Doctor Who, Series 8 – “Deep Breath
This past Saturday the world was treated to the premier of the long-awaited return of British science fiction/action-adventure programme – and cultural phenomenon – Doctor Who. Following an eight month absence from air during production, the show picks up mere moments from its Christmas instalment with a new face in the leading role in the form of veteran stage and screen actor Peter Capaldi – and a new set of promises from series showrunner Steven Moffat.
Series 8 is a big deal for Doctor Who and its fans. Not only does it usher in a new Doctor, but it also marks the beginning of a new stylistic era. With previous Matt Smith out of the show, gone too is the fairytale tone of the show’s stories. Showrunner Moffat and the BBC have promised quite a few exciting things with this new season, many of which harken back to the show’s initial “classic run” – before its hiatus/cancellation in 1989 – and in this nostalgia centric age, the hype around a new Doctor and a new series has never been higher. But given Moffat’s penchant for exaggeration and Damon Lindeloff-esque approach to story telling (introducing lots of intriguing questions, arc and character motivations, without many satisfying resolutions), it’s understandable for dedicated viewers to be a bit wary or sceptical. So with one episode come and gone, how did the Time Travel madman with a box fair in his new outing, and his new face?
“Deep Breath” is a bit of a deviation from the norm with Doctor. Not only is it 75 minutes in length – making it one of longest running regular episodes to date – it’s also the first time since the show ‘s revival that we have been given a decidedly older actor in the shoes of the Doctor (ignoring John Hurt’s one-off portrayal of the character last November), and while younger female fans may have sworn off the show after Peter Capaldi’s casting, most viewers will realise this is exactly what the show needed. With an actor as old and as accomplished as Capaldi, a new air of gravitas has been lent to the role. Yes, the silliness and excitement are still there, but the scorn from fans and the need for the actor to prove himself for the fans has seemingly evaporated. Ignoring the internet chatter for a bit – which has been almost unanimously in favour of the casting – Capaldi feels instantly at home in his new role. One can’t help but notice the complete absence of the sluggish, or side-eyed feeling of “is he really The Doctor?” when watching his new episode.
In fact, the only person who has any doubts seems to be Clara (Jenna Coleman), but when your best friend changes faces and forgets your name, it’s kind of understandable. Like with most Doctors before him, Capaldi’s has to take on the difficult task of blending humour, drama, suspense, and general fun. Luckily for all he does so without a hiccup. This new man may be a bit harsher, and more keen to tell people shut up, but he’s still the same old Time Lord fans have come to know and love – attack eye brows included.
One of the promises from Moffat was the introduction of longer, slower paced stories and scenes. Given the frenetic nature of the previous Doctor’s personality, the show’s pacing and editing followed a similar style: quick cuts, lots of running and shouting, and overblown speeches littered the Smith-era of Doctor Who. But with a more reserved, steadied Doctor, the production team has decided to lend more air to the show; more space to draw out a scene, and let it breathe, so to say. This is noticeable right off the bat with “Deep Breath“, as the very first scene takes about ten minutes, all before we even see the intro sequence. We are treated to a setting of the stage by returning part-time companions Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny, and their brutish Sontaran butler Strax.
As the trio looks skyward in bewilderment at the large tyrannosaurus that is currently taking up space in the River Thames, the beast vomits up a familiar blue box. We quickly re-meet our new Doctor, who shows signs of the familiar post-regeneration crazies, and has trouble remembering the names and faces of his old friends. The scene is a funny one, with lots of jokes and misunderstandings about the appearances of various characters, and Capaldi flows through the shots like a drugged-up rag doll before eventually falling flat on his face in the sand. The added length to this scene, and many others, gives the audience time to fully understand what is going on in the minds of our characters; the desperation and anxiety that Clara feels is instantly palpable, as is the confusion from Jenny and Strax – it’s all noticeable without having to be told.
Another particularly well done scene takes place near the half-way mark. An extended diner conversation between Clara and the Doctor propels us into the real meat of the plot, but it takes its time, clears the air with these two characters who are rather unsure of each other following the ordeal they have been through. It may not sound all that worthy of mention – a ten minute scene of just two people talking, especially in a show heavily focused on action – but given the fact that the show has hardly any scenes like it in the past nine years, it deserves some special attention. It also helps that it is one of the funniest scenes in the episode.
