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Doctor Who, Ep. 8.01, “Deep Breath”: Two steps forward, one step back

Doctor Who, Ep. 8.01, “Deep Breath”: Two steps forward, one step back

Doctor Who S08E01 promo pic

Doctor Who, Season 8, Episode 1, “Deep Breath”
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on BBC America

This week, on Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Scottish? Also, a dinosaur spontaneously combusts, and Clara has a Marcus Aurelius pinup

With each regeneration comes a new Doctor Who, a new opportunity for the series to start fresh and reexamine its priorities. Post-regeneration stories are somewhat of a mixed bag, with the Second and Eleventh Doctors’ debuts among their best ever episodes and the Six and Seventh’s among their worst. The casting of noted ClassicWho fan Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, bucking NuWho’s trend of casting younger and younger with each regeneration, offers showrunner Steven Moffat and co. the chance to take a hard left and redefine the character and series in a significant way, but unfortunately, rather than showing viewers who this new Doctor is, “Deep Breath” spends most of its time telling them who he isn’t.

There’s a lot to like in this episode. Peter Capaldi, as will surprise no one familiar with his previous work, is very good as the Doctor. He’s full of energy, wonderfully capturing the confusion that has come to define post-regeneration stories. This Doctor is very much lost in his first scenes and requires the steady hand of Madame Vastra to guide him—and it’s lucky the TARDIS knows this, because if she hadn’t taken them to Victorian London (bringing the Doctor’s dinosaur lady friend with them), Clara would clearly have been at a loss. It’s always a pleasure to see the Paternoster Gang pop up and one of the best surprises of “Deep Breath” is its interest in Jenny, who feels like much more of a person here than she has in any prior installment. She lets her hair down, literally, and asserts herself in her relationship with Vastra, showing new confidence.

Doctor Who S08E01 promo picClara gets a lot to do here, and much of it is good. Her confidence grows through the episode, as the Doctor stabilizes and she adjusts to his regeneration. She’s proactive and brave, yet very human, and her fear when faced with potential torture and death is palpable. Jenna Coleman is excellent throughout the larder sequence, and has a few other notable moments as well, perhaps the most memorable being her conversation with Vastra. Which leads to this episode’s main problem: it attempts to rewrite the past. Clara’s righteous anger at Vastra, who is disappointed in her for focusing on the Doctor’s appearance, may make for a lovely scene and may go a long way towards establishing what will hopefully become one of her few consistent personality traits, but it is utterly unearned.

Clara has, “never had the slightest interest in pretty young men,” but her subconscious is filled with “a lot of muscular young men doing sport.” Which is it? And if she’s not “distracted” by the Doctor going from the 31-year-old Matt Smith to the 56-year-old Peter Capaldi, why does she constantly fret over his graying hair and well-lined face? Never his changed personality (though, in her defense, it doesn’t seemed to have changed much, a significant problem), always his appearance. Moffat wants to preemptively criticize those fans that will react negatively to this new Doctor just because he’s played by a veteran actor, and that’s understandable, even laudable. But rewriting Clara’s relationship with the Eleventh Doctor, and scolding the viewer for interpreting it and her in the way the show’s writing has always presented them, is not.

Doctor Who S08E01 promo picEven more frustrating is the episode’s emotional climax, where Clara receives a call on her cell from the Eleventh Doctor, who in his timestream, is still on Trenzalore. There are undoubtedly many who love this scene, perhaps even most do. This Whovian hated it. Not only is it a blatant cheat, regardless of Moffat potentially setting it up with Clara’s hanging up of the dangling exterior TARDIS phone, it undermines one of “The Time of the Doctor”’s most significant emotional beats. The emotional (and plot, by the way) core of the climax of “The Time of the Doctor” is that the Doctor is out of regenerations, that he knows that when his current body dies, he will cease to be. Having him call Clara to tell her to help his next incarnation, when he’s still young and therefor thinks he won’t have one, makes zero sense. Or perhaps he did it after de-aging himself, right before ignoring Clara entirely so he could say goodbye to a mental projection of the Companion he actually wanted to spend his dying moments with. Either way, it’s cheap and lazy, and disrespectful of the audience. That the Doctor would have the temerity to call Clara and beg her to help his next regeneration and stress how important she is to him, only to abandon her when she’s at her most lost, watching her best friend die in front of her eyes? It’s indefensible, and that’s from someone who isn’t even a Clara fan.

Rounding out the disappointment is the episode’s ending, where after a premiere that firmly establishes the Doctor will not be flirting with anyone—even a dinosaur, thank you very much—the audience is introduced to someone describing him as her boyfriend. This mysterious, flirty, woman-of-a-certain-age Missy, who feels like Moffat’s second copy and paste of River Song (the first being Tasha Lem, and of course if one includes Sherlock, Mary Morstan makes it three) teases viewers with a larger plot and puzzle that it seems will lurk in the shadows all season. After a premiere mostly filled with promising, if at times unearned, character beats for Vastra, Jenny, and Clara, entertaining comedy from the always amusing Strax, and a very engaging performance by Peter Capaldi, Moffat’s pet themes and characters rear their ugly head, and that’s the most frustrating element of this entire episode.

Doctor Who S08E01 promo pic

Rather than dwell any further on the problems of “Deep Breath,” a few thoughts on its strengths: Peter Capaldi’s Doctor may not be very formed yet, but Capaldi’s a marvelous actor and Moffat is already playing to some of his strengths. The Twelfth Doctor’s surprisingly heartfelt discussion of his eyebrows and the anger residing in him that made him choose them upon his regeneration is fantastic, and shows great specificity. The suspense sequence, Clara’s attempt to escape by holding her breath, works like gangbusters and the visual touches, showing the color on the edge of her vision, are particularly effective. This is the kind of moment that invites viewers, especially children, to play along at home and see how long they could last; it’s absolutely wonderful.

The new credit sequence may be a bit cartoonish at times, but it’s a new take, which is nice to see, and the new version of the theme fits well with the more ClassicWho feel to much of the episode. The pacing of the episode, with lengthy scenes of conversation and more significantly, thoughtful consideration, is overdue and very welcome, and moments like Clara’s thought that she and the Doctor should call the police more are practical and endearing. Finally, this episode is filled to the brim with callbacks and references, both visual and spoken. The Doctor lampshades the many “The Girl in the Fireplace” references, but there are plenty more. The low angle shot of Clara looking out of the window at Strax is a direct reference to her early out-the-window conversation with the Eleventh Doctor, Clara’s Victorian garb and hair is a dead ringer for her look in “The Snowmen”, the suspense sequence is a twist on, “Don’t blink!”, and of course, the episode ends with Clara and the Doctor going for coffee, and the Doctor’s paying—Rose may have preferred chips in “The End of the World”, but the sentiment is the same.

There’s a new Doctor on the TARDIS, one with the energy and gravitas to bring significant and much-needed change to the series, and on the whole, this episode is a promising start for the Twelfth Doctor. Unfortunately, as big a difference as the Doctor’s regeneration has on the show, in the end, he is only the lead—the buck stops with the showrunner, and if Moffat’s unwilling to step away from his favorite and at this point, very overused toys, it seems unlikely the series will get the fresh start it deserves.

Kate Kulzick