To pinch a phrase from the 1996 “Doctor Who” television movie, “He’s back… And it’s about time.”
It’s been just over a year since Peter Capaldi was introduced to an expectant worldwide audience as the latest version of Gallifrey’s most well known wanderer. Since then, he crashed the programme’s fiftieth birthday party and complained about the colour of his kidneys upon his regeneration on Christmas Day.
Rather than go through a blow by blow account of the episode, I would take a more general view of the episode itself whilst focussing on the two leads.
Regeneration episodes are usually a means to handing over the role to “the new broom” and, in certain cases, to act as a marker for a change in tone for the programme. Whilst it was a case of business as usual in The Christmas Invasion following the handover between Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, there was a shift in tone when Tennant handed over to Matt Smith – thanks not only to the change in leading man but in showrunner from Russell T. Davies to Steven Moffat. Gone was the straightforward adventuring of the Tenth Doctor to be replaced with a “fairy tale” tone.
“Deep Breath” sees another tonal shift, not only due to the change in lead, but in story style. The story starts off very much in the style of Tom Baker’s opener “Robot” as we are greeted with a disorientated Doctor. Vastra even echoes a line used by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart at the end of Jon Pertwee’s last story (which was reprised in “Robot”) when she says “Here we go again”.
The opening credits give a change of emphasis – looking at time as well as space as we move through clock cogs and planets accompanied by Murray Gold’s unnerving opening theme – which also signifies a tonal shift for the incidental music which changes from the fairytale feel of the Eleventh Doctor’s era into something more cinematic and unnerving for a Doctor who is unnerving and likes the “big stage”.
As the story moves onward with the Doctor becoming less and less disorientated, the story tone shifts again becoming darker and more reminiscent of the classic era story “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang”. Whereas in “Weng-Chiang” a cellar underneath a Victorian theatre doubles as a laboratory and place for the villain of the story to “feed” on the life essences of young women, “Deep Breath” sees a dining establishment become the front for organ donation to the story’s antagonists.
It was a smart move by the production team to make this story feature length. Not only does it give us time to not only get used to, as well as wrong footed, by the new Doctor, it allows the room for the story to progress at a more even pace, something that was a problem with “Series 7B” with some stories being wrapped up too quickly when they could have benefitted with a one hour episode.
The appointment of director Ben Wheatley did pique my interest. After all, he was fresh from directing the dark comedy “Sightseers”. However, it’s his skill as a feature film director and one who can do dark comedy that makes him the ideal choice for this story. The pacing of the story was judged perfectly whilst the humour isn’t out of step with the story’s darker premise.
The choice of opponents in this episode was an interesting one. On the surface, it could be seen as another example of Steven Moffat recycling old plots with the story being linked to the Series 2 story “The Girl In The Fireplace” through the Clockwork Droids and their use of human body parts to sustain their technology, but this isn’t really an appropriate comparison, or a valid argument, in this story. This is very much a story about whether change makes you the same person. The Doctor questions “Half Face Man” as to whether he is the same creation than he was when he started changing his organic components. The Doctor not only questions himself about his own change, but is challenged by Clara as to whether he is the same man that she travelled with up to their fateful journey to Trenzalore.
As with the aforementioned “Robot” and “The Christmas Invasion”, the transition of Doctor and tone is aided with a return of familiar core characters, in this case Vastra, Jenny and Strax. Whilst on the part of Strax, this provides a sense of comic relief, the roles of Vastra and Jenny are to challenge Clara into accepting the new Doctor especially as he trusts Clara enough to drop the boyish mask of his predecessor for a face more in step with his real Doctor
Moving on to the regulars and I have to say that this was the perfect opener for this new Team TARDIS.
One of the faults of the character of Clara was that she was basically a plot device for Series 7B in that she was The Impossible Girl which caught the Doctor’s curiosity rather than a character. This was no fault of Jenna Coleman who has always given strong performances. In “Deep Breath” Clara became a fully fledged character which matched the power of Jenna’s performance.
From the outset, Clara has her misgivings about this new Doctor, some of it with good reason as I will get into later, but this provides the character with more layers. Whilst Vastra protects the Doctor by telling Clara that he removed the boyish “mask” of the Eleventh Doctor to reveal his “true” face because he trusted Clara, she counters that it is her passion for knowledge and seeing underneath the surface of a person is what drives her relationship with the Doctor.
But, the most telling aspect of this new version of Clara is during her confrontation with Half Face Man. Her hallucination shows the background to her emotional intelligence and she uses it to, in effect, become the Doctor as she tells Half Face Man that you can’t run a negotiation by starting at the worst case scenario and working downwards to a lesser standpoint. She also makes a point of saying that she is scared for her safety, but by doing this the character doesn’t weaken, if anything she becomes stronger because she is at her most human but she is still defiant.
