Doctor Who, Deep Breath – Review & Analysis

Eight months…

It’s not a particularly long hiatus for a television show (ahem, hello Sherlock!), but I have to say that it was a particularly bloody painful one to endure. As far as New Who goes, the wait between Eccleston and Tennant was six months, the wait between Tennant and Smith was only four, and now we’ve had to wait double the latter for Capaldi. It’s all going to be worth it though, as we’re finally back to getting a full series rather than the split runs of Series 6 and 7.

Eleven’s hour is over now and the clock has finally struck Twelve, so let’s get stuck into this very spoilery review…db1First of all, I do have a bit of a confession to make… I read the leaked script before the episode. I read all of the leaked scripts (episodes 1-5) because I couldn’t resist. They were sent to me, and I read them, and to be honest I don’t really regret it because I feel that it gave me a much stronger insight into the things that this series is going to explore thematically. I still laughed and cried at all the parts I knew were coming (Matt!), I’m one of those people who feels that their experience is sometimes enhanced by spoilers, so I can’t say that I regret my choice.

I read the script, and it was wonderful. I watched the episode, and it was even more wonderful to see how it was brought to life.

Moving on…db2WHAM! A dinosaur! What a brilliantly mad way to pick up from Time of the Doctor’s ending, as a tyrannosaurus-rex has accidentally got the TARDIS lodged in its throat which transports it to Victorian London.

I remember first seeing this in the script and just being like “yup, that’s brilliant!” It’s a great way to set the spectacle, the CGI used is absolutely gorgeous and if you need any further proof then… well, look no further than here.

The Paternoster Gang are back and they’re on top form this episode, I’ve loved them ever since A Good Man Goes To War aired back in 2011 and always hoped that they’d come back – now that they’re semi-regular, I’m hoping for a Sherlock Holmes-esque spin-off because that would just be fab. Vastra, Jenny and Strax get the dinosaur contained in the area and go to investigate the blue box that it has just spat out.db5Our first glimpse at the new Doctor in this episode is him quickly popping his head out the TARDIS to tell Strax to “shush!” because he thinks he’s just managed to give the dinosaur that’s chasing him the slip.

A lot of people have been throwing around the word “darker” to describe Capaldi’s Doctor and how he differs from some of his previous incarnations, but I think that really does a disservice to the character to be honest. What does ‘dark’ mean? It’s such a blanketed expression, and it’s just making me think of Christian Bale’s Batman… No, I do not think that Capaldi’s Doctor is necessarily ‘dark’, I think a better word to use is ‘detached’. He’s fresh from the 900+ years spent on Trenzalore, he’s seen numerous generations live their lives and die while he protected the town of Christmas.

As Steven Moffat said in several interviews, it’s a reminder that the Doctor is not human.

“I always thought Matt, while a very young man, had something of the demeanour of a much older man, whereas Peter is a man in his 50s but is terribly boyish and young at times.

Typically, Matt’s method would do that, too: occasionally just turn cold and you’d think, ‘You’re not really a puppy are you?’ Just like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will sometimes remind me he’s a big kid at heart.

He’s not a human being, however much he larks around pretending he is. He is different and it’s time to stop play-acting. He’s not apologising, he’s not flirting with you – that’s over.”

This actually brings us to the core theme of the episode (and, perhaps, the entire series). Identity.db6The Doctor always has a bit of a tough time figuring out exactly who he is with each regeneration. New mouth, new teeth, new fashion sense, new rules! He’s always the same man, but he’s a different person, and the heart of this episode is the importance of one’s identity, along with the prejudices that are associated with it – something which is beautifully punctuated by a scene between Vastra, Clara and Jenny.

Clara herself has some reservations about this new Doctor, and it’s understandable why. Series 7B showed us Clara through the Doctor’s eyes (and, regrettably, this has led to a lot of people missing out on the sheer brilliance of her character), but now we’re seeing him through her’s. Every sentiment she expresses about the change in her Doctor is one that has popped up time and again after Matt Smith announced his departure (after every Doctor has been set to leave), so I have no objection to her confusion and sadness because it’s a perfect foil for the viewers.

