Unlike Matt Smith’s debut, which pretty much threw any familiar elements out of the window, with a new Doctor, companion, and even TARDIS interior, we’re in much more familiar territory at the beginning of Deep Breath. Clara is still around, and the Victorian detective trio make an appearance to help ease us into another new era. Perhaps it’s because this is a transition to a very different type of Doctor; gone is the childlike enthusiasm and friendly charm of Tennant and Smith. Instead, Peter Capaldi is dry-witted, slightly more detached and much less predictable; he’s the closest we’ve seen to a classic Doctor, and going by his first appearance, it’s looking like the TARDIS is in safe hands.
The episode opens with the recognisable manic energy of Matt’s tenure, with the newly-regenerated and confused Doctor flirting with a dinosaur he accidently brought to London. Because the episode is mainly concerned with how this new regeneration affects The Doctor and those around him, the actual plot is a bit marginalised and lightweight as a result. Although the dinosaur is ‘kinda cool’, that’s pretty much all it is; although its death provides a narrative drive and a reason for The Doctor to feel responsible, it’s a bit superfluous to the actually story. It reminds me of that dinosaur episode of Red Dwarf, which was probably the result of an effects guy saying “hey, we can make a pretty good-looking dinosaur!”. The crux of the narrative involves a sinister half-faced clockwork droid, loosely related to those seen in Series 2’s The Girl In The Fireplace, harvesting human (and dinosaur) parts to reconstruct a ship. There are some rather gruesome elements involved, concluding with a hot air balloon made of human skin; even for Doctor Who, that’s a bit grisly (and all the better for it! Don’t judge me).
This is perhaps an indication of the heavily marketed ‘dark’ direction the series is supposedly taking. I don’t really like using that term, just because it’s more of a vague buzzword than anything actually descriptive, but everything does seem to be less light-hearted and more grounded (well, as grounded as an ancient alien travelling through time and space in a blue box can be), which I much prefer over the zany and fantastical style.
I sometimes feel that Doctor Who is dismissed as lightweight family entertainment, but I’ll always defend it for the fact that it’s a program driven by ideas, as well as universal themes ranging from humanity and identity, to death and sacrifice. Whether or not they’re effectively brought across on screen, originality and thought-provoking concepts should never be undervalued (and that’s even more apparent when looking at the TV schedule).
There are of course moments of comedy with some great lines, such as The Doctor complaining about the purposelessness (that’s a fun word) of a bedroom as well as the implications of his eyebrows and being Scottish, in one of the best scenes where The Doctor harasses an old tramp in the street. Although a couple of slapstick moments are at odds with the overall tone, there are plenty of call-backs for fans, including Handles (technically the longest-serving companion ever) and Amy’s legs.
Strax, Vasta and Jenny are all enjoyable to watch and there’s a bit more to them than we’ve previously seen, although it still goes a bit overboard on the whole marriage thing – we get it, Moffat. I know some people aren’t keen on Strax but I think he does bring just about the right amount of comedy, and doesn’t undermine the Sontarans as a species too much (they’ve never really been scary, at most a bit intimidating), and it was quite a poignant small moment when he turned his gun on himself to save his friends.
It’s clear that this Doctor is more calculating and logical, as demonstrated when he leaves Clara at the hands of the droids; “there’s no point in him catching us both”. It’s a surprisingly cold moment, and by the looks it, I’m guessing compassion versus rationality will be a recurring theme. He’s also a badass: “I have a feeling I’m going to have to kill you. I thought you might appreciate a drink first”, he says while pouring a glass of scotch - a far-cry from Eleven spitting out wine. I loved the moral ambiguity of who was going against their “basic programming”, with either the Doctor killing the droid or the droid killing itself being equally possible. I personally think he did push him, but I’d be interested in knowing what others think. Comment below!
Matt’s appearance towards the end is another note-worthy moment, which is pretty blatantly addressing the audience as much as Clara to accept the Twelfth Doctor (technically the thirteenth face and fourteenth regeneration – let’s not go there). It's a sentimental and effective moment which highlights the vulnerability of The Doctor in that moment; a man who has no idea who he is, and the person he knows the most can’t recognise him; “do you have any idea what that’s like?”.
Clara spends fairly little time onscreen with The Doctor, so I’ll wait a bit longer to judge their chemistry, but it’s obvious that it’s an entirely different dynamic. “I’m not your boyfriend” he says to her at the end, drawing a line under the romantic phases of the last few Doctors. Perhaps after the Time War, it was a kind of escapism from all the regret, but now with Gallifrey saved, The Doctor’s finally facing his responsibility: “I’ve made many mistakes and it’s about time I did something about that”.
I do hope the 900 or something years The Doctor spent defending Trenzalore aren’t completely forgotten. I wasn’t very keen on the idea of him spending that much time alone on a planet for quite a few reasons, but I at least hope something that big will have some effect on his character development.
The final scene in “Heaven” seems to imply the story arc for this series won’t be as prominent as the crack, Silence, and all the other stuff which dragged on for too long during Smith’s era. Hopefully it will all be largely resolved by the end of this series and won’t end up being the same kind of baggage, but we’ll see where it goes. I hope the last scene doesn’t imply more fantastical elements as it seems to suggest – it would be nice for people to stay dead occasionally!
Despite a couple of lapses, the pacing is good and allows room for the characters to breath (heh), but we’ll find out if that’s only because of the extended running time over the next few weeks. It’s also worth mentioning Ben Wheatley’s directing; after Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England, it’s interesting to see him involved in something that children can actually watch. He creates a cinematic vibe, even if the CGI can’t always hold up to that kind of scale, with a moodier tone and longer takes. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do with the Daleks next week!
Overall, despite a somewhat underdeveloped story, Deep Breath is a strong start to the series, with an emphasis upon characterisation and the ramifications of a new regeneration. I’m really liking the new direction in both tone and Doctor, and I’m really interested to see what Capaldi brings to the role. I can't say I'm entirely sold on the new theme tune and visuals; I think they're an improvement of the last couple, but I still miss the 2005 version.
Blimey, that was longer than I’d anticipated. I realise this sets up a bit of a precedent for writing a review of every episode, which I’ll probably do, but hopefully not two and a half pages worth; I’d like to have time to write other stuff for this site (as well as doing, you know, life things), and I’ll have much less time when uni starts again. Still, I’m no good when it comes to abridged writing and tend to get carried away, so I’ll probably end up writing as much as this. I realise I’m still writing. I should probably end it somewhere. Here’s good.