As someone who dedicates far too much time to thinking about Doctor Who, I’ve always felt that a good regeneration story, that special moment unique to the show that strings the various disconnected series that happen to share the title Doctor Who into a single narrative, is really a game of two halves. There’s obviously the adventure where the change of one actor to the next actually occurs at the end (or the pre-credits if it’s “Time and the Rani”), but there’s also the subsequent story, which starts with the new Doctor strutting about in their predecessors crumpled outfit like a butterfly newly hatched from it’s chrysalis.
Getting the two halves to work in conjunction is crucial. “The Caves of Androzani” is widely lauded as the finest story in Doctor Who‘s original run, certainly the best of Peter Davison’s entire era. But following that up just a week later with “The Twin Dilemma”, commonly pegged as the single worst story in the show’s history, dilutes it’s impact somewhat. A soaring take-off doesn’t mean much if the pilot scotches the landing, skids off the runway and crashes straight into a swamp.
Every era of Doctor Who has handled the changeover in it’s own way, but for me the strongest pairings are when it feels like the old and the new Doctor have suddenly swapped eras. The truly great serials which end in a regeneration- “The War Games”, “Logopolis”, “Androzani”- start out for the Doctor and company like just another escapade, but rapidly spiral out of control when it becomes apparent they’ve stumbled into the type of story the next Doctor will have a lot of, but which the current model is totally unequiped to deal with. All their usual quirks and schemes not only fail to save the day, but usually backfire, and their eventual demise at the end of the story is down to some fundamanetal flaw in their character that the regeneration will correct (at the cost of bringing a whole new flaw to the fore).
On the other side of the equation, the great post-regeneration stories- “The Power of the Daleks”, “Spearhead From Space”, “Robot”- are written like a standard, run-of-the-mill adventure from the previous era, the only difference being the new Doctor. Showing how this new incarnation behaves differently in familiar surroundings is a solid way to communicate to the audience what’s different about this new Doctor, and helps to ease them into the new era.
As this essay is being written, we’re currently suspended between the two halves of the latest regeneration story. Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor got hugged to death by a Cyberman, hung out with the First Doctor for a bit, and then proceeded to explode and transform into the mum from Broadchurch. Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor has been falling out of the sky towards Sheffield for the better part of six months, with a fair few left to go before she finally hits the ground and begins her reign as the Time Lord proper. Given how her first story will colour are understanding of her predessesors last, I got to thinking about the last time we were in the situation, sitting around waiting to find out if the new, old Doctor had really forgotten how to fly the TARDIS.
The Eleventh Doctor’s final story, “The Time of the Doctor”, is a strange beast. It’s a momentous slab of Doctor Who lore, the end of a years-long story arc, and yet it’s all smushed into an hour of television. One gets the feeling there was some kind of behind-the-scenes bungle during pre-production. As recently as February 2013, Matt Smith hinting that he would be in Season 8. His decision to leave, I think, forced Steven Moffat to wrap up his master plan sooner than he planned. The result is a Christmas special that, while fairly choppy and even slapdash in places, is still an emotional and deserving send of to the Eleventh Doctor.
Matt Smith’s Doctor was a slow burner for many. Comparing his appearance in Series 5 to the 50th Anniversary shows a definite transition over his era. His Doctor was a young man assembled from the memories from old men, a shambling collection of elbows in a tweed blazer with all the constraint of a silent movie actor and the suspension of newly birthed gazelle. The Doctor of Christmas, Children and Fairytales. Despite being met with a collective ‘huh?’ when he was announced as David Tennant’s replacement, he proved himself perhaps the most interesting, engaging, and certainly most physically accomplished actor to take on the role of the Doctor.
The episode itself strives to resolve the arcs of the Smith years in a satisfying and competent way, and happily largely succeeds, although many a potential action scene is replaced with narration due to the truncated running time, and one feels the story would really have benefited from even a 15 minute extension. Another element sacrificed are much of the extraneous Christmas elements, although I don’t really mind, as these can often become quite overbearing (i.e. “The Doctor Widow and the Wardrobe”). The villains are decent, but one feels the Silence were a bit underused, but top points to Handles the Cyber-head, voiced appropriately enough by Phonejacker Kayvan Novak. Only in Doctor Who can you mourn the death of a century old robot head.
“The Time of the Doctor” rightly focuses on the Doctor throughout, rounding out the trilogy of stories that concluded his era. Smith’s performance elevates the entire story with a poignant and heart-crunching portrayal of an aging Doctor. At the supposed end of his allotted 12-regeneration cycle, laid down in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin”, the Doctor ages into a sort of Neo-Hartnell, complete with gnarled walking stick and long white hair. His penultimate repose against the Daleks is a particular favourite of mine- the whole ‘hurry up and shoot me already before I die of old age’ was a striking piece of self-deprecation that characterised Smith’s old-soul Doctor.
After receiving a handy top up from a convenient crack in the universe, the Doctor reverts to his youthful state, indulging in one last Fish-Custard-Amy-Drawing thing before symbolically casting of his bowtie and sneezing into the sweary guy from The Thick of It, in what has to be the briefest and most abrupt transition since a blonde wig faded away from Sylvester McCoy’s head. Looking suitably mad, ferocious and Scottish, he and a bemused Jenna Coleman went tumbling away towards a fresh slate of adventures.
