Wednesday 27 August 2014

Doctor Who - Deep Breath

The début of a new Doctor is always a momentous occasion. It's one of the key things that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who. But more than just being a defining aspect of the show as a whole, it is also an aspect which defines a new direction for the programme—a new era within the larger whole. The lead character has undergone a major change, but more than that, the show itself generally undergoes a significant change as well—in style and tone.

Expectations are often high at these times, but these expectations also bring with them some uncertainty, worry, and maybe even a bit of dread that it could all go terribly wrong. After all, just because it has an important task doesn't mean that the show always gets it right. Some Doctors' débuts have been brilliant, others middling, and one or two just downright bad. Peter Capaldi's début story, “Deep Breath”, is one that will likely stand the test of time. While the story itself falls more in the middling range as Doctor Who stories go, there is so much about it that reaches for—and even achieves—the brilliant end of the spectrum. Capaldi himself is amazing to behold, taking hold of the part like he was born for it. Indeed, performances all round are of stellar quality here, Jenna Coleman being a standout in particular. Alas, there are more than a few things that fall rather flat, too, but overall, I think the good edges out the bad, leaving this a story that will be well-remembered in time to come.


Steven Moffat promised a drastic change in style with the advent of the new Doctor. The fairy-tale quality of the eleventh Doctor's stories would be gone, to be replaced by a darker, grimmer tone. I will admit that I was a bit sceptical, but there's no doubt that he pulled it off. In the early parts of the episode, there are hints of that old style, but also hints of the new taking over, and by the end, the new style has taken firm hold. It's actually an extremely well done effect, providing a transition from one style to the other, rather than just dumping the new on a possibly unprepared audience.

One of the things that stands out most of all is the pacing. Gone is the mad-cap pacing of the eleventh Doctor's stories, with short scenes jumping from one to another with little time to breathe at any point during the episode. In their place are longer scenes that take more time to dwell on the immediate rather than always pushing to the next moment. There is much more opportunity to catch a breath—something particularly fitting for an episode called “Deep Breath”. It does benefit a great deal from the episode's longer, 75-minute length, which provides the needed time for these slower-paced scenes to play out. Unfortunately, I do worry a bit that, as soon as we're back to 45-minute episodes next week, the pacing will become more frantic again. I generally found the pacing during the Matt Smith years to be rather poorly handled, and so I really hope the better pacing of this story remains.

That said, slower pacing and longer run times don't always mean everything's perfect. “Deep Breath” actually suffers from a bit of padding in a few places—Strax's medical examination of Clara being a key one. I do realise that the device Strax uses was the winning design from a Blue Peter contest, but I honestly think it could have been included in a better way. The scene as is adds nothing to the story—it doesn't advance the plot, provides no character development, and doesn't even help set the tone and style of the episode and the series to come.

Alas, the biggest problem “Deep Breath” has is the Paternoster Gang: Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Particularly Strax. Now, a darker tone doesn't mean humourless. There are some great comical moments in this episode, particularly between the Doctor and Clara later on, and Strax is quite obviously meant as a comic relief character. The problem is that all humour requires an element of truth in it, and all the truth in Strax is long gone. Characters—even comedic ones—need to behave in believable ways or the humour falls flat. Strax is a one-joke character, repeating the same “funny” lines over and over again in every episode he's in. While it might have been funny the first time, it defies belief that, after living on Earth for quite some time, he still doesn't know what clothes are, or the difference between hair and a hat. It's one thing to suggest that he's not very bright, but even the dimmest characters should still operate at the the top of their intelligence level. Strax simply doesn't. He's unfunny and adds nothing to the scenes he's in.

Vastra and Jenny also remain rather one-note characters. After numerous appearances, we still have never really seen Madame Vastra, the Great Detective, do any actual investigating. In this story, she sits in judgement on Clara (and by extension, the audience—more on that in a bit), apparently being quite familiar with regeneration. We've never actually learned when the Doctor first met Vastra, but nonetheless, her Brigadier-like familiarity with regeneration (“Here we go again”) feels jarring—probably because, even after so many appearances, we still don't really know this character very well. It goes beyond the investigating; it goes to who she is as a person. She and Jenny are married—indeed, we are reminded of that in virtually every scene they appear in in this story—but we still never see any actually moments of affection between the two of them. They actually get to kiss in this episode—except it's not really a kiss. It's a sharing of oxygen in a life-and-death situation. Fair enough. It works for the moment, but it still doesn't provide the characters with any kind of emotional reality. Constantly reminding the audience that they're married doesn't provide that; the audience needs to see it.

