It didn’t happen.
Regeneration is always a tricky thing for Doctor Who and its fans. No other show in the history of television has set itself such a challenge, or placed such a preposterous demand on its viewers. Oh, we’ve been asked to accept New Darrens, and New Beckys, and New Daarios, but no show has built an entire franchise around only one permanent character, and then asked us—every few years—to accept a completely different actor in the role. (James Bond is perhaps the only comparable franchise, and movies—with years between installments, and very little continuity linking them—are a different kettle of fish altogether.) When you think about it, it’s surprising the show survived its first regeneration, way back in 1966, let alone 11 regenerations over fifty years. It really shouldn’t work at all.
And yet, somehow, it does. I always counsel new Who fans through their first regeneration by telling them it’s a lot like a bad breakup: at first you will mourn, and you will be angry, and you will fear that you will never be happy with anyone else. But then—much sooner than you expect—you will fall in love again, and you’ll be so happy with the new person that you can’t really remember how you ever lived without them.
Sometimes it happens right away. For me, Matt Smith was the Doctor, right out of the box. (Pun intended.) Whatever doubts I had about him from his first, brief appearance in “The End of Time, Part II”—No, he’s too young, and seems kind of spastic—and from seeing the actor interviewed—God, he really does flap his hands about a lot when he talks, doesn’t he?—were completely forgotten the moment he popped his head out of the TARDIS in Amelia Pond’s garden in “The Eleventh Hour.” I adored him on sight, and by the time (just 10 minutes later) that he uttered the words “Trust me, I’m the Doctor,” I did trust him, completely.
The Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, was another almost immediate connection. Very early in his first episode “Rose,” he stops running around and politely introduces himself, and then he says “Nice to meet you, Rose. Now run for your life!” Suddenly, instantly, this complete stranger was the Doctor: you could just see the quintessential Time Lord, Tom Baker, smiling through Eccleston’s face.
But, sometimes, it takes longer. We were a full forty minutes into “The Christmas Invasion” before I even began to see Eccleston’s successor, David Tennant, as the Doctor, and it was still several episodes—not very good ones, to be fair—before it began to feel right. But somewhere in his fourth episode, “School Reunion”—aided considerably by the confirmation of classic-series companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—Tennant, too, became the Doctor. Four years later, when he finally stepped down from the role, it felt like he always had been the Doctor, and it was inconceivable that anyone else could take his place.
My point is, it happens differently with different Doctors, and differently for different viewers. Sometimes it happens fast. (Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, like Smith, owned the role almost instantly.) Sometimes it takes many episodes. (I was very slow to warm to Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, and Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, who were both on their second companions before they really came to life for me.) Sometimes, it might even take years. (I rather enjoyed Colin Baker’s performance as the Sixth Doctor—though his material was not often up to snuff—but many fans believe he didn’t hit his stride until long after he left the series, in the non-canonical Big Finish audio plays.)
But it always happens, and you have to trust it: it’s the circle of life, the cycle of being a Doctor Who fan.
So I’m disappointed, but not too terribly worried, that that magical moment hasn’t happened yet, for me, with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. Peter Capaldi will become the Doctor—he may even become my Doctor—but it didn’t happen in “Deep Breath.” I didn’t feel it. I didn’t see it. I didn’t have that thrilling rush of recognition, that comforting sense that everything old was new again, and that nothing that mattered would really change. OK, he’s got this. We’re in good hands. Everything is going to be fine. That’s what I want to feel from a regeneration episode, and it didn’t happen in “Deep Breath.”
“I’m not sure I know who the Doctor is anymore.” — Clara
This was always going to be a tough regeneration. Anyone who has read my reviews before has heard me blather on about what I have been calling the “Moffat Masterplan,” a long-term reconstruction project that is now mostly complete. When executive producer Stephen Moffat took over from Russell T Davies in 2010, he could have just rebooted the show in an entirely different tone right from the start—but he didn’t. Instead, he spent three long years patiently reworking the show, within continuity, to undo certain aspects of Davies’ version.
