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...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Day 4983: Doctor Who: Breathing (Obligatory Kate Bush Reference)

Saturday:


Doctor Who returned, as an irrepressible, outrageous, furious Peter Capaldi.



I loved it. But not everyone did. And I loved every moment of it while it was on-screen, but afterwards have found myself struggling to puzzle why.

So in a most curious way, "Deep Breath" exists in two states simultaneously: one has dazzling effects, moving acting, subtle and clever script; the other has alienating continuity, no concessions to the viewer, and reiteration of the wrong plot points.

You can’t say the Mister Moffster doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Au contraire, Blackadder! He learns whole new ways to remake them.

Not taking enough time over the stories? Fine, we will stretch it to eighty minutes!

Clara doesn't have a personality? Not a problem, let's give her a brand new one!

Worried the audience might not connect to the new Doctor? Let's make it really obvious that the central idea of the story is the paradox of Trigger's Broom.

Change is continuity. So the metatext become the text.

We have a story where in-episode viewers complain about the quality of the special effects; a story about rebuilding things from stolen spare parts is made of stolen bits of other stories, including the main plot – and monster – lifted from "The Fire in the Girly-Place" (hat-tip Lawrence Miles); where the Doctor himself is sure he's seen this episode – or this face – before, he just can't quite place it; a story that answers "is he still the Doctor" with a blizzard of continuity and quotes from "here we go again" to "you've redecorated" to the whole "shall we go for chips" scene from "The End of the World" (retold more awkwardly, because in Moffat men are always more awkward); a story so keen to let you know it's reflecting on who is the Doctor that it hits you with more mirrors than Paul McGann in a room full of mirrors yelling "Who! Am! I?!?!".

If these moments resonate for you, if you feel that all these quotations amount to meaning – and I do – then you'll love "Deep Breath". If they don't, if maybe you don't have that history in your blood, then you better be pleased by a distracting dinosaur of Godzilla-sized, credibility-stretching proportions.


Let start with what was unashamedly good about this.

Capaldi delivered. That's the single most obvious but most important thing.

Sure, he had nothing to prove – unlike Matt Smith turning in a tour de force in "The Eleventh Hour" – and nobody seems to have doubted he had it in him. But boy is he a pro. Terrifying, cowardly, arrogant, compassionate, infuriating… and that's before he gets out of his pyjamas.

There was a lot of Tom Baker in the performance, at his most enigmatic, aloof and alien; his first line out of the TARDIS – "shush" – reminding me instantly of Tom's "not today, thank you". The dialogue – Moffat seems to have gone "school of Dicks" and written generic Doctor, or just "Matt" – was full of the swerves and scattershot that could easily have been delivered by the eleventh Doctor but delivered in very different style – particularly, say, "I don't like being wrong in public; everyone forget I said that" coming across much more Malcom Tucker than Matt Smith.

His defining scene, naturally, the confrontation at the climax taking him from icy calm offering the villain a drink to a face full of teeth as they struggle as we see the possibility of a Doctor fully in control of himself and his powers and responsibilities, no longer hiding behind "tawdry quirks" and a youthful mask. Though my favourite moment may have been the – immensely Tom in "Robot", too – glimpse of childish glee on rejecting the door as "boring; not me" and spying the window: "me!"

Then there's the episode length.

Some people have said that it dragged, or at least that it didn't find its feet until the scene where Clara meets the Doctor in the restaurant. I don't agree. And it would hardly be consistent of me if I did, having last year said that Moffat's problem was too short a running time, and that he was generally better with the longer frame of the specials.

And a double-length episode means we in fact are getting the same bangs-for-your-buck's worth in twelve weeks as a season as the "usual" thirteen normal-length episodes.

You get to have your season-opening two-parter all at once!

Though I'd say that this is, essentially, an entirely laudable effort to reinvent the old four-parter.

