Post-regeneration stories are often a fraught time for Doctor Who fans. After the roller coaster ride seeing an old Doctor to his tragic death scene, we’re always left to wonder, how will the show go on? Who is this stranger taking over the helm? Will the show continue to offer the familiar stories I’ve grown accustomed to, or will it take off in a new direction? Will I like what I see?
I, personally, have never worried. Somehow, after thirty-six years of watching this program, I’ve managed never to develop a favourite Doctor. I’ve got stories that I like and stories that I dislike, and some Doctors have more than their fair share in either category, but the Doctors themselves, as different as they are from each other, have never alienated me. Possibly because, at the Doctor’s core, he cares. He cares deeply about the people who needs him, about his companions, about the universe he lives in. Even when he gets thoroughly sick of life’s slings and arrows and retires, as he did in The Snowmen, he ultimately can’t help himself when he encounters people who need his help.
With this at the Doctor’s core, I’m able to imagine that Colin Baker is playing the same character as Christopher Eccleston. The different costumes are just phases they’re in. Indeed, I kind of want each Doctor to be quite different from the last, so that we have variety, and sparks flying when the inevitable reunion special kicks in.
So, in my opinion, Steven Moffat did an excellent job in casting Peter Capaldi as the twelfth (in reality, the fourteenth) Doctor. Not only is Capaldi a distinguished and capable actor (which Doctor Who and Torchwood fans know during Capaldi’s turns as Caecilius and John Frobisher in each show respectively), and not only is he a long time fan of Doctor Who, he brings many things which distinguish him from Matt Smith and even David Tennant before him. His age and his Scottish Brogue are shocks to the system of fans used to younger, less accented men. At the same time, he shares that manic energy that is increasingly becoming the trademark of the series’ revival.
Honestly, fans needn’t have worried. The show has changed lead actors ten times, now, and has elevated the practise to an art. They have succeeded more often than failed in launching new Doctors through some nifty tools in the toolbox. In Deep Breath, Capaldi’s debut story, the new Doctor is paired with a familiar companion (as with Sarah Jane Smith in Robot, or Rose in The Christmas Invasion), familiar supporting characters (as with UNIT in Spearhead from Space) and even familiar enemies (as with the Daleks in Power of the Daleks) for the audience members to connect to and remember that this show is still Doctor Who. Writer Steven Moffat deftly uses the tension of the familiar characters dealing with the unknown Doctor to mirror our own unease, and drive the story along.
Please note that spoilers follow after this break, so if you haven’t seen Deep Breath, please tread carefully.
Only Steven Moffat could give us an image of a gigantic tyrannosaurus rex Stomping Tokyo (tm) in the heart of Victorian London and make it incidental to the story, but this is what we open with, allowing some welcome old friends to show up. The Paternoster gang of Vastra, Jenny and Strax (who, I’ll say again, deserve a spin off) are again helping the London constabulary with the situation, which Londoners frankly seem to be taking in their stride.
This London, very clearly, is set on an alternate Earth, where things like gigantic Cyber Kings or T-rexes are a fairly common occurrence. After fifty years of wondering, “how is it that Earth gets invaded all the time, and no one seems to remember the next time the aliens arrive”, it’s probably time to retire that question and accept the show’s reality of monsters around the corner of Tooting Bec and move on.
Still, the Paternoster are more than a little startled by the T-rex’s sudden appearance, and wonder how it could possibly have time travelled millions of years. And what, incidentally, is it choking on? While that question settles in our minds, the T-rex heaves up — you guessed it! — the TARDIS, and spits it onto the banks of the Thames. As the Paternoster gang carefully approach, the door opens and Capaldi’s Doctor looms out. What follows is a recreation of those classic scenes of a new Doctor finding his feet for the first time, manic and unstable with the energy of regeneration, confused, quite possibly afraid, and fainting at the drop of a hat.
Clara, clearly, has been put through the ringer (have a look at her hair!). Piecing together the clues, I suspect the TARDIS has crashed in a few places before finally arriving on the Thames. Capaldi mentions giving a dinosaur the slip, which tells me everything I need to know about the last time he stepped out of the TARDIS. I can well imagine Clara’s terror and confusion throughout the situation, but Clara is also hurt — not physically, but emotionally. Jenny Coleman manages to convey Clara’s personal grief at seeing her Doctor die. What is before her is a stranger in her Doctor’s clothing, and she wants the young man back.
With the new Doctor resting in bed, Madame Vastra convinces Clara that this is not all about her, mostly by the verbal equivalent of taking her by the shoulders and shaking her. If there is any doubt of the depth of Vastra’s friendship with the Doctor, Deep Breath puts paid to that. Vastra is the only woman of the gang not to be phased by the Doctor’s regeneration (Strax, being a Sontaran, probably knows about it already. And he’s not the type to be phased by anything). Indeed, Vastra’s line, “here we go again”, suggests she’s seen the Doctor change before, and in this post-regeneration story, she occupies the position of the Brigadier of earlier tales when the Doctor changed, and needed his UNIT family to stand by him while he found his feet again.
