“Question: you take a broom, you replace the handle, and then later you replace the brush. And you do that, over and over again. Is it still the same broom? Answer: no, of course it isn’t, but you can still sweep the floor. (Which is not strictly relevant: skip that last part.) You have replaced every piece of yourself, mechanical and organic, time and time again. There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.”
According to a quick scan of the interwebs, this condundrum is known as “the ship of Theseus” or “Theseus’ paradox” in philosophical circles. Originating in Plutarch’s account of the myth of Theseus, this parable has become a standard prompt for exploring the nature of “things that grow.” Considering that growth and change are fundamental to the Doctor’s nature, this seems like a particularly apt line of thought, even more so when one considers that Capaldi’s Doctor is technically a “reset” – the first in a new set of regenerations – and so the question of his relationship (or lack thereof) to the original Doctor is particularly unclear. This is complicated even further that in the above quote he is not even talking about himself, but using it to criticize the desperation of the murderous Clockwork Droids. He falls on the side of the debate that argues that the broom is not the same as the original, and links the Droids’ self-delusion to their monstrosity. It is only when he lifts the silver tray to make his point and inadvertently catches his own reflection in the mirror that he realizes the irony of his attack.
Ah, existential crisis. The perfect way to start a new season and new era of Doctor Who. I’m being a bit facetious here, but only a bit because truly there is no call for it. Dialogue-heavy, ideas-driven soul-searching is patently one of the things that Doctor Who is made for. It’s one of the things Steven Moffat is good at writing. And apparently, it’s one of the things that Peter Capaldi is very good at acting. In sympathy with its pensive title, “Deep Breath” benefits from its extra running time enormously, using its comfortable leg room to let the characters and audience take a much needed deep breath after the mania that was “The Time of the Doctor” and take careful stock of what we have. In many ways it’s the opposite of Moffat’s other regeneration story, “The Eleventh Hour,” which was not significantly shorter in running time but which kept up a relentless, dare I say breathless pace throughout. Whereas the joke of that episode was that it takes place in real time and doesn’t afford the new Doctor even a moment to sit down and catch his breath, Capaldi’s Doctor is given lots of time and space to think, react, and try new things. Capaldi still plays the obligatory regeneration crisis of learning what sort of man he is with necessary humor and panache (“I’m Scottish, I can complain about things now,” “these are attack eyebrows,” “I don’t think I’m a hugging sort of person now”) but with the added layer of questioning the very nature of regeneration itself. Is he still the same man? Come to think of it, who was the original Doctor, anyway? Was William Hartnell, the “First Doctor,” the true original, or is there something deeper and more fundamental, a Platonic ideal of The Doctor of which all subsequent incarnations are mere cheap copies?
And of course, apart from the question of the Doctor’s essential nature and the various incarnations’ adherence to it, there is the parallel exploration of what the individual incarnations signify in themselves. The notion that the change might not be entirely random has been flirted with before. On a meta-textual level, new Doctors are often designed to respond to their immediate predecessor (ex. the brash Six to compensate for the supposed weakness of Five; tough Nine reacting to the romantic Eight). Inside the narrative, the implication is often that Doctors are shaped by their companions and experiences (perhaps Nine, Ten, and Twelve picked up their accents from Clara, Rose, and Amy respectively; Nine doesn’t “do domestics” whereas Ten seems to crave them). Of course there is the exception of the War Doctor who manifestly proves the rule: The Sisterhood of Karn gave him the opportunity to choose his own physical and psychological characteristics to better serve in the Time War. With the War Doctor’s exception, however, it had appeared that most of these influences stayed firmly unconscious or even accidental. The Doctor claims that most of the time he doesn’t choose his form consciously. “I never know where the faces come from,” he muses. “They just pop up.”
With the Twelfth Doctor, however, we get the strange notion that his familiar face (Caecilius from “The Fires of Pompeii”) was chosen by the Doctor as a message to himself. “But what could be so important that I can’t just tell myself what I’m thinking?” he wonders. Vastra posits something similar when she suggests that the youthful and handsome Eleventh Doctor was specifically chosen by the Doctor “to be accepted” by the humanity he so adores. Perhaps the Twelfth’s image isn’t unique in this deliberateness, but merely the most obvious instance. It makes me wonder whether the Doctor will eventually make the link to his experience in Pompeii, and what his interpretation of this “message” will be. He seems particularly puzzled by the face in particular: “It’s covered in lines, but I didn’t do the frowning. Who frowned me this face?” The fact that someone else’s life manifests on the Doctor’s face in wrinkles and graying hair suggests that the Doctor’s incarnations may not only be shaped by the Doctor’s subconscious desires as well as his experiences and influences, but also by the lives of the people whose image he takes (assuming that all of them were taken from other people, like Caecilius, which is far from certain).
