I have not looked forward to a new series of Doctor Who so much for a long time, possibly not since 2005. 2010 came close, with its promise of a new broom but I didn’t expect things to change that much. I simply didn’t think it possible, given that RTD had made some of his pet theories so hard to escape. To go to Capaldi from Tennant – without Smith to smooth the way – would have been unthinkable. But, with Doctor Who now a huge, global brand and swimming pools full of awards behind him, Steven Moffat has a licence to pretty much do what he wants.
Some have suggested, perhaps not unreasonably, that this means turning the Doctor into himself: a rather grumpy 50-something Scot. What we have been prepared for – and what Deep Breath spends an inordinate amount of time apologising for – is that fanciable Doctors, flirtatious Doctors and companion-banging are a thing of the past. This new Doctor is, well, old. He has grey hair, he has wrinkles but he’s still the same man! The Eleventh Doctor, a familiar companion and the modern-day UNIT are even roped in to pave the way for the new Doc and give the audience someone to relate to.
All of this slightly undermines Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor (13th? 14th?) and makes for a slightly passive-aggressive tone, begging the audience to give him a try. For all this a brave new world, the BBC must be keen to retain those young fans with their social media, spending power and monopolisation of TV remotes. Perhaps unsurprisingly this means a classic NuWho Doctor in a post-regenerative fug doing lots of things that Russell T Davies and Moffat have their Doctors doing.
The predictably wacky start by the shores of the Thames is fairly painless, largely because it passes pretty quickly. The machine-gun delivery, regrettaby, is present-and-correct. In these moments Capaldi isn’t quite so good: it’s a generic received-wisdom Doctor Who archetype and it’s never been much fun to watch. “MY LADY FRIEND!” and “I WILL TAKE YOU HOME” are the true behind-the-sofa moments these days – but there’s a definite suggestion that these elements were something of an after-image from the Eleventh Doctor.
As for the window-tree-horse scene, it’s the kind of thing that Doctor Who seems to have to do these days. Received wisom is big amongst show-runners: RTD had it that you couldn’t show someone being shot or have a Doctor over the age of 40. Moffat’s own seem to insist that there are three or four iconic moments an episode that the kids in the playground will love, so in Deep Breath 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. It’s another element that indicates that the show’s protagonist is now essentially a magician that can do anything as long as it will raise an idle guffaw.
Also inescapable is Nu Who’s traditional default setting – shouting and running around while Murray Gold’s cranks it up to Shite Out Of Ten. I watched Deep Breath when it was leaked and I genuinely found it more atmospheric with a lot of the incidental music yet to be dropped in. Gold’s music is another staple of the new series that means it never really shakes off the spectre of 2005 as long as he remains. Generally his slower, more contemplative and spooky music is excellent, but any moment of action and fast drama see the show falling back into bad habits.
Once we’ve moved past the dinosaur, Capaldi’s frustrated, post-regenerative anger is wonderful. 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. Ultimately Capaldi’s Doctor is not unlike Malcolm Tucker in some regards, “Oi, big man, shut it!” is straight out of the spin doctor’s lexicon, while I thought he actually addressed the Half-Face Man as ‘son’ in one instance. 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!”
The fact that the episode can be broken up so easily in modular chunks means that Deep Breath is basically a series of set pieces, all of the best featuring Capaldi. Increasingly Moffat doesn’t bother to write plots. His stories may be book-ended with a mystery and the solving of it, but there’s nothing in the middle but fast-talking, broad comedy, character-building and scene-setting.
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. Take the scene of Strax giving Clara a medical: it feels like a DVD extra. Similarly, the scene where the Doctor meets Brian Miller’s tramp takes devotes several minutes to regenerative trauma and only requires a few seconds for the Doctor to find the Impossible Girl advert.
That’s OK though, because it’s 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. “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 Lis Sladen’s widower and reacting with anger or dismay at his features – a trope of most Doctors since Pertwee – particularly his “attack eyebrows”.
