DOCTOR WHO: Deep Breath / Review

Deep Breath
23 August 2014, 7.50pm

Yes, take a deep one.

We've had all the hype, all the leaks (I wonder what Marcelo Carmargo was doing as the episode went out) and we're down to the brass tacks. Does Peter Capaldi live up to his promise? I'll get to that presently.

A new Doctor always precipitates some deft rearranging of the furniture. Back in 1966, replacing your lead actor was a risk in itself; in 1970 they did it again, went into colour and tweaked the format; and so on, and so forth. The series survived through changes of actor, rearranging of music, new titles, modes of production, not being on television at all... and as Capaldi himself self-effacingly admitted recently, he'll be loved by someone at least and he'll always be someone's Doctor. He knows the score.

And Steven Moffat's done this before, handling the change from David Tennant to Matt Smith in The Eleventh Hour, and in the scheme of things (yes, The Twin Dilemma and Time and the Rani I'm looking at you) Smith's debut was generally acknowledged as a particularly good example of how to introduce a new Doctor. And now Moffat has to do it all over again but the situation is trickier. He has to convince young fans an older actor can carry the show again. 

So, let's get the cosmetic changes out of the way. Cue the bold new opening titles, inspired by designer Billy Hanshaw's much viewed portfolio piece on You Tube. The problem I have with them is the music. For a graphically powerful set of images - whirling timepieces, clocks, cogs, stars and planets - Murray Gold has opted to go heavy on the chimes and a theremin. I'm all for an emphasis of the wooo-eeeeee-wooooo-oooo sections of the Derbyshire-Grainer original but I'm not sure this version works. It sounds a bit too pared down for me. Not quite the plus ça change I was hoping for. Hanshaw's version using Gold's older arrangement, with the Derbyshire whoops intact, is a better combination. However, it's a mere quibble.
'Here we go again.' 
The episode opens with a gorgeous shot, perhaps also a little nod to the dinosaur at sunset Chris Achilleos cover image of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. A dinosaur bellowing against a rusty coloured sky kids you into thinking you're back at the dawn of time until the camera pans away. The chimes of Big Ben provide a tantalising bit of schadenfreude as the dinosaur stomps across the Thames and puts the screaming abdabs up the crowd of Victorians rubbernecking on the Embankment.

Those chimes also sound a note of doom echoed by the tolling of the Cloister Bell as a vomited up TARDIS disgorges the Twelfth Doctor and a very worried Clara Oswald before the astonished gaze of the Paternoster Gang. Capaldi hits the ground running as a disorientated post-regenerative Doctor whose ability to recognise faces both familiar and unfamiliar, including his own, has been severely compromised. Clara's seen the Doctor abruptly change and she's not sure she likes this wide-eyed, grey haired Scotsman who decides to take five face down in the Thames's mud. As Madame Vastra so eloquently quotes a certain Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, 'Here we go again.'

Re-establishing the Doctor's identity is one of the key motifs here. It's not just for Clara's sake, as the story takes great pains to emphasise, it's also for that young audience out there for whom Matt Smith was their Doctor. Us old hands can take it in our stride but a franchise's continued success with that group clearly concerns those calling the shots at the BBC. But Moffat astutely turns this into a treatise on pre-judging appearances and identities - from the gender of dinosaurs to the self-awareness of artificial intelligences - and satisfactorily provides Clara's character ('the not-me one, the asking questions one') with some much needed substance.

The otherness, the smile behind the veil, that lies beneath our outward appearances abounds in the story. Before the Doctor passes out on the shore of the Thames director Ben Wheatley, who makes a terrific job of this episode, opts for a series of point of view shots to emphasise the distances between us, the new Doctor and his friends. As the dark clouds of unconsciousness descend upon the Doctor we get a shot from his point of view, backing away from Clara, Strax and Vastra who are now rendered as even more alien to him. Wheatley then switches to a point of view shot of Clara and Strax looking at the Doctor as he backs away from them. Point of view is used sparingly in the current series but with Wheatley at the helm it crops up again in this story as does a later shot which breaks the fourth wall.