As we know, Clara is not very easily adaptable. She is somebody who values stability, control, and order (as we’ve seen through Series 7B and in this episode). She doesn’t live in the moment, she knows how important it is in a life-or-death situation that her partner has her back, but it’s worse than that. We know her mum died, but in all of those flashbacks, her dad is just as much of a magical presence in her life. He’s the one who made up that story with the leaf that ended up destroying the Old God, who taught her to play football, who was there for her at her mum’s grave after the Auton attack. Half of her story comes from him.db7But just look at how he’s barely in the picture any more. His only mention in Series 7B is a long phone call complaining about the government, Clara goes on and on about her mum but literally never mentions Dave Oswald. He’s deliberately recast for Time of the Doctor, he’s now one of the people Clara has to put on the ‘control freak’ show for, and he barely says a word when Linda rips into her while she’s visibly upset. Clara’s dad is no longer that magical presence in her life, she’s lost him.

So Clara full-well knows what it’s like to have someone you love change, and lose what you loved them for in a way that just can’t be ‘fixed’. And then, her best friend and mentor literally changes right in front of her eyes. It’s no wonder she’s distressed about it, imagine if you woke up one day and your own best friend was a completely different person – you’d be unsure, perhaps uncomfortable, and confused. Clara is familiar with regeneration, she’s seen all of the Doctor’s faces through her echoes, but she never thought that she’d have to let go of her Doctor.

Likewise, last time she saw the Doctor, he was so weak from age that he couldn’t even open a Christmas cracker without Clara’s help. When Vastra says that he’s been rejuvenated, Clara just can’t see it because he doesn’t look like the young man he appeared to be before. It’s not shallowness or superficiality at all, Clara just couldn’t see beyond the veil at the time (more on that later).db12The thing about Clara is that she projects a very specific image of who she wants to be. This is actually the first time that we see this from her perspective in such a level of detail. When facing up against the Half-Face Man, her mind looks back and chooses a particular behaviour to emulate in order to give her courage and keep her going – so she chooses a person who won’t be intimidated by meaningless threats (that is to say, her meaningless threats from her first day teaching at Coal Hill).

Deep Breath throws Clara into a scenario where she’s totally out of her depth. The Doctor, this new man, appears to have just left her, she’s stuck outside of her own time period,and has been dumped into a life-threatening situation where she has to rely on her wits to survive. The result is that we see a totally different side of her, because this is Clara pushed to her absolute breaking point. And this Clara is placed next to a Doctor who (heh!) quite easily perceives her flaws (“egomaniac, needy game-player/control freak”). She might not quite see him until that final scene after Eleven rings up, but he sees her and he’s not glossing things over. Again, going back to what the Moff said, this trickier incarnation of the Time Lord is not apologising and he’s not pretending any more.

What we effectively see here is how the narrative is building on the Clara who put up a brave façade when she was scared after seeing the bodies torn apart by the Ice Warrior, who attempted to push Emma into bringing back the Doctor from the pocket universe even though Emma didn’t have the strength to do so, who set the rules in her travels with the Eleventh Doctor (from making him pick her up at specific times to defining the boundaries of their relationship from the get-go). She could play her tune and make the Doctor play her boyfriend, command a platoon against the Cybermen, save the Doctor from certain destruction – she was without limits when it came to what she could do. But this deconstructs that, forces her into a smaller space and forces her to confront a situation where nothing is under her control – that’s very much what Series 8 is going to be about, I think, since the Doctor isn’t going to dance to her tune quite so easily any more.db13There’s some really powerful parallels between the Doctor and Ellie Oswald. Think back to The Rings of Akhaten where Clara is talking about the day her nightmare came true and she got lost, only to eventually be found by her mum. Ellie Oswald told her daughter:

“It doesn’t matter where you are – in the jungle, or the desert, or on the Moon. However lost you might feel, you’ll never be lost, not really, because I will always be here. And I will always come and find you.”

