801. Deep Breath
Written by Steven Moffat
It's been a long eight months since the Eleventh Doctor took a last stand on Trenzalore and untethered his bow tie in the TARDIS for the climatic and ridiculously dramatic "The Time of the Doctor." And now here we are again, ushering in a new Doctor (the fourth in the modern 2005 onwards era), and it's kinda nerve-wreaking. Time and time again, the creative team behind Doctor Who has proven themselves with their decisions, with David Tennant being a star-studded successor to Christopher Eccelston, and the super young Matt Smith owning the role of The Doctor in mere moments of screentime, easily making his way into being many a fan's favorite Doctor (it's always a battle between Tennant, Smith, and Tom Baker, it seems). A year ago, on a live television event, venerable actor Peter Capaldi was announced as the Twelfth Doctor, and now, today, his tenure as The Doctor began . . .
"Deep Breath" is the least arresting debut for a Doctor since the series' resurrection. It lacks the clarity of voice of "The Eleventh Hour", the Doctor-ishness of "Rose", and the energy and skill of "The Christmas Invasion." It's a bit of a mess, really, with few highlights and Jenna Coleman's Clara Oswald stealing the spotlight from the ever-befuddled Doctor.
Victorian London is, once again, the backdrop for this story (frankly, I could go a whole series without Victorian London used again, and, for that matter, the Paternoster gang) as The Doctor and Clara crash land out a time traveled dinosaur. A confused and brain addled Doctor tries to sort through his post-regeneration haze and forming identity while investigating a series of murders. Big Bad's are revealed, ongoing mysteries are reopened, a new arc is hinted, and the Paternoster gang continue to pander as comic foil and play philosophy of the Doctor games.
The main prerogative of these New Doctor stories is setting up the new actor and new incarnation, and to that extent, "Deep Breath" didn't work quite that well, both from a scripting and acting standpoint. The script seems too stuck in the Matt Smith era of blurting out words and loosely forming them into what could be considered sentences of thought, not allowing this Doctor to have any real standout features until well into the second act. That dark, cold and calculating Doctor that's been mentioned in interviews finally cracks the surface ever so slightly, with his seemingly abandonment of Clara to the machine villains and potential dispatching via impalement of the main bad guy. But there's not enough, not enough to really sell the viewer - at least this one - into really being compelled by this Doctor's journey, not yet. The closing minutes, however, where the Doctor is closer to his new persona than before, hint just well enough at what's to come that I'm quite intrigued.
Capaldi, ultimately, is the least successful sell of the episode. His movements and delivery are stiff, neither invoking characterization or drama into his role or lines. Perhaps this was the first episode filmed and Capaldi was still grappling with how to handle the character, but even in a regeneration haze, Capaldi seems incapable of handling it well. The first thirty minutes - the worst part of an episode you want to not work - are the most difficult, as Capaldi's line delivery fails to land repeatedly. The rest of "Deep Breath" works mostly because Coleman sells the Doctor so completely with her fears, doubts and, in one instance, faith in this man she's grown to know. It's still only episode one, and there's eleven more that have the potential to really solidify Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, but for now, Capaldi is just Capaldi being paid to be The Doctor. It hasn't clicked yet.
The real star is Jenna Coleman. Clara is magnificent in this episode. Her verbal joust with Madame Vastra about judgement, her lunch scene with The Doctor, her 'don't breath' scene in the villain's lair, and the 'do it, then' face off with the Half-Face Man - all extremely, extremely excellent material and performance. In Series 7B, Coleman's Clara barely had the chance to define herself outside her mystery as the Impossible Girl, and now, since "The Name of the Doctor", she has proven time and time again to be the most resourceful and intelligent Companion who can pack as much bark into her bite as The Doctor. Really, really impressive work from Coleman in this episode, and hopefully this is indicative to a strong Clara-centric season.
All this to say, it was a so-so season opener that had some strong points and several weak points. Capaldi's debut as The Doctor didn't hit it out of the park as I was hoping, and, to me, at least, he hasn't solidified himself as The Doctor as Tennant and Smith so quickly did. Still, the notion of an older and darker Doctor is exciting, and hopefully everything will start to click into place quickly. Until next time, "Into the Dalek" . . .
Notes & Thoughts
- Awesome quote from Clara: "I'm not sure who you think you're talking to right now, Madame Vastra, but I have never had the slightest interest in pretty young men. And for the record, if there was anybody who could flirt with a mountain range, she 's probably standing in front of you right now! Just because my pretty face has turned your head, do not assume that I am so easily distracted."
- Perhaps I'm alone in thinking this, but director Ben Wheatly's work wasn't particularly engaging. It reminded me of Game of Thrones' Alan Taylor, a guy who doesn't really bring any flare or substance to his work, just more or less the same average shots.
- The new arc of the season - Paradise/Heaven. Could be a very interesting idea to explore, where do the monsters go when they die? However, the woman the Half-Face Man meets in Paradise doesn't quite get me as excited. Her "boyfriend", she says, in reference to The Doctor. Oh boy . . .
- The Woman in the Shop mystery from "The Bells of St. John" resurfaces (much to my delight, believing it a dropped mystery), and The Doctor's belief in seeing his new face before (as Capaldi has twice appeared in the Whoverse) both seem to be subplots that will continue to anchor the season. And it's all right by me. Seems potentially very interesting. It'd be way too obvious for the Woman in the Shop to be River.
- Oh, that cameo at the end. Heard a rumor about it, but didn't believe it. When she got the phone call, I couldn't help but scream "Yes!" Awesome, awesome moment that worked quite well. But didn't help in making me grow for Capaldi, just made me yearn for Matt more . . .
- The Vastra/Jenny posing/painting/crime spread beat was excellent.
- The new title sequence. Yeah, I like the idea, but execution, and music . . . erm, not sure if it works.
- Also, seriously, why couldn't Strax, Vastra, Jenny and Clara (with a sonic) destroy all the machine bad guys in the underground alien craft? Could have that situation resolved in forty fairly effortless seconds.