As the Doctor takes a nap, Clara's inability to see beyond the Doctor's outward incarnation is challenged by Madame Vastra. These scenes allow for a more considered approach to character and explore Jenny and Vastra's domestic milieu both comedically and emotionally. There's, forgive the allusion, breathing space to add some nuances to the Paternoster Gang as well as to Clara. Vastra's take on seeing beyond the veil, on the ability to dress up or dress down, to pass as normal in straight Victorian society is configured with Clara's concerns about the Doctor.

Her inability to accept his change marks her out as a stranger in the Paternoster circle. Vastra's position in polite Victorian society is a demonstration to Clara that when the Doctor regularly changes his appearance, the core of his being remains intact. He dons a new face, a new veil, to gain acceptance in the societies he comes into contact with. As Jenny reminds Clara when she mourns the absence of the Doctor, 'he's not gone, he's upstairs.' The Doctor looks different but is still present. It's a terrific scene that touches on acceptance, tolerance, age and expression and denial of desire between Jenny and Vastra, Clara and the Doctor.
'Who frowned me this face?' 
Moffat also has a lot of fun with Capaldi's and Neve McIntosh's Scottish accents. Vastra is the only one the Doctor can understand at first, someone who hasn't developed a faulty accent ('you all sound all... English!') and has a recognisable voice he can respond to. This is also underlined with the delightful scene with the tramp in the alleyway after the Doctor, gallivanting about in his nightie à la Pertwee in Spearhead From Space, witnesses the spontaneous combustion of the dinosaur and plunges into the Thames.

It is de rigueur in a Doctor's introductory episode to have scenes where the Doctor self-examines his latest regeneration. Capaldi shares this superb moment, where the Doctor is rather dark and threatening, with Brian Miller, husband of the late Elisabeth Sladen. Like many of his predecessors, having the new Doctor recognise his face in a mirror is a way for him to overcome these delusional misidentification symptoms.

It is also interesting to note how the Doctor ponders on where his faces come from, suggesting we might eventually get an inkling as to why he resembles Roman merchant Lucius Caecilius Iucundus from The Fires of Pompeii and Torchwood's Home Office permanent secretary John Frobisher. 'Who frowned me this face?' he asks the tramp before he remonstrates with him about eyebrows that could take off bottle tops and how, being Scottish, he can 'really complain about things now.'

There is also the motif of characters physically and spiritually assembling a sense of themselves through the story. Strax examines Clara to test her fighting fitness, praising her 'enviable spleen' but also reveals her subconscious desires and drives: 'deflective narcissism, traces of passive aggressive and a lot of muscular young men doing sport.' The Doctor, naturally, is settling into a new body, gathering together memories and attributes. This is an analogue with the steampunk Victorian droids who, over the centuries, are constantly repairing and regenerating themselves from the resources around them, human beings.

Moffat returns to the world of the repair droids seen in The Girl in the Fireplace and, although there is much horror and abjection generated from their appearances, their reappearance lacks some of the earlier episode's resonances and threatens to diminish its original reputation. That said, the scene in the restaurant offers us not only a great insight into the relationship between this new Doctor and Clara, played extremely well by Capaldi and Coleman and with a strikingly different chemistry than that she established with Matt Smith, but also the creeping sense of horror, the sound of uncanny clockwork in the air, as they realise they're bickering in a room full of automata.

Automata of the Victorian era were also a symbol of the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the period's debates about human nature and human beings as organic machines so it is quite appropriate that the droids are used within this setting. The symbolism of the automata striving to find 'the promised land' is cleverly used as a counterpoint to the humanity that Clara wants to find in the new Doctor. There is a collapse in the boundary between humans and machine in Deep Breath, underlined by the flesh and blood heroes needing to take that deep breath and pass as machines, to briefly deny human feelings, in order to survive the droids' attention or attack.

Ben Wheatley again returns to his use of the point of view shot here as Clara. seemingly abandoned by the Doctor and holding her breath for too long to escape from the droids' lair, passing as a mechanical being, is undone by her body's capacity to store air in its lungs. Wheatley's imagery is dreamlike and we see the edges of her vision blurring and reddening, a swirling recall of a memory as she passes out. It is this memory, of a challenge from a pupil in her class at school, that provides her with the strength to dismantle Half-Face Man's threats. It's also a mark of her faith in the Doctor, that he will return in the nick of time, that 'if the Doctor is still the Doctor, he will have my back.'
'You probably can't even remember where you got that face from.' 
When Clara is rescued from Half-Face Man, an unsettling performance from Peter Ferdinando, the episode summarises the debates about the boundaries between human and machine. The Doctor also squares his own conscience when he realises he will, in all likelihood, have to kill the droid in order to prevent the other droids from murdering Clara and the Paternoster Gang.

