A Case of Identity | Doctor Who Season 8: Episode 1

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spoilers ahead!

“Deep Breath,” aaaaaand….release.

I started out this post as a sort of recap-analysis hybrid, but I kept coming back to a compelling theme that sums up a huge part of this episode and of Doctor Who as a whole: the idea of identity: physical and metaphysical; identity as perceived by the self and as perceived by others; and pretty much everything in between. But first, to get to the episode itself:

I vaguely remember hearing rumblings of skepticism over the new season of Doctor Who, but Saturday night’s season premiere seems to have cranked the enthusiasm of longtime Peter Capaldi fans up to eleven, while their Capaldi Express train immediately yanked the erstwhile cynics on board for the ride.

The premiere did a good job of appealing to those of us who are more stubbornly indecisive as well, employing the fan-favorite Paternoster Gang to open up the episode and propel it ever forward, while the surprise cameo of Matt Smith’s dearly departed Eleventh Doctor at the episode’s conclusion had me in tears before I could even yell, “Geronimo!” …But I’m getting ahead of myself already, aren’t I? #TimeyWimey

So: The scene is set in Victorian London, where the populace is alarmed (but apparently none too shocked) by the sudden appearance of an anguished dinosaur. Jokes about Madame Vastra’s age ensue, the dinosaur projectile vomits the saliva-drenched TARDIS, and off we are to the races.

The first appearance of the newly regenerated Doctor sets up the traditional “introduction of a new Doctor” conflict nicely. Clara emerges from the TARDIS in a disheveled and slightly panicky huff, while Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax appear at first bemused, and then amused, by the Doctor’s new persona. Regenerations are always scarring, and the first episode featuring the new Doctor (in which it is impossible to deny that there is a new Doctor any longer) is often doubly so. Right off the bat, Clara and the Paternoster gang represent the two reactions to a regenerated Doctor, with Clara understandably  embodying an obstinate resistance to the older, grimmer Twelve and the Paternoster gang embracing him with almost giddy alacrity. Imbuing familiar characters with familiar emotions serves as a winning formula to helping fans from both camps—those who are not yet 110% on board with the idea of a new Doctor (me) as well as those who have been tooting Capaldi’s horn since the get-go—jump right in to the adventure.

The Doctor’s new ladyfriend—that is, the dinosaur—barely lasts pasts the episode’s 20-minute mark. His promise to keep her safe is suddenly rendered moot as “Big Woman” bursts into flames, prompting the Doctor to go all Socratic Method on his “pudding-brain” friends in order to figure out whowhatwhenwherewhy.( The odd little exchange prompted some fans to wonder if “the question is…” may become Twelve’s signature catchphrase….Too early to tell, but if so, I approve. Fits his didactic personality nicely.) As it turns out, the Doctor has encountered this particular baddie before—way back in season 2 of the rebooted series, in the critically acclaimed and fan-beloved episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” also, unsurprisingly, written by Steven Moffat. (The Moff loves stroking his ego by hearkening back to episodes of his own creation; as one reviewer pointed out, this episode’s “don’t breathe” is almost certainly a take on “don’t blink,” from season 4’s “Blink.”) First seen in “The Girl in the Fireplace” attempting to assemble spare human parts over the centuries as a means of repairing their ship, the creepily patient Clockwork Droids are doing very much the same thing in “Deep Breath.”

For me, the scariest aspect of this episode was not the idea of harvesting humans as much as the particular scene in the droid’s “restaurant” when Clara and the Doctor attempt to “casually stroll out of here” and are met step for step by the clicking and whirring zyborg (that’s zombie/cyborg, duh) people. The patchwork-people plotline has been utilized so often that it has almost lost its visceral effect on me; just off the top of my head, I’m reminded of, obviously, the original Frankenstein, as well as the “Organ Grinder” episode of Grimm and Fringe’s surprisingly poignant “The Marionette.” But this episode, of course, wasn’t really about the antagonists or the plot.

There were several running themes throughout this episode, all trickling down to ideas about identity. Continuing along the Clara/Paternoster split, Clara at first refuses to accept the Doctor as The Doctor because he looks different (and acts differently, too, lest we accuse Clara unfairly for being unequivocally shallow), while Madame Vastra champions an ethereal image of The Doctor that is not dependent on his physical appearance. This idea comes to the fore in the fabulous conversation between Vastra and Clara early on in the episode. Vastra dons her veil in order to convey the message that Clara is seeing only with her eyes, not her soul, then draws a fitting comparison between her veil and the Eleventh  Doctor’s young visage. “I wear a veil as he wore a face,” she tells Clara. “To be accepted.” After a fiery tirade by Clara that compels Jenny to applause, the conversation ends with a final note about the veil—or, rather, its absence. “When did you stop wearing your veil?” Clara asks, as Vastra answers with a succinctly compelling argument explaining prejudice: “When you stopped seeing it.”