As the episode builds towards the climax, the Doctor has to ‘abandon’ Clara (we actually see which robot he’s posing as when Clara is walking through the ship with her breath held) and she’s being questioned by the Half-Face Man. At the end of this exchange, she puts her faith in the Doctor once more, trusting that he came back to find her.

“I know where he will be, where he will always be… If the Doctor is still the Doctor, he will have my back… I’m right, aren’t I? Go on, please god say I’m right!”

db8Despite Clara’s doubts, the Doctor will always come through with her. The relationship between the two of them is one of great debt – thanks to Clara, not only was Gallifrey saved but Twelve actually exists because she convinced the Time Lords to help him change the future on Trenzalore. It’s a beautifully constructed dynamic, and it’s one that I can’t wait to see develop as the series progresses.

What I love and admire so much about Clara in this episode (Jenna is just fab!) is how her courage is not the usual sort of thing that you see where the good character boldly stands up to the baddie. She’s crying, she’s absolutely terrified and feels like she’s been abandoned, but she fights through the tears and talks her way into being kept alive by the Half-Face Man. This is great character writing!

One of the stars of the show was Madame Vastra. The whole Paternoster Gang was brilliant, as usual, but Vastra in particular had some scenes which stand out as some of the best and most progressive things the show has ever done.

The scene where Vastra is talking to Clara behind her veil about prejudice and acceptance is really powerful stuff.

Doctor Who is one of the most watched shows by people of all ages in the country, and it has a scene where a canonically lesbian woman explicitly calls out bigotry against people based on their appearance and sexuality. She does not wear her veil to placate those who abhor her, but to render judgement “on the quality of their hearts”. It’s a beautiful, stand-out piece of social commentary – being all the more powerful because of the response to the kiss that she shared with Jenny later in the episode when they’re being attacked by the droids. It’s just sort of like… well done, you shity people have literally just gone and proven Vastra’s point?db10You know what makes Moffat’s commentary so brilliant here? It’s the fact that the episode is set in the Victorian era and people in the here-and-now are still responding with the exact same kind of prejudice.

Yup, that’s right folks. The BBC is becoming a porn channel because two people who aren’t straight shared a kiss. Like… it wasn’t even a sexual kiss, Vastra did it to save the woman she loves by sharing the oxygen she can store in her lungs. But really, I’ve paid these morons more attention than I should…

It’s very important to have representation like this and moments like this in a show like Doctor Who. Like I said, it’s watched by so many people – some 7 million people tuned in to watch Deep breath on the telly in the UK, and who can even begin to count how many must’ve watched online, at the cinema, or in other countries? It’s a worldwide hit and touches all different kinds of audiences, so this level of representation is wonderful for the LGBT+ community. How many people have had to deal with that kind of prejudice, I wonder? And Neve McIntosh delivered it so brilliantly. There’ll be tiny Whovians across the world who watched that scene and got to see strong anti-prejudice messages. Don’t listen to the shitty prejudices of your parents, listen to the queer hero who doesn’t look ike what people judge to be ‘normal’ deliver a message that there’s nothing wrong with who you are and that people who hold these bigoted views are 100% in the wrong. What Steven Moffat does very well is this changing of attitudes towards gay/lesbian/bisexual (etc) people in very subtle ways – like Canton in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon where, the very last time we see him, we find out that he wants to take a black man as a husband. It’s not treated like a big deal, he’s not treated or looked at as being any different by the narrative – it calls out the homophobic Republican attitude and does it very well.