Moffat inherited a Doctor who was an all-powerful, messianic celebrity, and he’s been carefully turning him back into the anonymous “cosmic hobo” of the classic series ever since. Some of the more high-profile incidents in the Doctor’s adventures on Earth? Gone, fallen through the cracks in time during Season Five. Everyone in the universe knowing who the Doctor is? Gone, as he faked his death and was deleted from every database in the universe during Season Six. The Doctor being able to solve every problem by waving his giant reputation around? Gone: after Season Seven’s “Asylum of the Daleks,” even his greatest enemies don’t know who he is anymore. Finally, in “The Day of the Doctor“—Matt Smith’s penultimate episode—Moffat undid the core character trait of Davies’ rebooted Doctor: his survivor’s guilt. The Doctor didn’t destroy Gallifrey in the Time War: in fact, he saved it. He’s not the “lonely angel” anymore; he’s not the warrior “soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies”; he’s not even the Last of the Time Lords.
It wasn’t always pretty, it didn’t always make sense, and—like any good reconstruction project—it created as many messes as it cleaned up. However—though I enjoyed the Davies era, and think the emotional baggage was key to re-introducing the Doctor to a modern audience—I’m generally in favor of the Moffat Masterplan: the guilt was getting old, the “lonely angel” thing was played out, the Doctor solving problems with his fearsome reputation was overused, and the possibility of Gallifrey’s return opens up a world of stories that was previously closed off.
Matt Smith’s last episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” snipped some of the dangling threads and swept up some of the leftover parts from the reconstruction. And then it had one bit of major reworking to do: it gave us a radically different Doctor than we’d seen in over 20 years. Thirty-year-old Matt Smith suddenly disappeared, and in his place was a grey-haired man in his mid-50s. Who is this guy? He’s so OLD.
“Old” shouldn’t be a problem—in the classic series, of course, the Doctor was almost always well over 40—but Davies had introduced the idea of Doctor as love-interest, even as sex-symbol. This began during Eccleston’s run, but it really bloomed—from ever-present subtext to overwhelming text—during David Tennant’s era. Now young, handsome, charming, and flirty, the Doctor became, in the last four years of Davies’ reign, something he was never meant to be: he became a tragically romantic figure, an object of unrequited love, a figure of thwarted desire. (As I have said before, this element was present in the classic series, but only in very subtle ways: the Third Doctor giving Jo Grant a wistful look at her wedding in “The Green Death” is a far cry from a Doctor Clone running off to live happily ever after with Rose in “Journey’s End.”)
Because of this (for some viewers), and in spite of this (for others), Tennant became the most popular Doctor since (at least) Tom Baker. When it came time to replace Tennant, Moffat wisely chose not to make too big a departure. (Again, he could have replaced Tennant with an older man, but he might have had a fan-riot on his hands.) Instead, he went with Matt Smith, casting a Doctor who was even younger than Tennant, but somehow slightly less swoonworthy: the Eleventh Doctor was a little less suave, a little more awkward, and absolutely disinterested in anything resembling a romantic relationship. (He had fun with River Song, but—even when they got married—the Doctor himself seemed detached and completely incapable of swooning himself. He wasn’t a tragic lover like Tennant had been: he may have looked like a young man, but inside he was the absent-minded professor, the ancient grandfather for whom sexual desire was mostly a distant memory.)
Matt Smith was brilliant in his own right, but in this regard he also represented a clever bit of transitional casting: Amy Pond (Karen Gillen) lusted after him for a while—the way other companions had done when Davies was showrunner—but even she eventually realized that he just wasn’t that kind of guy.
With his reconstruction project nearly complete, getting rid of the idea of the Doctor as a potential love interest or sexual partner for 20-something women was clearly Moffat’s next priority. Peter Capaldi is a very attractive man, and I’m sure he makes plenty of fans swoon, but he’s 56 years old: he’s actually a few months older than William Hartnell was when he first played the grandfatherly First Doctor in 1963, making him the oldest inheritor of the role so far.
This was a risk: while older fans remembered the Doctor as an avuncular old gentleman, an entire generation of Doctor Who fans had grown up with a young(ish) Doctor surrounded by romantic and sexual tension. Some fans, in fact, reacted badly to the news that Capaldi had been cast, because he wasn’t young and sexy enough. (Frankly, however, the backlash against this backlash has been uglier than the backlash itself: it has become popular to dismiss the disappointed as shallow “fangirls,” as though “fanboys” are never concerned with appearances. To which I would simply say: ask Catherine Tate about that.)
But I digress: my point is, this was always going to be a difficult regeneration. “A whopper,” as a very special guest-star dubs it late in “Deep Breath.” As we enter Season Eight, nearly everything about Doctor Who has changed from what the show had become over the past decade. Some fans are going to have trouble adjusting, and Moffat knows that.
