Doctor Who Review 8.01 - 'Deep Breath'
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.23.2014
Doctor Who is back and the new Doctor has to figure out who he is in the midst of a crisis in Victorian London! Can Clara help him? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review of "Deep Breath!"
[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen the season premiere of Doctor Who.]
Acceptance of the new is one of the most difficult things for mankind to come to grips with. We see it every day, whether in the way that we look at the past through the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia or the difficulty we find it being at peace with the ever-changing world in which we live. It's exceptionally hard to accept that everything we know, or even the little things we've come to rely on, have been altered forever. And yet, change is a way of life. There's nothing that we can do to stand in the way of progress, we're told; we either have to get on board or at least stand out of the way and let it happen. For humanity, both are unbelievably difficult. Even impossible.
And yet for Doctor Who fans, acceptance of the new has become a necessary way of life in how we approach our favorite UK science fiction show. Everything changes, and has done so many times over the course of fifty years. Hell, even in the course of nine we've had to accept no less than eleven regular or semi-regular companions, three TARDIS designs (four if you could Idris, the TARDIS' human-esque form) and three-now four-Doctors. Luckily, the impossible is not so hard for us. We have our own Impossible Girl to help us guide the way. And in the series eight premiere, "Deep Breath," poor Clara Oswald is there to help us--and the new, Twelfth Doctor--find our way and gain a level of acceptance.
(Important Note: I realize that thanks to John Hurt's appearance in "The Day of the Doctor," Peter Capaldi is technically playing the Thirteenth Doctor. However, show continuity establishes that Hurt's War Doctor was technically unnumbered and thus, for the ease of continuity's sake and not constantly clarifying myself, I will be referring to the current Doctor as the Twelfth.)
There's a lot that goes on in "Deep Breath," which contains plenty of what episode writer/showrunner Stephan Moffat called "action and nonsense and jeopardy." But the adventure is secondary this time around, as it should be. "Deep Breath" is all about the Doctor and Clara accepting their new normal in this Capaldi era. The Doctor's regenerations have rarely gone swimmingly, and certainly not in the modern era. Tennant's Tenth Doctor became hyperactive and lost his hand; Smith's Eleventh blew up his TARDIS and had to go through a series of bizarre foods to find out what he liked. The Twelfth has a much more difficult time; while he's manic and nonsensical in moments, he's more importantly a rather broken man. He's gone from young to old and that bothers him; let's face it, the Doctor's always been a bit vain all the way back to the first. And his companion, stuck with her first regenerated Doctor, doesn't quite understand. She sees an older man and she doesn't know what that means.
It takes Lady Vastra--always a welcome sight in the series--to cut through Clara's sudden insecurity of whether the Doctor is the man that she knows. Neve McIntosh has always been a shining light whenever she has the opportunity to play the Sherlockian Silurian and the scene in which she questions Clara about her intentions toward the Doctor is at once viciously biting and devilishly smart. She strikes at Clara's core by suggesting that she doubts the Doctor, which allows Clara to shake off her mourning for Eleven long enough to really get her fire into her. It's a moment of strength from a companion who, while she's added a lot in terms of personality and plot device, hasn't had much of a chance to show her strength until that moment. When she does, Vastra's veil vanishes and they see the truth of the situation.
Or at least, they seem to. It's clear when they get deeper into the plot that Clara still isn't entirely sure who this new man in front of her is. The Doctor is still the Doctor--but it's not her Doctor. The Companions who transition from one Doctor to the next have always had a hard time with this. Rose Tyler accepted Ten, but it took a little time. Clara needs that time too, and she gets it. When the time comes, she knows that the Doctor will be there for her--and he is. It isn't until the end though when she really gets a chance to see him and accept him for who she is, but even if he's not her Doctor during the thrust of the plot he's still the Doctor and she never doubts that for a second. Clara is the person who will help the Doctor discover who he is now, much like Rose did for Ten.