In addition to the new tone and focus of The Doctor, one of the true highlights of this episode is the fact that the females get some much needed depth and characterisation. Often times Doctor Who has a problem with its female characters, and while I by no means believe Steven Moffat to be a sexist, he does rely on a few stock cut outs for his female characters. But with “Deep Breath“, current companion Clara and the Paternoster Wives, Jenny and Madam Vastra, finally break free of that cut out and become real through one simple concept: by giving them flaws. Vastra is shown to have a problem with wandering eyes for other ladies, which is also reflected in Jenny who shows some insecurity with their relationship, and feels the need to remind her wife and the audience that yes, the two are married. It’s a small change, but that’s sort of the point. They were already almost characters; they just needed that small push.
As for the manic pixie dream girl Clara – even non-ironically referred to in show as the ‘Impossible Girl’ – she has trouble seeing beyond the now much older face of her previously young and flirty Doctor. This forms the crux of the character drama between our two leads and it shows how easy it is for even the most kind and caring of people to fall into the trap of shallowness. Hell, even though Clara finally does see The Doctor underneath the old Scottish face of Peter Capaldi, it only happens after receiving a phone call from her would be boyfriend Matt Smith, through the ever present wibbly wobbly timey wimey convenience of phone calls to the future – which you can apparently do. It’s actually a really touching moment that shows how scary regeneration is for The Doctor, and just how much he needs a friend through those first days as a new man. Not to mention it’s entirely unprecedented in the history of post-regeneration episodes – but then again, Capaldi did receive a cameo in show even before Smith left, so it seems those two are even.
The overall theme of the episode is change, and understanding who and what you are after significant change. This is most obviously shown through Clara and The Doctor, but as is often the case, the villain for this episode also serves as a sort of reflection of these ideas. The subtley named “Half-Faced” man is a Clockwork Droid – a callback to a previous Moffat episode “The Girl in The Fireplace” from Series 2 – who has been stranded on Earth for millions of years. Over time, due to lack of resources, the villain has incorporated various items of flesh, stolen from unwitting humans, too powerless to stop the robot. Towards the climax of the episode, The Doctor and the droid have a stand-off, in which the Doctor makes an astute point about a hypothetical broom, with the question if you replace a broken broom handle, and then later on replace the head, and then the handle again even later, and so on and so forth…is it truly the same broom that it used to be? It works to show the futility of this droid, as well as to show the hypocrisy of the Doctor, who has essentially done the same thing throughout his millennia-long lifetime. It’s a powerful moment to say the least, if a bit on the nose.
Romance also plays a surprisingly heavy role in the episode, but not in the way most would think. As mentioned above, we get a bit of a closer look at the relationship between Vastra and Jenny, as well as their first on screen kiss. In addition to that, we get some real resolution the flirty will-they-won’t-they relationship between The Doctor and Clara. In short? They won’t. But apparently, from what we learned in the final scene, the Doctor might have another girlfriend. Or maybe a creepy stalker in the form of mysterious new character Missy.
The humour in this episode is also quite good. In addition to the continued fish-out-of-water misunderstandings of Earth culture from Strax, we also get the obligatory post-regeneration crazies, which results in a number of hilarious, and a few times, frightening moments for the Doctor. From flirting with a female dinosaur, to forcing a homeless man to inspect his rather furious eyebrows, this new Doctor clearly has just as much humour as abrasiveness.
If there is a downside to this episode, and there is, it comes down to a few editing problems. With the episode clocking in at 75 minutes, and being screened in cinemas around the world as well as on television, there’s a feeling that the episode was fundamentally designed to be viewed on the big screen rather than the living room. This is most notable when the score becomes intrusive, often times bleeding into scenes and overpowering dialogue. There are several occasions where what’s being said is extremely difficult to hear and sometimes completely inaudible – a problem that was not there when viewed in a cinema.
In addition to this, the episode’s general visuals have a much sleeker, polished look that feels off. It’s too clean, too distracting – and to top it all off, there are a select number of smaller scenes that just generally have no real purpose of being in the episode other than to pad out the length to something that people would pay $13 to go see in a cinema. Seeing Clara get whacked in the face with a newspaper and medically examined by Strax may be humorous, but is ultimately unnecessary, and gums up the pace of an otherwise really well executed episode.
It’s hard to say what’s in store for Doctor Who this fall. There are a lot of interesting ways the series could turn, but with a new Doctor and a new lease on life, the BBC have surely never felt more confident with their flagship product. Capaldi might still have a lot to prove before anyone is willing to call him “their” Doctor, but if “Deep Breath” is any indication, it’s pretty clear that the T.A.R.D.I.S., and the safety of the universe are in good hands.