Saturday, 23 August 2014

Critiquing Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Before sitting down to watch the new Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi, there are two things reasons to be optimistically cheerful about. Mr Malcolm Tucker has said no to flirtatious banter with his co-stars. Second, Jenna Coleman might exit at Christmas. This is no reflection on Coleman, she's only playing a part after all. Unfortunately, Clara is a highly problematic: an object that exists solely as a story line, from the get-go she was a wise-cracking, ass-kicking, bum-pinching get-up-and-go-girl; a walking, talking female sonic screw-driver whose sole reason for being was to get the Doctor out of a pickle or two. How can you develop a character after that?

Take a deep breath (see what I did there?), the opener of reboot series eight was something of a minor triumph. Not Steven Moffat's greatest work, but probably the best introduction to a new Doctor we've seen. Your Ecclestons, your Tenants, your Smiths, they set a consistent tone that's ran like an annoying thread through seven series and sundry specials: a tendency to overact. Did CapaldiDoc succumb to the same temptation? Having a Scottish Doctor cutting a serious, troubled, and (seemingly) more ruthless jib demands can only work if a clean break is made with Smith's hipster Doctor. The new Doctor lapses into a temporary breakdown and runs around London at night, lamenting over a dinosaur barbecue and scrabbling in bins for clothes. Sanity seemingly returns when he meets back up with Clara to do battle with the automatons slicing 'n' dicing their way through Victorian London for their own dark purposes.

As the Doctor struggles to rebalance himself, Clara is conflicted about the transformation. You'd be a mite perturbed if your closest friend had a full person transplant too. In conversation with Madame Vastra she lets rip about how she's not a distraction for the Doctor, that she's a proper person and not a pretty face that turned his head. Could this be anything other than Moffat answering his critics via Clara?

There was also a curious meditation on relationships throughout the episode. Whovians know Vastra and Jenny are married. Fair enough, viewers new to the show won't necessarily know that. Yet this was repeatedly emphasised with monotonous regularity. Why? Is Moffat fishing for plaudits for putting a lesbian relationship front and centre in the BBC's flagship kids' show? To portray their marriage well, he might want to be more subtle than every five minutes having a big great megaphone screaming YES THEY ARE LESBIANS DEAL WITH IT. Less is more, Steven. Then there is the Doctor and Clara. Again, as per the break with the previous are-they/aren't-they boyf/girlf flirty tedium of Smith/Coleman, a necessary line had to be drawn under it. And, actually, I think this was handled fairly well. Surprisingly given the tone of the pervious series, it turns out Clara wasn't the one who harboured The-Doctor-is-my-boyfriend fantasies, it was the other way round. The impossible girl was the object of an impossible crush.

The other key relationship was that we have with ourselves. The Doctor is confused and is trying to get his bearings as a new person in relation to his predecessors. It's something we as the audience will be doing for a long time to come too. But the monster of the week was a smart choice in this regard too. As the Doctor builds on multiple personalities, the android from the 51st century was approaching personhood by supplementing circuitry and mechanics with bits of people. As they float above London under an inflatable bag of skin, the Doctor lectures the automaton on how his consumption of human parts has transformed him into something beyond the parameters of his programming. The cycles of replacement have so changed him that the essential android, the original before he made like a Kwik-Fit fitter with body parts, no longer exists. This is to the point he cannot tell what was original and what has since been learned and incorporated into his personality. Allegory much.

Then there is the closing scene. After getting impaled atop Westminster's Clock Tower (did he jump? Did the Doctor push him?), the android wakes up in a garden. After spending the episode prattling on about the 'promised land', a woman informs him he's made it to heaven. With a sinister overtone she introduces herself as the Doctor's "girlfriend". So we have moved from a companion/Doctor relationship in which we'd been led to believe was suffused with unrequited love on Clara's part to having that upended to a new woman whose love for the Doctor is not so much unrequited as downright stalkery and co-dependent. Just as the new Doctor promised an improvement in the portrayal of women, for inspiration Moffat's new villain channels Fatal Attraction.

We'll have to see how this plays out, but going on past form I fear the new season will be scarred by sexism. Again.


Phil said...

Did CapaldiDoc succumb to the same temptation? [to overact]

Just a touch. Everyone overacted; even in the two-handers they were all hamming it up and playing to the camera. I love watching Michelle Gomez do her thing, but I'm afraid her sequence was a sign of much melodrama and scenery-chewing to come. I think this is going to be the series where Moffat wrongfoots us - it's not women he can't do, it's people.

howard fuller said...

Well it got a 10/10 from me. I try to just enjoy these things without trying to over analyse the content.

Can't wait for the Daleks to return next week.

Luminaria2112 said...

OK, answer me this - exactly HOW can the girl who saved the Doctor in every single one of his incarnation get "confused" by his change of face? How can she suddenly not understand that he changes faces when she experienced every single one of them? Does she suddenly, mysteriously have brain damage? Memory loss? Sudden onset stupidity?

Jim Denham said...

Didn't watch it, but it sounds like Capaldi's reviving William Hartnell.

Chris said...

"exactly HOW can the girl who saved the Doctor in every single one of his incarnation get "confused" by his change of face"

Timey wimey ball of string. Best not think about it really. If you thought too hard about these things you would only ever end up enjoying Ken Loach movies and that may madness leads!

Another Denham comment - you are gaining approval!

One article blaming the Palestinians for their oppression and you will have cracked it!