The confusion and pain that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, Clara, and the audience experience during “Deep Breath” (2014) is all the more acute because of how resolute Matt Smith’s Doctor was in the waning moments of “The Time of the Doctor” (2013). Right before his regeneration, Smith declares, “I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”
The tragedy of that bold statement is located in the “I” itself. The “I” is Smith’s particular interpretation of the Doctor. As long as he persists in comics, novels, and one day, it is to be hoped, in Big Finish audio dramas, he will always be the Doctor he (and we) will never forget. He also knows that the change in “I” represented by the Doctor-to-come is “going to be a whopper,” a knowledge and a dread he repeats during the phone call to Clara at the end of “Deep Breath.”
It should come as no surprise that, of course, as soon as he regenerates, he remembers very little at all: knowledge of how to pilot the Tardis escapes him, and, in the opening scene of his proper debut episode, his best attempt to distinguish himself from Clara is to call her “the not-me one.” Yes, in one respect, the Doctor is, as Steven Moffat once put it, “one man with many faces … not a committee of people with unusual hair.” Anyone who’s experienced a dramatic life-change, particularly a physical one, can tell you that it brings with it certain associated changes in how others regard you, and, in time, how you regard your self.
Memories shift and change over time as well. The facts constituting a given sequence of events are quite distinct from the ways we recollect and narrate them; edits and embellishments appear in every retelling. When people mention characteristics of, say, a “Jon Pertwee story,” it’s not only the presence of UNIT or the Brigadier, but the Pertwee Doctor’s approach to situations, to his attitude as the Doctor, down to the kinds of words and phrases he employs. Each Doctor may represent a monolithic concept of “the Doctor” in his turn, but as there are noticeable differences between regenerations, so too must each one regard past adventures, friends, and foes from a unique vantage point.
The first word, the rhexus by which we’re thrown into the action of Peter Capaldi’s second adventure, Phil Ford and Moffat’s “Into the Dalek” (2014), is a frantic “Aristotle!” Thematically, the story is driven to a great extent by its engagements with the shifting and malleable nature of memory, so let’s explore the connections between Aristotle, memory, and the episode’s treatment of them.
The pains of memory
In his musings On Memory and Reminiscence, Aristotle states that, “to remember the future is not possible … nor is there memory of the present, but only sense-perception.” Clara’s fear stems from Capaldi’s Doctor being unknown to her, just as his fear derives from not yet fully knowing himself. Throughout “Deep Breath,” Clara clings desperately to her knowledge of and comfort with the Doctor who was, and resistance to the jarring immediacy of the Doctor who is.
It has been argued of Clara that she knows all the Doctor’s previous regenerations, but Smith reminds her in “Deep Breath” that regeneration is a rattling experience, and that “the man you are with right now…is more scared than anything you can imagine … and he needs you.”
The “whopper” of change and the difference in subjectivity is clear in the terms of address; Smith refers to his future self as “he,” “him,” “the man you are with,” and “the Doctor,” while Capaldi stresses the continuity, cycling quickly through “he” and “the Doctor” before coming to rest on, “that was me talking.” Smith has never been Capaldi, so his points of reference must be tentative. Capaldi, on the other hand, has been Smith in the past, so only he can provide Clara with a sense of continuity and safety.
Aristotle characterizes memory as both dependent on a perception of time and as something that, to last, depends on a kind of physical impression. He says that the ability to create and retain memories wavers depending on age, specifically that, “both very young and very old persons are defective in memory; they are in a state of flux, the former because of their growth, the latter, owing to their decay.” In his newly-regenerated form, Capaldi’s Doctor is, simultaneously, both 2000 years old and a kind of infant. His memory is doubly shaky as a result.
Only scholars and fans can recollect, with exactness, each detail of the Doctor’s many adventures. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor affirms this in “The End of the World” (2005). When Rose is asking the wrong questions about who he is and where he came from, he retorts, barely able to contain his exasperation, “This is who I am! Right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me.”
The Doctor lives in an eternal present; it is the companions and the audience who make an effort to remember the past. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor says as much in “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967), when he’s asked by Victoria if he remembers his own family, replying, “I have to really want to … bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget.”
