13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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We sat down to watch this with decidedly mixed feelings. We weren’t anywhere near ready to say goodbye to Matt Smith at the end of the last season, which meant we weren’t in a tearing hurry to say hello to anybody new either. Also, post-regeneration episodes, with rare exceptions (that’s you we’re talking about, Eleventh Hour) tend to be pretty dreadful.
On the other hand, though, Peter Capaldi. If we had to lose Matt (sob!) Peter Capaldi would have been way up the list of actors we’d pick to replace him. We don’t think we’ve ever seen him in anything where he didn’t crush everyone around him to powder. So, mixed feelings.
And when we’d seen it we ended up in pretty much the same place.
Let’s talk about the most important bit first: the Doctor. Except that it’s kind of hard to do that. When you get a new Doctor, the one question you want to know the answer to is who is this guy going to be? Sadly for your burning curiosity, however, there’s an inexplicable tradition with post-regeneration episodes of putting off showing you this for as long as humanly possible.
And Deep Breath is no exception. The new Doctor dutifully exhibits the bog-standard crazy, confusion and all-around wackiness that comes with the territory. “The usual regeneration mess”, as one of us gloomily remarked. Some people may enjoy the looniness associated with nightgown-clad horse-driven escapes through the night. We, however, do not. We sit through it, rolling our eyes, until it’s mercifully over and we can get down to the business of finding just who we’ve got on our hands this time.
And so far, it’s a bit hard to tell. We’ve gotta say, for a lot of the episode we had really divided feelings about this Doctor. Some of it worked superbly: especially on the second time through, when we had more space to appreciate nuance, we were completely impressed by the way Peter Capaldi portrays the Doctor's memory problems. It's utterly convincing, not to mention invested with genuine pathos: it's the first time we've ever seen a parallel between a regenerating Doctor and someone with a memory disorder such as Alzheimer's. It's only temporary for him, of course, but nevertheless we really got from the Doctor the panic and terror of nothing making sense.
And the standoff with the villain at the end is breathtaking, too. The Doctor exhibits the quiet menace and hidden depths that we’d always known Peter Capaldi was going to knock out of the park. There’s also the marvellous stuff with Clara at the end. Absolutely bloody fantastic.
However, unfortunately it's not all like that. To our ears, for much of it there's something that isn't quite right: it seems awkward, strained and lacking in conviction. Some of the dialogue, too, seems too Matt-like, like the lines “I’m going to have to relieve you of your pet…shut up, I was talking to the horse”. That would have worked brilliantly coming from Matt, but from Peter Capaldi it just falls flat. In fact, when we think about it harder, that's what the problem is. It’s the comedy. Usually Steven Moffat’s pretty ace at the one-liners, but we thought a lot of the humour misfired in this. We do miss Matt’s incredible delivery. It's more than that, though: Peter Capaldi’s hardly a slouch at comedy himself, after all, but we’re not sure this kind of whimsical humour really suits him. In fact, it’s actually Clara who makes those scenes work. And some of the blame is just in the lines themselves: let’s face it, nobody’s going to be able to make much out of shouting “Big sexy woman!” at a dinosaur.
So we really hope that in future episodes Peter Capaldi gets comedy better tailored to him: dry rather than whimsical, maybe. The Doctors shouldn't always sound the same in any case: all of them have their own style. Let's hope we see that develop.
Despite our misgivings about the comedy, after the Doctor faces off (tee hee) with the robot, we were starting to think we really had something here. But sadly for our budding optimism, Steven Moffat then ripped the carpet right out from under us with a Matt Smith cameo. We’d managed to avoid spoilers, so this came as a complete surprise. There was gasping. There was crying. All our hard work in trying to move on was lost in an instant. Change is a given in Doctor Who, so you’d think we’d just get a grip, but Doctors like Matt don’t come along very often. We had to get over that all over again.
So, the Doctor? We're not going to try and draw any conclusions just yet. A post-regen episode is an exhibition match, so nothing counts at this stage. Watch this space.
And what about the rest of it?
