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Doctor Who Top 50 New Series

The 50 Best Doctor Who Stories – 45: Deep Breath

“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.

capaldi twelfth doctor deep breath

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.

brian miller peter capaldi deep breath

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.

deep breath restaurant

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.

peter capaldi deep breath

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.

clara strax deep breath

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.

eyebrows deep breath

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.

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Classic Series Doctor Who Top 50

The 50 Best Doctor Who Stories – 10: Enlightenment

“Their minds are empty, used up. They need ideas from us. They’re desperate for them.”

striker keith barron enlightenment

Doctor Who becomes increasingly adrift in the 80s under Eric Saward; confused as to its identity, schizophrenic in tone. A publicity-chasing producer, a clear lack of strong scripts, engaged directors, appropriate cast – they all conspire to make the show tonally erratic. Over the course of the Fifth Doctor’s era Doctor Who takes in slow-burn psychological horror such as Kinda and Snakedance; macho shoot-em-ups such as Earthshock, Resurrection of the Daleks, Warriors of the Deep and Caves of Androzani; quasi historicals such as Black Orchid, The Visitation and The Awakening, and ‘hard’ sci-fi such as Frontios and Terminus. Although the lack of a touchstone to return to arguably leaves the series rootless, it’s nothing if not eclectic.

There’s another sub-genre the show returns to from time-to-time, however. There are occasional sidesteps into the esoteric, such as Christopher Bailey’s two Mara tales and Christopher H Bidmead’s own Castrovalva. And although it shares some similar notes with these stories and can be roughly lumped in with them, there’s another story that’s unique in the era: frankly it’s unique in Doctor Who’s 50-year run. It is Enlightenment.

turlough and black guardian

That title alone tells us a lot. In a 50-year history of Horrors and Terrors, not to mention ‘Of Deaths’ there are very few enigmatic story titles, those that are tend to be fictional names or places, but Enlightenment? It’s heavy with suggestion but vague too – it’s no real surprise in a way that it ranks so lowly, it’s too hard to pigeonhole. Barbara Clegg’s sole contribution to the series is very much under the radar, ranking a lowly 75 in Doctor Who Magazine’s latest fan survey. You never hear Moffat or RTD discussing Enlightenment in glowing tones, it’s never mentioned as someone’s favourite story, nor has it ever really been referenced again in the series or (to my knowledge) in spin-off media. It floats around in the Doctor Who canon set slightly apart from everything else.

Enlightenment centres around a novel but slight concept – a race among the stars in ancient sailing vessels. But amid that idea it’s story of dualities: black and white; light and dark; Doctor and Turlough; Eternals and Ephemerals; Wrack and Striker; Tegan and Marriner. The story, such as it is, exists largely as a framework on which to hang these concepts and relationships for four episodes until, rather abruptly it all ends. There is very little plot and The Doctor essentially triumphs by being The Doctor – winning over Turlough, who he seems to understand has been tasked with killing him, by doing exactly what he would have been doing in the first place. While it’s beautifully written in places, what carries Enlightenment to the heights it reaches is very much in the concept and its realisation: beautiful production values, Fiona Cumming’s eye for character, a sensual score by Malcolm Clarke and fine cast.

Keith Barron, largely spotted on television around this time in terrible sitcoms, despite his fine pedigree, is a revelation as the Eternal Captain of one of the race favourites, the Shadow. Having recently seen cuddly Peter Sallis as the unpleasant Bontine in The Pallisers, that also strikes me as a fine piece of casting, however Barron’s Striker is the most magnetic presence on the screen in Enlightenment. It’s a performance of the calibre and commitment rarely seen in Doctor Who at this time – literally an unblinking and unfliching portrayal of stillness; of a celestial creature taking human form and never quite figuring out how to make it work. Like an Auton facsimile, Striker may resemble a human but he’s clearly nothing of the sort.

do not ask i will not tell you

The Doctor initially jousts with Striker as a potential antagonist before becoming openly adversarial and then simply giving up, unable to fathom him. For Striker, even a incredible being such as the Doctor is simply another ephemeral, another pawn in the game to provide a modicum of entertainment. The Doctor simply has nothing to go on and, denied an enemy to play against, is essentially neutered. This reaches amusing proportions when Striker cuts the Doctor off even as he opens his mouth to question the desires that Enlightenment will fulfil.

