Says Clara in Doctor Who Series 8 premier Deep Breath: “I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore” – me too. Exciting, isn’t it?!
Yes, he’s back, and apparently it’s time we knew him. Frankly, I would say that it is about time, as from this one episode it would seem that we’ve been introduced to the most mysterious and enigmatic version of the Doctor since, ooh, 1974? The comparisons with the Fourth Doctor have been made at length elsewhere, however, and there are quite a few similarities between 12 and 6 that we covered in this week’s podKast.
Recent interviews revealed that Capaldi has been keeping a notebook of things he considers Doctor-ish. The actor has also remarked on how, as a life-long Doctor Who fan, he has been subconsciously inspired by the performances of the various stars of the show, especially the first four. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see little elements of each in the Twelfth Doctor, but also, we shouldn’t dwell on this. Let’s bring it to an end right now, okay Internet?
So rather than say that Peter Capaldi has produced a superb new incarnation who draws on aspects of Doctor X and Y, let’s just be honest about the whole thing, stop trying to be clever and congratulate Peter in creating what appears to be a completely new version, a new man with his own personality and face (more on that later).
As opening episodes to new eras go, Deep Breath is a bit of a mixed bag, promising much from the leads but leaving behind it a now tired trio of occasional companions who will need to be considerably challenged in any impending return. As we’ve already had previous deaths for Jenny and Strax, this seems unlikely so let us therefore call for the end of the Paternoster Gang – after appearances in four series, their time is now surely up, having failed to secure that Torchwood-esque spin-off Moffat so clearly wanted.
Those temporary deaths and subsequent resurrections are among the complaints levelled at Moffat-era Doctor Who – that with the meaningless of mortality, the threat of death is diminished. Even if we consider Rory to be a bit of a running joke, that lack of jeopardy affects things, undermining any dramatic tension that has been built up. Deep Breath is a good opportunity to resolve this problem. Sadly, it seems that our Half-Face Man winds up in a post-life domain, overseen by a demented Scotswoman who calls herself “Missy” (Green Wing‘s Michelle Gomez going OTT, Jack Nicholson style) but might as easily be River Song or Madame Kovarian; we once knew Steven Moffat as a master creator of monsters, but sometimes it seems that all he manages to do these days is perplex us with Mysterious Women.
On the positive side, there are many interesting concepts in Deep Breath, some regenerative musings given a voice and put to the audience in a way we haven’t really seen since Virgin’s New Adventures in the 1990s. We have Madame Vastra observing that the Doctor has been wearing a younger face for the benefit of the Earthlings he meets, presumably to avoid cultural ageism in Western societies and be accepted. The Doctor himself is shown to be confused by the face he finds staring back at him in various “furious” mirrors, and in a memorable scene with Brian Miller (playing perhaps his most memorable role in Doctor Who, the husband of the late Lis Sladen has also appeared in 1983’s Snakedance and voiced Daleks in Resurrection of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks) Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, attempting to decipher why he has the face of someone he’s seen before (referring to Fires of Pompeii‘s Caecilius), observes his “attack eyebrows” while stating that he faces just pop up and asking “Who frowned me this face?”
If all of this introspection seems a bit narcissistic to you, Clara doesn’t get left out. Indeed, she’s subtly repainted here into something resembling a person, as opposed to a poorly implemented character of confused gestation as she was in Series 7. We can, I think, blame time constraints on her growth up until and including The Name of the Doctor, and while The Day of the Doctor was – as its title suggests – about the Doctor, The Time of the Doctor spent a lot of time with Clara, and not before time. But while her relationship with the Doctor was very much mistress and puppy at Christmas, this time around Clara has a lot more to deal with, and in Deep Breath Jenna Coleman finally gets to show us what a good actress she really is. While some have criticised the episode for portraying Clara as confused and shaken by the regeneration (citing her familiarity with previous faces of the Doctor), the truth is that no one making these criticisms has actually gone through the experience.
It’s worth thinking about.
Jenna’s scene with Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart in Madame Vastra’s parlour has got a lot of fans talking, and while she is certainly fierce in her defence of Vastra’s accusations, Ms Coleman tops this in the alien spaceship when she is faced with the Half-Face Man. Indeed, once the Doctor had gone to ground it was Clara who drove the story, her desire to find the Time Lord what leads them both to Mancini’s restaurant, at which point the story steps up a gear.