Yes, there are jokes at the expense of Clara’s need to control the situation and the Doctor’s “diagnosis” of egomania, but I’m glad now that the metaphorical elephant has been led out of the room and whilst this relationship is an uneasy truce at present, I’m glad that the partnership is one that stems more from friends – such as the Doctor and Donna who are my favourite pairing since the series returned – than through any form of love interest.
These differences change the role of Clara, not only in relation to the Doctor but as an individual, and I’m looking forward to seeing the direction that Jenna takes this new version of the character.
As for Peter Capaldi, he has come over as probably THE most complete incarnation of the Doctor on debut, not surprisingly really given how accomplished an actor he is. This is a Doctor not only of contradictions as he tries to find his new self, but of bringing together the whole character of the Doctor where you can see those twelve other incarnations ebbing and flowing around each other.
This is a Doctor who not only shows an apparent unreliability of the early Sixth Doctor but uses it as a ploy to be ahead of his opponents like the manipulative Seventh Doctor by using Clara to get information for him. You have him speaking of the larger values of human lives and endeavour like the Fifth Doctor whilst planning that he has to coldly persuade Half Face Man that he should commit suicide (or killing him) for the good of planet Earth in a manner worthy of the Ninth Doctor. All the while, he is the weary and lonely traveller that was the War Doctor whilst having the boyish Tenth and Eleventh incarnations fire up his enthusiasm in escaping through windows, riding horses or, for a brief glimpse, showing that the man that Clara travelled with to Trenzalore is trapped within a new body.
But referencing should not be mistaken for lack of character development and Capaldi manages to invest the role with a strong sense of how he wants the role to move.
This is a Doctor who is very much a hands off version of the character – cold, isolated and combative, but he’s also a man who is lonely and in need of the right type of company – as seen in the “I am lonely” scene where it’s ambiguous whether he’s translating the dinosaur or he’s deliriously speaking about himself or the “phone call” scene where he asks for Clara’s help whilst being unable to hug her or show her affection.
He has the fire and rage that we know the Doctor has always had, but it’s more on view in this incarnation rather than hidden under a facade of joviality and conviviality. This is an angry Doctor who now feels that he can complain and rage against the universe just because he has become apparently Scottish. (I had to laugh at the fact that his eyebrows want to be independent from the rest of his face which is surely a sly commentary (neither pro or anti) on the forthcoming Scottish Independence referendum).
This is also a Doctor who is aware of the damage he sweeps along with him. He shows it in the big moments when the dinosaur is murdered by Half Face Man by feeling sorry for the fact that he brought her to Victorian London, but he also shows in the little ways – most notably when he tells Clara that he can’t be her boyfriend and that he feels the one to blame for the relationship becoming one of a romantic footing.
It’s going to be interesting how the Twelfth Doctor continues as to whether he wrong foots and challenges the people around him and the audience.
Returning to the phone call scene, what a great return by Matt Smith to round out the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure in the TARDIS. I felt that the regeneration scene itself gave a sense of closure for the Doctor by returning back to the beginning through his hallucination of Amy, but I commented that the scene sidelined Clara. So it was lovely to see his time properly finished by using the last moments of “Eleven’s” life to ask friend to help ‘”Twelve” be the Doctor – I mean, who better to guide a scared Doctor than the companion who probably knows him better than any companion he has travelled with.
Another surprise scene is the inclusion of Missy aka the Queen of the Nethersphere at the end of the story. Michelle Gomez uses the last couple of minutes of the episode to set her stall out as the story arc for Series 8, portraying the character like a deranged Mary Poppins with a stalker complex. She calls the Doctor her boyfriend and likes his new accent so much that she thinks that she’s going to keep it. This last couple of minutes leaves us with a lot of questions – and disquieting ones at that. Who is she in relation to the Doctor? What is “Paradise”? And, most disturbingly, did the Doctor convince Half Face Man into destroying himself or did he murder him for the good of the many?
The title of the episode “Deep Breath” isn’t so much about the holding of physical breath, as in the cases of Clara, Vastra, Jenny and Strax, but a metaphorical one – a “leap of faith”, if you will – in so much that we now have a Doctor in our midst who whilst being on the side of the angels is no longer a safe companion to travel with. There have been comparisons with other “era” openers in the modern era floating about and I feel that this is unfair, not only to “Deep Breath” but the other openers as they have told the story that needed to be told to launch a new incarnation of the Doctor.
I have a feeling that the remaining eleven episodes are going to be a bumpy ride for “Twelve” and Clara and I can’t wait for what happens next.