Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Deep Breath"

They're really not all bad.
This is Peter Capaldi's first episode as the Twelfth Doctor, but it almost doesn't feel like it. Beyond his cameo in "The Day of the Doctor" and of course his initial appearance in "The Time of the Doctor" there's been an enormous amount of press building up to the character. We've seen his costume. They've toured the world. Furthermore, contrary to the BBC's best laid plans (unless you want to be a conspiracy theorist about it) multiple scripts and unfinished copies of episodes were leaked prior to the start of the Series. I didn't watch these, not to avoid spoilers but simply because I couldn't be arsed. Nonetheless it's been so publicised that I actually feel like Capaldi's been the Doctor for a while. Maybe it's for that reason that "Deep Breath" isn't the most striking introduction for a new Doctor. I wrote this paragraph initially comparing all the Doctor introduction episodes of Old and New, but once I found myself putting "Deep Breath" in the same category as "The Twin Dilemma" and "Time and the Rani" the whole thing started to feel totally disingenuous. This is why I prefer to consider Doctor Who and New Who to be different shows. Comparing a mediocre New episode to a mediocre-to-bad Old serial feels like comparing monasticism to a pair of socks - totally meaningless. I'll save the comparisons to the other New Who firsts for the end and say simply this: It's been over a year since an actual Series of New Who was on, specials notwithstanding, and yet Capaldi doesn't feel like an unknown quantity, partly because of all the press and partly because he's a known actor. There's a definite incongruity here for me. Let's get started.
"Strax, you know you're not allowed to
eat in the same restaurants as us."
So there's an oversized Tyrannosaurus wandering in the Thames but the people of London aren't especially bothered. Is this sort of the RTD "everyone becomes accustomed to aliens" effect but applied to Victorian London because Moffat Who has so many episodes there? Of course Vastra, Jenny and Strax show up. The three of them have a special name but I'm not writing it because it's lame. Anyway we get rammed home as usual how Vastra is a lizard, is familiar with lizard issues due to being a lizard, and is a lizard: "not since I was a little girl," "I was there," etc. This is why Vastra annoys me: she's a boring, smug character whose entire personality is being condescending and drawing attention to the fact that she's a lizard. There's plenty of redundant dialogue, like her complaining about the detective's "grasp of biology" as the TARDIS is regurgitated onto the shore. The dino is restrained with technobabble devices from the props department while the Twelfth Doctor appears. He gets to bust out some routine "funny racism," comparing Strax to the Seven Dwarfs and calling Vastra "the green one." He addresses the dinosaur, telling it he's "not flirting" which sets up a recurring ham-fisted point in the episode that the Doctor's not quite the romantic lead he has been in New Who days gone by and how you have to deal with it. More redundant dialogue includes a pointless mention of Handles the Head from the previous episode and another instance of the "speak x" joke, in this case "I speak dinosaur." For a first episode it really feels like Moffat on autopilot, indulging in the same old quips and conceits. Capaldi's better at delivering some of the exaggerated exclamations that Smith ended up doing a lot, but it doesn't change the fact that it's inferior dialogue. Clara's obviously flustered about the change in the Doctor, who passes out. Roll titles!
Sudden characterisation overdose.
