Monday, September 14, 2015

8.1 Deep Breath

In the perhaps over-discussed Comic Relief skit "Curse of Fatal Death", the Doctor regenerates into a lady. Emma, his companion, who he was planning to marry, cannot accept this: "I don't think this phrase has ever been used quite so accurately" she says "But you just aren't the man I fell in love with."

In Deep Breath, Wonderful Clara finds it almost impossible to come to terms with the fact that the Eleventh Doctor, who she kind of loved, is now the grumpier and older Twelfth Doctor

In the perhaps unjustly neglected Children In Need skit "Time Crash" the Tenth Doctor explains to the Fifth Doctor why it was that the first (and presumably youngest) incarnation of the Doctor looked so much older than the later (and presumably older) versions. " Back when I first started at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important, like you do when you're young."

In Deep Breath, Madam Vastra explain to Wonderful Clara that the Eleventh Doctor chose to look young, even though he is really incredibly old.  "He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover, even..... But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold, he has seen stars fall to dust.....He looked young. Who do you think that was for?"

A wise man once said: Moffat repeats himself; the first time as farce, the second time as melodrama.

Peter Capaldi was always going to be a hard sell.

Matt Smith is the first Doctor I have properly mourned. When Jon Pertwee left, I said “Wow! I’m going to see one of these regeneration things I've heard about”. When Tom Baker left, I said “Wow! Multiple companions in the TARDIS and the return of the Master!” You don't want to know what I said when Peter Davison left.

Matt Smith's going still makes me sad. His tenure still seems like a wasted opportunity. Here today, gone yesterday, so little time to establish his character and yet for with barely time to establish his character; and yet, for a few moments in Season 5, defining and becoming and inhabiting the Doctor in a way that no-one since Tom Baker ever has. No-one since William Hartnell. It was so so right that Matt should be the one looking across the TARDIS console at Bill in Adventure in Space and Time. I wish he could have stayed forever.

I get that Doctor Who is about change and change is the only constant and the one thing that doesn’t change is that it keeps on changing. But does every regeneration need to be a complete reboot, with a new logo, new theme tune, new title sequence, even a new TARDIS interior?

I don’t hate the title sequence. I know that it was based on a pitch by a fan. I like the way it’s trying to represent “time travel” visually, through the numbers on the Doctor’s watch. The bit I liked best in the fan pitch was the camera zooming in on the watch. That's the bit that was dropped.

I loved it that Sylvester McCoy’s TARDIS was basically the same as Willliam Hartnell’s TARDIS. I hate it that Peter Capaldi’s TARDIS isn’t even the same as Christopher Eccelston’s.

But let's accentuate the positive, no? After all, I applauded Moffat’s last re-imagining of Doctor Who as a dark (but not that dark) fairy tale, with Smith coming in as Santa Claus and bowing out as Gepetto.  So let's try to give at least two cheers to the latest relaunch. It give a pretty broad hint about what the next 45 episodes of Doctor Who are going to be about.

Doctor Who is now a Cultural Phenomenon. People who don’t watch Doctor Who but who do know that someone called Capaldi has replaced someone called Smith may well tune in to this episode to see what all the fuss is about. And everyone knows about regeneration, or at any rate that the Doctor Changes.

Rose just accepted that the new guy was the old guy straight off. “You’re so different” was, I think, the whole pitch. Martha and Donna and Wonderful Amy only knew one Doctor each. Wonderful Clara is the first one who has properly had to struggle with Her Doctor not being Her Doctor any more.

So wouldn’t it be a wheeze if, instead of making a classic Regeneration Story we made a BBC drama in which a lady has to come to terms with the fact that a man who she kind of loved has turned into a different man, a man who she is not sure if she can love? A man who is older, not so good-looking, not so charismatic, not played by such a good actor, and Scottish.

I would have liked it better if Peter Capaldi had been given a script which involved him doing something harder than reading out old Matt Smith lines with a Scottish accent. But if I am going to stay on board, I have to accept that that's what Doctor Who is from now on. The underlying deep down personality of the Doctor is of a brilliant, mildly autistic man who talks to himself, zones out when other people are speaking, changes his mind mid sentence, fakes being a genius and generally isn’t quite as good as Benedict Cumberbatch. Doubtless when Moffat goes, that will go as well. But for the time being regeneration involves changing some mannerisms and giving him a different hat.

So: the dark (but not that dark) fairy tale has been re-invented as a movie, or at any rate a drama; or at any rate a BBC romcom. I had a sense that I was watching an episode of a non-existent TV series called The Adventures of Madam Vastra (with the same theme music as Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, obviously) guest starring a whacky time traveler called Doctor.

But although the form is now “grown up drama” the content remains disconcertingly “fan boy”. I like fanboy stuff. I like it that Madam Vastra says "Here we go again" when she realizes the Doctor has regenerated and Wonderful Clara say "You've redecorated. I don't like it" when she sees the TARDIS interior. But I am puzzled when large chunks of plot seem to depend on you knowing your Doctor Who lore and caring about it a good deal.