Later on, the Doctor himself addresses this seeing/not seeing motif while himself confronting Clara about her less-than-thrilled reaction to his regeneration, in his single moment of true vulnerability in this episode. “You look at me, and you can’t see me. Do you have any idea what that’s like? …I’m right here, standing right in front of you. Please, just…see me!” Twelve’s entreaty reveals the bits of the previous Doctor(s) that are still poking through his toughened outer shell, which brings us to….

The Call. No no no, not that call. This one:

I’m learning via the interwebz that many people already knew about The Call and about Matt Smith’s cameo. I didn’t do much internet probing regarding the upcoming season because I only completed season 7 recently, so I wasn’t starving for details just yet. Because of this, I remained ignorant of the Eleventh Doctor’s appearance in “Deep Breath,” and if I wouldn’t be wishing myself out of a job, I would advocate for totally spoiler-free lives, because my organic reaction was approximately 97% shock. When Clara steps outside the TARDIS in the closing minutes of the episode to answer a phone call and, suddenly, Matt Smith’s Doctor appears onscreen, my hand actually flew to my mouth to prevent myself from shrieking. I actually did that. It’s not (only) a figure of speech.

For those of us who were still, even after Madame Vastra’s remonstrations, straddling the selfsame fence as Clara regarding the new Doctor, a plea for acceptance from Eleven himself—complemented by Twelve’s parallel plea to accept him as himself—was enough to fully merge these two personalities in my mind and reassert the overarching identity of The Doctor.

Now, for the tangent: what does it even mean to talk about the Doctor’s “identity”?  I’ve long been interested in philosophical notions of identity, so the very idea of a being that changes nearly every single aspect of itself (“Everything I am dies,” according to Ten) and yet still somehow retains its identity as The Doctor is a fascinating if utterly illogical concept. If you want to get a PhD in the subject any time soon, I’d strongly advise redirecting your attention here, but for the Sparknotes crowd, the concept of temporal parts is utilized by metaphysicians to explain the continued existence of an object over time. For instance, right now I am sitting on my couch, typing up some thoughts on “Deep Breath.”  This is Me. I have the properties of being named Allyson, having dark, curly  hair, and sitting on the couch typing up some thoughts on “Deep Breath.” Tomorrow morning, I will still be named Allyson, still have dark, curly hair, but I will have already posted my thoughts on “Deep Breath.” How can I still be Me if I suddenly have different properties? Enter the idea of temporal parts, which explains how I can exist at different times (Me-Today vs. Me-Tomorrow) and how I can exist with different properties.

To bring up a more radical example: Is Twenty-Three-Hour-Old-Me really the same Identity-wise as Twenty-Three-Year-Old-Me? Many of us would like to say: no, but as a means of explaining how those two beings are still the same person, we can say that they’re temporal parts of Me-The-Person. Incidentally, Eleven alluded to this concept in his final speech, insisting that “we are all different people all throughout our lives.” Though the speech hits home on so many additional, emotional levels, it also strikes a mighty metaphysical chord as well.

Shifting for a moment to the idea of physical parts rather than temporal parts, we also have the concept of the ship of Theseus, a thought experiment that asks: if the parts of the ship are replaced, piece by piece, until the ship is eventually composed of entirely new parts, is it still the same ship? And what if those old parts are pieced together to form another ship—which ship is the ship of Theseus?

Too complicated? Allow me to hand it over to the Doctor, who brought up this very concept in “Deep Breath” while discussing ideas of identity with his zyborg antagonist, who provides such a complicated case of identity (droid? human? which human? parts of humans?!!?!) that I won’t even attempt to touch that right now. Expansion post TBD. Anyway, here’s Twelve:

“You are a broom. You take a broom, you replace the handle. And then, you replace the brush. And you do that over and over again.  Is it still the same broom?”

The Doctor, somewhat surprisingly, provides a pretty emphatic answer to the identity problem of the broom of Theseus: “Answer: No, of course it isn’t!” This from the guy who, moments later, stands in front of Clara and pleads for her to “see him” as The Doctor despite the fact that he literally just changed all of his parts! According to his own logic, he’s not “The Doctor.” But perhaps we can resolve this issue by taking a look at the Doctor’s next line…

“…But you can still sweep the floor, which is not strictly relevant. Skip that last part.”

