Sunday, August 24, 2014

8.01: Deep Breath, or Then It Just Goes Haywire

I can't be the only one using this screenshot, right?
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Ben Wheatley
Airdate: August 23, 2014

So, that Peter Capaldi, eh? Daaaaaaaaaaaaayum.

Er.

Okay, let's try that again. What we watched this weekend, of course, is one of those peculiar entries in the Doctor Who canon (such as it is) that has a fair bit of history but also no one seems to quite know what to do with. That would be the category of the regeneration episode (although a case could be made for "episode featuring dinosaurs where they turn out not be the real threat in the story." A category featured in the program only slightly less often than the regeneration tale). The point has been made elsewhere, but these regeneration tales tend to be a bit light on the particulars of the monster of the week and whatever mad plot is in need of stopping and instead are often showcases for the new Doctor to go a bit goofy and to get introduced to  a new companion and dynamic. And, well, this episode is pretty par for the course here. And for much of the episode, the regeneration of the Doctor takes on a sort of secondary importance to the other regeneration happening: the one that Clara is undergoing.

The common complaint I'm seeing pop up about this episode - and it's one that's certainly fair - is that the entire first chunk of the story is filled with a lot of the Doctor not getting on and becoming the Doctor and basically a lot of Clara and the Paternoster Gang flitting around and being funny (or "funny" if you're not inclined to be charitable to what you're seeing on your screen). And, well, fair enough. You won't hear me argue against the idea that Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax have worn out their welcome at this point. But, of course, what's really happening here is that Moffat & co. are taking he time to reintroduce Clara to the audience. And to carefully lay out the turmoil she finds herself in after the Doctor has regenerated into someone who doesn't even recognize her for a time.

That's a bit that threw me at first. At first blush, I wasn't on board with the idea that Clara would have that much angst over the Doctor regenerating. She has, after all, interacted to some extent with every single one if his incarnations and had a relatively recent extended adventure with three of them. At the end Smith's tenure, one thing I had been looking forward to was a dynamic where the companion would not only have a good idea of what the heck is going on with the Doctor regenerating but would actually potentially be in situation to potentially have more knowledge than the Doctor depending on how mixed up he got. That didn't really happen here, but what we got satisfied nonetheless.

Let's step back a moment and consider Clara's character and position: yeah, she has an abstract understanding of regeneration and how the Doctor continues on in different forms and with different twists on his identity. But in her past interactions, the Eleventh Doctor - "her" Doctor - was always in sight, either to guide her along or as a person to save. The reality of having that version of the Doctor getting wiped away to make way for someone new is nothing she's had to engage with in more than an academic sense. And yet here we find her, not only with a new Doctor but one that seems so different that he actually doesn't recognize her at first. In Clara's shoes, getting freaked the fuck out would be a pretty understandable reaction. Even to the point of questioning whether you really know the person standing in front of you anymore.

And that's always been central to Clara's character (at least, when Clara's character is getting defined at all. Something that sadly hadn't happened as much as it should). In past episodes where Clara has shined - Cold War and The Day of the Doctor, for instance - her character has never acted so much from the Strong Female Character (TM) position of utter fearlessness in any situation so much as a character who does react with fear, grapples with that fear and uses her reactions to make herself a stronger person. Nowhere is this character trait more evident than when she has to try to escape the cyborgs, gets captured and then has her confrontation with Half-Face Man (and, in a nice touch, we see a flashback to her time as a substitute teacher and how her past life experience gives her insight into how to handle the situation in front of her). Seemingly abandoned by the Doctor, in a terrifying situation she is visibly affect by, Clara uses her intensely understandable reactions to the immediate events to muster up the strength to defy the Half-Face Man and, in a turn that proves that for all her concern she still really does understand the Doctor, anticipate the Doctor's reveal onto the scene.

So, as a character we find Clara getting fleshed out in a way that she really hasn't been. It's not a visual regeneration but it's still a transformatively new direction for the character. As we see the mystery of the "impossible girl" stuff shed in favor of bringing up character beats that were getting drowned out in the static. The trepidation with this new Doctor is what encases this transformation, but it's ultimately a bit of a feint to suggest that's the true conflict here. It's more the narrative skeleton that allows Moffat to write a bunch of more interesting stuff in the guts of that development.

