This review is supported the kind patronage of 140 people at Patreon. If you enjoy it, please consider becoming a patron and supporting future reviews.
If anyone cares, the number one single is Nico and Vinz’s “Am I Wrong.”
Let’s work from Cardiff, shall we? It’s a late summer day, with the temperature peaking at 16 degrees, and not really moving far off of that. The episode starts at 7:50, a carefully chosen timeslot that sits ten minutes before even the earliest of childrens’ bedtimes, making it nearly impossible to keep them from watching. Twenty-nine minutes in, just as the Doctor is realizing that he’s Scottish and the story finally starts to bother with the plot, the sun sets. (In London, it’s twelve minutes earlier, just as Clara is seeing through Vastara’s veil and the Doctor is climbing up on the rooftops.) Fifteen minutes from the end, as the Doctor asks the cyborg what he thinks of the view, civil twilight gives way to nautical twilight. (In London, it’s right as Clara passes out because she can’t hold her breath anymore.) US transmission skews later – I’m typing this bit half an hour before transmission, right as the sun is going down, so it’ll start in civil twilight and continue through to the nighttime proper.
This feels like something that the series, under Moffat, has been working towards and never quite getting. Moffat has been complaining about the problematic relationship between barbecue forks and Doctor Who ever since the end of Season Five, and now, finally, he gets a run of episodes that starts in the dying days of summer and will run right through the height of autumn, before coming back for one last flourish for the solstice. And the first one transmits right across the sunset, starting right in the golden hour. The orange glow of the late day and the coming autumn permeates the episode. So this is our mission statement: a crepuscular series.
The early returns seem largely positive. A fair number of people seem unimpressed with anything that isn’t Peter Capaldi, though virtually everyone is at least on the same page about him, it seems. GallifreyBase’s episode poll is around 72% rating it as an 8-10, with only six people proclaiming that they’d rather listen to a tape loop of leaf blower noise, which is pretty good, but it’s worth noting that of that 72%, 31.87% are picking 8/10. So well-liked but not an insta-classic, apparently.
Which seems fitting. This is an episode with a lot to do. A premiere of a new Doctor is as much about showing the potential of the rest of the season as it is about being brilliant in its own right. Ultimately, more important than whether people absolutely adore Deep Breath is whether they stick around for Into the Dalek. And clearly, this is something the production team is mindful of, as they decided to just drop the inevitable Dalek story into the second slot to try to offer as big an opening one-two punch as they could possibly manage.
What strikes me as interesting about the climate, then, is how easy the actual introduction of the Doctor is. I forget where Moffat pointed out the difference between this and The Eleventh Hour, but he noted that The Eleventh Hour had a supremely awkward and difficult situation in that absolutely everybody involved with the show, from the producers down to the cast, had just quit at the same time, and that shows aren’t supposed to have next episodes after that. Whereas with Deep Breath the only changes are the lead actor and Moffat’s co-executive producer, the latter having been something of an ongoing saga for the era.
On top of that, there’s the near total consensus that casting Capaldi was a brilliant move. Even those of us who were most in favor of a Doctor who wasn’t another white dude were at least partially silenced by the announcement, simply because it was one you actually could defend firmly and entirely on the merits. Much as we may have wanted Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Helen Mirren, the truth is that there are very few, if any people where you can say “Peter Capaldi or X” and have X be a clear cut better choice. I mean, we’re talking about a man who stole the 50th with his eyebrows. Which meant that Deep Breath‘s mandate, going in, was basically “don’t fuck it up.”
This explains almost everything about it. Certainly it explains the way in which the plot goes on holiday for the first half hour in favor of giving Capaldi a succession of set pieces in which he gets to do standard bits of Doctor Who. A pre-credits comedy bit about post-regeneration trauma, a “let’s be a bit barmy” with not understanding a bedroom, some sneaking about in the night, talking to a dinosaur, being furiously angry, and finally back to another comedy scene in which he gets his act together. There is no effort made to withhold pleasure here – the episode serves up thirty solid minutes of Capaldi leavened only by fan favorite characters, generally being funny as well.
It would risk grating if not for the fact that everybody is, in fact, very good at their jobs. Jenna Coleman and the Paternoster Gang can run on autopilot if they have to. And they don’t, with the veil scene being quietly and subtly used to revamp Clara’s character a bit, now that she has room to breathe away from the weight of her big mystery arc, and giving both Coleman and McIntosh some lovely material.
And then there’s Capaldi, who spends the first half hour finding slightly unexpected ways to play everything. Part of this is an immediate bid to shape expectations. The emphasis on Twelve being a potentially “darker” Doctor has been fairly immense, and so most of his early scenes are played for laughs, both as scripted and as performed. The prickliness is presented as jokes – “you’ve really let yourself go,” for instance. Even his first big anger scene, over the burning corpse of a dinosaur, is a buildup to a joke. (“Have there been any similar murders?”) Capaldi, for his part, isn’t so much figuring out his Doctor as he goes as he is taking advantage of the inchoate nature of the character in these scenes to map out the sorts of things he can do.
