Writing this, I realized I did more complaining about what I didn’t like than expounding on what I did like about this first episode, which just goes to show how divided my opinion is when it comes to Moffat’s characterization in Doctor Who. I’m double-minded in my reaction to this story, both from an editorial perspective and as a fan. I think the plot is quite interesting (once it kicks in) and I enjoyed the throwback to “The Girl in the Fireplace.” It establishes an intriguing growing threat in its final moments that has me curious. But the prolonged “Doctor is crazy after regenerating” subplot detracted from it, and at times it felt less like a show about the Doctor and more about his (not really) companions. I felt they could have opened with the closing scene and skipped all the regeneration nonsense to focus on the real plot.
In my opinion, only one Regeneration episode has been done right, and that was Eleven’s. It dealt with the usual angst in a funny way, but it never detracted from the plot or the introduction of Amy Pond, nor in establishing the greater plot arc for Eleven’s first season. Here, it was too jarring for various reasons and worse, kept Twelve (“Fourteen,” heh) off screen for too long right at the start. It didn’t help that Clara was being utterly irrational and out of character. She has literally just seen Ten, Eleven, and “Cranky” Doctor save their home planet, yet is shook to her core when a gray-haired Doctor appears? Why? Up to this point, Clara has enthusiastically embraced everything the Doctor is, was, and will be, and accepted it all with the same laid back approach to life… as in, it’s an adventure! This is wildly out of character for her, which brings me to another problem with Clara: everyone keeps mentioning that she is a “bossy control freak,” but so far we haven’t seen her do anything that is the least bit bossy or controlling. If anything, she’s pretty laid back.
And, here comes my criticism of Moffat. I like him as a writer, and I enjoy his stories, but he has yet to fully grasp the “show, don’t tell” aspect of writing. Is Clara bossy? Amy was bossier, and no one ever said she was or wasn’t bossy. Everyone just knew it, because we all saw it. She bossed Rory around constantly and the Doctor, too. Clara, as a character, is way less bossy than Amy, so why is she referenced as the bossy control freak? Moffat is telling us what she is, rather than showing us; and the problem is, his telling is contradicting what she is showing. Worse, he also does this constantly with Jenny and Vastra. I like them as characters (less so, Vastra, after this episode), but he’s not doing them any favors by putting such constant references to their marital status in their mouths. Show us their affection for each other. Stop telling us about it. You don’t need to explain to the audience that Jenny pretends to be the maid to put up a farce for the sake of prudish Victorian society. We know. You don’t need to spell that out for us; we have brains and we can observe their behavior. Jenny is pouring tea. She wears maid outfits. Gee, do you think maybe she’s pretending to be Vastra’s maid?!?
I really don’t like what he is doing with Vastra, either, but my thoughts about Moffat and sexism are so incomplete that at this point, I don’t feel comfortable articulating them. He seems to be able to write only one kind of heroine and frequently gets stuck in ruts when it comes to developing them. His attempts at feminism do have a sexist bent that reveals his inability to understand the principles of true feminism in favor of pseudo-feminism. I’m not ready to label him as a sexist like some others, but I don’t disagree with their arguments either, which forces me to be super-analytical when it comes to considering all his female characters. (His interpretation of Irene Adler didn’t help his case.)
I thought the ending scene with the Doctor and Clara had the most raw realism of the tale, even though it had all the subtlety of an elephant in a china factory. Clara ceased to be Clara in this episode and was a stand-in for what Moffat fears is a large chunk of his audience: highly emotional, rather shallow girls who will abandon the show in droves now that the Doctor has wrinkles, which is somewhat insulting when you think about it. When the Doctor(s) plead with Clara to give him a chance, what the blatant, neon, flashing subtext is saying is, “Audience, give us a chance!” It is wholly unnecessary. Give us a good plot, and a memorable Doctor, and we’ll love him. You don’t have to explain, apologize, or beg for our attention. Command it from start to finish. Hold our attention. Make us loyal.
Lest you think I didn’t like this episode, I did. The secondary plot, where all the action actually was (the main plot being “angst” and “emotional drama”) was strong, creepy, and unique. The scene in the restaurant is a thing of beauty. So was that needless but entertaining exchange in the street between the Doctor and a passerby. I never know where I get these faces… His comments about being Scottish now and able to blame everything on the English were charming. His reminder to Clara (the audience) that he is not our boyfriend was refreshing, because maybe now we can get away from that angle and have a single Doctor again. (Sorry, I have always preferred non-romantic relationships to romantic pairings, and it is no secret that single characters are my favorites.) The Doctor abandoning Clara at a pivotal moment was terrific, because it illustrated for the first time that… this is a different Doctor, a much less emotional Doctor, and it had us wondering, just for a moment, “Does he care at all?” That scene delivered. The scene in the balloon where the Doctor gives the creepy machine-man a choice also delivered. Did he jump, or was he pushed? We will never know, and that is good writing, because it builds suspense. This seems to be a common theme with Moffat. When he is off, he is very off, and when he is on, he’s brilliant.
The dinosaur was a nice hook, even though it was about a hundred times the size of a real T-Rex … this comes from someone who studied dinosaurs for about five years as a kid; I am going to assume it came from another planet and hope the BBC animation department isn’t that thick. I was disappointed in its demise for two reasons: it was unnecessary and just last season, the writers used a dinosaur’s senseless death to make us hate the villain more (I thought Julian Fellowes was the only British writer who recycles his plots after only one season?!). Plus, I wanted to find out just how the Doctor planned to get her home. I enjoyed the subtle throwbacks to earlier episodes, both in the machine-man who used human parts to repair the ship, and in this Doctor’s more overt resemblance to earlier Doctors, before they started wearing sandshoes and having wild hair. I got a bit of a chuckle out of the end, too, when the Doctor confesses that he doesn’t think that this time, he’s the hugging kind.
Despite my complaints, I really did have fun watching it and suspect it will grow on me even more with subsequent viewings. I look forward to next week, and seeing Capaldi have something more to sink his teeth into, because what I did see of him once he got past the psychosis, I liked.