Written by Stephen Moffat
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Neve McIntosh (Madame Vastra); Catrin Stewart (Jenny Flint); Dan Starkey (Strax); Peter Ferdinando (The Half-Faced Man); Paul Hickey (Inspector Grayson); Michelle Gomez (Missy) & Matt Smith (The Eleventh Doctor)
Here There Be Spoilers.
In the words of Madame Vastra, spoken just prior to start of the marvelous new opening credits, “Here we go again.” Deep Breath, the first episode of the eighth series of Doctor Who (of the new series, anyway), is a special episode – special in the same way that The Eleventh Hour, The Christmas Invasion, Rose, Time And The Rani and several other episodes before them were special: they introduce us to a whole new Doctor. The introductory episodes are always fraught with tension, like Helen Keller traversing a tightrope strewn with banana skins whilst holding back a very big sneeze. Doctor Who, a show that has remained both running and fresh through five decades by the genius premise that allows a new actor to assume the role every few years, is yet precarious in its existence: all it takes is a misguided casting decision to bring the adventures of everyone’s favorite Timelord to an abrupt end. And adding to the tension is that introductory episodes for a new Doctor never show the Doctor at the peak of his abilities; regeneration is a massive strain on the system and usually leaves the Doctor wonky and a bit slow on the uptake. Deep Breath is no exception; here we are, trying to get a sense of what the new Doctor is going to be, and he’s flouncing about, barely able to remember his own name. These episodes need to be written with care. We could end up with a Castrovalva, where the Doctor has to be out of commission in a stasis room in order to sort himself out, or The Twin Dilemma, where the Doctor tries to strangle his companion in a fit of post-regeneration psychosis. For Whovians, this sort of thing is old hat. It is our job to see behind the weirdness of the post-regeneration lunacy (like seeing past Madame Vastra’s veil) and glean what the new Doctor is going to be. So… what’s he like?
Let’s save that question for later. After all, there’s a dinosaur in the Themes to contend with.
Deep Breath begins with the Paternoster Gang (Madame Vastra, Jenny & Strax) and said dinosaur, misplaced as it is in Victorian London. A dino-cough reveals that the TARDIS has been lodged in its throat and the question of how it got to London is answered, but the real question (there are several moments in this episode when the Doctor calls attention to what the real question is) is what is going to happen when the TARDIS doors open. When the Doctor emerges, he is as wonky as expected (don’t forget, his last line of dialog in the episode he regenerated in was “Do you happen to know how to fly this thing”): forgetting everybody’s name, mistaking Strax for Clara (“You’re both of similar height… maybe you should wear labels.”), and apparently flirting with a female dinosaur. It’s a lot to take in, especially with a Scottish accent (not as thick as Amy’s – thank Heaven for small favors), and as funny as the scene is, we may feel a bit like Clara in our uneasiness that we don’t really know who the Doctor really is. Our memories of when the Eleventh Doctor was demanding apples, yogurt, bacon and other foodstuff from young Amelia Pond might help us, but what we really need is an adventure to distract us from the oddness and for the Doctor to prove himself in.
The dinosaur apparently spontaneously combusts and the guilt-ridden Doctor (it was his fault, albeit accidentally, that brought the dinosaur to London) takes on the case; there have been other spontaneous combustions in the last month all through London and the Doctor aims to get to the bottom of it… just as soon as he gets some clothes that don’t smell like a Whitechapel prostitute’s feet and figures out his eyebrows. Like most new-Doctor-introductions, Deep Breath is two stories in one episode: what the Hell is going on and who the Hell is this guy calling himself the Doctor? These are the questions asked by Clara, the audience’s surrogate, and it is at this point when we realize that there is a curious thing happening; unlike all of the Doctor’s other companions who witnessed a regeneration (Sarah Jane, Peri and Rose to name only a few), Clara – as the Doctor’s “Impossible Girl” – knows all about regeneration and the Doctor’s former personalities. She has apparently lived thousands of lives along the Doctor’s time stream and is well-acquainted with the Doctor’s multiple personalities, so it is a bit odd when she asks an offended Madame Vastra “How can we change him back?” This may be just Clara’s unwillingness to accept that, unlike all the other occasions that she met up with previous Doctors, this time she’s not getting her old Doctor back. But whatever the reason, this new turn of events gives Jenna Coleman an opportunity like she’s never had before on Doctor Who to explore the character she’s playing. Clara seems adrift and searching for dry land, intellectually aware that the gray-haired Scot before her is the Doctor and yet emotionally resisting it. She has many fine moments in this episode, such as her brief argument with Vastra over appearances and when she has to face off with the Half-Faced Man alone and believing that the Doctor has abandoned her.