In this regard, the Clockwork Droids become the perfect monster for this new Doctor to face. The series loves to parallel the Doctor with the monsters, and in this instance the Doctor’s critique of the Droids for stealing bodies and faces from human beings becomes a unsettling self-critique. Vastra speaks of him wearing faces like masks or veils. Particularly nice is the moment in the larder when the Doctor rips off his disguise – a real human face stolen from a droid which he uses to hide his own face – only to reveal…his face, which is itself a real human face stolen and worn as a mask to hide his own face. There is some incredibly intricate symbolism going on here. It also hearkens back to their first appearance in “Girl in the Fireplace” in which Madam de Pompadour uttered that most famous pairing of the Doctor and his enemies: “The monsters and the Doctor. It seems you cannot have one without the other.”
All of this makes even clearer the fact that Steven Moffat is just about the most self-referential writer in all of history. While Russell T Davies tended to ignore the criticisms of fandom and carry on with his own plan regardless (although he does have some great meta moments, like “lots of planets have a north” and all of “Love & Monsters”), Moffat seems constitutionally incapable of letting them lie. I’m sure this goes over a lot of heads, and infuriates some more, but I must confess I love it, mostly because he finds ways to address them that enrich the story. Moffat’s Doctor Who is a show about Doctor Who and a story about stories, and so we cannot just use Capaldi in another role: We must have the character confront the fact that his actor has been in it before. This is not merely empty cleverness: In doing this, Moffat opens up a whole new world of philosophical discourse we didn’t even know we were missing (see the many paragraphs I’ve just written on what amounts to only a fraction of the episode!).
Moffat is addressing similarly meta concerns with Clara. I wrote a strongly worded blog post last month about what I perceive as an infuriating propensity in Doctor Who fandom towards misogyny. The short version is that the casting of Peter Capaldi – given his age, vocal loyalty towards Classic Doctor Who, and repeated comments about how his Doctor won’t be flirting – have been used as an excuse to insult and marginalize new series fans, specifically young female new series fans. In Clara, we see Moffat confronting those very same trends on screen. Clara’s reaction to the new Doctor is very similar to Rose’s in “The Christmas Invasion” – she grieves for her lost friend, feels angry at him for abandoning her, and struggles to come to terms with the fact that she may not know him as well as she thought. These are all standard character and audience reactions to new Doctors – reflected in the infamous Regeneration Cycle. Like Rose, Clara reacts negatively to the change. However, Vastra attributes Clara’s reluctance to her supposed attraction to the Eleventh Doctor – “He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover, even” – and accuses her of rejecting him based on his new (old) appearance, as well as belittles her for even considering herself his equal – “You might as well flirt with a mountain range.”
Given that Vastra treats her lover Jenny as her servant rather than her full equal and even objectifies her by having her pose scantily-clad for a portrait she’s not even painting, I think we’re invited view her criticism as not only flawed but quite hypocritical. If anyone here is sex-driven, it’s clearly Vastra. Clara’s righteous indignation at Vastra’s implications is greeted with enthusiastic applause by Jenny. Clara stands in for all of the girls who are told they are “not real fans” because (apparently) they only watch because Smith and Tennant are so hot. Clara, like the real fan she is, maintains that this is ridiculous. That is not why she loves Doctor Who. Moffat here uses Clara as a proxy to examine this hateful attitude towards female fans, exposing it for the ugly prejudice it is. In the end, once she becomes convinced that he is only the same old Doctor she’s always loved, she embraces him.
Moffat also takes the opportunity – and I’m sure we’re going to be in for much more of this in the season to come – to address some specific and more well-founded criticisms of Clara herself. After two strong not-quite-introductory episodes, the second half of season 7 featuring the modern day Clara Oswald gave the character a slightly lackluster (though not unpromising) start. With only 8 episodes, and almost as many writers, combined with the overarching mystery of the “Impossible Girl,” Clara never rose much higher than perfectly nice, well-acted generic companion. It was only in the “of the Doctor” trilogy that Coleman was given material to allow the character to show some emotional depth. However, the necessary focus on the Doctor in those episodes meant that even then the emotions she showed were fairly limited: She finally cared strongly about the Doctor, displayed fear and bravery, and displayed compassion. These are all things that make the audience like or even love her, but that don’t do a lot to dissuade the criticism that she’s “too perfect.”
