"Clara, be my pal. Tell me, am I a good man?"
It's the line BBC has been using to tease the new Doctor Who, which premiered over the weekend with new lead Peter Capaldi. It's a sentiment echoed somewhat in the first episode — and presumably will be a larger theme over the course of the season. Peter Capaldi, taking over for Matt Smith, gives a strong debut performance in an otherwise by-the-books episode. But with every new actor, we get a new interpretation of the Doctor — a new personality with a new outlook on his past, present, and future.
So, is the new Doctor a good man? Let's look at four key scenes from the premiere episode, "Deep Breath" — and a more general discussion between myself and Kwame Opam. Warning: spoilers.
Here's the gist: the Twelfth Doctor, still in the throes of regeneration, accidentally got his TARDIS (read: time machine) stuck in the throat of a dinosaur, wherein they both traveled to the middle of Victorian-era London. While the Doctor recuperates (with the help of his confused companion Clara and the odd trio of reptilian detective Vastra, her human wife Jenny, and their bumbling servant Strax), the dinosaur is lit on fire to cover up the misgivings of Actual Episode Baddie, a misguided pilot who's seeking body parts to repair both his ship and his crew — all in the hopes of reaching "The Promised Land."
There's always something bizarre happening, and through sheer cleverness, lots of running, and (when all else fails) a sonic screwdriver, the Doctor and friends persevere. More importantly, this episode resets the interpersonal dynamic between The Doctor and everyone else in his life, so let's look at that.
"The green one and the not green one... you remember thingie, the 'not me' one, the 'asking questions' one."
1. The Doctor and his "friends." Showrunner Steven Moffat, who also co-created the new Sherlock, has long been criticized for not writing strong female roles. I think, however, Vox's Todd VanDerWerff described it best as "more a problem with his writing of characters who aren't the Doctor." That seems to have not changed here. The Doctor has always been somewhat curt with strangers, but for the past few seasons he's had a few recurring friends in the form of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Away from the Doctor, Vastra and Jenny get a few small chances to have more nuanced performances, specifically about their own relationship (although Vastra was given a number of grating one-liners, e.g., "[I stopped wearing a veil] when you stopped seeing it").
Around the Doctor, however, the three (plus Clara) devolve into a sounding board, openly belittled for not asking "the right question" (e.g. the not-obvious one) about a dinosaur that was set on fire (that would be, by the way, "Have there been any similar murders?"). The Doctor has, at various times in his various incarnations, looked down on those around him. That much hasn't changed.
"I would say that person is an egomaniac, needy game-player sort of person."
2. The Doctor and his companion. Here is where I hope we see a lot change from seasons past. After running off in his pajamas to solve the dinosaur-on-fire mystery (which, again, was done by a former spaceship pilot-turned-robot collecting spare parts to repair his ship and crew), Clara eventually meets up with The Doctor at a restaurant full of robots pretending to eat dinner. (How her and The Doctor both got there, via an enigmatic message in a newspaper that no one will own up to writing, is part of the larger, likely season-long story arc.) It's the first time we really see Clara talk to the Doctor as he is now, versus pining over last year's younger-looking model. The banter here is more one of friendship, not entirely dissimilar to the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). Gone is the sexual tension, replaced by something closer to her talking bluntly to an aloof friend. The script goes out of its way to harp on the difference, a goodbye to the flirtatious Doctor of old.
Later in the episode, we see one final moment with Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, via a phone call from the past to Clara in the present. It feels more than anything like fan service, but if it closes the thread on the companion being lovelorn for the Doctor, I'm all for it. There are still issues with Clara as a character, the so-called "Impossible Girl" who has traveled so long with the Doctor yet still seems surprised and confused about everything, but her relationship with him is at least in a better place.
"I have a horrible feeling I'm going to have to kill you. Thought you might appreciate a drink first."