Likewise, Clara’s bisexuality is basically canon at this point. After Oswin’s comments about Nina in Asylum of the Daleks (remember, the echoes are extensions of Clara’s personality) and a few flags in Series 7B which suggsted it, it’s basically now confirmed through Strax’s examination of Clara’s subconscious. Strax often misgenders Clara as a boy, and he does this on many occasions when it comes to ladies – for instance, with River in Name of the Doctor. In Deep Breath, he says that he sees “young men” doing “sports” (which aren’t actually sports) in her subconscious, and Clara says that she’s never had any interest in “pretty young men” (and she hates boybands). Again, it’s subtly done and not made a big deal of. Well done on the representation scale, Deep Breath!db11To round off, let’s talk about why Deep Breath is such a perfect introduction to a new Doctor, shall we?

The process that the viewers experience of letting go of the old Doctor and coming to love the new one into the story of the episode itself. Many viewers can identify with Clara in this episode, because she is in the same position as we are. Matt is gone, Capaldi is now here instead. We loved Matt, over the course of Series 5-7 he poured his heart and soul into the role (like every Doctor before him and every Doctor to come), and now he’s gone. The new Doctor is unfamiliar, whereas Clara is not. She’s been with us for a good while now, so she is the perfect lens through which to incorporate the audience into the narrative’s events.

The Doctor’s condition is worsened by his post-regeneration trauma which often causes more erratic, unpredictable behaviour. In-keeping with the theme of identity, we don’t know who the Doctor is yet and neither does he. Clara experiences the same process we do when confronted with that new face, and she rightfully defends her position when she’s accused by Vastra of being superficial. Of course it’s going to have a significant impact on you if your best friend is suddenly a completely new person (as we discussed earlier), and it’s totally understandable that she needs time (and space) to process and come to accept that.

While Clara is with Vastra, Jenny and Strax at the household, we see that the Doctor is off by himself on the streets with nothing but a nightgown on his back. While digging through a rubbish tip, he comes across a tramp (played by the wonderful Brian Miller, who was married to the equally wonderful Lis Sladen – better known as Sarah Jane Smith) and asks if he’s seen his face before, because the Doctor recognises it. Of course, this is a reference to Capaldi’s previous appearance in Doctor Who back in 2008 in The Fires of Pompeii where he portrayed Lobus Caecilius, but it has some deeper implications as well. When the tramp says that he doesn’t like the Doctor’s face, the Doctor agrees and says he doesn’t like it either because it looks all “covered in lines” and “cross”, like he’s trying to tell himself something.

Who frowned him this face?db14Going back to what Vastra said about the Doctor dropping his own veil, the appearance of the dashing young man for acceptance (likewise, referencing Day of the Doctor too, where the War Doctor questions why Ten and Eleven are so afraid of being a grown-up), it’s clear that this is a metaphor for the Doctor’s own experiences separating him from the rest of humanity. It’s a reminder that he’s not one of them, no matter how much he tries to be. It forces him to be more detached, as we’ve seen from previews of Into The Dalek (the next episode), he just starts inventing random backstories for people he meets to make them boring and says that Clara cares so he doesn’t have to.

He knows where attachment has landed him in the past, it has resulted in him screwing up the lives of his companions because he wanted to be adored and accepted. But really, to link back to The Eleventh Hour, like Amy, he’s the “Scottish girl in the English village” – the Doctor even said to Amy that he knows how that feels. So here we are now, seeing the Scottish man with the bottle top-opening attack eyebrows and the frowney face who is very much a product of his experiences. This is the Doctor that the Doctor was afraid of becoming.

It’s actually quite tragic to see, but it’s a very welcome progression of the character as it’s going to give us an entirely new perspective on the Doctor. I can’t wait to see how it plays out. So far, Deep Breath has done an absolutely stellar job of setting up these sort of thematic and character conflicts which will develop more as the rest of the series plays out.db15The final form of acceptance from Clara comes when Eleven calls from Trenzalore. God… this moment just felt so right, I don’t think it was too early at all for the Eleventh Doctor to make an appearance, I think it was a perfectly natural way of bringing this whole story together. He calls her, calls the audience, to say goodbye (he even looks at the camera when he says “miss you”, oh god it hurts!), but he also calls to explain his own future self’s behaviour.

