Doctor Who: “Deep Breath”
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Jenna Coleman (left), Peter Capaldi (BBC)
Jenna Coleman (left), Peter Capaldi (BBC)

Doctor Who: “Deep Breath”

Peter Capaldi’s debut has a bumpy start, then becomes something special

A change is as good as a rest, especially for a Time Lord. As Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor—or, as he really ought to be called from now on, the Doctor—observes toward the end of his debut outing, “I’m the Doctor, I’ve lived for over 2,000 years, and not all of them were good; I’ve made many mistakes, and it’s about time I did something about that.” So much of the substance of “Deep Breath” deals with identifying and explaining the nature of the Doctor’s mistakes, particularly in his treatment of his companion Clara. In these lines, it’s not hard to hear Steven Moffat acknowledging his own missteps in the show’s handling of the character. On an episode-by-episode basis, there is plenty to like about Doctor Who’s 2013 output, but the 11th Doctor and Clara’s time together was beset by some significant structural issues. The characters’ relationship was never terribly well-defined, first because of the big mystery of Clara’s identity and then because the show appeared hesitant to commit fully to the pair as some sort of flirtatious quasi-couple. Basically, the 11th Doctor—and perhaps the show in general—had forgotten that his youthful appearance was only a façade. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way of reminding everyone of that fact than by turning Matt Smith into Peter Capaldi, and “Deep Breath” is at its most compelling and distinctive whenever it tackles head-on the long-ignored question of the Doctor’s true nature.

This story’s closest antecedent is “The Christmas Invasion,” the 10th Doctor’s first adventure. Like that earlier story, “Deep Breath” leaves the Doctor in an addled, vulnerable state for an extended period, allowing the focus to shift to the companion and the band of recurring allies. And, like David Tennant’s debut, this story indulges in rather more throat-clearing than is strictly necessary before the action really starts; it’s not until the new Doctor analyzes his new appearance with the help of an unnerved tramp, nearly a half-hour in, that “Deep Breath” snaps into focus. The sequences before that play like a show that has yet to rediscover its center, with the episode straining to fill the time with humor. There’s plenty of goofiness to go around, particularly the slapstick sequence in which the Doctor falls down a tree. It’s not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with goofiness—a Doctor Who without goofiness scarcely bears thinking about—but episode director Ben Wheatley, the man behind violent cult films like Kill List and A Field In England, is perhaps not the right choice to realize such material.

More than that, the simultaneous joy and frustration of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who scripts is how clever they are, for there’s such a fine line between clever and “clever.” Every line is packed with at least two meanings; such density in the dialogue tends to work well when used to make thematic points about the Doctor, but it’s rather less effective as a source of cheeky humor. Moffat’s scripts never lack for things to say about the show’s central figure—the newly regenerated Doctor’s perplexed reaction to the very concept of bedrooms is a nifty illustration of the character’s eternally restless energy—but it’s the side characters who frequently don’t fare as well. On that point, Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax all have their charms, but they have never felt more like one-joke characters than they do here; Strax’s medical examination of Clara offers little that the previous, much shorter scene in which he offers to take her coat and hat doesn’t already accomplish. Meanwhile, if Jack Harkness is the captain of the innuendo squad, then Vastra and Jenny are both major generals, with every conversation topic used as a flimsy pretext for another double entendre about married life. Still, “Deep Breath” does slightly improve upon previous Vastra and Jenny appearances like “The Snowmen,” in that it does at least offer occasional moments of insight about the couple; Clara and Jenny’s little conversation about what the latter would do if Vastra suddenly changed into someone completely different is a small but effective character moment.

But positioned between the Doctor and the Paternoster gang in the show’s pecking order is Clara, and it’s with her that “Deep Breath” does its most important work. This is the first episode in a long, long time—and, with the possible exception of “Cold War,” the first Clara episode—in which the Doctor and the companion are on roughly equal footing. Throughout season 7B, the 11th Doctor’s uncertainty about Clara’s true character meant that she never really coalesced into a character at all; “The Day Of The Doctor” and “The Time Of The Doctor” told us she was a control freak who fancied the Doctor—not the most promising characterization I’ve ever heard, but hardly unworkable—but both of those specials were much too focused on the Doctor to really show us those aspects of Clara’s character in any great detail. “Deep Breath” runs with the gist of that characterization, with Clara setting the rules of engagement for when the Doctor is allowed to smile at the restaurant. She perhaps too frequently remains the butt of jokes, as when the Doctor inadvertently reveals her egomania, a clever bit of wordplay-based characterization that still could have benefited from a touch more sympathy in the script. (I also could have done without Clara getting hit in the head with a newspaper, but I’m filing that under the episode’s general early wonkiness.) At least she still gets to give as good as she gets, as when she gives the Doctor some much-deserved guff about the sonic screwdriver being voice-activated.