Well. We’re starting to think we’ve seen too much Doctor Who, because we couldn’t escape the feeling we’ve seen it all before. It doesn’t help, either, when it seems that Steven Moffat just doesn’t put any stock in originality. It’s clear that much of this episode is stuffed with callbacks to what has gone before. The plot has a lot of similarities to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, down to the Paternoster Gang standing in for Jago and Litefoot, and it’s clear that’s deliberate from the inclusion of the Chinese robot. We’ve seen dinosaurs in London in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, and we’ve seen a balloon in The Next Doctor. Lines of dialogue (like “Here we go again” and “You’ve redecorated. Don’t like it”) are lifted wholesale from classic episodes. There are even heavy allusions to Moffat’s own episodes with the clockwork androids from Fireplace, themselves a reworking of the Autons. (Again, they make it clear this is deliberate with the refs to the ships Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour.) And the “Don’t breathe!” thing is eerily reminiscent of “Don’t blink!”
This even extends to character. Yes, Strax is funny, but it’s the same kind of funny over and over again. Sometimes it’s even exactly the same joke, like him calling Clara “boy”.
Is all of this because Moffat can’t come up with anything new? Well, maybe. But we think it’s actually worse than that. It seems as if he thinks constant back-referencing is actually better than new ideas. We’ve got news for him. The hell it is.
Sure, after something’s been running for fifty years originality’s more of a struggle. We’re not going to cane them for having another balloon, say, for that reason. But when you can go anywhere in space and time, it’s a crime to keep locking yourself in the same boxes. Science fiction’s just not about that. All that cosy back-referencing comes across as lazy and dull.
And the whole thing’s very uneven. It’s as if someone’s nipped in before a greyhound race and replaced all of the greyhounds with cats. When the starting gate opens, instead of a bunch of elements all smoothly streaking in unison towards the finish line, they take off in all directions. And some don’t get very far before lying down for a little nap.
Like the dinosaur, for example. All very high-concept, although it doesn’t bear much examination (why, especially, is it so Godzilla-esquely huge? Vastra’s eyewitness testimonial notwithstanding, we’re not buying it. And how did the robots manage to incinerate it so quickly with those teensy flames? Not to mention how the Doctor managed to transport it through time when it was outside the TARDIS). But it turns out to be not much of anything at all.
We also really, really wish Moffat would trust the audience just a little bit more. The entire episode comes across as an extended plea to give an older, non-kissy Doctor a chance. They even wheel the kissy one on just for this purpose. Clearly Moffat or the BBC at large is alarmed at the prospect of a less young ‘n’ flirty Doctor killing their lucrative franchise: we think they’re underestimating the audience. We’re not entirely certain, but we suspect sex existed in 1963 too: nevertheless Doctor Who originally succeeded with a Doctor rather more grandfatherly than Peter Capaldi.
That’s not the only way Moffat fails to trust the audience, either. Having come up with his little ideas, he doesn’t trust us to grasp the enormity of his intellect without assistance. So he sledgehammers everything home with the subtlety of, well, a dinosaur in the Thames. All the oh-so-analogous stuff about the robot replacing bits of itself was bad enough, but we actually groaned and put our heads in our hands during the Doctor’s speech about replacing parts of a broom. Could this be a metaphor for….regeneration? You’d have to be facing the other way with earmuffs on in a snowstorm not to hear what Moffat’s shouting. Same, too, with the heavy-handed stuff about Vastra’s veil. Urgh.
And also same with the Paternoster marriage. We’re totally woohoo, obs, about Madame Vastra and Jenny getting married, but we’re rather less enthusiastic about them pointing it out every five minutes. Moffat might as well have hung big embroidered banners all around the set emblazoned with “We’re totally OK with this! You wouldn’t believe how amazingly OK with it we are!”. True equality would have been treating their marriage matter-of-factly, not announcing it repeatedly with a trumpet fanfare. As for the kiss, we hated it. Not, we hope we don’t have to point out, because we don’t think you should see lesbians kissing on TV, but because of all the big tralala about oxygen sharing. Doctor Who has never been apologetic about heterosexual kissing, so why should it make excuses for this just to get it on screen? No doubt it’s all BBC code blah blah blah, but it’s just wrong. If you’re legally entitled to marry someone, you should be legally entitled to kiss them before the watershed.
