New Season Breathes Life Back into Doctor Who

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"Deep Breath," the title of Doctor Who’s season premiere, is more than just a reference to its featured villains (although, because said villains are cyborgs hell-bent on organ-harvesting their way to the status of "living," it’s a shame we won’t be spending more time with them). Based on the evidence, "Deep Breath" is actually a message to the fans, a warning that after several seasons of glossy explosions, love triangles, and soapy melodrama, their beloved show is about to head in a very different direction. While some fans might be nervous about delving into new territory, the writers are asking us to have a little faith, take a deep breath, and take the plunge with them.

Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1Image: BBC America

Doctor Who’s Transition

The entire episode is about transition. From individual character arcs to the main plot to overall direction, nearly every element is used to explore the theme of change. What’s more, these changes don’t just appear right out of the box. Instead, the writers carefully guide the audience from the old ways to the new, so that by the time we get to the final scene, we have a very different show to the one we started out with. The whole episode is one massive regeneration. It’s enough to make even the most stalwart fan geek out.

Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1Image: BBC America

The Doctor

The Doctor’s physical transformation is the linchpin for the theme. He goes from being Matt Smith’s baby-faced, hyperactive, and lovable Doctor to a much older, darker and contemplative version. Although Capaldi doesn’t quite look 900, or 2000, or however old the Doctor is supposed to be, much is made of Capaldi’s grey hair, and how his worn and wrinkled body more accurately reflects the Doctor’s true self.

Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1Image: BBC America

Of course, the casting of a new actor for regeneration is always fun - serious actors bemoaning their physical shortcomings for our viewing pleasure is a novelty that never wears off – but of much greater interest is the Doctor’s shift in personality.

I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say that Capaldi's Doctor might do something his previous incarnations would have avoided. This raises the possibility of deeper change, something that goes beyond a new face and body; and just to make sure we don’t miss this crucial point, the writers include the following discussion between the Doctor and the head cyborg (who has been replacing his parts with human organs for millennia).

The Doctor: “Question: if you take a broom, you replace the handle - and 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!”

Here, the Doctor argues that the "person" is lost with the changing parts. However, by the end of the episode, he wants Clara to see that he’s still the same man, despite his rather obvious physical transition. So is he the same or is he different? Could he possibly be both?

Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1Image: BBC America

Interestingly, this kind of ambiguous writing also represents massive change. Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, the writers have created a lot of scenes that focus on the Doctor’s perspective as he grapples with a Big Moral Dilemma. They’ve used these moments to preach the Doctor’s pain, milking our tears through a combination of emotional high stakes and full orchestral backing. We’re left in no doubt as to how we should feel, because it’s all rather obvious.

However, in Deep Breath, we’re just presented with a lot of questions and no concrete answers. This kind of writing is more sophisticated, less manipulative, and a hell of a lot more genuine. DW’s writers finally seem to understand that there’s no need for grandstanding or crying or big speeches at the climax, because we already know the stakes are high. Nor do we require overt cues to feel the Doctor’s pain; we’re human, and that means that most of us are gifted with some degree of empathy. Give us a character to care about, tell us what’s going on, and we’re actually pretty good at connecting the emotional dots. The fact that DW’s writers have recognised this, and have completely revised their (admittedly successful) ham-and-cheese approach, is pretty exciting.

Clara

Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1Image: BBC America

Clara is a vessel for the audience. She’s the one struggling to reconcile the old and the new, and trying to find a way forward now that everything has changed.

However, her own character arc represents a subtle but important shift. Up until now, she’s been a smart, pretty, quick-talking sidekick, with the potential for romantic interest. Her status was elevated at the end of Season 7 when she saved the Doctor-slash-Universe through her super-special uniqueness, but with respect to character development, it fell disappointingly flat. The reasons for this are twofold.

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