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“I think there should be more round things on the walls. I used to have a lot of round things.”

– The Doctor, Season 8, Episode 1, “Deep Breath”

Capal-Day came.

Capal-Day conquered.

Anyone who had doubts whether Peter Capaldi could embody the Doctor can rest easy.

Even if he can’t.

This Doctor is a Doctor in distress. All regenerations result in some sort of post-regenerative crisis. But Capaldi’s is second only to Colin Baker who wins by virtue of having tried to kill Peri.

I’m writing this in the immediate aftermath of the episode so, much like our new Doctor, my thoughts are a little scrambled. “Deep Breath” opens great and ends with a truly stunning twist. You’ll get no plot spoilers from me, though. Suffice to say, it was so good, I really want to find one of those leaked scripts now just so I can read the thing and see what did and didn’t change from the page to the screen.

I do want to talk about this new 12th doctor though. (Yes, I’m sticking with the original numbering. Hurt is just “the war doctor”, not a number, and meta-crisis Doctor is just…silly.) The word was this new doctor is “darker”. He is certainly not a Tennant-type cocky goofball or a Smith-esque puppy dog, or even a war-torn “fantastic” Eccleston. But I’m undecided as yet whether he’s really “darker”. He’s certainly more alien, way less comfortable in his skin than Tennant’s or Smith’s Doctors, and certainly seems colder. Time will tell if that’s just post-regenerative angst or if this Doctor really is one who will go to darker places. I do get the sense that this doctor, will be simultaneously unable to connect with humans and yet perhaps more dependent on his human companion than ever.

One of the podcasts about Doctor Who that I listen to is the Verity Podcast . On an episode last week, one of the panelists pitched the theory that Capaldi’s doctor might be the doctor that Colin Baker’s 6th doctor was intended to be, but never quit achieved. Six was arrogant and intense and alien, but he suffered from weak stories and, yes, a bad costume. Capaldi is reserved, to be sure. I don’t think he’s arrogant, but he can’t relate to people as the other recent doctors could.

The show feels different.It doesn’t bounce around in the attention-deficit way previous seasons often have. It takes time with their scenes, holding your attention with the events and dialogue found there, not the music and jump cuts. The opening title sequence is radically different. (Not totally sold on the new arrangement of the theme song though.) The whole show moves at a slightly different pace. Even the incidental music is a bit more subdued. The show is still both family-friendly and, somehow, more grown-up at the same time.

Even the Paternoster Gang has taken it down a notch. I’ve always been ambivalent about them. It often feels like they only show up in episodes because some producer somewhere really, really, wants another spinoff now that Torchwood is gone and is pushing this clever, witty trio on us and forcing us to like them. Tonight though, they were funny, but it was a much lighter touch for them.

Great as Capaldi is, the real winner in the season opener might be Jenna Coleman’s Clara. Jenna Coleman is a good actress, but I don’t think her character has been served very well since the “soufflé girl” bit and her official debut in The Snowmen. But tonight, it was like the old Clara woke up. She was angry and frightened and defiant and clever and warm and tough. She was what a modern companion should be. Finally. I wasn’t sorry, honestly, about those rumors she’s leaving at the Christmas episode, but I kind of am now.

“Deep Breath” opens dinosaur big (literally) and ends with a WTF moment followed by a really ambiguous-I-gotta-tune-next-week-scene.

Don’t let me down, Moffat.


STORYTELLING CASE STUDIES: Walter White and The Doctor

The past week saw the season 7 debut of British sci-fi series Doctor Who and the mid-season cliffhanger ending of Breaking Bad which ends its TV run in 2013.xl I was so impressed with both, that I wanted to take this opportunity to do two things: review these most recent episodes and take some time to consider the story telling richness of iconic characters Walter White and The Doctor.

WARNING: SPOILERS MAY ABOUND BELOW. Well, there will be some. Whether they abound or not, I guess, depends how you define “abound.”

