Take a deep breath

Finally got to see “Deep Breath”! It was again exhilirating to go in costume and watch a new episode in a theater packed with 200 other fans, though the atmosphere was nowhere near as electric as it was for the 50th anniversary. I’m not sure anything could beat that day. But it was fun, and we chatted in the theater with a lot of other people. And I got a lot of compliments on my Fifth Doctor outfit, so that was wonderful, too.

The episode… I’d love to say that I loved the episode, but I can’t really say that, unfortunately. What I’d really love is to come back to this post in a couple of months and read it, and say, “Wow, you really got that wrong! It was a great episode and you were so cynical.” But right now, I have to say what I’m thinking.

First, I want to say upfront that Mr. Capaldi was fantastic. He gave a brilliant performance, and he was fun to watch. I especially enjoyed his scene with the homeless guy. Though he was still in regeneration psychosis and therefore wasn’t his Doctor quite yet, it was superb. Of course, I’m not sure about his Doctor yet, because I didn’t feel like I really got to know much about him. He spent so much time in psychosis and then for the rest of the episode, he was either angsting it out with the robot or trying to get Clara to like him, so I really don’t have a good feel for who he is yet. He definitely seems to have a far more serious outlook – less energy and more gravitas, more like Hartnell, C. Baker, and McCoy, and less like T Baker, Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith – and that, so far, I like a lot.

Now, as far as the actual adventure part of the episode, that was a bit disappointing. The robots were suitably creepy, but they didn’t feel scary (and when I’m immersed in a theater and the monsters fill the whole screen and they don’t feel scary, there’s a problem there). The whole “they can tell you’re human thing because you’re breathing” thing was stupid enough that it destroyed my suspension of disbelief: any robot that can detect that you’re breathing should be able to also detect the many other signs that you’re human, such as involuntary eye movements and tremors because of being terrified. The plot of the adventure was very straightforward, but that’s okay, as it was a regeneration episode and the focus of the story was elsewhere (though I might point out that the adventure plot of “The Eleventh Hour” was nicely complex while not detracting from the main focus of the Doctor and Amy).

The rest of the story, though, was heavy-handed. The parallels drawn between the Doctor and the robot were laboriously drawn and repeated. Yes, they’re both long-lived; they both change faces; they both are striving for some ideal, some reward that doesn’t exist; they’re both tired of their struggle and don’t know if they want to continue on, if there’s really a good reason to keep fighting. We get it: the robot was meant to be a mirror. Same with the dinosaur: alone, far from home, the people around her don’t see her as a real individual, etc. I’ve seen it said that an author should show the reader things, rather than tell them, and I felt like this episode was trying to tell me to see the Doctor in these ways, rather than show him to me. Interestingly, the one thing that would have shown us an important point about the Doctor – whether he pushed the robot or talked the robot into jumping himself – was left ambiguous.

It bothers me quite a bit that the Doctor has lost the hope, the sense of renewed purpose, the “I’m going home” epiphany he had at the end of “The Day of the Doctor” (which should have been reinforced by actual proof that Gallifrey survived in “The Time of the Doctor”) and has returned to the “I’m so old and lost, what am I doing here? Am I doing the right thing?” theme of the Eleventh Doctor. I also know that this Doctor is supposed to be “dark,” but it didn’t sit well for me that his solution to the whole problem was to kill the robot (or get it to kill itself). The Doctor has always respected life and tried to find non-violent solutions for his enemies, even when it meant going far out of his way or even sacrificing himself. It doesn’t matter that this time it was a robot; he believes they have right to life, too (see “The Robots of Death,” for example). This time, the Doctor barely tried to figure out what the robot really wanted and switched to killing it, an odd decision especially after noting that the robot was more human than robot.

And then there’s Clara. It’s very difficult for me to look at Clara objectively, because she’s never had an actual character, changing her skills and thoughts and reactions each episode to fit whatever was needed to move the plot along: she’s an independent companion; no, she fancies the Doctor; no, the Doctor fancies her; she’s a live-in babysitter; oh, now she’s a trained and certified teacher; now she’s able to command an army; oh, wait, did you know the TARDIS doesn’t like her? This episode was focused a lot on her, as she struggled with accepting this new Doctor, and that’s great, because it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to accept such a huge change; Rose was unable to accept the new Doctor until he demonstrated that underneath it all, his base nature hadn’t changed. Clara had a worse time of it, because the surface attributes of the new Doctor are very different from his predecessor’s. She did a great job trying to deal with all of this; my only quibble with her was the early question of why he changed, which is something she should already understand (while she doesn’t remember all the things she did in the Doctor’s timestream, she does understand that he changes, and in fact remembered the Tenth Doctor when she met him, so she should get it on a basic level).

The biggest problem for me, though, (and you’ll note that it’s not a problem with Clara per se) was that the point of Clara not being willing to give the new Doctor a try was pounded home so heavily that I felt like Moffat was trying to speak to the fan base through Clara, saying, “Hey, I know this guy looks different, and he’s very different from the Eleventh Doctor, but give him a chance and stick around.” This was only reinforced by the appearance of Eleventh Doctor, calling Clara to tell her that the new Doctor is scared and need her help, so please stick with him. Show us that this new Doctor is brilliant! Don’t tell us that he is! And certainly don’t beg us to stay! It also really rubbed me the wrong way that Clara is basically staying with the Doctor out of pity. She should be staying because she genuinely connects with him or because she’s not sure but wants more time to get to know him, not because he begged her to or because he’s frightened. And it disappointed me to see the Eleventh Doctor again. This is the Twelfth Doctor’s debut episode: give him his chance to chance to shine, and don’t steal the limelight away. I love that they set up the scene in “The Time of the Doctor” by showing the hanging phone – it’s always a thrill when you get to see that they planned that much ahead – but it otherwise felt like cheap fanservice.

