Taking In Doctor Who: Deep Breath

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“He’s the doctor. He has walked this Universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust… You might as well FLIRT with a mountain range.” – Madame Vastra

Before diving into the Doctor Who Series 8 opener Deep Breathlet me get this declaration out of the way — Peter Capaldi IS The Doctor and I will tell you why.

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FAMILIAR FACES

Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax all make their welcome return in Deep Breath, Peter Capladi’s debut episode as the 12th (or is it 13th?) Doctor, to help ease companion Clara (and the fans) through The Doctor’s transition from The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith). As many of us remember, The Doctor in a regeneration crisis can be quite a predicament.

WHERE’S A ZERO ROOM WHEN YOU NEED ONE?

I can’t recall even one time when The Doctor had an easy time of it post-regeneration (unlike Romana in Destiny of the Daleks). It takes time for him to stabilize both mentally and physically. As the Fifth Doctor  (Peter Davison) tells his companions, it takes a little time for his “dendrites to heal”. And of course, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is no exception. He struggles with everything — his memories of his friends, how they look, how they speak, their appalling accents! That’s right… because apparently, not only do most planets have a North, but they have a Scotland too (picture me saying it with a Scottish accent, far more amusing that way).

“You’ve redecorated… I don’t like it…” – Clara Oswald

Even though a regeneration can be seen as a renewal, poor, traumatized Clara (Jenna Coleman) seems quite skeptical this is her Doctor (in spite of meeting his earlier incarnations – including John Hurt’s War Doctor). Her assumption is, The Doctor should start out young. Had she met the first four Doctors, she wouldn’t have been in such shock (but then she had met them, when she was splintered across time and couldn’t remember those encounters).

As Madame Vastra (played by Neve McIntosh) points out, The Doctor is not a young man. He’s lived for centuries, millennia, in fact.  The Gallifreyan is over 2,000 years old (if he even remembers his age correctly by this point) by the time we see him in Deep Breath. He has lived many lives and has worn many faces. It is fair to say The Doctor is far from young.

Still, Clara needs convincing… but that’s not The Doctor’s only problem…

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PREHISTORIC FRIENDS AND ROBOTIC FOES

I have to say, Doctor Who seems rather obsessed with dinosaurs. Ever since the Pertwee era, when Sea Devils and Silurians (Madame Vastra’s kin) first appeared on our screens. So, faced with an erratic Doctor and a dinosaur loose in Victorian England (with no adequate explanation as to how the local authorities cover up, or spin, the “available spectacle” — perhaps Torchwood is on the case?) the Doctor’s friends have a good deal to worry about already. However, that can’t be all, can it?

Of course not. The Doctor manages to get himself tangled up with 51st century “out of control repair droids”, substituting human body parts to facilitate repairs to themselves and their ancient spaceship. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, I urge you to revisit the 10th Doctor story Girl in the Fireplace.

However, without giving much more away, The Doctor and company save the day. Proving he is still The Doctor. However, in The Doctor’s exchange with the leader of the droids, he asks what remains of the original being after replacing parts so many times? And we are left to wonder the same of The Doctor. Has he lived too many lives? Has he changed too much? We always assume that at The Doctor’s core he is a good man, a hero, but there is another side to him. Why else would he be called The Oncoming Storm?

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe.” – Tim Latimer (Family of Blood)

What is our favorite Time Lord capable of? The Doctor is ancient, yes, a complex being to say the least… but murder?  The Sixth Doctor’s regeneration crisis gave us some insight into this (along with his shadow self, The Valeyard in Trial of a Time Lord). We were horrified to discover the blackness that lies in us all, lies within The Doctor as well. Is this shadow self returning? The audience is left to wonder when the lead droid falls (or is he pushed?) out of a window to his death, with The Doctor looking on, his face an eerie mask of calm.

DEEP THOUGHTS ON DEEP BREATH

Debut episodes are tough. A radically different, vulnerable, and still-healing Doctor has to be introduced to the audience, hopefully winning them over. I never introduce new fans to a new Doctor immediately post-regeneration, but instead once in full swing, with his personality firmly established.

That being said, I enjoyed Capaldi’s and Coleman’s dynamic. Clara finally gets to step up and show she’s a good deal more formidable than we’ve seen in previous episodes. We know she’s sassy and smart, but here, we see her as tough and logical, capable of holding her own. She’s not immediately enamored with this Doctor, still grieving the loss of the man she once knew — trying to reconcile what he has become — as we all must do.

However, while I enjoyed the sparks of humor and dialogue, and found Capaldi completely convincing as the The Doctor, the plot itself felt uneven, and the pacing a bit slow.

I will say, I was quite pleased with the new title sequence, inspired by a motion graphics artist’s (Billy Hanshaw) fan version. I remember seeing this a while back and being impressed.


