Dear Steven Moffat: Deep Breath

DW Deep Breath

Dear Steven,

The nature of time travel is that sometimes we end up where we began yet everything’s changed. Once again we’re standing on the start square of the Whoniverse’s monopoly board; you the quill, me the cosmic knocker, and we play our game. There’s a new Doctor and a new era to be manhandled. Naturally this game of transmission and review isn’t a war of attrition; it’s no battle between your creative faculty and my sneering, pedantic afterthoughts, but should only one of us be destined to survive Peter Capaldi’s tenure, please God let it be me.

The title of Capaldi’s debut is well chosen. This is a pivotal moment in the history of New Who (if you can call a programme ten years returned, new). You know it and the BBC certainly knows it; in fact more than a few suits at broadcasting house spent last night fighting cold sweats, palpitations and gut churn. Why the anxiety? Because you’ve convinced them to go all in, moving all their chips to the part of the roulette table marked “trusting the audience”. The area had to be dusted first of course, but here we stand, for the first time since the 1980s, with a middle-aged offer to the show’s fans. The Doctor’s all grown up and he’s not interested in relating to you anymore. It’s your turn to identify with him.

There’s to be no sexual tension between this Time Lord and his assistant, no infantile prancing, no pop cultural masturbation. For a programme that’s shamelessly courted the young on their own terms since 2005, a basic confusion between an audience proxy figure and a character they may wish to emulate, this is a brave move. In an era when the halfwits that run TV obnoxiously assume that no child, be they five or fifteen, will take an interest in a show unless it’s pitched at playground level and demographically cleansed, with the older leading actors sent to an entertainment farm to be turned into glue and other useful products (the very thinking that produced the youth club ghetto that is BBC3), this is conventional wisdom upended. To half-quote the tag line from an old new era, “it’s about time”.

So this was the moment we discovered whether the brains of today’s Whovians are wired like every previous generation’s, or if 21st century children are neurologically stunted, incapable of identifying with an older man as a role model. Would they see the Doctor or just skin and grey wire hanging from a calcified skeleton? Eighty minutes was probably a long time for a nation to hold its breath, and I wondered if anyone would be left alive to comment when it was over, but if the kids of the ‘60s accepted William Hartnell’s curmudgeon before the end credits, and the sprats of the ‘80s, tuning into a new era of Star Trek took to a grouchy, authoritarian chrome dome, in the form of Patrick Stewart, then perhaps we’d get to breathe out after all.

God knows you’ve primed the little bastards. Yes, attentive viewers knew that Matt Smith’s valedictory trilogy wasn’t just a celebration of the show’s history but a reminder of the salient details, namely this was a show founded on the pairing of an older man and young companions, the real audience proxies. You hammered the point home with John Hurt, who introduced today’s kids to the concepts of advanced age and gravitas. You used him to ridicule the modern show’s preoccupation with student-like silliness, its tendency toward grandstanding, overstatement and bullish machismo. Then, just as tadpoles nationwide were getting over that, their worldview destroyed, you aged Matt Smith in his final episode, going as far as adding 900 years onto the ganglinoid so that his climatic regeneration would seem like a Benjamin Button moment, rather than the opposite. The message was simple: “look kids, the Doctor’s the Doctor whether he’s a prancing jester or a wizened grump. Got it? Message fucking received? Good, now meet Peter Capaldi, aged 55”.

That, one imagined, was enough, after all the kids may have a head full of duff programming but they weren’t stupid, right? But with the future of the brand at stake, for Doctor Who stopped being just a TV show some time ago, it’s clear you felt you had to do even more. As “Deep Breath” got underway the first surprise wasn’t a dinosaur stomping along the embankment in Victorian London, nor Peter Capaldi emerging from the TARDIS for some dementia on the dock, rather the realisation that the Doctor’s age had been incorporated as a story element, the didacticism so tangible you could wear it like a tramp’s coat. You’d made subtle noises, now it was time for the message to be spelt out, because fans of David Tennant and Matt Smith were still out there and extremely dangerous.

This meant that Clara had to wait for her chance to become a fully-fledged character in her own right. Her status in this episode was to be the unconvinced part of the audience, the section that vomited when they saw Capaldi’s face for the first time, even if it meant backtracking on established elements of her character. Why, for example, was she so baffled by the realities of regeneration? Had she not seen every iteration of the Doctor, and presumably internalised the not so difficult to grasp concept that when he changed, his outward appearance varied? She’d met the First Doctor, after all, and he looked about 75. Had the Trenzalore incident wiped her memory too?