And then the restaurant scene. Everything Capaldi does in this scene is sublime – there is so much to see in it – 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.
I read a review by a man called Kevin O’Sullivan stating Capaldi and Coleman have no chemistry. I’m genuinely at a loss to know how anyone could come to this conclusion having watched the ten minutes or so as the Doctor and Clara bicker and slowly come to realise they’re in danger. 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 expect Moffat’s new direction for Doctor Who will work out. 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 these long, talky scenes. Frankly I love 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. But there is a problem here.
Those are the things – along with Murray Gold’s Harry Potter-lite music, clumsy romances, iconoclastic set-pieces and epic mythologising – that defined the series from 2005 through to 2010. Moffat tried to move away from that template a little but the same pieces of the jigsaw were still there. For almost ten years Doctor Who has been wildly successful, observing certain self-set rules; it became a victim of its own success: can it still succeed with these hefty scenes and a volatile older Doctor? I don’t think the showrunner really had a choice – the show’s greatest strength is its ability to change and it’s an absolute necessity every few years, whether Tumblr likes it or not.
This is, for me, good news. The scene where Clara holds her breath and talks for her life is bereft of laughs. There is nothing funny here; no cute turns of phrase. It is frightening and very tense and utterly gripping. Ben Wheatley brings a touch of the hallucinogenic oddness of A Field In England to the scenes of Clara succumbing to unconsciousness, with “Bring her!” overlaid on at least two other layers – as unusual a moment as there’s been in Nu Who. The director has some successful moments in Deep Breath that are surely key to Moffat’s attempts to reset the show’s mood, yet there are some odd moments too. The screwdriver scene seems to flow poorly and actors occasionally seem too close or too far away from the camera – perhaps it appears jarring because it’s not what we expect of Doctor Who.
Glossing over one of the least successful moments of Deep Breath, the fight scenes between The Paternoster Gang and clockwork droids, the climax is particularly intriguing and surely exists as much to state the Twelfth Doctor’s character and the tone of the new series as to present a dramatic conclusion to the episode. I couldn’t help feeling rather sad at the demise of the Half-Face Man and was oddly pleased to see him make it to the promised land, despite his bemusement at another Mysterious Moffat Woman.
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. 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.
The clockwork robots are such a cracking idea it’s a surprise that Moffat hasn’t revisited them before. In the Victorian idiom in which the show increasingly finds itself – something surely not unconnected with the seemingly-unending appetite across the globe for a kind of hyper-real Englishness – they work a treat and in a series promising to ramp up the scare factor their jerky, marionnette-like movements and the ability to add in another relatable terror (holding one’s breath) they tick a lot of boxes.
Something else the self-aware Half-Face Man allows Moffat to do is to reflect the Doctor in 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, 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 droid’s face while unwittingly, slightly uncomfortably, 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’s 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. Like The Doctor and the droids, it’s just another pattern of behaviour. It’s just one that happens to be central to my programming.
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 patience with them. Making the Doctor human is about the most boring thing you can do the character, which is why I found Tennant and Smith falling in love with people left, right and centre so dull.
You can go through his predecessors and pick out elements that reflect virtually all of them, but I think this is unfair to Peter Capaldi. There is something new here, and while I didn’t think it always worked I was just happy to see something different attempted – and an actor clearly thinking a lot about what he’s doing with it.
Jenna Coleman gets to flesh out Clara beyond the generic wise-cracking, smart-arse female companion. I think she’s a fine actor and gets to do some cute comedy stuff alongside shining with Capaldi in quieter scenes and really carrying the threat of the clockwork droids in Deep Breath’s most arresting moments.
That said, Clara is variously described – or alluded to – as a narcissistic, egomanic, passive-aggressive control freak during the course of the episode, while Strax’s mind scan seems to suggest that she likes to imagine buff young men having sex – a side of her sexuality explicitly refuted by Clara in her conversation with Vastra.