“It’s like I’m trying to tell myself something, like I’m trying to make a point.” — The Doctor
This awareness of fan reaction helps explain why “Deep Breath”—written by Moffat and directed by Who newcomer Ben Wheatley (Kill List)—is arguably the most meta episode of Doctor Who since 1988’s “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.” (That four-part McCoy story, set in a cosmic circus, occurred when the struggling show was on the verge of cancellation. It featured—among other elements—an obsessive fanboy who thought the circus wasn’t as good as it used to be, and a godlike audience that killed performers who failed to sufficiently entertain them.)
“Deep Breath” isn’t quite that self-consciously meta, but it’s close. And this is part of why the episode just doesn’t completely work for me: it is (understandably, but regrettably) trying a little too hard. Personally, I like regeneration stories where the Doctor just immediately gets on with being the Doctor: that’s what makes me trust a new Time Lord. (I have never been able to stand 1982’s “Castrovalva,” in which the newly regenerated Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, spends four whole episodes being crazy and annoying.) The best thing Moffat and Co. could have done to prove that Capaldi could be a great Doctor would be to simply show us he’s a great Doctor. (This is exactly what they did with Smith in “The Eleventh Hour.”)
Instead, “Deep Breath” is almost entirely dedicated to convincing us to give Capaldi a chance, and lecturing us on what loving the Doctor truly means. Nearly everything in this episode is a metaphor, none of it is very subtle, and a lot of it is downright condescending. As the episode opens, a dinosaur is roaming Victorian London—a dinosaur, it turns out, that has actually swallowed the TARDIS. It’s not the most flattering parallel Moffat could make to Capaldi’s taking over Doctor Who, but it’s a little clever, and it’s definitely intended. Have you ever seen the like, someone asks? “Not since I was a little girl,” Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) says—a line that serves double-meaning, literally referencing her own prehistoric origins, but figuratively reminding us that even the older fans were children the last time they saw such an ancient creature as Capaldi operating the TARDIS. Later, a delirious Doctor “translates” for the dinosaur: “Can’t see me, doesn’t see me,” which is then called back throughout when both Vastra and the Doctor accuse Clara (Jenna Coleman) of not being able to “see” him now. The Doctor and the dinosaur are spiritual twins, just misunderstood ancient creatures unfairly judged by shallow onlookers.
A more interesting metaphor for the Doctor—and the show—comes in the form of “the Half-Face Man” (Peter Ferdinando), an ancient automaton (and relation of the Clockwork Men from the second story Moffat wrote, “The Girl in the Fireplace”). The Half-Face Man has spent millions of years keeping himself alive by replacing bits of himself from the “spare parts” of other people. “You are a broom,” the Doctor tells him.
“Question: you take a broom, you replace the handle, and then later you replace the brush. And you do that, over and over again. Is it still the same broom? Answer: no, of course it isn’t, but you can still sweep the floor. (Which is not strictly relevant: skip that last part.) You have replaced every piece of yourself, mechanical and organic, time and time again. There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.”
Once again, in case we miss the metaphor, we get it underlined unmistakably—this time in a shot framing a reflection of the Doctor’s face with that of the Half-Face Man. But it’s an important question for the Doctor, the question everyone is asking after a regeneration: once you’ve replaced everything, are you still the same man? And it’s an important question for Doctor Who: fifty years later, after every actor, every writer, every producer, every piece of music, every prop and screwdriver and piece of the TARDIS has been replaced, over and over again, is it really the same show? Can it ever really be the same show? We can hear in this, I think, I little of the motive behind the Moffat Masterplan: the show had changed so much that it seemed to bear, at times, very little resemblance to the show it used to be. “There’s more human in you than machine,” the Doctor tells the Half-Face Man—and this, too, has been a criticism of the era of New Who: the Doctor has become too normal, too relatable, too human.
But it’s Clara who bears the lion’s share of the meta-commentary this week, being made to stand in for all the disgruntled fangirls (and fanboys) who just aren’t sure whether this old man is the sort of Doctor they want to spend time with. “How do we fix him? How do we change him back?” she asks Vastra, who instantly takes offense: Vastra is a true fan, one who loves the Doctor in all his forms. “What have I done wrong?” Clara asks Jenny (Catrin Stewart), because it feels like a valid reaction to her: she liked the other guy, so why wouldn’t she be disappointed that he changed so much? Wouldn’t Jenny be upset if Vastra, the person she likes so much, changed so dramatically? “I don’t like her, mum, I love her,” Jenny says, in a paean to both true love and true fanaticism. Moffat might as well be saying “Doctor Who: love it or leave it.”