Intriguingly, Steven Moffat does seem to attempt to develop Vastra and Jenny a little bit in this story, but he does so in a rather odd way, focusing entirely on the one other thing about them we know—the power imbalance in their relationship. Although they supposedly maintain Jenny's maid role as a cover, that role carries over into their private lives too, and the episode makes a point of drawing attention to this, along with some rather lecherous behaviour from Vastra—both things that Jenny does not appear to want. Character flaws are an important part of any character. All the best characters have flaws, and Vastra certainly shouldn't be without any. No one's perfect after all. But those flaws need to be balanced and out-measured by the good about a character (the ones who are supposed to be heroes, anyway). Yet we don't know anything else about Vastra. We're told she's a great detective, but we never see her be one. We're told Jenny loves her, but we never see why. As such, focusing on her flaws makes her into a character who frankly doesn't deserve any admiration.

Vastra, Jenny, and Strax feature quite heavily in the first half of the episode, which contributes to that half being weaker than what comes later. Another problem with the first half of the episode is the dinosaur. I like the Doctor's sympathy for the dinosaur and the way he seems to care more for it than the people of the city. While the dinosaur is ridiculously huge, I don't really have a problem with that—Doctor Who is certainly not known for scientific accuracy. However, the episode's odd need to call out the fact that the dinosaur is too big and then supply a non-explanation for it (Vastra countering Jenny's comments about fossils with, “I was there”) creates a problem that otherwise would be barely noticeable, if at all. However, the real problem is that the dinosaur doesn't serve any purpose. It seems to be there for no other reason than a giant dinosaur stomping through Victorian London looks cool. That said, once the dinosaur is gone (and don't get me wrong, the dinosaur's death is heartbreaking) and Vastra, Jenny, and Strax have less of a role to play, the episode really starts to become something special as the Doctor takes over.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Peter Capaldi seems born to play this part. From the opening moments, through his regenerative dementia, to his eventual stabilizing personality in the restaurant, he takes control of every scene he's in and makes you utterly believe he is the Doctor. He's a more restrained Doctor, yes, even callous, but still beyond a doubt the Doctor. He has his comic moments—some absolutely hilarious ones—but what makes them work so well is the way Capaldi delivers them with such seriousness. Whether he's confusing Clara and Strax, or ranting about his eyebrows seceding from his face, there's such conviction in his delivery that we are convinced by what he's doing—and that makes it funny. It also helps that the dialogue written for him plays to the Doctor's character and intelligence. It's truthful humour. Contrast the Doctor's humour with Strax's.

The other person to really shine in “Deep Breath” is Jenna Coleman as Clara, who finally gets a real opportunity to do something. Freed from the shackles of the “Impossible Girl” narrative, Clara actually gets to be a character, and it's quite refreshing. Admittedly, given her inconsistency in Series Seven, some of her character traits here seem a little out of left field (the control freak angle, for example), but I'm more than willing to forgive that if she develops a consistency from here on out. Coleman also gets the opportunity here to show a wide range of emotions (Clara, so far, has tended towards only two: perky and sad) and proves that she is a capable actor in her own right.

There are, however, a couple of oddities about her story arc in this episode. As the companion, Clara is a surrogate for the audience. She is the one through whom we experience the Doctor. Just as she is coming to terms with a brand new Doctor, so are we, and we have to learn to adjust to this seemingly new person calling himself by the name of someone else we've come to trust and love. Clara is, of course, aware of regeneration, and she has even met two other Doctors in “The Day of the Doctor” (and in “The Name of the Doctor” she was also splintered across the Doctor's entire time stream, meeting every incarnation, but she doesn't have clear memories of those experiences so they don't really count). Some have suggested that this should mean that she would have no problem accepting a new Doctor. However, I disagree. Yes, she knows intellectually that other Doctors exist and has even met two of them. But on that occasion, her Doctor was also there, and on an emotional level, those other two Doctors seem like two completely different people. In “The Day of the Doctor”, Clara didn't really need to accept that all three Doctors were the same person—not in the same way that she now needs to accept the twelfth Doctor is the same person as the eleventh. Her difficulty with this is actually completely believable.