FULL CIRCLE

With the tetchiness of Bill Hartnell, the gravitas of Jon Pertwee, and a dash of Tom Baker’s intensity and madness, The Twelfth Doctor, though new to us, feels quite familiar… at least he does to me. Though there’s a darkness in him I haven’t seen in a while, an unpredictability, and at the same time, something of the calculating genius we were starting to see in Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, before the show was axed in 1989.

William Hartnell was 55 when he became The Doctor. To date, he had been the oldest until now (Capaldi is 56 years old), and it worked. With schoolteachers Ian and Barbara and Susan (his granddaughter), as companions, The Doctor’s TARDIS had quite the dysfunctional family unit.

Hartnell was alien, cantankerous, irascible and yes, tetchy — even morally ambiguous at times. Many times the anti-hero. More concerned with himself and his own curiosity than anything else (well, except for Susan, whom he loved dearly). He wasn’t above kidnapping Susan’s teachers in order to guard his secrets. He didn’t seem the least bit sentimental — at first. Though he mellowed as time went on, he certainly wasn’t the romantic (unless you count that unfortunate hot cocoa incident in The Aztecs). Yet audiences accepted him and children loved him.

“Splendid chap – All of Them.” – The Late Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart

When he transformed into Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, The Doctor went from our grandfather to our favorite eccentric uncle. As Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, he was the dashing Bond-like hero.

Even the wild-eyed, erratic Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor), the one most American fans remember, though energetic, couldn’t be described as young or romantic. It wasn’t until Peter Davison, who was only 29 when he was cast, that audiences were treated to a much more youthful Doctor, though with an old soul. Davison’s portrayal was modeled on the first two Doctors (the ones Davison himself grew up with). The Fifth Doctor had lovely companions (Nyssa, Tegan, Peri), but he never did get the girl.

Later, with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, we got our first look at what a romantic leading man The Doctor could be. That wasn’t fully realized until the series regenerated in 2005. Carefully walking that fine line between human and alien, The Doctor had clearly “grown younger and more romantic”… Newer audiences accepted and fell in love with him.

Doctor Who’s popularity seemed to explode during the David Tennant years. Girls were enamored. Doctor Who wasn’t just for nerdy boys anymore.

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“I’ve worn a veil, as he wore a face,  for the same reason… The oldest reason there is for anything… To be accepted.” – Madame Vastra

SAME SOFTWARE, DIFFERENT CASE

However, after seeing enough companions swooning and falling desperately in love (we’re talking to you, Rose, Martha – even Amy and Clara) with our favorite Time Lord, many fans felt it was time for a change. He certainly couldn’t get any younger than 26 year old Matt Smith (whom I adored).

Not surprisingly, those new to the series had their doubts that an older Doctor could navigate the TARDIS quite as well as his younger former selves.

I didn’t even blink. Having suffered through the trauma of each Doctor’s regenerations, I assured friends he was more than just a pretty, young face. As John Hurt’s War Doctor says in the 50th anniversary special Day of The Doctor to his youthful, future selves (you can only say that with a show like Doctor Who), “Same software, different case”. I’m pretty certain this was in preparation for what was to come.

Fans had gotten used to their dashing young hero. Starting with Paul McGann in the 1996 Doctor Who movie (the first Doctor to actually kiss a companion – at least on-screen) right up through Matt Smith (who got  a few snogs in himself – not to mention a wife!). I loved my youthful, romantic Doctors. I fell in love with Peter Davison when I was a teenager, so believe me, I was more than happy to see The Doctor as a leading man who gets the girl.

But after almost a decade since his return, The Doctor was ready to change. Even I saw a need to get back to basics, as it were. Audiences by now should understand, there is so much more to The Doctor than external appearances. And with Vastra, Strax (Dan Starkey) and an assortment of other wonderfully alien characters, it’s more to the point, and to the heart(s) of what The Doctor stands for — tolerance and acceptance of all species, all genders, all orientations — you get the picture.

“You look at me and you can’t see me.” -The Doctor

Clearly the production team knew this might be a jolt to some younger fans, or those raised with a Hollywood aesthetic, hence the lead up and Vastra’s keen insights to Clara, as well as a surprise phone call to reassure Clara. The bottom line, Peter Capaldi IS The Doctor. And though I miss Matt Smith and mourn The Eleventh Doctor’s passing, I look forward to the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, and welcome Peter Capaldi with open arms, knowing the TARDIS is in safe hands.

We see you, Doctor. And we know you’ll be fantastic. 

Stay tuned for more Doctor Who with the upcoming episode Into the Dalek, airing Saturday, August 30th, at 9/8c on BBC America (in the US).

For more, here’s a look at the trailer for Series 8 Episode 2 Into the Dalek.

RECOMMENDED LINKS

For more on Billy Hanshaw and his work, visit his site.

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