Again, it’s a mildly clever approach to the backlash. But I object to it on a character level—Clara, after all, is the only companion who has known all the Doctors with their different faces—and I object to the presumption that Doctor Who should lecture its fans on how to appreciate Doctor Who. “He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend, your lover even,” Vastra lectures Clara (and us). “But he is the Doctor. He has walked the universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.” The Doctor, she says, only became young-looking to be accepted. (By his companions? By the fans? By the market? Is Moffat saying—or even expressing the fear—that the show needed a young, romantic lead in order to not only survive but thrive? “I’m not your boyfriend,” the Doctor tells Clara towards the end, and when she protests that she never thought he was, he says, “I never said it was your mistake.” It was his mistake, to act like that, and Moffat is saying it was the show’s mistake for ever setting up that dynamic in the first place.)
In the conversation between Vastra and Clara, Moffat pushes the meta-commentary about as far as it can go—the conversation starting to resemble an angry comment thread on a website—as Clara rejects the notion that she’s just a shallow fangirl.
“How dare you?. . . I am not sure who you think you’re talking to right now, Madame Vastra, but I have never had the slightest interest in pretty young men. And, for the record, if there was anybody who could flirt with a mountain range, she’s probably standing in front of you right now. Just because my pretty face has turned your head, do not assume I am so easily distracted.”
Jenny applauds, and fairly so: it’s a rejection of the notion—far too prevalent in the male-dominated fan communities of geekdom—that a woman—especially a young attractive one—somehow can’t be a real fan. (It’s a little disingenuous of Moffat to have Clara give this speech after he’s already established, repeatedly, that she does fancy the Doctor, but let’s ignore how late he is to the party and celebrate the fact that he showed up at all.)
Ultimately, however, Clara still needs reassurance about the Doctor from someone she trusts: the Doctor. I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of Matt Smith in this episode. On the one hand, it was a pleasant surprise, and one would have to be made of stone not to be touched by this final gesture—and final goodbye—from the Eleventh Doctor to her, and to us. He stops by just long enough to say, I know you have doubts, but trust me: he’s the Doctor.
On the other hand, however, the call fills an emotional gap that shouldn’t be there at all: we shouldn’t need this in-person passing of the baton if we’re really going to believe Capaldi in the role. It’s another example of Moffat speaking down to the fans a little bit, and telling us how to react instead of trusting us—and himself—to make the transference of affection from one Doctor to the other. Don’t look backwards, look forwards. Don’t lecture me on how to love the Doctor, and don’t tell me to love the Doctor: make me love him, or we’re going to have a rough road ahead.
And what of the man himself? I said when I began that it hasn’t happened for me yet: that click that happens when a new man becomes the Doctor. There is a lot of good stuff in this episode, more than my grouchy review probably suggests. I enjoyed his eyebrow speech, with its timely subtext about Scottish nationalism. (“They’re independently cross! They probably want to secede from my face and set up their own Independent State of Eyebrows.”) I got a faint whiff of the old, familiar Doctor in his reaction to the dinosaur’s death, and a stronger one in his speech about preferring to see life up close rather than far away. (“I prefer it down there. Everything is huge. Everything is so important, every detail, every moment, every life, clung to.”)
Most excitingly, I started to get a sense of the new Doctor as the episode proceeded: this guy really is going to be different from anyone we’ve seen in twenty years. Matt Smith’s Doctor spat out wine like a child; this Doctor pours himself and his enemy a glass of whiskey. (“I’ve got the horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you. I thought you might appreciate a drink first. I know I would.”) Whether the Doctor does kill the Half-Face Man, or whether he kills himself, is left unanswered, but there are already darker undertones to this Time Lord—in Moffat’s writing, and Capaldi’s performance—that promise to make up for the loss of the Time War guilt. And Capaldi has—in spades—the most important quality of a Doctor: the ability to turn on a dime between very funny, slightly distant, and deadly serious.
