"He is lost in the ruin of himself, and we must bring him home."
IN THIS ONE... An introduction to the 12th Doctor, with clockwork robots in Victorian London.
REVIEW: It is perhaps inconsequential what the plot of this is, because Deep Breath's whole reason for being is making Clara, and thus the audience, accept the new Doctor. After long stints from pretty boys, the Doctor is back to being an older man, and a more improbable sex symbol / 'shipping target. For a generation drawn into this universe by the strong 'shipping opportunities offered by Tennant and Smith, Capaldi was a hard sell. So take a deep breath, New Who fans (it's right there in the title), the ride might get a little bumpy. The episode is thus built around making Doctor Who's wide general audience accept this new version of the show, which goes through the audience identification figure, Clara. She is reticent to accept the Doctor's new looks, and is called superficial for it, and it angers her. The audience is dared to defend its own stance on the matter. Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax are over-used, but here are required to create familiarity that doubtful fans will accept. And though I don't particularly like it as an idea, the call made to Clara by surprise guest-star Matt Smith - Capaldi shouldn't have the previous Doctor crash his first episode like that - it's part of the same scheme. If you loved the 11th Doctor, can't you do him a favor and like the 12th? For him? Please? And I don't think it's the fact Clara hugs this new Doctor at the end that endears you to him; it's really how awkward he looks when being hugged. That's the selling point.
It's hard to gauge this new Doctor after one episode, because he spends most of it as a raving lunatic in the throes of regeneration instability. What will stick, and what is just a manifestation of his regenerative amnesia? The big shift is in his relationship to the companion. The flirting is over and done with; he can't even tell Clara and Strax apart on account of their similar heights. His brains are scrambled, obviously, and for this same reason, he doesn't seem to know what a bedroom is, but as we'll discover, an inability to recognize Clara's attractiveness will be a major component of his character. To its credit, the script actually comments on the last 9 years of flirting Doctors. First, by making the Doctor flirt with a dinosaur, showing how ridiculous it all actually is when you consider the age and species difference between him and any given companion, Second, and less superficially, Vastra makes the point that his youthful appearance in past regenerations were a form of flirting, and a way to be accepted. Even the Doctor fesses up to one of his mistakes being that he liked to imagine himself as the companion's boyfriend. It's plain that the era is over. At the same time, the episode also makes clear that it's NOT because he is played by an older actor, making sure to show Doc12 as an action man, jumping out of windows, onto horses, off bridges and so on. Questioning established beliefs will be part of parcel of his character in the same way, whether it's bedrooms, conclusions or the Doctor/companion relationship.
We were also promised a darker Doctor, one that is already seeking redemption, almost before the fact. On the surface of it, he thinks he has "cross eyebrows", and his Scottish accent migration (something we can only assume he took from Amy, even if it's not the first time he's been a Scot) gives him even more license to be angry at the world. He's rude too. And abandons Clara a number of times without so much as a by your leave, or an explanation. They bicker, but it doesn't seem pointless like his relationship with Tegan or Peri often did. They are both truth-tellers, headstrong and opinionated, but ultimately accepting of each other's flaws. Over the course of the season, I'll have better occasion to discuss their relationship which I thought was a highlight of Series 8. The Doctor's innate darkness creates a bit of a tug of war within the episode. It's asking us to accept him, and yet not trust him. It culminates in the climactic scene aboard the "escape pod", in which the clockwork man either jumped out or was pushed out. We're not allowed to see which, and the Doctor looks right into the camera afterwards, shockingly, daring us to judge him. The makeover is complete in the duo's last scene, with a slightly redesigned TARDIS interior - I love the book cases and homier feel - and a costume harking back to Pertwee's stage magician look. His personality has settled down, and we have before us a man who wants to be accepted as much as his previous selves did, but finds he has no real way to express it. When the TARDIS lands and Clara asks if she's home, she means to leave and go to her house; he answers, if you like, telling her the TARDIS is still her home, if she can accept all the changes. After Doc11's phone call, Capaldi shows a real vulnerability, and still words fail him. There's just enough heartbreak there to make us fall in love with him, I think, and Clara does.
We should discuss the new opening sequence, directly inspired by (and credited to) a fan-made video which also used clockwork and clock motifs to create the usual time vortex imagery. Personally, I love it. It's a different take, but recognizable. It's retro and steampunk (and in this episode actually relates to the monsters), and features the Doctor's eyes, as seen in the 50th Anniversary special, his trademark. I'm just not sure about the music, which seems to have returned to its 50-year-old roots, more spare and strange than the orchestral versions the last decade has made us used to, but being old-fashioned, it lacks punch. Visually, the program seems more bleached out than previous Doctors' adventures have been, though this may have to do with the setting. We're certainly a far cry from RTD's acid greens and purples, and glowing golds. Tonally, it's like the Doctor. It hasn't yet settled down. There's darkness and tension, and as before, winks to the past (my favorite bit is Capaldi's face in a silver tray, a literal mirror of a sequence from the very first post-regeneration story, though I'm also partial to the joke about the usefulness of Amy's long legs), but also dumb jokes that spoil the mood, like the automatic lock chirping on Vastra's carriage and Vastra's ridiculous attempts at getting all the female characters to disrobe for her.