As for that thrust of the plot...well, it is secondary of course. And it provides some action and nonsense and jeopardy in the form of the Half-Face Man and his cyborg fellows. The Half-Face Man is also having trouble accepting. He's been working since the dawn of time, replacing parts in him and continuing forward, living off the pieces of men and women so that he can get to the "promised land." When the Doctor and Clara inadvertently bring a dinosaur into Victorian London, that gives him the material he needs to repair the computer systems of his ancient ship. But he can't accept that his time is long since passed and as the Doctor tells him, "You have replaced every piece of yourself, mechanical and organic, time and time again. There's not a trace of the original you left...you probably can't even remember where you got that face from." Half-Face has found no purpose but to keep on going for the purpose of going, unable to accept that there's nothing left for him. In some ways, you could argue that the cyborg leader is the Doctor's antithesis, and the Doctor's speech is very telling. Over the years he's regenerated so many times that his body may well be entirely new. The difference is that where the Half-Face Man has lost every part of his original, the Doctor still has his humanity--his soul. That's what prevents him from becoming a monster like his adversary. But how much of his soul is left? Did he throw his enemy to its death, or just let him fall? That's a question we'll probably see the answer to sooner rather than later, if the final scene with the mysterious Missy is any indication.
So the important question, beyond all the above, is how does Capaldi do in his first full time out as the Doctor? The truth is that he's quite up to the task. This won't be a surprise for anyone who's appreciated him in other shows, but he not only has a great sense of comic timing but an ability to portray the Doctor's dramatic beats quite well. In the early parts of the episode he's a bit slapsticky but Capaldi, Moffat and director Ben Wheatley (Kill List) do a good job of keeping this from getting too over the top. Once the Doctor's personality calms down you see signs of the Doctor he's going to be, and it's fabulous. It's a callback to the Doctors of old, and I'm not just talking about his age. You can see a lot of Jon Pertwee's characterization in there, not to mention Tom Baker and even a fair amount of Tennant and Christopher Eccleston. But these are just shades; at his core, Capaldi makes the character his own. One of my favorite parts involves an exchange between the Doctor and Clara, where he says that it's time to start making up for his wrongs and says "I'm not your boyfriend." When Clara professes that she never thought he was, he replies, "I never said it was your mistake." This sounds like a way to denigrate Smith's more boyish Eleventh Doctor but it's really not. It's setting the flirtatious period of the Doctor and his companions aside for a new dynamic, and one that I hope will lead to greater things for Clara. And Capaldi and Jenna Coleman carry it off beautifully.
And lest I be remiss in mentioning the big surprise cameo (I did warn about spoilers, folks), Smith's brief return as Eleven, via a phone call from Trenzalore in the past, is a moment of beauty. It's played serious and feels as emotional as it is, yet there is still time for a bit of humor. Seeing Smith back for one brief time is a nice touch to help Clara accept the Doctor as he is; it's not so long as to overshadow Capaldi but provides one last passing of the baton. Nicely written. Meanwhile on the director front, Wheatley as a director does some great work with the creepy cyborg men extended running time and paces the episode very well. It has an extended running time and uses the time so that Capaldi can really get into the new Doctor's skin, avoiding some of the serious pacing problems of series seven. With the new Doctor and Clara firmly in place with each other (for now) by episode's end, it provides one hell of an opener with just a few bumps along the road.
Some Final Thoughts:
• Jenny Flint may get a somewhat unfortunate (though funny) scene where she is literally room decoration for Vastra, but she also gets the best line of the episode when she cuffs Vastra for admiring Clara's fire too much and says, "Oi! Married."
• I like the cluttered library-ish look of the new TARDIS. It seems quite appropriate for the new Doctor, and I'm interested to see how much of it will come into play in later episodes.
• Clara: "Nothing is more important than my egomania!" Doctor: "Right, you actually said that." I'm going to enjoy their banter if this keeps up. The Doctor hasn't had a good adversarial companion since Donna. Amy was strong-minded at times, but not quite adversarial.
• Strax falling through the ceiling into the cyborg pit is slapstick done right. Kudos.
• Notice how I barely mentioned the dinosaur? Yeah, that's how much she mattered to the plot. Ah, well.
The 411: Doctor Who gets the Capaldi era off to a good--if not perfect--start with "Deep Breath." It seems strange to criticize a Moffat story for going light on the plot and adventure, but the fact is that the villains don't quite hold their own. But they're meant to be secondary anyway and the character work with Clara and the Doctor makes for an absorbing first go of the new series. The stage is set for what could well be a satisfying run for Twelve and if they keep this up I'll be quite satisfied.