So I have no doubts about Capaldi’s capacity. (Try saying that three times fast.) I just wish “Deep Breath” wasn’t trying so hard to convince me. Some of the goofiness and eccentricity felt desperate, as though too anxious to convince us this Doctor was still funny. The physical stuff—Capaldi falling from a tree and riding a horse unconvincingly—seemed too eager to assure us that an older man could still pull off the action bits. And Moffat overwrites the last scenes terribly: after we’ve been lectured and shamed by everyone else in the episode about loving the Doctor, now the Doctor himself gets a speech begging for Clara’s affection that’s as maudlin as anything Tennant ever delivered. “You can’t see me, can you? You look at me and you can’t see me. Do you have any idea what that’s like? I’m not on the phone, I’m right here, standing in front of you. Please, just see me.” (I can’t be the only person who heard echoes of Julia Roberts’ speech to Hugh Grant in Notting Hill: “I’m just a Time Lord, standing in front of a Companion, asking her to love me.”) Part of me wishes Clara could have just decided to keep traveling with the Doctor without making a big deal of it. Part of me wishes the Doctor—this new, more mature, slightly darker Doctor—had channeled Malcolm Tucker and said, “Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off.” (That’s what William Hartnell’s Doctor would have said—though his choice of words might have been different.)
“Deep Breath” feels like it’s so concerned with convincing us that Doctor Who is still cool—for all audiences—that it forgets to just let the show be cool. Let us hope that this preliminary, regeneration episode got all of Moffat’s lecturing, insecurity, and pleading out of his system. To paraphrase Clara’s favorite philosopher, “Waste no more time arguing about what Doctor Who should be: be that.”
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- Welcome to my ongoing coverage of Doctor Who‘s eighth season. If you’ve been reading my Doctor Who reviews for a while, welcome back. If you’re a new reader, I hasten to assure you that I really do love this show to a ridiculous degree: over-analysis and ridiculously high standards are how I express my affection. And yes, my reviews are often this long (or longer), and usually this late (or later): I aim to have them posted 24(ish) hours after the episode airs—so, around 9PM ET on Sunday nights—but sometimes it takes longer. (I’m only a couple of hours late at the moment, which is pretty good for me.) Please bear with me.
- Whatever my other hesitations about this episode, there’s no denying that Jenna Coleman does her best work to date, and gets her best material so far, in “Deep Breath.” The first regeneration episode is often more about the companion than the Doctor—the companion always needs to serve as the audience surrogate, though not usually as didactically as it’s constructed here—and Clara’s changing relationship to the Doctor draws out her personality more, and allows her to play some different colors, than we’ve seen before. I’ve always liked the actress, but I felt like Moffat rarely served her well in Season Seven: she was never as well-developed as previous companions, her qualities registering more because we’d been told about them than shown them. Here, however, she’s actually given a lot to do, and she shines. It’s another (probably unintended) meta-comment on the series: the Doctor leaves her alone for a while, and assumes she can fend for herself, and she more than rises to the occasion. (Her interrogation scene with the Half-Face Man is excellent.) Here’s hoping the Doctor and Moffat learn from this, and give Clara—and Coleman—more to do throughout this season than be the “asking-questions one.”
- I’ve going to resist the urge to speculate about what looks like the season-arc mystery, “The Promised Land.” (My speculations are rarely right anyway.) I will, however, speculate on the identity of the woman, “Missy” (Michelle Gomez), whom we meet in the tag. We are given what’s probably a misdirection that this is some future version of Clara (the “boyfriend” line), and I suspect a lot of old-school fans will be wondering (as they did with River Song) if this is the renegade Time Lady known as The Rani. Myself, I hear “Missy” and stretch it out to “Mistress,” and wonder if this is a new, female regeneration of our old friend The Master.
- I’m kind of done with the Paternoster Gang for a while: I enjoy all three characters, but I enjoy them more when I see them less. (And Moffat: we get it, Vastra and Jenny are married. We’re all okay with it, and we appreciate your inclusiveness, and you don’t have to remind us of it every third line of dialogue. Thanks.)
- A nice gesture to classic Who: Brian Miller, who played Barney the Tramp, was married to Elisabeth Sladen for 43 years, until her untimely death in 2011.
- And now some favorite lines (because there really was some good stuff here):
- “You’ve got a whole room for not being awake in?”
- “I brought you along by accident. That’s mostly how I meet girls.”
- “I didn’t do this frowning. Who frowned me this face?”
- “Nothing is more important than my egomania!”
- “Hello, hello, rubbish robots from the dawn of time!”
- “Five-foot-one and crying: you never stood a chance.”