The real highlight, though, is what happens after the Doctor abandons her in the ancient control deck of the S.S. Marie Antoinette. The Doctor leaves her with no advice on how to save herself from the murderous clockwork droids, so she instead recalls the Doctor’s earlier suggestion and attempts to escape the buried spaceship in a single breath. This is where the episode really benefits from Wheatley’s direction, taking all the pain and desperation in Jenna Coleman’s performance and ratcheting up the tension to almost unbearable levels. Even better, “Deep Breath” takes Clara’s defeat and follows it up immediately with a nicely realized triumph. In interviews, Steven Moffat has spoken of his desire to slow things down in season eight and give scenes more time to develop; the restaurant scene with Clara and the Doctor is the most notable example of this, but even better is the Half-Face Man’s interrogation of Clara. It’s such a simple scene, using just a handful of angles to show how a petrified Clara outmaneuvers an unfeeling, murderous robot.

Clara’s obvious terror is so crucial here. The one major way that the past season distinguished Clara from Amy is that the former is not a naturally brave person; both “Cold War” and “Hide” demonstrated that Clara could feel overwhelmed by the danger of the situation—understandable enough, really—but could find the strength to struggle through it. The interrogation scene builds on that, as Clara repeatedly admits how frightened she is, yet she uses that fear to steel herself against the Half-Face Man’s increasingly empty threats. Plus, this is the first time that the show explicitly draws upon Clara’s life outside the TARDIS to inform her actions. Previous episodes have established Clara as a nanny and a teacher, but it’s only in “Deep Breath” that the show acknowledges that all that time spent working with kids might give her some insight into power dynamics. For the first time, teaching isn’t just a random thing she does when not traveling through the universe; it’s something that offers its own life experiences, and she disarms the robot just as readily as those unruly students did her on her first day at Coal Hill School.

The nature of Doctor Who’s format means that there will always be some rather generic narrative duties that the companion must fulfill; there’s a reason that the amnesiac Doctor refers to Clara as “the question-asking one” in the opening scene. But the new series has greatly increased the potential of the companion, and the simplest measure of success if whether a given episode can only work with that particular companion. There were times in the 11th Doctor and Clara’s tenure that this principle held true; again, I do like to mention “Cold War,” and Clara’s climactic plea to find a better way in “The Day Of The Doctor” felt very specific to her belief in who the Doctor is. But “Deep Breath” shows by far the most consistent understanding of who Clara is and what she can offer to the show that none of her predecessors can (even if the Doctor does sometimes miss Amy). There’s still plenty of work to do over the next 11 episodes in deepening Clara’s character, but this episode is a much-needed step in the right direction.

That just leaves the minor matter of a brand new Doctor to discuss. This is a hugely assured debut from Peter Capaldi, as he mixes darkness and light in his performance in equal measure. His Doctor shares his predecessor’s affinity for speaking to animals, and it’s so quintessentially Doctor Who that two of his first big monologues are delivered to and then in memoriam of a rampaging tyrannosaurus. But it’s really with the mention of his attack eyebrows that the character asserts his own unique identity, wholly separate from the previous Doctor’s mix of daffiness and melancholy. The Thick Of It and In The Loop fans will hear echoes of Malcolm Tucker in the Doctor’s conversation with the tramp, particularly when he clarifies that his questions are not meant to be rhetorical. Capaldi is the third consecutive Doctor Who star with serious comedic chops, but his is a drier, more cutting style than that of David Tennant or Matt Smith. This allows for subtler shifts between the one-liners and the threats, and Moffat and company will likely only push this further as the episodes grow more tailored to the specifics of Capaldi’s performance. His presence gives Doctor Who a new kind of energy; like so many of his predecessors, his mere presence in a scene is often enough to elevate it, and “Deep Breath” benefits significantly from his magnetism.

As promised, this new Doctor is a darker, more dangerous figure. Consider what he says to the Half-Face Man: “I have the horrible feeling that I’m going to have to kill you. I thought you might appreciate a drink first. I know I would.” Now, I can imagine the other new series Doctors delivering that line, albeit in very different ways. The 10th and 11th Doctors would emphasize the offer of a drink, using the presence of the joke to distract themselves from the latest horrible business they must undertake. The Ninth Doctor, a much closer parallel for this new man, would be more straightforward in his delivery, but he would carry the anguish of his constantly compounding guilt. But this Doctor? It’s just a statement of fact. This isn’t who he must be because the situation forces it upon him, but more simply who he is. Perhaps it’s who he has always been, even if he only now is willing to admit it: “Those people down there. They’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way. And unlike you, I do not expect to reach the Promised Land.” It’s left ambiguous whether the Doctor actually killed the Half-Face Man, or whether he simply convinced him to end his miserable existence, and the rest of this season will likely explore the deeper implications of that uncertainty.

