You can tell that we’ve reached the present day quite early on, not least because Matt Smith suddenly shows up to have opinions on the show, having not been interviewed about any of his predecessors. But the real giveaway is the choices of episodes in the first segment, when introducing the character of the Eleventh Doctor. Every previous episode displayed a strong bias towards the earliest episodes for a Doctor. Whereas this pulls almost entirely from Season 7B, unabashedly positioning this as the present day of Doctor Who.
Yes, we eventually look back a few years and do the Ponds, which is somewhat historicized, but there’s no added insight to be had. These are the same talking points from Doctor Who Confidential and endless publicity interviews, dutifully trotted out again. Their context is only altered by the preceding ten episodes of this, which serve to make all of this look like the telos of Doctor Who itself.
With the historical perspective that a year allows us, this is not quite true. The focus on how Matt Smith, while the youngest actor ever to play the part, makes the Doctor seem old is a common talking point, and indeed was brought up in relation to the Capaldi casting, by this time long since announced. More interesting is the segment on Clara, which came at a point where she was widely viewed as a frightfully generic companion. There’s not a lot, but it’s acutely clear that Coleman in particular sees more depth in the character, and has ideas for what to do with her. The argument that Deep Breath doesn’t constitute a soft reboot of Clara but rather the moment when everybody started seeing what was always there has some solid support here.
Elsewhere, we can also see how this is quietly setting up the immediate future. There’s not much that directly tees up The Day of the Doctor, but the features on Madame Kovarian, the Silence, and the Weeping Angels quietly serve as a primer for Time of the Doctor. And, of course, there’s the fact that when this aired, Smith was a lame duck Doctor. His successor had been announced, and indeed, was either a week off from his debut or had debuted yesterday (depending on whether you watched this in the US or the UK – this was the only one to debut first in the UK).
And so there’s an odd dualism here. On the one hand, this does what one always suspected it would: presents the Moffat era as the ultimate in Doctor Who. Of course it does. The point of all of these sorts of specials is promotion of the show, and has been since Confidential. But on the other, it leads the show right up to the brink of a known transition. There’s a triumph as we reach the present, but also, and in some ways more importantly, a sort of “right, on to the next half-century” attitude. Which is a good place to be after fifty years.