As he must unlock the cold, hard logic within himself he also implores the machine to seek out its human qualities and do the honorable thing and save lives by self-destructing. This confrontation between Time Lord and cyborg is also about the machine discovering that to be human is to be mortal and that it must accept finitude and death. The notion of where the Doctor got his new face from, how he has constructed himself, is also restated in the rhetorical question he asks of the Half-Face Man at the climax of the episode.

As the Doctor interrogates the Droid, they both stand facing the mirrored surface of a tray and the Doctor states: 'You probably can't even remember where you got that face from.' Wheatley's shot of the tray reflecting the face of the Doctor on the tray as the machine considers its recycled origins is a wonderful moment of visual shorthand for the idea of the constructed nature of the self.

Does the Doctor throw Half-Face Man from the escape pod, literally a vehicle of abjection with is human skin balloon taking it over the London rooftops, or did it commit the ultimate act of sacrifice? Did it overcome its basic programming or did the Doctor murder the creature? Again, Wheatley inserts a modicum of doubt by including a brief shot of Capaldi, stony faced, looking up from under those furious eyebrows and directly into camera. It's rather spine-tingling and implies the darker nature behind the new face.

When we arrive at the end of the episode, Clara's doubts about the Doctor remain unresolved and it appears he has abandoned and forgotten her. She considers joining the Paternoster Gang but Vastra convinces her the Doctor will return for her. When the TARDIS does arrive, she steps into a redefined interior. The lighting is warmer, there are bookshelves along the walls. Quoting the Second Doctor, she offers of the changes to the TARDIS, 'You've redecorated. I don't like it' and is probably saying exactly that about the Doctor himself.

Even the Doctor remains unconvinced of these changes but he is sure of one thing, he's more his own man again. Moffat underlines that the romantic associations between the Doctor and his companion are a thing of the past and we are on a new footing with the relationship between him and his companion. The Doctor firmly states, 'I'm not your boyfriend', which for Clara he never has been, and qualifies this assumption as a mistake on his part and not hers.

A phone call from Trenzalore, from the Eleventh Doctor, offers a salve to Clara's trouble accepting this older man as the same Doctor she knew. Rather like Cho-Je appeared to the Brigadier and Sarah in Planet of the Spiders to give the regeneration of the Third into the Fourth a little push, the Eleventh parts from Clara suggesting the new Doctor will need her help to adjust and acclimatise. And as the Ninth Doctor found his feet by sharing some chips with Rose, the Twelfth sets out to bond with Clara over a coffee. Or is that coffee and chips?

And there are mysteries yet to be solved. Who is the Mary Poppins-like figure of Missy and what is the paradise she inhabits? Is she the woman in the shop who gave Clara the Doctor's number and placed the ads in the newspaper? Why does she refer to the Doctor as her boyfriend and then claim of his new accent, 'Think I might keep it.' Let the speculation begin. 

Deep Breath has, at its core, a re-defining of the Doctor-companion relationship and Moffat and director Ben Wheatley handle this to great effect. Visually, the episode looks sumptuous and, along with the setting up of the Twelfth Doctor's modus operandi, the tone achieved is just that bit darker, just that bit more serious. Of great importance here is the way Clara's doubts are often placed centre-stage, giving Jenna Coleman some much needed character development, and how Jenny and Vastra's relationship is given some weight and furthers the integration of positive cultural and sexual differences into the series.

Capaldi nails the sharp humour of Moffat's lines but the plot isn't much of a departure from his signature tropes established as far back as The Empty Child, of half flesh-half machine opponents doggedly following their protocols, of remembering and forgetting and the power of the uncanny. Whether this signature will alter much is debatable as he tends to fall back on tried and tested motifs. Deep Breath does perhaps outstay its welcome at 75 minutes and might have benefited from some trimming but it's a very promising start for the Twelfth Doctor and Capaldi.

8 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Deep Breath / Review”
  1. Unknown says:

    A quite counter point to the extra length, the producers may have needed the episode to be "feature presentation" time to get it into theaters either as a requirement to the theaters to have a "feature presentation" or as not wanting to charge full film prices for a 45 or 60 minutes episode.

