“Deep Breath” – Series 8, Episode 1, Story 242 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Ben Wheatley – It’s New Doctor Time! The Twelfth Doctor is here, which means two things: we’re all going to have to learn how to spell “twelfth” (which is a word that was obviously invented by someone important enough to not be corrected) and we’re going to have to deal with people wanting to call him the Thirteenth Doctor or Fourteenth Doctor. He’s the Twlefth- I mean, the Twelvth- I mean, the Twelfth Doctor. It’s his first time out of the TARDIS and he’s not quite himself, whoever himself is going to be. Clara is thrown by the fact that he looks old, but there’s a dinosaur in London, an interspecies married lesbian couple, a Sontaran in a tux, and clockwork people to help her get over it. Because Whether She Can Get Over Wrinkles Is The Key To The Future Of Doctor Who.
What’s most surprising about DEEP BREATH to me is just how ordinary it is.
I do not say this to mean it’s a bad episode, because it is a very solid contribution to the DOCTOR WHO canon (you can read all my reviews here), but it is an episode largely devoid of the kind of fireworks to which we’ve become accustomed with THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR and THE TIME OF THE DOCTOR. It’s even devoid of the kind of whizz-bang energy for which the Eleventh Doctor made his debut back in THE ELEVENTH HOUR. We don’t get a regeneration scene and we don’t get the regeneration played for very many laughs.
New Doctor episodes/serials are often a bit funky. Tradition dictates the Doctor does not have an easy transition into the new body, and I’ve written before about how this is a good narrative trick to buy the creative team and actor some time to figure out who the Doctor is and what they can and want to do with the role. Often, the Doctor is either manic (like the Sixth and Eleventh) or in need of a nap (Five and Ten), something to make a hard break and remind people (both the internal Companions and external viewers) that the Doctor is still the Doctor, but it’s not the exact Doctor you have come to know and love. It also gives the Companions some time to shine before they inevitably become, as Twelve refers to Clara, “the one who asks questions.”
Twelve’s early moments in the new body give us a bit of the comic bluster, but it comes across as more serious than usual, like he’s truly pained that he can’t remember people’s names. After the TARDIS gets expunged from the throat of a dinosaur in Victorian London, Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax (known as the Paternoster Gang) tell the cops they’ll handle it. When the Doctor exits, he points at Strax and runs through a list of the Seven Dwarves, trying to find the right name. Madame Vastra is the “green one” and Jenny is the “non-green one,” and Clara, as previously noted, is “the one who asks questions.” When they get him back to Vastra’s, they want him to get some sleep, but he fights this idea.
I adore the scene in the bedroom where the Doctor is confounded by the existence of a bedroom. “You have a room,” he asks, “just for sleeping?” He’s giving a bit of the standard, disorganized comedy, but even though there’s a few good laughs, there’s also some real pathos beneath it. This is, of course, the oldest Doctor in terms of age (Doctors don’t get younger, of course, they just look younger), but his appearance is decidedly older than any we’ve seen since New Who launched. These early scenes make him almost childlike in his approach to the world, and through the episode I had the sense that we were watching his mind rapidly catch up with his body.
Vastra tricks him into falling asleep, but while the three women head downstairs so Vastra can be an ass to Clara, the Doctor climbs out onto the roof to swear to the dinosaur (which is across the city) that he’ll get him home. That’s when the dinosaur appears to spontaneously combust and dies shrieking and burning. The death sends the Doctor hurtling into action, running across the rooftops until he steals a horse and rides across the city to the River Thames.
He’s upset about the death of the dinosaur because the dino is only there because the TARDIS got stuck in its throat, but it provides the jolt he needs to start focusing on the task at hand, even if his mind is not quite yet ready to become whole.
And this leads to my favorite part of the episode – the manner in which the Doctor attacks problems. Time and and again, he asks the assembled Companions, “What is the question?,” forcing them to do some of the heavy mental lifting. (And, also, giving him a chance to show off since he usually already has the answers.) When the Vastra and Strax fail to come up with the question on the Doctor’s mind, he tells them the question isn’t who killed the dinosaur or how that person pulled off the murder, but whether this kind of death has happened before.
He’s looking for patterns, and we see this again in the restaurant where he and Clara reunite after he runs off to try to piece his brain back together. After a very good and slightly contentious conversation in which each accuses the other of being self-centered and desirous of playing games, the Doctor asks Clara to tell him what he sees about the other patrons in the restaurant, which is that they’re not really eating and not at all breathing.
Pattern-solving and games-playing are connected attributes and if this is how Twelve is going to look at the world, we’re in for a treat, because it’s going to flip the Doctor/Companion dynamic to a position where he’s asking just as many questions as the Companion will ask. Even if he’s just doing this to make himself look good. (Start Sherlock comparisons in 3 … 2 …) There’s a great moment where he’s made his big rescue (after appearing to abandon Clara to the Half-Face Man, and he accuses the baddie of planting the advertisement in the paper that he thought Clara posted, and Clara though he posted. When the Half-Face Man says it wasn’t him, the Doctor insists everyone forget about what just happened because he doesn’t like to fail in public.
