“Deep Breath” Review

Well, it’s better than The Twin Dilemma, but it’s not as straight-forwardly enjoyable as The Christmas Invasion. In fact, I think it’s going to take quite a few viewings to decide what I think about Deep Breath. There’s a lot to this episode, and I know I will only scratch the surface in this post. But it’s the unsettling experience of regeneration that raises all sorts of questions and uncertainties, rather than providing a triumphant moment of arrival for the new Doctor. The comparison with the the regeneration into the Sixth Doctor was inevitable since it was revealed the Twelfth Doctor would be “perhaps a little more fierce and a little less immediately knowable” (with more and more parallels emerging).

The first viewing was particularly hampered by two duff previous episodes, given the choice to focus on Clara’s reaction to both the Doctor’s change in general, and his age in particular. That’s not to say these aren’t worth exploring, even after all these regenerations, it’s just that following Clara’s jump in the Doctor’s actual timestream in The Name of the Doctor it seems incongruous that she should be surprised by another version of him (why should this thirteenth different incarnation be so much harder for her to identify?) Peri, in The Twin Dilemma, had only recently met the Doctor and had just begun to know him when he changed; that’s the role that Clara’s playing here – but it doesn’t fit with her deep and intimate knowledge with the character going back through all his changes of face. Similarly, the age problem clashes with what we ‘just’ saw in Time of the Doctor, where ‘her’ Doctor had aged to a far greater degree than his appears to have now. True, from her perspective, she didn’t spend a lot of time with this very aged version, but why did she react so little then, and so strongly now? These apparent discrepancies distracted me from the story itself.

While I’m picking at faults, I was also unconvinced by the Paternoster Gang here. I love The Gang, but they weren’t given anything to actually do beside provide familiarity (like all the surplus companions and the old enemy in Logopolis and Castrovalva to ‘bridge’ the regeneration from Four to Five). That left them with an awful lot of forced flirting and weak witticisms for them to fill their allotted air time with. If they were going to be there, and given it was a 75 minutes episode, I did feel they could have handled a more substantial subplot.

Having said that, I felt the cold Victorian setting was incredibly appropriate to this story. The visuals were superb… I enjoyed the longer running time, and the more measuring pacing. And Capaldi I expected to be magnificent, and he exceeded those expectations!

“Have you ever seen this face before…because I’m sure I have.” There’s a question left dangling at the end of this episode: there’s some reason for the Doctor to have changed his face to this one (“What is so important that I can’t just tell myself what I’m thinking?”). He’s chosen his face (just like Romana in Destiny of the Daleks). Moffat has said he has used Russell T. Davies’ explanation for why the two characters previously played by Capaldi in the Whoniverse share this new Doctor’s face – and I was expecting the reveal at any moment. If the explanation was there, I missed it. I do know the answer to Twelve’s question “who frowned me this face?” That was Malcolm Tucker, as I’m sure the entire audience must have shouted at their screens at that moment.

Coupled with discomfort we feel at the Doctor’s insecurity in this (it’s far harder to watch than a triumphant “I am the Doctor” moment) is the shift in the Doctor’s moral compass. I don’t mean the question of whether the Doctor pushed the cyborg (we know the Doctor was lying about murder being against his basic programming; we were shown it in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship), it’s the question of how he acquired his temporary, smelly coat from the tramp who was unwilling to give it up…

So this new Doctor, like Six, is going to challenge the viewers. Not immediately accessible is not immediately likeable… Hence the need for the Twin Dilemma style “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not!” moment – only here, it’s the face we know, like and trust that gives us the line – not Capaldi, but Smith. It’s a brave move by Moffat. Having Capaldi appear in Smith’s last two episodes was safe (especially as, disappointingly, Capaldi played no part in the timey-wimey plot of Time of the Doctor) but having Smith appear at the moment we should just be beginning to accept the new Doctor is a huge risk. It reminds us of everything Capaldi is not. In a similar way, there’s a reference in here to Amy – presumably intended to remind us that she left, but then Clara came and we’ve accepted her – that’s a risk too – and for me it didn’t really pay off, since I still miss Amy. But if we’re going to have a speech from the Doctor about how he’s still the Doctor it makes perfect sense for it to be the ‘old’ embodiment of the Doctor who gives us this message. If we (the audience and/or the companion) believe this new person Doctor (Six or Twelve) to be an interloper, why should we trust him? But if his predecessor tells us to, we owe it to him to give the new guy a chance. And in a show as timey wimey as Moffat’s Doctor Who, something as simple as this is not only possible, once you think about it it seems inevitable.

But despite being challenged and alienated by this new incarnation, watching Capaldi is going to be a fascinating journey. The humour (my favourite scene is “who invented this room”), the sorrow, the shame, the anger, the eyebrows (“these are attack eyebrows – you could take bottle tops off with these”) and above all the inventively agile physical realisation of this Lear-like confused old man.

If I had a TARDIS, I’d be gone. Gone to next Saturday. Bring it on.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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