The new intro is based on something a fan produced, with very overt 'clock' imagery. Moffat made one of his usual stupid generalisations about how it was the only original idea for the intro since '63, but even I, Hartnell fan that I am, must argue that the intro used from Season 11 to Season 17 ('73 to '80, primarily associated with Mister Tom Baker) is the best. The new theme tune arrangement is a bit anaemic in my opinion, but the whole thing has been totally overwrought and overembellished since 2005 anyway, as if the original tune isn't really good enough. Anyway, in Vastra and Jenny's house Capaldi complains about the bed and people's accents, then gets hypnotised by Vastra and passes out. Bizarrely, a Carry On-style comedy "blonk" noise plays when he flops unconscious onto the bed. I don't know what on earth they were thinking with that one, it seems like something someone would have put in as a joke in the editing booth and it accidentally got left in. Moffat uses Vastra to do a bit more of his incompetent "I'm not sexist, I swear!" routine by having her refer exclusively to men as "monkeys." I just want to address this for a moment. Moffat makes these kinds of jokes all the time, and it's not feminist, and it's not egalitarian. He seems to think the best thing is everyone making generalisations about everyone else, instead of no one doing it. Vastra also says that "people are apes" but of course Time Lords aren't, I think (to go full anorak about this) they're descended from reptiles. Anyway, Clara lets slip that she wants to change him back. Vastra insists that they have a chat, and Clara complains to Jenny that he looks old. She's seen all his different incarnations before due to that stupid thing in "The Name of the Doctor" where she jumped through the big glowing hole in time and space and the special effects budget and ended up in stock footage. Is it just a way of addressing the fans who objected to a New Who Doctor being older than those previous? In any event, some people think it doesn't make sense, but I think it's reasonable to consider that Clara knew the Doctor had looked old, but liked and was accustomed to him looking young. Not too much of a stretch, I would argue. I like the bit where the Doctor translates the perturbed thoughts of the dinosaur. It is, however, a typical heavy-handed parallel with the Doctor himself and too much attention is brought to it by Clara flat out asking if he's translating. It constantly frustrates me how Moffat can't permit subtlety because it denies him an opportunity to gloat. Strax asks for Clara's clothes because Moffat's thinking "phwoar," clearly and wants the idea of Jenna Coleman with her gear off hanging in the air. It should have cut away when Strax asked "are you wearing a hat?" because once again the subsequent dialogue ("it's hair" etc) is laboured and not funny.
"Was that some sort of reference to me not being married?"
Out in the street the Victorian people are pretty nonplussed by the huge dinosaurs even though knowledge of them wouldn't have been very widespread at the time, especially accurate reconstructions. A clockwork man then murders some bloke with big muttonchops in plain sight. Did no one hear the scream? Back at the mansion Vastra berates Clara about acceptance and how she shouldn't be so superficial about the Doctor's appearance. Clara at least gets some characterisation here, which she's been completely lacking previously. I read a stupid thing recently about how Moffat's unresolved plots are trying to emphasise that people matter more than events, but that can't work when the characters are so underwritten. While Peter Capaldi scrawls all over the floor with chalk, Jenny makes the point I myself once did about why she's the maid if they're supposedly married. Vastra tells her to be quiet and it goes unanswered. Vastra also implies that she judges people because they're so intolerant of differences. So she's intolerance intolerant. Are we just meant to find her unpleasant? Upstairs Capaldi becomes all self-referential, declaring that the door is "not me." Why must characters always draw attention to their own behaviour? Meanwhile Clara is inexplicably blowing up at Vastra about Marcus Aurelius for some reason, a historical figure with whom she appears to be obsessed given that she was quoting him in that shit Anniversary Special. Vastra makes another lame joke about how the Doctor had him playing bass in a band. How does she know the Doctor so bloody well? What's with all these characters like Vastra and "Tasha Lem" and River sodding Song who are complete nonentities themselves, yet seem to know so much about the Doctor? It's just lazy writing and cheap jokes. Clara stands up for herself, which is nice, but it seems to come out of nowhere. I've realised what this is. I feel like we're getting glimpses of some narrative (characterisation and all) that really only exists as a web of vague ideas in Moffat's head, but he thinks we all know as well.
"WHO? AM? I?"
