Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1: Deep Breath

Um, Clara, what exactly are you looking at?

I was cautiously optimistic about this episode. The episodes Moffat wrote under Davies' tenure  ("The Empty Child", "The Doctor Dances", "The Girl in the Fireplace", "Blink") are almost universally considered highlights of the era, and I loved them all, though, I personally consider Paul Cornell's "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" to be the the absolute best of that run.

Moffat was great as a writer in the early days of the revival, but that was because he had someone to rein him in, not despite it. As a writer, he tends to swing for the fences, for scenes with a big emotional or conceptual payoff. Even as one of his detractors, I think he tends to write these pieces well. Unfortunately, he seems to work backwards from such scenes, and doesn't much care how the story gets there, as long as it gets there as quickly as possible. Time after time, we're left with stories that have a great concept, but which fall apart when the details are examined. This isn't a huge problem in standalone media, but it leads to problems when "Hurry up and get the filler out of the way so we can get to the WOW moment!" is consistently employed in a property with a large number of detail-conscious geeks. The mistakes pile up and when you reply to questions with a MST3K "Don't think about my continuity errors too hard! It's a kid's show!"

well, I've been a fan of Doctor Who for more than thirty years.  I think it should be something more than "Turn off your brain entertainment".

I didn't like the direction Moffat took as a showrunner. I've covered it at some length before, so I won't go into details. The short version, the show he was making was not a show I cared to watch, will suffice.

So, why was I optimistic? Because I had heard rumors that Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor, was pushing back against the worst excesses of Moffat's writing, simply refusing to perform material he found offensive. Of course, since initial reports came from Does Steven Moffat Still Suck?, and they just maaayyyyybe have a touch of bias.

Still, I thought I'd give it a shot.

We open with a dinosaur stomping around London. The police summon the Paternoster Gang, and the dinosaur spits out the TARDIS, causing the police inspector to proclaim, "What? It's just laid an egg!" and Vastra to reply, "It's dropped a blue box marked 'Police' out of its mouth. Your grasp of biology troubles me." Um, yeah. I really don't think that's a mistake that anyone was likely to make.

Vastra gives the inspector some dinosaur invisible fence device to keep it corralled, and heads on down to check on the TARDIS. A confused Doctor emerges, follows by a disheveled and wide-eyed Clara.

The Doctor collapses, and we transition into the new title sequence. I thought it was kind of busy and over-stylized, but not terrible.  It wasn't to my taste, but I wouldn't call it "bad", based on that alone.

We return to the action in a bedroom in Vastra's house. The Doctor is rambling about speaking dinosaur and the strangeness bedrooms, but Vastra gets him to sleep with a comedy sound effect. This is followed by a nice bit. When Clara is fussing over him, the Doctor starts translating the dinosaur's roars into its fear of this new world.

We cut to a scene where a robot with half a face rips out some dude's eyes. I was like, "Woah! Finest Doctor Who episode of Clockwork Robots harvesting human organs since The Girl in the Fireplace!"

Then we return to Vastra tediously lecturing Clara. This was an extremely off-putting sequence, because Vastra is so clearly an author-insert, instructing the audience on the right way to feel. It did have a line I really liked,  that the Doctor was "Lost in the room of himself", but mostly it was so bad that it was offensive.

The Doctor breaks out of his room, there are a bunch of gags and slapstick, few of which were funny. There were a lot of jokes. but very little humor.

The rest of the group finds the Doctor, just in time to see the dinosaur spontaneously combust. He disappears, the gang returns home, reasoning that the Doctor will cross paths with them if they're working on the same mystery.

The Doctor has a nicely performed scene with a homeless man, we return to Vastra and the rest. They conclude that the cases of spontaneous combustion were induced to hide evidence of a crime. Clara finds a message the Doctor has left for her in the paper.  They meet up at the restaurant he suggested, and bicker a little.

Clara: An ordinary person wants to meet someone that they know very well for lunch?
The Doctor: Well, they probably get in touch, and suggest lunch?
Clara: Okay, so what sort of person would put a cryptic note in a newspaper advert?
The Doctor: Well, I wouldn't like to say.
Clara: Oh, go on, do, say.
The Doctor: Well, I would say that person would be an egomaniac, needy, game-player sort of person.
And it turns out they each thought the other placed the ad ("I saw your advert, I figured it out - happy to play your game"), and they realize that the place is a trap.

I thought this entire scene was just outstanding. If every episode has something this good, I'm definitely coming back. It was also about this time that I figured out that it actually tied back to Fireplace, and not just Moffat feeding us the same plot and hoping we didn't notice.

The Doctor tells Clara to hold her breath and drops some hair to ground. It falls straight down, and he realizes that the other patrons are robots. I thought this was the only part of the scene that didn't work. They're not breathing, as he just illustrated, but they're still moving around quite a bit, which would presumably create air currents.

They get up to leave, but the other patrons rise to bar their passage.

