“There’s not a trace of the original you left. You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from.”
The new series of Doctor Who has had two mild reboots. The first, The Eleventh Hour, was an emphatic repositioning of Doctor Who, a new broom if you will. It paved the way for the next four years and was as successful a statement of intent as you could imagine. And then, in 2014 we had another – perhaps as radical a reboot as Christopher Eccleston’s debut had been nine years before. Beyond that, Deep Breath implies as significant a first episode as Spearhead From Space or iconic readjustments such as The Leisure Hive or Remembrance of the Daleks.
Perhaps the most obvious change that the series has undergone since Rose is that narrative structure doesn’t necessarily exist in Doctor Who any more. In Deep Breath we have a beginning and an end, but what goes on in the middle is basically character, humour, set pieces, direct appeals to the audience and stuff. This has both positives and negatives – the most jarring being that the pacing of Moffat’s episodes is confusing: They’re fast, compressed and sharp but by the end of nearly 80 minutes of Deep Breath, very little has actually happened.
But that’s alright, because in Deep Breath that stuff is absolutely wonderful. While the Twelfth Doctor is one of the more obvious Mary-Sues in current fiction, it does allow for some wonderful moments of insight – a 50-something-year-old man writing phrases that could have come straight from his own mouth. “Who frowned me this face?” is a beautiful line, while the new incarnation’s spikier instincts are on full view, demanding the coat of the London unfortunate played cannily by Brian Miller and reacting with anger or dismay at his features – a trope of most Doctors since Pertwee – particularly his “attack eyebrows”. People suggest that Moffat and Capaldi being notionally similar is a problem, as if a gruff middle-aged Scot writing lines for a 30-year-old hipster is the most ordinary thing imaginable.
The highlight of Deep Breath – and the scene I consider pivotal in terms of what we could expect from the rest of the series – is the restaurant scene. Everything Capaldi does in this scene is sublime and Jenna Coleman does beautifully too. Seeing the Doctor arrive, unseen, like a gargoyle just staring at Clara and then watching his face and mannerisms as he describes how and where he found the coat, it’s hard to imagine too many of the other Doctors – all great in their own way – putting so much into it. The ten minutes or so as the Doctor and Clara bicker and slowly come to realise they’re in danger consist of a beautiful two-hander. This is no Sixth Doctor and Peri; it’s much more akin to the relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Donna. They’re mates; they’re believable – they annoy one another and their relationship evolves.
This restaurant scene – “You don’t want to eat do you?” and “No sausages?” – is a motif for how I expected Moffat’s new direction for Doctor Who would work out. It didn’t but for a few weeks I was under the impression the series had completely regenerated. It breathes; it has silence and stillness and periods where nothing much happens; people talk to one another – slowly, deliberately; there are pauses, inflections, softer sounds, whispers, mumbles and long, talky scenes. Frankly I loved it. The new series desperately needed to move away from the same tired, familiar old tropes – pretty young Doctors with floppy hair whirling around and shouting and pulling faces and doing stupid voices and telling everyone how brilliant they are. If there’s a broad problem with Season Eight it’s that it didn’t seem to have the courage of its conviction – the ambiance of the series was pulled back into its comfort zone more often that not.
Not that Deep Breath makes a totally clean break from what’s gone before. Moffat tries to move away from that template that defined the series from 2005 through to 2014 – Murray Gold’s Harry Potter-lite music, clumsy romances, iconoclastic set-pieces and epic mythologising – but the same pieces of the jigsaw are still there. So we have to see a T-Rex parading up and down the Thames and the Doctor jumping out of a window, falling out of a tree and landing backwards on a horse. Not only that but the Twelfth Doctor is a modern-day Doctor Doolittle, talking to horses and pow-wowing with dinosaurs.
We’re operating in a universe where the extra-textual necessities dictate what is possible in the narrative, so the Doctor essentially becomes a conduit for magical stuff to happen on the basis that Steven Moffat thinks it might keep bums on seats. The phonecall from the Eleventh Doctor – another production consideration crashing into the story – is truly misjudged here. Perhaps a nervous Moffat thought it necessary to make a direct appeal to fans through Matt Smith: love him, help him, he’s me. Alas, the phonecall only serves to make the dissonance between viewing the two men as the same even more apparent and does something of a disservice to Capaldi.