Much as the memory of the Ninth Doctor loomed large over “The Christmas Invasion,” so too does the 11th Doctor remain a pivotal figure throughout “Deep Breath,” even before Matt Smith actually pops in for a cameo. That earlier story explicitly said that Rose simply found the new Doctor different to the old: not good different or bad different, but just different. Here, however, the show is more willing to engage in direct comparisons, and so much of what Clara misses about the 11th Doctor are revealed as, if not exactly character flaws, then the affectations of a lonely god who probably should have known better. Vastra and Clara’s scene with the veil is a bit clunky—Jenna Coleman tries valiantly to land Clara’s big speech about the Marcus Aurelius poster, though the sentiment doesn’t feel properly tethered to the overall conversation—but it succeeds in explaining how the simple fact of the 11th Doctor’s youthful appearance was a flirtatious act. That past incarnation (and his immediate predecessor, for that matter) chose a form, consciously or subconsciously, that allowed him to pretend he was a dashing, handsome, even boyish figure. The Doctor spent at least two lifetimes running away from his true self, and now the time for running is over. Throughout, the show finally levels some overdue criticism of the 11th Doctor for his conduct toward his companion, most clearly in the final scene in the TARDIS, as the Doctor admits it was not Clara who erroneously thought the Doctor was her boyfriend.

Indeed, the 11th Doctor’s phone call feels so resolutely him, in ways both positive and negative. On some level, this is the 11th Doctor getting in one final meddle, one final bit of emotional manipulation of his companions. After all, he calls not so much to comfort Clara but to cajole her, to beg her to help his next self. Like was so often the case with the 11th Doctor, he only has the best of intentions, but that doesn’t necessarily change the fact that he’s wrong to make such a loaded request to such a vulnerable person; as ever, he doesn’t fully realize just how powerful he is in the eyes of his companions. But this new Doctor might, and that’s why there’s real potential for change with this latest TARDIS team. The 11th Doctor was, like all his other selves, a great and good man, but he was also selfish and capricious, unable to see how he was inherently compromised by his own contradictions, by his attempts to be both boyish goofball and ancient wanderer. And, on some level, those irreconcilable traits began to engulf Doctor Who as a whole. Both the Doctor and Doctor Who needed clarity, and that’s what this new incarnation represents. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the minimalist, back-to-basics take on the character; I mean, just look at his costume. We’re about to see not what the Doctor hopes to be, but who he really is. If “Deep Breath” is any indication, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun finding out who this strange new person—the one we’ve known all along—actually, properly is.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome everyone to our coverage of this new season of Doctor Who! After coming in at the tail end of Matt Smith’s tenure, I’m excited to be in on the ground floor for this new Doctor, especially since I feel like I actually sort of know what I’m doing now with these reviews. (A big reason for that is getting to review the first three seasons of the new series; I invite you to check those out if you haven’t had a chance yet.) Anyway, I’m looking forward to talking through this new season with you all. I promise not every review will be quite this long.
  • There are a bunch of references to Moffat’s “The Girl In The Fireplace” here, although it doesn’t really take us anywhere beyond just sort of generally justifying the reuse of some rather effective monsters.
  • “Deep Breath” also makes some cheeky references to the fact that the Doctor has seen his face before, specifically on the Roman Caecilius in “The Fires Of Pompeii.” The story seems to quickly move from the mystery of a familiar face to the related but distinct mystery of an older face, with the Doctor wondering what his subconscious is trying to tell him with this particular selection. But file away the face as one of the season’s little mysteries.
  • As for the big mysteries, we get introduced to this season’s presumptive main foe in the closing scene, as Michele Gomez shows up as the strange, faintly animalistic Missy. I’ll not even speculate on what’s going on with her, but I will point out it’s probably wise to not take everything she says at face value. Also, Michele Gomez was really great as Sue White on the hospital comedy Green Wing, a show well worth checking out.
  • There really isn’t much of a guest cast here beyond the regulars and recurring players, but frequent Ben Wheatley collaborator Peter Ferdinando does some nice work as the Half-Face Man. He’s menacing without quite intending to be so, as though he’s just generally puzzled by where his eons-long existence has taken him.

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