Notably, for all that this is consciously structured like Robot, with the remnants of the Smith era still visible everywhere (note the conscious decision not to revamp the sonic, and to use the same basic console room set), Capaldi does not play the part like Baker (and Pertwee before him, and Troughton before him still) did, starting with his predecessor’s performance and discarding bits he doesn’t like. Sure, there’s still the broad physical comedy that Smith made his own, but not in the sense of the Doctor as this buzzing, ever moving figure. Capaldi is aided in this by Ben Wheatley’s superb direction, and his willingness to work in long medium shots that let Capaldi do a whole body performance that seems to draw more on Peter Cushing than anyone else. Smith’s physicality filled the screen, Capaldi’s traverses it. And Wheatley gets this intuitively and quickly, centering the camera on Capaldi as he whirls through space. Which is, in its way, all a buildup to Capaldi’s final scene, where Capaldi finally does get contrasted with Smith, and Capaldi gets an extraordinary amount of mileage out of simply standing still, and letting Wheatley’s camera hang in space as he begs Clara to see him.
Between these two poles, meanwhile, we get an episode that is not so much standard issue as it is minimalist. It’s become something of a convention to give a new Doctor something of a low-rent problem to solve in his first outing, and the stripped down reprise of The Girl in the Fireplace certainly does the trick. The point of this structure is to change the sort of question we ask about the plot, so that we’re asking about the actor’s performance instead of the plot resolution. It’s not “how will the Doctor solve this,” but “what will the Doctor solving this look like?”
It’s here that we finally get a moment of proper surprise from Capaldi, when he seems to abandon Clara to get captured, a decision that turns out to be an elaborate feint that serves, in the final analysis, as a rejection of the idea that Capaldi’s Doctor might be terribly dangerous. The result is that Clara gets a superlative scene in which she resists the cyborg’s interrogation and turns it back on him – one in which she’s presented with beautiful nuance, most notably as she combines crying from fear with ruthless effectiveness in finding out what she needs to know in a way that suddenly finds entire acres of new space for the idea of strength within the general territory of the Doctor Who companion. This is in many ways the central magic trick of Deep Breath – it rests on its laurels in terms of Capaldi, being cooly confident that it’s going to stick the landing there, and instead focuses on covertly regenerating Clara without changing the actress, a move that makes charming sense given the way in which the character was introduced.
And then, of course, there’s the big confrontation scene, positioned just as dusk hits, in which Capaldi finally gets to do the scene that expectations have pointed towards, in which he’s cold and dangerous. The opening, offering the cyborg a drink because he has a “horrible feeling” that he’s going to have to kill him, is majestic, and prefigures the stillness of Capaldi’s final scene. As with all of Capaldi’s performance, it’s magnificent – everyone knew Capaldi would be good at this sort of thing. But put at this point in the episode, it has a subtler effect. An hour of seeing Capaldi being funny and then seeing the balloon of his supposed “darkness” punctured a bit with the not-actually-abandoning of Clara has its effect, and the result is that Capaldi gets framed as he should be: as a basically silly old man who can turn terrifying, as opposed to as a terrifying force of nature who occasionally smiles.
So, job done. Capaldi is established in the course of an effective story that has laughs and thrills at the right intervals and that knows what it’s doing. The show you know and love, or at least that you knew and loved nine months ago when it was busy being the single biggest thing on television again, is back, with everything you loved, but enough changes to keep it interesting. Normal service has been restored. Welcome back.
Some closing thoughts.
- Lots of soft referencing the Cybermen, in their original Tenth Planet sense of wandering cyborgs seeking some sort of enlightenment, and the repeated use of the phrase “spare parts.”
- There’s hundreds of words to write about mirrors, and I trust jane will do so in the comments. Veils too, I’m sure.
- There’s an interesting relationship between the series and its past here, whereby it’s on the one hand positioned as the heir to its fifty year history and on the other breaks from it, with the Doctor consciously not getting his own continuity reference. (A joke that is, it should be noted, nicked from the original of Gareth Roberts’s The Lodger, where the villain was going to be Meglos, a revelation the Doctor would respond to by not remembering him at all.)
- Seems like the leading theory on Missy is a female Master. If so, I’m sure the “stfu-moffat” crowd will, of course, give suitable credit to Moffat for essentially rendering a female Doctor inevitable.
- On a similar note, I really do want to highlight the brilliance of that Clara/cyborg scene, which accomplishes “strong female character” with none of the cliches of that phrase, with the strength instead being utterly human and real.
- Should I do a letter grade?