He is scared. He’s absolutely terrified, and he needs you. And this is exactly the words that Clara of all people needs to hear herself, because this is what she as a person aspires to – being needed. She put her plans to see the world on-hold to look after Artie and Angie following the death of their mother, she instinctively follows Merry when she sees a young girl in distress, and so on. Clara comes to realise that this is her place, this is where she is needed, and so this is where she belongs.db16

“You can’t see me, can you? You look at me, and you can’t see me. Do you have any idea what that’s like?”

The thing is, Clara does know what that’s like.

Much of the time that she was with Eleven, that’s how he looked at her. He didn’t see the person she was, he saw a ghost. He saw Oswin Oswald from the Dalek Asylum, he saw Clara the barmaid-governess from Victorian London. He saw a mystery waiting to be solved. The Doctor looked at her and saw so many things, some scary, some unfamiliar, but he never saw her.

Both Clara and the narrative called the Doctor out on this, as she told him that she’s not a “bargain-basement stand-in for someone else” and she’s not going to “compete with a ghost”. If the Doctor wants her to travel with him, she’s going to travel with him as herself.

Now that the Doctor has regenerated into this new and unfamiliar man, he lets down his guard in what I think is the most intimate way he possibly can. He lets her see, in a physical and psychological way, just how old he is. He loses the veil of the young and handsome man looking to be adored and accepted, because surely he shouldn’t have to prove himself to be any different than the man he is to her. He’s willing to drop all pretence regarding things like flirting with her, but she’s not having it. The same way Clara had to compete with her own ghost, now Twelve has to compete with the ghost of Eleven, and it hurts him. You really see in that final scene between them how vulnerable he looks, Capaldi’s acting was just sublime throughout the episode, but that scene was one of his best.

He’s not only hurt because he thinks that Clara won’t see him for who he is now, but he feels rather betrayed because Clara once asked the same of him and now she won’t do it when he needs her the most. Of course, she changes her mind at the end and they go off to get a coffee together, but we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. It’s by no means totally resolved, as this different Doctor is going to act a whole different way when he and Clara are adventuring together, which brings me to my final point.db17For the climax of the episode where the Doctor faces the Half-Face Man, I was expecting a fighting Sycorax on the top of a spaceship with a sword and a satsuma kind of moment. Or an Atraxi warship being called back to Earth after threatening planet-wide incineration to be told off while tying a bow tie kind of moment. Y’know, one of those really big defining character moments which is sort of typical for each Doctor in their first episode.

Let me put it this way: Capaldi’s big character moment was pouring a glass of scotch, and making you wonder if he killed someone.

As first episodes go, that is absolutely fantastic. I haven’t talked about the Half-Face Man much, that’s because the monsters (the clockwork droids, like the ones which appeared in Moffat’s Series 2 episode The Girl In The Fireplace) are very much like a metaphor for the Doctor. That final scene in the restaurant where the Doctor compared the Half-Face Man to a broom where you replace the handle and the brush over and over again to do the same job but the end result is a broom without anything of the original left in it was quite a powerful moment – punctuated beautifully by the Doctor holding up the bowl and saying “you probably can’t even remember where you got that face from”, seeing his own reflection in it.db18I’ve prattled on for long enough now, I think.

Beautiful directing by Ben Wheatley, beautiful writing by Steven Moffat (as ever), beautiful acting from the cast, some really interesting set-up for character dynamics and themes, really good pacing because the episode was 80 minutes long (WHY CAN’T THEY ALL BE AT LEAST AN HOUR?!) and a very strange arc involving a Promised Land in Heaven with the whimsically wonderful Missy (Michelle Gomez).

very strong start to what I hope will be a long and fruitful new era of the show!

About haruspis

Writer and aspiring teacher who cares and talks far too much about fictional universes.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Review, TV and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Doctor Who, Deep Breath – Review & Analysis

  1. Tom says:

    Undoubtedly the best review of Doctor Who I’ve ever read! Especially well done on unpacking the characterization of Clara

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