Capaldi has to dish out some horrific dialogue up on the roof, yelling at the dinosaur that it's a "big sexy woman." After declaring he's going to get it home, it's immediately set on fire. Capaldi starts arseing about on a horse with the others in pursuit, which makes them seem even more pointless. There's no need for these characters to be here. They barely had a relationship with Smith's Doctor, they have no relationship with Capaldi's Doctor and their interactions with Clara are very heavy handed. We get cheesy music in pursuit, and a cheesy "automatic car lock" joke with Vastra's carriage that RTD already did in "The End of Time" with David Tennant in a lei. We never actually see what's happening in the river: is it too unpleasant? No one seems to react with more than shock, not horror or disgust. Not enough money, then. Capaldi declares that the important issue is whether there have been similar murders, nothing more. I'll give Moffat one thing - he's quite adept at making his writing seem clever when it actually isn't. Capaldi jumps in the water - we get a begrudging shot of what looks like a barely-disturbed puddle - and now we're back to Vastra's house for more stuffing around. There isn't enough plot to fill this huge episode. Strax won't stop making worn-out "I'm a reformed villain" jokes. There's a bit where he knocks Clara out with a newspaper which I find funny but really shouldn't. It's pure slapstick, and I've become desensitised through relentless punishment. Clara now runs into Jenny, who implies that Vastra kills and eats the suspects in her murder cases. What about the Victorian version of due process? There must have been one. Remember that Holmes story where he belted the killer over the back of the head with the poker after getting a full confession and then he and Watson ate him for tea? Yes, she's a lizard. I get it. Strax gives Clara a medical, with more nudity jokes and Clara being attributed these personality traits she never displays in her behaviour. So after a feeble effort at legitimate characterisation, Moffat decides showing is too hard and it's time to just start telling again.
"Aw, tha's roobash."
Meanwhile, Peter Capaldi's rooting around in a bin. He bothers a tramp, makes the obligatory reference to Tom Baker's scarf and wonders why his face is familiar. We have of course seen him a worrying six years ago as of transmission in the funny old Roman Empire. So that episode, an RTD/Tennant one, had Karen Gillan and Capaldi. Three different New Who periods represented. Weird. Anyway, Capaldi was in that, and Moffat of course can't disappoint the eagle-eyed fans who've noticed and are threatening to not watch because they can't accept actors in multiple roles in a fictional television program about a time travelling alien. Presumably the name "Commander Maxil" is totally alien to them as well. I believe Capaldi was also in one of the later series of Torchwood but I don't count that as canon even to New Who due to the fact that it's so incredibly shit. He goes on about his face and being Scottish before discovering that spontaneous combustions have been going on. Back at the house Vastra and Jenny blather on about being married before establishing that such combustion would conceal missing parts of the body. I don't think this ever really gets borne out. There's yet another joke about Clara getting naked and then they discover an ad in the paper for the 'Impossible Girl,' a piece of marketing that Clara applies to herself.
It's in the spirit of Robert Holmes.
To cut a long story short she figures out that she needs to go to some restaurant where she meets up with Capaldi. We're less than half the episode in, but this is basically the final setting. We get stuck here for ages. Why does everything lately seem to have a first act and a third act with no second act? Did everyone forget how to write second acts? I guess you could say this has a second act, but when it's over less than halfway through I'm not sure that counts. There's a long conversation about how the ad got in the paper because neither the Doctor nor Clara put it in there. There's some more meaningless armchair psychology of Clara. I don't know why it's such a recurring thing here. Then we discover the restaurant is a trap full of clockwork diners. They move whenever the Doctor and Clara move. Not enough is made of this. There could have been some interesting scene displaying how they escape, but no, they just sit down again. People have pointed out an existing Doctor Who connection here, to the old 'Daleks' computer game. Capaldi asks the clockwork waiter about the children's menu, but sadly doesn't inquire about whether or not it includes chicken nuggets. You should check - they almost always do, no matter what else is on there. I'm not saying you should order them, just see if they have them, out of pure curiosity.
"Have you seen the one where I swear a lot?
The thing everyone thinks is the only thing I've ever done?"