So did they get anything right? Sure they did. Like we said, the Doctor, after the tedious regeneration stuff, is promising. And Clara is spectacular here. We think having the flirty stuff sheared off her relationship with the Doctor is doing her character a world of good. We also think handing off a lot of the mystery to the Paternoster Gang while the Doctor is trying to remember his own name is a great idea.
Moffat also gets the scale delightfully right here. Instead of a worlds-spanning story, it’s a small-scale mystery: we’ve begged for this often, so we’re very pleased to get it for once. (It’s a tiny bit ironic that the story he picked for a small scale is also the one that got a cinematic release, but hey ho.)
And although Autons are a lot scarier, the robots are effective, at least at first. They seem a bit pathetic when they can be trounced by a bit of breath-holding, but the scenes in the restaurant positively ooze tension and menace.
There’s also a palpable shift in style from the Eleventh Doctor days. Scenes are longer and it all seems a bit more thoughtful, which we like. Still got the bloody sonic screwdriver, though.
We get to the end, and off kicks another teasing mystery. We’re not going to bother speculating about where it might be going, but we will say that if you want someone for that kind of part, Michelle Gomez is very definitely your girl. She played a similar role in the fabulous sitcom Green Wing, and she was fantastic. We’re looking forward to seeing her again.
Hey, it’s a post-regen episode, so it doesn’t really count. We didn’t expect too much, and that’s what we got. What matters is how we go from here.
MORAL: You find out who someone really is when push comes to shove.
LIKE CLOCKWORK I
The new credits are a bit too literal in the timey-wimey department for us, but on balance we think that’s better than the fluffy clouds. Hate the theme tune, though. The hair-raisingly shivering wail’s gone all wibbly.
“No, dear. People are apes. Men are monkeys.” So very amusing. Sexism sucks no matter what shade it comes in.
We may have been unimpressed by most of the comedy, but one line we really did laugh at was Strax’s “You must stop worrying about him, my boy. By now he’s almost certainly had his throat cut by the violent poor.”
The Doctor falls from the roof through a tree, but as he rides away it’s clear there’s no tree anywhere near where the coachman was standing. (Thanks to Daniel Milford-Cottam for pointing this out.)
SCIENCE, MISS HAWTHORNE
The drawing of arcane mathsy-type symbols in chalk on the floor is such an unforgivable cliché. Ugh ugh ugh.
Lovely to see Brian Miller, Lis Sladen’s husband, playing the vagrant. And bloody good he is too.
THE I’S HAVE IT
What’s all this stuff about Clara being an egomaniac? Since when?
LIKE CLOCKWORK II
The steampunky robot workings, especially the waiter’s face with the flame burning inside it, are really pretty cool.
NO, WE FORGOT THE BIGGEST BANG IN HISTORY
The Doctor says “Oh, the symbolism” when Clara hits him where it hurts (apparently) with the screwdriver. Could this be the Doctor’s first dirty joke?
So they come across the chief villain robot, right? And he’s recharging? Well, WHY THE BLOODY FARKING HELL DON’T THEY YANK THE WIRE OUT?
HANG ON A MINUTE
What a conveniently placed handle on the bottom of the lift. Because that would be so useful for, um, something. Also, when the seat slides back into place in the restaurant, it’s flush to the walls and floor. How does the Doctor get into the restaurant from underneath it?
They’re dropping hints here about a darker side to the Doctor (did he push the robot?). Despite this, we didn’t think there was any uncertainty about whether he’d come back for Clara. The First Doctor may well have left her there, but even a recently regenerated Doctor is a different man now.
They’re also hinting about Capaldi’s other Doctor Who (and maybe Torchwood) appearances with “Have you seen this face before? Because I’m sure that I have.” More, no doubt, on that story later.