Doctor Who: Deep Breath (A Lesson in Good & Bad Writing)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

18 Replies to “Doctor Who: Deep Breath (A Lesson in Good & Bad Writing)”

    1. The clockworks and borrowing body parts to make machines human; in GiTF, the machines were following around Madame de Pompadour so that they could harvest her organs to run their ship. These robots were doing much the same.

        1. I’ve watched that episode so many times that I remember all of it (it’s probably my favorite single episode)… the irony is, when you asked about the connection, I remembered the old episode, but not the new one’s particulars, as I’ve only seen it once… so it took a minute for me to know what I’d been talking about! 😀

  1. On the nail. I was only able to watch the first two episodes the other day, but the first–you were right. Very uneven. I didn’t want to finish your article the other day because of spoilers, but I came back to it. While I was watching, I commented to my sister that I understood what you meant about bad writing. So uneven, meandering, but once the danger and plot picks up it was so much better. And the end scene was the best, more human and natural. Believable. I’m intrigued by the difference in the Doctor–I’m missing the jolly man child persona already, as I just loved it–but this difference is really intriguing. I’m not won completely over yet, but there’s plenty of time. And Clara bossy? Give me a break.
    I loved the restaurant scene. Awesome. Hearing those gear-whirring robots again? Beautiful. And I am so intrigued by this “Heaven” place. Creepy beauty. The second episode was good, although I still was a bit objective about the Doctor–but I feel like this one is more challenging, and the storyline was good. And he deserved that slap from Clara! But I will admit this–this utter gravity and solemnity on the part of the Doctor seems to effect the whole thing for me–like a piece of what Doctor Who is is missing. Granted, I began with the reboot of the show, when the Doctors were all jolly silly men, they had that happy brilliance. The show FEELS different now, but like I said–the challenge and uniqueness of this new Doctor definitely feels like something that could be good. Just wondering how the story will unfold. What we’ll have in the end.

    1. To be honest, I don’t like the show nearly as much as I hoped I would since changing Doctors. I can’t figure out if it’s the lifeless way they are writing the Doctor (I don’t mind him being older and cranky, but he’s just… dull) or if it’s an actor-related problem, since Capaldi so far doesn’t have any spark. Like you, the melancholy tone of it has affected me, and not in a positive way. I feel like he is no longer the Doctor, and what I enjoyed most (the enthusiasm, and the zeal for life) is gone. I’m not sure it was a good idea to change his personality so drastically all at once. Even Nine had a lot more enthusiasm.

      I hope I change my mind after next week, because so far the fun of the writing (and I really loved the idea of traveling inside a Dalek… I thought that was clever, and done rather well) is lost amid the flashing mental neon light that tells me: this is not the Doctor. So far, Capaldi hasn’t won me over, but I hope he can.

  2. Great write-up on the episode! The unevenness of the episode and Moffat’s usual writing tropes and characterisations aside, I enjoyed this episode (more so that the last few in new Who). Twelve’s (I refuse to refer to him as Fourteen) post-Regeneration reminded me of Ten’s and how he was out of action for quite a while, complete with some madness in his nightgown.

    I do however agree with your point about Clara. While I welcome the fact that she has more personality and depth and just things to do to her character than what we’ve seen in the whole of series 7.5 (*le sigh* And I do like her, she’s just…not very well-written, I think), the sudden development of her being some sort of bossy control freak came out of nowhere. Like you said, we haven’t seen her act that way, so it’s hard to accept this character flaw. I read a comment somewhere interpretting this character flaw as being quite subtle throughout 7.5, but I think that if it was this really subtle flaw that I have to squint and interpret it upside down on another planet, then the writing didn’t do a good job at conveying this part of her. Same goes with her being interpreted as shallow and looks-only, partly because we just don’t know enough about her character to wonder if she’s that kind of person.

    Beyond that though, I love Peter Capaldi and his Doctor already, from the poignant “Who frowned this face?” to him raving over his “attack eyebrows.” I’m also glad that there were more throwbacks to earlier series in new Who and classic in this episode. I’m also enjoying his interaction with Jenna; the scene in the restaurant was fantastic, right down to the creepy machines 😀

    (Hmm, I hope this comment makes sense; made the awful decision this afternoon of juggling several tasks in one go…all of them writing-related, lol O_O)

    1. This entire episode, Moffat was using Clara as a stand-in for the audience. Vastra’s lecturing her on being shallow and only interested in appearances was aimed at the viewing audience, as was the Doctor’s statement about “I’m not your boyfriend, and I should stop acting like it,” and even her hissy fit was to mimic the audience. It’s a bit insulting, really, and it does Clara no favors.

      I wish I loved Capaldi. I thought for sure I’d like him better in the second episode, but I didn’t. I find him a lifeless presence. I’m hoping that’s due to depression in the character, and that he’ll buck up and come out of it, because otherwise it’s going to be, for me, a pretty dull season.

