Doctor Who Recap: Take A Deep Breath, It Is Not A Sexist Show
Peter Capaldi made his Who debut last night, in the first episode of series eight. Spoiler alert!
This is the first in our series of Doctor Who recaps, which we will publish the day after each episode airs. Spoiler alert.
The latest episode of Doctor Who — the big, explosive, post-50th anniversary, new-Doctor-introducing, cinema-broadcast epic — aired over the weekend. And what did we learn from Deep Breath? Well, quite a lot.
First, Peter Capaldi is every bit as great as everyone knew he’d be. So, no surprises there.
Two, having strong directorial voices – dangerous UK auteur Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) – doesn’t hurt one bit.
And three, showrunner Steven Moffat will never escape the fandom hate.
Even if he may often be accused of not doing so, it’s clear that Steven Moffat listens to the fans. So much so that when one fan created a wonderful new opening sequence and put it on YouTube, Moffat swivelled around in his magnificent office chair (probably from IKEA), took the cigar out of his mouth (probably a haggis), and bellowed (or asked nicely), “Hire that man!”.
As a result, this fan-made video became this actual title sequence:
But Moffatt is also acutely aware of the accusations of sexism that are now a standard part of his any review of his work (like here, here, and here). Because the man who created Press Gang’s influential Lynda Day; who was responsible for our only ever on-screen female Doctor Who in the form of Joanna Lumley; who transformed Arthur Conan Doyle’s scornfully-spurned vengeance-lady Irene Adler into a compelling lead with intelligence and agency; and who created incredibly interesting and strong Doctor Who characters as Sally Sparrow and River Song… is apparently the most sexist writer in Britain. And ignoring all the evidence that doesn’t fit your narrative of a person is the ideal that Doctor Who embodies.
Wait, no. The opposite of that.
With a post-regeneration Doctor incapacitated for large stretches, the action largely revolves around companion Clara and the recurring Paternoster Gang, a trio of Victorian crime-fighters that consists of Madame Vastra (a reptilian humanoid from the dawn of time), her maid Jenny (a human), and butler Strax (an androgynous and comically-violent alien warrior, unable to get his head around the differences between the sexes).
The relationship between Madame Vastra and Jenny continues to be the most progressive thing in any kid-friendly show ever: a loving, affectionate partnership that avoids both sexy lesbian exploitation and self-conscious polite chasteness. Vastra and Jenny are happily married, proving that notions of gender and species and appearance mean nothing in Doctor Who so long as you love the person. This is an important lesson in and of itself, but also a reassuring one in an episode featuring a brand new, intimidating Doctor.
The idea that Steven Moffat’s showrunning era on Doctor Who has been full of gender stereotypes stems largely – in this writer’s opinion – from the fact that Moffat’s Who has been a fairytale parable. Over the decades, Doctor Who has been everything from hard science fiction to disco schlock to horror pastiche to urban thriller. Moffat made Doctor Who a fairytale, and as such, all characters, male and female, tended to fit – much like the stories themselves – into distinctly familiar archetypes. You have the hero, the maiden, and the goofy sidekick. But within those broad archetypes, the characters have room to move: previous companion and “maiden” stand-in Amy Pond saved the day on numerous occasions; “goofy sidekick” Rory had shining moments of heroism; “hero” archetype The Doctor was often at everyone else’s mercy. On the outside, they fit the roles so familiar to these tales, but they’re actually much richer characters than he’s often given credit for.
But the Eleventh Doctor years are over, and Moffat seems done with that. It’s time to reinvent the show for the Twelfth Doctor, and as the fairytales are swept aside, expect the archetypes to disappear as well.
Hitting the right tone with this episode wasn’t easy. Moffat was staring down the barrel of the two finest post-regeneration stories ever: David Tennant’s The Christmas Invasion (written by Russell T Davies), and Matt Smith’s The Eleventh Hour (written by the Moff himself). The first story cleverly made us yearn for the Doctor by taking him out of commission for 80% of the episode, ensuring his eventual appearance would be triumphantly greeted by an audience who were still pining for Christopher Eccleston. The latter story, however, did the opposite, deliberately pushing the new Doctor in our face so much that by the end of the episode he was our Doctor.
So where does that leave us on our third go-around?
Moffat, taking advantage of Capaldi’s somewhat-threatening visage (put to such great use in BBC comedy The Thick of It), makes the Doctor terrifying. Clara isn’t sure of him at first, and as the episode progresses and the Doctor continues to behave erratically, that feeling does not go away. By the end, she’s ready to leave him altogether; and this is the only companion to date who has seen all of his previous incarnations, so it’s a bit of a slap in the face for her to deem this particular one unworthy.
It’s a phone call from the Eleventh Doctor – an inspired cameo from Matt Smith, filmed during the production of his Christmas swansong – that convinces Clara not to worry. This new Doctor is definitely still him, and he needs her help. It’s a message for us as well.
We old school fans who grew up with elderly and middle-aged Doctors tend to forget that to modern audiences, the Doctor is a young, handsome and dashing figure. The idea of him suddenly having wrinkles and grey hair is actually rather disconcerting for anyone with David Tennant and Matt Smith body pillows on either side of the bed. For Clara to embody that fear, even as the Doctor himself is struggling with his own new identity, makes this a cleverly-constructed and ultimately successful episode. Once Clara is convinced, so too are we.
Deep Breath featured a loving married lesbian interspecies couple, a genderless soldier who worked for them, a complex emotional arc for companion Clara, and a flirtation between the Doctor and a female dinosaur. If this doesn’t convince the fanbase that Moffat’s writing is progressive, then nothing will.
Questions to ponder:
- Is more going to be made of the surprising and awesome fact that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is aware that he’s regenerated into the face of someone he met before, The Fires of Pompeii’s Caecilius (Peter Capaldi)?
- Where were Doctor Who’s Victorian investigators of the paranormal Jago and Litefoot during all of this? Time for a crossover, I think.
- How will US audiences deal with Capaldi’s thick Scottish brogue? If the American love affair with Doctor Who ever has to come to an end, this would be the funniest reason.
- A callback to possibly the best episode ever, 2006’s The Girl in the Fireplace! Will the clockwork robots become a recurring villain?
- When will the deceptively progressive joke about Strax’s gender blindness stop being funny? Our bet is never.
Doctor Who will be screened on the ABC simultaneously with the BBC at AEST4.30am on Sunday August 31, before a repeat at 7.40pm.
Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah.