Thursday, August 28, 2014

Culture Shock 08.28.14: Something borrowed, something 'Who'

Peter Capaldi, left, is the Doctor and Jenna Coleman is Clara in the 2014
season of the BBC's "Doctor Who," airing on BBC America.
"Don't look in that mirror," the Doctor barks while still in the throes of post-regeneration delirium. "It's absolutely furious!"

The only constant in the universe is change, and "Doctor Who" (Saturday nights, BBC America) has seen plenty of that in its 50-plus years. This time, it's a biggie. Matt Smith's manic, absentminded professor is gone, but not forgotten. In his place is a more mature and cantankerous Time Lord portrayed with gusto by 56-year-old Scottish actor Peter Capaldi.

If Capaldi's visage is anything, it's furious. Showrunner Steven Moffat, now in his fourth year at the helm, turns that into an asset. Even Capaldi's eyebrows, which "Doctor Who" fans glimpsed to near universal delight in last year's 50th anniversary special, are potentially lethal weapons.

"They're attack eyebrows," the Doctor says after studying his new face. "You could take bottle tops off with these!"

One thing we know about the new Doctor: He has a gift for dialogue. His one-liners can kill.

The Doctor is always dangerous, but he usually plays the fool, lulling unwary opponents into a false sense of security. "My dear, no one could be as stupid as he seems," a villain once said of Tom Baker's Doctor, the iconic one with the endearingly ridiculous scarf. But Capaldi's Doctor seems ready to dispense with the pretense, and the scarf.

"I've moved on from that," he says. "It'd look stupid."

He's dangerous, and you should bloody well be terrified, especially if you're an old foe such as the Daleks or the Cybermen or, as in the season opener, "rubbish robots from the dawn of time."

But no one is more frightened than the Doctor's current traveling companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), who is finally coming into her own as a character, even as the Doctor undergoes his most jarring regeneration since the show's classic era. Going from personable to prickly isn't an easy transition, as poor Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) learned. Although, in all fairness, poor scripts and tacky production during Six's tenure were the far bigger issues.

If anyone can make such a character compelling, it's Capaldi, whose Doctor has already displayed little flourishes reminiscent of Capaldi's wickedly brilliant Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed political enforcer of "In the Loop" and "The Thick of It," only without the swearing.

The combination is something like another TV doctor: Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. In a preview for Capaldi's second episode, the Doctor even finds himself playing doctor to "a Dalek so damaged it's turned good. Morality as malfunction. How do I resist?"

But back to Capaldi's first outing, "Deep Breath." Moffat slows the pace and allows the story and characters to — forgive the pun — breathe. "Deep Breath" is a character study, a meditation on the nature of identity. That's a deep subject for a character who's had a dozen of them.

"Deep Breath" is structured around an ancient Greek thought experiment. Say your name is Theseus, and say you have a ship. Over time, the ship's planks become worn, and you replace them one by one until one day, finally, you've replaced them all. Is it the same ship you started with? Now say you saved all the worn planks and reassembled them. Now you have two ships. So, which is the true ship of Theseus?

The Greeks came up with many possible answers, and so does "Deep Breath." The Doctor's cyborg foes have rebuilt themselves so many times there's nothing of the originals left. For Clara, the question is whether the new Doctor is still the man she knew.

To ease the transition, Moffat brings back the Doctor's Victorian gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax. The Doctor changes, but some things remain the same.

And sometimes one of those old, worn planks washes up ready to set sail again. An older, more temperamental Doctor gallivanting around time and space in a blue box with a schoolteacher who feels out of her depth? That seems familiar.

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