Where the problem comes in is how the story proceeds to treat her difficulty with accepting the new Doctor. Vastra scolds her—and in doing so, Vastra scolds the audience as well. More specifically, Vastra scolds her for thinking the Doctor is too old. When Peter Capaldi was first announced as the new Doctor, there was a portion of fandom that reacted with, “He's too old!” and I can't help but get the feeling that Vastra's actions are Steven Moffat's way of telling off the audience for daring to think this (this may not have been a conscious decision on Moffat's part, but the impression is there nonetheless). Yet I can be pretty confident that the number of fans who feel Capaldi is too old constitute a fairly small portion of fandom, and consequently a significantly smaller minority of the viewing audience. Why scold the entire audience? But even so, scolding is not the best way to win over that small portion of the audience. The best way is to just show them that Capaldi is a damn good Doctor. Yet even from the story side of things, it's an odd choice to make. All it really succeeds in doing is making Vastra even less likeable, with a complete lack of any empathy or compassion for Clara's feelings.

I'm also somewhat divided about Matt Smith's cameo at the end of the episode. On the one hand, it's a very touching scene. On the other hand, it rather undermines Peter Capaldi. No other Doctor has ever needed his predecessor to appear in order to win over his companion—not even the sixth, who tried to strangle his companion. Going back to the idea of the companion as surrogate, it also has the potential of setting back the audience's acceptance of the new Doctor. Having to be told this is the new Doctor might not sit very well with everyone.

As I mentioned above, the second half of the episode is where this story really comes together. I absolutely love the banter between Clara and the Doctor in the restaurant. It plays out as believable interaction between the two characters. It's funny and develops both their characters, while at the same time setting up a very creepy scene with the clockwork robots. I really like Clara's confrontation with the robots and the way she not only refuses to tell them what they want to know (which she doesn't even know the answer to anyway), but forces them into answering her questions. Her faith that the Doctor will have her back (and the Doctor being literally at her back) is perhaps a little cheesy, but it makes for a great dramatic moment.

 I also love the ambiguity in the Doctor's actions and Capaldi does a great job of playing that ambiguity. We find ourselves questioning whether the Doctor is lying when he says he bought the coat and clothes with his watch. Is it possible the Doctor actually stole them from the tramp? For a moment, we can almost believe that the Doctor has abandoned Clara. And of course, this all sets up the principal ambiguity: Did the Doctor push the Half-Face Man or did he jump of his own accord? When the Doctor says that one of them is lying about his basic programming, we know that it's really that at least one of them is lying, for the Doctor has killed before. He usually does what he can to avoid it (although there are some weird exceptions, see “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”), but he has killed. Not only do we know he's capable of it, he begins the conversation with, “I have a horrible feeling I'm going to have to kill you.” (Offering him a drink is a wonderful touch.) But just because the Doctor is capable of killing doesn't mean he killed on this occasion. It makes for a great bit of mystery. I just hope it doesn't end up being overdone over the course of the series.

The robots themselves, particularly the Half-Face Man, work really well as villains for the story (although the choreography of the big end fight with Vastra, Jenny, and Strax has issues). The Half-Face Man makes for a sympathetic villain, striving for millions of years to find the “Promised Land”, a place the Doctor now tells him doesn't exist. With the great performances by Capaldi and Coleman in this episode, I fear that Peter Ferdinando's performance as the Half-Face Man will be overshadowed and forgotten, but he does a great job with the being that is now more human than robot. There are hints early on of emotion from him, culminating with him losing his temper with Clara. For a brief part of the episode, I worried that this was like the Cybermen in the fourth Doctor story, “Revenge of the Cybermen”, with supposedly emotionless creatures bizarrely displaying quite a bit of emotion, but I was happy and relieved when it was revealed that the Half-Face Man truly has developed emotions—from finding London beautiful to being tired of his long life and wanting to end it all. It makes for very good drama.