Then, there’s the Paternoster gang. It was nice to see more of the relationship between Vastra and Jenny, but what we did see disturbed me. There were two scenes that I think were included for comic effect: Vastra saying that Jenny pretends to be her servant in public and Jenny asking why she serves the tea in private, and Vastra having Jenny pose for no reason. It was evident in both scenes that Jenny was not amused and rather offended, and it amazed me that a strong, confident woman like her would meekly submit to such psychological abuse. I’ll allow for Vastra being a Silurian who doesn’t think like a human, but it really made me no longer like her, and it still bothered me a lot that her treating her wife in those ways is considered comedy.

Then there was the final robot showdown, in which none of the three experienced combatants, one of which was armed with a blaster gun, was able to harm any of the robots at all. Clara told them all to hold their breath (Really? A robot suddenly thinks the human in front of him is a robot because he stops breathing?), and they waited. During this time, Strax, the Sontaran who lives for battle, believes that the most glorious way to die fighting, and continued to fight when the Whispermen had their hands in his body grabbing his heart, trembled in fear. And to help Jenny survive the press of hostile robots, Vastra gave her air in the form in a slow passionate kiss (which for some reason isn’t a clue to the robots that these figures aren’t actually robots). The word for this is “contrived.” Rather than keep them in character and let them fight like the warriors they are and build the tension by having them get whittled down by overwhelming numbers, they went for the cheap emotions.

And I think that’s the real problem I had with this episode. The whole thing felt too contrived: two characters who are mostly unable to speak (the dinosaur and the robot) so that the Doctor can have long monologues to draw clumsy parallels between himself and them and implausible enemies and situations to put the companion in a place where the Doctor leaves her behind and to give the couple a chance to kiss onscreen. And it all seemed to be purposefully done this way to tell us what we should think about the new Doctor, rather than let us make up our own minds.

Lastly, there’s the closing scene with Missy. I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I really disliked in Series 5, 6, and 7 was the handling of the overplot, where some snippet of information was unveiled in the first episode (the crack, Madame Kovarian’s eyes, the “Impossible Girl”) and then in each succeeding episode, it’s thrown at the screen each time (often as an extra scene without being part of the story) without giving the audience any more information about it, until it’s suddenly explained at the end of the arc. I dislike it because it doesn’t invite the audience to participate: there’s nothing the viewer can do to try understand what’s going on through the season until everything is revealed, and going back later and seeing those things doesn’t contribute to the thrill of the story, because they meant so little.  (Compare to going back to “Smith and Jones” and discovering that Harold Saxon was the person who ordered the military to fire on the Webstar, demonstrating that the Master was already putting his plan into place.) The Missy scene had the same vibe and did nothing for me. I’d like to hope I’m wrong and that the Doctor encounters her early on so that she is an active participant in the season plot.

That’s it. I really wanted to love this episode, but when the lights turned on in the theater, I was rather glad it was over. I’m hoping that time and rewatching will improve my opinion of it (it usually does – I don’t think there’s a single episode that I haven’t liked better on rewatch, but then I’ve never rewatched “Love and Monsters” and “The Rings of Akhaten” a second time). I am still eager for the rest of the season, as the performances were wonderful and the Doctor is intriguing and compelling, so here’s to Saturday!

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11 responses to “Take a deep breath

  1. It was pretty funny in places but I also don’t like his loss of hope…and I see the “there is no promised land” thing as a bit too atheistic – it’s a little alienating to the ‘religious’ Whovians out there. Also I like them having a same-sex couple, but yes the trio were all…*different* somehow.

    • Hm, I can see that about the “no promised land” thing, that it can rub someone the wrong way. The idea of the promised land bugged me because the robot was supposed to mirror the Doctor, so does that mean the Doctor has some “promised land” he’s striving for? As far as I know, the Doctor has always been a traveler, exploring new places and righting wrongs when he can; the concept that he’s searching for some end goal has never come up before, and kind of ruins his mystique. I don’t consider searching for Gallifrey a “promised land” quest, because it’s really a short-term goal (for a Time Lord, anyway).

  2. I agree with you. loved capaldi, did not enjoy the story (and the writing) so much… Matt Smith appearing made me want to throw my comment at the TV! Moffat shouldn’t have done that to Peter Capaldi…

    • People seem to be polarized about the episode – it was either great or terrible. I expect it’ll be better on rewatch. But it hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for the upcoming episodes!

  3. The episode worked for me emotionally and thematically, but you’ve got valid points on its problems, especially those plot issues. The “hold your breath” thing was creepy but it needed a lot more work to be usable — like aliens that have no senses other than motion in the atmosphere or something, I dunno. And it seems like they forgot all the stuff they’d already established as far as the Doctor and Clara’s personal arcs… which has been a problem before, as you mention with the “overarching plot” that’s really just repeated glimpses of the same thing over and over until it’s explained, and the fact that Clara keeps changing for no reason.

    • Ooh, yes, I’d love to have seen an alien that has alternate senses that they had to figure out to exploit. I could imagine a stop-motion thing, where the Doctor and Clara have to stay perfectly still, and one moves to draw the thing in one direction, then the other moves to draw it the other way, etc.

  4. I did get a little confused there, on some parts. Glad to see others with similar thoughts, makes me feel less foolish.

    Who was that weird lady, “Missy”, anyway? I don’t get her. First that robot and then [Archeology – love a tomb.]. She’s strange.

    • I think we’re supposed to just be confused about Missy – creepy and menacing but utterly unfathomable until she’s all spelled out at the end of the season. That’s the way the story’s worked for the past five seasons.

  5. Pingback: It’s finally over… | Maius Intra Qua Extra

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