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.
“He flirted with you,” Vastra explains.
“How?” Clara replies.
“He looked young! Who do you think that was for?”
The idea of the Doctor “flirting” with the universe, hoping to be accepted by means of looking like someone’s “dashing young gentleman friend,” is a poignant one. Yes, it’s ageist, but the Doctor does spend an awful lot of time on Earth, where, even in the 21st Century, ageism is, in fact, a thing. It also brings to mind a similar post-regeneration episode: “The Christmas Invasion,” David Tennant’s first full turn as the Tenth Doctor after he’d regenerated from Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth. Aside from spending a good chunk of their respective debuts in borrowed bedclothes, both Ten and Twelve go through a very rough regeneration that involves a lot of sleeping, some erratic behavior, and two seriously freaked-out incumbent companions.
In a way, those two regenerations mirror each other. The Ninth Doctor fell in love with Rose Tyler, but he appeared much older than the 19-year-old Rose. So he got younger—and the Tenth Doctor and Rose became more obviously a couple. Perhaps the Doctor missed that feeling, which would at least partially explain his infatuation with Clara. And then, with several hundred years to sit around and think about it (wow, yep, still hate pretty much everything about that Trenzalore storyline...), he realized (again) that he just can’t have that kind of a relationship with a human being. So he got older, providing Clara with an implicit statement he later made explicit.
“I’m not your boyfriend,” he says near the end of the episode.
“I never thought you were,” she replies.
“I never said it was your mistake.”
Despite the slower pace, “Deep Breath” still throws a lot of stuff at the viewer, much of it top-notch. The Doctor and Clara realizing that they’re the only living people in the restaurant delivers a powerful jolt of Lovecraftian body-horror. Clara’s effort to escape the droids by holding her breath is deliciously tense. The Doctor riffing on his “attack eyebrows” works for a chuckle. The Scottish jokes stop just short of being too much. And Vastra and Jenny finally share a kiss. Well, sort of.
Other points are ham-handed, warmed-over, and/or plot-holey. The dinosaur is a metaphor for the Doctor, as is the clockwork droid, as was the Starwhale from “The Beast Below,” as was the minotaur from “The God Complex,” etc. And just how did those droids get the optic nerve out of the dinosaur before they set it on fire? It was in the middle of the Thames, with crowds gawking at it, the whole time. Since the Doctor speaks dinosaur, he should have heard the T-rex shouting, “Hey, there’s a rubbish robot on top of my head with a really big set of tweezers!” (Man, being a dinosaur in the Whoniverse these days is like being a point-of-view character in a George R.R. Martin prologue. Poor Tricey.)
Which brings us to the bit where Clara accidentally hits the Doctor in the crotch with his own screwdriver. The Doctor’s response? “Oh, the symbolism.”
Look, in another context, Peter Capaldi can growl at a female character, “Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up the shitter with a lubricated horse cock,” and it’s hilarious. The Doctor calling a woman a ball buster? That’s not funny, it’s cringe-worthy, and in an unnecessarily gendered way.
Mostly, though, Capaldi is as brilliant in the role as everyone expected. In a progression that feels intentional, his early scenes are more Smith-like—frenetic, bombastic declarations, often directed at CGI up high. The death of the dinosaur marks a turning point to a more measured—sometimes malevolent—performance. Speaking of In the Loop, Capaldi gets his teeth into something akin to this scene, in which he matches menace with the late James Gandolfini. But as he tries to send the clockwork droid to its doom (one way or the other), he isn’t nearly as frightening as when he utters these four words to a hapless tramp:
“Give me your coat.”
The lack of inflection on that line made me shudder. Many of his predecessors have done truly terrifying things, but with those four words, he might have become the scariest Doctor ever.
I’m not exactly sure how to feel about the coda, which, after all this “no flirting” business, features a very campy female character—much closer in apparent age to the Twelfth Doctor than Clara is—who refers to the Doctor as her boyfriend. Hmm. I have a theory about “Missy” and “the Promised Land.” And, for all the problems I’ve had with the show the past couple of seasons, there’s enough interesting material in “Deep Breath”—including the potential for a Ten/Donna Noble type of friendship between Twelve and Clara—to keep me hanging around to see if my theory proves correct.