Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Take a "Deep Breath": Reflections on Doctor Who, Series 8

It seems as though it’s been ages since Trenzalore. Decades at the very least, possibly centuries. Of course there were other adventures along the way: televised ones, with older Doctors and 1970s styles and 1980s music; audio ones, with small casts and loud noises; print ones, with sexual escapades, expansive worlds, and levels of violence that could never have made it onto the small screen. Still, we wanted a new adventure, with a new Doctor. As it turned out, we got our wish on Saturday night , a mere eight months after “The Time of the Doctor.” Was it really just last Christmas we said goodbye to Eleven and started to anticipate Twelve?

Previews showed a dinosaur menacing the Houses of Parliament, and “Deep Breath” got that McGuffin out of the way early on. While earlier regenerations showed the new Doctor picking up exactly where the old one left off, here we have a presumably small gap between the end of “Time” (where Twelve asks Clara, “Do you know how to fly this thing?”) and “Deep Breath.” As Victorian London marvels at the dinosaur, the creature coughs up a familiar blue box and a slightly manic Doctor explains he seems to have flown the TARDIS into the mouth of the beast, dragging it with him to the nineteenth century.

But this episode is not about extinct animals. Rather, it’s about meeting the new Doctor and, in particular, about the changed relationship between Clara and the Doctor. The regeneration trauma is mercifully short: unlike Ten, who spent most of his premiere episode lying in bed before some restorative tea perked him up, Twelve starts out unable to remember basic things, including Clara’s name, ends up taking a nap for a short while, then sets out in his night shirt seemingly back to himself. He is more short-tempered than Eleven, less tolerant of the foibles of humans (but, thank goodness, he doesn’t attempt to strangle his companion, like a certain other recently-regenerated Doctor we know!), but ultimately the same man as before. (At one point, he comments that he has “made mistakes” in the past that he intends to put right. How intriguing!)

Clara mopes about, mourning the loss of “her” Doctor, the playful puppy-like Eleven, until Madame Vastra sets her straight. With the help of an old friend in an unexpected cameo later in the episode, Clara realizes that this man *is* the Doctor, strange face and all, and that he needs her help, not her whining, in this unsettled time for him.

Lest I create the impression that the episode was too serious, jokes were plentiful. I particularly liked how the Doctor thought everyone else sounded very strange until he realized that he’s Scottish. An annoyed Doctor complained that he was on the “planet of pudding brains,” and at one point confused Strax with one of the Seven Dwarves. At one point, the Doctor says to Clara that he was “not your boyfriend.” Clara says, “I never said you were,” to which the Doctor replies, “I didn’t say it was your mistake.”

The implication that Time Lords have some control over their appearance – hinted at in “Night of the Doctor,” when the Sisterhood of Karn gives Eight his choice of elixirs, and as far back as “The War Games,” when the Time Lords force Two’s regeneration and offer a choice of faces – becomes more explicit here. He chose a more serious face – an older (and wiser?) face possibly for a more serious time.

The episode even had a plot of sorts, bringing back the clockwork robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The control robot found people from whom to harvest body parts in order to keep the robots going as they searched for “paradise.” I’m not sure how successful that particular plot was, but it clearly sets up a story arc for later in the season. (Who built these robots, anyway? We’ve had two episodes in which they behave in murderous fashion. Would you want to be on a spaceship with these guys?) We also got a hint that we will eventually discover who gave Clara the telephone number of the TARDIS in “The Bells of St. John” last season.

In all, the episode gave viewers a great deal to appreciate and to anticipate – the new Doctor, the changed interplay between the Doctor and Clara. The script gave both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman much to work with, and they didn’t disappoint. Like Clara, viewers might take some time to adjust to the new face in the TARDIS before coming to the realization that, when it comes right down to it, this is the same Doctor we’ve always known.

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