“Deep Breath”, the inaugural adventure for the Twelfth Doctor, is a very different beast to “The Eleventh Hour”, Matt Smith’s manic debut hour in which he crashes to Earth, steals a fire truck and tells off an invading alien armada. Aside from it’s striking opening sequence, when a gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex ejects a saliva-covered TARDIS from it’s throat onto the banks of the Thames, it’s that relies on character development and tension over breathless action to introduce Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. For those used to the rather manic pace of stories in that characterised the new series up to that point, it was a jarring change of gear, very much in keeping with the return to an older, craggier character actor playing the Doctor as opposed to a handsome, quirky Hamlet-type.
Capaldi’s gruff, rude and morally grey Doctor, universes away from the flippant and childish Eleventh, contains elements of Doctor’s Hartnell, Pertwee and the Bakers (both of them), being authoritarian, commanding and at times even selfish, whilst at the same time bringing something entirely new to the part. In his debut, the Twelfth Doctor brings a dismissive, uncaring and icily cool new angle to the part, portraying a Doctor who is not above abandoning his companion without explanation in order to fulfill his own business. Addled by his explosive regeneration, an attack by an angry Dinosaur and nine centuries pretending to be Father Christmas for reasons mankind will still trying to fathom for ages to come, he spends most of this episode still deranged and confused, wandering around Victorian London in a nightshirt. This is a Doctor who does not need a gimmick, like a scarf or a bowtie, to be recognisable, his sheer presence and demeanour being iconic enough.
The plot, as it is, is somewhat thin. Calling back to an earlier Moffat story, 2006’s “The Girl in the Fireplace”, when David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor became entangled in the life of Madame de Pompadour, this episode wastes no time establishing a new monster, and instead brings back a creepy and memorable villain in the Clockwork Droids. Operating out of an Italian restaurant that is in reality more of an abattoir, the androids have been repairing themselves with human flesh, burning the bodies to hide the evidence, including the poor T-Rex, which goes up in flames. The principal android, the ‘Half-Face Man’, makes an interesting parallel to the Doctor- a man who has replaced his parts so many times little to nothing of his original form remains.
How much of the First Doctor really survives in the Twelfth? In retrospect a fitting observation, seeing as his era would end with a literal examination of that question. The plot of post-regenerative stories doesn’t need to be the most complex, the focus being on the characters instead, but this episode stills makes the effort to give us a creepy and sinister villain. As to whether holding your breath will rise to become as famous as ‘Don’t Blink’ is rather up in the air, much like a hot air balloon made of human skin.
The Paternoster Gang, comprising of Victorian Interspecies Lesbian Samurai Detectives Vastra and Jenny, along with the comedic Sontaran Strax, make a comeback in order to provide a familiar background for the new Doctor, much like UNIT in Tom Baker’s first story, ‘Robot’. They are on fine form and aren’t nearly as grating as one would expect, with Strax in particular having some particularly humorous lines.
The direction of the episode is perhaps the most cinematic the show has ever looked, appropriate seeing how this episode was shown in theatres. Ben Wheatley, of A Field in England fame, brings his macabre eye for detail and the sinister to the episode, lending every frame a palpable sense of menace and dread. Of particular note is the interchange between the deactivating androids and a top hat plummeting from Big Ben, right after the Half-Face Man is impaled on it’s toper-most spire. Whether he jumped, or was pushed, is left ambiguous, casting a question mark over the morals of the new Doctor and setting up his arc for his first series.
One of the more surprising perks to come out of this episode is Jenna Coleman’s Clara. After her initial run of stories with Matt Smith that saw her labelled as a bit of a blank slate, in “Deep Breath” she gets a soft reboot of sorts, finally developing a sense of concrete characteristics. Clara is painted as a ‘control freak’ whose lost control, and her reluctance to accept the new, more wiry Doctor is a nice new spin on the ‘companion-reacts-to-the-new-Doctor’ first pioneered with Ben and Polly. You could look at it as a genius deconstruction of the much-loathed ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope that plagues a lot of contemporary media, showing her seemingly perfect and ‘adorkable’ persona crumbling in the face of a drastic change. Undoubtedly, it’s sets up her relationship with what will become her Doctor.
If a regeneration story is a thing of two halves, then “Deep Breath” fulfills it’s end of the bargain very nicely with Matt Smith’s phone call, the shock surprise the whole internet knew about since a month after “The Time of the Doctor”. Nevertheless, it still comes as a welcome, final piece of ‘timey-wimeness’ of an overwhelmingly silly but cheering Doctor. Phoning Clara from Trenzalore, the Doctor reassures her of the new Doctor. When Clara gets cagey about the Doctor listening in, she reminds her that it was him who made the call in the first place. It’s an obvious and startling piece of juxtaposition that reminds us that tall, grey and eyebrowed Twelve was just hours ago childish, big-chinned, bowtie-wearing Eleven.
In retrospect, the transition from Smith to Capaldi tries very hard to break the formula of the regeneration story. Eleven’s departure goes out of it’s way to comfort and coddle, to reassure a nervous audience that their friendly floppy-haired alien is at peace at the end. In contrast, Twelve’s introduction dumps a bucket of ice-cold water on that same audiences head, and then violently shakes them back and forth to ram the message home that this is not the same show they know. It’s certainly makes thematic sense, and helps launch the more subtle, character-driven arc of the Twelfth Doctor’s era, but with four years distance this regeneration is more similar to the others than first appearances betray.
Eleven gets stuck in a morally opaque stalemate where he has to eschew his usual bluster and literally act his age. Twelve scowls his way through a screwball mystery which he suddenly has no more patience for. And the adventure continues for four more years.
The show just writes itself, doesn’t it?