Another thing that helps Coleman’s performance is the acting style of Peter Capaldi; during her time with the Eleventh Doctor, Coleman and Smith sometimes resembled a comedy-team rather than an alien adventurer and his human sidekick, forever competing in a “who-can-talk-the-fastest” contest. Their sequences in the Martini Restaurant and in the cellar/larder expose a real feeling of communication that barely happened during Smith’s reign. This may be because Capaldi’s Doctor is so addle-brained during half the episode and Clara is cautiously trying to feel him out, but I hope not. True, the episode ran longer than an hour and gave the characters more room to breathe and explore each other, but I sincerely hope that things do not revert to the slap-bang, smash-and-dash, what-did-he-just-say style that typified most of Smith’s era (I caught nearly all the dialog and concepts during Tennant’s era on the first viewings). As for the Doctor himself, I have often found myself as tentative as Clara is whenever I’ve been presented with a new Doctor. As much as I liked Tennant’s interpretation (he is still my current favorite), it did take me a few episodes to stop thinking of Eccelston as the real Doctor and accept the new guy. The same thing happened at the beginning of Smith’s era (although it took longer for me). In Deep Breath, I am presented with a new Doctor, who I must accept if I am ever going to continue enjoying this show. As good and as earnest as he was, it’s going to take me some time to look in his face and automatically think, “That’s the Doctor.”
Thankfully, it takes only about half of an episode for him to shake off his post-regeneration confusion and start acting like the Doctor. Up to that point, we’ve had some great funny lines concerning mirrors (“Don’t look in that mirror; it’s furious!”), eyebrows (“You could take bottle-tops off with these things!”) and a Scottish accent (“I’m Scottish; I can complain about things now!”). And while comedy is good, there is nothing better than seeing our old friend take charge of a situation. This begins the moment we discover that the Doctor did not abandon Clara to torture and death after all, revealing himself to have been hiding plane sight under (ugh!) a face mask of human flesh! (I never thought I’d see the Doctor reference Hannibal Lecter.) He fully solidifies when he is confronting the Half-Faced Man while they fly the skies of London with the help of (double ugh!) a human skin balloon! (The Montgolfier Brothers meets Dr. Mengele; I’m sensing a trend that I hope ends here.) Here the Doctor is well within his element and we can fully see him and recognize him for the first time as offers the Half-Faced Man a drink in anticipation of having to murder him (“You’re going to need it,” he says.) His logical debate with the robot about the nature of individuality and humanity is pure Doctor Who, and also revealing considering that this man of many faces recognizes that his analogy of replacing the parts of a broom until it is no longer the same broom could be applied to himself as well as the robot. Ultimately, the Doctor must fall back on his own morals: killing others to survive is wrong and his friends are in immediate danger. After careful consideration, it makes no difference whether the Doctor pushed the Half-Faced Man out of the escape pod to his death or whether he convinced the robot to jump: either way, the Doctor is responsible for the humanish robot’s death and that cold look he flashes straight to the viewer shows that he is aware of this.