It’s good stuff, but that’s quickly followed by some bad stuff. When the Doctor and the Half-Face Man have their one-on-one showdown (as everyone else fights the Clockwork People one level beneath them), the Doctor is a bit quick to violence for my liking. He apologizes to the HFM, saying that he thinks this is going to end with him killing the cyborg, and indeed, the whole scene revolves around death in a manner that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not oppoed to the Doctor killing when he has to, but it comes too quick here. Yes, the Half-Face Man has been murdering people (and dinosaurs) over the centuries in an attempt to prolong his life and that of his people, and he needs to answer for that, but the Doctor (and, earlier, Clara’s) insistence that the Half-Face Man doesn’t really deserve to live anymore because there’s no original parts remaining inside of him has disturbing implications, as it removes all the killing from the equation.
If the Doctor wants to argue that there needs to be a settling of debts, he can advance that argument, but he focuses on the alteration as if that’s thing that needs to be answered for, and that’s problematic. He doesn’t even try to find a peaceful solution – it’s either the HFM jumps out of their escape ship (a hot air balloon made of human flesh) or the Doctor pushes him.
We don’t see it, but the implication is pretty clear that the Doctor pushes him.
After the bad guys have been stopped, the Doctor takes off in the TARDIS without Clara to finally bring himself together. When he returns, we’ve got a new TARDIS skin and a new outfit, and now the emphasis shifts to the resolution of Clara’s problem.
Which is that she doesn’t like how the Doctor got old and wrinkly. She wants to “fix” him by putting him back to the way he was, which is what gets Vastra mad at her in the first place. It’s a bit of a daft subplot, I think, because Clara should be smart enough not to have to go through this whole, “I don’t like it,” bit, but essentially what Moffat is doing is using Clara to be the stand-in for all of the newer fans who might not like regeneration. Who might want Matt Smith or David Tennant back. (I think the ship has sailed on Eccleston.) It feels like a pre-emptive strike on Moffat’s part to either counter social media criticism or to assure people that this is still “the Doctor.”
When Clara tells him she doesn’t want to keep traveling with him because “I don’t even know you anymore,” her phone rings, and it’s the Doctor.
The Eleventh Doctor.
I think it was a rather smart move to bring Matt Smith back at the end of this episode instead of at the beginning, to give him a farewell that helps Clara (and thus, the audience) come to terms with who Twelve is and what he needs. Hearing all of this from Eleven helps Clara embrace the fact that the new Doctor is still the old Doctor, even if he has a faces with lines on it.
It’s a good, almost muted episode, that gets the era of the Twelfth Doctor off to a solid start.
A few random thoughts:
I liked the Doctor’s bit about where his new faces come from, suggesting that maybe they’re chosen for a reason. “Why this face?” he asks. It’s interesting, if probably completely irrelevant, that he wonders why he chose the face he now wears, which comes from THE FIRES OF POMPEII, which is also the story where Karen Gillan appeared before returning as Amy Pond. And the Doctor does say, at one point, “This is where I miss Amy.” That seems to be a reference to her height in comparison to Clara. As I said, it likely means nothing, but it is interesting.
I really liked the chemistry between Strax and Clara in this episode, and I enjoyed how Vastra and Jenny’s relationship has advanced, as well. They’re married now, but keeping up appearances of Jenny being in the employ of Vasta. “That doesn’t explain why I’m pouring the tea now,” Jenny slyly remarks.
The Half-Face Man talks about wanting to reach “the Promised Land,” and at the end of the episode, he appears to get there. He awakens in an idyllic setting with a Mary Poppins-like character referencing the Doctor as her “boyfriend.” This is the kind of scene that’s designed to keep social media churning and will clearly be the background story all season long. (And if you don’t believe that, just go look at the season’s story titles.) One thing I am determined to do this series is not engage in too much speculating in the actual reviews. That’s fine in the comments or in a separate post, but I want to keep my reactions focused on the episode we got.
While it was obvious he was not actually abandoning her, I did like the Doctor letting Clara think that’s what he was doing when they ended up on wrong side’s of a door. Perhaps it was a reaction to the way he’s treated Clara in the past (in the episode’s final sequence, he tells her, “I’m not your boyfriend,” and reveals saying that aloud was for his benefit, not hers), and he will put her in positions which force her to grow and her character to be revealed. That would be an incredibly welcome change from the over-protective Doctor.
There are a lot of rapid-fire lines that get lost beneath the actual story, but lines like, “Do you have a children’s menu?” and “Five-foot-one and crying! You didn’t stand a chance!” are really good lines and deserve not to get lost in the shuffle.
Its only been one episode, but the Peter Capaldi/Twelfth Doctor Era is off to a solid start. We’ve got a Doctor that appears to be a bit darker than his predecessors but also more in touch with his emotions. He asks Clara to help, whereas Eleven asks her to help Twelve instead of himself during their phone call.
Bring on the Daleks.
When I’m not writing reviews, I’m often writing short stories and novels. Back in November, in my only little part of celebrating the 50th Anniversary of DOCTOR WHO, I wrote a story in which my established characters – Hanna and Jill of Gunfighter Gothic – were sent on a very timey wimey style adventure. You can purchase that story for the Kindle right here. If you give it a look, you have my sincere thanks.