3. The Doctor and his enemies. The Doctors of the modern era — Eccleston's Nine and Tennant's Ten, especially — have all harped on nonviolence, still wracked with guilt from their perceived actions in the so-called Time War that ended off-screen just before the show's revival. Yet all Doctors have also at times killed their enemies to varying degrees of guilt. When the new Doctor confronts the episode's antagonist (in a restaurant floating over London by way of a hot air balloon made out of skin), he claims that it's not in his "basic programming" to murder (much like it's not in the robot's "basic programming" to self-destruct). But then he also says one of them is clearly lying.
It's intentionally vague how the robot inevitably died — if he tripped and fell out of the makeshift airship or if the Doctor pushed him — but it almost doesn't matter: this is a Doctor that's much more cognizant of what he's capable of. "I'm the Doctor," he later says, "I've lived for over 2,000 years, and not all of them were good. I've made many mistakes, and it's about time I did something about that." Matt Smith's prior incarnation was labeled "the man who forgets," and Capaldi seems to be portraying him as someone trying to make up for those years of denial.
4. The Doctor and his showrunner. The final scene of note is the closing teaser, the hint at a larger mystery that ties into the android pilot, the "Promised Land," and probably the newspaper message that brought Clara and the Doctor (back) together. This is less about the Doctor and more about the meta relationship between the writer and the audience. Under Moffat, the past several seasons have tried to balance monster-of-the-week episodes with unifying season-long story arcs, with their success largely judged by how cleanly they tie up in the end (frankly, it's hit-or-miss there). So it's yet to be seen if Missy, who calls the Doctor her "boyfriend" and seems to provide an actual "promised land," will pay off in a satisfying way.
As far as the episode goes, "Deep Breath" is kind of all over the place in terms of story, but as an introduction to Capaldi, it works very well.
Usually a changing of the guard marks a good time for someone to pick up Doctor Who. In the modern era of the show, we've had three other Doctors — two that had a clean start (new companion, new showrunner, new everything) and one that carried with him the relics of the previous (David Tennant's Tenth Doctor). Capaldi's Doctor falls into the latter category, and it's the difference between feeling like a season premiere and a series premiere — which is to say, I wonder how people who are using this moment to start watching Doctor Who must think about the show. It kind of glosses over some key points (Victorian London is totally cool about a talking humanoid lizard) and assumes a lot of the audience, or at least it asks a lot of patience from the newcomers.
But okay, let's talk about it from the perspective of a Doctor Who fan. I'm excited for Peter Capaldi. It's hard to judge his character from the premiere — after all, he spent most of the time running in pajamas trying to find himself. But one scene I think is telling is when he's standing over the dinosaur shooting down everyone for asking the "wrong question." Clever but with a purpose — somewhat more serious, more prone to showing emotional baggage. I'm optimistic.
But then came one line that I openly groaned at. He immediately jumps in the water. Clara worries he'll drown. Vastra notes that he won't drown because he's on a case. How does conviction stop someone from taking in too much water. One longstanding critique of Moffat is that he sets up beautiful worlds for the Doctor to play in, and everyone else (male, female, and Strax) is a mechanical plot device in that world. I'll admit, I've never been a big fan of Clara, who has felt more "damsel in distress" than any of the more modern companions even when she is talking back to the Doctor. But that's something I'd have said last season, as well; the only new variable really is Capaldi, and that's looking great.
So yeah, hijinks, callbacks to earlier Moffat episodes (here: 2006's "The Girl in the Fireplace"), and hints of a larger mystery that'll loom over the full season. But most importantly, answer me this: what the hell was with that Looney Tunes sound effect when Vastra made the Doctor fall asleep?
I've got nothing for you about the Looney Tunes sound effects, except that it kind of fit with the madcap tone in the early half of the premiere. But talk about throwing the audience right into the thick of it. This season opener is definitely doing some heavy lifting with its proper Twelfth Doctor introduction. The themes of "Who is this new Doctor?" and "He's ancient, even if his face is different" are ideas that hang over the entire plot all the way through to the big reveal at the end, and I think Moffat creates an interesting tension between the Doctor as a man who has stayed the same in some core way but has still inexorably changed. He's a bit like a broom in that way.