For Aristotle, the present is composed of immediate objects of perception and contemplation. The Doctor, a being of the here and now, perceives, contemplates, and acts. He jeopardizes his effectiveness when he deals too much with memory; we see the pains of memory frequently during the Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith eras when they speak of or dwell on the Time War.
The memory cheats
This is why evocations of “The Girl in the Fireplace” (2006) and Tennant’s dalliance with Madame de Pompadour are so hazy to Capaldi in “Deep Breath.” As an audience with DVDs, iTunes, and video-on-demand, we revisit our favorite stories as often as we like. From Capaldi’s perspective, however, that was one afternoon, two lifetimes, and countless adventures ago. Why should he remember it in agonizing detail?
It’s early days for Capaldi, so the immediate threat takes precedence. The rest is just clutter that the new Doctor must sift through in his regenerative disorientation. When Tennant touches Madame de Pompadour’s mind, and she touches his, she has thorough access to his memory, much like Craig Owens does when Smith knocks heads with him in “The Lodger” (2010). Through the door opened by their physical exchange of memories, a door that “may be stepped through in either direction,” Madame de Pompadour certainly learned more about Tennant’s Doctor than he learned about her. The Doctor needed data to discover the droids’ intentions; for Madame de Pompadour, it was a new and revealing experience.
Given that, it is not hard believe that the clockwork droids using humans for spare parts should ring only a faint bell for Capaldi. This is Aristotle’s point when he says, “occasionally it happens that … we get a sudden idea and recollect that we heard or saw something formerly.” He continues, “This … sudden idea … happens whenever … one changes his point of view, and regards it as relative to something else.” That Madame de Pompadour made a powerful impression on the Doctor at the time of their encounter is the only reason the exigency in “Deep Breath” rings any bells at all!
“Into the Dalek” and the physicality of memory
When the Doctor pleads with Clara to “just see me” at the end of “Deep Breath,” Clara, really for the first time, actually sees Capaldi as a distinct persona. Clara responds in the mode that is most familiar to her — the way that Aristotle suggests that memory is most enduring — as a kind of physical imprint: with a hug. When Eccleston clutches Rose’s hand twice in 2005’s first episode, when Tennant cradles Madame de Pompadour’s head, and when Smith head-butts Craig, it is the Doctor who initiates physical contact to foster a shared experience of memory.
Significantly, in “Deep Breath,” it is Clara who makes that move. Capaldi protests, “I don’t think that I’m a hugging person now,” but the the intimacy of touch is the means by which Clara bridges the chasm between her lingering memory of Smith’s Doctor and her acceptance of Capaldi’s iteration. She reassures them both in the process.
This leads us “Into the Dalek,” which is ripe with associations between the power of physical impressions and their effect on memory. These are foregrounded by the fact that so much of the action occurs on a ship named the “Aristotle.” The line that so many people find amusing — Capaldi’s assertion that Clara is “my carer; she cares so I don’t have to” — is the keystone of the entire enterprise, because caring is linked to feeling, and feeling to touch and sensation.
For Aristotle, recollection and memory are two completely distinct phenomena. The Doctor continually reminds Rusty of the Dalek’s transformative experience — witnessing the birth of a star — but finds mere repetition ineffective. Like the Doctor only vaguely recollecting the events of “The Girl in the Fireplace” following his regeneration, once Rusty’s radiation leak is repaired, the impression of his brief experience of possibility is muted. Unlike the Doctor, Rusty’s change is more sudden and complete because a “pure” Dalek has no choice; it is returned to its default state: “evil refined as engineering.”
Pragmatism and prejudice
This is what Capaldi understands when he summarizes Rusty’s case in the simplest available terms: “Morality as malfunction.” Capaldi’s Doctor, in his first two televised episodes, as a being both too old and too young to draw or rely on memory, is a rational pragmatist. The data he can trust consists of present perception and the broad strokes of past experience. His memory of the Daleks is hard-earned and totalizing. Exceptions, such as the Alpha Dalek from the Troughton Doctor’s “The Evil of the Daleks” (1967) and the Paul McGann Doctor’s “Children of the Revolution” (2002), inasmuch as they occur to him at all, only prove the rule.