Then the booth they're sitting in drops into the floor, but the camera cuts away so that they don't actually have to show this happening on the set or location used for the restaurant. More budgetary issues, I guess. Downstairs is a beat up old spaceship set crewed by clockwork robots. Capaldi complains about the lack of Amy due to Clara's struggle to reach the sonic screwdriver on the floor with her feet. A reference to Amy's alleged legs? Moffat can't even lech over one woman in this script. We also get a knob gag when the sonic screwdriver lands on Capaldi's crotch. They get up and we get a decent line when Capaldi says he doesn't know if the robots are dormant, "I'm just hoping." References accumulate to "The Girl in the Fireplace" from a worrying eight years ago, but they also of course abound to 2011's "Closing Time" which also featured an underground spaceship with partially organic, partially mechanical beings who took people's bits. It all feels very repetitious. In this case, the legitimate spin is that rather than it being a man turning himself into a robot, it's a robot turning himself into a man. Why? God knows. When they try to escape Capaldi faffs around and the two get separated, so he proceeds to ditch her. We then get some genuinely torturous sequences as Clara has to hold her breath to avoid detection. Why do the robots detect breath but not, say, heartbeat, or anything else? There's no real reason, it's just an alternative to "Don't blink," some other involuntary action. Clara escapes but is instantly recaptured, which is all very exciting. When she has her oxygen-deprived flashback to her teaching classroom, how come the kid who goads her to make good on her threat is black? Also, the whole premise of this is that the biggest threat should always be made last. Fair enough, but what teacher has ever threatened to expel their students the first thing they do? She never even suggests detention. I believe Moffat was a teacher for a bit. Maybe he did this and still has hang-ups about it, like virtually everything else in his scripts.
"I'm not MacIntyre, sir."
Now we get to spend ages on this spaceship set not doing anything. The robot captain takes his hand off for some reason so he can get his flamethrower out and be all menacing, then he starts going on about the "promised land" which is Moffat's new plot hook. Capaldi reappears and says something about Clara being a "control freak." How is she a control freak? The pop psychology in this episode is really worn out. Then Vastra, Jenny and Strax drop in so that we can have this episode's obligatory big fight. Vastra declares that the robots must surrender "in the name of the British Empire." Have I ever mentioned Moffat's fetish for British Imperialism? They've called the police too, something Clara complains that the Doctor never does. Hopefully this was an intentional contrast between Vastra, who seems to rely on "the establishment" to give her authority, and the Doctor, who utilises his own moral judgement rather than allegiance to any kind of institution. Moffat probably just thinks talking about "the British Empire" sounds cool, though. The robot captain boasts about his ruthlessness with the fact that he burned up a whole dinosaur just for the optic nerve. So did they extract the nerve and then burn it? Because otherwise that would be quite tricky. He then gets back onto his chair lift and escapes. It has an absurdly convenient handy-hold on the bottom for Capaldi to cling on to so he can follow. Meanwhile Clara and the three stiffs get menaced by the other clockwork people.
"I have a Scottish accent, so I'm of course
cheap, mean and an alcoholic."
Upstairs in the restaurant the Doctor pours the robot captain a stiff one: he has "a horrible feeling I'm going to have to kill you." One of the better lines, in my view, but this whole scene is okay. Of course we discover these robots are from another French-themed spaceship, the "Marie Antoinette" which was associated with the "Madame de Pompadour" from "The Girl in the Fireplace." Funny coincidence. The restaurant takes off on a skin balloon for a bit of grossness. Isn't skin porous? How do they keep the air in? Anyway the Doctor tries to convince the robot man to give up because he's on a fool's errand: "There isn't any promised land... it's a superstition that you've picked up." I quite like the Doctor making a kind of flat out declaration like this, but when he compares the robot man to Trigger's Broom from Only Fools and Horses with the different brushes and handles, I don't see the point. Obviously it's meant to be comparable to his own regeneration, but more murderous. The correct term for this scenario is the "Ship of Theseus" paradox, but heaven forbid anything is ever presented in a remotely intellectual fashion. Still, why is that in particular relevant to the failure of the clockwork people's mission? I get that the fact that they've killed so many people is their chief crime, but how does the actual replacement of their original parts have any bearing on anything? Why are they taking human parts, anyway? Maybe I missed this. Conveniently, the Doctor deduces that the captain is the "control node" or whatever so that like so many things these days if he stops functioning, all the others will too. More laziness.