In fact, it seems pretty obvious that the trepidation is anything but the genuine conflict. The meta-text here is useful. Sure, there's a bit if a pulse in the story to make sure that the audience is comfortable with this transition of lead actors, but the context in which this story airs screams defiantly against Clara being a true audience surrogate in this regard. Think of the timing of this episode. There has been plenty of time and hype between the transmission of Deep Breath and The Time of the Doctor. The changeover to Peter Capaldi was the driving force between a massive international publicity push for this new series and the choice of Capaldi has been, for over a year, celebrated nearly universally as one of the show's all time great casting achievements. No, Clara's concern over this new face isn't meant to reflect and reassure the viewer. The aim here is to give the viewer the same relationship with Clara as we have with the Doctor in this episode: mainly, that we know more than they do and are waiting for them to catch up. For Clara, this is reflected in us knowing what a brilliant turn Capaldi is going to give in the role well ahead of any episodes actually airing. For the Doctor, it's knowing about these clockwork enemies from a previous story and having to wait as the Doctor catches up and starts remembering his own past as we do.

And so that brings us nicely to the Doctor. Capaldi here - as expected - is brilliant. His Doctor is, yes, "darker" for whatever that's worth. But, equally, he's already playing against expectations by being quite funny through much of the episode and in the closing moments showing a genuine honest vulnerability and concern that I wouldn't see coming from any of his previous NuWho incarnations. Everyone is making a big deal out of his confrontation with the Half-Face Man - and it was indeed a shining moment for Capaldi and Example #1 of the "darker" side of his character - but it's how Capaldi worked following Smith's cameo that is the great moment for the character this episode.

Having Matt Smith reprise his character for a moment was a bold move. If the new Doctor was anyone but Capadi, it would have overshadowed and drowned out the new Doctor for the audience. Here, it acted as a rather nice coda to Eleven and Clara's relationship while giving something for Capaldi to immediately play against. And he does. The moments following Eleven's phone call stand out as some of the best interaction between the Doctor and a companion since the series revived in 2005. It's in those moments that the Doctor and Clara finally catch up to the audience and find themselves ready to go on more adventures.

And I, for one, certainly look forward to the ride.

Obligatory Bullet Points:

-I enjoyed how Madame Vastra seemed to be the mouthpiece for a certain segment of fandom that had been critical of all the "relationship" stuff. I think this was Moffat both accepting some of that criticism and rebuking other parts. The result was, to me, a nice capper on some of what both worked and didn't in the last few years of the show and a seeming promise for a breath of fresh air. I found it interesting that Moffat chose to make Vastra the vehicle for that conversation, playing a bit against the common critique that those mainstay characters are really just mouthpieces for the writer. In this case, the beloved-by-writer Vastra is also the avatar of his chief critics of the last several years. Go figure.

-The direction was generally good and reached "exceptional" during Clara's attempted escape and showdown with the Half-Face Man. But, as always, the action sequences left something to be desired. The show could do with hiring a real choreographer. Or sticking to the kind of action the show does best: running through corridors and occasionally blowing stuff up.

-The best critique of the Paternoster Gang, and Strax particular has been made by Jack (because of course it's been made by Jack). I'm hoping this is largely the last gasp of this particular group of recurring characters. I get why you'd use them here (who else are you going to have Clara play off against given the arc of the story?) but their utility going forward is minimal at best.

-Similarly, Sandifer has written an exceptional pro-episode review here. He brings up the parallels to Robot. I'd add that it felt fairly similar to Rose as well, with the importance of the companion character taking central stage and the return of an old villain for the Doctor to play against.

-I don't have a strong opinion on the new theme and title sequence, but apparently it's been a bit divisive. I for one liked this suggestion from Sandifer's comment section that it all may be a subtle tribute to Joe Meek. I'll sign onto that.

-Also pointed out in some comment section or another and a comment I liked: with the bit at the end on getting to "Heaven" and the Next Time trailer promising a trip into "Hell," this may have been the first time the trailer for next week deliberately played off the closing of this week's episode.

-Also, ROFLCOPTER at folks who are already suggesting Missy is the Rani. To very loosely paraphrase Taylor Swift: We Are Never Ever Getting the Rani Back on Television.

-I'm going to see this in the theatre tomorrow night. I may revise/add/update to this semi-review if I have additional thoughts after that. In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing this on the big screen.

-Capaldi really is awesome.

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