  3. We share most of the same thoughts about this episode (no surprise there). I mean, I liked it a lot, but it still wasn’t as good as it could have been. Although I liked the Doctor being a bit wonky after his regeneration. Some of them don’t have mild regenerations, although the most violent was by far 5 into 6, at least of the ones I’ve seen. He tried to strangle his companion!

    My biggest beef with the episode was Vastra and Jenny yet again and Clara not being Clara. I haven’t even watched all of Clara’s episodes, but she always seemed to love the Doctor as a whole, not as one piece, and that’s how she was acting. And she could deny it all she wanted, but her actions spoke far louder than her words. Who knows, maybe she was struggling with the idea that something had affected him so badly that he decided to age his next regeneration. Maybe she felt responsible for him being older, like she had done something or said something or something happened to him to make him do that. It’s possible, but I still didn’t feel her behavior matched the girl we’d come to know.

    And yes, I think Clara will mesh with Twelve/Fourteen very nicely. It seems that this one will need her to be spontaneous sometimes and just give him a hug. The end scene was very sweet, and I liked it immensely, by far the best moment of the episode, although that scene in the restaurant was pretty awesome. Like you, and most of your other commenters on here, I think it felt like the episode really started there. Up until that point it didn’t quite feel like it was Doctor Who. I’m not sure why, it just didn’t. I guess it’s proof that they didn’t an hour and twenty minutes to tell the plot. They could have done it in the normal time and cut out all the superfluous stuff. I’m not as much a Moffat fan as you so in some ways I was a little harsher on it than you. I mean, he’s a great writer most of the time, but he can get off track and this episode is a perfect example of that. Here’s hoping it’s all out of his system now and he can move on with the show and his new Doctor.

    1. I don’t mind him being wonky, but it was drawn out too long. What was it, a good 30 minutes before the plot started to go anywhere?

      Vastra and Jenny, I like as individuals. Moffat shoving his sexism down our throats with his depiction of them as a couple, not so much. He’s doing to Vastra what he did to Irene Adler, and it irks me. His women can never simply be intelligent; they have to be lustful too. Vastra having Jenny standing around in her corset, to inspire her while she worked on something else? What. The. Hell?

      He did it with Amy too (“Aren’t you going to look away?” “Nope”), and River Song, and to some extent, with Clara (why else is she so upset about the handsome, charismatic young Doctor turning up old?). He’s given Jenny the leather-clad dominatrix angle he gave to Irene Adler, and made Vastra a womanizer. Lame.

      My biggest beef with Clara is… this wasn’t Clara and given what others have said about the impending episodes, I’m not sure the old Clara is going to come back. Oh, well. I can give or take this Clara.

      I wonder what the show would be like if Gatiss took the helm?

  4. I thought this episode was clunky at times too and there were moments where I couldn’t understand him. Perhaps its the accent? Normally I like to watch my episodes with subtitles. I actually disagree with you, I think Clara meshes with 11 and 12 just fine.

    I’m not sure how it is for you but for me it takes me awhile to get used to each of the doctors. I started with 9 and I really liked him, then I was upset he wasn’t back the next season so then I had to get used to 10, but after a few episodes I came to love David Tennant’s Dr. Who, then I got irritated when he was gone again and had to get used to Matt. But then I came to love him as well.

    I wasn’t sure about Amy at first either but the actress who played her, I think her name is Karen, won me over. But this episode was very clunky, I don’t know how else to say it. Dr. Who often has plot holes like the episode when Amy chooses to touch the Angel so she can be with Rory, I just thought that episode was full of plot holes and I saw it as unnecessary as well.

    I know they did that episode because Karen wanted to leave the series and pursue other acting opportunities, which is fine, but I wish they had either closed the plot holes on that episode or showed Amy and Rory leaving the doctor in order to live their own lives. As a viewer I would have understood that, not every character needs a dramatic exit.

    I guess they wanted a dramatic episode. But yea the writing on Dr. Who is not always perfect. I could also do without the British propaganda too (anti-guns), etc.

    1. Yeah, his voice faded out a bit at first for me too. I’m not sure if it was a problem with the broadcast or the thick accent.

      My biggest transition was from David to Matt, since I saw Christopher after knowing David awhile and never really developed much fondness for the Ninth Doctor. I was glad for the “break,” though, between Ten and Eleven, which allowed me time to process the idea of a new Doctor. I think that buffer helped.