Two struggles ensue: overwhelmed by clockwork people, Clara and the others decide to hold their breaths which nonsensically stops the droids from detecting them, and Moffat sneaks in his girl girl kiss as Vastra breathes extra air into Jenny. Meanwhile the Doctor and the captain conflict over whether the robot should jump or if the Doctor's going to have to push him. It's a bit of an old-school style grappling sequence which cuts away before we know which is lying about their inability to either self-destruct or kill. All we see is the captain absurdly impaled on top of Big Ben. It's a decent confrontation in terms of discussion, at least. Somehow everyone escapes and Clara returns to the house for a final scene with Vastra, who gives her some sagacious advice from out of nowhere about herself and the Doctor. I wish it had been Jenny because Vastra is boring. The TARDIS appears and Clara discovers its redesigned interior with some books and such. She cracks out the "You've redecorated," line, the third time Moffat has done it in his tenure. Why? We get an extraordinarily clunky line where Capaldi says "Clara, I'm not your boyfriend." Then he shows off his new outfit. They discover that someone is trying to keep them together because of the ad in the paper. The Woman in the Shop who had the TARDIS' phone number is mentioned. Now back in my review of "The Bells of Saint John" I said: "For posterity's sake let it be known that this never gets resolved, it's just pointless throwaway dialogue. I will consume my own trousers with brown sauce if it ever is. Just kidding, I won't do that, I'll just complain about whatever godawful stupid resolution with which we are provided." Well, we'll see where that goes and if I ever do end up having to bust out the Worcestershire in a few months' time.
"Why am I still in this?"
Back in the present Clara gets a phone call. Lo and behold, it's Matt Smith on the set of "The Time of the Doctor," telling her to give Capaldi a chance. How worried were they that audiences wouldn't accept him? It's an okay scene, but a bit self-indulgent. I would have preferred the Doctor being glad to be older, maybe remarking that he hadn't been older for ages or something. Anyway she thanks Capaldi for the Doctorly phone call (albeit one made by a different Doctor) and they go and get coffee. Hurrah. Meanwhile in a garden somewhere Miss Pickwell from Bad Education swans around with an umbrella, telling the robot man that he's in heaven. She calls herself "Missy." Is she the Master? Only time will tell.
"It's just a very large belt buckle."
So there's "Deep Breath" for you. As an episode itself I think it's a bit thin, needing a more developed plot. Some of the characterisation for Clara and the Doctor is welcome, but not very subtle. The best scene is probably the confrontation between the Doctor and the robot captain at the end. Vastra, Jenny and Strax are utterly redundant and their recurring elements, like the marriage and Strax's jokes, are completely worn out by now. Do something new with them or don't do anything at all. The stuff about Clara's mental state is laboured and unconvincing as well. As usual there's too much "tell" that isn't even backed up by any "show." The efforts to encourage the audience to accept Capaldi is similarly unsubtle. The best part of this is Capaldi himself, who is able to deliver most of the dialogue decently, but the whole thing is still overflowing with unnecessary quips, jibes and absurdities that serve no purpose. Do these make people laugh? They make me cringe. As far as New Who introductory episodes go, it's not as effective as "The Eleventh Hour," but better than "The Christmas Invasion" largely because the Doctor's actually in it. It's probably about as average as, say, "Rose," but more laboured. It's too long for what it's trying to do, and either needed a sub plot or to be shorter. I found it much less enjoyable on the second viewing. I think there was a perception that we might have been moving into a new era with this series, but don't hold your breath.

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