We've been promised that Capaldi's take on the Doctor would be darker and more menacing in this new series, and we saw hints of that. Yes, he spends the better part of the episode ranting, raving, and trying to rediscover forgotten memories (all while dinosaurs and cyborgs are wreaking havoc in London), but when he finally finds himself, Capaldi delivers with an almost palpable gravitas. The man is an excellent actor, and even if it was brief, he's immensely successful at blending weariness, darkness, and a hint of playfulness in a single scene. I have no doubt we'll see more of that going forward.
Clara, on the other hand, was left a bit on the back foot, I felt. Jenna Coleman definitely crackles when giving a speech and cracking wise, and she and Capaldi have some solid chemistry going on. Still, the character, more than ever really holding her own, seems to just actively throw herself into situations she needs rescue from. Which is a shame. Also, as necessary as it was, I wasn't terribly interested in her frustrated feelings for the Eleventh Doctor and her grappling with this change. I get it just as much as the narrative wants me to, but there are bigger fish to fry here.
And yeah. Of course Madame Vastra and Jenny are wonderful. You almost want them to get their own spin-off.
All told, I thought the episode was a little all over the place but mostly a successful introduction to this new status quo. I'm intrigued about this grimmer but less self-assured Doctor, and what new things he's discover about himself. As he says, this is a face he's seen before, but he doesn't know how he's seen it. We need answers!
Haha, the thick of it. Clever (intentional or otherwise).
I love Vastra and Jenny, but I do worry most of Vastra's lines were just clever for clever's sakes (rather than driving along the plot, e.g., "[I stopped wearing a veil] when you stopped seeing it"). Also, for all their screen time, I hope they play a huge role this season — if not, why did we spend so much time on them? Like you said, it felt all over the place. (Speaking of screen time, the whole will-he-or-won't-he-return for Clara is just silly... we know he'll be back or there's no show, give us something more interesting.)
In defense of Clara, her frustrations over the Eleventh needed to be addressed — arguably the choice of Capaldi was about moving away from the flirtatiousness of the last two Doctors and their companions. Whether she needed a phone call from Eleven to move forward is debatable (I'm not reading into that as anything more than fan service). What matters more is how the two move forward together. Will he be some odd kind of father figure? Will they be bickering friends (like Tennant and Donna Noble) who scorn even the thought of sexual tension?
Something I forgot to mention earlier: the Doctor and the android. One isn't capable of suicide. The other isn't capable of murder (it's not in their respective "basic programming"). Someone is lying. We never see who, but I'm gonna err on the side of the character that will be starring in all future episodes (and has, to be sure, killed many people in the name of nonviolence).
In terms of other "new Doctor" episodes, it's no fish-fingers-and-custard... but it sets up what it needs to. Episode two, when we'll get a better gauge of the rest of the season.
Totally not intentional! I definitely need to see it, I've heard good things. (Thanks Hulu.)
The scene with the android was crucial, and I'm definitely inclined to think the Doctor is not above murder when the cause calls for it. That knowing stare in the aftermath broke the fourth wall perfectly, especially after you sensed the admittedly inexplicable fear in the machine's voice. (Or maybe that was just me?) It also leads perfectly into the new Big Bad and her probably-twisted-in-some-way vision of paradise that's sure to rear its head in future stories. Why keep a murderous cyborg around if not to use him in some dark plot?
Matt Smith's cameo was almost certainly fan service, but I'm also a little unsure about how to read it. Does Eleventh Doctor saying his reincarnated self is afraid of what's ahead undermine the character? Or does it add a more human depth to him? I'm not sure yet, but the Twelfth Doctor does seem a lot more unsure of himself than past ones. I'm genuinely interested to see where the new series takes him. So that's a definite sign of success here.
And I'm definitely hoping for a relationship that's more like what the Tenth Doctor had with Donna Noble. Let them be best mates and grow through their companionship. But that's not up to us, I guess.