      My main problem with the final Amy and Rory episode (in addition to the plot holes, as you mentioned) is… the ambiguity of it. I assume that their reset of the timeline made it so that they wouldn’t be tormented constantly by Weeping Angels in the 1930’s… right?? Was them getting sent back in time a one-time thing? That was never really made clear for me. I think they did it that way because Amy was unlikely to ever leave the Doctor of her own choosing. A constant cycle of adventures and never-ending churning of ideas? To a extroverted intuitive personality type like Amy, that’s like catnip! She wasn’t like Martha, able to just turn her back on it and walk away.

  5. A quick thought… My impression on the Doctor’s comments on Clara’s bossiness was that it showed HIS view of her. Which I found surprising… and may still be inaccurate in that he was only finding his right mind.

  6. I enjoyed your review. It was intelligent, thoughtful, and well-articulated, making some good arguments for both the strengths and weaknesses of the episode. So, kudos for that!

    I hadn’t actually thought much about the ‘show, don’t tell’ problem in this episode until you pointed it out quite clearly (with good examples – showing, not just telling, nice job), and I have to concur. There was no need to spell out things that either were already blatantly obvious OR should have been displayed as consistent traits rather than merely ascribed to a character.

    The one point I have to disagree with you on, however, is Clara’s reaction to Twelve. I’ve seen a lot of people say the same as you – that because Clara had already met the War Doctor and Ten, and knew all about the regenerations, she shouldn’t have been upset or confused by Twelve’s appearance.

    Yes, Clara knew he was going to regenerate, and yes she even met two other incarnations, but the whole regeneration thing was STILL only theoretical for her on a personal level. She said goodbye to those other Doctors and went back to HER Doctor at the end of the day. Eleven was still with her, he didn’t go anywhere, and he wasn’t abruptly replaced. She knew the other Doctors were, literally, the Doctor… but she didn’t have to deal with losing the Doctor SHE’D travelled with up until then.

    So, I do think her reaction – while somewhat bratty and self-serving – was fairly natural. She had to come to terms with having her companion suddenly and dramatically change appearance and personality, but she ALSO had to deal with losing (in terms of appearance and personality) the man she had spent so much time with and grown close to as a person.

    The Doctor may be the same man at his core, but he looks different, sounds different, and has a completely different personality in many respects. I don’t think any amount of pre-emptive knowledge would make that easier to adjust to. (And I say all of this as someone who doesn’t really like Clara, but I do think some people are giving her a harder time than she deserves over her reaction).

    Having said all that, I do think different viewers read characters differently, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to view her as a character who would be able to take all of that on board and go with the flow, as you felt she should have done. I just don’t think she was written BADLY to react the way she did.

    Anyway, excuse my rant! I found your review on Tumblr by the way. Again, it was one of the more thoughtful and fair reviews I’ve seen so far, so thanks again for the good read!

    1. Well, thank you! I try to be as fair as I can be, and I really do appreciate much of what Moffat has done with the series. He’s matured it in a lot of ways since the earlier seasons (no more farting aliens) but… he’s not perfect either. On the one hand, I hate to be critical of other writers but… show, don’t tell is something all writers need to learn and many of them, particularly for television, aren’t especially good at it. They have a very visual medium to work with, too, which should make it easier on them to show, instead of telling.

      Clara. Another girl I was just talking to remarked that Clara’s reaction is unusual, because… how much of this Clara remembers shattering in his time stream? I almost felt like that plot wasn’t properly finished, because I don’t know how much impact it had on her, whether she remembers any of her many lives, etc. If she doesn’t remember, that’s one thing; but if she has met all the Doctors and recalls all of them, her reaction to Twelve is even more unusual. (Again, I think Clara in this episode was a stand-in for the audience; her emotions were meant to reflect ours, at having our beloved Doctor replaced by an “older model.”)

      You do make a good point, however — just like the Doctor regenerating is, for the fans, like a death, it is for her too… and now she has to adjust to a brand new personality in brand new packaging along with the rest of us. So maybe I was a bit too hard on her. (Poor Clara. So few people like her or find her interesting, which is sad. I think it’s to her disadvantage that she followed “the Ponds.”)

      No worries about your rant, I’m always happy to consider another point of view. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  7. The scene in the restaurant had both midget and I going THIS is the moment the episode got it’s legs. And it was when we formed a theory that I think Clara will work better with 12. I’ve liked Clara since the beginning, but I’ve never cared for the episodes she’s been in as modern Clara.

    I am very curious to see where they’re going to go from here.

    1. YES. Up until then my reaction was “meh,” but that’s when it found its footing and really took off. That entire sequence was brilliant, particularly Clara holding her breath and then nearly dying because she had to let it out. Poor thing.

      I hope Clara meshes nicely with Twelve, because she didn’t fit Eleven very well. Like you, I don’t care for the modern version of the character, but I loved Victorian Clara. (Which brings me to a question — why did she have to die? If we have seen the Doctor save River Song from falling off a building, why couldn’t he re-materialize under Clara and save her too?)

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