“Do not ask me what it is,” orders Striker, turning away. “I will not tell you.”

The Doctor closes his mouth and look away, exasperated. None of the Eternals show any self-awareness when discussing their true feelings; they’re all id, as embarrassed at discussing their emotions with Ephemerals as toddlers voicing to whatever occurs to them. Yet Striker clearly does not want to reveal what urges him on to win the race – what could it possibly be to this creature of limitless existence? The indulgence of the senses and emotions, like Marriner? Or the ultimate extensions of it – true life, or true death? That we cannot ever know makes the Eternals all the more intriguing. There can never be any exposition at the end of the story – even the Doctor, essentially even the author, is baffled by the Eternals.

striker and marriner

Marriner is equally well drawn, played with a kind of blank ingenuousness by Christopher Brown. His desire to be near Tegan – to savour her emotions and experience them vicariously as he attempts to understand and gain existence – is one of the most unsettling storylines in Doctor Who’s history. Exactly what is the endpoint of this unusual courtship – and how to view Marriner’s clear relish at his violation of Tegan’s mind? The Eternal finds her finite existence darkly fascinating in ways that aren’t quite explained, but certainly alluded to. “They need ideas from us; they’re desperate for them.”

Tegan is clearly disturbed by the implications, but with the Doctor almost powerless to protect her falls into an uneasy codependency with Marriner – perhaps the only other being in the story who truly has her safety at heart, regardless of the motives why. Janet Fielding is superb in showing what’s really underneath Tegan’s brittle exterior. It’s no coincidence that this is the first story for a long time – excepting Christopher Bailey’s scripts – that treats the companions as functioning human beings, rather than catalysts for events. It’s perhaps not surprising that both writer and director are women; Enlightenment is far more interested in character, emotions and agency than most stories of the era. The fact that the Eternal crew of the Shadow are united in their unblinking performances – rarely deigning to face whomever they are addressing – cannot be a coincidence; it’s a good sign that writer and director have put some serious thought into their work.

marriner and tegan

Both Tegan and Turlough are thoroughly disturbed by what they experience on board the Shadow and both voice their desire to leave, despite a lack of obvious and imminent danger. Turlough is so terrified at the prospect of remaining on board that the Black Guardian threatens to strand him on the ship, rather than simply kill him. The schoolboy is even discomfited by the crew’s roughnecking in the fo’c’sle, despite the lack of any threat from them – he’s simply socially uncomfortable, which is thrown into sharp relief when he shows genuine amusement at the Doctor’s expense as the crew mistake the Time Lord for the ship’s cook.

What’s so good about this is that both companions are afforded their own agency. They have believable drives, fears and instincts beyond simply adventuring in time and space; the narrative imperative of the show and, for many companions, seemingly the only motivation required. In those scenes where we see the companions acting naturally – showing concern for one another, discussing their mutual discomfort and reacting with revulsion at the behaviour of the Eternals – and actively wanting to leave, we can believe in them as real people. This is, frankly, extremely rare in Doctor Who.

teagan and turlough

It’s become common for people to state that Wrack – played voluptuously by Lynda Baron – is the best thing in Enlightenment. In fact, Baron constitutes a rather jarring change to proceedings. From a sensuous psychological meditation, Enlightenment is pulled rather violently back into a world where Beryl Reed is a starship captain and The Master sends Concorde back to the Cretaceous simply because John Nathan-Turner thinks a photo of Peter Davison in front of a supersonic jet will guarantee a photo on page 18 of the Daily Mirror.

However, the scenes on board the piratical Buccaneer are interesting for the ongoing fascination the Eternals have for Tegan, now significantly clad in a revealing and ornate gown, to her obvious pleasure: Wrack’s ploy to remove Tegan to a secluded room to ‘show her something’, having already plied her with booze, is barely suggestive – it’s pretty much an overt date rape. It’s interesting that Turlough manages to just about hold his own, though the Eternals quickly tire of him too, another momentary distraction.

