REVIEW: Doctor Who - "Deep Breath"
Maybe one of the least (or most?) enviable tasks a British actor can take on is that of the Doctor. When someone is chosen to take over the role, they face the difficult and unique job of reconciling all the work that their predecessors have put into the character, and then try to forge new ground for themselves. I sometimes wonder what it’s really like to feel that kind of responsibility – not just to the rabid fans of Doctor Who, but to all the creative people who have kept the franchise going for over 50 years.
With the new episode “Deep Breath”, it’s Peter Capaldi who takes on that impressive challenge. And while it’s still very early to say for sure, I have a feeling he’s more than up to it. The question is whether Capaldi will have the support from the writing team that he needs, and in that respect, the premiere of Series 8 isn’t quite as memorable as it might have been.
The episode begins in classic Who fashion – a Tyrannosaurus is stomping around the Parliament buildings in 19th century London. And not only is there a dinosaur wandering around in the Victorian period, but it’s many times larger than others of its species, and there happens to be a TARDIS stuck in its throat. Naturally, our favourite Victorian crime fighters Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are on the case, and they soon meet up with the newly-regenerated, weakened Doctor and his companion Clara (who’s more than a little shaken up herself). Maybe this is where one last “Geronimo!” comes in handy?
Once the Doctor recuperates at Vastra’s home, he dives into a new mystery: a rash of spontaneous combustions around London. Meanwhile, he and Clara (Jenna Coleman) both have to come to terms with the Doctor’s new face. Matt Smith’s youthful incarnation is gone, replaced with Capaldi’s fierce countenance - or as the Doctor yelps at one point, “These are attack eyebrows!”
It’s fascinating to watch how Capaldi blends pieces of Smith’s performance into his own. The hand-wringing, manic energy that defined the Eleventh Doctor slowly ebbs away throughout the episode, until we get to one of the final scenes. The Doctor stands by the console in his new outfit for the first time, and it’s clear that the transformation is now complete. On the surface, Eleven may be gone, but he’s still part of Twelve. Making that point is probably the main success of “Deep Breath”, and the fun one-liners and banter that lead up to it just sweeten the deal.
As our proxy in the world of Doctor Who, the companion often experiences an exaggerated version of the audience’s feelings. In the case of the premiere, Clara is reeling from the shock of saying goodbye to Eleven. It’s something we’ve seen before on the show – when Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) witnessed Nine change into Ten, she felt abandoned (due in part to how she was falling in love with the Doctor). What Rose goes through in “The Christmas Invasion” is something that few other characters on screen ever go through, and it works as a clever commentary on the audience’s relationship with the characters.
Some fans speculated we’d see Clara have similar romantic feelings, but for her, it’s more like losing a best friend or a brother (though as Clara triumphantly announces to Vastra, she’d be more than capable of flirting with the Doctor if she wanted to). Because Clara’s relationship with the Doctor is different from Rose’s, she adjusts to the new Doctor in a different way, but it still helps the audience make the transition themselves. Rather than a parable about how romantic love can change, “Deep Breath” reflects on how we can suddenly realize how much friends and family have aged – a sign that the show is open to exploring new concepts.
On these levels, the premiere of Series 8 has a lot of texture. The one thing the episode really needed was a standout villain and some global stakes. Think back to the two previous reincarnation episodes, “The Christmas Invasion” and “The Eleventh Hour”, where the Doctor is faced with villains who threaten the whole planet: the Sycorax and Prisoner Zero. In each episode, we’re reminded of how powerful the Doctor is; he’s able to shut his enemies down even after being knocked flat by his regeneration.
“Deep Breath” gives us a baddie (a steampunk cyborg who wants to be human) who seems better suited to a mid-series episode. Granted, the cyborg does end up introducing us to someone who seems like the major opponent for Series 8, but by himself, the he never seems like much of a threat – and that’s a mistake for a show that’s so well-known for its monsters.
The Series 8 premiere may not go down in Who history as one of the best opening episodes, but there is a sense that showrunner Steven Moffat is willing to let the show change alongside the Doctor. Given the tremendous potential of casting Capaldi in the lead role, it’s an encouraging step – now to see those attack eyebrows really get into the fight! “Deep Breath” gets three stars out of four.
What did you think of the Twelfth Doctor’s first appearance? Does it seem like Steven Moffat is changing his approach in step with the show? Or is it too soon to tell? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!