Of course Clara wasn’t the only one backpedaling, so too were you. Naturally Madame Vastra didn’t have a line into the Doctor’s psyche – she was trying her hand at psychoanalysis, it being newly fashionable – but it was still difficult to accept the idea that the Doctor’s youthful countenance, hitherto imagined as a lottery, was in fact an externalised plea for acceptance, and that by morphing into an old man with Clara present, the new Doctor was showing he trusted his friend, like a lover with dysmorphia peeling off their clothes to reveal a penis shaped like a horseshoe. Was the fact he was about to die incidental in the timing then? C’mon Steven, did you seriously expect us to believe this shit?

Sure, it was clever. Everyone’s got body issues, right? Teens especially hate themselves don’t they? They’re forever replacing their own faces with David Tennant’s in Photoshop, such is their self-loathing, so one could imagine millions of them sitting in front of the television, ready to hate Peter Capaldi when the episode began, identifying with him and his apparent need to loved, minutes later. He was just like them; he hated the way he looked too. If you didn’t get a BBC bonus for that, Steven, you were robbed.

Yet still you weren’t finished. The kids were ready to accept Capaldi, they’d grown to like his sardonic wit and hint of menace over the intervening 70 minutes or so, but you had to be sure – the naysayers needed one final push. It arrived in the form of an endorsement from none other than Matt Smith. In a scene that screamed, “go for broke”, he rang Clara from his final episode to tell the audience to support the new man. It was all very well Vastra telling them, sorry Clara, that if she loved him she’d stick with him, now came the word from the Doctor himself. “Children of Earth,” he seemed to say, “that old man is me, so forget your ageism, tacitly validated throughout this episode by the decision to push it front and centre, rather than ignoring it and cutting this scene, and get behind me. I mean, him! Get behind him!”

So the unfortunate predominance of an elephant in every scene, aside, did “Deep Breath” work? For the most part, yes. I had reservations. I was flummoxed by the inclusion of cartoon sound effects in the early scenes (the weird ‘boing’ that accompanied Vastra touching the Doctor’s face for example), in fact I wondered if a disgruntled employee had broken into the BBC and altered the episode’s masterfile using a folder of aural atrocities marked “NEVER USE”, and I thought you sometimes lapsed into broad comedy, as if, having vowed to divest the programme of maddening zaniness, you’d lost the thread while experimenting with the new tone, but our new Doctor’s a funny guy, and you can take some credit for that.

In a story about new faces, some generated, some stolen, I liked the look of a mordant Doctor that relished the scornful putdown. His line, following the plucking of a hair from Clara’s head, “sorry, it was the only one out of place”, was great, so too deadpan dialogue, impossible to say on any other show, such as “destroy us if you will, they’re still going to close your restaurant”. The 12th Doctor’s a wit, Steven, and a wry one at that. In a clutch of scenes longer and therefore, more satisfying than we’ve been used to since 2005, we came to realise that the era of indiscriminate bullshit is coming to a close, and not a moment too soon.

“Deep Breath” had a plot of course but I haven’t dwelt on it, as you didn’t. I enjoyed the feel of the adventure; it had a Sherlock Holmes on laudanum vibe (there was even a Lestrade); but it was clear that your clockwork villains existed merely to give Capaldi’s Doctor something to look into, as they were a conspicuous variant on Weeping Angels, felled via the suspension of a bodily function. You can get away with that in an introductory opener, Steven, but we will be expecting real stories and new ideas as the series progresses, and let’s face it – you owe us after three years in charge.

That leaves just miscellany to discuss. For future reference I think you should drop the Doctor’s Dolittle thing. Dinosaurs and Horses don’t have human brains – they were and are automatons, so a translation of their thoughts wouldn’t add up to much more than a Russell T. Davis emotional scene. Kudos for working an in-show explanation for the real police box on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, the locals will enjoy that. Oh, and give Murray Gold a boiled sweet – his score was restrained and enjoyable, even if the new theme tune arrangement sounds like it was sampled from a kazoo and run through a synthesiser.

Wait, just one last thing! As well as Clara’s determination to rid us all of the old age prejudice most of us never had, I thought you were laying it on thick with the Doctor’s protestations of having zero sexual interest in his companion. Again, I understand the kids needed to know a new boundary had gone up, and the days of casual flirting were over, but couldn’t you have just shown us? Like a new appearance, changes in personality are par for the course when it comes to regeneration. We know this, Steven. We’ve been watching this shit for a long time y’know.

Yours in time and cyberspace,


P.S: Good news. I’ve been discharged from the fanboy clinic at Graubünden. They say I’m a cured m- oh fuck.

P.P.S: Wait, there’s a woman out there claiming to be the Doctor’s girlfriend and custodian of heaven? What? Okay, we’ll talk about that next week.

Doctor Who: The Wonder Years

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:


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