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'Doctor Who' is now darker, stranger and more honest

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first episode of the eighth season of Doctor Who.

"I’m not on the phone. I’m right here."

The Doctor is more or less a god in the world of Doctor Who. He can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants and he carries a magic wand that can control everything around him. He’s immortal and, although he can shed his face like a snake’s skin and grow a new one, he will never grow old in the way we imagine it. He has to remind Clara that this is his face now, as she speaks to his younger self on the phone. He has to be seen for who, and what, he is.

He needs people. That's what the final plea was about. He's unhinged at the idea that Clara doesn't recognize who he is due to the new face and body. We see two sides of the Doctor in this story: The god who will go to the ends of the Earth to protect the innocent, and the man who needs someone to see who he is, and with whom he can share these experiences.

The promised land

The Doctor's admiration and respect for the common person may be one of his most admirable features, and Capaldi’s first episode as the titular character he draws on his ability to kill in order to keep those people safe.

"Those people down there?" The Doctor asks the villain. "They’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them because I’ve already come a very long way, and unlike you I don’t expect to reach the promised land."

The bad guy in "Deep Breath" is a sort of mechanized man who has also slid across the face of time, using replacement parts to keep himself "alive." It’s a look at what the Doctor could become, an unthinking, unfeeling machine that exists only to keep existing in a hope of reaching some form of heaven. Once every part has been replaced, is there anything left of the original life form?

The point couldn’t be any less subtle, and of course the Doctor sees his own face when he holds up the mirror to his adversary. When Doctor Who as a series wants to make a point, it can sometimes drive it home with a hammer.

But this version of the Doctor is older, and seems a bit more in touch with the darker nature of the character. We don’t know if he pushed the mechanical man out of the balloon or if it was an act of self destruction, but it doesn’t matter. The threat was removed, and it was due to the Doctor’s ruthlessness. This Doctor didn’t decide to give himself a young face and the manner of a carefree young man. In some ways, at least in this incarnation, he’s growing up. And in some ways that means cleaning up the mess left by the 11th Doctor.

The point couldn’t be any less subtle

And it’s something Clara is having a hard time dealing with. She knew that she was running around with an ancient being who could more or less bend the strings of reality to his will, but it’s one thing to know that in your head and another to see the wrinkled face and gray hair of an older man. She’s now been shown the reality of who he is and how he lives.

"He has seen stars fall to dust," Clara is told, and she’s clued into the nature of his existence. "You might as well flirt with a mountain range." This also puts their relationship on different standing.

"He looked younger, who do you think that was for?" Madame Vastra asks. It was for Clara, and it was for everyone else. It was a way of running from who he is.

"The young man disappeared, the veil lifted. He trusted you. Are you judging him?" Vastra asks Clara as the younger woman struggles with the sight of the Doctor. It’s a fair question, and laid out in an interesting way. The Doctor wants to be seen as a hero, as a handsome man who comes to the rescue of others right in the nick of time. A regeneration is a moment of weakness, the illusions taken away. The alien, ancient and often pitiless, is revealed.

But for all the bravado the Doctor is still desperately lonely. The phone call from the 11th Doctor confirms this, and his frustration at not being seen as himself is made clear in the episode’s final scenes. He doesn’t quite know who he is, not yet, but he’s working on it. And he needs help. He may be able to travel to the end, or beginning, of existence, but he needs a young woman to witness it.

The 11th Doctor's phone call is sweet in one sense, but it's also the work of emotional manipulation. The Doctor has found yet another way of giving Clara to himself, to lock her in feelings and allegiance.

This episode is filled with dark mirrors for these characters. The mechanical man is a warning about what the Doctor could become if he loses himself in his many regenerations. Madame Vastra and Jenny represent the relationship Clara and the Doctor will never share. Madame Vastra may be a Silurian warrior and Jenny her maid, but they’re happy and in love. The power differential is there, just like there exists between the Doctor and his companions, but they make it work.

"Clara, I’m not your boyfriend," The Doctor says finally. She claims she didn’t believe they had that sort of relationship. "I never said it was your mistake," he replies, and his eyes flick downward. He’s clearly uncomfortable, and a little bit ashamed.  The Matt Smith years are being wiped clean. The fun, young couple is gone. The imperious alien who loves and cares about the average human being is back in control, and he needs to reset the expectations for that relationship. He's done playing house.

The Doctor is a killer

This is an updated take on the character that works very well. It’s also an episode of the show that deals with anger over a dinosaur being set ablaze, and there’s some oddly slapstick humor on display. I was a big fan of the newspaper gag, for instance, but I like when episodes shift in tone. It’s one of the weirder aspects of Doctor Who that makes the show so endearing.

The Doctor is a killer, and he’s ancient, and he has a new sense of purpose. The young 11th Doctor, "the man who forgets," is done for. He’s been replaced by someone who seems to have a clearer mission.

"I’m the Doctor," he says near the end. "I’ve lived for over 2,000 years and not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes, and it’s about time I did something about that."

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