They're trapped in their seats, but the booth drops down into a basement. They escape from their bindings, find many more robots. The robots start coming to life, and the Doctor escapes, but Clara is trapped. She gets away briefly by holding her breath, and that is apparently how the robots see things (but it doesn't explain how the head robot saw the dinosaur all the way across town). I like the idea as a concept, it's worked well in some HK horror movies where the Jiangshi (hopping vampire) can't find the hero for as long he holds his breath, but it felt gimmicky and confusing here.

The head robot questions her, but it starts by threatening to kill her, and she's all like, "Oh, but if you kill me, I can't answer your questions", and the robot is like, "Oh, you got me there."  Doctor Who seems to regularly engage in the fallacy of the excluded middle. It was particularly egregious in Prisoner of the Daleks, probably the worst book I ever completed, but the series does it a lot too. Meaning, that there is a whole lot of middle ground between killing Clara and doing exactly what she says.

Anyways, Clara's spurious logic baffles the robot, and it tells her that they harvested the dinosaur's eyes for material for its computer. Did they harvest the eyeballs from a living super-sized dinosaur, or did they grab it after they torched it and the body was presumably swarming with a bunch of Victorian era first responders? Neither one makes much sense.

The robot is hassling Clara, but the Doctor unmasks himself from his disguise as one of the killer robots. This part is really well done, with the music and the direction and Capaldi's performance, marred only by some of Moffat's characteristic ugliness.

"Never try to control a control freak."
"I am not a control freak!"
"Yes, ma'am."

Women, amirite?

The robots come to life, but the Paternosters leap down from above, and oh, Jesus, am I sick of them.  The head robot escapes in a hot air balloon made out of human skin, but the Doctor comes along with him. He pours them each a drink, and this is a great scene. Unfortunately, it's intercut with some of the worst choreographed fighting I've ever seen from the bottom of the restaurant.

The Doctor argues that the robot has become something fundamentally different by repairing itself.

"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."

That reminded me of a bit of case law. The United States Supreme Court came to the exact opposite decision in Aro Manufacturing Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co.

The Doctor shows the robot its reflection in a tray, and tell it that it probably can't remember where it got that face from. The Doctor's own face is reflected on the opposite side, and I thought this was very well-lensed. It's also probably building up to something. The Doctor talked about his face with the hobo, and Capaldi had played another role earlier in the series, so that's probably going to be meaningful.

The Doctor tells the robot that it's going to kill it to protect the humans below. Actually, the word they use is "murder", which, as long as I'm talking about statuary language, has a specific meaning, usually given as something like "The unlawful killing of one human being by another", and, as neither party involved is human, it doesn't really seem to apply. We've got an alien killing a robot.

I know, I know. It's a quibble, and the word is defined like that because humans are the only sentient species we know, and should we discover another, either they will be defined as humans for the purpose of the law, or the law would be rewritten to recognize this. Still, words mean things.

They struggle. The robot observes that the Doctor is stronger than he looks, and the Doctor says that he hopes the same is true of the robot, and hopes the machine can overcome its prohibition against self-destruction now that it realizes that its goal is pointless.  They seem to be at an impasse, with the Doctor unwilling to murder kill the machine, and the machine unwilling to jump, but the Doctor says "You realize of course, one of us is lying about his basic programming." "Yes." "And I think we both know who that is."

And, cut to the robot impaled on the spike on top of Elizabeth tower, and we don't know if he jumped or was pushed. I love that resolution! More scenes like this, please!

A bit later, the Doctor, all cleaned up and dapper, comes to get Clara, but she doesn't want to hang out with him until Matt Smith callsand vouches for him. Ugh. Fewer scenes like this, please!

And after this, the half-face robot awakens in a peaceful garden, where a woman in a black dress comforts him and asks if her boyfriend was too mean to him. She also asks if he jumped or was pushed, because she couldn't tell. ("Did Jet just...die?" "You know, it was really unclear.") She comforts him, as much as one can comfort a 65 million year old half-faced clockwork robot.

She says her name is "Missy". My first guess would be that she's the Master, regenerated into a woman, Missy being short for "Mistress", rather than "Melissa". This is bolstered by all the columns in her garden. As I recall, the Master had disguised his TARDIS as a column near the end of the Fourth Doctor's run. On the other hand, it could be a fakeout. God knows Moffat loves showing how clever he is.  We'll have to wait and see.

Final Thoughts

Not as bad as I had feared, not as good as I had hoped.

Capaldi and Coleman were both excellent. If Capaldi is indeed pushing back against the worst of the Moffatisms, that's great, but it can only go so far. The biggest problem with this episode is what I mentioned at the very beginning of the review. It's structured as a series of set pieces, some of them bad, some of them very good. But they're not a unified whole, and even if Capaldi chew the scenery like he did in this outing, it's not going to help with the structure of the show, where the action lurches haphazardly from one spectacle to the next.

Finally, Vastra or Jenny mention that they're married about fifty times over the course of the episode. I'm married too. I generally don't bring it up unless it pertains to the matter at hand. And, Moffat, scripting two hot women making out isn't going to insulate you from charges of sexism.

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