Moffat goes out of his way in “Deep Breath” to show Clara’s imperfections. Her first appearance, staggering out of the TARDIS with her hair and clothes in disarray, serve as a metaphor for her experience of coming unraveled over the course of the episode. Indeed, put in a situation where she would rather be anywhere else, dare I say her ugly side comes out. Though she successfully rebuts claims that she only cared about the Doctor’s looks, she does admittedly show quite a lot of impatience with this new regeneration, especially considering she should be more familiar with the concept of regeneration than any other companion. She’s short-tempered and irritable. Even after the Doctor stops acting like a raving lunatic, behaves coherently, and proves that he still “has her back,” she still wants to leave him at the end, because it’s just too weird. I expect that going forward the scripts will find a nicer balance between Clara’s positive and negative qualities, but it was nice to see the character put through her paces and strengthened as a result.
Apart from the wonderful explorations of the two leads’ characters, the episode provides a wealth of other great moments. The opening sequence with the T-Rex back-dropped by Parliament was fabulously funny and well-executed (when did TV special [esp. in Doctor Who] become almost as good as movie special effects?!). The mash-up of dinosaurs, Victorian London, aliens dressed as people, and of course the TARDIS being vomited out into the Thames is the quintessential madness we expect and demand from this show. Moffat’s episodes are always good for a laugh, between Clara’s remarking on the Doctor’s smell (Doctor: “I know, it’s everywhere…”), the gloriously slapstick and superfluous moment of Strax throwing the Times up to Clara, and the Doctor’s inability to comprehend the purpose of a bedroom (“I mostly take standing up catnaps when other people are talking. I like to skip ahead to my bits – it saves time”).
If there was one area where the episode flagged a bit it was with the Paternoster Gang, who (while entertaining) are really rather limited characters. Strax, while funny, is a one-note joke, and the scene of him examining Clara felt like what it was – Moffat’s shoehorning in the sonic device designed by the Blue Peter contest winner. Vastra and Jenny are problematic in more complicated ways – their “lizard woman from the dawn of time and her wife” shtick has become a little tired, and attempts to spice it up (lovers spats and the “share my breath” not-a-kiss) felt a little forced and frankly gratuitous to the story. The relationship just works better when it is left matter of fact and understated.
I don’t want to get too much into this new Doctor’s “darkness,” because I suspect we’ll have a lot more to say about that in the coming months, but I don’t want to ignore the “Lady or the Tiger” moment of the chief Droid’s death: “One of us is lying about our basic programming,” says the Doctor. Cut to the Droid dead, impaled on a spire after a fall. No answer is given, and the Doctor just looks moodily at the camera (breaking the fourth wall, naturally). Was he pushed or did he fall? I doubt we’ll get an answer – the question is more important, after all.
And then, of course, there’s the shameless nostalgia trip of the last scene. Clara examines the pimped out new TARDIS, and we get nice callbacks to “The Day of the Doctor” (“You’ve redecorated – I don’t like it” and “I used to have a lot of round things, I wonder where I put them”). Then, of course, there’s Matt Smith’s cameo, calling Clara from the past. I’ve tried not to read other reviews before writing mine, but I gather that this is somewhat controversial: For some, Smith steals the episode, for others it serves as a disrespectful distraction from Capaldi. I’m not sure that either is wholly right. Frankly, if you come away from this episode with the impression that Smith does more in two minutes to sell the story than Capaldi did in the preceding hour and thirteen, you’ve not been paying attention. However, neither do I think that this needs to be taken as a slight to Capaldi. This is a fantastic moment of intertextuality – having different eras of the show interact with each other. In a way, this completes the 50th Anniversary celebration which started with the many Doctors present in “The Name of the Doctor,” carrying through to all of the Doctors saving Gallifrey together, the mysterious appearance of the Curator, and the new cycle of regenerations grated in “Time” – culminating here, with the pass of the baton. People often misread the Tenth Doctor’s farewell tour in “The End of Time” as Davies’ way of sticking it to Moffat, but the opposite is true: It’s a generous and cathartic clearing of the deck as preparation for Moffat. It’s Davies saying, “You don’t owe my era anything. Go on and make it yours.” Here, Smith’s Doctor gives Capaldi and Coleman permission to move on and let him go. “Take care of each other. Do that for me. Have a fantastic life.”
I could honestly keep talking, but let’s stop there for now. If the season continues in this rich a vein, we’re going to have plenty more to say in the weeks to come. So, how about you, faithful viewer? Did the droid fall or was he pushed? Any favorite scenes that I left out? Any interpretations with which you’d like to disagree? What do you think of the new Doctor and Capaldi’s performance? Leave a comment below! And don’t forget to check out my podcast Kat and Curt’s TV Review. We’ve just started the Eleventh Doctor era, plus season four of Buffy and season one of Angel, so now’s a perfect time to jump in and join the discussion.