Breathing the life back into Doctor Who
Deep Breath – the title of Dr Who’s season premiere – is more than just a reference to its featured villains (although, because said villains are cyborgs hell-bent on organ-harvesting their way to the status of ‘living’, it’s a shame we won’t be spending more time with them).
Based on the evidence, ‘Deep Breath’ is actually a message to the fans, a warning that after several seasons of glossy explosions, love triangles, and soapy melodrama, their beloved show is about to head in a very different direction. While some fans might be nervous about delving into new territory, the writers are asking us to have a little faith, take a deep breath, and take the plunge with them.
Doctor Who’s transition
The entire episode is about transition. From individual character arcs to the main plot to overall direction, nearly every element is used to explore the theme of change. What’s more, these changes don’t just appear right out of the box. Instead, the writers carefully guide the audience from the old ways to the new, so that by the time we get to the final scene, we have a very different show to the one we started out with. The whole episode is one massive regeneration. It’s enough to make even the most stalwart fan geek out.
The Doctor’s physical transformation is the lynchpin for the theme. He goes from being Matt Smith’s baby-faced, hyperactive, and lovable Doctor to a much older, darker and contemplative version. Although Capaldi doesn’t quite look 900, or 2000, or however old the Doctor is supposed to be, much is made of Capaldi’s grey hair, and how his worn and wrinkled body more accurately reflects the Doctor’s true self.
Of course, the casting of a new actor for regeneration is always fun – serious actors bemoaning their physical shortcomings for our viewing pleasure is a novelty that never wears off – but of much greater interest is the Doctor’s shift in personality.
I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say that Capaldi’s Doctor might do something his previous incarnations would have avoided. This raises the possibility of deeper change, something that goes beyond a new face and body; and just to make sure we don’t miss this crucial point, the writers include the following discussion between the Doctor and the head cyborg (who has been replacing his parts with human organs for millennia).
“Question: if you take a broom, you replace the handle – and later, you replace the brush – and you do that, over and over again, is it still the same broom? Answer: no, of course it isn’t!”
Here, the Doctor argues that the ‘person’ is lost with the changing parts. However, by the end of the episode, he wants Clara to see that he’s still the same man, despite his rather obvious physical transition. So is he the same or is he different? Could he possibly be both?
Interestingly, this kind of ambiguous writing also represents massive change. Since Dr Who returned in 2005, the writers have created a lot of scenes that focus on the Doctor’s perspective as he grapples with a Big Moral Dilemma. They’ve used these moments to preach the Doctor’s pain, milking our tears through a combination of emotional high stakes and full orchestral backing. We’re left in no doubt as to how we should feel, because it’s all rather obvious.
However, in Deep Breath, we’re just presented with a lot of questions and no concrete answers. This kind of writing is more sophisticated, less manipulative, and a hell of a lot more genuine. DW’s writers finally seem to understand that there’s no need for grandstanding or crying or big speeches at the climax, because we already know the stakes are high. Nor do we require overt cues to feel the Doctor’s pain; we’re human, and that means that most of us are gifted with some degree of empathy. Give us a character to care about, tell us what’s going on, and we’re actually pretty good at connecting the emotional dots. The fact that DW’s writers have recognised this, and have completely revised their (admittedly successful) ham-and-cheese approach, is pretty exciting.
Clara is a vessel for the audience. She’s the one struggling to reconcile the old and the new, and trying to find a way forward now that everything has changed.
However, her own character arc represents a subtle but important shift. Up until now, she’s been a smart, pretty, quick-talking sidekick, with the potential for romantic interest. Her status was elevated at the end of Season 7 when she saved the Doctor-slash-Universe through her super-special uniqueness, but with respect to character development, it fell disappointingly flat. The reasons for this are twofold.
Firstly, we’ve seen it all before, at least in DW. In recent years, nearly every single one of the Doctor’s companions has turned out to be ‘the key to everything’. Unfortunately, special snowflakes don’t seem so special when you’ve seen at least three of them, and thanks to overuse, this particular trick is far less potent than it used to be.