Have a look at the scene with the homeless man. (I hope that this is a one-off vignette, but there is a serious danger that he will turn out to be Clara’s dad three episodes down the line.) It is as serious and grown up a dramatic scene as I have seen in New Who. In a few paragraphs, I am probably going to complain that New Who rushes from set-up to conclusion without lingering in the actual story; but this scene lingered with a supporting character, and with the Doctor’s poster-regeneration psychology, for fully ten minutes. It's really nicely done. It's what New Who should be. (One of the things that New Who could be, at any rate.)

But the content of the scene seems to be an explanation of why the New Doctor looks like the old Roman guy in the Rubbish One With the Volcano, on the assumption that "because they were both played by Peter Capaldi" is insufficient. It seems to me that this is a lot like writing scenes to explain why until 1980 Dalek spaceships traveled around the universe on the ends o wires but that after 1980 they had blue liens around them. Or, come to that, why the Universe was black and white until 1969.

The idea that the Doctor can choose his face goes back to the War Games. (Douglas Adams riffed on the idea, imagining that choosing a new body was just like choosing a new outfit.) We really can't make up our minds what regeneration is meant to be. As recently as Time of the Doctor, it was meant to be an actual bereavement. We are supposed to mourn Doctor Chris and Doctor David and Doctor Matt as actual people who are actually dying but who somehow pass their essence on to their successor; like that slug-thing in Star Trek. But now we are being asked to think Doctor Peter is simply Doctor Matt wearing a different form.

I was initially inclined to describe this episode as a game of two halves. 60 minutes of BBC drama about Wonderful Clara coming to grips with the fact that the New Doctor is different but also the same as the Old Doctor with part 4 of an old Tom Baker silly monster story tagged on at the end. And, in truth, New Who remains more condensed than I would like it to be: rushing from set-up to resolution without lingering in the story. (Told you.) But on a second viewing, it has a more even tone than I gave it credit for. The Doctor and Wonderful Clara  remain very much the same characters in the Serious Drama bits and the Spacey Action Bits. Too often, in this kind of thing, the interesting characters are replaced with action figures during the big flashy special effects laden climax. (I am looking at you, Fantastic Four.) Although we only see the robots for a few minutes, their back story, their objectives, and the fact they’ve been on earth for a gazillion years is established quite well through dialogue. I am almost tempted to mutter "Aristotelian unities" under my breath.

It may be that young people are better at absorbing information than me. It may be that Doctor Who is now the kind of thing that is only meant to make sense on a second viewing. It may even be that I am the only person on earth who still expects it to make any sense at all. Certainly, lines are spat at us at huge speed. I don't see how anyone could hear, let alone decipher the joke, in this kind of thing....

--Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor. Last of the five good 'uns. Stoic philosopher.
--Superlative bass guitarist. The Doctor really knows how to put a band together.
--And the only pin-up I ever had on my wall when I was fifteen.

…without pausing and rewinding. (*)

It’s quite hard to keep track of what you are meant to know and what you are not meant to know -- which must be maddening for the casual viewer. My reaction to seeing the droid impaled on the clock tower was not “Gosh! How ambiguous! We don’t know if the Doctor pushed him or if he jumped” but “Whaa… did I miss a bit?”

But “missing a bit” is what Moffat does. Most drama is about starting at Point A and getting to Point C. Point B is where everything happens. It is what me normally mean by "story". Moffat rushes headlong to point D and expects you to infer A - C along the way.

Most of this episode does, in fact, make sense. But most of the sense it makes is about imagery and connections and parallels, lines which the viewer is intended to draw for himself.

  • Madam Vastra wears a veil because not everyone can accept that she’s a lizard. 
  • Madam Vastra and Jenny role-play a master/servant relationship. 
  • That’s kind of like like the way the Doctor plays at being Clara’s boy-friend. 
  • The Doctor’s face is like a mask; that's kind of like a veil. 
  • The alien robots physically steal faces from humans to use as masks. 
  • The robots have replaced their body parts so many times that it’s not clear if there is any of the original left.
  • The Doctor has changed so many times that it isn't clear if the Doctor is still the Doctor. 

It's not un-clever. But I'd rather have a story.

I would say that this is about as successful an episode of New Who — of New New New Who as we had better not start saying — as if I have seen. It may be that Doctor Who ought to be a grown up cartoon, with cliffhangers and silly baddies. In fairness this one did have a giant Victorian dinosaur. But discussions about what Doctor Who ought to be are never worth having. This reboot says that Doctor Who is a serious romantic dramatic comedy in form, but a Moffat non-linear fanboy deconstructionist riff in content.

I can live with that.

(*) Day of the Doctor begins with Wonderful Clara quoting Marcus Auerelius to her school class - "Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." This sort of thing may be clever, but it is not big.