively than Doctor Who (which does best when it blends creepy and humorous). “Deep Breath” is heavy with humor when it is not beating viewers over the head with exposition.

What works best in “Deep Breath” is Peter Capaldi as the new incarnation of The Doctor. There is always a period of adjustment for the Doctor after one of his regenerations and the new Doctor is delightfully edgy and has moments of unpredictability that play well. While some of the plot-based issues are predictable (that The Doctor did not place the ad that leads him and Clara into the trap was instantly foreseeable), most of the character-based changes are not. The Doctor abandons Clara at a key moment and his ultimate confrontation with the episode’s adversary is delightfully unsettling. Capaldi takes up the mantle of The Doctor with perfect distinction and credibility.

All that said, some of the minutiae also oscillates between delightful and troubling. Has it previously been established that Doctor Who androids are bound by Soong-ian rules of grammar?! The Doctor declares that the droids are now more human than robot because they use apostrophes, but that’s not some universal science fiction constant (even in Star Trek: The Next Generation, while Data cannot use contractions, Lore can . . . so this is a right-field assumption on The Doctor’s part). On the delightful side is the substantive function of the episode’s big cameo. The prior incarnation of The Doctor makes a telephone call to Clara and as possibly one of the coolest, most delightful retcons ever, Clara admits to him that the new Doctor has gotten old. If she had not confirmed that for him, the Doctor might well have picked a different face and been younger (a great observation from my wife!) for this season.

The eighth season of Doctor Who was set up in an uncommon way; unlike most of Doctor Who where the protagonist is usually a wanderer, this season was set-up with a mission for The Doctor. The Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey has been revealed to still exist, albeit in a pocket universe; the Doctor has a self-imposed mission now of finding and rescuing his people. While the resolution to “Deep Breath” unfortunately does not redirect the befuddled new Doctor with that purpose, but the idea of this particular Doctor with a quest and an adversary of his own is a promising one. It’s unfortunate that “Deep Breath” forces fans to take it on faith that the show will go in that direction.

For other works with Peter Capaldi, please visit my reviews of:
World War Z
In The Loop
Smilla’s Sense Of Snow

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For see how this episode stacks up against other Doctor Who episodes I’ve reviewed by visiting my Doctor Who Review Index Page where the episodes and seasons are organized by rating!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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