Secondly, I’d argue that this strategy is abysmally weak anyway. It focuses FAR too much on plot (or plot twist, if I’m being accurate), and effectively throws character development under a bus. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that most of these new companions are barely distinguishable from each other; nearly all of them are plucky, smart-mouthed, yet wholly unassuming females from earth, who wind up at the nexus of some major cataclysmic event. They’re archetypes, mere puppets for the next Big Twist, and when you write characters like this, it’s hard to make people care about them. Sure, you can try to squeeze emotion out of the viewers through the aforementioned stake-raising and musical cues, but it’s far easier – and far more effective – to simply shift the emphasis back to character.
Fortunately, DW’s showrunners have figured this out. They did some fantastic work with Clara in this episode, and it had nothing to do with the mystery of her identity, or what crucial role she might play in the Doctor’s universe. It simply had to do with the fact that she showed some serious heart.
The first time we see this is during her face-off with the Lizard Queen, who challenges Clara’s assumptions about the Doctor and her loyalty to him. Because this occurs early in the episode, and the tone hasn’t yet shifted towards the ‘new’ way of doing things, the scene gets a little bogged down with some melodramatic grandstanding. However, it does establish Clara as somebody with more depth than we’ve given her credit for.
The second time we see Clara’s depth is when she’s being threatened with torture. This scene successfully avoids melodrama and instead delves into much more frightening territory. Because Clara displays enormous courage and presence of mind, she is finally established as much more than just as a romantic interest or a cosmic accident with the power to save the world. At this point, Clara proves her worth as a companion, partner and human being. It’s a subtle but important shift, but it’s one that needed to be made.
As I mentioned before, the overall tone or direction changes throughout this episode. It starts out with the usual high levels of shouting and arm-waving that we’ve come to expect from DW – not to mention an attention-grabbing dinosaur – and gradually shifts to less noisy fare with greater emotional resonance.
That would have been more than enough to satisfy me, but then the writers went and did something I’ve been hoping they would do for a long, long time.
They brought the creepy back!
Traditionally, one thing that Doctor Who did exceptionally well was to scare the living daylights out of young children. I remember being terrified of the old black-and-white episodes, and while there have been some terrifically spine-tingling monsters in the new-Who, nothing has been so other-worldly that it got under my skin. However, if this episode is anything to go by, things are about to change.
I won’t give too much away, but the final scene features a rather unsettling ‘afterlife’ helmed by something akin to a Stepford Wife. It’s more disturbing than frightening, and nothing at all like the glossy monsters and spaceships we’ve seen in recent seasons. Its tone so strongly reminds me of the old Doctor Who that I can’t help thinking the current showrunners must have been mining the BBC storeroom for inspiration (rather than just old monsters).
Honestly, I can’t wait to see where this goes.
Praise for the actors
On a side note, I really have to tip my hat to Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. I know absolutely nothing about the craft of acting, but as a viewer, I enjoyed them both enormously. Capaldi gave us such a nuanced performance – from a bundle of rapid-firing nerves after his regeneration, to a mysterious stranger, to a proud but desperate old soul – that I can’t wait to see what else he does with the Doctor. As for Jenna Coleman, her warm and heartfelt performance proves that she’s a hell of a lot better than the material she’s been given so far. Together, Capaldi and Coleman have genuine chemistry as a Doctor/Companion duo. I’m saddened by reports that Jenna Coleman MIGHT be about to quit the role, but I still look forward to seeing what they can do together, no matter how short their journey may be.
Taking the Plunge
Deep Breath flags real change at every turn, and hints that Doctor Who – as a show – is about to undergo a massive transition. If the writers really do follow through on this, then I applaud their bravery and wholeheartedly support their decision. After all, it’s not entirely new territory. With an older Doctor, little to no romance, a strong companion AND a good dose of creepiness…well, it’s more like a return to the old Doctor Who we all know and love.
I can only hope.