With the added minutes to the normal running time, we are allowed to explore the lives of the Paternoster Gang more fully, although I suspect that Strax will never be anything more than comic relief. More interesting is the relationship between Madame Vastra and Jenny; although married (I wonder who performed such a ceremony in Victorian London), it is plain to see that Vastra’s natural disdain for humankind is something that plays out in her relationship with the young girl: she explains that Jenny plays the role of her servant for the benefit of strangers, prompting Jenny to ask why she performs such duties in private. A good question that deserves an answer, I think. Later, Jenny is shown posing for her wife/mistress for what she thinks is a portrait, only to discover that Vastra was working with a crime scene map and simply wanted Jenny there because she “brightens up the room.” Sure, it’s funny, but if Vastra were a male Silurian, this would be a moment of obvious sexism. One can only hope that someday, Vastra will learn to see her wife as an equal the way she demands Clara to see the Doctor for what he is, rather than what he looks like.
Clara, like us, needs a little help in accepting the Doctor, something that she gets when, after deciding that she isn’t keen on continuing her travels with this new man, she suddenly gets a call from someone whom the Doctor jokes is her “boyfriend.” He isn’t far wrong; to Clara’s shock, the Eleventh Doctor’s voice croaks out of her phone, having placed a “timecall” from Trenzalore prior to his regeneration. Even the Doctor isn’t too keen on the idea of looking older (odd, considering that he visibly aged into a coot during The Time Of The Doctor), but he reminds Clara that this new, older man is indeed him, that’s he’s scared, and that he needs her more than ever before. Many reviews have questioned whether bringing Smith back for this one scene was necessary for the episode. All I can say is that it is definitely necessary for Clara: despite her constant protests to the contrary, she was beginning to fancy the Doctor (chin and all) and his new face has destroyed those feelings. If she had immediately accepted him, it would have felt false and forced. In this moment, Clara has gone from a cute, funny, fast-talking pixie to an actual character with real feelings. From this point onwards, her growth in the universe that is Doctor Who can begin and hopefully flourish.
The episode does have a few hiccups along the way to this shining moment. The story is a continuation (or “knockoff,” depending how you feel about it) of Moffat’s second series masterpiece “The Girl In The Fireplace,” where clockwork robots attempt to use human parts to repair machinery. Here, the added wrinkle is that the robots are using the human parts to repair themselves which, in a way that is never really explained, is making them more human. It’s quite a good variation of the original idea (where the robots were using human parts to repair their spaceship), but while there are some tense and scary scenes (the scenes where the Doctor and Clara try to leave the Martini Restaurant and where Clara is standing up to the Half-Faced Man are the best) the leader of the bunch, the Half-Face Man, is not incredibly compelling. He is neither human enough to earn our sympathy nor machine enough to earn our condemnation. And why, if he is the leader, is he the only one of the robots who has only half a face and why, furthermore, is he the one robot who travels in public when all the other robots have complete faces and could walk the streets unobserved? And while it is a good idea for Clara to have the brainstorm of having the Paternoster Gang hold their breaths just when the battle with the robots is turning for the worst, the plot demands that she is unable to figure out how to use the sonic screwdriver to open the hatch to freedom thereby leading to them all being saved by the Doctor. Sure, the Doctor should be the one to save the day in his first story, but you’d think Clara would have some idea how to use the sonic screwdriver by now. Speaking of Clara, I would’ve liked to have seen some concrete evidence of her so-called “control-freakism;” the concept was brought up in dialog in the last episode and continues here throughout, but I have no idea what traits of hers are even remotely control-freakish. And finally we are left with yet another Moffat cliffhanger, Missy in Paradise, that signals the beginning of yet another series-long arc. Remember when Russell T. Davies was the show-runner and you didn’t realize there was an arc until the last two episodes? Unlike the Doctor and his companions, some things never change, but enough has changed since the last series to set the fan base on its heels in anticipation of what is to come. All I know at this point is that there will be a Dalek episode next Saturday and a Cyberman episode to end the series. Besides that, everything, even the Doctor and Clara, are unknown quantities and that’s just how I like it. We will tune in for the next few weeks asking “what s this new Doctor going to do and how will Clara react” and we will hopefully be loving every minute of it. Deep Breath is a good introductory episode, a strong Doctor Who adventure on its own, and a reminder to fans all over not to get too comfortable with their favorite show: at any point, without any warning, their favorite Timelord can turn… Scottish!