Meanwhile, not one to be kept in bed for long (take that, David Tennant!), Capaldi’s Doctor wakes up and goes looking for the T-Rex, to apologize for pulling her out of time, and promising to bring her back home, because he’s the Doctor and that’s what the Doctor does. But this story, which has been swinging wildly between comedy and drama this past little while, turns on a dime again when the dinosaur spontaneously combusts, just as the Paternoster gang arrive on the scene. The Doctor is the only one of the five to realize that this burning has nothing to do with the dinosaur’s time travel trip. Have there been other murders on the streets of London with similar M.O’s? Yes, says Vastra.
And again, a dinosaur in the heart of London ends up supporting a story rather than being at the heart of it. Marvel at Moffat’s handiwork.
Act Two involves Clara searching for the Doctor, who’s done a runner, again. Following a cryptic clue in the Times (delivered to her hilariously by Strax), Clara meets the Doctor at a restaurant called Mancini’s, and they have it out, verbally. The scene is classic Moffat, with both characters talking past each other, receiving completely different signals from the same words, thanks to their own presumptions. The argument also prevents them from noticing that the other patrons are ticking while they eat — ticking in a very familiar way if you’ve been watching religiously for the past eight years. And they’re not actually eating, but are miming the actions robotically.
Just as Clara discovers that the Doctor answered the same cryptic add in the newspaper to find her, thinking she’d placed it, it all becomes clear: the spontaneously combusting people (and dinosaur) were burnt to cover up the fact that various body parts had been removed, as a spare parts program for this den of droids in the heart of London. Who knows how long they’ve been waiting (they know enough about dinosaurs to identify the parts that would be most useful to them), but they have been replacing bits of themselves with whatever they can find in order to keep themselves living long enough to meet “the promised land” — something which may be the 51st century where their ship came from, or something else, something produced in the lead droid’s mangled mind through one of the human parts he added.
The Doctor never connects this to the SS Madame de Pompadour in The Girl in the Fireplace but, as Cameron pointed out to me, it has been literally centuries since this event happened to the Doctor… and he never did learn the name of the ship that tied itself to pre-revolutionary France. Still, it is frustrating and without payoff when the Doctor finds all of this strangely familiar, but can’t come up with why. But we’re not given too long to stew on that, as we’re now moving to the Blink part of the program.
Turns out these droids can only identify humans as humans if the humans breathe (not heartbeat, not brain waves, not galvanic skin response — hey, they’re broken, let’s not question this too far), and so in order to not attract the droids’ attention, one just has to stop breathing. How long can you hold your breath, Clara? This is the same playground logic that makes the Weeping Angels so terrifying, and still makes people jump when they hear “Are you my mummy?”
Of course, attaching logic to this, if the droids’ attention drifts away from you the moment you hold your breath, why did Clara have to nearly make herself pass out in order to try (and fail) to escape? Why couldn’t she stop someplace that was just out of arm’s reach from the droids, go Gasp! Suck! Glomph and stand there, cheeks puffed out, until the sinister droids looked away again?
But that logic only comes into play after watching the show. At the time, I’m still dealing with the episode’s defining moment for Capaldi’s Doctor, when he apparently abandons Clara to her fate in order to escape. That’s sixth Doctor, Twin Dilemma-level asshatery right there, and if Clara had kneed the Doctor in the groin at her first opportunity, I would have perfectly understood. Still, when the chips are down, Clara still believes in the Doctor, even if he has gone grey and reckless. She holds herself up well against the droids and, when the Doctor comes through for her at last, it is an awesome moment.
I really should mention the work of Peter Ferdinando here. He’s the actor who takes on the role of “Half-Face Man”, the leader of the droids, who is focused on keeping the ship functioning until they can reach “the promised land”. He is supported by some great design and marvellous special effects, but he himself provides perfectly creepy mannerisms and expressions for the role. Indeed, he manages to lend the character a surprising amount of pathos as the Doctor confronts him in the end and asks how everything is going to go down. It’s a wonderful performance that enhances the episode.
But it is Capaldi and Coleman who anchor things. The final scenes set the stage for their redefined relationship, and there is great chemistry here. Capaldi also allows the Doctor’s humanity shine through. As Matt Smith’s Doctor notes in his cameo, Capaldi’s Doctor, despite being over 2,000 years old, is still a lonely character who is terrified of being alone. He needs Clara, though he doesn’t know really how to show it (“I don’t think I’m a hugger.”/”You don’t get a vote!”). It’s at this point that I know the show is in good hands.
Writer Steven Moffat and director Ben Wheatley have collaborated to put together the best launch any new Doctor could hope for. It matches the brilliance of The Eleventh Hour, but does so in a way that is entirely different and equally joyous to watch. It is a perfect mix that tips its hat to the past, but promises us remarkable things in the future. Including an intriguing scene with Michelle Gomez as “Missy”, who’s single scene as the season’s Big Bad (tm) is bizarre, a little creepy, and suitably bewildering.
Though it’s possible to take apart aspects of this story, and though one can complain about the hyperfast delivery of lines making things difficult to make out (especially with the accents), Deep Breath succeeds by reminding me once again just how fun it is to have new Doctor Who on our television screens. I laughed, I was creeped out, and I felt sorry for the monster at the end. I’m intrigued by the new Doctor (I love the fact that they never answered the question of whether Half-Face Man jumped or if he was pushed, and Capaldi plays it perfectly), and I’m comforted by the current companion. The show remains something that I can be happy investing thirty-six years of my time in watching. Moffat didn’t mess it up, and I’m happy to see what he brings us for the new season.