There are clear demarcations between what could have been episodes – part "one" has the Doctor in his nightshirt and a "cliffhanger" where he jumps off Westminster Bridge; part "two" has him in the tramp's coat and focusses a lot on his and Clara's "finding" the Doctor, before the second "cliffhanger" when their table at the clockwork restaurant goes all "Live and Let Die" on them; part three has the new Doctor and Clara becoming a team again, and him coming into his own as a person, finishing in the fatal fall of the half-faced man; and the fourth part is the aftermath, and looking forward, where he is entirely his new self and Clara has to accept he is the same person, and we get a nod to what is surely the arc of the season (Missy, Mistress, Master? Nah…).

In a way, then, like the way "Inferno" slips a parallel Earth story into the middle of its run, "Deep Breath" is a two-part adventure with the clockwork droids – reimagined in delicious Gothic style with heavy doses of Justin Richard's novel "System Shock" – in the middle of a two-part regeneration story, with the Doctor's recovery in the first part and Clara's acceptance in the fourth.

And for me, it really worked, giving a lot more time for developing character. The Doctor's "regeneration crisis" – and that dinosaur – are largely confined to the first twenty minutes. Afterwards he's playing on people's confusion and lack of expectations about him… (particularly "that" scene with Clara…).

The second "episode" has a "next morning" feel about it (not the only thing "Deep Breath" has in common with "The Sensational TV Movie", by the way). The Doctor's scenes – with tramp Barney touchingly played by Brian Miller – are all about him discovering who this new face is. Where do the faces come from is a particularly interesting question (suggested by a conversation with Russell Davies, apparently), and this too holds hints that there may be something in it this time, a message, though why Caecilius (or Mr Frobisher) we have yet to understand.

There's also time to expand on the characters of the returning Paternoster heroes, and for the first time I really felt that Vastra and Jenny were in a real relationship (no, not because of – in fact almost in spite of – the heavy-handed "we're married" refrain that kept being hammered home). Strax may be becoming a bit of a one-note joke, but there are the odd interesting thing slipped in among the gags: he notices, for example, that Clara has good lungs – which comes in handy shortly – and you have to wonder (Miranda moment: I don't think we do!) what the "young men doing sport" in her subconscious are about after her strenuous assertions that she could flirt with a mountain range. And the funniest bit in the episode is the slapstick flooring of Clara by the Sontaran "sending up the Times".

But mostly the second act puts the focus squarely on Clara, on how she feels about the Doctor now, and how clever she is. It is after all she who works out the clue in the newspaper. OK, the Doctor does too, but he's supposed to be that smart and it is Clara that we see doing it.

Former teacher Steven Moffat has clearly brought some history to Clara now. The great use of classroom flashback to show where Clara gets both intelligence and sass to use against the clockwork villain.

Now, however, we're getting to the parts that are more brilliant/awkward than purely brilliant.

I loved all that character stuff for the Paternoster Gang, but at the same time I can see that it's really asking a lot of someone tuning in for the first time. They might be Moffat's satirical updating of the old UNIT family but they're still a bit… weird to just take as read (in a way that "straight" archetypes like the Brig and Sergeant Benton are not). Of the prehistoric lizard lady and the Victorian ninja maid, is their marriage the thing that you most need to make clear to the audience? (OK, actual complaints to Ofcom about the kiss suggests that yes maybe it is.) And while I think that the "reverse Emperor's clothes" of Vastra's veil – seen only by those whose prejudice won't see her, another re-echoed theme – is ingenious, is this "introducing" episode really the best place?

(Oh, and one little flaw in the direction, that seems to have been widely praised: Vastra and Jenny drawing their swords is clearly supposed to be a two-shot that demonstrates they are equals in spite of the rĂ´les they cosplay, so why is the camera only on Vastra, cutting Jenny out?)

Clara is the first companion since Rose actually to experience a regeneration, and in the case of Rose the Doctor's change made him more the sort of young, dashing man she expected, more "her boyfriend", perhaps trying to satisfy Rose’s "inner fan" was the start of his making that mid-lives-crisis mistake.

