Towards the end of the 1973 Doctor Who serial “The Green Death,” the Doctor’s companion, Jo Grant, announces at a party that she’ll no longer be traveling through time and space with the Doctor in the TARDIS. She’s fallen in love with an idealistic environmentalist/scientist they met during their most recent adventure, and is now off to get married and save the rainforest. Earlier, talking about the attractive do-gooder with Jon Pertwee’s white-haired, stern-yet-avuncular Third Doctor, she declares, “He reminds me of a sort of younger you!”
The Doctor seems sanguine about this, giving the couple his blessing. But then the camera follows him as he slips out the party early and drives off, alone and somber. There had never been any romantic overtones between Jo and the Doctor, but was he perhaps thinking, “What if I was a younger me?”
While the entire original run of the series maintained a strict no-hanky-panky-in-the-TARDIS rule, the ill-fated 1996 movie introduced an element of romance to the character, one that the 2005 re-launched series enthusiastically continued. Doctors Eight to Eleven (not counting the recently shoehorned-in War Doctor) all gave and/or got at least one kiss. As current companion Clara Oswald only slightly exaggerated, the TARDIS had turned into something of a “snog box.”
Well, fuckity-bye to all that.
“Deep Breath,” the premiere episode of the eighth full season of the revived Doctor Who, serves as a break-up letter from the Doctor—and from showrunner Steven Moffat and his new lead actor, Peter Capaldi—to the idea of the Doctor as a love interest for his companion or anyone else. In interviews before the premiere, Capaldi said he was “adamant” that there would be “no flirting” for his interpretation of the Time Lord. Many fans—especially those, like me, who have objected to the show’s recent handling of gender and relationships—welcomed this news. But I don’t think anyone would have guessed that “no flirting” would actually be the strongest thematic through-line in Capaldi’s first outing.
A few familiar faces have returned: incumbent companion Clara (Jenna Coleman); the recurring Victorian crime-fighting trio of Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and Strax (Dan Starkey); and a tick-tocking killer from a (problematic!) Season Two episode. But almost everything else about this episode—from the new title sequence and theme music to the more deliberate pace and longer, dialogue-heavy scenes—seems designed to signal a clean break with the David Tennant/Matt Smith eras, which for all their differences, both featured the idea of the Doctor-as-romantic-lead.
It’s as if the character has spent the past few seasons exploring the road-not-taken Jo had shown him at the end of “The Green Death”—and now he’s done caring if his companion, or anyone else, thinks he’s cute. Capaldi’s take is recognizably the Doctor—he’s brilliant, compassionate, infuriating, arrogant, charming, anguished, sexy even—but one thing he certainly isn’t is cute.
Does this work? Well, sorta. Equating youth with attractiveness is reductive, shallow, and ageist—and a bit of an after-school-special straw man. And in focusing so much on the Doctor’s change in appearance, and on Clara’s reaction to him being an old, gray-haired old guy who’s old, Moffat runs into a couple of problems, both of which are of his own making.
First, Clara knows all about regeneration. She stepped into the Doctor’s timeline in “The Name of the Doctor,” and thus, versions of her have known (and, I guess, saved the lives) of all of the Doctor’s different incarnations up to and including Eleven. Even if the original Clara—whom the Eleventh Doctor rescued from his own timeline in a way that was never explained on-camera—doesn’t necessarily retain everything from that experience, she spent the entire 50th Anniversary special running around with Eleven, Ten, and the War Doctor.
So, when Clara asks if they can help the Doctor change back, that just doesn’t make sense. She might not like that he’s changed into an older-looking man, but textually, she absolutely should understand it.
The next problem is actually a bigger one: As I and many others have pointed out, Clara just isn’t a very well-developed character. She has traits—smart, resourceful, a dab hand with witty repartee—and Coleman plays those traits adroitly, but what is her motivation for traveling with the Doctor, or really, doing anything?
The main thing even Moffat can get a handle on to define Clara’s relationship with the Eleventh Doctor is good-ol’ UST: Unresolved Sexual Tension, the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic that has fueled many a sitcom. They “fancied each other,” in British parlance, and now she’s bummed that he looks old. The Doctor, for his part, seems to feel a bit sheepish about having being attracted to her at all, because he actually always was old, centuries old, even when he looked like Matt Smith.
That’s a pretty thin emotional reed on which to hang an episode, but it does at least have the virtue of ringing true.