Lessons of Darkness, Doctor Who: Deep Breath, Reviews, 25/08/2014

"Deep Breath" features an effectively creepy monster who
is polite enough not to overshadow the regulars, when the
episode properly is about them.
My girlfriend loves the new theme music. So do I. It’s a theme that harkens back to the roots of the Doctor Who theme music in the tradition of electronica, and I always found the more orchestral arrangements less effective, too bombastic for a show that works best when it sneaks up on you or snuggles into your sofa.

These aren’t going to be typical reviews of Doctor Who, where I talk specifically about the aesthetic aspects of the episode’s production and evaluate whether they succeed or fail in producing thoughtful entertainment. Doctor Who today is inevitably thoughtful entertainment (the days when the show’s own writers could believe it to be stupid are long gone). Instead, I plan on having a philosophical discussion about Doctor Who. I’ve already been published in this subject, so you can definitely consider me qualified. Each Monday or Sunday, depending on my availability to watch the episode, have a think about it, and write down my conclusions, I’ll update the blog with a discussion of some conceptual aspect of the show.

In many ways, I’m in a great deal of debt to Phil Sandifer and TARDIS Eruditorum for this idea. I consider Phil’s work to constitute literally a new era in Doctor Who fandom and scholarship, having changed irrevocably what kinds of conversation we can have about Doctor Who. He's reviewing this season himself as well, but with a different focus.

The link to his blog that I posted in my comment about condescending writers is to a particularly important post in understanding how the Steven Moffat production house has managed fan expectations about who Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will be. The recurring idea in the discourse is that Capaldi’s will be a darker Doctor, a less trustworthy Doctor. Now, Doctor Who fandom has exploded worldwide on a scale and level of popularity that the show has never seen before. But this has meant that fandom has become more internally complex than it ever was before. Specifically, there are now fans that are mostly aware of the post-2005 or post-2010 series, and there is another layer of discourse of those fans who have deep and detailed knowledge of the entire history of Doctor Who, what I’ll call expert fandom.

The Colin Baker era of Doctor Who is essentially when the
show reached such a disastrous nadir in quality that it
almost destroyed itself and deserved it.
Among expert fandom, the notion that Capaldi’s will be a darker Doctor has echoes of one of Doctor Who’s most terrifying eras, the Colin Baker era. Colin Baker, in conjunction with John Nathan-Turner, developed an idea that his Doctor would have been untrustworthy, inexpert, and kind of a dick. With a consistently solid writing staff, like what Doctor Who can draw upon in 2014, this would have made for a new take on the Doctor as a morally alien anti-hero, appropriate for the increasingly nihilistic sci-fi of the 1980s. However, the Colin Baker era actually had a writing staff who shouldn’t have been allowed near a typewriter. So we ended up with a Doctor who was a pretentious blowhard in a coat so loud it could double as a crowd control weapon, and whose relationship with his main companion embodied almost all the concepts that we today identify with rape culture.

So identifying Peter Capaldi’s Doctor with the notion of being ‘darker’ associated him with the moral disaster of the Colin Baker characterization. And we ended up with a character that very nearly went in that direction, or so we thought. At this point, I should probably include my usual tag of 


if you don’t want to read any further. Because the pivotal scene where Capaldi’s Doctor goes off the rails comes when he and Clara have been captured by the episode’s villain, a clockwork robot who’s lived on Earth for an extremely long time, cannibalizing the local organisms for spare parts in hopes of repairing his ship to return to “paradise.” The Doctor has ended up on the side of the door that lets him escape, while Clara is stuck in the room full of robots. The Doctor tries, but can’t open the door with his sonic screwdriver from his side, only Clara’s. So Clara desperately whispers for him to roll it under the small gap to her. But he doesn’t.

"Deep Breath," in both its narrative and promotion, is a
story made of mis-directions. We think the dinosaur,
because it's a bloody dinosaur in Victorian London, will
be a major part of the story, when it's really another victim.
“I might still need it.”

And he runs away. Clara then works through an escape attempt of her own, which fails, but leads her to probably the most virtuoso scene Jenna Coleman has had in her entire time playing Clara. For just a few minutes, as a viewer with knowledge of the show’s history, you wonder if they’ve gone too far again, if Capaldi’s Doctor is going to become truly unreliable, slippery, unstable, monstrous himself. Moffat suggested that there were parts of the Doctor who were too monstrous to be considered even part of Doctor Who anymore, but this ethical wound on the show and the character was healed in The Day of the Doctor.

