Saturday 23 August 2014

Review: DOCTOR WHO, 8.1 – 'Deep Breath' • the same, but different

Saturday 23 August 2014

THE DOCTOR: Look at the eyebrows! These are 'attack-eyebrows'. You could take bottle tops off with these!
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) now prefers a buttoned-up collar with a conspicuous lack of a bow-tie (famously worn by his immediate predecessor, Matt Smith). This sartorial change suggests a new Time Lord with less clownish behaviour, and a return to the eccentric older gents who played the character pre-Peter Davison. Stepping into the role as the twelfth incumbent is lifelong fan Capaldi, whose combination of visible age, Scottish accent, and piercing stare gives DOCTOR WHO a welcome blast of seriousness, without slipping into darkness. Mostly.

The debut of a new actor in this iconic role is only rivalled by the hoopla whenever the next James Bond is selected, and first impressions count. More than ever these days, now Doctor Who's a multi-million pound global brand.

It helps, of course, that this is the third regeneration in the modern era, so all post-2005 "newbies" have already learned to adjust to fresh interpretations of their hero. Change is part of the show's appeal and key to its longevity, so chances are nobody has their knives ready to eviscerate Peter Capaldi's first adventure. Everyone wants him to be magnificent, and he doesn't disappoint.

However, "Deep Breath" wasn't as instantly likeable as Matt Smith's debut, "The Eleventh Hour", and that goes for Capaldi's take on the character. A premiere stretched close to feature-length at eighty-minutes, this episode contained examples of the many flaws and clichés writer Steven Moffat tends to employ, and didn't actually offer a fresh villain—as the clockwork cannibal robots were first encountered in "The Girl in the Fireplace" during David Tennant's maiden series. Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) once again got to wear Victorian garb, and appears to have been slightly retconned as a "control freak", while comical support was once again provided by Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and Strax (Dan Starkey). Although I remain unconvinced those characters are quite as beloved as Moffat seems to believe they are.

Still, it was definitely a wise move to pack this story with lots of familiar faces, as we got to meet an unfamiliar one...

As usual, The Doctor's regeneration resulted in a fresh personality who wasn't operating at his best. Here, The Doctor was riddled with amnesia and senility, which led to him being tricked into a deep sleep, before roaming the streets of London dressed as Wee Willie Winkie (an appropriately Scottish nursery rhyme), scaring local tramps and talking nonsense.

There's a tricky balance to play with debut episodes like this, and especially if you're intending to give audiences a type of Doctor they haven't had in awhile. Tennant and Smith were almost instantly dashing, lovable heroes, but Capaldi's Doctor was occasionally unappealing, often unhinged, impolite, and didn't seem to care about Clara very much. In one memorable scene, The Doctor even left Clara alone in a room of murderous robots while he ran away—and, while he made amends for that decision with a later rescue, it didn't seem to sweeten anything in retrospect. Naturally, Clara (and by extension everyone at home) were asked to view this new Doctor with suspicion, which is something quite new. Even The Doctor doesn't seem to quite understand his new appearance, and outlook on life. He saves the day by murdering someone, before snapping a look directly down the camera at us at home. We're complicit with this man, our old hero, and perhaps a little scared for Clara as his companion.

As an episode of Doctor Who, it had its peaks and troughs. Moffat's a writer capable of great highs, but he does tend to pull familiar tricks out of his bag. You could trick the clockwork robots into believing you're one of them by holding your breath; so "don't breathe" was effectively another version of the "don't blink" and "don't look away" tactics characters use to escape the Weeping Angels and The Silence.

Still, the story worked in terms of recalibrating The Doctor and Clara's relationship; no chance of any romance between the pair, with Clara cautious around him and yet aware he's the same person who needs her help more than ever. This Doctor isn't very touchy-feely, and has lost many of his social graces. I like their prickly interactions now; as it gives Coleman something juicier to play, and Clara serves a more down-to-earth purpose than the walking puzzle-box she was for Matt Smith (who nicely cameos towards the end, in a touching moment).

Overall, "Deep Breath" certainly got series 8 off to a good start, but it wasn't quite the breath of fresh air I was prepared for. That probably won't happen until a new showrunner takes over the show. Capaldi certainly feels like he's got something new to offer us, however, but it remains to be seen if it's something much younger fans will buy into. I don't think ageism will be a problem, but the twelfth Doctor isn't as inherently nice. Even Christopher Eccleston's broodier incarnation would often flash a mega-watt smile, which I can't see Capaldi ever doing. Still, in the final moments when Clara led this new Doctor away from his TARDIS and down a city street, he looked amusingly awkward and at her mercy... so maybe we're in for a series where The Doctor and his companion are a real double-act, who compliment and need each other to get by.

The Doctor's still the mad genius with millennia of experience when it comes to matters of Time & Space, but Clara's the normal girl who knows where to get the best coffee and chips...


  • Was it explained why that T-Rex was so damn big? A normal Tyrannosaurus can't fit a TARDIS into its mouth, and yet no explanation was given for the fact it could stare Big Ben in the face.
  • Do the Victorian crowds standing agog at the T-Rex remember the giant steampunk Cyberman from "The Next Doctor" attacking them once, too?
  • This premiere, and next week's episode, are directed by Who newcomer Ben Wheatley—a movie director best-known for Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. All very dark, adult movies, so it was interesting to see him working in a family-friendly context. Beyond a few stylistic flourishes occasionally, it was difficult to identify him behind the camera.
  • I liked the dialogue between The Doctor and the homeless man, which suggests his regenerated faces come about because he subconsciously chooses them. This was a fun nod towards the fact Capaldi once played Caecilius in "The Fires of Pompeii", so Tennant's Doctor obviously liked his features.
  • So what's going on with the strange, sinister, Mary Poppins-y woman at the end? Well, we already know from press materials that she's "Missy", the Gatekeeper of the Nethersphere (played by Michelle Gomez) and will be the series lead villain, with a big role to play in the finale. Will she be collecting more of the Doctor's vanquished nemeses this year, perhaps? Why does she consider The Doctor her "boyfriend"? Does she have a genuine connection to him, or is she just a psycho fantasist? Could she be a new interpretation of Time Lady the Rani?
  • Matt Smith's scene was filmed during production of "The Time of The Doctor". 5 October 2013 to be exact.
  • There is one massive piece of illogic in this episode, sadly. It's crazy that Clara has difficulty accepting The Doctor's regeneration as a concept, and that he's a changed man, because the explanation behind her "impossible girl" status in series 7 was that she's previously met every single incarnation of The Doctor! What, she just forgot all of that? I know the show has a very lax approach to its own internal logic at times, but that felt like a big oversight.
written by written by Steven Moffat • directed by Ben Wheatley • 23 August 2014 • BBC1

Next time...