  2. chas_m says:

    As is often the case, I'm in agreement with every point made in this review. I'll wait till I see the cinema version before finally judging the length, but I think that even if this one seemed a mite longish, it makes a case that Doctor Who should normally be 50 minutes to an hour in length. I can think of many, many times where an extra five minutes or just a few lines more exposition would have saved a less-than-wholly-satisfying story.

  3. Yes, Kevin, I agree that the 75 minute length was probably a decision in relation to its feature presentation in cinemas.

  4. Loved your review mate. Capaldi is going to make a great Doctor, and I cant wait to see Missy again, but frankly I struggled through the talkie bits (the accent scene was too long, and the Vastra/Jenny relationship section we've heard before) and Wheatley's handling of the comedy was - poor (the Strax/Clara check up scene was pants). I could of done with more of a story about the clockwork robots.

  5. Ed says:

    Thanks Frank for another insightful review. I wholeheartedly agree with all of your observations as usual. My only sticking points were the constant mentioning of Jenny and Vastra as married - yes most of us get that... And I say this because I suppose, to put it nicely, others with "less tolerance" for that type of relationship have been irritatingly verbose out there in cyberspace about the "new gay agenda" - as if. I also find that a lot of critics in the press failed to understand basic drama elements and wrote some rather ridiculous reviews including the fact that in their opinion, "there was no chemistry between Clara and the Doctor", and that they were baffled because the new character of the Doctor isn't "defined" like previous versions. Maybe our modern critics have become lazy in their expectations of what is or should be "character development". I'm afraid the idea of "development", my dears, means just that... As in "over time", not immediately. I for one am looking forward to seeing how this new chap will develop, how the relationship with Clara will develop. I also thought the chemistry between those two actors was lovely, and as for the characters, I guess critics missed the point that Clara is struggling to find "chemistry" between them. Ah well. Can't please everyone. At the end of the day, I'm very happy with this introductory episode for Peter Capaldi. It certainly has a lot more going for it than that last episode for Matt Smith, which I just felt was WAY out there in terms of story-telling. I can only hope that we lose the terrible Capaldi theme, or that it grows on me as all I can think of now is that Delaware theme for Pertwee! Maybe that is the point though. I related much of Deep Breath to Planet of the Spiders/Robot in terms of similar feelings and approach that maybe the theme is a nod in that direction... well, okay... maybe that is grasping at straws! Will be sharing this on my Facebook page.

  6. The Sound of Vincent Price and Ed: You both raise very valid points about the episode. For me it was all about changing gear, as most regeneration stories usually are, and those episodes often take time to register.

    There are some professional critics out there who clearly have no patience in terms of waiting for the Doctor's character to develop. Capaldi himself has made this very clear and he seems to feel it takes the entire series to really get to know the Twelfth Doctor.

    The Jenny and Vastra moments work in context to the whole idea of revealing who you really are. Comedy comes as an add-on. Not convinced Wheatley handled that as well as he handles the comic elements in his films with such deadly accuracy.

    Overall though, I feel more enthusiastic about the series than I did. However, Steven Moffat needs to broaden his signature. He can't keep relying on everything he's already written about - from gas-masked children to clockwork droids and not blinking. You'll see what I mean very soon.

  7. KAOS says:

    Ed mentions those "with 'less tolerance' for that type of relationship".

    What type of relationship, exactly? Bestiality? Maybe I'm being really dim, but the Silurian is a lizard, and the maid is a human, right? That's not homosexuality, it's bestiality. Personally - I don't know about everyone else, gay, straight or other - but that kind of grosses me out. That's just me, though - I prefer my intercourse with a human being.

    Still, the publicity stunt got the column inches. JNT would be proud (except, he got that there's no hanky panky in the TARDIS. Well, it worked for the first 26 years...)

    Capaldi is brilliant, the first Doctor since McCoy. Shame about Doctor Who being a cash cow for a BBC run by empty PR husks, focus groups and the Fear of the Daily Mail (now, there's an episode...) I'm doubt anyone could produce anything with integrity at the $B£B$C£.

  8. I loved Deep Breath, and Capaldi. I wrote a fond reminiscence of Dr Who on my own blog:

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