And that brings us to the closing scene: the appearance of the mysterious “Missy”. Short for Mistress? A female Master perhaps? Or perhaps that's too obvious. I suppose this could make for an interesting mystery; however, my concern here is that she's yet another female character defined by her mystery. From River Song to Tasha Lem (who may well just be River Song) to Amy's mystery pregnancy to Clara the Impossible Girl, Moffat is obsessed with the idea of women as mysteries to be solved. But perhaps this will turn out differently. I'll withhold judgement for the time being.

On the whole, there's a great deal to like about “Deep Breath” and it's definitely one of the best Steven Moffat stories of the last few years. As the introduction for a new Doctor, it has its problems, but those are easily overcome with how effortlessly Peter Capaldi sinks into the role. He has me excited for what is to come, and there can't be much higher praise than that.


  1. I want to know how the half face man a) managed to combust such a big dinosaur and b) remove the optic nerve without the dinosaur noticing and Vastra and the Doctor noticing.

    More importantly, I want to hear your view on the veil scene. It makes no sense.

    "Clara: When did you stop wearing the veil?

    Vastra: When you stopped seeing it.


    Clara: ...seriously though, the last scene ended with you wearing it and now you're not wearing it. When did that change?

    Vastra: But YOU stopped seeing it.

    Clara: No, YOU took it off. I didn't do anything. There was an ACTUAL veil there for me to see earlier and I stopped seeing it when you took it off.

    Vastra: No, seriously this is, like, really really smart.

    Clara: No, this makes no sense. I didn't do anything. YOU control the veil.

    Vastra: Please tell me how intelligent this is.

    Clara: No, I'm gonna go now."

    What doesn't work about the veil scene is how it's applied to Clara and her character. She is (understandably) upset about the Doctor changing, but for all intents and purposes she is taking it very well. The only time she acts out of line is when Vastra tells her how shallow she is...even though nothing has happened for Vastra to insult her like that.
    And if you watch the veil scene but lose the scene with Capaldi in the bedroom, then you'll see when Vastra removed the veil. What did Clara say or do to justify Vastra taking off the veil? What changed in the conversation.

    The answer is; nothing.

    Vastra LITERALLY removed the veil for no reason. Clara didn't notice the veil until the end of the argument because was angry and defending herself from Vastra's BS arguments. But Vastra literally stopped wearing her veil before Clara noticed it was missing because THAT'S HOW VEILS WORK.

    What do you think

    1. I love your continuation of that scene! I completely agree that it's an attempt to be clever and it rather falls flat. The only change in Clara's behaviour is that she gets angry (justifiably so) at Vastra's treatment of her. That, apparently, is what Vastra wanted as it somehow proves Clara still cares for the Doctor... or something like that. Vastra seems to be trying to convince Clara that the veil was never there and that Clara was only seeing it because she was veiling her emotions or something, although the easiest explanation is simply that Vastra whips it off when Clara turns her head. Alas, doing it between scenes also sets up the impression that Moffat is trying to suggest to the audience the same thing--that the veil is only in Clara's head. It's possible it's meant to be another one of those ambiguities where you know Vastra must have taken it off but you wonder, what if... It really doesn't work though.

      I might edit the review if I get a chance later to include a discussion of the veil, as I think it's an important thing to discuss, but forgot about it when writing the review.

      As for the dinosaur, the burning doesn't make a lot of sense, I agree, but it was something I was willing to let go. There was enough else to talk about. :)

    2. Didn't the Half-Face Man, have some sort of acetylene-type torch at the end of his arm? I'm sure that thing could burn up a dinosaur.

      I enjoyed the episode (on TV) more than I thought I would. Monday night my husband & I saw it in the Theater and were really impressed with the little things you'd miss watching on a small screen. I think PC will be an excellent Doctor. I especially like that he's not made to do the Doctor with ANOTHER British accent.

      Great review, BTW. :)

    3. The torch explains how he lit the dinosaur on fire, though not really how the fire engulfed the entire dinosaur so quickly or how the Half-Face Man controlled the burning well enough to ensure that the part of the dinosaur he wanted wasn't burned along with the rest. But honestly, I don't really think it's that major a point.

      Glad you like the review!