Likewise, the plot is complete hogwash of what I call the kitchen sink variety. The TARDIS gets lodged in a giant T-Rex's throat and it time travels to Victorian London with it (shades here of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, perhaps to put us in 3rd Doctor kind of mood). The clockwork men from The Girl in the Fireplace are back and have taken their ship's modus operandi as their own, replacing their own parts with human and animal ones for millions of years. They run a restaurant that's actually their ship, are seeking the "Promised Land" or Paradise (what?), and only recognize living beings when they sense their breaths (it makes for a harrowing sequence when Clara tries to run from them without breathing, but seeing as there's a "control node", it should know who's in the hive and who isn't). And then there's the idea that they harvest organs through a process that causes spontaneous combustion, which isn't really explored or used very well. Oh, and Vastra and Strax are now walking around London without anyone saying anything, and the police are complete morons at her beck and call... Truly, the plot is definitely the weakest aspect of Deep Breath.
At least Moffat has a way of interweaving the episode and season's themes into the action. The most important of these is identity. The Doctor is in search of his new one, of course, but it's also about what part outside appearances play in that quest. Faces become a leitmotif, as does the inability to recognize people. The Doctor looks different, but at one point, even wears one of the clockwork men's faces. He also wonders where he "gets" the faces, because this one seems familiar, a wink at Capaldi previously playing a Roman in The Fires of Pompeii, but also broaches the idea that the subconscious "choice" is a message with deep meaning. If, as I've always contended, the new Doctor is always a reaction to the previous one's weaknesses and death, then Doc12 rejects the role of beloved community leader Doc11 had become on Trenzalore. The broom metaphor he uses on the clockwork men applies equally to himself; how much can you change of anything until it is no longer itself? How much can the production team change the show and still be allowed to call it "Doctor Who"? Conversely, the Doctor cannot recognize Clara at first, a shtick shared, redundantly but he did it first, with Strax, who could never tell if Clara was a girl or a boy (and ridiculously - see dumb jokes again - if she's wearing clothes or not, etc.). Vastra and Jenny putting on the appearance of an employer/maid relationship is likewise couched in that theme, as the pretense has a way of becoming the truth. There's transference between Clara and the Doctor that's part of this idea, and which will be sustained through to episode 12. She's the old veteran and he's the newbie, which isn't just a matter of casting, but of personality. When they find an ad in the paper, each thinks it's from the other, and their less-than-glowing evaluation of their partner creates an amusing misunderstanding. Each thinks of the other as an egomaniacal control freak. Over the course of the series, we'll see Clara acting as the Doctor's proxy, taking HIS traditional role, and the seeds are sown here. And of course, there's Missy from the final scene, teasing the Series' arc (see Theories), a character whose identity is shrouded in mystery, and who most certainly has had another identity. Another theme is abandonment. The Doctor abandons Clara no less than three times in Deep Breath and Clara tries to do the same at the end. As we'll discover, it's a game they BOTH play several times over the course of the series. There's more foreshadowing of future episodes too (especially the finale), from the use of cannibal cyborgs (the idea will return) to Vastra getting one of the Brigadier's most famous lines, to the Doctor's mistrust of beds and Clara's job as a school teacher getting play (note the first appearance of her difficult pupil Courtney).
REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The plot is unfortunately nonsense, but the two principals put in excellent performances - I feel like Clara's character is better revealed than she ever was, for example. The exercise in making us accept an entirely new Doctor, whether you think it was necessary or not (and Classic Who fans will likely think it wasn't), creates coherent and sometimes illuminating themes, which is where Deep Breath's logic rests, as opposed to the nuts and bolts of its plot. Obviously, introducing a new Doctor will always jack up the score. Put this same story in the middle of a season, and it would fall on the weaker side of Medium.
A NOTE ON SPOILERS: These reviews will spoil the featured episode, and make mostly veiled allusions to what's coming. Because it's all very fresh still, with some fans still trying to catch up and others waiting for the DVD set to be released, let these fans be wary. If you read each review just after you've watched the episode, you may get spoiled on some details. If not by me (and I'll be careful, especially with the chosen pictures), then quite possibly by the comments section. If you're up to date and chomping at the bit to discuss a particular aspect of Season 8, do try to address it when the proper episode rolls around to avoid this kind of thing happening to less current readers. Thanks!