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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: Doctor Who, "Deep Breath" (e.g. The Trouble with Dinosaurs)


Doctor Who's eighth series premiere cemented several facts I had previously suspected to be true: 

1. Peter Capaldi will make an excellent doctor
2. The sexual tension between The Doctor and his companion has ended 
3. And most important of all: Doctor Who can't do dinosaurs justice

I felt unsettled by the first 20 or 25 minutes of "Deep Breath". Initially I chalked to up to a combination of factors: new (and confused, and out of it) doctor, Scottish accent, more slapstick humor (which I mostly enjoyed), etc. Those things might have jarred me a bit, but when I re-watched the episode I realized what was actually bugging me: the plot. 

More specifically: WHY WAS THERE A DINOSAUR? WHY?

Hear me out. This was actually a pretty good episode, and I have plenty of praise to offer regarding character development. But in reflection, I have no idea why we needed to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex get sucked into Victorian England, only to die in an apparent act of spontaneous combustion shortly after. The Doctor immediately focuses on what other similar murders have happened recently, and then the story quite suddenly pivots to become a spooky, cyberpunk-y tale of androids harvesting human body parts in order to rebuild themselves. This all worked for me, even if it was a bit standard Doctor Who fodder. I wish they would have streamlined the plot by focusing on all of the humans who are spontaneously combusting from the start and skipped the entire "oh my god there's a dinosaur in London" nonsense, which at the end of the day felt like a simple spectacle for episode promos. I won't get started on my feelings for "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", but let's leave it at this: unless you can do them in a way that isn't a gimmick, please leave dinosaurs out of it, guys.    

The scene where I finally felt like the episode was on track occurs when Clara walks in on Madame Vastra admiring Jenny/working on the murder mystery and announces that she's found a clue to finding The Doctor in the newspaper. The trio puzzle over the meaning of the ad, and then we segway into one of the most simple and well-done dialogues between The Doctor and his companions I've seen in a long time as they sit down to lunch. 

Though there's a large faction of Whovians who are opposed to Moffat's complex story arcs, I've enjoyed them on the whole. Where I think the Moffat era falls down is on establishing credible characters in The Doctor's companions. Amy and Rory were acceptably fleshed out, for the most part, but River Song and Clara have only functioned as plot devices. Their entire reason for being and personalities have centered around The Doctor. So it was refreshing to actually learn a bit about Clara in this episode. Apparently she's a control freak with a bit of an ego (remind you of anyone?) and has a thing for Marcus Aurelius. I also appreciated Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax more than I ever have before, and thought including them in this transition episode was a smart choice.

Mostly, though, this episode worked best for me on a very meta level. I felt like I was, as an audience member, having a thoughtful dialogue with Steven Moffat himself. This conversation started with Madame Vastra's haughty speech to Clara about The Doctor's face. He's always looked young and pretty - who was that for? It was for you. It was for you, the viewer, who the BBC believed couldn't be interested in a Doctor unless he was handsome and clever and had a sense of boyish charm. He is an alien, and he is old, but the audience can accept him as our hero and even relate to him if he's wrapped up in the right sort of package. It worked so well with David Tennant, and then again with Matt Smith. This season breaks the mold and attempts to remove The Doctor's status as a flirty sex symbol without losing its target demographic. I'm certain we'll have some sexy new companions to fill that void, soon, anyway.  

This conversation picks back up at the end of the episode, when Clara receives a call from Matt Smith's doctor, who pleads with her to stay with this gruff new man in front of her. Capaldi's doctor lets Clara know he remembers the call - that he made the call - and asks her to see him for who he really is. There is so much media hype and attention surrounding the departure of an actor as The Doctor and the onboarding of a new actor, it's sometimes hard to remember that at the end of the day we are supposed to see this single, unending character as a through-line for the entire show. Eccleston to Tennant treated it as a fairly straightforward physical transformation, but Tennant to Smith was a massive event that the writers treated like the death of a character. This was partially because his run was longer and partially because the showrunner was changing hands, which certainly is more like the death of the character we knew. This time, though, I don't think Moffat wanted us to feel that way. 

Shuffling back to the plot end of things, I liked the call-back to "The Girl in the Fireplace" and am already frantically googling plot synopses of past episodes to predict where this season is going, particularly in regards to "The Promised Land" and the creepy woman we see in the final scene. There were some interesting religious themes here that I'm almost afraid to see the show explore (and honestly, they probably won't) in future episodes. More interesting, though, was the question: Did The Doctor push the android? Even if he told him he had to die and convinced him to jump instead, is that really any better than using his own hands? 

Part of me really wants to know The Doctor pushed him. That he was willing to sacrifice one life to save many, and that his rules aren't black and white. I'm not sure if this show has that courage. Still, when The Doctor tells the android that one of them has lied about their basic programming, all I could think about was a motif we saw throughout Matt Smith's run. 

The Doctor Lies.  

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