From the banquet scene – which includes one of the finest pieces of incidental music in Doctor Who – things move quickly towards a rather slight resolution and the swift, if appropriately lyrical, conclusion of the Guardians Trilogy. Increasingly I find these three stories fascinating and their appeal grows every time I watch them. Turlough is, perhaps, the last interesting companion of the classic series, while Fielding and Strickson are among the best actors to play companions in the series’ run.

In all three stories, albeit to different degrees, we can see the Doctor effectively emasculated as a narrative force and a character. It’s not that he’s ineffectual as such, but much less the prime mover in events: in Enlightenment his net contribution is to save The Shadow from Wrack’s smuggled-aboard explosive, yet it’s only endangered because he and his companions make the journey to the Buccaneer in the first place. All of which makes the Fifth Doctor the more intriguing and perhaps more winning. He is the first time the Doctor has really been a relatable character; above all a reasonable, charming and vaguely blank man.

fifth doctor concerned

But it’s more than that. When he meets his other selves he seems embarrassed by them. He shows little overt sense of adventure – when he arrives amid a chain of events set in motion, his first instinct is frequently to leave. He is, fundamentally, a reluctant Doctor often finding himself in adventures because of others – the Master, Black Guardian, Time Lords or Daleks. In Enlightenment the Doctor defeats the Black Guardian by winning over Turlough; by essentially being nice.

The Fifth Doctor is the ultimate straight bat – in his own way he’s as nonplussed as the Eternals: disinterested, uninterested, diffident. All Doctors display a certain swagger, self-assuredness, self-possession, but with the Fifth Doctor it is simply not there. Whereas his predecessors and successors openly revel in being The Doctor – “it’s like a promise you make” – that never rings true of the Fifth. Perhaps he never really wanted to the Doctor at all.

It’s instructive that most of Peter Davison’s roles beyond Doctor Who have him as rather hapless, pathetic and emasculated – to cast him as The Doctor was, perhaps, John Nathan-Turner’s one stroke of genius. Davison brings something utterly different to the role and it’s tempting to see a lot of himself in his portrayal of the Doctor. Until fairly recently he seems to have enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with the show: respectful but with a slight air of puzzled diffidence. It’s perhaps significant that he enjoyed the most successful post-Who career out of everyone in the classic series. He played the part to the best of his ability – and then simply moved on. We can see this in his Doctor: present but passive. He has few of the ‘eccentric’ traits of those who came before him or followed him and little of their passion. In Davison’s Doctor we see a man, a Time Lord, who can take it or leave it. It’s the most daring interpretation of any of the actors who have tackled the role.

peter davison

Enlightenment throws the Fifth Doctor into sharp relief. Halfway through the story he essentially gives up and he often seems curiously indifferent to what’s going on around him. He allows Tegan to be spirited away by Wrack, whom he knows to be dangerous, he listens without a flicker of interest to Marriner’s desire for her and barely acknowledges Turlough’s terror, having saved him from being sucked into space. Any plans he has are derailed by the Eternals and the resolution to the race – indeed the whole trilogy – appears to be down to luck more than judgement.

In Marriner’s sinister pursuit of Tegan, Turlough’s desperation to escape his deal with the devil, Striker’s dubious desires and the sybaritic pleasure of Eternals feasting on the emotions of humans, Enlightenment has perhaps the most adult of the series’ concepts. And yet, against these darkly febrile subtexts and subplots, The Doctor seems largely impassive, unaffected. It’s another rejection of a lot of assumptions about the show and its lead: there’s a note of mystery about the character again – perhaps even a suggestion of a Doctor who has tired of the role the universe has fashioned for him – and comparing the Time Lord to the humans on both ships, and then to the Eternals, is irresistible and vaguely troubling.

Enlightenment is an aberration is the Fifth Doctor’s era – in Doctor Who as a whole. Never before and never again is the programme as ethereal, in touch with emotions, nor as deliberately enigmatic. With it, the Fifth Doctor’s era shakes off its empty machismo and becomes something surreal and sensual.