Clara’s understanding of the Doctor as an idea or an ethos approximates the Doctor’s understanding of the Daleks. That’s why his incredulity at the possibility of a “good” Dalek smacks, to her, of “prejudice.” Clara experiences prejudice in its twenty-first-century inflection, though, while the Doctor sees it more in its eighteenth-century meaning.
Edmund Burke’s understanding of prejudice in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is not only positive, but based on experience. Prejudice “engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue,” and, “through just prejudice,” a person’s “duty becomes a part of his nature.” The Doctor has endured the Daleks’ uncompromising brutality in every regeneration. He has no reason to expect anything less than an implacable foe, and his skepticism is usually justified.
Clara’s experience is more limited, and her mind more able to permit doubt. For the Doctor, Rusty’s short-lived goodness was nothing but “radiation affecting its brain chemistry,” and this reaffirms his prejudice. Clara upbraids him for his smugness. It would seem that neither the Daleks nor the Doctor can have their wonted, habitual thought patterns altered. How does Clara open the Doctor to possibility, to learning something new? To manifest her acceptance in “Deep Breath,” the Doctor gets a hug; to express her disapproval here, the Doctor gets a healthy slap to the face.
Clara’s startling physical response impresses upon the Doctor the necessity of a different mental approach. It forces him to “consider things beyond” his “natural terms of reference.” The lesson is fixed more firmly due to its violence; in Aristotle’s words, “just as persons do who make an impression with a seal.” The Doctor and Clara must now turn that approach to dealing with a Rusty now on the rampage.
A “good” Dalek is possible
At the start of the episode, the Doctor tells Clara that they have to get into the head of the Dalek, noting that it’s not a metaphor. At the episode’s climax, the Doctor tells Rusty, “I saved your life … now I’m going to save your soul.” Unfortunately, that is a metaphor. Whether Daleks in general have souls is immaterial; reviving Rusty’s individual memory of a star’s birth is critical to effecting change. No matter what that change is, as long as Rusty stops assaulting the crew of the “Aristotle,” it must be considered a step in the right direction.
So Clara crawls through Rusty’s memory circuits, slapping dormant nodes into activity, and the Doctor reroutes Rusty’s synaptic pathways through his own mind. Each utilizes direct physical contact in order to reawaken this Dalek’s unique, if temporary, perspective.
The strategy works, but only to a degree. Like the Dalek in “Dalek” (2005), who absorbed some of Rose’s taint of humanity, here, Rusty absorbs the Doctor’s prejudice toward the Daleks. As Rusty departs the “Aristotle,” intent on bringing “death to the Daleks,” the Doctor and Clara know that they failed to achieve their intended goal, to see a good Dalek. But that’s not finally the point.
The point was whether the Doctor and the Dalek were capable of changing their perspectives on each other. Both of these things were achieved. Rusty now perceives Daleks as the the Doctor does: as a threat to be dealt with decisively. The Doctor now sees himself as the Daleks do: as The Predator.
Only two episodes into the Capaldi era of “Doctor Who,” it would seem as though moral ambiguity is taking pride of place, and, accordingly, there are no winners here. The Doctor finds himself as disappointed in the closing scene as Journey Blue was in the episode’s first scene. She found no solace in living at the cost of her brother’s death. Journey is left to live with that loss, and the “Aristotle” is left to continue their struggle against the Daleks. If the Daleks are still the Daleks, though, the Doctor is still the Doctor. He remains a creature of the present. Whether he wins or loses, his guiding principle is to move on to the next adventure.
“The most dangerous place in the universe”
“The most dangerous place in the universe” is not being inside the Dalek per se, but interiority unfiltered, seeing ourselves as others see us. Rusty “is a Dalek,” the Doctor explains, “not a machine. It is a perfect analogue of a living being.” This is how memory functions in Aristotle, as analogy. There is no exact or precise way to define the self’s relation to memory, much less to pinpoint another’s.
This is what eighteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Smith might refer to as the limits of sympathy. You can only ever approximate the experience of another; you can never totally understand it, and it’s hubris to think you can change it. The Doctor and the Daleks cannot have a positive relationship. “The Doctor is not the Daleks”: they give each other definition by their fundamental opposition.
That’s why we can take so much comfort from the growing and deepening rapport between the Doctor and Clara. They can change and grow together. Moment by moment, they are finding that they can rely on each other, and build new memories together.