Doctor Who: 8.01 Deep Breath
Warning: Spoilers to follow...
The beauty of a show like Doctor Who is that everything can change; the lead actor can be replaced, companions can come and go and stories can be borne out of wildly different genres week after week.
As an opener to series eight (or 34 for us purists) and an introduction to a new Doctor, there was a marked difference in style compared to The Eleventh Hour, The Christmas Invasion and Rose. The story is slower, given time to breathe (pardon the pun) and fees more Classic Who in nature. With its Victorian London setting and the horror of robots stalking humans on the streets for body parts, its very gothic horror, almost Hinchcliffe in tone. Take out the regeneration element of the story and you could easily imagine the Fourth Doctor investigating this mystery.
Interestingly, my wife who is a big fan of Nu Who said she found herself bored a couple of times. I wondered what my kids, watching the episode on repeat, would think. Would the differences from the Eleventh Doctor isolate them too? Surprisingly not. They were enthralled by the T-Rex in the Thames as I suspected they would. They loved the slapstick humour and dialogue of Strax (but didn't we all). And they were suitably unnerved by the scenes in the larder with Clara trapped alone with the robots. There were some times when I had to explain what was going on, but that's something I've come to expect from Moffat and I'd rather have complex mystery than mindless action in my Doctor Who.
Also of note, I actually preferred Deep Breath on second viewing, perhaps having adjusted to the change in style that may have pulled some audiences, my wife included, from fully engaging in the episode.
Did Deep Breath work completely? Mostly. Of all the phrases I've heard bounding around the internet in the last 24 hours, sublime would be the best way to describe Peter Capaldi's performance. He makes the Doctor his own, presenting audiences with a darker, colder Doctor without straying close to the aggressive 'let's attempt to strange my companion' line that the Sixth Doctor took straight after the Fifth's regeneration.
There will be comparisons to the Sixth perhaps, certainly the First, Third and Fourth Doctors. The less human, friendly Doctors so to speak. He is more alien. He cares for humanity but he doesn't want to get close. He acts superior, is ready to push his companion towards danger more readily and he doesn't like hugs. But ultimately he is his own Doctor, a very different beast to his immediate predecessors. He even flatly states to Clara that he's not her boyfriend, suggesting some regret in making that feel an option in the past. Its a very clear statement on the difference in his relationship with his companion compared to the flirty nature she was used to.
Most interestingly, I still don't know exactly what kind of Doctor he is. I think a lot of audiences might struggle with this. Matt Smith had made me forget the brilliance of David Tennant by the end of his infamous 'fish custard' scene. He immediately made us understand what kind of Doctor he was - perhaps that's why I still prefer The Eleventh Hour over Deep Breath - but that's not to say this episode wasn't great too. I have the feeling that it will take a handful of episodes to fully appreciate what kind of character our lead hero will be and that is an exciting thing. One thing is certain; Capaldi will be brilliant.
As will Clara. It's been said numerous times that the different writers in series seven didn't know how to write her. She was a mystery in person-shaped form until the finale, though that mystery paid off in style. But since then she has gotten better and better, whether its because we've only had Moffat writing her or because she has now become a fully-fledged character. If you thought the Christmas cracker scene in Time Of The Doctor was great, then Jenna Coleman's performance in Deep Breath was on a whole new level again.
A companion's purpose is to be the audience's eyes and ears on the world of the Doctor; throw that all up with a new face and personality and the adjustment can be hard. Clara captured that perfectly. She felt hurt, betrayed by him, almost to the point where she believed her beloved Doctor had left her to die in the 'larder' full of organ-harvesting robots.
The only fault I had was with her comment about wanting the Doctor to change back. There were times when my wife and I argued that she should have a better grip on what is going on, having split herself across time and space to save every Doctor, but then it was summed up by the Doctor perfectly; she is a control freak. She knew her Doctor and how to handle him. She had witnessed every aspect of his life. But this Doctor, Capaldi's Doctor, was something new. A character she had no idea how to handle and might abandon her at the drop of the hat.
The return of Jenny, Vastra and Strax was a welcome one too. As Moffat himself had stated; where the lead character is someone completely new, you can have familiar characters to transition the show from the old to the new. Vastra was surprisingly effective in being the sensible character who could deliberate the changes to the Doctor and make Clara see reason. I like that she tested Clara, asking her if she was judging him for changing. Her 'interrogation of Clara' was one of the highlights of the episode. Strax provided plenty of humour as always with some great one liners, my favourite being...
"You must stop worrying about him [The Doctor], my boy [Clara], by now he’s almost certainly had his throat cut by the violent poor."
There were plenty of other great elements in this episode. The title sequence for a start. Several months ago motion graphics designer Billy Hanshaw created new titles featuring spiralling clock faces and cogs that looked magnificent. The video went viral, catching Steven Moffat's attention and became the inspiration for the series eight titles. It was a mix of something fresh and yet more 'classic Who' in nature, something that could be attributed to the show as a whole. I love the new theme too, simpler in nature, another very 'Classic Who' vibe to it.
The surprise return of the clockwork robots was also a great choice of villain; like the Atraxi in Matt Smith's debut episode, they didn't overshadow the story of the new Doctor. The scene in the restaurant where the Doctor and Clara realise the patrons aren't actually eating was suitably creepy. The Doctor had some great dialogue. His post-regeneration confusion between Clara and Strax, deciding he would prefer to climb out of a window rather than go through a door, his big reveal, pulling off the face mask to save Clara. These all showed just how great he was going to be as the Doctor. He might look older, he has an energy about him that is very engaging.
Clara's tear-inducing scene where she had to hold her breath and walk through the chambers of the spaceship was a brilliant example of Moffat utilising a simple idea (don't blink) and making it terrifying. I also found the Doctor questioning where he had seen his face before (Pompeii?) a far more tantalising tease for future stories and development than the slightly abrupt end of episode sequence introducing another 'girlfriend' of the Doctor 'Missy'.
One of the biggest and surprising highlights was the Eleventh's Doctor's call to Clara. It could have come across as cheesy or unwanted; after all the theme of Deep Breath was about moving on to new adventures with the Twelfth. But it was so beautifully done. Not just in giving Clara the acceptance she needed that this man with grey hair was still the Doctor but the vulnerability in Capaldi's performance. For the first time you saw a man who needed Clara with him and the thought she might leave was heart breaking for him.
Oh and a Tardis with book shelves and a wing backed chair...perfect. I also love Clara's tribute line to The Three Doctors.
So what didn't work? I have to admit, if there's one fault in Capaldi I could find it's that I struggled to catch everything he said. I'm sure that will get better over time, but I felt I was missing some magical dialogue on occasion. I would have preferred the robots harvesting humans for body parts to be even more macabre, but I guess the episode had already taken a dark enough turn. There was still children watching, my own included and we don't want to give them too many nightmares!
I also wonder if the Doctor taking the homeless man's coat was a step too far. It added a new dynamic we haven't seen in the Doctor for quite a while (and by that I mean decades) but it made him far less sympathetic. I think that was as close to unlikable as the show should go. Though I did appreciate the ambiguity of whether he threw the clockwork robot on to Big Ben or whether the baddie fell on his own. And the T-Rex, it felt a little superfluous, but then again my kids loved it so perhaps it worked exactly as intended.
Overall, Deep Breath was a bold, darker series opener with an amazing Doctor debut, even if we don't quite know what kind of man he will be . I can't say I was blown away but it definitely made me excited for more. Doctor Who as a show is sure to divide fans once again. Sorry fan girls...I think you've lost out this time. There'll be no romancing on this Tardis...