Deep Breath Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on Peter Capaldi’s debut.
As an introduction to Doctor Who, “Deep Breath” is not the best option; “Smith and Jones” and “The Eleventh Hour” are far superior in introducing the basic concepts of the show’s mythology to novice viewers. However, “Deep Breath” is a magnificent solution to Doctor Who’s one, big problem: how to convince the growing fan base to accept the Twelfth Doctor when he looks less like Matt Smith and more like, well, that old guy from “The Fires of Pompeii.”
Make no mistake: marketing the new Doctor is a huge problem for Doctor Who’s production team. While hardcore and long-time fans are quite accustomed to the concept of regeneration and the myriad personalities and appearances of the Doctor, that group is small compared to the legions of newer viewers, brought to the program through its recent resurgence in popularity and expansion into foreign markets. Consider that a 10-year-old fan – certainly within the show’s target demographic – might be too young to have experienced a previous regeneration first-hand, perhaps having only seen the Russell T Davies era via Netflix or reruns.
To assuage the audience, showrunner Steven Moffat filled “Deep Breath” with as many familiar elements as possible, as if to reassure viewers that, “See – it’s still the same show!” The episode returns, once again, to Victorian England and the Paternoster Gang, where feminist Vastra is still having criminals “for dinner” and Strax is predictably dim and humorously blood-thirsty. Even easily flustered Inspector Gregson appears, and he’s part of the supporting cast to the supporting cast! Clara is dressed in Victorian garb for the third time in twelve episodes. The Clockwork Droids return. References are made to previous companions Amy and Handles, Four’s scarf, Bitey the Cybermat, and the TARDIS roundels. Famous quotes from the Second, Third, and Tenth Doctor’s eras are repeated, and the Cloister Bell chimes. The teaser from “The Christmas Invasion” is practically copied line-for-line, this time replacing Clara and the Paternoster Gang for Rose, Mickey, and Jackie.
After a comfortably familiar first act, the episode includes many metatextual moments where the dialogue openly acknowledges perceived “faults,” including Peter Capaldi’s aged appearance and his Scottish accent. Addressing directly, with a self-mocking humor, the big, grey
elephant eyebrows in the room is a terrific tactic for getting the audience to accept the Doctor’s new, non-traditional handsomeness. In the show’s most metatextual moment, Matt Smith, himself, cameos as the Eleventh Doctor, pleading with Clara – and the audience, by default – to embrace the new Doctor.
Most impressively, where Moffat’s script really excels is its use of specifically-chosen supporting cast and rich, layered symbolism to both examine the concept of regeneration and confront the viewing audience on its attitude towards the new leading actor. Vastra’s hiding her face under a veil seems a cold-blooded and, ahem, scaly response to Clara’s initial reticence towards Twelve’s new appearance – from Clara’s point of view, each successive Doctor has been younger in appearance; why not this one? However, considering Who’s recurring cast, Vastra is uniquely sensitive to being judged based on physical appearance.
But, it’s not just the Doctor’s physical appearance: this one is mad, and rambling – and not in a charming way. He’s gruff, and lacks pretense, and, for once, is unsure of himself. Enter Jenny, a character who isn’t shunned for her outward appearance, but for who she is on the inside.
By having Clara voice the audience’s inner feelings, and then allowing for the perfectly selected, uniquely suited Vastra and Jenny to respond with the production team’s rebuttal, “Deep Breath” actually shames the audience into accepting the new, older Twelfth Doctor. It’s… brilliant. Is Clara wrong to wish for Eleven’s return? Is Vastra being unfairly sensitive? That the episode can present both sides to such a layered argument, using symbolism and previously developed characters, and thus get the audience to ponder their own feelings about the Doctor – and, by extension, Doctor Who as a whole – elevates this show to high art.
The reveal of the Clockwork Droids is another example of ideally suited returning character-as-symbolic argument, a silver tray illustrating that the ever-changing anatomies of the Half-Face Man and the Doctor are, literally, two sides of the same coin:
The Doctor: “Question: if you take a broom and replace the handle, and then later replace the brush – and you do it over and over again – is it still the same broom? Answer: no, of course it isn’t, but you can still sweep the floor . . . . You have replaced every piece of yourself, mechanical and organic, time and time again – there’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.”
Here, the production team reminds the audience that, while lead actors and companions have been recast, Daleks recolored, sonic screwdrivers redesigned, and opening titles and theme music reworked, the show continues to function – and entertain, and inspire – as Doctor Who. Apart from his appearance or personality quirks, Twelve is still the Doctor; he’s observant on levels beyond anyone else in the room, he’s got a plan, and he does, indeed, put the protection of others above all else.
Really, the biggest problem with “Deep Breath” is Clara’s characterization. While her positioning as audience cipher is truly inspired – and, in fact, why the “companion” role was created within the framework of the show – Clara’s reaction is both out of place within the series’ canon (Why does Clara not understand the concept of regeneration? Yes, this is the first time she’s been present for one, but she’s recently met three different versions of the Doctor. Surely, in the post-adventure debrief, the subject arose?), and undeserved as someone who has yet to travel with the Doctor as a full-time companion. What this episode really needs is a reminder of Clara’s backstory. Clara jumped on board the TARDIS because, ironically, traveling with Eleven, each Wednesday, was a stabilizing factor in her life, as she coped with the loss of both her mother and her friend, the unnamed mother of the Maitland children. To recognize that the inherent change of regeneration would upend that sense of stability would not only account for Clara’s control-freak persona, but also explain her slow acceptance of the new Doctor in a way that doesn’t retcon Eleven’s personality and motives into that of a “flirty boyfriend.”