Breaking Bad, for the uninitiated, is an AMC drama about a family man, high school chemistry teacher, beaten down by life, who turns 50 and finds out he has cancer. Suddenly faced with the prospect of dying and leaving his family penniless, he hooks up with a former stoner student to cook an insanely pure grade of blue meth. Over the past four seasons, Walt has spiraled downward from nice guy-doing-bad-for-the-right-reasons to bad-guy-on-a-power-trip to where he is now in season five, bad-guy-trying-to-regain-good-guy-self. Problem is, last week’s episode suggests he may finally be busted. Walt is smart. Very smart. But he got careless. His love for Walt Whitman – and his brother-in-law’s lower intestine – could be his undoing.

Walt is not the only bad guy to play a prime role on a TV show. Tony Soprano was pretty consistently a bad dude from the start of “The Sopranos” to the end. Conflicted, sure, but a mobster through and through. Maybe you rooted for him to changed (or maybe you didn’t), but he was pretty much the same Tony from season to season.

Dexter is a “hero” of sorts because he targets murderers and rapists who have somehow escaped law enforcement, always meticulous about making sure his victim is guilty. But Dexter himself has always been the first to say that all he’s doing is directing his blood lust toward society’s dregs so that he doesn’t randomly kill his neighbors and other innocents.

But Walt is unique. He’s the first character I can think of where the series premieres with its central character a clean-cut innocent and devolving into murder and mayhem, challenging the viewer to stay with the show and making that viewer really question if they are rooting for or against the character. That’s a fascinating storytelling challenge. It’s easy to write a good character that readers/viewers want to root for. It’s also easy to write a bad guy that people love to read – why do you think actors always say in interviews they want to play the bad guy? But writing a central character so strong that the viewer stays with him despite (because of?) the increasingly bad things he does? That’s the storytelling olympics, friend. I picture a lot of late-night pots of coffee in the “Breaking Bad” writer’s room. Also whisky. And, oddly, a lazy susan full of cheese cubes.

Anyway, if Walter White is a masterclass in redefining “protagonist”, then The Doctor is a study in tweeking a legendary character in ways that deepen his appeal rather than deflate it.

It would take too long to summarize fifty years of TV history, but in short: The Doctor of BBC TV’s “Doctor Who” is a Time Lord who travels the universe in a  TARDIS that looks like a 1960’s British police call box on the outside, but inside is an infinitely large spaceship that can travel anywhere in time and space. The Doctor has devoted his life to protecting the defenseless. The original “classic” Who ran for almost thirty years, then, after a fifteen year break, returned to TV, and gangbuster ratings, in 2005. The Doctor’s (Did I mention the character can regenerate when mortally wounded? I’ll save that for another time.)

The new show, along with better special effects and, honestly, better acting, has more of an edge. The premise of the new show is that the Doctor’s entire race has been wiped out – by his own doing. He destroyed his own people to end The Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks (giant slugs housed in scary looking metal canisters that like to kill things) Classic doctors tended to be more professorial. Cranky, occasionally petulant, often funny, but ultimately good guys.  The modern era Doctor is angrier and not occasionally egotistical. The heroism and humor are there too, but there’s a lot of rage underneath. There have been a lot more speeches made to the Doctor about getting too big for his britches. And last week’s premiere found The Doctor facing his dread enemy the Daleks again. Kidnapped, surrounded, the Doctor waved his arms proclaiming, “Here I am!” He went on to help a woman realize that she was turned into a Dalek. Then blew her up.

Don’t get me wrong. “Doctor Who” is still great sci-fi fun, but more and more these dark passages are being sprinkled into the mix. It’s a light touch, sure, but still a stretching of the classic Who fabric; a delicate dance for a decades-old formula.

“Writing” is a technical skill; being able to put together words and paragraphs, proper spelling and grammar, in a way that is concise and coherent. “Storytelling” is an art; using writing to captivate, thrill, repel, and otherwise move you in a way that the DVD player manual just can’t. The Doctor and Walter White are just too fine examples of that art.

Go watch some TV.

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