And yes, 75 minutes was probably too long. The preceding 25 minutes or so could easily have been halved to make this an hour long episode, in my opinion. Strax’s repeated comic relief might be funny, but it adds little – and just why was the Sontaran scanning Clara, particularly drawing attention to her life expectancy?
Jenna’s scene with Neve McIntosh in Madame Vastra’s parlour has got a lot of fans talking, and she is certainly fierce in her defence of Vastra’s accusations.
But what about those accusations of the Doctor, claiming that Clara was an egotistical control freak? It’s an interesting development, but could be little more than the new Doctor asserting himself, much like the later statement of clarification: “I’m not your boyfriend” in which the Doctor appears to be apologising for his previous younger looks.
The first restaurant scene is really crucial to Deep Breath, as not only does it throw Clara and the Doctor back together (thanks, Missy) but it also lets us see them together for the first time. It’s fractious, but the barbs aren’t the bitching we saw in the early Colin Baker years, they’re there to further the plot. Also, Twelve doesn’t attempt to kill his companion, although he does leave her behind to what appears to be certain death – but, of course, he doesn’t, because he’s the Doctor. Instead, Moffat uses the “return” of the Doctor, shedding the face of a Clockwork Droid he’s disabled and grabbing Clara’s hand (without uttering “run!”) as one of several calls to Doctor Who’s regenerative past. You can count Vastra’s “Well, here we go again” and Clara’s bank of the Thames explanation “that’s him, that’s the Doctor” (not too far from Rose’s similar line from The Christmas Invasion “That’s him, right in front of you. That’s the Doctor”) as others.
As calls to the past go, however, Deep Breath is a veritable scrapbook, from its obvious Girl in the Fireplace links (Clockwork Droids using humans as spare parts) which the Doctor is curiously unable to recall to The Talons of Weng Chiang (the settings, the Holmesian connection via the Paternosters and the fact that they now have a force of “Irregulars”, a disfigured villain using people to restore his body). We should also spare a few words for Peter Ferdinando, the Half-Face Man who managed to create a villain whose motion as an automaton was matched only by the superb CGI that comprised the depth in the left-side of his skull. No doubt a choice by director Ben Wheatley (who kept the production looking atmospheric, if slowed by the signature long-shot-slow-mos) with whom he was worked before, it would be good to see him in Doctor Who again. But perhaps that moment is already in store for us. Interesting to note at this point too that the Clockwork Droids are essentially Cybermen in reverse. It’s a shame more wasn’t made of this, to be honest, as despite the strength of the restaurant/spaceship scenes, their threat basically comprised of killing you when they detected breathing (hence the episode title). The desire to reach the “promised land” didn’t convince, unless the Doctor misinterpreted and their idea of paradise was actually to be human. These foes did, however, cleverly mirror the Doctor, replacing their parts just as the Time Lord replaces his whole physiognomy.
As we near the end of Deep Breath, however, it seems that Clara still hasn’t realised that he is the same man. It takes a couple of speeches and a phonecall from his previous self for the realisation to sink in. Remarkably, despite this being in theory an extremely risky strategy (reminding younger viewers unfamiliar with regeneration in particular of who they’ve just lost from the show) Matt Smith’s brief appearance (in a scene recorded during The Time of the Doctor‘s production) is perhaps the icing on the cake here for Capaldi. Suddenly, Smith seems like the old man, Capaldi the new, despite the lines and grey hairs that Clara was earlier concerned about.
Did Half-Face Man really jump, or did the Doctor push?
So, who is this new Doctor? What have we got in store with Peter Capaldi in the TARDIS? It really is too early to say. In 2005, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor promised us that he was a “no second chances… kind of man,” a warning that he failed to really act upon beyond that particular scene in The Christmas Invasion. What we do know, however, is that the Twelfth Doctor is the kind of man who will offer his opponent a drink before killing him. Yes: killing. He’s also a man of mixed morality – after all, what happened to Brian Miller’s tramp? Did the Doctor really part with his pocket watch?
And did Half-Face Man really jump, or did the Doctor push? That final glimpse at the camera in that scene, breaking the fourth wall with a style that outdid Tom Baker’s final moments in Logopolis spoke volumes.
But what was it saying?