Something we've not seen really since the 'Eighties is the "hang-over" companion, the assistant perfectly suited to a Doctor who then unfortunately dies and leaves them with a very different successor: think Adric, sorcerer's apprentice to Tom Baker's ageing wizard who winds up with the youthful Davison; or Peri whose energy and enthusiasm clearly go with Peter One*'s curiosity and gentlemanly vim, but who gets stuck with the crazy shouty man; or even underrated Mel who is loud and direct and proactive and just perfect for Baker Two, but who is entirely unsuited for the complex manipulations of Sylv's master chessplayer.

[*Alex note: This makes the Lord Cushing: Peter Zero :^]

Clara, on the face of it, seems so much more the companion for the eleventh Doctor who she absolutely did not fancy (Miranda moment: she did fancy him). But twelve could be the making of her.

Clara slightly out of her depth and on the edge of panic, Clara clearly pissed off with the Doctor messing her around, these are good, believably human traits for her, and bring out some strong acting chops from Jenna Coleman.

But where's it come from? How is this the same character, the same Impossible Girl, we've followed for a year or more? And you might say that Clara is a control freak – second-funniest moment in the episode: "Nothing in this room is more important than my egomania!" – but did anyone honestly think that of her before?

Though never mind the switch from last year's Clara (who for no readily apparent reason dived into the Doctor's timeline without batting an eyelid, and then without breaking into a sweat persuaded not one but three Doctors to save Gallifrey because that's the man they all were); what about the one between one side of the new title sequence and the other? From "He's [the Doctor is] right here" to "The Doctor is gone!"

Moffat likes to make his writing ambiguous (or "clever") so that you read it one way only for a later twist to make you re-interpret. An example would be the "translating" of the dinosaur's lament which also refers to the Doctor, as made clear by the reiteration of "just see me" from the end of the bedroom scene to after "that" phone call (and yes, just like when he translates the minotaur at the end of "The God Complex").

I think the Grand Moff is trying to do the same thing with Clara's reaction to the regeneration: it's supposed to have a superficial reading of "whah he's got all old", as a rebuke to the widespread supposition that the Twenty-First Century Doctor needs to be young and pretty to appeal to the audience, and then it turns out she's fine with his age but thinks something else has gone wrong.

Except it falls flat on its face, because Clara expressly says "why's he old?" and says nothing to suggest an alternative interpretation (until she tears Vastra off a strip). So what was she moping about?

I'd suggest that there are two or three possible ways they could have gone to clear this up.

My first thought, and perhaps simplest: just a line to say "I've seen all of his faces; this isn't one of them!" It would take people's strongest objection to Clara's reaction – that she more than anyone else ought to be au fait with regeneration – and turn it on its head; her very familiarity is what makes this new face, this stranger's face so upsetting to her.

Secondly, and possibly connected to that, play more on the "Power of the Daleks" question of: "is he really the Doctor?" Could this be a completely different Time Lord sent to take his place? After all, Clara saw "her" Doctor blow up. And then this guy appears in the TARDIS. By making this more of a mystery through the episode it would also have added extra strength to the phone call ending, where the new man turns out to know what the Doctor said… proving he is the same fellow at last.

Thirdly, and maybe what they were trying to allude to, Clara does say at one point "it's gone wrong", though it is sadly a bit lost between flirting with the "big lady" and "maybe you should wear labels". It's possible that Clara thinks that either the Doctor is supposed to "renew" into a young body and age normally (as, to be fair, she saw Matt's eleventh Doctor do), or possibly she's taken aback by his post-regenerative trauma. But this feels unnecessary to us when even casual viewers know that he goes a bit dippy after regeneration, and to the fans this is one of the least disturbed new Doctors. He doesn't try to strangle anyone!

…well hardly anyone. …well he pushes them out of a balloon… or doesn’t…

The possible "darkness" of the Doctor comes to the fore in the "third" part of the story, playing with the notion that he might have gone a bit "sixth Doctor" (or a bit "first") when he seems to abandon Clara, only for it to turn out that he's really channelling the "seventh": throwing his companion into peril to "fix" her flaws, make her "better".

