So there was new Doctor Who. And, through the magic of low expectations, I didn’t shout at the TV once. After Moffat’s last three outings as writer, “Deep Breath” was pleasantly competent.
We start, back again, in Victorian London, with a bit of sheer Moffat-ness.
There’s a Tyrannosaurus rex in the Thames, silhouetted in front of London. The T. rex is actually tangential to the story that unfolds, and could be eliminated completely without making any substantial changes to the story, but hey, it looks really cool!
Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax show up, Vastra recognizes that the T. rex is female (meaning that, when she is later immolated to motivate the Doctor and start off the actual plot, Steven Moffat has managed to make history by fridging a T. rex.) There’s some banter that never quite crosses the line to witty, there’s some business about capturing the T. rex , and then it coughs up the TARDIS, initiating an utterly by-the-numbers bout of regeneration sickness. The Doctor passes out a lot and has memory problems, and if Moffat can skip major plot points to avoid doing actually writing character development, certainly he could have skipped the whole pointless muddle. “He’s spent the past six hours falling over and calling me Handles,” Clara says, and they’re off. Anything vital could be rolled into the scene in the bedroom, and could we lose the ridiculous idea of “speaking dinosaur”? Please?
I actually liked what he was muttering in his sleep, but it could be massaged that it was Vastra he was picking up (having had her in his mind), or the cyborgs that fit the description better, and actually have a higher degree of cognition. Maybe as a result of the controller being linked to the other ones, there’s some sort of psychic spillover?
Clara, not surprisingly, is Not Okay. Though she intellectually understands regeneration, though she has spent time with three Doctors, and has met all of them as her echoes, she’s suffered a very real loss. Her friend, who she’s hung out with every week for years and faced death with, is gone. He’s not coming back.
The fact that the narrative treats this is “you’re just upset he’s no longer young and hot” is really a disservice, not only to the character of Clara, but to the audience in general. It feels almost like a swipe at the younger fangirls, the ones who are attracted to Matt Smith. Vastra interrogates her on it, Strax peers into her mind to see that, despite her protestations in a previous scene, she actually is attracted to sporty young men (and if Vastra is actually interrogating someone, wouldn’t a device capable of reading someone’s unconscious be more useful than brute force?) Jenny is gently chiding, but at least in her case it feels more natural. I don’t believe she would actually be completely okay if Vastra actually did regenerate, but the love, in that moment, feels genuine.
I think this episode may have actually passed Bechdel. To be fair, I only watched the episode once, when it aired. (I’ve been Working All the Overtime, there were plumbing issues, and in the excitement of the rooters coming in and out, Princess and Bruce had an Outside Adventure. But the real reason is, there are a lot of other, more interesting stories to partake in.) I didn’t count the number of exchanges or seconds. But there were a couple of scenes that, at least technically passed, even if they were kind of icky on other levels.
The first was where Jenny is “posing” for Vastra. Though there is the subtext of this-is-to-find-the-Doctor to the work Vastra is doing, the first bit of the conversation is between them, about their relationship. Vastra doesn’t come out very well here; she’s almost a parody of a douchebro, treating Jenny like an object, a decoration. It’s out of character and icky, and oddly reminiscent of Eleven’s creepy behavior toward Clara and Tasha Lem, so I can’t help wondering of Moffat thinks this is generally how to write someone interacting with a woman they are attracted to?
The second is near the end; the “kiss” between Vastra and Jenny. In-universe, it’s all about sharing oxygen, and feels convoluted, like the story needed an excuse. And maybe there was executive meddling, the fact that it would be showed in so many markets meant that they had to have plausible deniability. Or something.
I was watching to see if there were any black people in the crowd scenes (considering the amount of research I’ve done on the subject for The Gears That Grind, I don’t think I could have not noticed), and I was not surprised by the lack. Maybe there were a few in the back, and between the dark cinematography and the TV of Crap I just didn’t see them?
Back to the story. It started about a third of the way into the running time, and was thin throughout. Moffat introduced the first of the mysteries: why did the Doctor choose this particular face? (Personally, I’d also like to see an explanation into why the Sixth Doctor chose to look like a Chancellery Guard. Was it because of a conspiracy, or just a clue to his psyche?)
While the Doctor was running around, getting nothing done, Clara was moving purposefully, finding clues, solving puzzles. She meets up with the Doctor, argues with him they realize that they’re in a trap, and there are some mildly creepy clockwork robots. They’re captured, they escape, the Doctor is (seemingly) captured, Clara escapes but is then captured. It seemed like it was supposed to be the Doctor who carried her back to the Evil Lair(tm), but that makes no sense, since he would have had to escape, disable a clockwork robot, get rid of the “body,” and get into its place in the length of time that Clara could hold her breath.
(Credit where it’s due; I found myself holding my breath when the characters did. Props to Moffat on that one.)
Clara is threatened, Clara is terrified, Clara is clever, and I really hope we’ll get to keep this version of her, rather than grafting on whatever set of traits will serve next episode’s story. Clara trusts the Doctor, even with all the changes, and her trust is repaid. The Doctor has her back.
Things go weird after that. The conversation with the controller goes on too long, it’s never clear why grafting on human parts would somehow make him more human, and I didn’t have enough sympathy to care whether he fell or was pushed.
I knew from The Intertubes that Matt Smith would be making an appearance, so I wasn’t surprised wasn’t much of anything. Maybe a little annoyed that instead of bringing back Karen Gillan for fanservice, he couldn’t have let Clara say good-bye to her Doctor then. But that would have interrupted the conga line of suck, so he had to be wedged into Peter Capaldi’s first episode.
Problems worked out, for the moment, they talk about the message that brought them both to the Robot Restaurant. They decide that whoever sent the message must want both of them to be together, when the more logical conclusion was that they wanted them both dead.
The second mystery of the arc was introduced at the end, when Evil Mary Poppins introduced the controller to paradise. She is presumably going to be the Big Bad this year. She refers to the Doctor as her boyfriend, and seems to have been birthed from the same loom as Madame Kovarian, Ms. Kislet, and Tasha Lem.
I’m expecting a shocking revelation of the same caliber as the solution to Reichenbach.