The Paternoster Gang
I quite enjoy the conceit of the Victorian sleuths. It has a very definite ring of the comic strips through the 80s and 90s with a dash of New Adventures and they’re good value. However, Vastra seems become another Moffat archetype; a sex-obsessed ice queen and Jenny relies on the talents of Catrin Stewart. They’re married, incidentally – you may not have picked up on that. Strax is as Strax does but I find him rather amusing, so there.
Things I loved
The Brian Miller scene – Post-regenerative trauma has never been so engaging
Peter Ferdinando – Equal parts Bill Sykes, Terminator and Ripper as the Half-Face Man: What might have been a thankless role became poignant, frightening and sinister by turn.
Pacing and direction – I should clarify that I thought the pacing of individual scenes perfect, while noting that the overall effect was not as satisfying.
Accent – So nice to hear Capaldi’s native accent after Tennant’s Mockney mannerisms and Smith’s unusual Everybloke inflections. I suspect it’s not long until we hear that Americans and Southerners can’t understand what he’s saying but I don’t much care.
Things that didn’t work
Dr Wholittle – The Doctor talking to animals must end before it takes hold.
Fast-talking – I’m going to write the ‘shut up! shut up! shut up!s’ and shouting at dinosaurs as a regenerative thing for the time being.
Overacting – The way RTD and Moffat wrote lines for Tennant and Smith meant they could only be attacked, shouted, waved and delivered in such a way that would make Paul Darrow blush. Hopefully we’ve seen an end to this for now.
Hollywood music – The BBC seem reluctant to shake off the one remaining thing that ties the show back to its 2005 origins and it would do better to make the break clean.
The Doctor knowing everyone in history – The Doctor puts together a mean band apparently. Another variation of the ‘Doctor-as-starfucker’ meme of years gone by. Awful.
The phonecall – This is where Moffat’s appeal to the teenaged fans was writ large and it detracted from the agency of the Twelfth Doctor and authority of Capaldi for me. I found it even less believable that the Eleventh and Twelfth were the same people by the end of the episode.
The mix – As ever it’s hard to understand what’s being said a lot of the time, admittedly not helped by the lead’s growls and whispers. The production team has tended to shrug this off in the past but with Capaldi’s voice and delivery – not to mention his accent – I’m not sure it’s so shrug-off-able any more.
Voice-activated – Was this a knob joke? It was always be too soon for a knob joke where the Doctor is concerned.
The length – While I enjoyed most of the ambiance, Deep Breath sagged noticeably a couple of times.
Stuff to watch out for
The Gatekeeper – I can summon no enthusiasm for Missie, yet another female character seemingly created to give the anti-Moffat hordes something to gnash their teeth over. There’s this season’s story arc sorted. Current speculation suggest she’s the Doctor, the Rani, the Master or the TARDIS.
The Droids – Sister ship of the Madame du Pompadour? Intriguing.
The Face – Who frowned me this face? Is the Doctor Caecilius? Is Caecilius the Doctor? Clearly something is afoot.
Gallifrey – I can’t believe it won’t turn up at the end of this season or the next.
The Doctor: Don’t look in that mirror – it’s furious!
The Doctor: Who frowned me this face?
The Doctor: I’m not just being rhetorical here, you can join in!
The Doctor: These are attack eyebrows.. they’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross…
The Doctor: Destroy us if you will, they’re still going to close your restaurant!
The Doctor: Five-foot-one and crying, you never stood a chance.
The Doctor: Bitey. The air, it’s bitey. It’s wet, and bitey.
The Doctor: Sure. Not sure. One or the other.
The Doctor: Sleepy? Bashful. Sneezy. Dopey? Grumpy!
Half-Face Man: I accept your gift. I have bad eyes.
Half-Face Man: The restaurant is closed!
Clara: Nothing is more important than my egomania!
The Doctor: Right. You actually said that.
Clara: You never mention that again!
Strax: And we will not melt him with acid.
Strax: By now he’s almost certainly had his throat cut by the violent poor.