Does he murder the half-faced man? The blatant ambiguity here – even before mad woman in the coda hangs a lantern on it – is obviously set up to keep fans arguing forever: did he or didn't he.

But, to coin a phrase, that's not the right question.

Does he steal the tramp's coat? He's distinctly cagey about it; his first answer is an outright lie, and then he says he traded his watch for it. Which may be true. But we know the Doctor steals clothes: the third, eighth and eleventh all raided hospital lockers for their first outfits, and the first committed outright burglary on an (all right, somewhat dubious) merchant in Jaffa. We've just not previously seen him steal clothes from someone who is actually wearing at the time. It's awkward, isn't it, it feels more wrong. And it may be in there precisely to challenge our pre-conceptions about what this alien thinks is moral. That's where ambiguity works.

The final part of the story sees us having come through the change and looking to the future. The Doctor is finally dressed in his own clothes – if you think about it, he's got a change of costume for each "part": first the nightgown (or first Matt Smith's costume before the titles, then the nightgown); then the tramp's coat; then the droid's Victorian suit (and face!); and only finally his own understated third Doctor duds. And he's redressed his TARDIS too.

In a way it's a shame that – in the move between Upper Boat and Roath Lock – they regenerated the TARDIS console room back in "The Snowmen". It means the "redecoration" doesn't have the impact here, doesn’t in fact seem that different at all, ironically, just making it pinker and warmer. Imagine instead going from Matt Smith's original bonkers golden fishbowl to Michael Pickwoad's austere steel engine; that would stamp the new Doctor's no-frills frills all over the show.

And because we're looking at taking what's come before and moving on, we perform that neat little restaging of the "chips" scene from the end of "The End of the World", where Rose and the ninth Doctor first properly bonded, but with the Moffat-twist of the Doctor now being awkward and not huggy. (And while we're at it, it's also referencing "The Hand of Fear" by way of "School Reunion" with Sarah revealing that the Doctor took her "home" but missed a bit, only this time he 'fesses up and Clara is fine, because she's not leaving.)

"Deep Breath" is a regeneration story and thus much more like "The Christmas Invasion" (or for that matter "Castrovalva") than a first adventure like "The Eleventh Hour" or "Rose". And regeneration stories are always a bit weird, as though "regeneration" forces its way into the story, forces the story into being about regeneration. And it ends up pulling in two ways – both about newness and about everything being the same.

Thus change is continuity. And so the metatext become the text.

Sometimes it seems like everything is quotes.

Next Time: Oh look, the quotes continue with a scene from Rob Shearman's "(Into The) Dalek". What would the ninth Doctor say about this voyage? Fantastic…

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2 comments:

Nick Campbell said...

Great review, as ever. I've missed these! Off the top of my head I wanted to add, prompted by your mention of Shearman's Dalek, that Deep Breath quotes that too (I think) with the Doctor taking Rose's line of, 'Too slow, sorry' and turning it on its head. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Missy, if only to confirm that she's not a(nother) wholesale Iris Wildthyme rip off.

S Oblonginal said...

I don't think Clara's control-freakery has ever been foregrounded in this way before, but it's definitely been an aspect of her personality before now. Even disregarding "Time Of The Doctor"'s "bubbly personality masking bossy control freak" truth-field induced confession, how about the way she decides to travel with the Doctor? They meet, have an adventure, she's bowled over by him, he asks her to come with him and she...tells him to go away and come back when it's more convenient for her and then she'll tell him whether her "maybe" is a yes or a no. Dalek Oswald spent the entire episode ordering people about. Victorian Clara spent her time not doing what she was told and lording her power over people - although that's usually the Moffat-y power of men dribbling at her feet because she's a woman. In "Hide" she whines and bullies the TARDIS into rescuing the Doctor. In "Nightmare In Silver" she takes to being in charge of the regiment with relish.

So, yeah, she's definitely been portrayed as a control freak before last week.

Incidentally, it amuses me somewhat to believe that if you were to create the most average Doctor possible, he'd be played by an actor called Peter Baker.