Rule One: The Doctor lies. That last part is relevant. It could be the one defining facet of The Doctor; his raison d’etre, his motivation for Going Forward. “But you can still sweep the floor.” What is the function of a broom? To sweep the floor. What is the function of the Doctor? ….Debate. Though I would make a strong case for “save the universe while doing cool stuff.”

Initial Assessment of Twelve

Disclaimer: I didn’t know Peter Capaldi from Adam before he was announced as the Twelfth Doctor. I’ve since read up on his background and discovered a bit about his potty-mouthed character from another series and his childhood as a bona fide Whovian fanboy. But I played the word association game and you through the word “Capaldi” at me, my first thought would undoubtedly be: “Twelfth Doctor.”

Having said that—and given the fact that I only said goodbye to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor about a week ago—I think Peter Capaldi did a wonderful job of asserting his familiar-yet-different new Doctor. He managed a whole host of snarky jokes (“Sorry, I’m going to have to relieve you of your pet” / “Shut up, I was talking to the horse!”) and made it clear that he’s very content with being Scottish. A lot of emphasis is also put on the fact that the new Doctor is Scottish, much to comic effect (“You all sound all…English! Now you’ve all developed a fault!”). But amid all the belly-laughs, there’s another more poignant reason for the Doctor’s change in nationality.

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It’s also interesting to note the Twelfth Doctor’s more “potent” (to use Capaldi’s own term) relationship to time. From the brand-new opening credits that feature the turning gears of a clock (which was actually created by a fan and picked up by Moffat as the official intro) to the return of the Clockwork Droids to the Twelfth Doctor’s theme music, which is overlaid with the distinct ticking of a clock, it’s clear that Twelve is more of a Time Lord than a Time Lord. I’m excited to see how this will play out over the course of Capaldi’s tenure!

Since I started watching Doctor Who, I’ve been fascinated by the subtle meaning behind each regeneration, and the transformation from Eleven to Twelve is pretty radical, to the extent that it is actually directly discussed within the new Doctor’s first episode. If, as Madame Vastra points out, the previous Doctor wore a young face as a veil in order to be “accepted” by others, he now wears an older face because he doesn’t give a crap about what everyone else thinks; his physical maturity represents his emotional maturity and more established sense of identity, as well as his willingness to take on responsibility both for himself and for others.

Wholock!

Steven Moffat sure knows how to stoke the coals, eh? It’s not as if he conjured up Sherlock Holmes references out of thin air, since it was revealed back in “The Snowmen” that Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of Holmes is (in the Who universe) directly based on Madame Vastra’s own exploits. As a puckish, deerstalker-hat tip to Sherlockians, “Deep Breath” included a bunch of references to the famous consulting detective:

  • Madame Vastra proclaims that “The game is afoot!” a sentence that originally appeared in Shakespeare’s Henry V, but also one that became a particular catchphrase of Sherlock Holme’s.
  • “We’ve got the Paternoster Irregulars out there…” – and allusion to Holmes’s “Baker Street Irregulars,” or the BBC Sherlock’s “homeless network.”
  • Jenny tells Clara that Vastra is investigating the Conk-Singleton forgery case, a case referenced by Holmes in “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” but never fleshed out. Possible Paternoster Gang webisode? Easter egg for season 4 of Sherlock?!

Wibbly Wobbly Odds and Ends

  • Though the episode was written and shot before the death of Robin Williams, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had some feels when Twelve uttered, “O Captain, My Captain.”
  • It’s pretty cool that the very first episode addressed the issue of Peter Capaldi’s appearance earlier in the Whoniverse (playing the character of Caecilius in season 4’s “The Fires of Pompeii”), though obviously no answers were given just yet. I’m hoping for something a little more creative than just “the Doctor regenerates into bodies he’s seen before because he can’t like actually create life, I mean he’s not literally a god.” However, this whole idea also implies that somewhere out in the Whoniverse there is another Matt Smith and David Tennant wandering around somewhere, a concept with which I am 100% A-OK exploring in more detail, pleasepleasepleaseplease.
  • Murder or suicide? Did the Doctor push the droid out of the spaceship, or did the droid jump? I can’t say I love either option. I know that this Doctor is supposed to have a steelier side, but to me, the Doctor is fundamentally non-violent, so while I’m okay with the idea of the Doctor messing up once in a while, I will turn positively monstrous (to quote Mummy Holmes) if this ends up being a trend.
  • Oops, 2,500 words later, I neglected to even once mention The Kiss. Probably because it’s irrelevant, aside from the fact that it was glorious, and was written about in an insightful way that needs no addendum, here.
  • …Although I will, actually, add this: JENNY X VASTRA FTW!

Until next week, fellow Whovians!

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