Davies toyed with the idea of the Doctor being monstrous, but that was more in the notion of the Doctor being more of a god than a person. Even so, Davies restored the mortality of the Doctor through the inevitability of tragedy: godhood was a hubris for which the Doctor would be punished. For more analysis on this, I suggest, once more, that you turn to Phil Sandifer

But for just one moment in “Deep Breath,” we believe that the Doctor has truly lost his moral conscience, that he has left his friend to the narrow mercies of the villains. In that moment, we forget all Moffat’s talk of the Doctor being the greatest hero for our current age, all of Capaldi’s comments about how inspirational the Doctor can be in these times of war and violence all over the world. We think we’ve seen the true darkness of this character, that in the thick of trouble he would abandon even the people who are closest to him. True darkness for the Doctor is to let fear overcome him, to become cowardly.

He is the Doctor, and I quite like it, really.
Then, of course, it’s blown out of the water. The Doctor left to get the cavalry, having trusted that Clara was a solid enough adventurer that she could keep the villains from killing her long enough for him to sneak back into the robots’ hideout. In a brilliant example of the compressed narrative techniques that were perfected over the previous season, we don’t even need to see him doing it; the drama is made best as we watch Clara confront the robots, faithful that the Doctor will have her back. When we see a robot’s gloved hand grab hers as she reaches back instinctively for the Doctor, it’s terrifying. But that robot was the Doctor in disguise. 

The real ‘darkness’ comes in the final confrontation with the villain, when it’s left ambiguous whether the Doctor actually killed him. But this is territory the Doctor as a character has skirted before. The early days of Tom Baker, the few good stories when Colin Baker could get solidly menacing, Sylvester McCoy’s callously manipulative behaviour, David Tennant’s “No second chances.” 

The Doctor tells the chief robot in their last tangle that, while suicide may be against the robot's programming, murder is against his. We know the Doctor is a hero, but viewers who know the Doctor also know this to be false. The Doctor is willing to kill, and he has killed many times. Part of the moral challenge of the Doctor is that he doesn't let you rest easy in your hero worship by being perfectly virtuous in the tired Christian sense. The Doctor knows he lives in a violent universe, and he can and does respond in kind when the situation requires it. We don't know whether the robot jumped to his death or if the Doctor pushed him. In the end, it doesn't matter, because the result is what the Doctor wanted: the villain is dead. His alleged ‘darkness’ is a feint, just as much as when the Doctor seemingly abandoned Clara, a para-textual dramatic move to keep us interested, doubting ourselves and our hero.

Moffat's long experience as a sitcom writer has given him a
great skill for the witty banter that exemplifies the Doctor-
Clara relationship from the first moment they're back on a
case together.
I actually rather enjoy the new Doctor-Clara relationship. Moffat writes sarcasm extremely well, and their new interplay seems to consist of playful jabs and insults. Capaldi’s Doctor and Clara speak to each other like the stars of a screwball comedy fighting robots and Daleks. Doctor Who has explored many genres, but I don’t know that it’s ever done Preston Sturges.

This threat of the Doctor’s monstrous cowardliness was built into the show itself in dialogue with the publicity material for the show that its creators themselves shaped. While Doctor Who has always had a growing degree of meta-textualism to it (again, see the TARDIS Eruditorum, this time pretty much all of it), it’s becoming more prevalent in the show itself, and the creators are playing with it in different ways. One element of “Deep Breath” that I think I’ll see more frequently as the season plays out this Fall references to past events on the show that the audience understands, but the character doesn’t. 

Here’s my main example. During his confrontation with the chief clockwork robot, the Doctor discovers that they’re from the 51st century, a ship called the SS Marie Antoinette, sister ship to the SS Madame du Pompadour. The Doctor knows they’re of a similar vintage and model as the clockwork robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace,” but doesn’t know the precise connection. We do, because the audience of the episode knows that the ship from “The Girl in the Fireplace” was the SS Madame du Pompadour. The Doctor never saw any identifying marks on the ship in the 2006 episode, but the audience did. So these bits of information that are only meta-textually known will, I think, become more important as the season wears on. 

Unless it’s another feint of Steven Moffat’s and this is just a little game he inserted into the episode, which is entirely likely. Anyway, see you tomorrow for thoughts on American anarchist politics at the dawn of the twentieth century, and next Monday for thoughts on “Into the Dalek."

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