Nevertheless, this is a story full of little triumphs. Graham Duff’s little cameo as a parts-hungry waiter; the Paternoster gang getting lots of funny little moments and working to smooth over the jump from one idiom to another. And Jenna Coleman – who I never think is served particularly well as the wise-cracking, smart-arse, down-boy, mile-a-minute walking-cliche Clara is often required to be – does wonderfully in her rapport with Capaldi and selling the fright of being abandoned by the Doctor in this new relatable childhood nightmare: holding your breath, lest something find and kill you.
Peter Ferdinando as the Half-Face Man is a memorable creation, gruffly cockney yet apparently with a macabre wit – that or a gauche approach to sardonic humour: “I accept your gift,” and “The restaurant is closed!” – the latter complete with the understandably terrified reaction of the police as he brandishes his blow-torch hand. Ferdinando – equal parts Bill Sykes, Cyberman and Ripper as the Half-Face Man – turns what might have been a thankless role into something sinister, amusing and poignant by turn.
There’s a lovely pathos to the clockwork droids, regardless of the mayhem the wreak. They have urges and drives, like us, but no moral framework with which to cross-reference them. As a result they’re slightly sad characters; the literal whirring of the cogs in their brains as they process information and try to understand emotion giving them the mute incomprehension of a pet being scolded.
It’s rare that there’s much to say about Doctor Who direction in the new series, presumably because there are less restrictions and less room (or need) for creative flair. Joe Ahearne is the only director since 2005 to have caught my eye with some unusual shots, but Deep Breath has several remarkable scenes that really buck the trend for the show’s visual style. This is surely no coincidence in a story whose mood is significant departure, setting the tone for a brand new series and new Doctor.
The scene where Clara holds her breath and talks for her life is frightening, very tense and utterly gripping – ho humour, no asides. Rarely, for Doctor Who, it’s played completely straight and conveys a real threat. Ben Wheatley brings a touch of the hallucinogenic oddness of A Field In England to the scenes of Clara succumbing to unconsciousness, with the Half-Face Man’s “Bring her!” overlaid on at least two other layers – as enigmatic a visual moment as there’s been in Nu Who. The climax of the story is particularly intriguing and surely exists as much to state the Twelfth Doctor’s character and the tone of the new series – or at least to force us to question it – as to present a dramatic conclusion to the episode. That glance straight down the barrel of the camera is without precedent in the new series and it’s a startling statement of intent for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
Ah, Capaldi. There are inflections of Davison’s vulnerability here, a little of the frustration of McCoy and the other-wordliness of Tom. Colin’s ability to be rude and Pertwee’s swagger can also be detected later on if you want to go down that route. But there is something new in the Twelfth Doctor – and an actor clearly thinking a lot about what he’s doing with it. Also in the post-credits scene, we get one of the best lines in Doctor Who: “Don’t look in that mirror; it’s absolutely furious!”
This is the Doctor that I wanted back in 2005 and almost got with Eccleston. A man who is superior in almost every way to the people he meets and not necessarily inclined to hide it – a man who doesn’t skirt around the fact that he’s in a business which occasionally calls for ruthlessness, danger and death. He’s alien – and he doesn’t observe our rules: “Sometimes you’re not…” “Human?”. “It’s a different kind of morality – get used to it or go home”. This has always been the Doctor, but it’s welcome that it’s made explicit simply because it’s such a change to what we’ve had since the Ninth Doctor departed.
The duality of the Doctor and the Clockwork Robots is instructive here. The self-aware Half-Face Man allows Moffat to reflect the Doctor on his millennia-long lifespan. Capaldi’s “You are a broom,” speech, in which the Doctor invokes the Ship of Theseus paradox, explains that there is nothing remaining of the original droid, the parts having been replaced so many times. Not only that, he follows it up with “You probably can’t even remember where you got that face from,” holding up a tray to reflect the Half-Face Man’s face while eyeing up his own visage. It’s an echo of the Eleventh Doctor’s last moments – the breath on a mirror; a series of interconnected moments.
If we hold to the old explanation that the Doctor perceives his others selves’ experiences as if recounted to him, we might also infer that each new Doctor come pre-programmed with a set of impulses – to do good, to protect the innocent and adopt a smattering of vague eccentricities. How disconcerting it must be for each new incarnation to follow that same path with the same sense of helplessness as a mayfly driven to procreate and die – or a droid simply repeating the same pattern of behaviour again and again, regardless of the consequences.
If we subscribe to another theory – that we’re essentially reborn every ten years or so with the gradual replacement of the cells in our body – then we practice the same behaviour. Year after year we watch Doctor Who, out of habit – regardless of whether it’s a a triumph such as Deep Breath or a howler like Rose. Like The Doctor and the droids, it’s just another pattern of behaviour.